The Nowhere Inn


St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein don’t always see eye-to-eye.

(2021) Musical Dramedy (IFC) St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Michael Bofshever, John Aylward, Cass Bugge, Tema Sall, Erica Acevedo, Ezra Buzzington, Rya Kilstedt, Nancy Daly, Gabriela Flores, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquillino, Drew Connick, Asha Dee, Robert Miano, Shae D’lyn, Linda Carola, Steve Rankin, David Shorr, Becky Poole, Rachel Rosenbloom, Kaitlin Huwe. Directed by Bill Benz

 

If you haven’t heard of the indie singer-songwriter St. Vincent, shame on you. She is one of the best in the world at what she does, and while she may not be the household name that, say, Arianna Grande is, she certainly has the talent to not only move the soul but to leave a mark on music itself.

This is presented as a documentary that went South and was never completed. What it actually is can be classified as a parody of rock documentaries that seamlessly meshes the old VH1 Behind the Music series with a heaping helping of farcical self-deprecation. Think of it as what This is Spinal Tap would have been like if directed by Wes Anderson.

Grammy-winning indie rock chanteuse St. Vincent (the stage name of Annie Clark, once a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band) is on tour for her 2017 album Masseducation. We first meet her in a stretch limo, motoring through the California desert with a driver (Buzzington) who has no idea who she is. We ae aware by that point that the movie we’re about to see (which was intended to be a concert movie) was never completed.

Long-time BFF Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for Sleater-Kinney but probably as well-known these days for co-creating Portlandia, had been Clark’s choice to make the movie. However, when she tries to differentiate between the striking, seductive onstage persona of St. Vincent and the offstage persona of Annie Clark, it turns out that Annie Clark is actually, well, pretty boring.

As attempts to make Clark look more interesting offstage continue to meet with resistance, eventually hands are thrown up and she decides to embrace her St. Vincent persona offstage, and we get to see some diva-esque behavior. Clark’s behavior becomes more bizarre and off-putting. She is cold and downright rude to Brownstein whose father (Bofshever) is undergoing chemo for cancer, and whose survival chances aren’t encouraging, although he is exceedingly proud of his daughter’s latest project which, considering her accomplishments, seems a little strange.

But then, that seems to be this movie’s calling card. It is decidedly meta – most of the roles are played by actors, and those playing themselves are playing fictional versions. At least, I hope so.

There are plenty of cringeworthy moments here, as Brownstein and Clark (who co-wrote the script) seem to be going for humor that is hellbent on making the viewer uncomfortable. This might well be their revenge for the effects on their lives that being in the spotlight have had. Or just a smartass commentary on what documentaries about the life tend to portray.

There are short snippets of St. Vincent performing in concert, or singing acoustic songs; certainly not enough to make her fans happy, but enough to entice non-fans to check out her catalogue – as well they should. She is a marvelous singer and songwriter, and she has some amazing songs on her resume. However, keep in mind that as much as this is a movie starring St. Vincent, this isn’t a movie about her, not in a real sense.

Rather, this is a movie about what St. Vincent could become if she were to allow it to happen. I imagine it’s not easy to restrain one’s ego when one exists in an industry that on the one hand tends to stroke the egos of its star performers while at the same time doing everything in its power to crush them. It’s an odd dichotomy that makes the reason that rock stars have a tendency to self-medicate somewhat understandable.

I will say that this movie isn’t for everybody. At times the film feels a little bit scattershot, like a bunch of scenes in search of a unifying theme. It is a little bit out there and requires that you be patient and wait for it to make its point and once it does, understand that it will leave the interpretation of that point (or those points) entirely up to you. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed, in other words. But speaking for myself only, I find movies like that to be more challenging, and more rewarding in the end. I’m betting that you will, too.

REASONS TO SEE: Different and interesting. Pokes fun at rock docs and music stardom in general.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattered in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: St. Vincent was at one time a member of the Polyphonic Spree (“Light and Day”).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTubeCRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is Spinal Tap
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

No Responders Left Behind


Jon Stewart and John Feal tilt at windmills in Washington.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Stewart, John Feal, Ray Pfeiffer, Luis Alvarez, Kenny Anderson, Michael O’Connell, Richard Alles, Kristin Gillibrand, Stephen Grossman, Ken George, Chris Foerster, James Zadroga, Michael Barasch, Benjamin Chevat, Cindy Eli. Directed by Rob Lindsay

 

Most people, when they think of the death toll of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, come up with the number of 2,996. However, the death toll is much higher than that – many of the first responders and volunteers who dug through the wreckage of the World Trade Center looking for survivors, and afterwards, to clean up the site, ended up infected with a variety of toxins that have led to life-threatening illnesses. Thousands have died since then, and more are sure to join them.

