Sunset Park (2017)


You’ve got to be tough to make it in Sunset Park.

(2017) Sports Drama (108 Media) Michael Trevino, Robert Miano, Sam Douglas, Jamie Choi, Vladimir Versailles, John Bianco, Nolan Lyons, Matt Wood, Michael T. Weiss, Eric Arriola, Amyrh Harris, Christopher M. Elassad, Robert Morgan, Khalil Maasi, Rocco Rozzotti, Ras Enoch McCurdie, Kaitlin Mesh, Silvia Spross, Stephanie Thiel, Alanna Blair. Directed by Jason Sarrey

 

Life is hard enough; in some places, it’s even harder. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, there are more than the usual obstacles.

Duane (Weiss) is a degenerate gambler and an alcoholic who has been battered by life and is not strong enough to take ownership of his own mistakes. His wife died young leaving him with a son (Lyons) he barely knows. He lives with his dad, Gramps Joe (Miano) who was once a Golden Gloves champion. When Duane gets in deep (to the tune of six figures) to the mob, he does what you’d expect someone like him to do – he cuts and runs leaving Joe to raise his kid and the mobster, Sledge (Douglas) is only too happy to transfer the debt to Joe. After all, why chase someone when you can get the money right at home?

Gino (Trevino), the son, grows up to be a talented fighter in his own right. Gramps sends him to be trained by local legend Caelin Roche (Morgan) but times are tough. Rents are going up, Gramps had to go back to work to meet the payment schedule that Sledge set him with to pay Duane’s debt and the economic downturn has caused Gramps’ hours to be slashed. Gino’s good friend Rajon (Versailles) figures Gino can make bank in the underground boxing scene. In the meantime, Sledge has taken notice of Gino’s talents and means to own his career – which would on the plus side wipe out the crippling debt for Duane’s marker but of course would potentially warp Gino’s soul after all the effort Gramps put in to raise Gino to be a good man.

By this time Gino has struck up a romance with Jessica (Choi) but Sledge and his goon Carlo (Bianco) are not willing to take no for an answer – so when Gramps refuses to give them Gino’s career, they set out to make Gino an offer he can’t refuse. Gino will be forced to fight for those he loves in a battle he can’t afford to lose but will he be able to do what it takes to win a life or death fight?

If you’ve seen most boxing movies involving a promising fighter who the mob wants to own and corrupt, then you’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Trevino, best known for The Vampire Diaries, does a fair to middling job in the lead but I’m not sure he’s ready for big screen leads just yet.

The boxing sequences quite frankly are atrocious. The actors plainly look like they don’t know what to do and the punches look fake. The dialogue sounds a little clunky as well although the actors try gamely to make it sound natural.

Really, the main failing of the movie here is that there is a lack of energy. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actors, the director, the editor or the writer – most likely it’s a combination of all of the above. Still, there’s nothing really for the viewer to hang their hat on and get involved in the story. There are plenty of movies that have taken this story and made it compelling; Sunset Park fails to do that.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is properly gritty for the material.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing sequences are unconvincing. The film could use an infusion of energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunset Park is the first full-length feature film for Sarrey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fighter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Brigsby Bear

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Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu)


A kid running from his troubles.

(2013) Drama (108 Media) Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins. Directed by Janis Nords

 

I’ve said it before and I’m not the first to say it: it’s not easy being a single mom. We’ve seen plenty of movies that back up that very thing. However, it is not often we see the story from the child of a single mom’s viewpoint. What must that be like?

Raimonds (Konovalovs) – whose name is pronounced “Raymond” – lives in the Latvian capital city of Riga. He’s a bright boy who goes to school, plays saxophone in the school orchestra, plays Wii at night when his mother allows and rides his push scooter around town getting from the apartment he shares with his mom to school mostly with occasional side trips to visit his best friend Peteris (Livcans).

Raimonds’ mom (Varpina) is an obstetrician who works brutal hours; often she has late night shifts at the clinic she works at and is from time to time called in for an emergency. Some of these late night shifts though are less work and more play; she has been developing a romantic relationship with a colleague. Raimonds is no fool; he is aware his mother is lying to him.

