Movie Review ~ Son (2021)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Andi Matichak, Luke David Blumm, Kristine Nielsen, Rocco Sisto, Erin Bradley Dangar, Cranston Johnson

Director: Ivan Kavanaugh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When it comes to writing reviews, I find that I’m not one of those people that is good with the ‘instant reactions’ that like to be gathered up the moment the lights pop on and we’re left wincing like newborn moles.  I need some time to think over the film I just saw and while my opinion might not shift too far in either direction there are a number of times when the longer I sit with a movie I’m middling on, the more I’ll find myself thinking of reasons why I liked it.  It’s the films I know are turkeys you don’t want me to stew over; that will only lead to me getting more creative with my takedowns.

The new horror film Son is a solid example of one that moved up a couple of notches in my book in the weeks after I saw it.  Originally, when it finished, my first reaction was that I found it to be a little too perfunctory and not where I wanted it to have settled itself.  Though I had enjoyed most of what writer/director Ivan Kavanaugh had presented over the preceding 90-ish minutes, I wasn’t sure the ending provided me with the wrap-up that made the most sense.  Then, since I rarely book it to the computer and do my write-up, I had a good three weeks to give the movie more consideration and it led to a greater appreciation as an above average effort.  Though it still has some weak spots that no amount of time were going to patch, it juggles competing narratives well and manages to keep the audience in the dark concerning what exactly is happening longer than expected.

It’s best that you keep yourself free from distractions during Son because there’s a lot of clues dropped throughout by Kavanaugh that may help you solve the mystery of why a young pregnant girl is fleeing in the middle of the night from shadowy figures that are pursing her.  Eventually giving birth in the back of a car as she makes her way to freedom, the timeline jumps ahead several years after Laura (Andi Matichak, Halloween) has moved on from her past and made a life for herself and her young son David (Luke David Blumm, The King of Staten Island) within the tranquility of a quiet town.  As the young schoolteacher grades papers one evening while David sleeps, she thinks she hears a noise and goes to investigate, her body naturally on high alert thinking someone from long ago has returned for her.  She’s mistaken though.  It’s not an intruder.  It’s many.

It’s a great scene to propel the film into its second act, giving Laura reason to fear for David’s safety after he is stricken with a terrible disease that puts his life in jeopardy.  As she cares for her son and gets closer to a detective assigned to her case (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), we still never can quite figure out where she came from or why the target on her back might have shifted over to her son.   Determined to protect her child against an evil she can’t see outright, Laura eventually takes matters into her own hands, drawing on her dark past and the horrors that come with it.  The further Laura and David run, the more bodies pile up in their wake until the police and Laura’s love interest begin to question if they are chasing a vicious killer or being sent on a wild good chase.

For a film that hinges on a twist that is revealed early on, I was a bit surprised at how Kavanagh manages to keep us questioning the solution almost until the very end.  He’s gone ahead and very nearly told us what’s going on but then continues to shuffle his puzzle pieces around, forcing us to second guess ourselves.  That makes for a fun experience and likely why the ho-hum ending felt so flat in comparison. It felt like we traveled a long road with these characters only to run out of gas five miles outside of town.  So it mostly falls to Matichak to round off some of these rough edges and she’s excellent (though a tad young) as the harried mother trying to do right.  Hirsch seems too young as well but he’s the kind of pro that can sell an age disparity to us with ease.  I must admit it was tough to warm up to Blumm at first and it takes a while to see what Laura sees in David, but it’s in the latter half of the film when the action takes a brutally bloody turn that the young actor earns his stripes quite assuredly.

What keeps me coming back to movies like Son are the promise of a new idea in the horror genre or scary storytelling that I haven’t seen before.  Or, maybe not even as restrictive as that.  Let’s say a variation to an existing way to frighten that has bothered to take the time to really think about the kind of work that’s out there and actively tries to take a different approach.  Even if it isn’t 100% successful, critics (and fans of this variety of film) often applaud that reach and eventually want to see more from those involved. Son isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer to hitting the mark than you might originally think after sitting with it for a time.  Thanks to some spine-tingly imagery and committed performances that add to the realistic tone Kavanaugh achieves, it’s a laudable effort that’s well worth your time to check out.

Movie Review ~ The Reckoning

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of the Great Plague and amidst the subsequent witch-hunts against women, a young widow grapples with the tragic death of her husband in a society completely consumed by fear and death and faces her own inner demons as the devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.

Stars: Charlotte Kirk, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Joe Anderson, Suzanne Magowan, Ian Whyte, Callum Goulden, Sarah Lambie, Leon Ockenden

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In the early 2000’s there was the real possibility that UK director Neil Marshall could have made a significant play for the big leagues.  Achieving good notices for his first feature film in 2002, the cult werewolf creature feature Dog Soldiers, he followed that up in 2005 with the bona fide classic in the horror genre, The Descent.  I vividly remember seeing that majestically haunting movie after hearing the advance buzz and the reports on how truly scary it was and wondering during the screening who was screeching so loudly at the numerous terrifying moments…only to realize it was me.  Marshall clearly was gaining momentum.  Of course, Hollywood came calling and if the next films weren’t all that creative, they weren’t bad but didn’t make a dent at the box office.  Retreating to television for the next decade, Marshall wouldn’t make another film until the failed attempt to reboot the Hellboy franchise and, well, all know how that turned out.

