Movie Review ~ The Artifice Girl

The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of special agents discovers a revolutionary new computer program to bait and trap online predators. After teaming up with the program’s troubled developer, they soon find that the AI is rapidly advancing beyond its original purpose.
Stars: Tatum Matthews, David Girard, Sinda Nichols, Franklin Ritch, Lance Henriksen
Director: Franklin Ritch
Rated: NR
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It took a while to get here, but we’re all on a rickety rollercoaster that has chugged up a long mountain and sits at the top of a perilous drop.  Crane your neck to look behind, and you see a past littered with used-up pencils, pens, typewriters, word processors, and clunky laptops.  Dare to peek over the edge, and you may glimpse the shiny gleam of the future with cutting-edge technology-producing bot scribes that could do much of the writing we’re all doing now.  Just as evolution in industry has put the factory workers of yesterday out of work and looking for new jobs, so have advances in the tech realm started to suggest that computer button pushers and bloggers better watch their backs, too.

That’s one reason why a film like The Artifice Girl could be classified as a true futuristic horror film if you were so inclined, though it works just fine as the (s)low-boil drama it is.  Not as mysterious or thrilling as you may be led to believe, it’s nonetheless remarkably on trend and will curl its uncomforting grip around you for 90 well-made minutes.  On the surface, it’s a film about a power triangle between a creator, creation, and an entity wanting to control them both.  Dig deeper, and you’ll see that it’s speaking to how we treat humans no better than the gadgets we regard as commodities that serve only our needs.

Gareth (writer/director Franklin Ritch) has been brought in for questioning by Deena (Sindra Nichols) and Amos (David Girard) to determine the level of his involvement with Cherry (Tatum Matthews), a nine-year-old girl used to lure in online predators.  Initially, they present themselves as concerned over the well-being of the young girl, but the longer they question Gareth, the harder it is for him to conceal the truth he has been hiding.  Cherry isn’t real at all, but an advanced form of AI he has created.  A fully realized program that can infiltrate nefarious corners of the darkest parts of the web without endangering (or scarring) a real child, Cherry has been designed to be nimble, forthright, and logical.  That makes her (and Gareth) incredibly valuable to the work Deena and Amos are doing about protection in a rapidly changing online environment. 

Ritch divides his film into three segments, and while I won’t spoil how the next two build upon this first meeting, I will say that it demonstrates a skilled trust in the audience to go along with a ride that isn’t in any hurry to get to its point.  That turns out to be just fine because even if Ritch’s dialogue is occasionally ponderingly rinky-dink and can come off as talking down to the viewer (at one point, Gareth refers to Cherry as A.I. and Amos responds, “Oh, Artificial Intelligence.”), it’s delivered with deep conviction by a solid company.  Especially good is Nichols as a character that gets more complicated/complex the further we get to know her and Matthews, who produces admirable nuance even though you mostly see her from the shoulders up on a screen.

I liked that Ritch attempts to bring some emotional ties to The Artifice Girl, giving a late-appearing Lance Henriksen (Color of Night) some interesting strings to tie off.  For a small indie like this, which obviously was filmed quickly and on several of the same sets redressed to look like different locations, it looks much nicer than similar projects with quadruple the budget.  It does leave you with a pointed message about where our future technology is likely heading but no real answers on what to do while we wait.  I could easily see this being a nice word-of-mouth hit, that one film you hear enough about that you’re compelled to watch after enough friends tell you they liked it.  Don’t wait; give it a chance now.

THE ARTIFICE GIRL is now in Theaters, On Demand and Digital

Movie Review ~ Gatlopp: Hell of a Game

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of old friends reunites for a nostalgic evening of fun and games after a decade apart. After one too many, they decide to play a drinking game, but it’s quickly revealed that this game comes with supernatural stakes.
Stars: Jim Mahoney, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jon Bass, Sarunas J. Jackson, Shelley Hennig
Director: Alberto Belli
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Blessed are the films that are sold on name recognition alone. If you are arriving in theaters boasting a recognizable title that audiences are not just familiar with but anticipating, most of the work has already been done for you. All others need to labor at snagging the eyes of the crowd over their way by coming up with something creative, and it’s oh so very hard for movies like Gatlopp: Hell of a Game. I think the filmmakers will face a severe uphill battle with getting people to give this comedic twist on the supernatural gameboard movie based solely on that title. The pleasant news is that if they get enough viewers to give it a shot, good word of mouth could propel this nicely done, short/smart/sweet flick forward into greater notoriety.

