The Church (2018)


Not every church is a sanctuary.

(2018) Horror (Hard Floor) Bill Moseley, Matthew Nadu, Daniel Wyland, Ashley C Williams, Clint Howard, Kenneth McGregor, Keith Stallworth, Lisa Wilcox, Deltra Leak, Holly Zuelle, Meghan Strange, Shaun Paul Costello, Michelle Romano, Vito LoGrasso, Victoria Gates, Scott Lehman, Jack Hoffman, Michael Connolly, Marcia C. Myers, Marie A. Garton, Belinda M. Wlson. Directed by Dom Frank

 

We tend to have a bit of a fixation on religion and the paranormal. From The Exorcist on down, we stand in awe of cathedrals and the rites of the church. Some churches though are less holy places than others.

The First Corinthians Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia was once a magnificent edifice, a tribute to the glory of God. Of late it has fallen on hard times however. The membership has dwindled as the neighborhood has become less affluent and nearby mega-churches has enticed others away. Pastor James (Moseley) whose family has been at the church for generations is at a crossroads; gentrification is beginning to creep into the neighborhood and developers want the valuable property to tear down the aging and decrepit church and put in a new multi-use facility; they’re even willing to build a brand spanking new mega-church for the pastor to preach in, much to the delight of his ambitious wife Loretta (Romano).

The pastor is reluctant to give up on the building that is in many ways his family’s legacy but the developer in the person of Ronald Lawson (Nadu) is persuasive and at last the pastor gives in. However the subject has to be approved by the church’s various boards and with Loretta working diligently behind the scenes, the measure squeaks by.

When Lawson comes to the church several nights later for the signing of the papers that will mean the end of the grand old lady, he brings with him the secretary he’s having an affair with (Williams), the Romanian financier that is his partner (Wyland), a local community leader who has also partnered with him (Stallworth) and his bodyguard (LoGrasso). Pastor James has with him his wife, the head of the board of Deacons (McGregor), the church secretary (Wilcox) and a board member (Zuelle). It’s literally a dark and stormy night but all who are in the church don’t realize that the building is not at all happy at the prospect of being torn down and isn’t going to let them go to carry out the deed.

First of all, the First Corinthians Baptist Church is a real one and it is absolutely a beautiful building. It is the perfect location for this kind of a movie; nearly 200 years old and full of the kind of architectural detail that modern churches last. It feels like a place of worship which makes the haunted goings-on therein all the more shocking. Kudos to Frank for taking full advantage of his location filming.

There aren’t a lot of digital effects here and the production could have sorely used them but one can’t get picky when you’re on a budget. The big problem is the script is a bit inconsistent; various characters are “taken” by the church to be pulled into a purgatory-like dimension in a puff of black smoke. Some of them seem to burn (at least there are flames superimposed on the actors) while others don’t. We don’t get enough backstory to the various characters to understand why some get the flames and others don’t. As to why this is happening, there really isn’t much of an explanation; the Romanian mutters about old Romanian myths about holy places that sit in judgment of those who are evil but again, everybody seems to be victimized without a lot of rhyme or reason other than maybe being part of the plan to knock down the building.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side for the most part and the presence of horror cult favorite Moseley excepted, the biggest name actor (Howard) is essentially unrecognizable as a bearded monk who appears as an apparition in a couple of scenes and has no lines. That seems a bit of a waste to me.

This has been described as a faith-based horror film and in my notes I wrote down that it gets a little preachy at times but for the life of me I can’t remember any such occasions. I do remember the ending which is abrupt, unsatisfying and seems to exist to set up a sequel which the filmmaker has already stated is going to happen. All in all, Frank got the atmosphere right but needed to flesh out his script with a bit more information about the various characters and the history of the church – we see a brief headline from an old newspaper about a wicked family being punished by the church but it’s so quick we never get any details.

With so many new movies to choose from for your Halloween horror movie fix this year it’s hard to recommend this one but there are definitely some plusses to consider. The scares are a bit weak but given that Frank didn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with I think he did the best he could. Hopefully for the sequel he’ll give us a more fleshed out story and maybe a bit more of a budget to work with.