Imagine my surprise to see Marshall’s name attached to an indie horror film like The Reckoning and you better believe I was all over that screening opportunity.  Something about the film’s subject matter (witch hunts around the Great Plauge near the end of the 17th century) seemed to fit perfectly with Marshall’s oeuvre and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a fine return to form for the director that clearly had a sense for visuals, just not one for picking the right scripts to make those visuals come to life.  Then I started to get more information and my hopes started to sink.  The film was co-written, executive produced, and starring Charlotte Kirk.  Charlotte Kirk is Marshall’s fiancé.  Oh.  It started to make sense why he’d be involved in a smaller picture like this but I still held out some hope it wouldn’t be a mere vanity project for the lovebirds to hang out together and get paid for it.  After The Reckoning is released to the public on February 5th, I’ll be amazed if they ever tie the knot.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie so ineptly terrible as The Reckoning and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em.  My tolerance for these genre offerings are high so when I tell you I seriously considered stopping this on several occasions and pretending the link never arrived in my inbox, take it to heart at how poor this experience can be for you if you get a notion to explore the horrors that Kirk, Marshall, and company have worked up for you.  (By the way, I would never do that…pretend a link never arrived so I wouldn’t have to review it — I’m in it for the long haul no matter what!)  Whatever promise of jangled nerves was held in the very real story of women falsely accused of witchery and subjected to brutal tortures and death is replaced by your own fear of never escaping the dungeon of repulsive imagery, sets so cheap a brisk wind would knock them over, and acting so horrendous it makes a chicken in a cage playing Tic-Tac-Toe look like Chekov.

You have to hand it to Marshall, it takes bravery to follow-up an extended title sequence that alternates between the production credits and a slow motion shot of an unknown family being forcibly removed from their home with another drawn out scene showing how new mother Grace Haverstock (Kirk, Non-Stop) has come to bury her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, The Grey) after he winds up at the end of a noose.  I can’t verify this and I didn’t write it down, but I’m fairly certain Marshall acts as his own editor so these were his decisions and it gets the movie off to a glacial pace, hobbling it narratively from the get go.  Without a man to provide for her, Grace asks the owner of their land for an extension on their rent but he’ll only consider a different kind of payment that she isn’t willing to fu…I mean, fork over.

In those days, there was nothing worse than a man with a hurt pride and finger to point out the latest woman that rejected his advances as a witch.  Before long, Grace is in prison surrounded by pestilence and growing visions of a horned devil that prefers her without clothes and greased up, if possible.  No one will step up to save Grace, especially when she comes before the Witchfinder General Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) a former accused witch burned at the stake by Moorcroft that survived and now works to help him do the same to other women.  (Y’know, a real girls girl.  Gee, thanks Ursula!)  Though he doesn’t know it, Grace has history with Moorcroft and as his methods of extracting a confession out of her grow more devious, she plots a revenge that has been long in the making.

In the honor of full transparency and giving the little credit I can offer, there’s a rather interesting story going on in The Reckoning that I thought could have been explored/exploited to a far greater effect had the filmmakers access to better, well, everything.  It’s the production across the board that makes the film sink like a stone and stink like a sore.  I’m sure Kirk and co-screenwriters Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell must have done SOME kind of research in putting this storyline together, it’s just a waste of a story with such silly execution.  If you don’t outright laugh the first time you see the small “town” in the middle of a green field I applaud you.  It looks like someone cut out a castle from a children’s book, scanned it, and photoshopped it onto a postcard.  Really terrible.

If you ever wondered how long eye make-up stayed on in the 17th century, especially after being lashed multiple times, take a look around the halfway mark of the film and see Kirk’s nigh-perfect eyeliner and mascara.  She’s just been whipped within an inch of her life but her face looks gorgeous, darling.  In fact, though her body is put through the wringer (one scene in particular is so far over the line of good taste I’m not surprised it took over a year for the film to find a distributor) her lipstick and foundation game are always on point.  The rest of the cast are best left unmentioned in the hopes they will all either go on with their lives in a different chosen profession or find better projects next time.  The only one I will call out is Magowan who is a bright spot as the only character that appears increasingly conflicted (at least adequately) as the brutality against Grace goes on.  She’s obviously been through something similar and lived to tell about it.  Her burned flesh is covered by black robes and her face is hidden by a fabric veil but just through her eyes we can see the worry grow.  It’s a lively performance in an otherwise deathly film.

