Movie Review ~ Initiation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Whiton University unravels the night a star-athlete is murdered, kicking off a spree of social media slayings that force students to uncover the truth behind the school’s hidden secrets and the horrifying meaning of an exclamation point.

Stars: Lindsay LaVanchy, Jon Huertas, Isabella Gomez, Froy Gutierrez, Gattlin Griffith, Patrick Walker, Bart Johnson, Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon, Yancy Butler, Lochlyn Munro

Director: John Berado

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not for lack of labored trying, but it seemed like the old-fashioned slasher film had truly kicked the bucket.  Sure, studios could gussy up a subpar effort with all the fancy marketing they wanted and produce a slick trailer to make their hokey low budget cash grab appear to be a terrifying classic in the making, but once the butts were in the seats it didn’t take audiences long to realize they’d been duped.  Having been burned one too many times, horror fans stopped taking the bait and when the money pool dried up, so did the clamor for more slice and dice copycats of far more prestigious films from the heyday of the genre. 

I’d certainly found myself five minutes into what I honestly believed would be at least a decent time waster only to discover I was watching yet another uninspired rehash of the same old schtick.  Of course, there have been exceptions over the last few years like the excellent Haunt which did frightening wonders with a small budget and the surprisingly scary The Rental from, of all people, Dave Franco.  Even an ultra-low budget entry like The Last Laugh managed to drum up creativity by harkening back to useful giallo tricks of the trade.  That being said, the slasher genre and their central task of uncovering the identity of a masked killer had largely been pushed to the side in favor of supernatural and creature features to elicit shrieks.

My initial instinct when Initiation arrived in my inbox was to resist the urge to get too excited.  Wasn’t I just setting myself up for another round of disappointment thinking this film shot in three weeks could possibly break a long streak of losers?  The whole “killer on a college campus” bit wasn’t anything revelatory (take Happy Birthday to Me, Urban Legend, Scream 2, The House on Sorority Row, and even the unrelated The Initiation from 1984 to name a few), the movie would need to have some heft to it in order to muscle its way past already established properties.

If puny dreck like March’s Dreamcatcher and last year’s Backwoods are noodle limbed attempts to put their stamp on the slasher genre, then Initiation is the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or better yet, the Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.  What we have here is an intelligent, well-made, perfectly decently acted return to what makes these types of film so much fun in the first place…the mystery of it all.  Everyone’s a suspect up until they meet a gory demise, and even if you’ll likely be able to spot whodunit and unravel some motive long before they are uncovered, it won’t matter much on account of the other elements coalescing so nicely.  The most exciting part of it all is that it’s done without it seeming labored, like it was a joyless chore to imbue a modern slasher suspense with the structure of old-fashioned plot devices.

Take, for instance, the opening of the film which finds the fraternities and sororities at Whiton University getting ready for a big bash at the most popular frat house on campus.  Obviously, the frat guys and sorority girls are going to be a bunch of duuuuuudes and bimbos ready to be picked off, right?  Well, you’d be half right because the sorority sisters are more responsible than we’ve seen onscreen lately, actively watching out for one another, and steering clear of any drink they didn’t pour themselves.  They’re aware of a nasty bit of social media tagging going on within the fraternity which assigns crude ratings based on their intimate encounters. And they’re not having any of it tonight.

At the party, head sister Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) loses track of one of her newest recruits but finds her in a room with her brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) and some of his friends.  The girl is out of it but seems ok otherwise.  Still, of all people Ellery thinks Wes, an Olympic swimming hopeful, should know better.  Apparently, someone else thinks that too because the fallout from the events of the night turn deadly quickly when one of the partygoers is murdered in a most heinous fashion by a masked killer.  Police and campus security try to intervene but a plot for revenge has already been set into motion and it’s up to Ellery to find out who is slashing through her friends and stop them before they get to her.

If you groan when I say Initiation is a slasher film with a strong feminist slant then a) OMG, it’s 2021, get over it and b) don’t write this off because it has a point of view and sticks to it.  It’s not agenda pushing in the least but does have some aim in subverting what we know about these types of films.  Men are put into just as much jeopardy as women and, gasp, shown in vulnerable states of undress as well.  There’s not a fixated effort into forcing the issue but you don’t have to look very hard to see that’s what the filmmakers were going for.  At the same time, that doesn’t have any major impact to the bloody old school slashings that continue on for a number of unlucky souls.

Director John Beardo co-wrote the script with Brian Frager and star LaVanchy, another way the film kept our lead performer walking a similar but somewhat different path than the same old scream queen that has come before.  An active participant in uncovering clues on her own time (she’s a lab assistant on campus that uses her job to do some sleuthin’), the character is not afraid to be seen as smart, unapologetically say what she means, and yet she still winds up running for her life from a psychopath like they all do in these films. The rest of the cast turn in solid work, with Gattlin Griffith (Labor Day) appropriately sleazy as the dirtiest dog in the frat and a Shireen Lai as Ellery’s best gal pal who proves to be a welcome presence in some of the film’s more harrowing moments.

