Boss Level


Reliving the future.

(2021) Action (Hulu) Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rio Grillo, Armida Lopez, Buster Reeves, Eric Etebari, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Joe Knezevich, Adam Simon, Rob Gronkowski, Melanie Kiran. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

It goes without saying that an action movie should have thrilling action sequences. But it is equally important that an action movie be fun. So many of them take themselves so seriously that we end up wondering when Scorsese started making mindless action flicks. Well, he hasn’t yet but he might just approve of this one. Or, he might not. You be the judge.

Roy Pulver (F. Grillo) wakes up with a machete whistling towards his head. Being an ex-Delta Force commando who has a particular set of skills, he is able to dodge his would-be killer, and also avoid the chain gun being fired at his apartment from a hovering helicopter. As the final wreckage of his place becomes explosive (no damage deposit return for Roy), he leaps out into a passing dump truck, rolls gracefully into the street with his upswept coif neatly in place, and commandeers a sports car from a screaming, whining civilian and roars off, to be chased by a legion of assassins. Roy has no idea who wants him dead, or why. All he knows is that in the end, they kill him and always by 12:47pm. Then he wakes up and starts the whole process all over again.

Now, this concept has been used in a variety of genres with results that vary in quality. I have news for you, though – this one is better than most. It has an incredible cast, including Gibson as the well-meaning but out of his mind military-corporate bad guy (Gibson is getting a second career as a heavy after he self-sabotaged his A-list career as the kind of action hero that might well have had the lead heroic role in the movie had it been made in 1987), Watts as Roy’s scientist ex-wife who works for Gibson, Sasso as Gibson’s major-domo, Jeong as a wise-cracking bartender, Yeoh as a legendary sword master and so on. Roy is beset by a group of assassins each with their own gimmick, from the guy who looks suspiciously like him (whom he calls “Roy #2”) to a pair of Teutonic twins of African descent and grumpy disposition as well as a smug self-aggrandizing Asian swordswoman who announces her name every time she dispatches poor old Roy and confirming that she, in fact, is the one responsible for the carnage. She probably needs to talk to a legal expert.

If you think of this as an action-packed videogame, you will likely come as close as you’re going to in understanding what this movie is about. My advice is not to think too hard about it; best to just go with the flow and mow down baddies while your perfectly coifed hair remains uncannily in place. The movie plays a lot like a videogame (the title gives it away) and gamers will likely find this of slight interest but would probably prefer to play a game over seeing a movie. Gamers are natural-born control freaks, don’t you know?

As for the fun quotient, it’s through the roof. This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it moves at a pace equivalent to the chain gun fire that punctuates every morning in Roy’s apartment. You’re not really given a whole lot of time to think, although if you do you’re apt to get a headache so I would advise against it. It’s big, loud and dumb with a sick soundtrack that will keep your grin fixed as immovably in place as Grillo’s hair, and it requires no investment whatsoever other than the hour and a quarter of the movie’s compact running time. It’s a wise investment, though; action movies are rapidly morphing into big budget eye candy that requires the entire population of China to buy a ticket in order to almost break even at the box office. While there are some pretty nifty special effects (and Grillo’s hair is clearly either green screened, or a product of alien technology), it doesn’t appear they broke the bank with their budget and Grillo, it turns out, is a companionable action star who you will have no problem rooting for. If there are a few too many side quests (such as Roy trying to get to know his son, who isn’t aware that Roy is his dad – now that’s kind of messed up) it can be forgiven because Carnahan, already one of the best at action in the business, packs so much into it’s short running time you don’t begrudge a little padding. This one is worth getting a subscription to Hulu for all by itself and when you throw in the upcoming animated M.O.D.O.K. series with Patton Oswald waiting in the wings, you probably should seriously consider it.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the charm of a side-scrolling shooter game. Frenetic and funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most pictures with this gimmick, it does eventually start to get old.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all sorts of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roy’s son Joe is played by Frank Grillo’w real-life son Rio.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Say Your Prayers

The Dead of Night


Colby Crain takes a beer break.

