GetAWAY


That’s the way to get ahead in the movie business.

(2020) Horror (GravitasEmma Norville, Danielle Carrozza, Kyle Mangold, Franchesca Contreras, Joshua Cody, Michael Recchia, Jon Rust, Kristel Rachocki, Abigail Haggerty, Kira Jackson, Trevor Stevie Ray Ontiveros, Cherish McCormick, Joseph P. Durbin, Hank Stone, Jacob Yard, Marissa Chaffee, A.J. Cabbagestalk, Connor McLean, Stanley Payne, Ali Dougherty.  Directed by Blayne Weaver

 

It is often said (because it is absolutely true) that making movies is a collaborative effort. When everything goes smoothly, you can tell in the final product that it did. When things are more chaotic, well….

Student would-be actress Maddie (Norville) is still reeling from the break-up with her now ex-boyfriend Noah (Cody) and her bestie Harlowe (Contreras) suggests she accompany a student film company heading into the mountains at a deserted summer camp to shoot a horror movie. For one thing, it would get her some valuable film credit; for another, it would get her out of town, out of her dorm room and give her the opportunity to forget her troubles with a whole lot of drinking and flirting. Unfortunately, nobody told Noah who is also bringing along his new girlfriend Kayla (Carrozza) along for the same getaway. You just know that isn’t going to turn out well.

You don’t know the half of it. You see, unbeknownst to the clueless students, there’s another movie being filmed in the same location shoot. And this one’s a snuff film – in fact, their suddenly missing professor (McCormick) has already done a cameo. And the really fun part? They’re all tapped to be the stars.

College students fornicating, drinking, and doing drugs in a remote location with no cell service. Sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, no? Yes. And there is nothing that’s particularly memorable here compared to any one of a dozen slasher films set at Camp Crystal Lake, Sleepaway Camp or Cheerleader Camp. That isn’t to say that Weaver, who also wrote the script, wasn’t trying to at least be a little bit different, but let’s face it; the script had been sitting, forgotten, in his desk for more than a decade. He did do a polish on it, but it still feels a little dated and I don’t mean ten years – it feels like something you might have seen in 1983. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for younger viewers who ight not have seen a lot of movies from that era, but those of us who cut our teeth on slasher films from that era might find this disturbingly familiar.

Weaver, who utilizes a lot of cast and crew from the University that he teaches at, at least captures the feel of a student film, but that’s a double-edged sword. We end up with a spineless director, a tightly-wound producer and a cameraman who’s more interested in getting high than getting the shot. And all of them talking like they’re making the next iteration of Battleship Potemkin while they’re at it.

I can’t really say that this is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It just isn’t particularly memorable. The trouble with slasher films is that there’s only so many ways that you can kill somebody without making it look ludicrous or like a self-parody. If you really dig slasher films and you’re looking for some, ahem, new blood, well, here’s a whole mess of it. For those who like their horror films a little bit more inventive, there are other movies out there that would serve them better than this one.

NB: This shouldn’t be confused with Getaway, another 2020 horror film but this one starring Scout Taylor-Compton.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a certain amount of satisfaction watching these bickering ninnies get 86ed.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unremarkable, standard slasher movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, vioilence and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver was director-in-residence at Shenandoah University at the time of filming; most of the cast were students at the University.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tiger Within

Paint


Art for art’s sake.

(2020) Comedy (GravitasJosh Caras, Olivia Luccardi, Paul Cooper, Comfort Clinton, Amy Hargreaves, François Arnaud, Vince Nappo, Kaliswa Brewster, Daniel Bellomy, Lizzy DeClement, Phil Burke, Austin Pendleton, Kate Stone, Victor Verhaeghe, Emrhys Cooper, Stella Kammel, John Wolfman, Roger Netzer, Nick Neon, Anthony Edward Curry, Jon Valde. Directed by Michael Walker

 

I don’t know if any of you have ever met an art school graduate. My sister went to Cal Arts so I knew quite a few. Most of them were people just like thee and me, with a particular talent for creativity and artistic technique. A handful of them were pretentious blowhards who thought they could take a crap on a piece of canvas and it would be amazingly insightful.