At 80 minutes (including a lengthy credit sequence with a slow crawl and lots of backers to thank), there isn’t much time to spend with set-up, so we go almost directly into those handsome titles leading into the introduction of four friends toiling through their lives in California, none of them meeting their potential. Actor Troy (Sarunas J. Jackson, Chi-Raq) hasn’t found that big break, and entertainment executive Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Blacklight) hasn’t done much to help her friend. They join their stoner friend Cliff (Jon Bass, Molly’s Game) to console Paul (writer Jim Mahoney, Klaus, yes the animated charmer on Netflix), still reeling from a divorce.

Finding the kitschy board game Gatlopp in an acquired piece of furniture, Cliff convinces his friends to play it, but with one roll of the dice, they learn this is no ordinary game. With questions designed to reveal deep secrets oddly specific to them and tasks leading to quirky consequences that only get more tenuous as the night goes on, the four friends realize they are playing for their lives. The more they reveal and are honest with each other, the further into the game they go…but how far will their friendship last before it breaks apart?

For a movie curated within a pandemic production schedule, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game makes the most of its four leads, all of whom could easily have drifted into the obnoxious territory. Usually, the stoner character is the first one I’d like to see exit stage left, but Bass makes Cliff an endearing soul, and he works with the other three to convincingly bring their friendship to life. The lone female, Raver-Lampman, has seemed right on the verge of stardom for some time and her showing here only demonstrates again that it will be any day now that she breaks big. As the writer, Mahoney is a bit more invested in the character development of Paul. While the character gets adequate time to grow, it would have been nice to see more energy put into fleshing out Troy as better than just another wannabe actor. Not that Jackson doesn’t give it a go.

Director Alberto Belli keeps the action moving at a good pace (remember, we’re dealing with a movie that has roughly 70 minutes of material) and takes the pauses at the right time. It’s never going to be in the big leagues due to budget constraints, but in a way, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game benefits from the smaller production under which it was filmed. I could easily see future installments of the movie as the game travels around to different groups, but for its initial outing in Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, it’s an enjoyable bit of gameplay.

Movie Review ~ Dual

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second.  I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500.  What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame.  It’s the same way for movies.  No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.

We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns.  The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release.  That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction.  Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods. 

That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison.  The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment.  Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite.  Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is.  Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.

The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see.  One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know.  Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip. 

When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect.  You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall.  By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks.  As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.

This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death.  Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.

There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter.  Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down.  Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another.  Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack.  As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion.  Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.

Movie Review ~ Ghosts of the Ozarks

The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Arkansas, a young doctor is mysteriously summoned to a remote town in the Ozarks only to discover that the utopian paradise is filled with secrets and surrounded by a menacing, supernatural presence.

Stars: Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris, Tara Perry, Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis, David Arquette

Director: Matt Glass & Jordan Wayne Long

Rated:  NR

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’ve been through enough road trips across these glorious United States to wind up at some national monument or weird attraction that will always share one common thing. The “short introductory video.” You all know exactly what video I’m talking about. It’s the inevitable film, ranging anywhere from five (if you’re lucky) to thirty (always if you’re running late for somewhere else) that bars your way from moving forward into the main event you’ve already paid good money to see. Often produced before the tour guide was born, these are mini-masterpieces of balmy production quality, ripe acting, and directly stated dialogue that has precious little time for any subtext. When visiting Mt. Rushmore, the rickety film that greets you has surveyors arriving at the site, pointing up, and exclaiming, “We’ll build it…THERE!”  Subtle.

Memories of summers spent on vacations with my family seeing the country were stirred by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s new film Ghosts of the Ozarks. That’s mainly because the look and feel of the film comes off like a lengthier version of one of these educational movies that get replayed every twenty minutes on a loop at the base of natural forming cave systems from California to Maine. Improperly being marketed as a horror/thriller but containing little of either element in its overindulgent runtime, it takes forever to get going and, even then, only sparks to life in small bursts of energy. This keeps one thankful for those players who manage to make something out of the screenplay from Long and third-billed Tara Perry.

Summoned by his uncle to the fledgling but remote town of Norfolk deep in the heart of the Ozarks, James (Thomas Hobson) hasn’t even made it to the outskirts before he encounters an unfriendly presence. A no-goodnik makes a play for his supplies but is usurped by the red plumes of smoke we come to learn signal the presence of dangerous predators lurking in the woods surrounding the walled compound. When he does make it town, he finds a simple community working on getting off the ground and putting aside any racial differences (James and his uncle are both Black) to be unified. The longer he stays in town and learns their customs, the more James realizes that not all is what it seems, and the lies that have been covered up as truths are coming back to haunt them all.

