Class Action Park


Throwing sanity for a loop.

(2020) Documentary (Perennial Media) Chris Gethard, John Hodgman (narrator), Jim DeSaye, Jessi Paladini, Ed Youmans, Bill Benneyan, Esther Larsson, Bob Krahulik, Mary Pilon, Mark Johnson, Faith Anderson, Andrew Mulvihill, Tom Shaw, Matthew Callan, Jimmy Kimmel, Brian Larsson, Daron Fitch, Seth Porges, Joe Hession, Mark Malkoff, Eugene Mulvihill, Alison Becker. Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III

Anyone ever tell you that truth is stranger than fiction? Well, here’s a documentary that’s living proof of that aphorism.

In the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey Wall Street penny stock trader Eugene Mulvihill, having been playing a bit fast and loose with SEC regulations in his day job, decided he wanted to build a water park near New York City. Water parks were pretty much new back then in the 80s, and Eugene found a property in the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey that was a ski resort. Ski resorts, however, only make money in the winter so he building a year-round theme park would be the ticket. He called his property Action Park.

“Uncle Gene,” as his staff generally called him, didn’t care much for regulations and had the deep pockets of a Wall Street crony to give him nearly limitless resources. He decided to build attractions that were one-of-a-kind and they certainly were that, like Cannonball Loop, a water slide with a loop in it. Gene preferred using non-professionals to design his rides – they were much cheaper than guys with engineering degrees – and the proof of how dangerous the ride was came when an inspection revealed human teeth embedded in the lining of the loop where people’s faces had slammed at high speeds into the top of the loop.

There were cliff diving recreations that had people jumping into a pool that people were swimming in. There was a wave pool with a “death zone” in which people would get swept under (and it became a literal death zone when a couple of people drowned in it). That’s right – people died going to this theme park, seven of ‘em in five years.

But back in the halcyon days of the 80s, parents really didn’t care where their kids were so long as they weren’t bothering them. So in the tri-state area, teens would go to Action Park to test their mettle against dangerous rides, like go-carts that could reach speeds of 50 MPH and came dangerously close to the beer tent – oh, and the legal drinking age was just a suggestion so far as Action Park was concerned.

Mulvihill had a largely teenage staff who weren’t terribly interested in enforcing safety regulations; most of them were too busy getting drunk, high or laid to properly supervise rides. Vinnies from the Shore and from the City would show up at Action Park looking to get blasted and come away with scars of honor. Even the medical shed was a house of horrors; scrapes were treated with a skeevy orange liquid that was so painful that anyone so treated with it who could stay within a painted circle on the ground without writhing in pain outside of it won a prize (which was an Action park pen more often than not).

The filmmakers tell the story through home video recovered from videotapes, old advertisements, talking head interviews (comedian Chris Gethard, a regular at the park in its heyday, is particularly amusing) and animated recreations.

At first, the documentary is hilarious as you can’t believe the bizarre ideas that Mulvihill allowed to be created at his park. But then the Larsson family tells their story and the tone shifts. George Larsson Jr. was a teen with a bright future ahead of him, but while screaming down the mountain at sick speeds on the Alpine Slide, the flimsily built sled he was riding saw its brakes fail and he went head-first into a rock. It turned out that the insurance policy that Mulvihill was carrying was a complete fraud, one he used to launder money out to the Caymans. And when fined, or sued, Mulvihill just refused to pay. It’s amazing he didn’t end up in jail, but he learned from Donald Trump – who was at one time considering investing in the Park – and his powerful connections kept him out of jail. His son, who inherited the park, was one of the talking heads interviewed for the film and while he remembers his father fondly, he also remembers him without sugar-coating.

Ultimately the park shut down as the 80s gave way to the 90s and parental supervision became a little stricter. I think most of those interviewed agree that something like Action Park could never happen again, but I wonder about that. Despite the lawsuit-happy culture we live in, deregulation seems to be something that the conservatives thoroughly endorse; it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that safety regulations for theme and water parks might be struck down just as environmental regulations have been.

This is a fascinating documentary that had me riveted from beginning to end. I lived on the opposite side of the country from Action Park, so thankfully I cut my teeth on theme and water parks that had a bit more consideration for safety. I suspect some remember the park fondly, but I’m reasonably sure that nobody would like to go back to it if they could.

REASONS TO SEE: Laugh-out-loud funny. Jaw-dropping in a “I can’t believe they got away with that” way. Captures the feeling of the Eighties very nicely. Lots of great clips.
REASONS TO AVOID: You might feel a little bit ashamed of yourself for laughing from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Knoxville based his movie Action Point on a short film Porges made on Action Park that preceded this full-length feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Action Point
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Behind the Lines: Escape to Dunkirk

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

Bumblebee


A girl and her bug.