Peteris’ mom (Brike) is a housecleaner and often the two boys accompany her to one home or another. One that catches the boy’s eye is one that the owner is rarely home at. The man has a motor scooter parked in one of the rooms of his apartment which of course to young 12-year-old boys is absolutely irresistible. Raimonds manages to snatch the key to the apartment so the boys can come back and rev up the scooter.

Raimonds has, like most 12-year-old boys a streak of devilish behavior. When tall girls are mean to him, he is not above fighting back and when he uses a bra that one of his mates has stuffed down his shirt to plug up the horn of a particularly snooty girl, he gets written up. This is a disaster; he is required to tell his mother and get her signature on a form which would undoubtedly get a beating for him. His mother believes in corporal punishment which seems a bit alien to American audiences these days. In any event, he endeavors to conceal his malfeasance from his mom which leads to a spiraling series of events that grow progressively more serious. Extricating himself from the web he has woven for himself may be more than he can handle.

An awful lot of this is going to resonate with those who have grown up with a single parent and those who have been single parents. The very real issues of balancing work and quality time with one’s child as well as keeping control over children when they grow unruly are addressed here without sentimentality. The mom is no saint but she’s no worse than most mothers either. She’s doing the best she can and often she is operating in the dark as to what her child is truly up to. This is the part that parents will nod in sympathy with.

Konovalovs is a very natural actor who never over-emotes; his fear of his mother is very real and very natural. Like most kids, he operates on the philosophy that what his mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and won’t get him hurt) and while there is no doubt that Raimonds loves his mother very much and wants her respect and love back, he often plays her for a fool simply because he can.

I think it is more reasonable to say that Raimonds isn’t so much a bad child as he is a bored child. He has so much unsupervised time on his hands that it seems fairly natural that he would find ways to get into trouble. Each bad decision Raimonds makes from his own point of view makes sense and Nords who also wrote the film makes sure the audience is seeing that point of view clearly. At times audiences who may have less experience with child-raising may shake their heads at some of the things Raimonds does but at every turn it feels exactly what an unsupervised 12-year-old boy whose whole philosophy of life is avoiding punishment would do or decide.

Raimonds spends much of his time wandering the streets of Riga at night and it doesn’t feel as if he is unsafe at any time although he sometimes ventures into what appear to be rough neighborhoods. By day Riga looks grey and drab as if in a perpetual overcast; I have never been to Riga although I’m told it is a beautiful city but this film isn’t going to inspire anyone to visit it anytime soon.

Although it is essentially a film about kids this isn’t a kids film. The deeper Raimonds gets into his lies the grimmer things get. There are real-world repercussions for Raimonds and it isn’t pretty. While the ending of the film is a bit ambiguous it is more hopeful than the rest of the movie is so it isn’t completely a downer but it does take a while to get there. I haven’t seen a lot of Latvian films but if this movie is any indication there is some real quality filmmaking going on there.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematographer uses a fairly grim and grey palate. The movie is an accurate portrayal of a troubled boy.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not what you would call the most uplifting of films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sensuality but mostly the themes here are adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a major prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was the official submission of Latvia for the 2014 Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bicycle Thief
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Agnelli

A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

BnB HELL


I know why the caged girl screams.

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kimberly Woods, Rudy Dobrev, Carol Stanzione, Timothy Lee DePriest, Victor Turpin, John Stevenson, Olivia Rush, Jessica Graham, Shayla Famouri, Tallie L. Brinson, Mark Halau, Stefanie Maxwell. Directed by Andrew Jordan

 

There’s something about staying in a hotel, motel or bed and breakfast that is appealing. Staying in a room that is clean and fresh in a place we’re unfamiliar with appeals to the adventurous side. Some hotels should be checked out of more quickly than others. Other places to stay shouldn’t be checked into at all.

Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway is one such place. Run by a rather curmudgeonly matron who insists that everyone call her Momma (Stanzione), her bed and breakfast promises spectacular views of the Hollywood Hills (and delivers on them) although the rundown, ramshackle inn has seen better days. The interior design leaves a bit to be desired as well, coming with decor that one can only call eclectic – apparently Momma has a thing for wizards. She also has a thing for disappearing guests.

One of them is the twin sister of Willa (Woods) who is investigating her sister’s disappearance. Her last known residence was Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway, although Momma claims not to remember the young girl despite the fact she’d only checked in a month ago and let’s face it, the bed and breakfast isn’t exactly teeming with throngs of guests. In fact, the only other one currently in the BnB is Marco (Dobrev), a student waiting for school to start so he can check into the dormitory he’s slated for. Although the two don’t hit it off right away, they quickly become fast friends.