But what was a national disgrace is that many of these people lost their health insurance because their illnesses left them unable to work. Many lost their homes as well. John Feal was a supervisor for a demolition company that was hired to assist with the clean-up; he ended up badly injured on the job due to an accident. When his health care coverage was cut off and he was left with enormous medical bills he couldn’t begin to pay, he became an activist, finding that many of those heroes of 9/11 – those who ran into the Trade Center to save lives and managed to survive – were unable to afford to buy the medication and treatment needed to keep them alive. The fund that was established to assist them was set to last only five years, but was likely to run out of money long before then. Something needed to be done.

He had an ally – former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who had retired from television at the time, but even though he made a couple of movies in the interim, devoted much of his time to this cause. As plans to fund the needs of those who politicians swore we would never forget went through Congress, it became a political football, being added to other bills in order to make them more attractive to progressive congressmen – or less attractive to conservative congressmen.

In all honesty, it was a national disgrace. While the Republicans were moaning about the deficit (and cutting taxes for corporations and the super-wealthy), people were dying. At last, in front of Congress, Feal convinced Stewart not to use his pre-written speech and speak from the heart. Stewart’s testimony, ending famously with a fierce “They did their jobs. Now do yours!” led to the success that was needed and should never have been an issue in the first place.

This documentary shows the fight going back to the days just after 9/11 and all the way to the renewal of the funding just two short years ago. It took 18 years for the first responders to get what they were due, which is an absolute embarrassment and a prime example of how are political system is broken. Lindsay opts to just allow the story to be told; there are few interviews other than archival ones. What results is a stirring and moving portrait that deservedly paints Feal and Stewart as heroes and introduces us to other heroes, such as Ray Pfeiffer, who was one of the leading advocates for the First Responders group until he died from his illnesses, and Luis Alvarez, who testified before congress only two weeks before the multiple cancers that had invaded his body due to his absorption of toxins at Ground Zero ended his life. This is one movie every American should see.

REASONS TO SEE: A tribute to the power of persistence and determination. The stories are wrenching and emotional. Stewart’s speech before Congress is one for the ages. A great story simply told. Makes heroes (and deservedly so) out of Stewart and Feal.
REASONS TO AVOID: May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feal is co-founder of the FealGood Foundation, which assists first responders and supporters who suffer illness or injury on the job and afterwards don’t get the care and coverage that they need. You can find out more about it here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Best Sellers

Good


Talking – and dining – at cross purposes.

(2020) Drama (Gravitas) Keith David, Justin Etheredge, Nefetari Spencer, Kali Racquel, Christen Roberts, Sarah Scott-Davis, Ken Colquitt, Aaron Nayer, Gwen Cesta-Persichetti, Harrison Rodriguez, Lettye Smith, Aiden Weems, Kyle L. Jacobs, Jeff G. Mungai, Elizabeth Capps. Directed by Justin Etheredge

 

Parenthood is not something to be entered into lightly. It is so easy to mess up a child’s future without meaning to. It is also true that we can mess up a child’s future simply by not being there. Nothing says “you don’t matter” as much as a parent who chooses not to be a part of their offspring’s life.

Peyton Poitier – “no relation,” he is quick to point out while watching In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier – has lived such a life. His father was never in the picture, and his mother died when he was young. He was mostly raised by his grandma, who passed away herself recently. He sometimes goes to her favorite diner where she used to take him as a child.

That’s where he meets Gregory Devereaux (James), an old man who likes to eat at that particular diner because they remember his name and call him by it. He is a curmudgeonly sort who takes guff from nobody, and he recognizes b.s. when he hears it. But he recognizes something of himself in Peyton, and has Peyton drive him home so they can share a drink or two and watch the aforementioned In the Heat of the Night.