REASONS TO GO: The filming location is awesome.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt and disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, profanity, spooky images and light sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in downtown Philadelphia’s First Corinthian Baptist Church which Frank’s family has been attending for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borderlands
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Samuel Project

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Destined


In any reality, there are some guys you just don’t mess with.

(2016) Drama (XLRator) Cory Hardrict, Margot Bingham, Robert Christopher Riley, Jesse Metcalfe, Jason Dohring, Hill Harper, Zulay Henao, Mo McRae, La La Anthony, Demonte Thompson, Paula Devicq, James McCaffrey, Curtiss Cook, Robert Forte Simpson III, David Bianchi, Terri Partyka, Ricky Wayne, Sarab Kamoo, Martavious Grayles, Karen Minard. Directed by Qasim Basir

 

There is a theory that there are an uncountable number of realities, each one changing due to a different outcome in a pivotal moment; a choice made, a road not taken. Every outcome creates its own reality. This was explored somewhat in the romance Sliding Doors in which a missed train led to life-changing consequences for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Here, a young teen drug courier flees from the police. In one reality, he escapes and goes on to become Sheed (Hardrict), a ruthless drug kingpin who rules urban Detroit with the help of his volatile right hand man Cal (Riley). In the other, he stumbles and is caught by the police, straightens out his life and becomes an architect Rasheed (also Hardrict) who with the encouragement of close friend Calvin (also Riley) prepares to demolish his old neighborhood and erect gentrified condominiums in its place.

The two realities are differentiated by camera filters; in the Sheed story there is a warm, orange filter; in the Rasheed story the filter is more of a cool blue. Once you figure out the difference, it is generally pretty easy to tell which story is which although occasionally there is some confusion which might just be a continuity issue.

I did like the concept a great deal, which is meant to illustrate how a seemingly random change can have an earth-shattering effect on an individual life but some of the differences between the two realities seem to be inexplicable. In the Rasheed reality, Dylan Holder (Metcalfe) is a corrupt corporate type who works with Rasheed; in the Sheed reality, he is a relentless police officer looking to put an end to the reign of a drug boss. It doesn’t make sense that an arrest could have such a polarizing effect on Holder. Also, in the Rasheed reality his mother (Devicq) is a drug addict reaping the benefits of her son’s underworld status; in the other she is supportive and clean. How would her son’s arrest change her from a junkie to mother of the year?

In a lot of ways the Rasheed tale is much more interesting than the more generic Sheed story. The erosion of Rasheed’s conscience in the name of ambition resonates with me more. We’ve seen characters like Sheed in a number of thug life movies and he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the mix. Rasheed on the other hand is someone who is struggling between making a better life for himself but begins to wonder if the cost is too high. Most of us have to choose from time to time between the greater good and self-interest.

In each reality, Sheed/Rasheed are ambitious and ruthless, both willing to do whatever it takes to make that big score that will set him up for life. In each reality, he is pining for Maya (Bingham), a childhood friend who is trying to better herself. Either way, Sheed/Rasheed has an appointment with a loaded gun which seems to indicate that no matter what you do or how you live, you’re still going to end up at the same destination which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole film.

Hardrict is a compelling presence who could join actors like Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and John Boyega as big stars. He shows some rough edges here but with a little more experience and the right roles he has unlimited potential. His is definitely a name to remember coming out of this film.

Basir also utilizes the bleak urban war zone landscape of Detroit to full effect; in the Rasheed stories, he shows a dilapidated high rise being torn down as a kind of metaphor. The Sheed storyline packs a few too many clichés of the urban crime drama – the hip hop club where drug lords go to have a few drinks with their entourage, glare at one another, start wars with one another and argue with their nagging girlfriends. They don’t seem to be there to have a good time as we never see much dancing. There’s also the hotheaded pal who becomes a rival for power within his own gang. And so on. And so forth.

This is far from being a complete success. There are definitely signs of talent and imagination behind the camera and in front of it but Basir and crew don’t quite pull together a solid movie. Part of the issue is that the two stories don’t intertwine well; they need to flow together more smoothly and harmonize, each story complimenting the other. Often the movement from one story to the other seems somewhat arbitrary and without purpose. When the final credits roll, the viewer is left wondering what the point of the movie was other than as acting as an exercise in filmmaking that will lead to bigger and better things for all involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to recommend for viewing a movie that at times feels like a practice run.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is a good one, although not original. Basir does a good job of delineating between the two realities.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a lot of stock urban crime tropes. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Rick Rosenthal, director of two movies in the Halloween franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Big Sonia

Mr. Roosevelt


Noël Wells contemplates life, the universe and her dead cat.