The latter is the sort that inhabits the latest from New York indie filmmaker Michael Walker. Three mostly-affluent graduates from art school – frustrated Dan (Caras), his best friend Quinn (Cooper), a photographer who lives in his own studio; and lovely Kelsey (Luccardi) who works menial jobs while trying to find herself as an artist.

Dan is frustrated at the hoops he has to jump through to break through the high-falutin’ New York arts scene. His distracted father (Verhaeghe) encourages his son’s chosen career, introducing him to gallery owners and scene makers who tell Dan that his art “isn’t dark enough.” So, he does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – he asks his mom (Hargreaves) to pose nude for him.

She is understandably reluctant, but Dan sidesteps the obviously creepy Oedipal overtones by suggesting that Quinn take nude pictures of mommy dearest and Dan will paint based on these. Mom consents to this, but as it turns out, the session gets out of hand and one thing leads to another….

Speaking of inappropriate relationships, Kelsey has sex with an important painter three times her age who is currently homeless, who promptly takes one of her paintings that is heavily influenced by his own work and sells it as his own. So she does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – she blackmails the art gallery owner (Arnaud) to take on her career as a manager.

In the meantime, Dan finds out about what happened with Quinn and his mom, which doesn’t sit well with him at all, although he himself is having an affair with a married woman (Clinton). The three friends are forced to re-evaluate their values and their preconceptions about who they really are.

Walker, who also wrote the film, has a good ear for dialogue and that might just be the most distinctive thing about the film. It’s a shame that the characters speaking those lines are for the most part, pretentious self-absorbed twats. I get the sense that Parker was poking a hole in the façade of the New York art scene, which elevates the above-mentioned traits to god-like heights, but the humor here is more in the deranged nature of the situations. At one point, you wonder if actual human beings would do the things that the characters are doing in the movie. I would like to say they wouldn’t, although given that this is 2020, I may be overly generous with my assessment of human beings.

After a year in which it has become readily apparent that Americans have a self-serving streak wider than any river and a tribal identification taller than any mountain, I suppose my tolerance for spending time with characters I find no common morality with is pretty low. If you are in the same boat that I’m in, you might have the same reaction. But if your threshold for arseholes is relatively high, you might find this entertaining particularly if you enjoy the skewering of pretentious art snobs.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious and preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a 2018 short of the same name  featuring the same characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Velvet Buzzsaw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
GetAWAY

The Mark of the Bell Witch


There are some darknesses even candles won’t light.

(2020) Documentary (Small Town Monsters) Brandon Barker, Timothy Henson, Forrest Burgess, Heather Moser, John Baker Jr., Beau Adams, Pat Fitzhugh, Dewey Edwards, Brenda Moser, Tyler Estep, Lauren Ashley Carter (narration), Cara Tobitt, Kayethel Dickerson, Thomas Koosed, Amy Davies, Aaron Gascon, Grayden Nance, Adrienne Breedlove. Directed by Seth Breedlove

 

Adams, Tennessee, was a rural village on the western frontier of the newly minted United States in 1817. Those who lived there worked the land and had few amenities. The Bell family, led by patriarch John Bell Sr. (Koosed) were a little bit better off than most, but that wasn’t saying much.

Their farm became an epicenter for a supernatural event that remains to this day the local equivalent of such famous American supernatural presences as the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, Bloody Mary and the Amityville Horror. It started off as loud knocking sounds in the middle of the night, followed by attacks on daughter Betsy (Davies) – first having her blanket yanked off of her at night, then having her face slapped by an unseen entity.

Finally, the entity began to communicate with the family, calling herself Kate and announcing her intention to murder the family patriarch. She had conversations with visitors who independently verified the family’s story – among them Tennessee’s favorite son at the time, future president Andrew Jackson who was then the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The story ended with the premature death of John Bell Sr.

This documentary examines the story of the Bell Witch – the term “witch” referred to spirits of any sort; we would today call it the “Bell Ghost” – through re-enactments of the events described by the Bell family, through analysis by local historians, folklorists and paranormal experts and other assorted talking heads. A lot of information is revealed here, from the common conclusion that the spirit may have been the ghost of Kate Batts, an older woman who had a conflict with the elder Bell when she died, to the role of the Great Awakening spiritualism might have had on the events of the haunting.