Peyton is at what you might call a crossroads of his life. He has some potential but has never fulfilled it, but now things seem to be looking up. He’s engaged to marry Shannon Kitzmiller (Racquel) who is beautiful, a little bit self-absorbed and from wealthy parents. However, there’s a blip on that radar. It turns out that his girlfriend before Shannon, Jeneta (Roberts) is in a family way and Peyton is the baby daddy. This couldn’t come at a worse time for him. He’s convinced that Shannon will drop him like a cheap cell phone if she finds out about his predicament. And in the meantime, Gregory’s estranged daughter Barbara (Spencer) has hired Peyton to be Gregory’s caretaker because most of the nurses that have seen to his needs recently have been chased off by the grumpy growly antics of her dad. And she finds Peyton to be like sexual catnip as well. What’s a man to do?

Etheredge wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, and it is never a good thing when someone wearing  all three of those hats posits that the main character is absolutely irresistible to women. Not to comment on the desirability of Etheredge, but I think it’s safe to say that Mike Colter he is not. Every one of the women in this movie other than the extras has been or currently is willing to hop into bed with Peyton at a moment’s notice; there’s a little bit of ego there that is a bit of a turn-off, frankly. Justin, if you’re reading this, don’t just chalk it up to jealousy on my part (although day-um!) but take it to heart that the subplot of having Barbara come on to Peyton was completely unneeded.

That said, there is some charm here and Etheredge is actually a pretty likable lead. David has the stentorian authority of a James Earl Jones and lends gravitas to a role that sometimes gets played for laughs. Gregory is far too Old Testament for that.

The commentary here is on parental responsibility and taking responsibility in one’s own life. When Gregory thunders, “Just another young black man making babies he won’t raise,” he’s leveling an accusation that is often made against young African-American men. There are those who protest that as a racist trope that isn’t as true now as it was twenty or thirty years ago, so that could be a hot button item for some who are sensitive about such things.

In general, my main issue with the movie is the pacing, which is a mite on the slow side; also, some of the plot points seem a bit forced, maudlin and contrived. It felt a little bit unconvincing and all the charm in the world isn’t going to rescue a movie with those sorts of issues. All in all, not a horrible movie but a deeply flawed one.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes on how families can screw up their children.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving, maudlin and soapy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed and set in Atlanta.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Upside
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
499

Reminiscence


Life is no carnival in the near future.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Javier Molina, Sam Medina, Nono Nishimura, Roxton Garcia, Giovannie Cruz, Woon Young Park, Han Soto, Rey Hernandez, Gabrielle Echols, Andrew Hyatt Masset III, Nico Parker. Directed by Lisa Joy

 

I guess that it makes sense that when you have nothing to look forward to, one’s attention will turn to what came before. In a world where climate change has wreaked havoc, the citizens of a half-drowned Miami find solace in reliving their own memories.

This is the world that Nick Bannister (Jackman) finds himself. A former military man in the border wars that erupted when the oceans rose, he makes a living with a machine that was used to extract information from the memories of military prisoners but he now uses it on civilians who want to relive their favorite memories – a wedding day, playing with a beloved dog, a romantic evening and so on. He also has a side business using his machine to interrogate prisoners of the Miami DA (Martinez).

He has a pretty good life, all things considered – his partner Watts (Newton), although a high-functioning alcoholic, keeps him fairly honest. Until Mae (Ferguson) walks in. She’s lost her keys and needs help locating them. The Reminiscence machine might just be the trick she needs. While in her mind, Bannister discovers that she is a chanteuse, singing a song (“Where and When”) he has fond childhood memories of. He initiates a relationship with her, and for awhile it is summer in Miami.

But then she disappears, and he just can’t believe she up and ran out on him. Using his detective skills, he discovers a dark conspiracy with which Mae may or may not have been involved. At the heart of it is a wealthy developer (Cullen), his mentally ill wife (de Tavira), a corrupt cop (Curtis) and a New Orleans-based drug lord (Wu). Despite Watts’ skepticism, Bannister is convinced that Mae is an innocent caught in events beyond her control, and he will stop at nothing to find her – and the truth.

This is the motion picture debut of Lisa Joy, best known for being co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series with her husband Jonathan Nolan (yes, that makes her Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law and there is no little of his influence felt here). The world that Joy has created here is melancholic and believable. The overall feel is very much like an old noir movie with a healthy dose of romance injected in, as well as some innovative production design and strong visuals. She definitely has a very cinematic eye, from the images of a partially submerged Miami, to a grand piano sinking into the waters during the climactic fight scene.

The noir elements become overbearing, particularly in the overly florid narration which is overused. Joy seems so taken with it that she utilizes the opening monologue twice which I suppose is meant to lend emphasis but instead lends repetition. I get that the elements of the story lend themselves to a noir retelling, but in a lot of ways it feels kind of gimmicky here.