(2018) Science Fiction (ParamountHailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Megyn Price, Rachel Crowther, Grey Griffin, Gracie Dzienny, Peter Cullen (voice), Len Cariou, Marcella Bragio, Steve Blum, Vanessa Ross, Glynn Turman, Kirk Bailey, Jon Bailey, Kevin Kent, Michael Masini, Fred Dryer, Mika Kubo. Directed by Travis Knight

 

After a decade of Michael Bay’s sturm und drang Transformers movies comes a different take in the franchise’s first spin-off…or is it prequel? I guess either appellation works.

With the Decepticons having overrun the Autobots in their ongoing war (if you don’t know what that sentence signifies, you should probably go no further and look for something else to rent), Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime (Cullen) to Earth to protect the human race. Unfortunately, he’s tailed by a couple of Decepticon warriors who basically kick the gears out of him, disabling his vocal functions and leaving him nearly dead. He makes like a VW Bug to hide from the evil robots, who are looking hard for him so they can find out where the Autobots are hiding and destroy them once and for all.

But teen Charlie (Steinfeld), mourning her late father, takes a liking to the Bug when she spies him in a scrapyard and decides to rebuild him. You can imagine her surprise when he rebuilds himself. The trouble is that those evil Decepticons have managed to convince the American government that Bumblebee is a threat and the gov’mint sends out iron-jawed Agent Burns (Cena) to locate the wayward Autobot and take him down. All that stands between the human race and total annihilation is a badly damaged robot and a plucky teenage girl. How much more 1987 could you get?

Quite a bit, judging from the wonderful soundtrack here. Still, this is a refreshing tonal change for the series which had fallen into self-parody with the last movie, Transformers: The Last Knight. While the movie starts out with a Bay-esque scene of mayhem and massive robot carnage, the movie abruptly shifts gears and becomes something of a buddy movie. Steinfeld is a very talented actress and not many could pull off doing a buddy movie with a car, but she does it pretty well, playing the 80s tomboy despite not having been born until the following decade.

But it’s the mayhem that most people buy tickets to these movies for, and there’s plenty of that. Knight, who has mostly worked with stop-motion animation with Laika, has a good sense of how to stage an action set piece but also has a good sense of balance with character development and plot. He even manages to inject a little pathos and humor into the mix, something Bay wasn’t known for.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent action sequences. Steinfeld gives an affecting performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fair number of clichés are present.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steinfeld was born nine years after the movie was set, so she had to be taught how to use some of the props such as the Walkman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Hero 6
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Union Bridge

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie

Low Tide (2019)


Summer is a time for Springsteen.

(2019) Drama (A24Jaeden Martell, Keean Johnson, Shea Whigham, Alex Neustaedter, Daniel Zoghadri, Kristine Froseth, Mike Hodge, Michael David Baldwin, Danny Bolero, Teddy Coluca, Albert Dubinski, Khail Bryant, James Paxton, Arial Eliaz, Camila Perez, Jean Tucker, Dave Lach, Elisa de la Roche, Sunny Edelman, Devon Moyd, April Mauger. Directed by Kevin McMullin

 

When it coms to our formative years, we have a tendency to either overly romanticize or overly criticize. When it comes to making movies about that time in our lives, the balance leans heavily towards the former.

The Jersey shore as the 80s are becoming the 90s isn’t necessarily an idyllic life. While the town is a bit of a postcard, the lives being lived without it are not. Brothers Alan (Johnson) and Peter (Martell) are largely on their own over the summer; their mother passed away years earlier and their father is literally out to sea; he’s a long-liner whose fishing trip lasts essentially the entire summer. The two boys are on their own.

As boys on their own will do, they fall in with the wrong crowd. Red (Neustaedter) is a sociopath, prone to violent outposts and ruling his little group with fear and intimidation. Smitty (Zoghadri) is a slippery character, the kind of guy who’d sell out his own mother if there was a percentage in it for him. Alan, Red and Smitty have taken to robbing the summer homes of “Bennies,” their derogatory name for upscale tourists vacationing in their quaint hamlet. Why do they do it? Boredom, likely; it also provides a cheap source of alcohol and drugs which they also take along with whatever trinkets they can fence.