Had the film found more focus, I think the filmmakers behind Ghosts of the Ozarks might have capitalized better on the resources they had at their disposal. While it has an obvious digital look that can’t be avoided due to its high-definition rendering, the sets and costumes speak to a production design with enough creative energy to bring the viewer capably back to this period. The performances aren’t too bad, either. Though he’s laboring under a script that makes him far more inert than I think his character would have been, Hobson uses his arc to create an actual person gradually uncovering sad truths about those close to him. He and Phil Morris (Jingle All the Way) share several nice scenes, especially near the end when the action finally starts matching the advertising. Being a co-writer often results in reserving the extra juicy moments for yourself. Still, Perry is generous in doling out the emotional ups and downs, making room for more prominent names like Tim Blake Nelson (Nightmare Alley), Angela Bettis (Bless the Child), and even a typically weird David Arquette (You Cannot Kill David Arquette) to slide in and steal some scenes.

Never quite deciding what it fully wants to be, Ghosts of the Ozarks winds up being a head-scratcher for all the wrong reasons. Did I like the film? Not exactly. In the same breath, I’ll tell you it isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination either. To say I wasn’t moved by it might be the worst thing I could report back, though Glass (who, like many involved with the film, wore multiple hats in the productions) composed a song for the film and replayed in the end credits that’s been stuck in my head ever since I saw it. Now that’s something I can’t say any of those road trip ranger station videos ever did for me.

Movie Review ~ The Deep House


The Facts:

Synopsis: While diving in a remote French lake, a couple of YouTubers who specialize in underwater exploration videos discover a house submerged in the deep waters. What was initially a unique finding soon turns into a nightmare when they discover that the house was the scene of atrocious crimes…and they are not alone.

Stars: James Jagger, Camille Rowe, Eric Savin, Carolina Massey

Directors: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I’ve been swimming since I was six months old and am a heckuva good snorkeler, I’ve never learned to fully scuba dive and I think it’s partly because I want to have an excuse for never going too deep.  As much as I love the beauty and the mystery of large bodies of water, I also have a secret nervousness not just what lies beneath the surface but what sits at the bottom and it’s movies like The Deep House that only confirm that I have a right to be worried.  Obviously, it’s a work of Euro-niche horror fiction but there’s elements to its cleverly creepy premise that are absolutely true to life.  If you weren’t scared of what could greet you under an idyllic lake before you watched this, you’ll be sticking to the shallow end after.

A rather pointless pre-credit opening introduces us to engaged video bloggers Ben (James Jagger, Sound of Violence, son of Mick and Jerry Hall) and Tina (Camille Rowe) as they explore an abandoned hospital said to be haunted.  It’s an odd waste of time for writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the duo behind the recent Leatherface) to stumble with so early on, perhaps there was an editing mishap for time, but at least it gets a non-pay off out of the way before the title appears.  Soon, we’re along for the ride with the couple in France as they head to a lake created after a town was purposely flooded.  Hoping to explore the submerged buildings that wait below, they are disappointed to see it is a popular tourist destination – not exactly the place that will get a lot of hits on YouTube.

Here’s one way the film unfortunately dates itself, and continues to do so throughout, by mentioning the streaming video service as the place Tina and Ben are hoping to break big on.  Wanting to monetize their first-person investigative videos venturing into unknown spaces, Ben is constantly dropping lines like “This will get a lot of clicks” or remarking on how many views or subscribers their creation will generate.  Will something like that even track in five, ten years?  Now that anyone can be Internet-famous, the bar has been raised (lowered?) to go big to get the most attention so when Ben hears from a local that in another part of the lake that’s not open to tourists there is a house perfectly preserved and unexplored he jumps at the chance, much to the tentative Tina’s wariness.

We’ve already gotten the idea that Tina wasn’t keen on diving to begin with and was relieved to have dodged the original underwater shoot, so this new and potentially more dangerous discovery is a major stressor.  Not wanting to show too much fear, she soldiers on, and accompanied by a drone that will serve to capture additional footage as well as act as a kind of canary in a coal mine, they descend.  The house is as promised, intact and undamaged by the lake waters.  In fact, it’s almost too pristine.  For a structure that’s been in this environment as long as it has, it should be more rusted, corroded, eroded, etc. but there’s a curious lack of degeneration to the manse and all the items within.  That’s creepy enough…and then they open the wrong door.

We’ll stop right there and leave the rest of the movie for you to uncover on your own.  At an efficient 81 minutes, Bustillo and Maury get to the goods within the first twenty minutes and keep us underwater for nearly an hour without any reprieve.  The sustained level of tension is laudable, as are a number of very frightening sequences as the couple gets to know the house better.  I feel it’s only fair to come clean and also say there’s an unexpected scare early on that sent me jumping so far out of my chair I wound up like attached to the ceiling like a cat.  It’s simple, but brilliant.  Perhaps it was the late-night watch, but it got me like few films have in any type of recent memory. 