Absolutely the lowest of the low where film is concerned, the only consolation is that Marshall may eventually make a comeback on a smaller scale and leave the feature length films alone.  His television work has been impressive in the name recognition but sporadic in terms of occurrence.  It’s because of these types of blunders that sully his once-good name.  I won’t even go into all the mess surrounding Kirk (Google her and do investigate yourself) but starring in this one awful movie isn’t going to do any more damage at this point in time.  The final question of The Reckoning is more or less if you’re willing to sit through nearly two bodaciously bad hours of this nonsense.

Movie Review ~ Psycho Goreman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After unearthing a gem that controls an evil monster looking to destroy the Universe, a young girl and her brother use it to make him do their bidding.

Stars: Matthew Ninaber, Nita-Josee Hanna, Owen Myre, Adam Brooks, Alexis Kara Hancey, Kristen MacCulloch, Reece Presley, Rick Amsbury, Matthew Kennedy, Timothy Paul McCarthy, Conor Sweeney, Robert Homer, Anna Tierney, Rich Evans

Director: Steven Kostanski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  During the tumult of 2020, one big positive I took was getting to see more indie horror films long before they became another new release to add to a growing queue of titles I would struggle to return to.  With space on the schedule thanks to the studios moving their bigger projects out months or years, my inbox became an increasingly fertile ground for all kinds of features with creatures both real and imaginary. Most were expectedly good, some unexpectedly great, and of course we had a stinker or two that just balanced everything out in the end in my eyes.  Each week there seemed to be something new to spook you and it’s important to keep these studios/titles/filmmakers in mind as we head into 2021 when we start to get back to “normal.”  That’s a thought for another day though because there’s another title out that’s worth your time here and now and while Psycho Goreman may have some rough edges and more schlock than shock, it’s a goofy good time that can serve as a throwback for fans wanting retro kicks or a perfectly enjoyable modern take on a popular formula.

As the film opens, an introductory scroll tells us of the Archduke of Nightmares and how he was defeated by the good people of the planet Gigax.  Imprisoned on Earth for his crimes and separated from his power source, a glowing gem that was buried deep within the soil, his reign of terror over the galaxy was put to an end and everyone lived happily ever after.  That is, until the present day when suburban siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) accidentally awaken the demon during their afternoon match of Crazyball and hypercompetitive Mimi winds up with her bratty hands on the amulet he is desperate to be reunited with to regain his full strength.  Realizing that as long as she has what he wants he’ll do anything for her, she names her new pet Psycho Goreman (PG for short) and sets about wreaking almost as much havoc as PG did, sometimes with more disastrous results.

In between montages of PG learning about the people of Earth, there are secret neighborhood crushes turned into a oozing oversized brain and a run in with the police that turns into a face melting bad time for one of the officers.  To the increasingly horrified Luke, this is the stuff of nightmares, but to Mimi it’s her own plan for world domination coming to fruition…just a few years earlier than she expected.  As Mimi and Luke befriend PG, who grits his teeth as Mimi’s personal gopher, galaxies away his revival has sent an alarm to the Gigax elders and alerted them that their ancient nemesis may be making a return visit.  In short order, the alabaster warrior Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch) is sent to Earth to make it clear they aren’t accepting visitors. Then, when a horde of PG’s former fiendish allies also descend upon the small town and several double-crosses are revealed that loop in the kids’ squabbling parents (Alexis Kara Hancey & Adam Brooks), Mimi and Luke turn to their beastly bud for assistance and find that PG might turn out to be the savior of Earth and not its destroyer.

Writer/director Steven Kostanski has a clear affinity for the low-budget efforts from studios like Troma, Full Moon Entertainment, and Empire Pictures.  These production houses churned out cult classics that might have been stuck together with goopy glue and popsicle sticks that still had remnants of a Fudgsicle on them, but they were so much fun to watch you hardly minded.  Film production has come a long way since then so Psycho Goreman uses its low budget in all the right places, going sparse in the way of special effects and focusing on make-up and costuming instead.  That’s where the creative energy really starts to flow and there are several of the old PG friends that were designed to be so disgusting and/or funny that you very nearly want to stand up and applaud the imagination brought to life.

That same energy flows into the performances as well, starting with Matthew Ninaber under layers of latex (and, later, some goofy costumes to disguse himself) as the titular character.  The suit is always a suit but it has a surprisingly effective presence even when you can see it puckering in at odd angles on the actor.  All of the actors in full costume deserve major props for navigating what I’m sure where hard conditions to film in; it can’t have been comfortable, but the results are well worth the efforts.  If the humans feel a little second banana, it’s only because they are so ordinary compared to the extraordinary nature of their out-of-this-world co-stars.  Audiences are either going to love Hanna’s preposterously awful Mimi or wish she’d get a laser blast to the cranium post haste and while it took me longer than it probably should have to warm up to her, by the end I understood why she had to be drawn with such big bold lines.