(2021) Horror (Shout!) Jake Etheridge, Colby Crain, Leah Bezozo, Kyle Overstreet, Matthew Lawrence, Lance Henriksen, Charlotte McKee, Darius Homayoun, Merritt C. Glover, Boots Southerland, Jack Lutz, Jesse Kinser, Ellen Gerstein, Mark Speno, Chris Ranney, Tim Stafford, Maria Robison, Brian Patrick Buckley, Harrison Wirstrom, Rudy Benta, Sid Goodloe, Connie Hanley. Directed by Robert Dean

 

Some people prefer the hustle and bustle of a big city. Others prefer a more rural existence. There is something about living in the country – isolated, quiet, peaceful. You quickly learn to fend for yourself in a situation like that because if trouble comes, there’s nobody to come save you.

In a small New Mexico town a couple of drifters, both wearing wolf skins and masks, murder a pick-up truck driver and steal his truck. They move on into town where an annual rodeo is taking place. One of the stars, Colt Skeen (Homayoun) – a local boy – hooks up with Maddie (MeKee), the daughter of unpopular local developer (Speno) who has just announced that he is running for mayor, to a dreadfully stony silence. They repair in Colt’s rundown RV to an empty field (there are a lot of them around town) for a tryst, only to be interrupted by the wolfskin killers.

The killing of the young people take place near the ranch of Tommy (Etheridge), who has some things on his mind. His sister June (Crain) is leaving town the next day to fly out to Germany to be with her fiancée who is stationed on a base there. Young sheriff’s deputy Luke (Lawrence), who has a thing for June, suspects that Tommy has something to do with the killings which makes things even harder for the brother and sister who are already on thin ice with each other – Tommy wants her to stay and help run the family ranch, while June is happy to be anywhere but there.

But June is determined, so her friends Amber (Bezozo) and Ryan (Overstreet) throw a farewell party at her house for her. In the meantime, Tommy witnesses the wolfskin killers murdering an old man. He is detected but escapes, bringing the killers to his ranch – where they’ll terrorize the siblings and their guests. Blood will spill before a twist nobody will see coming gives the movie a punch in the gut.

Up until that twist, this is fairly standard stuff; mysterious masked strangers killing seemingly without rhyme or reason, murdering people at random simply because their paths cross. That has been a popular theme in horror movies, particularly of late. In these anxiety-ridden times, I think we’re all suspicious of just about everyone else. And we’re not too sure about ourselves.

There’s some real nice empty spaces cinematography courtesy of Troy Scoughton Jr., and while there is a country and western feel to the proceedings that give it a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre overlay, which is nice and welcome in these times. The performances by the young cast are solid and Dean gives a lot more thought to character development than the average horror director, who tend to line up the body count more than anything else. You may notice genre veteran Lance Henriksen in the cast, but don’t be fooled – he’s only in the film for a very brief cup of coffee, and really has not much of an impact overall, which is a shame because he is the sort of actor who normally adds a great deal to any film he’s in. They could have used him in a larger role.

And there is a body count here, but curiously, not a whole lot of gore. The murders often take place off-screen and the gore is kept to a minimum. That might not sit well with hardcore horror fans, but there are compensations – namely, the character development I mentioned earlier. I wish that there had been a little more thought given to the plot, though, which is fairly derivative throughout until the climax. All in all, not a bad effort but a tame one when it comes to gore and horrific images.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to build the suspense nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many standard slasher tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of violence, and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in New Mexico and is based on a childhood fear of writer/director Dean, who grew up in an isolated rural environment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Minutes to Midnight

Come True


Julia Sarah Stone is feeling blue.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Carlee Ryski, Christopher Heatherington, Tedra Rogers, Brandon DeWyn, John Tasker, Austin Baker, Shane Ghostkeeper, Christopher Thomas, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Tyler Dreger, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Tiffany Helm, Maria Renae, Millie Jayne, Alex Cherovsky, Michelle Rios, Pamela Parker. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

Dreams serve a therapeutic purpose, allowing the demons of our subconscious to stretch their metaphysical legs, as it were. Nightmares, though, are mostly just unpleasant and while they serve their own purpose, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would rather do without them. Nightmares are a pain in the ass; for some, however, they take over, become obsessions and perhaps imperil our sanity – and perhaps our lives.