The results are remarkably informative and a testament to the power of folklore and how it can take on a life of its own. We are seeing that in modern times with creepypasta tales of Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Ben Drowned and other entities that have become cultural phenomena; while it is too early to determine how those types of stories will eventually become part of the American fabric, certainly decades from now there is no doubt that those sorts of stories will become part of local or national consciousness. I would have liked to have seen this comparison addressed as it might have made the point more relatable to younger audiences, but that’s just me.

The recreations, filmed in black and white, are generally pretty creepy for the most part, although Breedlove from time to time tries a little too hard to be atmospheric and ends up making the vibe a little bit forced; a little more subtlety would have gone a long way. However, what he does get right is that he doesn’t take sides in the debate of whether this happened or not; he simply presents the information and leaves it to the viewer to decide what to believe.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to make a spooky atmosphere (and doesn’t always succeed).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The property where the events of the haunting took place is now a tourist attraction in Adams, Tennessee. While the original cabin in which the Bells lived has been torn down, a recreation of the cabin has been rebuilt elsewhere on the site; artifacts of the original inhabitants are also on display at the attraction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Paint

Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story


Eighties flashback alert.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassDominique Swain, Cody Renee Cameron, Serena Maffucci, Moxie Owens, Leah Ann Cevoli, Psalms Salazar, Elizabeth Lamboy-Wilson, Emily Cheree, Christina Veronica, Thomas Haley, Mark Schaefer, Ryan Vincent, Natalie Fabrizio, Abby Latip, Leah Schaefer, Misha Suvorov, James Seaman, Corey Shane Love, Michelle Maylene. Directed by Robin Bain

 

There is a question that bedevils those that want to bring to the screen a portrayal of social ills, like sex trafficking; how do you bring that to the screen to decry exploitation without being exploitative yourself? It’s an extremely fine line and many well-meaning filmmakers are unsuccessful at navigating it.

The movie – a sequel to a 2016 movie in which the director starred – follows the stories of Hope (Owens) and Baby Girl (Salazar), the former a starry-eyed teen looking to escape an intolerable small town life with the promise of the glamor of being a model and actress, the latter a single mother with few options to feed, shelter and clothe her daughter. They are both enticed into the world of prostitution by Paige (Cameron) – Hope’s childhood babysitter – and Paige’s girlfriend Destiny (Maffucci), who are both out to make as much money as possible so that they can maintain a party hearty lifestyle.

While the exploiters turn a blind eye to the realities of the situation, the exploited deal with the psychological and physical fall-out of their profession (and not their chosen profession), falling into a spiral that they cannot escape from without outside intervention. It is the sad reality that a large number of young women have found themselves trapped in all over the globe.

Those who see prostitution as a victimless crime might come away with a different impression after seeing this. Certainly, there are some women who enter the game with both eyes wide open, and enter the trade with a plan to get out once they’ve made enough money and in fact choose to become sex workers. For many others, it is the only way out of desperation, or at least they have been convinced, either by others or themselves, of that idea. I remember a friend of mine in college who told me that if she flunked out of school (which she was in danger of doing at the time) that she would have no other choice but to become a hooker, because she had no other skills or work experience. Fortunately, she managed to stay in school. Not everyone is so fortunate, whether because of economics or other situations – not the least of which is drug addiction, which is an expensive proposition.

The question I asked earlier about walking the fine line is very applicable here because, in my opinion, Bain isn’t totally successful at walking the line between exploitation and drama. The ratio of sex acts to fall-out is probably higher than it should be; I get the commercial necessity of titillation in order to draw in an audience in order to get one’s message across, but that message is diluted by the erotic content in this case. It is further diluted by turning the story into a soap opera-esque miasma that is heavy on the suds and light on character development. It doesn’t help that the dialogue and acting are about at the level of a Cinemax late night skin flick.