Above all else, Initiation delivers the goods on a consistent basis.  The action doesn’t seem to drag and Beardo and crew maintain a nice tone that doesn’t demean its characters or devolve into silly voids of laziness.  It also looks pretty snazzy too, with cinematographer Jonathan Pope utilizing interesting camera angles to heighten the tension with just a slight imbalance or flooding our view with the colorful lights at the early party that kicks off all the madness.  It’s just an all-around well planned and executed (pardon the pun) horror film made by people that knew what they were doing – and this is the reward.

Movie Review ~ The Vault (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an engineer learns of a mysterious, impenetrable fortress hidden under the Bank of Spain, he joins a crew of master thieves who plan to steal the legendary lost treasure while the whole country watches the World Cup.

Stars: Freddie Highmore, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley, Famke Janssen, Luis Tosar, José Coronado

Director: Jaume Balagueró

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though I’ve been reviewing movies on this site for years by this point, I continue to be flabbergasted when I see otherwise rather decent movies shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to seriously poor marketing.  Pandemic or not, each film that makes its way for public consumption should have some kind of advance marketing, be it a teaser poster or short trailer that premiers before the final advertising that gives a more well-rounded look at what the film is about for audiences.  Ideally, audiences could read a short synopsis (like the one provided above) and let that be their gut guide if the film is for them but, as we are well aware, most of the casual movie-going public does need a bit of handholding to get them to their seat. 

That’s why I was so surprised after seeing The Vault just what a real tough nut to crack it was when it came to finding even a legit poster to use for the header of my review or even a decent production photo.  It’s like the studio releasing the movie decided to show their confidence in it by not devoting any substantial effort to give publicists or marketing teams adequate material for press to feature.  Even if the movie apparently changed titles in the US (from the more bland Way Down which it goes by in European territories) late in the game, there’s little excuse for the questionably designed work you see above that makes an old-fashioned heist film with high tech touches look like a soupy amped up spy actioner.  It’s even more of a pity considering this sometimes creaky but mostly well-oiled machine isn’t half bad and actually is quite well made.  

Beginning with a promising opening that includes a brief introduction concerning a grizzled treasure boat captain Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham, War Horse) finding the remains of a shipwreck in the Atlantic that went down in 1645, it’s likely you’ll be like me and wonder why the film wasn’t snapped up by a major studio.  He’s after a particular item from this fabled ship but just as he thinks he has it in his possession, Spanish customs agents arrive and confiscate his plunder that was discovered off their coast.  Though he pleads his case in front of the judges in the Hague, Moreland is denied access to the item and it’s soon locked away in a Madrid bank vault notoriously impossible to break into.  Not even his connection with a British operative (Famke Janssen, GoldenEye) who, based on their past interactions likely has an agenda of her own, can get him what he wants.   

At the same time, brilliant but socially awkward engineer Thom (Freddie Highmore, August Rush) is being courted by a number of companies that are offering him big paychecks but not for the kind of work he feels drawn to.  His expertise has attracted Moreland and he presents Thom a way to, if not make a difference on the world, at least have an adventure and shake up his staid existence.  Weighing a future tied to a corporate behemoth or risking it all for a man he barely knows that won’t tell him exactly what he’s walking into, Thom makes the choice that best suits his immediate needs…and that’s joining Moreland’s crew to steal back the key to a fortune that’s been hidden for over three hundred years. 

Joined by former spy and second in command James (Sam Riley, Maleficent), brawny Simon (Luis Tosar), tech geek Klaus (Axel Stein), and chameleon-like Lorraine (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Thom has little time to get up to speed on Moreland’s plan to penetrate the impenetrable bank.  There’s a mystery to be solved as to what exactly protects the vault and that’s why they need Thom, first to help them figure out what the security is and second how to get around it.  As with any good heist films, director Jaume Balagueró (Muse) inserts a breathless early break-in designed as recon for the main event and it’s this sequence when the heat in The Vault really starts to boil over.  There are the expected double crosses, near misses, and somewhat implausible turn of events but it’s all handled with a light touch by Balagueró and feels in line with the Oceans 11 franchise, which Thom even references at one point. 

A team is only as strong as its weakest link so having that essential chemistry between Moreland’s group is critical.  I got a kick out of Tosar’s rough tough guy with a soft center and he more than makes up for the personality that Riley lacks.  Stein is perhaps a bit too conventional in the traditional tech guy role as is Bergès-Frisbey whenever the filmmakers are trying to force a romance subplot between her and Highmore.  When they just let her be a good at her job and not grudgingly falling for the smarty pants new addition to their group, she shines.  Janssen is kind of getting unrecognizable and her looks seems to change from scene to scene…I’ll just leave it at that.  That brings us to Highmore and Cunningham who make for a nice leading duo, though for some reason Cunningham gets billed quite far down the line.  Highmore may be an obvious choice for a highly intelligent engineer but he’s an off the wall candidate to lead a burglary thriller, yet he does it quite nicely. 