Definitely bound to appear on every “Best Movies You Haven’t Heard Of” lists for whatever streaming service this one lands on and more than likely headed toward a status of cult, Psycho Goreman is a fun film that takes itself only as seriously as you’d let it.  It delivers everything it promises and more, with a plot that’s more fleshed out than usual, excellent physical effects that blend nicely with computer generated ones, and performances that sell the material without turning it into a poorly timed farce.  The final act (and specifically the last 15 or so minutes) is really going to tweak a sweet spot for horror fans but by then I’m betting most viewers will already have been won over by PG’s R-rated antics.

Movie Review ~ Archenemy

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teen meets a mysterious man who claims he lost his superpowers after arriving from another dimension. Together, they take to the streets to wipe out a vicious crime boss and his local drug syndicate.

Stars: Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Amy Seimetz, Glenn Howerton, Paul Scheer

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Showing you just how much time truly has flown during this whole being cooped up in our homes for much of 2020 business, I could have sworn that Archenemy director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s previous film Daniel Isn’t Real came out earlier this year.  Looking back at my reviews, however, points out that my write-up for that ambitious yet not quite satisfying mind-bending thriller came out a little over a year ago.  Though I wasn’t ultimately sold on the merits of that film being a solid success, there were enough good ideas to keep me interested in seeing what Mortimer was going to get up to next and I guess I got my wish faster than it felt like I would.

For his third feature, Mortimer is changing things up a bit.  While his first two movies Some Kind of Hate and Daniel Isn’t Real were more horror-oriented and co-written with Brian DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills), Archenemy has a different tone to it and that could be due to co-writer Lucas Passmore coming onboard.  From the start, there’s a feeling that Archenemy, with its comic book animation prologue and noir-ish voice over narration from star Joe Manganiello is going to be something with an original spin and thankfully the screenplay and direction deliver that and then some.  Though it shows some cracks here and there and takes a hair longer to find its rhythm, when Archenemy locks in on its target it can’t miss.  And you shouldn’t miss it either.

I was a little scared at first that I’d mistakenly agreed to screen and review a completely animated feature…and not the kind of animation that has true movement to it but one with static images that sort of just slide.  Y’know?  It’s unsophisticated and rough, coupled with Manganiello (Magic Mike XXL) delivering some ultra-serious backstory about Max Fist, his galactic hero persona from another dimension and how he wound up crash landing on earth.  Thankfully, the animation acts as connecting pieces of storytelling and turn out to be enjoyable bits of fantasy as the movie races through its brisk 90 minute run time.  Eventually revealing this animated introduction morph into the live-action main feature, picking up Manganiello in the middle of a typical drunken rant.  From what we gather, the ragged and homeless earth-bound Max will deliver his origin story to anyone that listens and it’s just the first way the screenwriters keep us guessing along the way if Max is truly who he says he is or if the guy is just felled with mental instability.

More on Max later because the focus soon turns to two siblings living different lives from within the same tiny apartment.  Hamster (Skylan Brooks, Southpaw) wants to be a writer for a hot social networking site and winds up finding Max to be the perfect subject that will attract readers with his interesting tales of space warriors and battles from the stars being fought amongst the world population.  On the flip side of things, his sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs, Bit) sees an opportunity to earn more money for the future by sidling up to The Manager (Glenn Howerton, The Hunt) a crime boss that takes a liking to her and gives her an opportunity to prove herself.  As Hamster follows Max around and gains his trust, Indigo heads off on her first assignment…and that’s where the worlds of the two siblings begin their path toward eventual collision.  When an encounter with a no goodnik (Paul Scheer) that’s holding a bundle of money goes south, Indigo finds herself with a target on her back, unwittingly involving her brother and Max in a war that’s closer to them all then they originally thought.

This is one film that was a nice surprise to find, not just because it has an almost jovial charm gleaned from its well-cast leads but thanks to an abundance of creative energy that helps it glow in key moments.  There’s that constant question lingering on the sidelines of the action if Max Fist really is from another world and that helps create a nice sense of anticipation anytime the siblings get into a bind and need his help.  Credit to Mortimer and Passmore for not chickening out when moving toward their resolution that sees the arrival of a mysterious blonde (Amy Seimetz, Pet Sematary and the director of She Dies Tomorrow earlier this year) with a connection to The Manager who looks an awful lot like Fist’s nemesis from a different solar system.

I think audiences that happen upon Archenemy will be in for a pleasant, if not entirely life-changing, fun time of a film and one that feels like an intelligent substitution for the blockbuster comic book hero movies we didn’t get this summer.  Though smaller in scale than those big-budget behemoths, there’s something mighty aspirational at the core of Archenemy that gives it some tremendously fantastical and unexpectedly entertaining passages.  A nice film for a laid-back weekend watch.

Movie Review ~ The Dark and the Wicked

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Director: Brian Bertino

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Now that we’re in November and I’ve made it through October’s 31 Days to Scare, where I bombarded myself with numerous scare titles throughout the course of the month (numbering more than 31 I should add), I had a realization.  There’s a simplicity in the best scary movies that no loud music stings, gory displays of bloodletting, or cats thrown in front of the camera to make you leap back in your seat can match.  Not every filmmaker has that kind of restraint to resist the urge to go for that easy out.  So whether it be an antsy studio worried their target audience won’t be satisfied or a director that gives into their commercial side of the brain, I started to notice how many films wind up on this path…especially the thrown cats.