That’s a shame because I think that the intentions of Bain are honorable. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is out to call attention to a situation that year after year, continues to be ignored by society in general while the lives of hundreds of young women are destroyed, often ending in drug overdoses, murder or suicide. Happy endings, for these women, are exceedingly rare.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who loved lurid 80s softcore teen hooker porn.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes what could be a serious subject and turns it into a turgid soap opera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of sexuality, some nudity and drug use, as well as plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angel
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mark of the Bell Witch

Max Cloud


A Max Cloud family Christmas portrait.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAIsabelle Allen, Scott Adkins, John Hannah, Lashana Lynch, Eliot James Langridge, Franz Drameh, Sally Collett, Jason Maza, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Hazeldine, Andi Osho, Shirin Daryale, Martyn Ford, Finley Pearson, Geraldine Sharrock, Craig Lambert, Nigel Black, Ruth Horrocks, Lois-Amber Toole.  Directed by Martin Owen

 

There is something innocent about old-time 16-bit videogames. Maybe because we were so much younger when we played them; or perhaps it was because the games themselves were simple, good versus evil types of things, uncomplicated and perfect escape from whatever was troubling us, be it school, parents, girlfriends, jobs, or lack thereof.

Sarah (Allen) is an obsessive gamer. Her favorite game du jour is The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud, featuring the titular character (Adkins), a cocky lantern-jawed space hero saving the galaxy from nefarious master criminals with his trusty sidekick Jake (Langridge), the ship’s cook. However, Sarah’s dad (Hazeldine) thinks Sarah shouldn’t be playing videogames quite so much and it is a source of conflict between them.

As Sarah plays the game, she finds a hidden character, the Space Witch (Maza) – who is more accurately a space wizard, but to each his own – who somehow zaps Sarah from the real world into the game – into the body of Jake. Sarah’s best friend Cowboy (Drameh) – who is most assuredly not a competent gamer – stumbles onto the girl-within-a-game scenario and the two of them figure that the way to get Sarah back into reality is to win the game. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since Cowboy pretty much sucks at gaming and has to take frequent pee breaks. Coming after Max and Jake/Sarah is the Revenger (Hannah), a ruthless villain trying to escape from the prison world that Max crash landed on, and his right-hand flunky Shee (Lynch) who has plans of her own. Together, the two of them could end Sarah’s game permanently if she’s not careful – and if Cowboy doesn’t come through.

\There is just enough chutzpah here to carry the movie through, for the most part. Adkins has been a talented, underrated action star for the latter half of the last decade, and he proves to have some pretty solid comedy chops. Overall, with it’s primary color palette and sly shout-outs to the games of our misspent youths (or those of our parents), the movie retains a kind of goofy charm that is truly insidious. You might find yourself liking the movie in spite of its flaws.

The production values aren’t too bad when you consider that they are deliberately going for a certain retro-videogame look. The cast is strong and I’m not just talking about Adkins; Drameh and Hannah both have solid genre pedigrees and many of the rest of the cast cut their teeth on some impressive projects. There is a good deal of scenery chewing going on here, but the situation kind of calls for it, you know?

And there are flaws galore. The movie is overburdened with subplots, and underutilizes Adkins who has a physical presence that the movie could have used. There are also a few too many cliches and the cheese factor here is off-the-scale. Still in all, the movie is mindless, harmless good fun, just like the video games of yore – you Millennial whippersnappers have no idea what you missed.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of its own offbeat charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: You may end up overdosing on the cheese.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sci-fi video game violence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story

Don’t Click (2020)


The Internet is full of horror.

(2020) Horror (GravitasValter Skarsgård, Mark Koufos, Catherine Howard, Geoff Mays, May Grehan, Samantha Hart, Dayjan Lesmond, Derrick Rabethge, Erica Sherwood, Ry Barrett, Anthony Polito, Jessica Vano. Directed by G-Hey Kim

 

Those selling us the Internet have portrayed it as a repository for human knowledge and ingenuity, where our lives may be made easier and the ability to access the sum total of everything knowable could lead us to a new golden age…yeah, right.