(2017) Comedy (Paladin) Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda, Doug Benson, Andre Hyland, Armen Weitzman, Sergio Cilli, Paul Gordon, Jill Bailey, Christin Sawyer Davis, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Alex Dobrenko, Nicholas Saenz, Carley Wolf, Kelli Bland, Nathalie Holmes, Kenli Vacek, Gary Teague, Jill Fischer. Directed by Noël Wells

 

There are occasions which force us to confront our past. It might be something traumatic – say, the death of a loved one or a pet. On those occasions the loss forces us to see other losses and how we ourselves contributed to them and maybe even caused them directly. It forces us to look at ourselves in a harsher light.

Emily Martin (Wells) is a comedian in Los Angeles. Well, at least she’s trying to be. She spends her days going to auditions for comic ensemble programs (and doing maybe the best Holly Hunter impression you are ever likely to see) and working in an editing bay on commercials and Internet programming. By night she goes to improv performances by her friends and hooks up with other desperate comedians. It is in the middle of such a hook-up she gets a phone call from her ex.

Erik (Thune) was the man she left behind in Austin, possibly the most self-consciously hip place on the planet. He had been taking care of her cat Teddy Roosevelt but the cat was very sick – dying in fact. Emily drops everything to fly to Austin despite the fact that she can’t afford it, like, at all. When she gets there, the cat has already passed on. She hopes she can crash at the home she once shared with Erik but there’s already someone else living there – his new girlfriend Celeste (Lower) who is kind, generous and accomplished. Naturally, Emily hates her.

But kind, generous Celeste invites Emily to stay and so she does. Emily’s hostility and over-sensitivity towards Celeste leads to a restaurant meltdown during which she is befriended by waitress Jen Morales (Pineda) whom Emily decides to pal around with to parties in which Jen’s band plays, a topless outing to the river while Emily, who never really resolved her feelings for Erik, finds herself attracted to her ex in a very unhealthy way. Things come to a head during a memorial gathering to honor Mr. Roosevelt and to bury his ashes; Emily considers the late Presidential namesake to be HER cat and even though Celeste had been caring for him for two years resists any attempt to share the feline with anyone. The claws are definitely going to come out.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl indie subgenre that Zooey Deschanel and Greta Gerwig both popularized has a new potential member in the club ; ex-SNL cast member Wells. Her first feature as a writer-director really doesn’t mine any new territory – indie film clichés abound here – but she manages to put her own spin on the film and gives it a distinct personality of its own. As a result I suspect this is going to play well in hipster film buff circles around the country but particularly in New York and El Lay.

Wells is an engaging presence and while her pixie-ish personality wears thin after awhile, Emily is just bitchy enough to keep our interest; her frequent panic attacks cause Jen to literally throw water on her in order to calm her down. However, as fascinating as Wells is, Pineda nearly steals the film. The free-spirited Jen is in many ways more interesting than the occasionally whiny Emily and definitely less prone to doing cutesy things (like her “can’t help myself” dance she does when Erik, an ex-musician who gave up his art for Celeste, goes back onstage).

There is definitely a millennial vibe here; most of the characters are obsessively self-centered and social media-savvy. Erik is going to school and getting a real estate license; Jen is caught up in the gig economy and shares a duplex with a collective of artists and stoners, one of whom becomes a revenge fuck for Emily during one of her many tantrums. Not that older viewers will be unable to relate; younger viewers will recognize and resonate with the characters better though.

The story isn’t always authentic but the characters within it always are, if that makes any sense. While there are plenty of safe choices made by Wells in the writing and execution of the film, there’s still plenty about it that has its own voice, enough to recognize that Wells could very well be the next great indie filmmaker. Here’s your chance to jump on her bandwagon early.

REASONS TO GO: Wells is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is too overwhelmed by indie clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bunch of profanity, sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Immediately after losing her job at SNL, Wells began work writing and directing this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Destined

5 Flights Up


All they want is a room with a view.