It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  Bertino is a filmmaker that takes his time between films and doesn’t seem to be driven or tempted by the financial side of the business.  In all honesty, I haven’t seen the two films he’s made since The Strangers but get the impression they follow the same efficient tactics he employed in his first film.  Watching his new offering as part of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival, I tried to recreate that experience from home by checking it out late at night with all the lights off.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.

Not that Bertino and his cast don’t give it a helluva good college try.  I almost instantly regretted starting it so late and considered turning a small light on thanks to a prologue that opens in a workroom adjacent to an isolated farmhouse where a woman (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) works mending clothes late at night.  What’s scary about that, you may ask?  Well, all the mannequins, of course.  A disturbance among her farm animals is the first sign to us of imminent danger but is gradually revealed as an evil presence that has set up residence on the property, preying on her and her invalid husband.

The arrival of the couple’s two grown children should alleviate some of this burden but both bring their own baggage along.  Louise (Marin Ireland, The Irishman) is single and without much in her life, a never-worn wedding dress still sitting half-completed in her mother’s workshop.  Leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home a far distance away, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) has returned after a long absence to confront some guilt he’s pushed down for not being there to help in the care of his sick parent.  These emotions play a part in the overall horrors that unfold over the time the family spends together, with late night happenings turning from frightening to tragic.

Bertino keeps up a good sense of dread, at least for a while.  Yet it becomes repetitive and stagnant quicker than I had hoped.  Despite a rather unsettling visit from a preacher man (Xander Berkeley, The Wall of Mexico) their agnostic mother had supposedly found comfort in, the cycle of nightly spooky sights runs out of steam.  In films like this that depend on engagement, once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh.

I tried to like The Dark and the Wicked, actively tried, but the longer it kept establishing and re-establishing the broken relationships and continued in its bleak journey toward nowhere, the less I was interested in the destination.  In his past films, Bertino has been more comfortable in a certain inevitability with his characters but here he doesn’t seem totally able to decide if he wants to relinquish their fates with as much of a clear cut message. That leaves them and the viewer in a strange, uncomfortable place…and not in a good way.

**Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in my coverage of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival**

Movie Review ~ The Opening Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.

Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan

Director: Steve Byrne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians.  There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials.  Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though?  The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign.  I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned.  Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool.  It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb.  Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon.  I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.

As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life.  It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child.  The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward.  Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him.  The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.

When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter.  If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny.  Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town.  What could go wrong?

Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not.  It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout.  These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate.  That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.

Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees.  Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver.  I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing.  I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong.  Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death.  He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen.  As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything.  She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.

A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director.  There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward.  However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end.  If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on.  Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease.  This will surprise you.

Movie Review ~ 2067

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: By the year 2067, Earth has been ravaged by climate change and humanity is forced to live on artificial oxygen. An illness caused by the synthetic O2 is killing the worlds’ population and the only hope for a cure comes in the form of a message from the future.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ryan Kwanten, Leeanna Walsman, Deborah Mailman, Matt Testro, Damian Walshe-Howling, Aaron Glenane

Director: Seth Larney

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I wasn’t too far into the new sci-fi flick 2067 when it struck me how much effort was put into a movie that far too few people will actually see.  Sure, nowadays films are shot on an iPhone and released on YouTube but this Australian funded and produced film looks to have had not a small amount of money spent on it yet it’s arriving within the VOD space during a very busy release week.  With nothing to set it apart from the flock, it needed to have some hook to attract the attention of viewers that would want to put other anticipated titles aside and choose this one instead.  If the film had been better, I might shed a tear or two but this is such a rote, run-of-the-mill time-travelling to the past to save the future (but with a TWIST!) endeavor that the entire affair hardly seems worth the two hours you could have spent on a more original idea.

Like last week’s similarly-themed LX 2048 which brought us to a future where the sun’s rays had become lethal, in 2067 we’re almost a half century onward and now the Earth’s air has grown toxic.  The population treats pure oxygen as a hot commodity with the clean stuff going for a pretty penny after its discovered living too long on artificial oxygen is even more deadly.  Underground worker Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) toils long hours in dangerous conditions in order to make enough money to keep his ill wife (Sana’a Shaik) healthy for as long as possible.  Working alongside his quasi big-brother who has been looking out for him for years (Ryan Kwanten), he’s surprised when the company he works for that also dabbles in tests to find a cure for the plague requests his presence at their headquarters and offers up a striking proposal.