Other than wizard figurines, the rooms come equipped with video cameras that guests can record positive reviews of the BnB so that Momma can post them as online advertisements. So far her plan hasn’t worked exactly well but it does give Willa a means of finding out whether or not her twin sister positively stayed there and maybe a clue as to what happened to her. Something strange is going on at Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway and it isn’t all about the creepy neighbor (Halau).

I think we’ve seen this movie before. Videotapes of previous guests who have come to grisly ends? Been there. A proprietor who is rude and distrustful? Done that. A creepy red herring? Got the t-shirt. Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of originality here in terms of plot and character. I will say that Willa and Marco seem to be more sensible than most horror film heroes so there is that going for it. However, that’s not enough to overcome a pedestrian script which occasionally seems to be flailing around in the dark, quite literally sometimes.

Woods actually makes a pretty decent scream queen. She is tough, single-minded and pretty – she has all the ingredients to make the fan-boy heart beat faster. Dobrev is also an attractive hero/hunk and he works well together with Woods here. The rest of the cast does as well as they can do considering that many of them are pretty much stock horror film characters.

The most cardinal sin that Jordan commits as director, however, is the lack of suspense. Movies like this live and die on the tension they build and there really isn’t very much. I found my attention wandering at various times of the movie which is not a very good sign. Most people who are likely to rent or buy this will know the difference early on between the red herrings and the usual suspects. Guessing who the true killer is won’t take long for most.

There are some supernatural overtones to the film but they are never fully explored and it feels almost like the script was rewritten during shooting to tone them down. I get the sense that the supernatural elements are meant to be misdirection but they kind of peter out. I would have liked to see it explored a little more; it could have made the final film more interesting.

At first I characterized this as a horror film but I eventually changed my mind. The film is light on gore and nudity and while there are women in peril (and one in bra and panties in a kennel) the average horror fan will likely find this a bit too tame for his tastes. Torture porn this ain’t.

I’ve definitely seen worse suspense movies than this. The acting is good and while the script is a little on the cliché side, at least it hits most of the right notes. There are moments that are pretty enjoyable here in a guilty pleasure kind of way and although I realize I’m damning the film with faint praise for all its flaws it doesn’t miss the mark by much. If you wanted to invest your time and money into a viewing of this I wouldn’t say that either was wasted but I wouldn’t say you’ll be discovering a hidden gem either.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the murder scenes were well put-together. The supernatural overtones were nice, although I wish they had been developed a little bit better.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is heavy on the clichés, light on suspense. Horror fans will likely find this a little bit too tame.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be violence, sensuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dobrev is best known for his work on the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube (coming soon to Vudu)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motel Hell
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Birdshot

Lazar


A tearful embrace.

(2015) Crime Drama (108 Media) Vedran Zivolic, Natasha Petrovic, Dejan Lilic, Goran Navojec, Violeta Sapkovska, Krassimira Kuzmanova, Vlado Jovanovski, Alexander Sano, Ivo Zhelev, Toni Mihajlovski, Ivica Mojsovski, Kiril Anastasov, Igor Angelov, Goran Trifunovski, Bereda Reshit, Vladimir Tuliev, Aleksandra Balmazovic, Mitko Apostolovski, Zorica Stojanovska. Directed by Svetozar Ristovski

 

As the world’s filmmakers are beginning to turn out some truly respectable films, sometimes you find some gems from unexpected places. I know nothing about the Macedonian film industry but after having seen this crime drama from that country, perhaps a little more investigation might be in order.

Lazar (Zivolic) is a young man who works for a gruff criminal named Miki (Navojec). Miki makes a lucrative living smuggling illegal aliens from the Middle East into the European Union. Lazar is pretty much his right hand man in this operation, distracting local policemen by speeding past their patrol cars and then putting on a drunken show while the caravan carrying the illegal immigrants moves undisturbed past the place just vacated by the cop.