All they want is a room with a view.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Alysia Reiner, Carrie Preston, Sterling Jerins, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van den Broom, Korey Jackson, Josh Pais, Maddie Corman, Miriam Shor, Nadia Gan, Katrina E. Perkins, Joanna Adler, Hannah Dunne, Liza J. Bennett, Jackie Hoffman, Marcia DeBonis, Jimmy Palumbo, Jordan Baker, Maury Ginsberg, Grace Rex. Directed by Richard Loncraine

What makes a house – or an apartment – a home? It isn’t the things that you’ve accumulated over the years, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t the location, although that’s a part of it too. It’s mainly the people that live in it and the memories you make together.

Alex (Freeman) and Ruth (Keaton) Carver have lived in the same Brooklyn fifth-floor walk-up for the 40 years of their marriage. Now Alex, a moderately successful painter, and Ruth, a retired teacher, are both getting on in years and that five flights of stairs is likely to only get harder on them. They’ve decided to sell and find themselves an apartment that at least has an elevator for them.

Lily (Nixon), their high-strung niece who is also a realtor, is getting them ready for their open house. The neighborhood they live in has undergone gentrification and Lily is confident that they can get north of a million for the apartment. Alex is unsure about this move; he is fully aware that they’re unlikely to get an apartment that has the same charm as the one they own and certainly none of the memories. Ruth realizes this too, but she tends to be more optimistic that they’ll find a new place to fall in love with.

But there are some complications. Their beloved dog Dorothy has gotten to be very sick and requires an expensive operation. The open house itself, which brings quirky and shark-like New Yorkers to the apartment to try and snatch up the property before someone else can, is hindered by an ongoing news story about the driver of a fuel tanker abandoned on the Williamsburg Bridge who may or may not be a terrorist. The media being what it is these days opts for the former.

Alex’s misgivings grow as they find an apartment in Manhattan that they both like, which sounds a little strange. Sure it’s a nice apartment. Sure it’s got an elevator. But can it be a home? Doesn’t sound so strange now, eh?

Loncraine, who has produced some pretty solid romantic comedies and feel-good movies on his resume (Wimbledon, My One and Only) continues to mine that territory here. Much of the movie’s success resides in its casting; Keaton and Freeman both banter with each other so well and show each other the kind of affection that only couples that have been married for decades can really get right that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t been a married couple for as long as Alex and Ruth have been. The two are both such screen pros in any case that they know how to work well with just about anyone, and here they both make each other shine.

This is a very New York-centric movie and New Yorkers are going to get it more readily than those who live outside the Big Apple. For them, the soaring cost of housing is of no great surprise; the rest of us might be nonplussed at what a million dollar listing is in Brooklyn. Then again, if I had to walk up five flights of stairs every time I came home, I’d either be a lot thinner than I am now or dead of a heart attack.

There is also a whole lot of dialogue about open houses, listings, market values and real estate in general. Fortunately, great actors like Freeman and Keaton can make even that dry kind of conversation sparkle, but only so much. The movie could have focused less on the sale of the house and more on how the concept of that sale was affecting Ruth and Alex, although they do spend a fair amount of time on that.

Clearly this is a paean to the dwelling. Not as a physical space mind you, but as a concept and more importantly, as an emotional touchstone. Using flashbacks to act as memories that were on the minds of the couple (played as newlyweds by van der Bloom and Jackson who channel Keaton and Freeman respectively very satisfactorily) enhances the idea of residence being more than four walls but a place where memories reside as well as people. Long after the physical layout is forgotten, the memories of a lazy Sunday afternoon, a rainy day movie, or a Christmas morning will linger in the heart and mind.

Loncraine has crafted a winner of a movie that sadly got shuffled off to the side during the onslaught of early summer blockbusters. I think that the suits at Focus felt that the material would appeal only to older audiences and in that sense they’d be correct, but I think that that same demographic that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a hit could have made this one a hit too. In any case, this is definitely a feel-good movie that left me with the warm fuzzies and is going to appeal to anyone who has ever lived in a home that they’ve loved. Although it got anemic box office during its limited theatrical run, I think that viewing this at home is the best possible place to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderfully effective performances by Freeman and Keaton. A celebration of home and hearth. A slice of New York life.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more real estate chatter than I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: A smattering of curse words here and there, and some artistic nude images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the open house sequence, the book that Alex is trying to read in the corner is A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On Golden Pond
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Southpaw

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li


Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

What martial arts videogame adaptation would be complete without its zen moment?