With a total of five screenwriters (!) it’s amazing The Vault didn’t feel more patchy in places, but it has a relatively nice flow to it.  At 118 minutes it could lose at least ten and ratchet up some tension for its audience a bit more, losing some unnecessary lovey dovey-ness that doesn’t need to be there.  It works nicely to fill a gap to those that miss the mid-level budget thrillers that would often pop up every few weeks in theaters during the ‘90s.  It would do as a rainy-day option or a weekend watch if the mood struck you just right. 

Movie Review ~ Redemption Day

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A decorated U.S. Marine captain embarks on a daring mission to save his kidnapped wife from terrorists in Morocco.

Stars: Gary Dourdan, Serinda Swan, Ernie Hudson, Martin Donovan, Andy Garcia, Samy Naceri, Robert Knepper, Lilia Hajji

Director: Hicham Hajji

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s an occupational hazard that with the number of films I see over the course of a month, they begin to blend together.  That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I have this outlet to get my thoughts in order so I can reflect back on a movie later if I need a reference point for a future work for an actor, director, or project from a similar genre.  Too often, though, it must be said that the finer details of plot and character fade from memory just as soon as the publish button is clicked and all the social media posts have been shared.  Only the most memorable manage to lodge into my noggin and not always for the right reasons.

I can’t say that Redemption Day is going to fare well if my recall skills are tested because not only did I barely make it through the film grasping to its dangling thread of a plot but it also felt like the film itself didn’t even remember where it was going when it started.  I half expected this warzone action pic to be a rugged indie variation of a standard one-man-against-the-world sort of international rescue operation, something Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, or even late-stage Kevin Bacon would have a stateside gruff field day with.  Instead, it’s a slickly made but grossly unfocused bit of grandstanding for a writer and director that doesn’t know where the meat of the story is and a cast that mostly gets an acquittal for instilling some realistic drama into situations that are set-up for histrionics.  Worst of all, it’s just a poorly timed release seeing that these types of war films are just going the way of the dodo, especially if you can’t rationalize a need for it with a compelling plot.

Haunted by an deadly ambush while on a humanitarian mission several years ago in Syria, U.S. Marine captain Brad Paxton (Gary Dourdan) has returned home a decorated war hero with PTSD battle scars he can’t shake.  (A quick side note, I have nothing but huge respect for the men and women that serve but do films always have to portray them as damaged goods when they return?  Maybe writers feel like they are paying respect to the military but continuing to show every vet welcomed home as broken does an overall disservice to their service.  Not saying there isn’t a certain price paid in battle that stays with someone who’s lived it or that I don’t find it realistic, I’m just a little weary of some over-victimization of these honorable vets.  Anyway…)  Though working through his vivid dreams of the attack, he’s one of the lucky ones, though, being able to be embraced by his young daughter and archaeologist wife Sarah (Serinda Swan) who are exceedingly patient and understanding with his recovery.  While he takes on the role of stay-at-home-dad, Sarah embarks on trip to Morocco, leading a team of her own as they are granted an opportunity to explore an ancient city that’s been uncovered beneath the sun scorched desert.

Though she’s supposedly in good hands both with the security detail that accompanies her with and a few overseas contacts Brad has called in, her caravan of high-profile international assets is unsurprisingly (to us) intercepted and taken hostage.  Held for ransom by terrorists (who could not be any more stereotypical if the cast of SNL portrayed them reading cue cards) that demand money and are willing to spill innocent blood to get it, the time is ticking on Sarah’s life and Brad knows it.  Discouraged by his government from getting involved and knowing the policy on negotiation with terrorists, Brad uses his curated military skills and knowledge of private global network dealings to get into the country where his wife and others are being held before its too late for all.  Disobeying direct orders, going against his country’s own policies, Brad calls in a number of favors from previous informants and spies to get him closer to his wife.

I wish I could tell you all of this generates some sort of excitement but honestly the biggest thrill the movie offers is the potential that Sarah could take viewers into a city lost to the sands of time, Indiana Jones style.  Why co-writer and first-time director Hicham Hajji chooses to make that Sarah’s mission that takes her overseas is a bit of a mystery, if only because that key discovery stuck in my mind for most of the movie. “What happened to the city?”  “Was there a city at all?” “Will we ever see the city and does a monster live there?”  You almost wish Hajji and his co-writers had the wherewithal to have their evil doers abscond with their hostages into this mysterious undiscovered land because that would have added some spice to what is a flavorless concoction.  Once the kidnapping takes place the film is just a series of back and forth conversations between increasingly unpredictable men with guns…and the terrorists they are hunting.