Like everything else, we humans tend to muck it up with our baser instincts. In this horror opus from G-Hey Kim based on her own short film, college student Josh (Skarsgård) returns home after a night of drinking and partying to find his roommate Zane (Koufos) missing. His laptop, however, is still there and still connected to the site Josh had been watching – something called Beataslut.com. In it, voyeurs may watch the torture and degrading of a woman (Howard) who is gradually stripped, tortured and then eventually murdered by a smiling sadist (Mays).

Abruptly Josh is sucked into the laptop and finds himself in a dungeon with no windows or doors; only a mirror with the phrase “Take a good hard look at yourself” written in what may be lipstick, or might be blood. Therein is also Zane whose lips have been sewed shut and who has had tortures of his own visited upon him. Soon, it becomes obvious that the supernatural entities that are in control of the room can also control Josh, forcing him to do unspeakable things to his roommate. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Zane has been brought there – but why is Josh suffering the same fate?

This is a horror movie with a message and it is attempting to deliver it to the subset of viewers who might need to receive it the most – male horror movie fans. It has never been a secret that horror movies have traditionally been guilty of sexualizing brutality towards women, helping to create a culture of misogyny and rape that society has embraced. And yeah, that might be a harsh and simplistic assessment – rape culture and institutionalized misogyny come from a variety of sources, not just horror films – but let’s face it, horror movies have desensitized young men to brutality towards women for decades now.

The movie harkens back to the torture porn of the late 90s and early 21st century, and skeptics might be forgiven for pointing out that the movie, even as it seems to point out the violence towards women also indulges in it. There is definitely a sense of “do as I say, not as I do” here. It’s also certainly understandable that certain segments of the audience might find the scenes of violence and brutality too much to handle, although most hardcore horror fans will find it no problem at all, although a scene involving a character’s private parts might make even the most rabid of gorehounds a bit squeamish.

Kim does make a few stylistic choices that are questionable; for example, the scenes set in the dungeon are shot at a lower frame rate, giving the action a jumpy and overexposed feel that is more endemic to internet video of 20 years ago, not so much now. Skarsgård does a credible job in the lead role, but his character is somewhat bland and spends a good deal of the movie whining about one thing and another.

As a society, we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to the violence that has been visited upon women, not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional and mental sense as well. The overall theme of the movie is written on the mirror, and it is rare that a horror movie invites us to do just that. While the movie might have benefited from stronger characters, the message is one that can’t be ignored.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale for incels.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too brutal for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, disturbing images, nudity, abusive sexual behavior and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the UK Frightfest this past August.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Max Cloud

Sister of the Groom


A woman’s side-eye is her most devastating weapon.

(2020) Comedy (Saban) Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Mathilde Olivier, Jake Hoffman, Charlie Bewley, Ronald Guttman, Mark Blum, Julie Engelbrecht, Abigail Marlowe, Noah Silver, Michael Bernardi, Jamie Choi, Adrienne Ellis, Nicole Tio, Tony Costa, Adam Griffith, Deeva Green, Kenneth Maharaj, Claudja Bicalho, Guyvlaud Joseph, Deborah Joy Occhipinti. Directed by Amy Miller Gross

 

Weddings are often joyous occasions, times when families are brought together to celebrate the joining of two lives, two families. They are also occasions for the most boorish and reprehensible behavior imaginable.

Audrey (Silverstone) has reached a crossroads in her life. She is trying to restart her career as an architect, a career she gave up to raise a family. She is turning 40 – this very weekend in fact – and has severe issues with her body, particularly her post-maternal belly which has never returned to the flat, svelte showpiece it once was. Her husband Ethan (Scott) is driving her to the hastily rescheduled wedding of her adored younger brother Liam (Hoffman), taking place at their old family home in the Hamptons, which Liam purchased some years back as his career in finance took off.

Now he is marrying a French wanna-be pop star, Clemence (Olivier) and Audrey immediately gets her hackles up. Clemence is a bit of a diva and tone-deaf at that; she seems to wear the pants in the family, and that is off-putting to Audrey to begin with, but when she discovers that the bride-to-be is pushing Audrey’s brother – who was her best friend growing up – to not merely refurbish the home she loved and had so many memories connected with her late mother but is completely turning it into an abomination and to add insult to injury, they are using Audrey’s ex Isaac (Bewley) as an architect and that to further make things awkward, have invited him to the wedding. Well, let’s just say it’s not the grounds for a strong relationship between sisters-in-law.