Lazar makes enough to support his family, but for his brother-in-law Toni (Lilic) there’s also a pride issue involved; he needs to support his own family. Somewhat reluctantly, Lazar gets him a job as a driver for Miki. Lazar, however, isn’t really paying much attention to this; he’s met a vivacious young student named Katerina (Petrovic) and the dead-eyed young criminal is slowly being brought back to life. The two move in together and Lazar decides that the life he’s been leading needs to stop. He wants a normal life with Katerina.

Miki is skeptical when Lazar tells him he wants to go to school and leave the organization but he convinces Lazar to fulfill his obligations until a replacement can be found; maybe Kona (Sano), who seems to be smart and tough enough to handle it. Lazar is getting increasingly unreliable which is making Miki somewhat upset, particularly when it appears that Lazar’s absence could end up costing Miki a very lucrative alliance with a Greek counterpart. Lazar comes up with what seems to be a satisfactory solution, but it leads to a major screw-up that leaves Lazar and Toni in an impossible situation.

I’ve gotta say that Zivolic has the dead-eye look down pat. His character starts off surly and sullen and somewhat unpleasant but as his relationship with Katerina deepens, we begin to see cracks in the tough guy facade. There is an awful lot of posturing to the point of occasional distraction by all the criminal element in the movie but the essence of the story is sound.

The movie has the same kind of vibe as some classic crime dramas from the 80s and 90s, which is a very good thing indeed. I was reminded of gritty thrillers like To Live and Die in L.A. among others, just in tone mind you. The plots are not at all similar.

Ristovski does a lot with a little which is encouraging. The movie isn’t super original in terms of plot but it is nonetheless effective in telling the story and creating a mood. The actors, particularly Zivolic and Petrovic, do some strong work and the romance between Katerina and Lazar is believable, the chemistry genuine.

This is a nice little gem which overcomes an ending that was pretty disappointing but until it gets to that point gives us a surprisingly good time. This might be a little difficult to find; it’s supposed to be on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu but I could find it on none of those services when I went looking for it. Keep an eye out for it however; it should be on a streaming service soon and once it is should be sought out by any crime movie lover with a flair for the global.

REASONS TO GO: The film packs the vibe of an 80s thriller – a very good thing. A pretty decent sense of suspense is developed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few mob/crime movie clichés here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some drug use, a bit of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ristovski also directed Dear Mr. Gacy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Phoenix Forgotten

The Cyclotron (Le Cyclotron)


Class dismissed.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Mark Antony Krupa, Lucille Fluet, Paul Ahmarani, Olivier Barrette, Manuel Sinor, Benoit Mauffette. Directed by Olivier Asselin

 

Although it may be hard to believe now, the Allies came within a hairs’ breadth of losing the Second World War. The Nazis were well on their way to developing their own atomic weapon; the Allies were able to defeat them before they could complete their work but what if we hadn’t?

A train hurtles into the night, headed for Switzerland from Germany. Emil Scherer (Krupa), a top German physicist is aboard it. He is AWOL from his work at the German version of the Manhattan Project and a fellow scientist named Helmut König (Ahmarani) has been dispatched to fetch him, find out whether he has taken any atomic secrets with him and whether he intends to defect.

Also on his trail is Simone Ziegler (Fluet), a French-German scientist who once worked alongside Scherer and was also romantically involved with him. She works now with the resistance and has been sent to find Scherer and if necessary, eliminate him. Since she finds him first, she talks to him and discovers that he has already discovered a way to make a bomb – one that fits in a wristwatch. Worse still, he has already constructed one and is wearing it. He hopes to hand it over to the Allies but with the German sniffing at their heels and the train still far from the Swiss border, getting out alive may not be an option. It will take an act of desperation which will lead to the war’s outcome balancing on the tip of the tail of a cat belonging to a fellow named Schrödinger.

Sometimes I have a problem with Hollywood films with bloated budgets that are too dazzling; this is the reverse. This is a movie that I wish could be remade with a much more ambitious budget. This is as well-written a script as you’re likely to see onscreen this year. Asselin, who co-wrote the script with Fluet, gives the main characters plenty of depth and keeps the tension high throughout. The game of cat and mouse between spies and Nazis is delicately played unlike the usual sledgehammers we get when less skillful hands try to do a movie in the film noir style.