On one job, their usual lookout Smitty breaks his leg in a clumsy fall and puts the burglary shenanigans on the back-burner for a while. Alan meets Mary (Froseth), a pretty summer Bennie whom he wants desperately to impress. Peter, who earns a little extra income by selling fish at the dock, is a Boy Scout with a future ahead of him. Then, Red convinces his crew to pull one last robbery with Peter substituting for Smitty. At this house, Peter and Alan find something they didn’t expect; a bag of vintage Doubloons that are worth a fortune. Deciding to keep it from the volatile Red who would likely take the bulk of the coins for himself, especially after Red deserts Peter and Alan leading to Alan getting caught by the local sheriff (Whigham) although he keeps that a secret from Red, knowing Red would go ballistic if he thought for even a second that Alan had spoken to the cops.

Peter buries the coins but not before Alan pawns enough of them to buy himself a car, the better to impress Mary with. Peter is aghast, knowing that this will draw attention to them – and of course, it does. Now the crew is eating its own young and nobody trusts anybody – and Red is a ticking time bomb who might just resort to murder if he suspects any of his friends might betray him.

It seems to me that movies with this kind of setting almost lens themselves; the cinematography is definitely a highlight here. It is counterbalanced (and not in a good way) by the score which is just annoying and weak. McMullin does a pretty decent job of establishing time and place with the strategic use of Bon Jovi on the soundtrack.

Fortunately, the cast is much better than one would expect. There is a great deal of chemistry between the leads and there is a naturalism to their performances that is quite charming. Martell and Johnson in particular come off as brothers from other mothers and Martell may be the best new find of 2019. He has the simmering charisma of a young John Cusack and the presence of a Brad Pitt. He’s got star quality written all over him – hopefully in permanent ink.

I was also impressed by Neustaedter’s performance. Red is an ideal movie villain, the kind whose fuse is short that you literally sit on eggshells whenever he’s onscreen; you never know how he’s going to react and how violent that reaction will be. He’s the kind of kid who knows he’s a bad seed and doesn’t much care. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (the son of a big local developer) and a chip on his shoulder. Whatever rage drives him, it’s bound to lead him to trouble even his well-heeled dad won’t be able to buy him out of someday and indeed it does.

The ending isn’t the most innovative you’ll ever see and in fact McMullin (who also wrote the script) telegraphs the ending a bit too much. There are vibes here from movies like The Goonies and TV shows like Stranger Things although without the fantastic elements. However, this isn’t strictly an idealized version of the good old days; some pretty bleak things happened and the people that surrounded Peter and Alan weren’t the kind that are likely to be a part of their lives well into adulthood. There’s certainly some things worth checking out here but it’s a bit too uneven to give it an unbridled recommendation.

The movie has been playing on DirecTV since Labor Day and is just now getting a limited theatrical release. It’s also available on a number of VOD outlets if you’re more into home viewing than checking it out on the big screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A good late summer film that manages to establish a decent level of suspense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A weak score and a predictable ending disintegrates some of the good will it builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some teen drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature debut of director McMullin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Memory: The Origins of Alien

The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Patrick

Summer of 84


Just a bunch of teenage badasses.

(2018) Thriller/Horror (Gunpowder & Sky) Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Grüter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen, William MacDonald, Harrison Hourde, Aren Buchholz, Susie Castillo, Reilly Jacob, Jaiven Natt, J. Alex Brinson, Patrick Keating, Patrick Lubczyk, Jordan Buhat, Mark Brandon. Directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell

We remember our childhood with a certain tinge of nostalgia. The era we grew up in – be it the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or aughts – live in our memories with a sepia glow of comfort and warmth. Summer nights spent bicycling around the neighborhood with our friends, looking for whatever adventures might be found in the nooks and crannies of where we grew up are precious to us as we grow older, careworn and further away from our youth when anything was possible, before we found out that life isn’t always beautiful.

Davey Armstrong (Verchere) grew up in the 80s in a small Midwestern town which was about as suburban as it got. His dad (Gray-Stanford) worked as a sound man for the local TV news. His best friends were always around the neighborhood and summer was an endless time of hanging out, talking about girls and neighborhood games of manhunt.

It is also a troubling time for his parents who are fully aware that several boys around town have gone missing. Davey is a bit of a tabloid conspiracy nut and most of his friends and acquaintances have heard all about his oddball theories but at least this one is plausible; Davey believes his next door neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Sommer) is a serial killer responsible for the disappearances. His friends – leather jacketed punk Eats (Lewis), rotund Woody (Emery) and smart-as-a-whip Curtis (Grüter-Andrew) are skeptical at first but soon they come to believe in Davey and set out to proving it.