Gross references a lot of different touchstones, not the least of which are My Big Fat Greek Wedding and This is 40 in a bid to make a comedy that hits a lot of different demographics. Refreshingly, the wedding is a Jewish one so we miss all the tropes about Christian ceremonies that normally appear in movies like this. Strangely, in avoiding those cultural truisms, director Amy Miller Gross pulls out nearly all the stereotypes about the French – turning the family of the bride into whining, rude Bohemians who are certain they are superior to everybody else.

And perhaps that could have been played for laughs, but instead, Gross (who wrote the script) makes the odd choice of turning Audrey from a sympathetic character into a snarky to the point of flat-out cruelty bitch who takes what sympathy Gross spent the entire first half of the film accumulating for her and tossing it aside until one wonders why on earth anyone would tolerate her for even a moment, let alone the fifteen-plus years of marriage she has enjoyed with Ethan. And to make matters worse, she gets a mad case of mid-life crisis and spends a good part of the second half of the film trying to rekindle a romance with Isaac.

Even so, Gross still had a possibility of pulling it off with Alicia Silverstone in the lead, but it is hard to believe that this is the same actress who made Clueless so delightful, and I’m not just talking about the passage of time. Silverstone resorts to rubber-faced mugging throughout as if she had been convinced she was doing an Ace Ventura movie and it just doesn’t work. I know Silverstone hasn’t been getting a lot of work over the last decade but even so I know she can do better than this.

You can kind of see what Gross was going for and occasionally some things work, like the corrected title cards for each segment, and the use of Clemence’s songwriting partner Orson (Silver) as a kind of Greek chorus. I also like the exploration of why we have a tendency to always want more; as if having a great life and a great family isn’t enough. Maybe that’s part of being human, but we are constantly being bombarded with messages that tell us that we are underachieving and that we need to want more – more money, a better career, a happier family – than what we already have. Contentment has become so passe.

There are some indications that this could have been a much better movie than it turned out to be, so if you’re anything like me you’ll be frustrated by this film, but one can look at it as a learning experience for all involved and hope that their next projects will work out better for them and us.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a whole lot of neuroses going on.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as comedic as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexuality and nudity, brief drug use and some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily on location in Amagansett, Long Island.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Best Friend’s Wedding
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Don’t Click

Wetware


Never grab a woman by the elbow; she might be a genetically-enhanced killer.

(2020) Science Fiction  (GravitasCameron Scoggins, Morgan Wolk, Jerry O’Connell, Bret Lada, Aurélia Thiérrée, Susan S. McGinnis, Labhaoise Magee, Lauren Carole Ritter, Matt Salinger, Nicole Shalhoub, Brandon Alan Smith, Ariel Zevon, Jessica Blank, Jeff Zinn, Bianca Ilich, Dallas Mahan, Hunter Hard, Kristan Lyon, Kimberly Arthurs. Directed by Jay Craven

 

The world is changing before our very eyes, and not necessarily in a good way. Climate change is leading to some hard decisions that are, for the most part, being ignored. Overpopulation and automation is leading to a shortage of jobs. Something has got to give.

In this dystopian future, climate change has decimated the world. Most people are chronically unemployed; the jobs that are available are largely menial jobs people are unwilling to perform. In fact, most of them are performed by Mungos, genetically engineered folks who have had their memories purged and given the abilities to do whatever job it is they are assigned to do without complaint.

But there is a worldwide economic crisis in the offing and Galapagos Bioengineering, the company that markets Mungos, is looking to market a new product; genetically engineered super-soldiers that can do just about anything a superspy can do, as well as have the skillsets of an elite soldier. The company desperately needs funds from financier Wendell Blaine (O’Connell) to fund their new project and it is up to genetic engineer Hal Briggs (Scoggins) to create these new superhumans.