There is plenty of atmosphere in the film and plenty of different styles to enrich it including some German Expressionism which I found delightful. It really helps establish the era as well as the mood. Fluet and Asselin don’t clutter up the film too much with technical jargon, although there are some explorations of quantum mechanics as well as Schrödinger’s Cat which is a theory which, to put in an extremely simplistic manner, posits that a cat is put in a box without air holes and left there for a certain period of time. There’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead until one opens the box; until that is done the cat is both alive and dead within the box. It’s fairly heady stuff but it makes more sense when you see it used within the film and I have to admit, I’ve never seen it used as well cinematically.

The black and white also helps the tone of the film, but that may not necessarily be why the filmmakers used it – there are several scenes that are shot in color in what seems like random bursts although that’s probably not the case. No, I suspect black and white was used to hide the fact that since the bulk of the action takes place aboard a train and they didn’t have access to one, they inserted shots of digital trains hurtling down a variety of train tracks. The CGI is absolutely shoddy and unacceptable; every time you see the train onscreen you’re taken out of the spell of the film that the director and cast has worked so hard to build. The score is also somewhat overbearing and sounds like it was cobbled together from a bunch of better noir films.

There is some real promise here. The actors do solid jobs and Fluet and Krupa even manage to generate some romantic heat between their characters. The movie fails more on the technical end rather than on the creative one. I would like to see this remade with actual trains rather than digital ones and a little bit more of an effects budget, particularly for the movie’s end. In any case while the execution was a victim of its ambition and lack of cash, this is nonetheless worth checking out if you’re willing to overlook the flaws here.

REASONS TO GO: Asselin does a marvelous job of keeping the tension high. Schrödinger’s Cat may be used to better advantage here than by any other movie in history.
REASONS TO STAY: The computer graphics are amateurish and distracting. The score is overwrought and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene with some gore early on, some sensuality and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia where it won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Train
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Elian

In Circles (2016)


Some movies go around in circles.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) James Fisher, Chloe Farnsworth, Jonnie Hurn, Cassandra Tomaz, Jodie Jamieson, Dan Burman, Jon Campling, Adrian Dunham, Sandy Kate Slade, Terry Roderick, Ian Manson, Steve Di Marco, Louis Mitchell, Olly Hunter, Marie Pope, Dayna Shuffle, Jacob Price, Rosalie Martin-Hurn, Isla McDonald, Denis Hurn, Serena Tombolini. Directed by Jonnie Hurn and Ian Manson

 

For decades, people have been trying to figure out what causes crop circles – intricate geometric figures hundreds of meters long in fields around the world. Mostly they can only be seen in aerial views. This has led some to speculate that they are the work of aliens from outer space; others are sure that they are pranks performed by particularly artistic humans on Earth. Some point to a supernatural origin other than extraterrestrials. Nobody knows the answer for sure.

Lara (Tomaz), a television journalist from Brazil who has to her mind been exiled to Europe to report on news that nobody in Brazil cares about, is looking to make a name for herself. Yossi (J. Hurn) is a cameraman who has already worked for the best and watched her get blown into a million pieces trying to rescue a small boy during one of many conflicts he has covered, one after the other, over the years. He wants something peaceful and meaningful; he longs to cover the act of creation rather than the acts of destruction. The two have been paired up and sent to Wiltshire in England, the world capital of crop circles where the vast majority of them are found.

Hatter (Fisher) is a local who is estranged from his son Dean (Burman) who works in London. Hatter owns an inn – well, it’s kind of an inn. It really is more like a pub with tents in the fields out by the river. From time to time Hatter has visions, very painful ones accompanied by loud noise and migraine headaches. The only relief he can get is to draw what comes into his mind which are often patterns that become significant only later on. The one employee at the pub is Aideen (Farnsworth), a pretty blonde who holds things together when Hatter is recuperating from his visions or tramping around the fields.

Wiltshire draws a lot of tourists because of the amount of crop circles there which the farmers don’t mind; they put donation boxes on the fences around their land and often make more money from those donation boxes than they do from harvesting the crops so if they have to put up with new age sorts and retro-hippies tramping around their land, it’s a small enough price to pay. When Lara and Yossi roll up, they meet Hatter who is cryptic about the circles but agrees to guide them to ancient stones and other sites that have dotted the Wiltshire countryside for centuries (Stonehenge is not far from where this takes place).