This will involve things like going through his garbage, staking out his house and eventually breaking and entering. But that’s not the only thing Davey is keeping an eye on; his pretty former babysitter Nikki (Skovbye) has a habit of undressing in front of her window which Davey’s bedroom window faces. Her parents are divorcing and she’ll be moving away from the neighborhood shortly; she is upset and Davey becomes her confidante, which ends up dragging her into their detective work. She is also skeptical about Davey’s theory since Officer Mackey is outwardly a very nice guy, but there is also a very creepy side to him. As summer comes to a close and the chill winds of autumn and school beckon on the horizon, Davey and his crew will come face to face with something truly monstrous.

The vibe here is a bit Hitchcock meets vintage Spielberg. While there is very much a tone similar to the hit Netflix series Stranger Things this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are no supernatural elements here and for awhile I had a real hard time convincing myself that this belonged among my Six Days of Darkness collection but then again there’s the last ten minutes which…well, I’ll get to that.

The synth-heavy score certainly sets the tone; the music is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s music from the era. There are also lots of visual cues, from the arcade to the G.I Joe walkie-talkies that the boys use. The parents here are generally well-meaning but clueless which brings in the Spielberg element. The idyllic nature of the environment adds not so much to the era but to the time of life of the protagonists. I think that’s a time of life that we all appreciate.

There are some clichés in the plot and characterization. Those who are familiar with Rear Window or Suburbia will feel like they’re on a well-trodden path and Davey’s group of friends are pretty much standard issue for these sorts of Hardy Boys-type films. Also, the identity of the person behind the disappearances is not that hard to pick out if you’re paying attention.

But then there are those last ten minutes. At a certain point, the movie kicks into overdrive and you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, jaw firmly resting on the floor as you watch these filmmakers whose previous film was the decent Turbo Kid absolutely come of age. The last ten minutes of Summer of 84 may be the best ten minutes of any film you see this year.

REASONS TO GO: The last ten minutes of this movie are as good as any you’ll see. The filmmakers keep you guessing.
REASONS TO STAY: There are more than a few clichés here and the killer is fairly easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including crude sexual references and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a variety of shout-outs to 80s movies including The Karate Kid, The Thing and the Star Wars franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Things
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Three

Mandy (2018)


Nic Cage is never happier than when he’s driving a car while drenched in fake blood.

(2018) Horror (RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephen Fraser, Ivalyio Dimitrov, Kalin Kerin, Tamás Hagyuó, Madd’yz Dog Lollyta, Corfu, Paul Painter (voice), Hayley Saywell. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

 

Nic Cage has, in this stage of his career, carved out a reputation as having the best freak-out in the business. Perhaps not what he had in mind back when he was considered one of the finest actors in the business for serious works like Leaving Las Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married but it’s always good to be good at something.

Here he plays Red Miller, a taciturn lumberjack living in the Pacific Northwest woods of the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his hippie chick girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) who makes a living doing illustrations for fantasy and science fiction-themed album covers. She’s a bit of an aging waif with anime eyes who brings in a little extra cash working as a cashier at a local gas station/grocery. Walking home, she is espied by Jeremiah Sand (Roache) who decides that this is the woman from him. He sends Brother Swan (Dennehy) to see that she sees the light.

Using an odd instrument called the Abraxas Horn Swan summons a group of demonic bikers who use a sort of liquid extreme LSD to get themselves in the mood for violence. They break in to the rustic cabin of Red and Mandy and restrain Red in a kind of barbed wire manacle. Mandy is brought to Jeremiah who makes an art form of tooting his own horn. His attempts at seduction don’t get him the results he wanted so in a fit of Trump-like pique he decides to teach the couple a lesson.

The results aren’t pretty. Mandy meets a grisly end witnessed by her boyfriend who is stabbed and left for dead. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Red and he goes about collecting himself an arsenal and then going on a little ass-kicking expedition and you know it won’t end until every mutha who messed with his girl exsanguinates all over his face.

For those who, like me, love Conan O’Brien’s Nicolas Cage threat level gauge, he delivers one here that is sure to be Defcon One the next time O’Brien puts one together. Through the first half of the film Cage is fairly quiet but once Mandy is taken from him he goes full-on Nicolas Cage and that can be highly entertaining.

Director Panos Cosmatos isn’t above ratcheting up the crazy, using a good deal of psychedelic footage and LSD-inspired footage melds that with a largely electronic and almost progressive metal score from the late Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson that really captures the heart of the film. Any movie that starts out with King Crimson’s criminally underappreciated “Starless” is a friend of mine.

Riseborough is not your usual lead here; oddly, Jeremiah seems to treat her as a younger woman but she’s clearly middle aged. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder but her character’s new age babble is a little bit distracting. What isn’t distracting is the final half of the film which is essentially one long action sequence with all sorts of gory violence which is bound to bring a contented smile to most horror fans.