But Briggs has a problem. One of those volunteering for the project, Kay (Wolk), has caught his eye and so he engineers her to fall in love with him. As she and the other prototype Jack (Lada) undergo testing under the watchful eye of Carr (Shalhoub), the project manager who has an agenda of her own, Briggs is left to contend with the ethical ramifications of what he’s done and with a hidden conspiracy that threatens everything, not the least of which is his continued existence.

Based on a novel by Craig Nova, Jay Craven – noted for Vermont-set adaptations of novels by Howard Frank Mosher – is a bit of a departure for the New England-based filmmaker. He has given us a remarkably self-assured and thoughtful sci-fi slice with elements of noir. His cast of mostly local Vermont actors are surprisingly strong, with Wolk as the haunted woman who agrees to have her memory wiped and become something new being a particular standout but buttressed by strong performances by Thiérrée and Salinger. The production values are also pretty impressive for a low-budget production.

The movie has a few ideas to kick around, some of which have been recycled from other places – what makes us human, which I thought was better-explored by Ridley Scott’s Philip K. Dick adaptation of Blade Runner and of how central memory is to our identity, also explored in the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry. Still, there are also ideas that are a bit more timely, such as the lengths we will go to for employment – particularly relevant during the economic crash brought on by the pandemic – and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and the shrinking space in the middle class.

Craven’s attempts to add a noir edge to the movie falls mainly in the dark neon-lit spaces and in particular, the dialogue which at times feels a bit pretentious and is the weakest part of the movie. However, Craven wisely doesn’t fill in all the blanks here and leaves viewers to do some thinking, which I think an increasing number of sci-fi cinephiles are learning to appreciate.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly strong performances and production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is trying too hard to be noir-ish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sister of the Groom

The Test and the Art of Thinking


A rite of passage for high school seniors.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Akil Bello, Howard Gardner, Greg Hanlon, Jonathan Arak, Susan Cole, Jamie Macy, Eric Hoover, Chris Ajemian, Charles Murray, Nicholas Lemann, Tania Blair, Dan Edmonds, Glenn Ribotsky, Erica Meltzer, Kristin Tichenor, Nick Blair, Jed Applerouth, Danielle Allen, David Coleman, William Fitzsimmons, Scott Jaschik, Susan Cole, John Mahone, Debbie Stier. Directed by Arlen Davis

 

Three of the scariest letters to any high school student are “S.A.T.” Although they once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, they now stand for nothing, which is apropos according to this chilling documentary

It’s hard to understate the importance of the SAT and the ACT tests when it comes to college admissions. Nearly every college requires one or the other in order to consider an applicant for admission. Most colleges also have minimum scores requires for admission consideration. A high score on the test can get you into a better school. A low score may prevent you from attending college at all.

Initially, the tests were a way for Ivy League schools to find students that didn’t necessarily attend reputable prep schools in the Northeast. It gave students from public high schools and from other parts of the country an opportunity to get a quality higher education. But as schools discovered that they, too, could use the same test that Harvard used to measure prospective students, there was a not-so-subtle change in how the test was used.

It is also worth noting that the men who created the tests were believers in eugenics, the idea that there are “superior” genes that create superior people. It’s the kind of thinking that the Nazi party in Germany embraced and has largely been debunked since, but there remains an essential cultural bias to the test.

Worse yet, the test really isn’t a measure of a student’s potential to learn, or ability to think. It simply measures if they are able to game the system and ace the test. A cottage industry has sprung up around tutors who are paid – in some cases, extremely well – to prepare a student for the test. Nearly all of them don’t recommend studying actual knowledge for the test, but techniques in how to figure out which answer is the correct one. It also shows how an essay riddled with factual errors still got a high score because it hit all the metrics that the testers were looking for.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews, mainly with educators, test coaches, students and parents. The approach is a little bit hit and miss, and the going can be turgid from time to time; stick with it though because even though the anecdotes start to wear a little thin, the point is a very necessary one. And that point is if you want a country to have superior achievements, it has to start with superior students. The inevitable, inescapable conclusion is that the current model of testing does not achieve that goal.

Like everything else in this country, the admissions tests are big business – the College Board, which owns and administers the test, is a billion-dollar company. The filmmakers also posit a chilling thought near the end of the film – perhaps the test is actually successful in determining which students are less likely to question authority because that’s what business wants. That would actually explain a whole lot about the state of the union.

