Meander (Meandre)


Not for the claustrophobic.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Gravitas) Gaia Weiss, Peter Franzen, Romane Libert, Frédéric Franchitti, Corneliu Draomirescu, Eva Niewdanski, Cari Laforét, Henri Benard, Fabien Houssaye, Olympe Turi. Directed by Matthieu Turi

 

Great loss can leave us in such pain that life itself becomes wearisome. Our reason for living seems as tenuous and inconsequential as the mist; we stare off into the deep blue something and wait to die.

Lisa (Weiss), a French ex-pat working as a waitress somewhere in the West, knows that pain all too well. Her daughter (Libert) passed away and today would have been her ninth birthday. Lisa is alone lying on a lonely road, hoping for someone to come along and put her out of her misery. And someone does; Adam (Franzen), a night watchman who works nights because “I hate people,” He doesn’t run Lisa over but he offers her a ride in his truck which, after some hesitation, she accepts. They chat and he does get Lisa to open up somewhat. “I don’t want to die,” she informs Adam, “I just want to see my daughter again.”

Just about then a news report comes on the truck radio warning about a serial killer who can be recognized by a cross tattoo on the killer’s wrist. And damn if Adam doesn’t have such a tattoo on his wrist…for Lisa, it’s fade to black.

When she wakes up, she’s in a bizarre high tech tunnel. She’s wearing a neoprene jumpsuit and a wrist bracelet with a bright glowing light and a timer counting down from eleven minutes. She soon figures out that she has to navigate each section of the tunnels – which turn out to be a maze – in those eleven minutes or face a particularly nasty death, whether being fricasseed by flamethrowers, drowned in a murky pool, dissolved in an acid bath, or mauled by an alien creature that stalks the maze. There’s also a skull-like creature with a mechanical eye that seems sympathetic, repairing her injuries. There are also a few grisly corpses to remind her about the penalty of failure.

At first, the movie seems to be unrelenting, pointless torture of an attractive female character and I have to admit, I was thinking “Here we go again.” But strangely, and happily, Turi soon begins feeding us clues as to what’s really going on, and it isn’t what you think.

The production design here is impressive and the film suitably claustrophobic. Lisa is forced to crawl through most of the maze, often barely able to fit through the tight spaces. Turi gives us a sense of that closed in space without being defined by it; you feel Lisa’s pain and fear and frustration largely because Weiss gives us a strong performance as the heroine. She is deeply wounded, missing her little girl and wanting nothing more than to be reunited with her again. And that possibility does come up, in maybe one of the more emotional moments you’ll ever see in a horror film.

The movie doesn’t always sustain the level of tension that it needs to, and there is a bit of sameness to some of the traps, but overall this is an impressive and imaginative film that genre fans might find intriguing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nifty production design. A claustrophobic thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to be pointlessly cruel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, gore, some disturbing images and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The walls all display the dots and dashes of Morse code and each wall says something in French; for example, the first room code spells Vite, which means “quickly.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cube
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Enemies of the State (2021)

Girl Next


Some fates are worse than death.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lacey Cofran, Marcus Jean Pirae, Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Rachel Alig, Larry Wade Carrell, Steve Joseph, Sammy Abdalla, Merry Dawn, Melissa Arras, Sarah Lingle, Kristen Marie Perry. Directed by Larry Wade Carrell

 

There is no doubt that sex trafficking is a worldwide problem. Young women are kidnapped on a regular basis and sold as sex slaves, forced to give up whatever hopes and dreams they might have had, ripped away from families who love them, to live a life as an object, nothing more. An entire existence to satisfy the animal lust of men who can afford the price.

Lorian West (Cofran) seems to have a good life going. Beautiful, well-educated, living near the top of her social ladder locally, she has driven her Mercedes to the grocery store to do some shopping when she is grabbed by some thugs in a white van who drag her out of the parking lot, screaming and struggling.

She is taken to the remote estate of Heinrich (Pirae), who has perfected a method of turning women from free-thinking independent-minded people into docile sex robots known only by their model name – Sophie, in this case, little more than dolls. He and his wife Misha (Solinger) use a variety of drugs, mental conditioning and physical torture to gain the desired state of compliance from the girls. Those who don’t take to the conditioning die somewhat horribly.

They are aided and abetted by the local sheriff (Carrell) who is also the contact of the people who actually conduct the sale. Heinrich feels that Lorian has the potential to start a brand new model type which would mean higher prices, but Lorian proves to be unusually stubborn and when the sheriff tries to take a little taste of her wares, is injured by the feisty captive. To make matters worse, Henrich is becoming somewhat psychotic, caused largely by the drugs he is taking. Lorian also receives aid from an unexpected place – Charlotte (Alig), who may or may not be the daughter or Heinrich and Misha, who teaches her how to break the training. But what is Charlotte’s angle? Can there be any escape from this nightmare?

I have said before and it bears repeating here; there’s a thin line between making a movie exploring self trafficking and aking a movie exploiting it I’m sad to say that this film falls into the latter category. While Lorian shows some inner strength, women here are either victims or they are crazy. There are no in-between characters. Also, the sexual abuse is shown on-screen which is at best uncomfortable and at worst can be triggering to some. Keep that in mind before renting this puppy.

The performances are mostly overwrought and ham-handed, while the special effects (essentially used to portray Heinrich’s mental deterioration) are largely unspectacular. While some of the images that Carrell conjures up are fascinating, the plot is so rote as to be something that could easily have been cribbed from a number of other films, from the corrupt small-town law enforcement to the characters who appear to be at least potential hallucinations, and then there’s the necrobilly (Joseph) who more or less has come in from a whole other movie.