18-year-old Canadian high school graduate Sarah Dunne (Stone) is one such. Every night she finds a different place to sleep – a friend’s house, the playground at her local park and so on. She is subject to sleep paralysis and vivid, terrifying dreams that have begun to take over her life. She has had a falling out with her mom and generally avoids her, stopping by her home only to shower and grab a change of clothes.

When she is given a flyer advertising a sleep study, she’s intrigued. A safe place to sleep where she will be monitored, where she’ll be paid and best of all, perhaps a cure for her affliction can be found. It’s a win-win-win situation. But right away, she senses that there is something not quite aboveboard in the study. The man running it, Dr. Meyer (Heatherington) seems to be way creepier than she would like, and the questions his assistant Anita (Ryski) asks following her night’s sleep are invasive and troubling. Worse yet, there is creepy nerd Jeremy (Liboiron) who may or may not be stalking her nd who may or may not be willing to tell her the dirty little secret behind this particular sleep study.

But things take a lurching turn for the worse when it begins to feel like Sarah’s waking life and dream life are beginning to merge, with frightening consequences.

Burns, in his second feature film, has some really promising ideas here, which sadly don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying film. The moody dream sequences are seriously underlit, which while atmospheric also makes it hard to figure out what’s going on at times which gets frustrating when repeated several times throughout the film. He also has a good sense of style; the movie becomes more dream-like the longer it goes on until he climax which is, sadly, a bit unsatisfying.

Stone has a kind of fresh-faced appeal and while her character is made to assert her over-18 status a bit too much – probably to make her romance with an older man a little less cringe-inducing – she still comes off as a strong, charismatic lead. Some of the imagery here is truly frightening and isn’t something you will want to watch just before bedtime. There is also a bit more technobabble than I generally like – that’s more of a personal preference – and Sarah’s angst which seems to stem from a rift with her mom which is never explained can get tiresome to people who don’t really care what the latest social media app has to offer.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything worthwhile here. Burns has an original voice and some decent instincts, but I get the sense that he isn’t quite adept at making that voice audible just yet. I’m hoping that he’ll continue to develop his talents because there’s definitely a sense that he’s got something special inside him that one day is going to flower and blow us all away. While this isn’t the film that’s going to do that, it certainly has enough positives that you might want to check it out or at least keep an eye out for his future endeavors.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating concept. Dream-like presentation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Execution is lacking. Too much technobabble and teen angst.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, terrifying imagery and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Burns’ second feature film after Our House (2018).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Test Pattern

Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984

Elyse


In 2020, catatonia might be viewed as a blessing.

(2020) Drama (GravitasLisa Pepper, Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Tucker, Tara Arroyave, Fran Tucker, Julieta Ortiz, Griffin Thomas Hollander, Donat Balaj, Anthony Apel, Danny Jacobs, Everett Kelsey, Connor Garelick, Natalia Tucker, Susan Papa, Brittani Ebert, Riccardo Spinotti, David M. Jackson, Daisy Barber, Annette Dugan, Diana Arroyave. Directed by Stella Hopkins

 

Some movies are just slam dunks as far as critics are concerned. They are easy reviews to write; the words just flow. Some are much harder to articulate though.

This turgid melodrama stars Pepper as the titular character, a well-coiffed, well-dressed wife of a wealthy lawyer (A. Tucker), living in a gorgeous modern house where her adorable son (Hollander) is looked after by a solicitous nanny (Ortiz). But all is not perfect in paradise. Elyse suspects her husband – baselessly, it turns out – of having an affair with the nanny’s daughter Carmen (T. Arroyave) who works at her husband’s firm. She also has a very dysfunctional relationship with her patrician mother (F. Tucker).

At a dinner party, fueled by too much drink, she has a meltdown. Her husband, concerned over her increasingly volatile behavior, wants her to see a psychiatrist, a Dr. Lewis (A. Hopkins) who had some success with one of the other lawyers in his firm. Elyse agrees and actually develops a bond with him. However, not all is what it seems and to quote David Byrne, “You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful house?”

 

This is something of a family affair, with the director being married to one of the stars, and also related to two other actors by blood (her maiden name is Arroyave). There is also a mother/son team of actors playing mother-in-law/son-in-law here. That’s all very cozy, but it feels very much like this was cast largely from people the director knew and was comfortable with, rather than getting the best actors for the roles. It shows particularly in the lead roles where, with the exception of the one Oscar winner in the cast, the performances are uniformly stiff and uninspired.