Seems that Ethan’s late scientist father (Aaron Glenane) had been experimenting in time-travel and had nearly made it work before he mysteriously died.  The work has continued with his colleagues continuing to send messages through a portal and they’ve only now just received a message back…and it points to Ethan as a possible solution to Earth’s impending doom.  Offered a chance by the company’s head officer (Deborah Mailman, The Sapphires) to take a leap of faith and find the answers that will save the Earth, Ethan will also come face to face with dark truths from his past that continue to haunt his present….even as he explores a future world that he may never make it back from.

If there’s one thing to say about writer/director Seth Larney’s futuristic film, it’s that it looks pretty good for an independently produced sci-fi spectacle.  Though obviously working with a smaller budget than your typical blockbuster, there are some very nice effects at times in 2067 but on the other hand quite a lot of the movie takes place in one of two specific sets that are just redressed to different time periods.  The truth of the matter is that this is, frankly, boring and doesn’t justify it’s incredibly long run time.  What might have had the makings of a short episode of the revamped The Twilight Zone has been stretched to a punishing feature length that can’t support it’s very meager plot littered with questionable twists and performances that are surprisingly shoddy for some and outright poor for others.

Between this and LX 2048, it’s obvious that there’s a 20 year period in our future that’s looking pretty bleak…a bad sign when things in 2020 aren’t feeling so hot either.  It’s disappointingly acted and while Australian films are often produced to handsome results, aside from a few nice visuals it’s by and large a cheap looking show that doesn’t earn any points for originality.  There’s far better options for you in the VOD world right now and 2067 is an easily skippable one.

Movie Review ~ The Owners


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends think they find an easy score at an empty house with a safe full of cash. But when the owners, an elderly couple, come home early, the tables are suddenly turned.

Stars: Maisie Williams,  Sylvester McCoy,  Jake Curran, Ian Kenny,  Andrew Ellis, Rita Tushingham

Director: Julius Berg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  As the summer days dwindle and the fall weather approaches, I’ve started to see less of those super hot pool days and more of the chilly temps that signal a time when we’ll be indoors even more than we are now.  The last few months most of the world has been relegated indoors, hopefully staving off the further spread of a pandemic.  Some, like myself, don’t mind the excuse to be a homebody for a little while and not have to leave the confines of home so often while others get the cabin-fever itch to roam.  These are the people you may need to worry about, especially if you live in areas where snow may trap them inside for a lengthy period through the beginning of next year.

Luckily, we have a wealth of movies to get us through our time but strangely there have been a number of films that might exacerbate your feelings of claustrophobia.  Last week’s release Centigrade found a couple frozen inside their rental car, desperately trying to free themselves before they starve or freeze to death.  Then there was Relic, the awesome Australian drama-horror which preyed upon fears not just of the physical but of the mental as well, where even your house turns against you and can’t be trusted.  Homewrecker was a cautionary tale of never accepting the kindness of strangers, especially those that invite you into their home right away and June’s You Should Have Left takes the haunted house genre to skewed new levels.  Finally, The Rental was a dark, twisty reminder that the vacation home that’s too good to be true often is.

Now comes The Owners and it’s likely the nastiest one of them all and while you’d expect that statement to be followed with “and that’s a good thing”,  I sadly can’t say that about this adaptation of a 2017 French graphic novel.  Though it has all the makings of a grim good time and feels as if it possesses a slick swath of tricks up its sleeves with a solid opening introduction, it bungles its pivotal reveal which sends the remaining hour into a downward spiral.  Moving from suspense to laughs is never a good thing and that’s where The Owners finds itself when it hands over the keys and the credits roll.

Feeling an awful lot like 2016’s far superior and infinitely more surprising Don’t Breathe, The Owners opens with mates Nathan (Ian Kenny, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Terry (Andrew Ellis) scoping out the remote home of the local doctor with their new acquaintance Gaz (Jake Curran, Fury).  It’s clear from the start that there’s a problem with the power dynamic in the group, with Nathan appearing to be the leader but the more brutal and soulless Gaz often goading the weaker man on to make decisions while seemingly naïve Terry watches it all unfold.  Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams, The New Mutants) eventually joins the group and goes along, only because she’s promised the burglary of a safe the doctor keeps hidden will be an easy in and out job.

Of course, nothing goes as planned because after they enter the house the movie makes the first of several right turns meant to keep the audience off balance.  The first few times, writer/director Julius Berg and co-writer Mathieu Gompel accomplish their mission in creating some intrigue for viewers in wanting to know more.  Against our better judgement, we want the gang to go further into the house and uncover more of what’s behind the closed doors.  They’ve got one whopper of a shocker ready to pounce but unfortunately, that’s where the creative juices start to dry up and turn sticky.

It should come as no surprise that the doctor (Sylvester McCoy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, doing his best Ian Holm impression and succeeding) and his dotty wife (Rita Tushingham, Doctor Zhivago) return and become a part of the night’s events.  Continuing its icky descent, Berg heaps on the violence and gore and instead of focusing on finding plot points to make the characters interesting it feels as if the filmmakers were just out to make a catch and kill chase flick with diminishing logic the longer everyone is alive.  Characters take forever to realize the imminent danger they’re in and by that point you’ve already written them off, if you haven’t already wondered why they’ve suddenly changed their personalities entirely.  One character morphs into such a different person with new motivations that I half thought they were the evil twin of the original.