Dean picks this opportune moment to return home after a forced vacation is called for by his boss (Hunter) who is concerned that Dean’s work has fallen precipitously in quality. He and Lara hit it off and soon a romantic thing ensues which would likely be a shock to Yossi who dismissively calls her the Ice Monster and is derisive of her ambition and journalistic skills.

Yossi, for his part, is bonding with Hatter who recognizes that the cameraman is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needs to vent about the things that are haunting him, most notably the death of his partner whose final moments which she urged him to capture on video he is unable to sell to anyone. This causes him to feel that her death was in vain.

As the two journalists get involved more deeply in the lives of the Wiltshire locals, Yossi begins to share some of the visions that plague Hatter including that of the Electromagnetic Man (Campling), a kind of Celtic image who causes mysterious cuts on the arms of the men and Dean in a moment of weakness confesses something momentous to Lara which will throw everything into turmoil. Will Lara take the information she has received and use it for her own gain despite what it might do to the locals? And will Yossi lose himself in the mystery of the crop circles?

This is a fairly low-budget British affair that examines a phenomenon that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from Hollywood which is surprising. There is a rich vein of material that could be mined here for some amazing or terrifying movies. This one steers clear of the terrifying aspect, preferring to be something more like a suspense film. While there are elements of the fantastic, they aren’t the centerpiece of the movie. Still, I think I could characterize this as New Age sci-fi and not be far off the mark.

Hurn is from the area depicted in the film – the nighttime sequences in the fields were shot in the village he grew up in. That makes for a compelling story because it means something to the filmmaker, so it means something for the viewer. Unfortunately, the execution of the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the main issues is that the music is absolutely annoying. It is neither interesting nor beautiful; it is often used inappropriately to generate suspense when none is needed and is frankly embarrassing to the film. I would have preferred no music at all to what I heard in the film. The sound effects are also loud and jarring. If ever a movie was sabotaged by one technical element, this is it.

The acting performances are pretty solid with Burman standing out with an uncanny physical resemblance to Colin Farrell but also stylistically similar as well. I also liked Farnsworth a good deal; she has a great spunky presence that made me think of Judy Greer somewhat. I’m hoping to see more of her on this side of the Atlantic in years to come.

The directors seem to be fond of what I call visual nonsequitirs; images that are unconnected with the action seeking to establish a mood or to set a style. For example, during a fairly important sequence in the film the director cuts away to a shot of little girls dressed as fairies gamboling in a crop circle. A beautiful image, yes; germane to the story, no. The little girls make no other appearance of the film and are only there to symbolize innocence which was a point that was already made.

I think as Hurn and Manson mature as a filmmaker he’ll get away from those sorts of shots and concentrate on telling his story simply and effectively. I’m not opposed to artistic license or inserting images that may not necessarily advance the storyline into a film but it shouldn’t be a habit. I do like that Hurn at least told a story that was essential to him and it shows in a few places, just not enough of them.

REASONS TO GO: Burman is reminiscent of Colin Farrell both physically and in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a whole lot of visual nonsequitirs. The soundtrack is one of the most annoying I’ve ever heard on a film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as plenty of profanity and a few scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional the interview sequences were shot with actual crop circle investigators and researchers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Clinical

The Holly Kane Experiment


“Now, this won’t hurt a bit…”

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kirsty Averton, Nicky Henson, James Rose, Lindsey Campbell, Matthew Neal, Sophie Barker, Justin Hayward, Simon Hepworth, Emma Davies, Will Harrison-Wallace, Euan Macnaughton, Tom Cox, Tom Clear, Nicholas Fagerberg, Steve Doyle, Axel Kaae, Aidan Creegan, Stevie Raine, George Stocks, Claire Ashton, Sian Dobson. Directed by Tom Sands

 

There aren’t a lot of things we can be sure of in this life but one is that our thoughts are our own. However, technology is coming in which perhaps we cannot even be sure of that any longer.

Holly Kane (Averton) is a psychiatrist in Brighton who has come up with a means of implanting thoughts into the heads of other people, using sensory deprivation tanks and subliminal audio. She may seem a beautiful, competent professional on the surface but just below she is deeply terrified of becoming like her sister Rosalyn (Barker) who is committed to a mental institution.