That doesn’t extend to the script which has some pretty interesting ideas throughout, and the production design brings many of them to life. The overwhelming feeling is resignation; people are growing restive at being pushed into soggier and soggier environs while the ultra-wealthy stay largely dry, but the feeling is that we’re on a downward spiral and we might as well just accept that and live in the past because it’s so much better than what we have in store. Not the most heart-warming of messages.

But Joy does coax some strong performances, particularly out of the ever-expressive Jackman who generally does better when his characters are drowning in their own dark sides; while his chemistry with Ferguson (a strong actress in her own right) is oddly flat, it might be due to the somewhat incomprehensible accent she takes on from time to time. It’s jarring and sounds absolutely phony.

Critics have absolutely savaged this movie, and there is some reason for it – the film is definitely flawed, but the visuals are compelling and as I said there are some interesting ideas developed here. Sadly, the insistence on turning this into a Raymond Chandler adaptation instead of letting the story stand on its own really hurts the movie overall, although I will say if you hang in there, the final 30-45 minutes do pick up.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of interesting ideas and visuals here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The noir element is heavy-handed, particularly the florid narration.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and profanity, some sexual content and drug content throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackman and Ferguson previously starred together in The Greatest Showman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 9/20)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Good


					

The Sleepless Unrest


A house ripe for a conjuring.

(2021) Horror Documentary (Gravitas) Kendell Whelpton, Cory Heinzen, Richel Stratton, Brian Murray, Vera Whelpton, Jennifer Heinzen, John Huntington, Anthony Cross, John Sparks. Directed by Kendell and Vera Whelpton

 

In recent years, television programs about amateur paranormal investigators have proliferated, with the 800-lb gorilla of the genre being Ghost Hunters. One of the places that TAPS never visited was the farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island where once lived the Perron family. Their experiences were later turned into the massive hit movie The Conjuring which in turn spawned a franchise. It seems kind of odd that TAPS which was based in Rhode Island never bothered to investigate a place supposedly as haunted as this – although it should be said that the owners at the time claimed that there was nothing particularly frightening going on in the home. In face, Norma Sutcliffe, ran a daycare center in the house for 20 years without incident.

The new owners, Cory and Jennifer Heinzen, were fans of the movie and when the house went on the market were eager to buy it. They currently operate the home as a kind of haunted Air BnB, inviting amateur investigators to spend the night.

Kendall and Vera Whelpton took them up on it and in fact spent two weeks there. Along with their friends and fellow amateur investigators Brian Murray and Richel Stratton, they set up dozens of cameras in the nearly 300-year-old house as well as motion detectors and other equipment, most of it homemade or repurposed. This documentary records their experiences.

Be advised first off – there is nothing here that is particularly spectacular, or definitive proof of spooks, spirits, or ghosts, malevolent or otherwise. Like most paranormal investigative programs, we get footage of doors swinging open by themselves, objects falling off of shelves, strange orbs flying across the screen (well, one only in this case) and plenty of bumps and knocks. Of course, anyone who has ever lived in a house that is more than a century old can tell you that these things aren’t unusual – old homes can be affected by changes in air pressure, and are often full of creaks and moans that have everything to do with the house settling into its foundation and less to do with the paranormal.

If I sound like a skeptic here, I’m really not – I like to think that I’m open-minded about the possibilities of the otherworldly. However, the Whelptons, The Heinzens, Murray and Stratton don’t even attempt to attribute their footage to anything other than the supernatural. One of the things that attracted me to the original Ghost Hunters was that their first priority was to actually investigate – they looked for rational, scientific explanations first and when those were all exhausted, then they might admit that there was a possibility of a haunting. There’s no evidence that they even considered anything like that.

What you get here are a group of people who believe what they want to believe and try to make their footage conform to that belief. I don’t doubt for a minute that they believe the house is haunted, or that the paranormal exists but they don’t even research the history of the home they’re investigating, or even mention what the Warrens (the real-life investigators who worked with the Perron family back in the 1970s) attributed the haunting to. That may be because much of the folklore surrounding the house has since been debunked; the Warrens cited Bathsheba Sherman, who lived on a neighboring farm, as a witch who was the source of the haunting (the film expanded greatly on the theory). In reality, there’s no evidence that Mrs. Sherman practiced witchcraft and most of the tales of her being a witch seem to be contemporary in origin. The murder that was attributed to have taken place on the property actually took place in Massachusetts. Town records also don’t verify the suicides that took place on the property which were alluded to in a book by Andrea Perron, one of the five daughters who lived on the property in the 1970s and who continues to assert that the property is haunted.