But then again, the dialogue is truly dreadful. You can’t ask an actor to say a line like “This house is an empty shell…of vanished dreams” and expect him (Aaron Tucker, in this case) to make it sound like something a real human being would say. You know a film is going to be pretentious when the opening voice-over narration quotes The Wizard of Oz and you know that the film is about mental illness. I mean, Zoinks! Home viewers may end up banging on their TV in frustration as the first half of the film is in black and white with occasional splashes of color in a ham-fisted attempt at symbolism. Even when the main crux of the plot unfolds – it’s not a spoiler to say that Elyse is actually catatonic and in a mental hospital with Dr. Lewis trying to reach her and bring her back into consciousness – there is little to surprise the viewer and a whole lot to make them want to watch something else.

Still, Anthony Hopkins – who also produced the film and scored it – is a reliable factor and worth watching even in a bad movie, and trust me gang, the rating for this would be a hell of a lot lower if the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t present. Believe it or not, I take no joy out of trashing a film; I know that nobody goes into making a movie with the intent of making a bad one, but sometimes, despite the best intentions, that is exactly what is produced. However, Hopkins fans don’t have to feel bad about his lot – in a couple of weeks, his new film The Father will be coming out and that might well be one of the best films of a year that most of us will want to forget anyway.

REASONS TO SEE: Anthony Hopkins is always a treat.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is simply awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Stella Hopkins has been married to star Anthony Hopkins since 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Farewell Amor

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

5 Years Apart


In golf, four’s a game; five’s a crowd.

(2019) Comedy (GravitasChloe Bennet, Scott Michael Foster, Ally Maki, Michael Vlamis, Craig Low, Michelle Randolph, Malcolm Hatchett, Chandler Bailey, Samuel Elhindi, Kyle Anderson, Spencer Waldner, John Cahill, Becky Robinson, Christian Pierce, John McKay, Isiah Miller, Judah Miller, Arsenio Castellanos. Directed by Joe Angelo Menconi

 

If you are looking for the most vindictive, vitriolic and vicious blood feuds there are, look no further than the wars between siblings. It’s difficult to hide who you are from someone you grew up with. You know all the dirty secrets, the moments of shame, and the flaws and defects. There also tends to be rivalries, particularly between siblings of the same sex. Family breeds familiarity, after all, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Andrew (Foster) is about to turn 30. He is a successful businessman, the sort of meticulous man who has every moment of every day planned down to the minute. His wife Olivia (Maki) is much the same way. She and Andrew are thinking of starting a family, but it would entail Andrew taking a second job to offset the loss of income from Olivia and she’s not willing to see him overwork himself. They decide to take a birthday weekend at the house of Andrew’s parents in Arizona while the parents are on holiday in Italy.

His younger brother Sammy (Vlamis) is about to turn 25 – in fact, on the same day as Andrew as the two brothers were born five years apart on the same day. He works as a salesman for a bounce house rental company. He and Andrew haven’t spoken in five years after an incident at a Christmas family gathering led to a physical confrontation between the two. Sammy didn’t even show up at Andrew’s wedding and has never met Olivia. As meticulous as Andrew is, so Sammy is carefree and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. He had gone to Arizona State but had dropped out – just one of many instances of Sammy not finishing what he started.

Sammy decides to spend the weekend of his birthday at his parent’s house since they are in Italy. On his way there he meets Emma (Bennet) at a bar. The two hit it off and eventually win up doing the horizontal rumba on the living room couch. This brings out Andrew and Olivia who were doing their own wild thing in the bedroom. It also turns out that Emma had been coming out to visit with Olivia – her half-sister, ain’t coincidence a wonderful thing if you’re a screenwriter – so that she could be set up with Mark (Low), an outgoing Aussie who Andrew has a high opinion of. Unfortunately, as it soon turns out, Emma doesn’t.

The two brothers aren’t willing to budge so reluctantly they spend the weekend together in the same house. Sammy goes out of his way to irritate his staid older brother, while it turns out there is some tension between Olivia and Emma as well. Can the two sets of siblings figure out a way to get past their hurt feelings and pride and find a way to forge an actual relationship?