There’s a lot of good shocks to be had in The Deep House, making it one of those fun watches where you get rattled and then have that nervous titter after, laughing at yourself for jumping so easily.  Yet it’s a sign of skilled filmmaking and not just mere loud noise jump scares that keep you on the edge of your seat, breathlessly watching the helpless couple struggle with an unfamiliar location and an increasingly bad situation.  It gets more than a little messy as it ramps up to the end and that’s disappointing because it almost makes it through without major missteps. Substituting confusing camera work when additional plot would have helped, Bustillo and Maury could have given the movie a few extra minutes and fleshed out some of the narrative they’ve introduced quite creepily. For me these unwieldly moments weren’t enough for me to write it off completely.  There’s still a solid horror film present, one that wins out with its nifty practical effects and The Deep House is built on sound scares and reinforced with entertaining execution.

Movie Review ~ Initiation


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 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 ~ You Don’t Nomi

The Facts

Synopsis: Showgirls was met by critics and audiences with near universal derision and this documentary traces the film’s redemptive journey from notorious flop to cult classic, and maybe even masterpiece.

Stars: Elizabeth Berkley, Joe Eszterhas, Gina Gershon, Joshua Grannell, April Kidwell, Kyle MacLachlan, Haley Mlotek, Adam Nayman, David Schmader, Paul Verhoeven

Director: Jeffrey McHale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Arriving with a storm of controversy and the dreaded NC-17 rating, Showgirls was released in theaters across the country on Friday, September 22 1995. That was 25 years ago now but I remember exactly the new movie I saw in cinemas that opening weekend: Seven.  That’s right, The MN Movie Man was underage so he could see Seven with his dad (who let me see a whole bunch of movies I shouldn’t have) but wasn’t old enough to catch the movie he really had his eye on.  Oh, it killed me not to be able to know what was going on inside Screen 4 at the Edina Theater when I was right next door seeing Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman hunt down a devious serial killer.

Alas, my exposure to Showgirls came later on VHS when I was allowed (again, yay permissive parents) to see it after much negotiating.  To say it met all expectations was an understatement and over the last two decades I’ve been an ardent support of its merits.  Sure, it’s camp and trashy but it’s essential viewing at the same time – and aside from a gruesome scene of sexual violence near the end, a fairly entertaining watch, too.  Thrashed by critics and bombing out at the box office, Showgirls seemed destined to go down as another turkey, a trivia factoid game shows would use as a 400-dollar question.  Yet its home video release caught fire and once its creators began to embrace its ridiculousness, the studio leaned into the growing popularity and the movie earned back its budget (and more) after the fact.

In the new documentary You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale cleverly examines Showgirls, using fans, critics, archival interviews with the stars, and the career of its director Paul Verhoeven to show how the film has rose from the ashes.  Evolving from a disaster no one wanted to talk about to a calling card of pride, you can’t change the cold fact the film is problematic from the jump and struggles with its own identity throughout but in hindsight…was it really THAT bad?  Aside from just talking about it’s place in halls of camp cinema (which the soon to be released Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time: Volume 3 Comedy and Camp does quite nicely) this is a slightly more serious take on a film you can hardly ever take seriously.

It would be easy just to chart the creation of Showgirls from the beginning, when top Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas decided to put his own spin on the big MGM musicals that had gone out of fashion.  However, anyone watching this documentary likely is coming to it with some working knowledge of the film and doesn’t need this refresher course in specific detail.  Instead, McHale weaves in this origin story alongside Verhoeven’s ascent from Oscar-nominated filmmaking in the Netherlands to infamous director of provocative properties in tinsel town.  This helps form a picture of Verhoeven’s more European approach to sex and violence in his films and how it influenced numerous aspects of Showgirls.

The production of the film is covered as are the critical reactions and original box office run that left star Elizabeth Berkley as the unfortunate scapegoat.  Where the doc gets really interesting is anytime it’s exploring the after effects of Showgirls and how it has had an impact, positive and negative, on people’s lives.  There’s Berkley, whose movie career was ended before it ever began, given a small but overdue reprieve at a 20th anniversary celebration of the film.  In the same segment, we meet the performer that spearheaded the Showgirls musical, a popular stage show who entered into the production as a way to reclaim power after a personal setback.  These moments (a deep dive cinematographic breakdown of a scene between Berkley and Gina Gershon is revelatory and fun) and more aren’t just straws grasped at to illustrate why the movie is relevant…they’re engaging examples of how the film has come to justly earn its cult status.

For a movie that’s chock full of sex and nudity, Showgirls is widely regarded as one of the least sexy movies ever and it’s hard to argue with that.  Still, in the same breath you also can’t say it’s not well made or incorrectly put together.  In a most respectful way, You Don’t Nomi invites us to take another look at the film and see it for more than just its sordid history, restricted rating, and critical consensus.

Movie Review ~ Vivarium


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 ~ Color Out of Space


The Facts

Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.