There are few long-running TV shows I can say I stuck with through thick and thin but CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was one of them so I’m familiar with star Dourdan’s work from his time on that crime drama.  He’s an unexpected choice for the lead of a feature so while he does serviceable work, there’s a particular spark missing that can’t be totally ignored.  Still, he gets the job done in more ways than one and is convincing as the character, though he fares better in the tactical sequences than he does with the overly dramatic ones.  There’s little time to establish a chemistry with Swan so the connection between them isn’t ever so strongly felt, but it doesn’t matter much because Swan has such pluck that you’d be rooting for her survival if her significant other was a rocking chair.  She’s arguably the best actor in the film, certainly better that the absolutely jaw-droppingly terrible second level supporting cast.  It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed the kind of terrible line readings that you’ll see here, especially from the actor that played the President.

With little to recommend in Redemption Day, it’s hard to put together what you should do with it should you come across it.  Is it a good time waster?  I mean, maybe?  It’s not the kind of film you can put on as background noise because for as convoluted and confusing as the plot gets at times it does require a certain amount of focus if you want scenes to hold together at all.  Then again, when the most interesting part of the plot involves a MacGuffin that reminds you of Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe you’re better off revisiting that Best Picture nominated classic instead of this which won’t garner a nomination for anything.  Best to just let night fall on this one.

Movie Review ~ Wander

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hired to investigate a suspicious death in the town of Wander, a paranoid private eye with a troubled past becomes convinced the case is linked to the same conspiracy and cover-up that caused the death of his daughter.

Stars: Aaron Eckhart, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Raymond Cruz, Brendan Fehr, Nicole Steinwedell

Director: April Mullen

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  What I’m loving more these days is not just revisiting old film noir classics from back in the day but watching new filmmakers try their hand at creating the “neo noir” and seeing just how hard it is to get that right tone and style. You get the sense at the skill it took directors six decades ago with far less of the technical resources to craft an atmosphere using just the camera, the script, and the actors. It was hard to pull one over on audiences who had recently been through wars; just because they had opted for a night out of escapist entertainment didn’t mean they lacked understanding of quality.  Like how we all knew that those B-movie monster pics about creatures mutated by nuclear exposure had more than a little hidden message, noir had underlying themes that often bubbled close to the surface.

These films also attracted top name talent and that’s still true now.  Take the latest effort, the gritty Wander which trades the breezy Eastern coastline noir tends to favor for a more Southern setting closer to the parched border in New Mexico.  Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs) stars (well, more like shows up) with headliner Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) as a pair of investigative podcasters drawn to the titular town by a mystery caller presenting a curious case of her missing daughter.  Appealing to his guilty frustration at the disappearance and death of his own child, Eckhart’s character Arthur Bretnik finds similarities between this case and the one that hit too close to his own home.  What’s more, his often-doubtful co-host feels its worth investigating as well…so off to Wander they go.

Now, this being a twisty curlicue of a script from writer Tim Doiron, nothing in Wander the film or Wander the town is quite as black and white as it initially appears to be.  For instance, an opening prologue on a desolate highway charts an escape of some sort that turns deadly, suggesting the presence of an efficient force capable of ruthless killings.  Yet Doiron and frequent collaborator April Mullen never take the time to explore the true depths of this most intriguing faction, stopping short at bringing in the mysterious Elsa Viceroy (a fine Katheryn Winnick, interesting enough but doing her best to convince us Jessica Chastain wasn’t the first choice for the role) who baselines out at an enigma for much of the film. Snazzy name aside, Viceroy is just a shadow presence we’re curious to know more about…but only because the film frustratingly holds back pieces of info deliberately as a way to extend whatever shroud of mystery it is clinging to.

Instead, we follow sad-sack Eckhart as he mopes around Wander looking for clues not just for the missing girl but for connections to his own daughter, connections he maybe wants to believe are there but really aren’t.  As he talks with his concerned sister (Heather Graham, The Hangover Part III, solid for the first time in a while but sadly underused) back home, it feels like we’re watching Eckhart put together a puzzle inside the frame from a different set entirely.  This mystery that is available to us isn’t nearly as intriguing as the one Eckhart (or Eckhart’s character at least) is selling so after a while it all starts to feel like time and talent wasted. The twists and turns arrive like clockwork and when they do they serve only to confuse the plot further rather than untangle a growing knot of sinewy information.  By the time we do get to the end, it’s a bit of a hazy mess and I don’t think I could honestly say for sure what the real truth was.  It’s fine to leave the audience with their own puzzle to take home and decode but it’s another thing entirely to go out with the equivalent of a headshake, eye roll, and an exasperated, ‘Whatever’.