The plot has a sitcom-y element to it which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some contrivances, sure, but not in a too-in-your-face way that sitcoms sometimes get. Dysfunctional family relationships are not, as we all know, unheard of and in an era where we are being forced to spend more time with our families than perhaps we would normally thanks to quarantine, it’s easy to relate to how horrible they can get.

The cast is young and attractive and they do a pretty decent job here. Some of you may recognize Bennet from the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and she is absolutely a lark here; the role plays very well to her strengths as an actress. Although her role on her TV show is more of an action heroine, she has some good comic timing and a flair for light comedy that should serve her well in her future career. She was my favorite part of 5 Years Apart.

For those who are cooped up with family, watching the brothers behave childishly towards each other may not be exactly what the doctor ordered; many of us are getting a heavy dose of that sort of thing in real life to want to watch much more than a smattering of it when we sit down to be entertained – in that sense, the film can be irritating. It is also, worse still, predictable, particularly in the last third.

This is a little bit better than I expected it to be in some ways; also, a little bit worse than I expected it to be in others. The performances are good, the characters are compelling and the chemistry is there. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of sitcom tropes and a dearth of funny jokes. The comedy is mainly situational and I would have preferred if the filmmakers had gotten away from that a little bit. It gets a mild thumbs up at best, but if you’re looking for a diversion right now (and who isn’t) you could do worse.

REASONS TO SEE: A role tailor-made for Chloe Bennet’s talents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and occasionally irritating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, brief nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bennet and Maki are close friends in real life and have been for years, but this is the first time they’ve acted alongside each other.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rachel Getting Married
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
At the Video Store

House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae)


A conversation on the landing.

(2018) Drama (Well Go USAJi-Hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee, In-gi Jeong, Sang-yeon,  Son, Su-Yeon Bak, Sae-yun Park, Yun-seo Jeong, Hye-in Seol. Directed by Bora Kim

 

The most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a Korean film, which gives you an idea just how vital and thriving the film scene is there. Korean directors are unafraid to take chances with oddball humor, or unspectacular thematic material handled in a quiet, reverent manner.

Eun-hee (J-H Park) is 14 years old in 1994, and lives in Seoul with her baker father (I-g Jeong) and her distracted, depressed mother (Lee). Eun-hee has not been doing particularly well at school, being forced to go to “cram school” to get her language grades up. With her best friend Ji-Suk (S-y Park), she goes out to juvenile karaoke clubs, experiments with kissing and occasionally shoplifts. In the meantime, the World Cup dominates her father’s attention as does the bakery which is dangling on the precipice of failure. A North Korean dictator dies, leaving the people of Seoul to wonder if war is coming.

Her cram school tutor Young-jii (Kim) is the only adult that gets the desperately lonely Eun-hee. Betrayed by her friends, marginalized by her parents, ridiculed by her schoolmates and beaten by her older brother (Son) who is under tremendous pressure to pass his exams and get into college which would all but assure him of a decent job.

Eun-hee is used to not being taken seriously, but she has aspirations of being a cartoonist and she might not necessarily be as dumb as she’s made out to be. However, the challenges in her life grow exponentially as a mysterious growth behind her ear might be serious, requiring an operation that could leave her face partially paralyzed. On top of that, her relationship with Young-ii is growing more complicated and a family tragedy rocks her world. It’s nothing, however, to the tragedy that is fast approaching.

Although Bora Kim has been making short films for more than a decade, this is her first feature-length film and it has the taste of autobiography to it. The film has had an acclaimed Festival run, winning awards at both Tribeca and the Berlinale. The film deserves the accolades; this is a smart, affecting film that looks critically at Korea’s patriarchal culture and through Eun-hee tries to find a young girl’s place within it.

There is a realism here that is refreshing; the sexual exploration of Eun-hee isn’t particularly sweet but fumbling and awkward. She is a definite scholastic underachiever (to which I could relate) while at the same time having a definite goal in mind. Seoul, which at the time was undergoing a building spree and had become a world economic center is definitely a character in the film; clearly the director feels affection for it especially in the way her cinematographer Kook-hyun Kang shoots the urban scenes through almost a nostalgic haze.