Her technique is too much like brainwashing and after being invited to help a patient undergoing an appendectomy do so without anesthesia strictly utilizing her technique, she finds herself being sued by the hospital that asked for her help. No good deed will go unpunished, right? However, her savior comes in the form of Marvin Greenslade (Henson), a pioneer in the field of subliminal communication and a personal hero of hers. He offers to fund her research and gives her office space in his building to do it. Although he’s 70-something, he is clearly attracted to the much younger Holly.

Holly’s personal life is pretty much a mess; her best friend is Jeannie (Campbell) who in addition to being a brilliant chemist is also a bit of a party girl. She is the one who is supplying Holly with the highly illegal substances she needs to concoct a liquid that opens up the mind for adjustment. It also provides a psychedelic trip that while it wouldn’t do Kubrick proud is nonetheless fun to watch.

She’s also getting into the handsome young Scot Dennis MacIntyre (Rose) who although a bit on the scruffy side is nonetheless quite into Holly. However, she calls it off with him when she finds out from Greenslade that he’s a former spy; she lambastes him for lying to her – a lie by omission but still. In any case, as Dennis begins to dig deeper into Greenslade, it turns out that Marvin isn’t the wonderful guy he makes himself out to be. He’s got government connections at the highest levels and might be looking to use Holly’s technique as a means of brainwashing terrorists. He also is using her own technique against her to make her believe that she wants to have sex with him and she eventually does although judging from her expression she’s clearly not enjoying it. He also uses the subliminal audio to tell her to trust only him and to distrust Dennis. Using some nasty spy sorts like, for example, Carl Gower (Neal) who also messes up MacIntyre’s mind when he starts to get too close, Greenslade has eyes and ears everywhere. Can the two escape the clutches of Greenslade before he wipes out their minds permanently?

What I liked the most about this film is that it really evokes a 70s espionage film vibe from the pulsating electronic score to the paranoia to the plot twists and turns. While the suspense for the climactic chase isn’t built up as much as I would have liked, nonetheless this had a distinct cold war feel to it You were never quite sure who you could trust.

The character of Holly Kane is written a bit strangely. At times she’s emotionally closed off; other times she’s very emotional as when she visits her sister after a long absence. Averton plays her as well as can be expected, particularly during one of the most curious sex scenes in movie history when she has sex with Greenslade; her face is so emotionless and her body is so rigid that Greenslade may as well have been schtupping a plank. Otherwise Averton plays Kane cool which goes along with the overall vibe. Even when she’s partying Holly is a bit on the reserved side. There’s a scene in the deprivation tank in which Holly is masturbating which kind of comes from left field; even there her expression is almost clinical.

I’m not sure why the psychiatrist has to look like a super-model. I am also not sure why that she has to be saved from rape and brainwashing by a man who is at least as in trouble as she is. After going to the trouble of establishing Holly Kane as a strong, independent and brilliant woman, writer Mick Sands then turns her into a typical victim. Just once I’d like to see a woman like Dr. Kane not need rescuing from a guy but be able to take matters into her own hands.

The chase scene as Holly and Dennis try to escape the clutches of Greenslade and his goons is oddly flat. One doesn’t get the sense of imminent danger that should go with a scene like this. Time and time again, goons burst into the place where they think the two are only to find them gone. I don’t remember seeing their pursuers in the same frame as them at any time during the chase. It could have used a little more of a thrill factor.

Despite the flaws this is a satisfactory film and even a little bit more. It gets the tone right and although it could have used a bit more oomph in the suspense generation, it nonetheless keeps you guessing until the final chase. Considering the miniature budget for this thing, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere and paranoia of a 70s espionage film is recreated here in a good way. The concept that both the heroic leads may be clinically insane is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels anti-climactic towards the end. The surveillance photo stops get to be annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: Sensuality, some nudity, rape, drug use, violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Sands directed his first feature, Nazi Vengeance (2014) at the age of 24. His brother Mick wrote both of his features to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Parallax View
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bang! The Bert Berns Story

Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)


This hideout could use a cleaning service.

(2017) Dramedy (108 Media) Alan Thicke, Quinton Aaron, Leah Doz, Valerie Planche, Reamonn Joshee, Jesse Lipscombe, Allen Belcourt, Orin McCusker, Tony Yee, Elisa Benzer, Kevin Hanchard, Norma Lewis, Trevor Schmidt, Hillary Warden, Julia LeConte, Amber Lewis, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Mark Sinongco, Donovan Workun, Matt Alden, Erica Ullyot. Directed by Christopher Craddock

 

In our current society, self-help has been taken to new heights. We have become so self-involved, so self-focused that we have stopped seeing ourselves as part of anything larger. We’ve become all about getting everything we can for ourselves and everyone else can go screw themselves. It’s not a society that is pretty.