With films like Don’t Breathe or another nifty entry, 2015’s Intruders, home invasion thrillers have shown they can take a simple fear and maximize the suspense with some creative energy put forth.  The Owners has a game cast and every material needed to join the ranks as a successful entry in the genre but can’t make a flame out of the sparks it attempts to generate.

Movie Review ~ The Pale Door

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Available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.

Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Melora Walters, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Tina Parker

Director: Aaron B. Koontz

Rated: NR

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was young, the phrase “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” always kind of creeped me out and definitely made me think twice anytime I got near a pig or a handbag.  What’s more, it never totally made sense to me until I had some real world uses for it that it would apply to.  Once, I had a birthday cake made and when I went to pick it up I found that it was decorated wrong.  When I pointed it out, the baker said they’d be happy to scrape off the decoration and put something new on top – but “ you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  The cake was a bust but a friend came through in a pinch with a replacement.

In movies, every now and then you get a silk purse of a synopsis but a sow’s ear of a film.  Such is the case with the indie horror Western The Pale Door.  Here was one that had me all in based solely on the tagline that mentioned witches and cowboys…um, sold!  The poster looked ominously freaky, it had some interesting character actors involved and I was reasonably comforted that based on the previous credits of some of the filmmakers there was serious potential.  All signs pointed to the kind of selection that would have me clamoring into a theater had it been available at a film festival as a midnight selection.

Nope.  Sow’s ear.

The story goes like this.  Years ago two brothers were orphaned on a dark night but eventually went in different directions, taking separate paths forward in life.  One brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), becomes an outlaw, a member of a gang of ne’er-do-wells that get by thieving from town to town.  His kid brother Jacob (Devin Druid) opts for a more respectable life working for a local saloon and keeping his money safe and sound, planning for the day when he can secure his future.  When Duncan reappears and announces his intent to rob a train filled with gold, Jacob suddenly takes an interest in his older brother’s business and joins him and his crew for a fateful heist that doesn’t bring them to quite the bounty they had anticipated.

Instead of the train carrying money, they find it’s transporting a woman (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) in a locked and guarded box who, when eventually freed, wants to repay their kindness by inviting them back to the brothel run by her friends that’s nearby and overseen by the mysterious Maria (Melora Walters, The Master).  Starved for food, drink, and something more carnal, the posse is all too happy to accept the company of the lovely ladies of the evening…who have a nasty habit of turning into ghastly beasts when the doors are locked for the night.  The rough and rowdy robbers must survive the darkness and protect Jacob, who the blood-hungry creates have their sights set on thanks to his pure and innocent spirit.

Giving the credit where it’s certainly the most due, the screenplay from Keith Lansdale, Cameron Burns, and director Aaron B. Koontz is quite clever at times and ranks high in the imagination factor.  It’s not going into the Smithsonian for it’s witty dialogue or complex construct but there’s been thought put in on how to get from Point A to Point B and that’s enough to keep the lights on for at least the first half of the movie.  Though it’s clearly cherry-picking the good stuff off of earlier adjacent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark, on paper at least it has the ring of a feature that would have worked quite well.

So…what’s the sow’s ear part you’re referring to, you say?  Well…it’s one of the cheapest looking movies I’ve seen in all of 2020 and maybe in the last several years.  A fine script is one thing but it can’t save filmmaking that is bargain basement throughout.  Costumes look like they were plucked directly (or stolen outright) from an Old Time Western Photo Shop, sets are straight-up in some touristy Wild West town that was shuttered for filming, and the hysterical props that are used are filled with jarring displays like Wanted posters you’d see printed on booths at an amusement park.  On top of all of that, the actual look of the movie gives the impression of a training video for a horseback riding camp.  The old TV show Hey Dude created a more convincing Western vibe.

Performances certainly don’t help things along either.  While Druid is a respectable, if mealy-mouthed, lead, he tends to disappear as the movie progresses…vanishing almost completely behind bigger performances just as he’s supposed to come to the forefront.  That’s partly Koontz’s fault for allowing some of the supporting players (which from the looks of past credits appear to be friends) to overact to an astonishing degree.  As the lone female bandit, Tina Parker does an amusing about-face from her tightly wound role in the excellent To the Stars released earlier this summer but Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and especially Noah Segan (Knives Out) have the munchies for the scenery throughout.  Only Walters seems to gather what she’s gotten herself into and decides to go all out…and more’s the better for it.

A disappointment through and through, this is one door that need not be opened or even gazed upon with curiosity.  What a bummer this one was, mostly because I had some true high hopes for it.  It just goes to show that a tagline alone cannot (and should not) be the only thing that entices you into a film.  The script for this one might not be quite the silk purse that we discussed earlier but it’s at least a high-density cotton that stands up to inspection if you squint a bit.  The Pale Door itself needs a padlock, though.