The usually dependable Eckhart gets a little wild here and it’s not the best place for the actor to work.  It’s strange because of all the actors working today, he’d be likely a good candidate to tackle  a man with as many hang-ups as Arthur.  In that way, Mullen has a ringer at the top of her call sheet but Eckhart either got as lost in the script as the viewer does or something didn’t translate in the performance because it’s a weird, rare off-key showing.  I was actually surprised to see Jones appearing here and to be so involved in a number of scenes.  The grumpy aura the actor gives off gels with the been-there-done-that general feel of the character but he’s not as present as the advertising would have you believe.  I still miss the Jones that didn’t rely so much on a general annoyance as his main motivation for line readings, but at least this time that was kind of the point.

Slow on developments, even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I’d say Wander meanders more than anything.  These kind of paranoid mysteries with layers of deception are the bread and butter that noir lovers feed off of but it’s been delivered as a paltry single slice cheese sandwich on day-old bread.  It’s not satisfying when you’re watching it and before it has pulled a second rug out from under you you’ve thought of a dozen other films that can outshine it in substance and sophistication of execution.

31 Days to Scare ~ Death of Me

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Available In Theatres, On Demand and Digital on 10/2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A vacationing couple must unravel the mystery behind a strange video that shows one of them killing the other.

Stars: Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth, Alex Essoe, Kat Ingkarat, Kelly B. Jones

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: My goodness, doesn’t the poster for Death of Me promise something just absolutely terrifying?  It’s one of those arresting images that instantly catches your eye and, like a juicy steak cooking on a grill that has made many a cartoon dog float across a yard in ecstasy once he gets a whiff, it’s meant to attract horror hounds who happily chow down on tasty treats such as this.  The trouble is, the poster is by far the best thing about this new frightener which squanders a perfect locale and good-looking cast in favor of a recycled plot, substandard scares, and a general lack of energy that does more to kill the mood than anything supernatural.

The last morning of a vacation is always rough but for married couple Neil and Christine it’s particularly head spinning.  Their room is a tangled mess, Christine (Maggie Q, Allegiant) is covered with some strange substance and Neil is disoriented to the point where he’s no help at all.  Scrambling to meet their ferry, they are unable to board without their passports which have gone missing.  Back at their vacation rental and backtracking their steps to find their missing documents, they begin to put the pieces back together and remember the night before.  Both eventually recall a strange encounter with a waitress at a local watering hole who gave Christine a drink and a charm she now wears around her neck.  That’s pretty much all they remember…so it’s a good thing Neil (Luke Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok, no, not that Hemsworth.  No, not that one…yes, that’s the one) has a lengthy video on his phone they can watch.

What they see on his phone can’t be true because it ends with Christine dead and buried six feet under the ground.  Yet, come to think of it, that might explain a lot about the state both were in when they woke up earlier that morning.  Shrugging off this impossibility quite quickly (not to mention the distressing suggestion Luke, y’know, murdered his wife and buried her and now doesn’t remember it) the make contact with their host (Alex Essoe, Homewrecker) who is friendly enough (or IS she?) and lets them stay on another day or so while they figure out what’s happening and why Christine can’t seem to take off her new necklace without looking….well, dead.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s transpiring and the script, credited to a whopping THREE screenwriters, eventually doesn’t bother with coherence as characters change motivations and nightmares become reality which are really dreams but wait are they real?  Everything seems to be made up as it goes along, which makes the whole thing feel flimsy.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman was behind the camera for three of the Saw films and also directed the twisted musical Repo! The Genetic Opera as well as one of the segments of the fun anthology Tales of Halloween but something is missing the execution here.  Much of it has to be attributed to the script which just isn’t that special and therefore creaks through the motions toward an ending that you’re likely able to suss out before the film is half over.  I also wish the leads had a bit more of an edge to them.  The least known Hemsworth brother, Luke is mostly cardboard and forgettable as is, regrettably, Maggie Q doing most of the heavy lifting as Christine.  Maggie Q is always someone I’m rooting for to be better than the material she’s given, to find a way to rise above it…but it just doesn’t stick.

I can see this one being a small diversion for folks looking for a well-produced horror film this Halloween season.  The Thailand setting is nice, even if it doesn’t paint the island or the locals in any kind of positive light, and when it does manage to drum up some suspense by instilling some gross-out gore, it’s handled with some measure of sick charm.  Still, we’re at the point where audiences know you can do a lot with a little if you have the right elements and Death of Me is lacking in several key areas to make it come alive.

Movie Review ~ The Silencing

Available In Theaters, On Demand and On Digital August 14, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A reformed hunter living in isolation on a wildlife sanctuary becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he and the local Sheriff set out to track a vicious killer who may have kidnapped his daughter years ago.

Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Annabelle Wallis, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Josh Cruddas, Zahn McClarnon, Melanie Scrofano, Shaun Smyth

Director: Robin Pront

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When talking about The Silencing I think it’s important to focus first and foremost on the good news of the situation.  While the new serial killer flick didn’t manage to make its debut at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin Texas this past March as intended, it is getting a nice release on demand and might stand a chance to do well for viewers in need of a quick thrill.  It also can’t be stressed enough that these middle of the road films harken back to a simpler time of B-movie filmmaking (we’re talking the late 70s through the mid-90s) when you could get one of these genre films every few weeks at your local cineplex.  In that respect, I say bring on more films of its kind and start making them soon – they fill a kind of Wednesday evening void that I need in my life.

Then there’s the other side of the coin where you have to step back and admit that a lot of The Silencing isn’t very good and aside from a strong lead performance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and a secondary character that might just be more interesting than the supposed star, it’s mostly forgettable.  Though it starts with some promise it will deliver on its premise of a fine mystery solved by ordinary people that act like human beings, it oddly shifts gears several times so that eventually you don’t know what direction the action is headed…and not in a good way.  So maybe I’d like to amend my earlier statement and say that I’d appreciate more movies like The Silencing…just not like The Silencing.

Haunted by the disappearance of his daughter five years ago, Rayburn Swanson (Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) has turned his large area of land into a wildlife sanctuary in her honor.  Though he continues to search for her by putting up fliers and combing local towns asking on her whereabouts, most of his small Minnesota town has accepted the hard reality of the situation.  Turning to his sanctuary and thoughts of preservation, he keeps an eye on video cameras set up within to ward off game hunters that come onto his property.  That’s how he spots a young girl being pursued by a figure in camouflage hunting her down with a Comanche weapon known for its deadly precision.

Intervening with the attack puts him in the middle of a murder investigation already in progress headed by Sheriff Alice Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle).  Bodies of girls have been found and in an election year, Gustafson is intent on catching the killer and restoring a reputation that has turned sour thanks to her troublemaking brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) who is always running afoul of the law and getting off with a slap on the wrist.  That doesn’t sit well with Blackhawk (Zahn McClarnon, Doctor Sleep) who represents the police for the Native American tribe of the area and has had to hand over Brooks one too many times.  Competing storylines are always tricky until they intersect because you know they’re going to overlap at somepoint…it’s just a matter of when.

How Rayburn and Alice eventually cross paths is where the film skips from developing nicely as a run of the mill standard suspense thriller to something much less pleasing and it’s a misstep screenwriter Micah Ranum never recovers from.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you but it’s such a achingly dumb error that you have to wonder if everyone involved thought what they were doing was an inspired bit of rug-pulling.  Not stopping there, Ranum upends some floorboards underneath the rug he pulls out from under audiences a little later on with another twist that makes no real sense which leads to a dénouement that mystery fans will have solved long before.  Try an experiment for me.  Watch the first twenty minutes of the movie.  Stop.  Think about everyone you’ve met.  Write down who you think “did it” and then continue on.  I’ll bet you get it right when the unmasking occurs shortly before the credits run.

Not for nothing but Coster-Waldau and even Wallis try to do what they can with these roles, with only Coster-Waldau having much luck convincing us he’s this broken shell of a man.  Wallis never sold me on her tough sheriff persona (or her American accent) and that robbed the character of some authority that was desperately needed.  Though he’s grown popular from the surprise hit After, Fiennes Tiffin is just a bundle of nerves and cuticle biting that grew tiresome.  The one to pay attention to is McClarnon as a wise deputy (and, coincidentally, Rayburn’s ex-wife’s new husband) who figures out something strange is going on and actually does something about it.  I’d be interested in seeing McClarnon get a starring vehicle in a similar vein as The Silencing and credit should be given to director Robin Pront for, if nothing else, this bit of solid casting.

That’s not to say The Silencing signifies nothing.  I applaud the effort to instill some Native American lore and information on primitive weaponry as well, it’s not often these details are included.  There are some well shot sequences and while any Minnesotan like me knows the scenery on display is in no way found in our state, the Canadian locales captured by cinematographer Manuel Dacosse are impressive.  Those in the mood for an easy thriller that doesn’t demand a lot of your attention and are OK with some sag in the middle (it’s about 12 minutes too long in my book) will likely find what they need out of The Silencing.  Me?  I needed a little more noise for it to strike the right chord.

Movie Review ~ The Shadow of Violence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.

Stars: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, Anthony Welsh, David Wilmot

Director: Nick Rowland

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Even though we’re in the midst of a national health crisis, household chores still need to be done just like movies need to be watched and reviewed.  So the other night, I knew I had The Shadow of Violence coming up in my queue to screen and thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do a little cleaning while I watched the film.  Now, when a movie is involved I’m not the kind of multi-tasker than can truly do two or three things at the same time…I’m more of a one and a half tasker-type so anything I pair with a movie has to be something that’s truly mindless.