I certainly won’t contradict either Ms. Perron or Ms. Sutcliffe. Both women lived on the property after all and clearly love the house and the land it sits on, and who am I, a mere film critic, to doubt any of their experiences? If you want to see for yourself, the farmhouse is available for day tours, although stays in the farm are booked through the end of 2022. You can look into the farmhouse further at this site and if you’re interested in finding out more, the Heinzens would be happy to answer your questions. However, this documentary that was filmed entirely on their property is not mentioned anywhere on the website, although other programs, podcasts and blogs that did, are. It is conspicuous by its absence. Finding out the truth about the Conjuring Farmhouse is something you are unlikely to learn by watching this movie, though.

REASONS TO SEE: The researchers and the Heinzens are outgoing and genuinely believe in what they’re doing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Never delves into the history of the house – why is it haunted? – nor do they seem to attempt to find any non-supernatural explanations for any of the phenomenon witnessed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some spooky sequences and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Heinzens have two children who do not appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS:As of 9/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Reminiscence

The Stairs


There are things in the woods.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Cinedigm) Adam Korson, Tyra Colar, Thomas Wethington, Josh Crotty, Brent Bailey, Stacey Oristano, John Schneider, Kathleen Quinlan, Trin Miller, Russell Hodgkinson, Karleena Gore, David S. Hogan, Mark Klein, Sandy Klein, Elena Flory-Barnes, Gordon Frye, Robin Cheung, Derek R. McKean, Jeff Mendenhall, Katherine Grant-Suttie. Directed by Peter “Drago” Tiemann

 

There is a reason why so many horror movies are set in the woods. For one thing, they are remote; the protagonist(s) are forced to rely on themselves to escape whatever horror they are facing. For another thing, they are beautiful. It makes for good cinematography and the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery and blood-curdling terror is a good one. Also, you don’t need to pay a large cast and crew in the woods. It keeps costs down. But most importantly, forests are just dang creepy.

Jesse Martin (Wethington), a young 11-year-old boy, is headed out on a hunting trip with his grandpa (Schneider). Grandma (Quinlan) has packed them both a sack lunch, notably without bacon for the cholesterol-challenged grandpa and their daughter Kate (Miller) drops off Jesse with an admonition to pick up some tomatoes for canning on the way home. But that isn’t going to happen. While out in the woods, Jesse is distracted by a strange sound and wanders off to find an astonishing structure in the woods – a grand staircase. Grandpa, discovering his grandson is missing, goes after him only to witness his grandson being dragged off into a doorway on the back of the structure. Being a good grandpa who is packing a hunting rifle, he grimly goes off to rescue the boy.

Twenty years later, a group of young people are going on a hike in the same area; Nick (Korson), Josh (Bailey), Rebeccah (Oristano), pragmatic Jordon (Colar) and “Dirty” Doug (Crotty) who comes by his nickname honestly. As happens in most horror movies, a local clerk (M. Klein) warns the kids to be careful because it’s a blood moon tonight and people disappear during a blood moon. As also happens in most horror movies, the kids ignore the warning.

At first, the hike is pretty much a standard nature hike as practiced by a group of young city kids. But things start to get weird. Rebeccah in particular sees some strange things, although none stranger than the one vision they all witness – an agitated man with a horrific head wound (Hogan) waving a gun around while his deformed wife (Gore) cradles their baby – a giant maggot. But instead of hightailing it out of the woods, they go further in. That’s where the Stairs are waiting for them.

Okay, the plot description has a little bit of snarkiness in it (can’t help myself – I’m just in a mood) but this is a surprisingly well-acted, taut horror picture with some impressive practical effects. Sure, the plot is a little hoary and there are a few holes in it here and there, but you kind of expect that out of a horror movie these days. In many ways, this is the kind of movie that could easily have been made back in the Eighties – except if it had been made then, there would have been an excuse for one or both of the actresses to take off their tops. Back then, female nudity in horror movies was pretty much as necessary as fake blood. We live in more enlightened times now.