Movie Review ~ Spree

Available In select theaters, drive-ins, on demand, and digital August 14, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirsty for a following, Kurt Kunkle is a rideshare driver who has figured out a deadly plan to go viral.

Stars: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton

Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Being famous for doing nothing used to be seen as something trivial, what you’d snicker at silently and roll your eyes over while reading about it in a wrinkled magazine at your optometrist’s office while you waited for your pupils to slowly dilate.  As your vision became blurrier and the words became harder to read, all you could focus on were the pictures and in the end that’s all that mattered because it was the visuals of the do-nothing-for-fames that managed to get them where they were.  Now, after years of watching people ascend to the rank of celebrity on their skills as an “influencer”, it’s no longer something to laugh about.  It almost makes you want to cry.

That’s why a movie like Spree will likely be interpreted in a number of different ways by anyone who views it.  It all depends on what you personally think about the current culture of social media and how it has the power to affect the actions of others.  Whether it’s deciding what to buy or where to go, more and more there is a reliance on these internet influencers to call the shots and it’s crazy to think it’s a money-making business for some.  It’s definitely not making money for the likes of people like Spree‘s Kurt Kunkle, the twenty-something wannabe star who takes his desire for fame too far over the course of one bloody night.

Though it’s framed like a “found footage” sort of package, don’t let that scare you off right away (there may be other things that do that, so beware) because Spree gets off to an entertaining start taking us through our introduction to Kurt (Joe Keery, Stranger Things, Molly’s Game) and his YouTube show “Kurt’s World”.  Attracting minimal viewers and netting next to no followers on his various social media accounts, Kurt’s hopes of becoming famous seem to be fading fast and he knows he needs to do something big to get noticed.  Maybe he can use his connection as former babysitter to internet sensation @bobbybasecamp (Josh Ovalle) to drum up some new followers but how to get the attention of the world?

The answer shows up in what Kurt dubs #TheLesson.

Working as a driver for a rideshare service, Kurt tricks out his car with video cameras and livestreams his fares…who he begins to kill, first with poisoned water and then with the clock ticking and his follower count not rising fast enough, via other methods that get progressively more gruesome and desperate as the night goes on.  Throughout the day, Kurt encounters a number of faces that will be familiar to viewers and it’s not a spoiler to say that some of them make it out of the car alive.  Some of them die out of the car, too.  No, really, there are interesting cameos from Kyle Mooney (Hello, My Name Is Doris) as a hapless jokester, David Arquette (star of the equally meta documentary You Can’t Kill David Arquette arriving soon) as his Dad, a loser DJ that bribes his son for a ride by promising him an Instagram mention from a visiting DJ playing at the same (strip) club.  Mischa Barton (Notting Hill), Frankie Grande, and Lala Kent (Hard Kill) all show up at one point or another, too…a random mix of the very influencer-celebrities the film is taking aim at.

The most important fare is comedian Jessie Adams (from SNL player Sasheer Zamata, excellent in a honest to goodness breakout role) because she’s exactly the kind of social media star he isn’t.  Easy-going, self-aware, honest, edgy, and maybe a little meaner than she has to be, she’s also worked her way to get to the comedy show she’s performing in that evening and an early encounter with Kyle doesn’t end well for him.  Quickly becoming fascinated with Jessie, Kurt turns his attention from wondering why his star struggles to rise to fixating on how hers manages to ascend with little trouble.  That’s when the real madness of Spree truly takes over.

Spree is a move that is all fun and games…until it isn’t and then you suddenly realize you’ve been playing along with something very dark and dangerous.  It’s exactly the kind of response the movie wants you to have and I admit I fell head first into its well-designed snap trap.  Writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko doesn’t have any observances that are hugely revelatory but it’s the way he goes the extra mile in depicting the lengths to which Kurt will go for fame and the alarming coldness in his dispatching of human life that gives Spree those extra jolts to make you shudder.  Along with Keery, Kotlyarenko and cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn have amassed a tremendous amount of footage to establish Kurt’s online presence – I can’t even imagine how many hours/days it took to film all of it, yet alone for editor Benjamin Moses Smith to cut it together into the cohesive narrative it is.  That is isn’t just a 90-minute exercise in eye-ball gouging obnoxiousness is a miracle unto itself.

Still…it’s hard to get over the truth the movie is made up of bits and pieces of other films that have done this whole 15 minutes of fame nonsense in better (though more subtle) ways.  You don’t have to squint too hard watching Spree to see the elements of Taxi Driver, Maps to the Stars, American Psycho, Joker, Nightcrawler, or even Chicago that have been brought into the mix.  Yes, Spree may deliver the same message with the volume turned up a little louder and is far more in your face than Travis Bickle ever was…but those understated characters were often more unnerving because of their stillness.  Spree’s Kurt Kunkle is a ball of energy wanting to be noticed and it’s hard not to see him in front of you.  Same goes for the movie.