Reading the description of The Shadow of Violence (previously titled and released in some international territories as the more interesting Calm with Horses, which is taken from the short story the movie is based on) I thought I’d be safe going about my movie and a half task.  After all, you’ve seen one quiet thug working for a dangerous family who turns out to be not so bad crime drama before, you’ve seen them all.  Right?  Well, in the case of this hard-nosed and surprisingly intriguing film from Ireland it shows there’s still room for effective storytelling within a genre that’s seemingly been played out.  It wasn’t too long into things that I found myself absorbed into the action, leaving all thoughts of my other work behind and intently watching director Nick Rowland’s unpredictable corker.

You’d be forgiven if you watched the first ten minutes of The Shadow of Violence and thought you’d found your way into yet another cliché-ridden film about small-time gangsters in an even smaller town.  Beefy brawler Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Annihilation) is the muscle the notorious Devers family uses when they want to send a message.  Haunted by a past he can’t change and living in a present he can’t fix, Arm goes through the motions as a means to an end in order to provide for his  developmentally challenged son and estranged girlfriend (Niamh Algar).  Struggling to be a good father that shows up for his son but lacking the maturity to deal with a child that needs his full attention, Arm takes his guilt out on whatever sad soul the Devers send him to rough up.

In service more as a henchman to Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer)  than to any one of his more fearsome elder relatives, we first meet Arm doing menial bloody knuckle work on those that have run afoul of the Devers good will.  Things turn dark though as Arm is drawn into a web of betrayals when he becomes part of a family dispute that sours quickly.  Forced into a life or death situation that winds up putting him in a moral dilemma, Arm makes a choice that has a ripple effect throughout the Devers family, the town, and his own home.  Now, having to navigate through a system of deceit while ensuring the safety of his family, Arm brings those he fears closer while trying (perhaps in vain) to shield everyone around him from a wrath waiting to be unleashed once he is discovered.

It’s nice to find movies like The Shadow of Violence which, despite their dime-a-dozen title, and less than inspiring tagline turn out to amount to far more than what you see on the surface.  Working from screenwriter Joseph Murtagh’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Rowland lets the film’s first act develop at a leisurely pace…almost too leisurely at times because with so many characters introduced you start to lose track of who is related to whom.  He snaps things back nice and taut, though, for the final half and delivers an unexpectedly rich examination of a bruised soul that sought redemption in the worst place possible who winds up finding some semblance of hope where it had been all along.

I had no trouble buying Keoghan as the unhinged enfant terrible of an already nasty family.  The actor’s tendency to oversell his intentions winds up working for him here and Dympna makes for an interesting quasi-villain you kinda can’t stop wanting to see more of.  Speaking of seeing more of, Algar’s performance as Arm’s fed-up significant other is gutsy and boldly memorable, a not easy task when sharing the screen with the likes of the scene-chewing Keoghan and the quiet magnitude of Jarvis.  It’s Jarvis that makes the movie work when all is said and done – you have to buy this thuggish bloke would have a brain and heart to go with his muscles and in scene after scene Jarvis keeps us rapt.

There’s a bleakness to the film that will be off-putting for some and I can understand not wanting to go to that place right now.  However, if you’re up for something that feels familiar but is handled with a fresh and feisty spirit, you’re going to want to find your way to The Shadow of Violence to meet the Devers familyIt’s a gritty visit to the Irish countryside that packs a nice punch.

Movie Review ~ We Summon the Darkness


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three best friends cross paths with sadistic killers after they travel to a secluded country home to party.

Stars: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Johnny Knoxville, Logan Miller, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Austin Swift

Director: Marc Meyers

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I find that more and more I’m an easy target for any movie that starts out saying it is set in the 1980s.  Maybe because it’s the decade I was born and started to gain some consciousness (movie consciousness came in the 1990s, though) but there’s something so fun and carefree about the 80s that lends itself well to a retro bit of cinema.  For comedies, it’s a slam dunk to set your film in the Carter or Reagan era of our timeline but for the horror genre it’s especially wild because you’ve then freed yourself from the technical advances of future decades that make being stranded at a remote location that much more easy to navigate out of.

I hadn’t known We Summon the Darkness was set in 1988 before I started it on early Sunday morning so it already began on a high note.  In all honesty, I went into this one as blind as possible and knew nothing save for the synopsis that you can read for yourself above.  That’s really the best way to go into this because it has a twist that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling and it’s revealed pretty early into the feature.  Genre aficionados will probably spot it before the characters onscreen do but it’s a tribute to writer Alan Trezza and director Marc Meyers that they are able to keep things under wraps as long as they are able to.