Patrick Spencer (Thicke) is a self-help guru who has gotten rich preaching “me first” to the choir. Masses of people have bought his books and attended his speaking engagements all chanting his mantra “It’s not my fault and I don’t care anyway” like robots, a means of absolving themselves of responsibility for anything. Patrick, a former alcoholic, is really good at that.

His daughter Diana (Doz) can attest to that more than most. Her relationship with her Dad is a rocky one indeed. She watched her mother (Frederick) grow more and more morose until she divorced Patrick; once she got the divorce settlement that would allow Diana to live decently, she took her leave of this life. Diana turned to drugs and sex.

Brian Calhoun (Aaron) grew up with loving parents, although things ended badly for them. Brian is called “Giant Man” around the neighborhood (not a terribly imaginative nickname) for his size which is impressive. It also comes with a price; Brian knows that his lifespan will be much shorter than most. Alone and miserable, Brian becomes a heroin addict and his size brings him to the attention of Johnny Three Fingers (Lipscombe), a vicious drug dealer and crime boss. Johnny needs an intimidator, something his right hand men Moose (Belcourt) and Lil’ Charles (McCusker) aren’t really capable of.

But Lil’ Charles has been seeing Diana and discovers her daddy is rich. When Johnny finds out about this, he decides a kidnapping and ransom would be in order. What he failed to reckon with that Patrick is so self-centered that he refuses to pay a ransom for his daughter; if she dies, after all, it’s not his fault and he doesn’t care anyway.

The two cops assigned to the case, Detective Elizabeth Stone (Planche) and her partner Smitty (Joshee) are dumbfounded by this but nonetheless go about trying to solve the case and, hopefully, rescue Diana. Brian who is really a gentle giant however doesn’t want to see her get hurt and together the two come up with a plan but it is a dangerous one.

This Canadian film is one of the last appearances of the late Alan Thicke, who is best known for playing the dad in Growing Pains, a hit sitcom back in the 80s. This is a far different role than Dr. Jason Seaver was for him. In a lot of ways, it’s a very savvy character particularly attuned to the modern man. He’s very charming but not always likable and I suppose that’s what our society values these days. Craddock, who based this on his own one-man play, picked up on that nicely.

The film is essentially told in flashback by four of the main characters in a kind of confessional way. Patrick discusses the incident at one of his self-help speaking engagements. Diana talks about it at a sex addiction group therapy session. Brian tells his side of the story during a police interrogation after the act. Finally Detective Stone is interviewed about the story by a journalist (Benzer).

The most compelling story belongs to that of Brian and in all honesty Aaron is the most likable actor in the group (with all due respect to Thicke). Aaron, who most might remember playing Big Mike Oher in The Blind Side, has a very sweet nature and while it’s hard to believe him as a heroin addict he manages to make the part his own anyway. His story tended to be the one I enjoyed the most.

There is a wry tone to the humor which is rather dry and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy the change of pace from most of the comedies we’ve been getting lately in which the humor is broad. However, it isn’t as funny as I would have liked and at times the energy is lacking. Part of the problem is that much of the film is static; we’re watching the characters sitting in chairs talking about the kidnapping and their lives up to that point.

This almost feels like a made for TV movie other than the graphic sex scene that comes out of nowhere and the fairly consistent use of profanity which one might expect from criminal sorts. Still, if you’re going to do that I think you need a little bit more punch. Not that there isn’t any – it’s just that there are so many talking head interludes that it disrupts the flow of the film.

Essentially this is available on VOD through various streaming services so that’s your best bet if you want to see this. It’s not a bad film but it isn’t very compelling either. I like that this is essentially about our move towards selfishness but it needed a bit more energy to make it work better.

REASONS TO GO: Aaron is a very compelling and likable performer. The humor is a little drier than usual which is quite welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film gets a little bit too maudlin. The energy is missing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some fairly graphic violence, some sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Thicke and Lipscombe penned and performed tunes on the soundtrack.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Last Word