Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral

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Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?


In their own way, they're both sticking to their guns.

In their own way, they’re both sticking to their guns.

(2016) Comedy (Area23s) Andrea Anders, Matt Passmore, Cloris Leachman, Katherine McNamara, John Michael Higgins, Garren Stitt, Horatio Sanz, Lauren Bowles, John Heard, Christine Estabrook, Kevin Conway, David Denman, Fernanda Romero, Max Lloyd-Jones, Marshall Bell, Terrence Beasor, Ray Auxias, Julie Brister, Gina Gallego, Eileen Grubba, Victoria Moroles. Directed by Matt Cooper

 

In Texas, there is power and then there is power. For the men, the power resides behind the barrel of a gun. For the women, the power can be found between their legs. At least, that is what this comedy would have you believe.

In the oh-so-very Texas town of Rockford, the town motto is “Live free, shoot straight.” The men work at the fruit packing plant all week long, the one owned by the reclusive billionaire Cyrus Rockford who hasn’t been seen in decades (the prevailing rumor is that he’s been dead for years) and on weekends, go out hunting. The womenfolk take care of the kids, the house and occasionally get together in their book clubs. Things are going the way they’ve always gone there for generations.

Glenn Keely (Passmore) is one of the plant’s managers and, rumor has it, a prime candidate for a vice-president’s position. His life is pretty dang sweet; his wife Jenna (Anders) is smart, gorgeous and sexy; his daughter Sandy (McNamara) is the same. His son Lance (Stitt) is growing up to be a fine young man, even if he’s a bit impatient to get satellite TV.

Glenn is a bit of a gun nut; he collects the handguns, some of which are pretty sweet. When Lance decides to show off his dad’s latest purchase to his friends at school, it leads to an accidental discharge of the weapon that results in nothing more wounded than the crossing guard’s pride (and tush) but the thought of what could have happened is enough to give Jenna night terrors. What makes it worse is that none of the men seem to think much of the incident; the school gave his son a slap on the wrist, the sheriff (Heard) looks the other way and Glenn seems more concerned that Lance took the gun without permission than the fact that it went off in a crowded courtyard.

After airing her frustrations to her book club pals, she hits upon a plan; the men in town must give up their guns. Until they do, the women of town will withhold sex from the men. At first the ladies are reticent; will this even work? Getting the other women in town to come on board will be an uphill battle. Nevertheless they do it, the prime ringleaders being the foul-mouthed grandma (Leachman), the sexy Latina next door trying to have a baby (Romero) and the sheriff’s matronly wife (Estabrook).

To Glenn’s chagrin, Jenna’s leadership and determination galvanizes the ladies into an organized group to be reckoned with. At first the men dismiss the women’s stand, figuring it would blow over as soon as they began to miss their husbands embrace but as time goes by, it soon becomes apparent that the ladies aren’t going to give up the fight anytime soon. The spineless mayor (Higgins, channeling Fred Willard) is unable to rally the troops to get control of their women so it falls to an NRA-like organization called the National Gun Organization led by a dour Charlton Heston-worshipper (Bell) to send in the cavalry to rescue the men and their God-given rights to have as many guns as they want. The ladies are in all sorts of trouble until help comes from an unlikely source.

This is the second movie in a year to be based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes about a group of women who refused to make love until their men ceased making war. Quite frankly, associating that ancient play with the modern issue of gun rights vs. gun control is a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really hold up to the concept; there is a TV movie of the week quality to the film that is quite disappointing.

Anders is a very attractive lead and with the right material could become a solid big screen leading lady. This isn’t the right material; it is riddled with cliches and stereotypes and nearly entirely white faces in the cast. Yes, even Texas has some diversity and more than a token Hispanic couple lapsing into Spanish whenever they get angry. Sorry Hollywood; those of us who are second generation or later view English as a first language and we don’t express our frustrations in Spanish. Just sayin’.

I also find it disconcerting that the filmmakers will throw some sobering facts out there in one breath (such as the number of mass school shootings after Newtown or that the Second Amendment only referred to arming state militias until the Supreme Court decreed that it referred to individual gun ownership in 2008) and then deliver a boner joke with the next. It does a disservice to the material and honestly if I were the parent of a child slain in a school shooting I would find it highly offensive.

This is an equal opportunity offender. Lefties will object to the cultural stereotypes, while conservatives will grouse about the Hollywood liberal gun control bent that the movie obviously has. Others will find the humor crude and vulgar. What it boils down to however is that anyone who loves a good movie will be greatly offended that this movie is far from even being mediocre; this is pure and simple a poorly made, poorly executed film that could have been so much better with sharper satire and fewer trouser tent gags.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, mostly involving erections.
REASONS TO STAY: A film riddled with cliches and stereotypes. The tone is flat and dull. The filmmakers dumb down an important and controversial subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and sensuality, some brief violence, crude humor and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is at least the fifth movie version of Lysistrata to be filmed, none using the original name or material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 6/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Mechanic: Resurrection

Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33