Girlfriends Alexis (Alexandra Daddario, Texas Chainsaw 3D), Val (Maddie Hasson, Novitiate), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth, Beautiful Boy) have hit the road for a trip to a local concert.  Stopping at a gas station for some refreshments they’re alerted to a rash of cult killings of teenagers that have been plaguing the area so the audience knows they have been fairly warned for whatever happens next.  At the death metal concert they buddy up with Mark (Keean Johnson, Alita: Battle Angel), Kovacs (Logan Miller, Love, Simon), and Ivan (Austin Swift, Live by Night) and they all agree to go back to Alexis’ parents’ home after to continue the party.  At the sprawling manse that is appropriately cut-off from anyone that could interfere, the six will go through a night of hell…but it’s not totally what you think.

The previews for We Summon the Darkness have given away some of the major twists and that’s unfortunate because going into the film without that knowledge made the lead up an enjoyable bit of suspense and misdirection.  Being robbed of that would, I think, dampen the entertainment value so it’s up to you if you want to have that experience cooled a bit – I think you should just go headfirst into the bloody nightmare Trezza and Meyers have cooked up because it’s not only a lot of fun but it’s fairly funny as well.

As is the case with many of these types of horror films that are laced with comedy, the laughs start to grow old about as fast as the blood dries on the victims and it wouldn’t be fair to let the filmmakers off the hook and say the movie is smooth sailing.  While there’s little spared in terms of blood, gore, and guts, the humor starts to get repetitive and grating around the 70 minute mark and that’s just about the time Johnny Knoxville (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) turns up as Daddario’s Bible-thumping televangelist preacher papa.  Knoxville’s presence is not needed here as the younger actors are holding things down just fine (Hasson and Forsyth are both standouts) but he’s given a longer leash that required and he drags the taste level down a bit.  Thankfully, it recovers nicely for a decent finale which pulls no punches.

Add We Summon the Darkness to the growing list of watchable horror films that are harmless distractions during this quarantine.  I’m not sure we’d be as forgiving if there was an abundance of other films in theaters to watch…but then again we likely wouldn’t be devoting much attention to smaller movies like this in the first place.  So, in that regard, I’m glad indie horror films like We Summon the Darkness are getting viewed at all.  Meyers and his team are clearly talented and know their way around the genre, with some editing of the script it could have been even better.

Movie Review ~ Vivarium

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hoping to find the perfect place to live, a couple travel to a suburban neighborhood in which all the houses look identical. But when they try to leave the labyrinth-like development, each road mysteriously takes them back to where they started.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, Eanna Hardwicke, Senan Jennings

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There’s a great show on Netflix that I’m sure you’ve heard of: Black Mirror.  It’s a nice little analysis of the dark side of advances in technology and while the creators have found interesting ways to drop slight ways that episodes are tied together, they are by and large stand alone tales that are often disturbing and eerily prescient.  Watching the overlong and overstated Vivarium, I kept thinking back to the efficient way that Black Mirror (or even old shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits) were able to condense their thoughts and ideas into a concise statement rather than ramble on with little to say above and beyond their logline.  I get a sense that writer/director Lorcan Finnegan and his co-writer Garret Shanley had a good nugget for an episode of a TV show here but unwisely were advised to expand on it and make it feature-length.  The result is a film that begins intriguing but quickly turns tedious.

Young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots, Green Room) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour) are looking to buy their first house together and have heard about a new development nearby that might be good to get an early jump on.  A robotic but benign salesperson (Jonathan Aris, All the Money in the World) lists the benefits of the manufactured community but feels it’s better just to show them around the neighborhood instead so they follow him, not paying any real attention to where they are headed.  When the salesperson disappears halfway through the tour and they can’t seem to find their way back to the main road, they are forced to spend the night in the model home…the first of many, it turns out.  Unable to leave the neighborhood and eventually trapped within their own hell house, the couple tries to escape by any and all means necessary.

At 97 minutes, Finnegan and Shanley only have so much room (and characters) to throw at audiences and sadly the usually reliable Poots can’t shoulder the entire movie on her own.  Eisenberg is his typical low-key milquetoast, prone to fits of anger when provoked but mostly an uninteresting presence.  So it falls to Poots to keep us tuned in and there’s just not enough going on in the neighborhood to make us want to stick around.  If it were only 45-50 minutes, I could see this being a tighter and more engaging watch that wouldn’t allow us time to check out watches.  Add in the appearance of a character prone to a deafening primal screech when they don’t get their way and you have the recipe for a movie that gets its eviction notice long before the credits roll.

Movie Review ~ The Night Clerk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray

Director: Michael Cristofer

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit.  At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest.  I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right?  Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel.  Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.

I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top.  I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge.  Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.

Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways.  Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think.  Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears.  While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.

Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors.  He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide.  Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others.  Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?

Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives.  As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make.  The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons.  Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch.  It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés.  He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.

Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once.  I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it.  Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully.  Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.