Kim takes her time telling the story and isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, but that is anathema to American audiences who prefer their storytelling taut and efficient. Kim prefers to allow the story to unfold at its own pace although there are times that I did wish she’d get on with it. Americans, right? In any case, this is an impressive feature debut for a talent who seems destined to be one of the very best in a film scene that is crowded with talented young directors.

The film is currently available via virtual cinematic experience which benefits local art house cinemas and is being handled by the good folks at Kino-Lorber. Click on the link below to find the nearest theater benefiting from its run; for Floridians, theaters currently promoting the film include the Movies of Lake Worth and the Movies of Delray in Miami, the Corazon Cafe and Cinema in St. Augustine and the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida.

REASONS TO SEE: Ji-Hu Park is an engaging lead. A slice of life in the Korean working class.
REASONS TO AVOID: Attention-span challenged American audiences may find it long.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity, sexual situations and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A line about wanting to be a cartoonist in the letter from Eun-hee to her teacher Young-jii was taken directly from director Bora Kim’s adolescent diary.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/126/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seoul Searching
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cold Pursuit

Babyteeth


Poolside contemplation.

(2019) Drama (IFCEliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Michelle Lotters, Sora Wakaki, Renee Billing, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Edward Lau, Charles Grounds, Jack Yabsley, Andrea Demetriades, Ashley Hanak, Quentin Yung, Jaga Yap, Priscilla Doueihy, Shannon Dooley. Directed by Shannon Murphy

The world is full of dying teens, or so the movies would tell us. Invariably, the teens so afflicted are spunky, quirky and more lively than kids destined to live long lives. Rarely do we ever see seriously ill kids who actually act seriously ill, with only an occasional nosebleed or a bloody cough. I wonder what it says about humans in general that we are so eager to kill off our young, figuratively speaking.

In this much-lauded Aussie drama, Milla (Scanlen) seems a normal teen with normal teen angst and normal teen attitude – i.e. her parents don’t understand, all adults are morons and NOBODY GETS ME. Her parents, in her case, are seriously effed up – Dad Henry (Mendelsohn) is a therapist whose response is generally to write a prescription for one drug or another. Some of those drugs go to his wife and Milla’s mom Anna (Davis) who is generally stoned out of her mind on Xanax or Zoloft or some such.

Into Milla’s life comes Moses (Wallace) like a bull in a china shop, quite literally – he slams into her on a train platform, because he wants to feel the train. Within moments of that meeting, he’s hitting her up for cash. He’s homeless, a drug addict and a small-time drug dealer – just the kind of boyfriend any girl would love to bring home to Daddy – and of course, that’s exactly what Milla does.

Milla’s folks are appalled by Moses but even though he robs them, there’s still something charming about him and Milla really likes him. When Milla shows up bald shortly thereafter, we realize that her illness is Serious and Anna’s constant self-medication is because she is having trouble reconciling the prospect that her daughter might not be around much longer, but Moses seems to make her happy and so she and Henry allow Moses to stick around, because just maybe he’s the real tonic that Milla actually needs.

Veteran Aussie TV director Murphy, making her feature film debut, has made a film with graceful texture. To her credit, she rarely allows the film to degenerate into maudlin self-pity, which is an issue with other films of this sort. If it feels a bit padded out, that might be forgiven if what’s onscreen holds our interest. For the most part, it does largely due to an absolutely star-making performance by Scanlen who has shown that she has the chops to be an A-list actress. Her chemistry with Wallace is undeniable.

On the negative side, Murphy chooses to end each chapter abruptly rather than seamlessly transitioning. She just stops the scene, often like shutting a door and moving on to the next room. It’s jarring and would have worked better if she hadn’t used it quite so often. d

There is a lot of meat on the bones here, certainly enough to give the average film buff hours of discussion afterwards if so they choose. For me though, it didn’t quite connect; maybe I’ve seen too many dying teen movies and perhaps it didn’t resonate as much in the middle of a global pandemic. The movie probably deserved a higher grade than I’m giving it, but I can’t bring myself to do it; that wouldn’t be fair to my readers. I will say that some of you will likely really connect with this movie, but for one reason or another, I just didn’t. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO SEE: Scanlen is mesmerizing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long and too disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scanlen previously played sickly teen Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon. AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Ghost of Peter Sellers