(20th Century Fox) Kristin Kreuk, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou, Chris Klein, Taboo, Moon Bloodgood, Edmund Chen, Chung Pei Pei. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise is one of the most beloved and popular videogames in history. A live-action version starring Jean-Claude van Damme was made in 1994. How would this stack up?

Chun Li (Kreuk) is a concert pianist who has been through a great deal in her young life. Trained in the martial arts as a child by her father (Chen), she watches in horror as he is kidnapped by the villainous industrialist Bison (McDonough) and his gigantic flunky Balrog (Duncan).

After her mom passes away, Chun Li receives a mysterious scroll that may hold the key to finding her father and restoring justice. It directs her to seek out Gen (Shou), a mysterious martial arts master who alone can complete her training and prepare her for the most important mission of her life.

Also on Bison’s trail is are a pair of Interpol agents; Nash (Klein), a brash American and Maya (Bloodgood), a hottie of indeterminate nationality. As the paths of those who pursue Bison converge, it is discovered that he is buying up large parcels of land in Bangkok with the intent of introducing an upsurge in crime to drive the property values down in order for him to get the largest amount of profit when he erects condos and high rises in the bustling harborside neighborhood.

Bison has an army of private henchmen at his disposal and he’s ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants. Chun Li must go beyond her own capabilities if she is to survive and rescue her father.

The plot summary is somewhat sparse, but really, what can you expect from a videogame adaptation? The point of the movie is to generate action sequences and eye candy set to a throbbing rock score that will give the target audience of pimply-faced gamers a chubby just thinking about it. I don’t know that the movie succeeds on that level.

For one thing, I don’t understand why you would make a movie adaptation of a videogame and then make subtle and unnecessary changes in the game’s mythos that is sure to alienate your target audience. I don’t mind artistic license and when adapting something out of any medium you have to expect changes to be made, but those should be changes that enhance the storytelling process or reflect the technology available to recreate the action, not changes that are seemingly out of the writer’s ego to place their own stamp on a franchise that was doing just fine before they decided to make a movie based on it.

The fight sequences, to be fair, are pretty well done at least to my admittedly untrained eye. I’m sure martial arts purists were shuddering at some of the moves executed by the actors; at times even I could tell that the actors weren’t hitting the moves correctly. That’s a definite problem for a movie so rooted in martial arts. Also to the good, Bartkowiak has created a look as far as the Bangkok backstreets are concerned that is stylish and fun. The visual aspect of the film is solid.

Duncan is having a marvelous time as Balrog. When he grins, you get the impression that he’s thinking “I’m getting paid for this?” His work makes the movie watchable. Sadly, some of the other actors don’t fair as well. Klein, whose previous career highlight was the American Pie films, is probably not the right guy for the role of Nash which might have benefitted from someone along the lines of a Taylor Kitsch or a Chris Hemsworth. Also McDonough’s accent slips from a standard American to a pseudo-Irish oddly; it winds up being a distraction.

There are also some strange plot devices; for example, when Chun Li announces that she needs to do further research into Bison’s criminal enterprise, the first place she goes is Google. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Gambino family had a website?

This is meant to be disposable, easily digestible action fare and to a large extent it is. The movie is seriously flawed, however, which may give those looking for superior action films pause. There is enough to like here that I can give it a slight recommendation, but be aware that even those who love the videogame may have some problems with the movie version.

WHY RENT THIS: Bartkowiak has a distinctive visual style and most of the fight scenes are impressive to the layman. Duncan seems to be having a great time and attacks his role with gusto.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Standard videogame adaptation fare with not a whole lot of plot to speak of.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of martial arts violence, but nothing that would bother the average teen. If you think it’s okay for your child to play the videogame, chances are the movie will be fine too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robin Shou has also appeared in the Mortal Kombat movies, making him the only cast member to date to have appeared in other movies based on videogames.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD include an animated comic book called Street Fighter: Round One – Fight! which should appeal to fans of the videogame series, as well as some features on the training the actors went through to become onscreen martial arts masters. The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track (a favorite feature of Da Queen).

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: From Paris With Love