REASONS TO SEE: Should be required viewing for high school seniors and their parents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very dry and sometimes a bit hard to slog through.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year; approximately 80% of them will end up taking either the ACT or SAT tests.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Wetware

The Changin’ Times of Ike White


Ike White, striking up a 70s rock star pose.

(2019) Music Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ike White, Lana Gutman, Greg Errico, Stevie Wonder, Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Goldstein, Deborah White, Rico Fanning, Daniel Vernon, Monalisa White, Bruce Jackson, Carole Michaela Reynolds, Baron Ontiveros, Alvin Taylor, Angelique Stidhum.  Directed by Daniel Vernon

Some films need to have a detailed description of the plot. Others actually benefit from having the viewer know as little as possible going in. This is one of the latter types of films.

The basics: Ike White was a talented songwriter and musician whose 1976 album Changin’ Times garnered him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and the admiration of Stevie Wonder. But Ike White didn’t have the usual route to a record release; he recorded the album while in prison for the murder of a shopkeeper.

During the course of a convenience store robbery, the 86-year-old store owner was shot by White who claimed that the shooting was an accident. Nonetheless, the 19-year-old Ike was convicted and sent to prison for life. Ike escaped from prison life with a small portable keyboard, a guitar and a harmonica which he played whenever he could. Legend has it that while cleaning the execution chamber, he would take breaks playing his guitar – while sitting in the electric chair (a nice story, but the electric chair was no longer in use by the state of California by the time Ike was incarcerated).

Word got out to producer Jerry Goldstein who arranged for a mobile studio to be driven to the prison, along with a couple of supporting musicians and a trio of female backup singers. Goldstein’s teenage secretary Deborah became so enamored of Ike that she married the guy and had a daughter by him. His music came to the attention of Stevie Wonder, who arranged for a high-priced lawyer for Ike who got his sentence commuted and Ike was a free man after 14 years.

But here is not the happy ending you’d hope for, but perhaps the realistic twist you’d expect. Ike continued to make bad decisions once out of prison, getting involved with drug use. Deborah left him, reconciled, left him again, reconciled again and finally left him for good. Shortly after that, Ike disappeared. That’s where the story gets weird.

Documentary filmmaker went on the hunt for Ike and found him – singing in Las Vegas lounges under an assumed name, married to a frowsy blonde Russian woman (who also doubled as his manager) and surprisingly eager to discuss his convoluted story. And that’s where the story gets really weird.

We get to hear Ike’s story from those close to him, and from Ike himself. He is full of all sorts of stories, but he is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. The more the film unravels, the more untrustworthy he proves to be. The movie heads off into directions you don’t expect it to take, complete with some jaw-dropping revelations and one very massive change in the narrative about halfway through which may leave you wondering what next – and where the movie can possibly go from there. Trust me, it’s not over by a long shot and even when the final credits roll you might be still wondering just what the heck you saw.

Vernon wisely leaves it to the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and not all those conclusions are going to be charitable. White was undoubtedly a superior musician and maybe at one time in his life he might have had the talent to be a difference-maker, although listening to his music later on you might wonder if it was all a con. No, not all of it was but there are plenty of revelations here that may leave you feeling dizzy in a good way. Undoubtedly, he was a chameleon who floated through life, never showing the same face to anyone.

I can’t say that you’ll really get to know Ike White ub any of his other guises by watching this. He remains an enigma to those who knew him best and a 77-minute documentary isn’t going to give you much more than surface impressions. I don’t think you’ll ever meet anyone quite like him, though.

If you’re tired of the typical obscure artist music documentary, this could well be what you’re looking for. It’s not typical of anything and like any great documentary, it doesn’t always lead you to where you expect it to. It might make you sad, it might make you angry, it might even leave you feeling like you’ve glimpsed genius, but it won’t leave you bored.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your usual music documentary. Takes some sharp left turns. Occasionally so surreal you may wonder if it really happened.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a little steam near the end and feels a bit incomplete in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sensuality, drug content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Test and the Art of Thinking