And while the story isn’t anything to write home about, there is much here to praise; the cinematography is ably done, the characters are developed more than you would find in an average modern horror movie and there are a couple of really nicely set up scares as well as a fairly high gross-out factor. All in all, if there was one word that ably describes the film, it’s nifty.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly strong acting performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and gore. There is also a depiction of deer hunting that might upset those who love animals.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was voted Best Feature Film at the 2021 UK Haunted House Fearfest.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrong Turn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac


Scene of the crime.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Nick Broomfield, Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Danny Boy, Pam Brooks, Simone Green, Lipp Dogg, Mob James, Leila Steinberg, Russell Poole, Doug Young, Krystal Anderson, Joe Cool, Alison Samuels, Xavier Hermosillo, Tracy Robinson, Yaasmyn Fula, Greg Kading, Frank Alexander, Violetta Wallace, Delores Tucker, C-Style, Tracy Robinson. Directed by Nick Broomfield

 

During the rise of hip-hop in the 1990s, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, were two powerhouse figures in the genre. They had been close friends for many years, but became bitter rivals after Shakur finished a jail term (for sexual assault) and after being bailed out by Death Row records label chief Marion “Suge” Knight, became a member of that roster. Both men however, met the same end – gunned down in the prime of their careers in homicides that to this day remain unsolved.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was drawn to the parallel stories and in 2002 made a film called Biggie and Tupac which looked at the lives of both men, culminating in their murders. At the core of the cases stood Suge Knight, a man who ran his record label very much like a criminal gang boss. His entourage included many members of the Bloods gang and red – the gang color of the Bloods – was in evidence throughout the label’s offices and on the person of Knight and his crew.

Knight is currently serving a 28-year sentence of voluntary manslaughter for deliberately running down Terry Carter, a friend and founder of Heavyweight Records, in the parking lot of a burger joint following an argument on the set of Straight Outta Compton. With the notoriously volatile and vengeful Knight tucked away in prison, Broomfield thought it was time to revisit the story and talk to those who were reluctant to talk to him earlier for fear of reprisals from Knight.

The results here aren’t as game-changing as you might think. Certainly there is some new information here, much of it revolving around the role of crooked L.A. cops who were essentially on the payroll of Death Row records, but not really a significant amount. Most of the investigative work came from Russell Poole, a former l.A. cop whose investigations into the Shakur murder would lead to him getting fired and shunned by his former colleagues. Poole, who passed away from a heart attack in 2015, provides much of his testimony in archival interviews with Broomfield, some dating back to the original Biggie and Tupac sessions.

Broomfield is something of a guerilla filmmaker who got a reputation as an in-your-face interviewer. He has thrived with reluctant interviewees. With most of the people here – employees of Death Row, friends and associates of Knight, Shakur and Wallace – almost eager to tell their stories, he seems a little bit out of his element.

There is a great deal of commentary on the gang culture that was tangled in the hip-hop scene of the time, and particularly at Death Row. Although some speak of Knight with fondness, there’s no doubt that he is a ruthless man with a criminal mentality. He had a great ear for talent, yes, having helped with the careers of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, along with Tupac, but at the end of the day he likely did hip-hop as much harm as he did good.

In any event, there’s not a lot here that hasn’t been covered in other documentaries and those who have seen a lot of them on the lives of Biggie, Tupac and Death Row will probably not find this a terribly useful or enlightening work. Those who are less familiar with the murders, this is as good a place as any to get informed.

REASONS TO SEE: The story remains as compelling as it ever has.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy and a bit repetitive at that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity including drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original score was written by, of all people, Nick Laird-Clowes of the dreampop band Dream Academy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Alliances Broken

Kipchoge: The Last Milestone


The face of African wisdom.

(2021) Sports Documentary (Universal) Eliud Kipchoge, Peter Nduhiu, Patrick Sang, Barnard Lanat, Augstine Choge, Dr. Patrick Njoroge, Denis Noble, Yannis Pitsiladis, Julien Wanders, Jos Hermans, Sir Jim Ratliffe, David Brailsford, Bobby Kotchell, Dr. William Ruto. Directed by Jake Scott

 

Kenya has produced some world class distance runners, from Kip Keino on to Eliud Kipchoge, who many consider the greatest marathon runner of our time. He owns the world record of 2 hours, 3 minutes set in 2018 at the Monza marathon. He has also won nearly every major marathon, including Boston, New York, and the Olympics. However, the Kenyan legend had his eyes on a different sort of prize.