This is not your typical horror movie; there are some themes of love and violence, obsession and ego. There are some animated scenes that are sort of like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. So it’s very much a situation of the 70s have called and they want their horror film back. This isn’t a movie from that era (even though it’s set in ’83) but it captures the spirit of psycho horror films of that era nicely.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his most ludicrously demented which is saying something. The action sequences are bizarre but in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie does take a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: Deep breath now; there’s gore and violence (some of it extreme), the full Monty, copious drug use, profanity and likely lots of mean thoughts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roache and Brake both previously worked together in Batman Begins in which Roache played Thomas Wayne and Brake played Joe Chill, who murdered him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive Angry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Coors: The Will to Live

MDMA (Angie X, Cardinal X)


Annie Q knows you can never truly relax when you’re a drug kingpin.

(2017) Crime Drama (Shout! Factory) Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Teiji Takeda, Joseph John Schirle, Ron Yuan, Noah Segan, Yetide Badaki, Henry Zaga, Elisa Donovan, Allyrah Caldwell, Angie Wang, Devon Libran, Kyle Zingler, Zoe Winter, Ed Moy, Shoyi Cheng, Dexter Masland, Cooper Chow, Jason J. Lai, Jackie Dallas. Directed by Angie Wang

 

In the mid-80s, “Just say no” was the kind of thing knowing club kids used as a kind of electronic irony. Just say no? Why on earth would anybody do that? Drugs were profitable (for dealers and their suppliers) and moreover, drugs felt amazing. And yeah, so long as you didn’t get hooked on something like heroin they were essentially harmless, right?

Angie Wang (Q) is a young sparkling-eyed freshman going off to college at an expensive private school in California (think: Stanford). Her father (Yuan), who works at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, can’t afford the tuition, but lets his daughter go anyway. Once there she befriends her roommate Jeanine (Eastwood), a blonde and pretty debutante sort whose life is much more messed up than it appears to be on the surface, with an alcoholic and judgmental mother who seems hell-bent on putting down her daughter about as far as she can go. Angie’s mother left with her little brother when Angie was a little girl, enduring an abusive husband until she couldn’t.

It turns out that Angie is no stereotype, no prim and proper Asian princess. She parties hardy and has sex whenever and with whoever she chooses. A swimmer with Olympic aspirations turns her on to Ecstasy, then a legal recreational drug (the title is based on its scientific name which is abbreviated as MDMA). Supplies are extremely limited as its only manufactured by a single lab in Germany; chemistry major Angie thinks she can synthesize it in the chem. Lab all by herself. As a result she becomes the leading supplier of the drug on the West Coast, referred to in the clubs as “Cardinal X.”

The money allows her to pay her tuition and live a lifestyle more to her liking. She joins the big sister program and becomes a mentor to Bree (Caldwell), the daughter of a crack mom (Badaki) more concerned with having beer and smokes readily available than seeing that her daughter wasn’t hungry. Her lab partner Tommy (Takeda) urges her to get out of the drug dealing although he doesn’t report her; he’s crazy in love with her after all, and hopes that he can save her from herself. However, it’s already way too late for that and soon things spiral out of control.

Wang called this “a dramatic telling” of her life story, which means that likely some events were fudged, embellished and/or compressed somewhat. She recalls the club scene of the mid-80s (what I can remember of it) pretty accurately, other than if they were Bay Area clubs there should have been a larger presence of gay men than there are in the movie.

Annie Q is a former child actress whom readers might recognize from the TV show The Leftovers. She gives Angie a good deal of strength and sass without reverting to Hollywood Asian stereotypes. The movies definitely need more characters like Angie in them – not necessarily as role models for young Asian girls since Angie does a lot of really bad shit in the movie – but simply to show Asian women in a more realistic light.

Some of the plot points feel a bit overdone with the final third of the movie feeling like every one of the main characters are constantly in tears. The dialogue sometimes sounds a little awkward as well. Still as first efforts go, this is a mighty fine one. The soundtrack is full of 80s goodness and Wang wisely keeps things simple, not trying to show off unusual camera angles to attract attention to herself. She lets the story take center stage which some new directors forget to do. Wang may not necessarily be proud of her past but she can be proud of her movie.

REASONS TO GO: Annie Q gives the story a strong Asian woman lead, something not seen often.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little overwrought in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of drug use and references, violence, profanity, sex and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wang, who wrote and directed the film (and also appears in a cameo role), based the movie on her own life experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, ITunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Boy Rick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Greater Society