What Kipchoge proposed to do was something that nobody had even considered before; to run a marathon in under two hours. In order to do it, he would need optimum conditions; a closed course in Vienna was selected. The course had to be as perfectly level as possible, the payment without blemish. The weather would have to be coolish, but not too cold.

In the first half hour of the movie, we meet Kipchoge and there is almost a hero-worship going on; he is depicted as a humble, disciplined, inspirational and driven man who is beloved as a national hero in Kenya – all of which is true. Mr. Kipchoge has one of those faces that holds your interest; it is the face of African wisdom, older than time and just as permanent. But a lot of what he says sounds like it came out of a Nike commercial, a self-help handbook, a positive message poster, or all of the above.

It is only when we get into the nuts and bolts of the preparation for the historic run that the movie takes off. We see the immense preparation that takes place as well as the cutting edge science that is used to give Kipchoge every advantage in breaking the milestone. When he runs, a phalanx of pace runners are ahead of him in a Y-shape in order to cut down wind drag on the Kenyan runner. For that reason, when Kipchoge does achieve the impossible (it is not really a spoiler to pass on this information, any more than it is to mention that the Titanic sinks at the end of the movie) it is not considered an actual world record because the conditions were not marathon race conditions.

Still, the achievement is incredible, something to gape at in helpless admiration. As someone who would time his own marathon with a calendar, I could truly feel awe at the achievement. Clearly the filmmakers did as well, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it did feel like they didn’t really explore the man Kipchoge too deeply during the film; he remains more of an icon than a human being throughout the movie and that’s a shame because from what glimpses we do get, the man Eliud Kipchoge seems to be a man who viewers would likely be very interested in getting to know better.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s hard not to admire someone taking on a challenge that is seemingly impossible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sort of a hagiographic collection of self-help aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jake Scott’s father, Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott, was a producer on this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Flix Fling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Barkley Marathons
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Tupac and Biggie

The Fatal Raid


Happiness is a warm gun.

(2019) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Jade Leung, Hidy Yu, Min Chen Lin Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa, Kristy Yeung, Aaron Boggs, Jeana Ho, Michael Tong, Patrick Tam, Sin-Hang Chiu, Elaine Tang, Man-kit Yuan, Jadie Lin. Directed by Jacky Lee

 

The “girls with guns” Hong Kong action film subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like; equal parts action and titillation, sort of like Charlie’s Angels with a bit of an edge and a little more cheesecake. For the most part, that subgenre has fallen by the wayside as the mainland Chinese government, which tends to be a little less lenient towards sexuality in cinema, has essentially become overseers of the thriving Hong Kong moviemaking scene. This movie, directed by veteran Jacky Lee, looks to if not resurrect the subgenre, at least pay tribute to it.

An elite Hong Kong police unit, trying to apprehend a criminal gang in Macau, is ambushed leading to a bloody gunfight that leaves numerous members of the team dead. The police brass, as is often the case, hushed up their own role in botching the raid. Now, 20 years after the event, the surviving participants are haunted by the events of that day. Heading back to Macau for a celebration honoring the heroes of the police force, they are led into an ambush with the same gang. Will history repeat itself, or will justice finally prevail?

The plot here is pretty generic and it isn’t terribly well-developed. Most of the emphasis is on the extended gun battles (there are three of them that take place in the film) and less so on developing the characters. The focus seems to be, strangely enough, on Detective Tam (P. Tam) who despite being the lone male on the team becomes the point of focus here – I imagine the #MeToo movement hasn’t made much headway in China just yet. Tam is a fine actor – don’t get me wrong – but if you’re going to cast someone like Jade Leung, who was one of the mainstays of the genre and a terrific actress in her own right – you should damn well make better use of her. As it is, her presence is so commanding as the police inspector that she still manages to steal the film anyway.

Now, I’m not trying to kid myself – most people are going to see this movie for the action sequences and they aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that memorable either, which is surprising. I have actually seen the movie that this is a sequel to, and there is far more connection between the films than is usual for sequels in the Chinese movie business, which is also surprising. However, the sequel isn’t going to inspire anyone to run right out and rent the film that preceded it which is a shame, because it’s a much better (and much more fun) movie than this one is. The tone here is grim and a bit of a downer, rather than lighthearted and brain-melting, which is normally what you want out of a Hong Kong action movie. See it for the opportunity to watch Jade Leung at work, but there’s not much other reason to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Jade Leung is a compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The unmemorable plot really drags in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some sex and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a sequel to Special Female Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iron Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kipchoge: The Last Milestone