When you strip all the extraneous elements out, this more or less becomes torture porn, and the rape scenes are almost more the latter. There is little redeeming about this movie and while I tend to not want to ascribe motives to the director and writer of this film, it is hard to miss the stench of misogyny that permeates the project.

REASONS TO SEE: There are occasionally some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Over-the-top and misogynistic. By-the-numbers direction and score.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexual violence, rape, nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If Carrell looks intimidating onscreen, it’s because he is 6’5” tall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Women
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Summertime

Chasing Comets


Friday night lights Aussie-style.

(2018) Sports Comedy (Gravitas) Dan Ewing, Isabel Lucas, George Houvardas, Kat Hoyos, Peter Phelps, Bjorn Stewart, Deborah Galanos, Laurence Brewer, John Batchelor, Stan Walker, Gary Eck, Justin Melvey, Rhys Muldoon, Alistair Bates, Tony Chu, Lance Bonza, Kate McNamara, Sarah Furnari, Kirsty Lee Allan, David Thacker, Katrina Rieteska, Daniel Needs, Courtney Powell. Directed by Jason Perini

 

Some movies are made by slick professionals and every frame reflects it. Others are made by less experienced crews and show THAT. Once in awhile, the latter category of movies have just enough heart in them to overcome acting, directing, technical or script deficiencies.

Chase Daylight (Ewing) has the kind of name that probably requires him to be a sports star. In the small Australian town of Wagga Wagga (“so nice they named it twice”), that means rugby. A parade of stars has come from there. The town is indeed a nice one; most of the divisiveness in the town comes from which league you support. Chase was largely brought up by his mum (Galanos) after his womanizing dad walked out on them. She supported his dream to become a “footie” star, buying him jerseys when she really couldn’t afford it. Childhood friend Harry (Phelps) has been his manager, trying to get him that elusive big league contract.

But Chase has inherited his father’s penchant for drink and skirt-chasing, encouraged by his mate Rhys (Walker) who plays for the rival Tigers, a much more successful side than Chase’s Comets who have finished at the bottom of the league the past two seasons running. Still, Chase is considered a blue chip prospect, although perhaps not by his girlfriend Brooke (Lucas) who has endured his drinking and philandering and is at her breaking point.

With another dismal season in the offing and Brooke having given up on him, Chase hits bottom when his Coach (Batchelor) benches him. His career seems to be circling the drain, and at last Chase, looking for answers, finds them in church where his spiritual advisor Rev (Houvardas) preaches, aided by his perky daughter Dee (Hoyos). Chase decides to make some changes; give up drinking and fooling around, and take up celibacy and attending church. At first, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but better days must be ahead, right?

Right. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this follows underdog sports team tropes to the letter. The script, by star Aussie rugby player Jason Stevens, also has elements of a romantic comedy and faith-based drama. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t exactly hit you over the head with Christian principles (not as much as other films in the genre do, at any rate) although there is there is some sermonizing in the middle third of the film.

The comedic elements are more problematic. There really aren’t a lot of laughs here, although Stevens does try hard and the opening credits have a few chuckles in them. The movie also engages in some overt sentimentality that it doesn’t always earn. The saving grace here is that the characters have some endearing qualities to them and while the movie is very flawed, it nonetheless has a whole lot of heart. The movie is just good-natured enough to give viewers something to latch onto, although familiarity with Australian culture is extremely helpful here.

REASONS TO SEE: Just enough heart to be engaging.
REASONS TO AVOID: Flat and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sports action and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Star “footie” player Jason Stevens wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
An Unknown Compelling Force

The Holy Game


Who is going to be struck by lightning after one too many crude altar boy jokes?

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Grayson Heenan, Felice Alborghetti, Eric Atta Gyasi, Robert Sserate, Oscar Turrion, Duarte Rosado, Daniel Russian, Michael Zimmerman. Directed by Brent Hodge and Chris Kelly

 

There’s no question that the Roman Catholic church needs some image rehabilitation. Following the bombshell revelations that the church hierarchy covered up for priests committing pedophilia and knowingly reassigned these priests to new parishes who were unaware of the past indiscretions of the transferred priest, there seems to be some movement in that direction. For one thing, there’s a new Pope in town, one who seems intent on modernizing the church and acknowledging the sins of its recent past, but the damage has been done. The Church is having a hard time recruiting new candidates for the seminary (something that isn’t overtly mentioned in the documentary). Something tells me that at least initially, this film was meant in some ways to help rectify that issue.

Every year, the various seminaries in Rome stage a soccer tournament called the Clericus Cup. The various seminaries, representing all corners of the globe – which is an odd thing to say, given that the globe is a round object with no corners – and played in a spirit of friendly competition and spiritual devotion.

The movie follows a number of seminarians playing in the tournament, like Grayson Heenan, who is entering his final year of study in Rome. A native of Michigan and from what seems to be a fairly well-to-do family, he encountered resistance from his parents who were hopeful he would continue the family name, but he chose a life of celibacy and service. And, apparently, soccer, a sport he loves to play. He represents the North American Martyrs seminary, a once-powerful team that has in recent years underperformed but are favored to return to the finals, particularly given that Grayson is one of the best players in the tournament.

Then there’s Eric Atta Gyasi, a cheerful fellow who is always smiling. He is from Ghana and has spent 13 years trying to get ordained (most finish in four or five years), which leads one to believe that he’s in no particular hurry to return to Africa.

We hear about their daily routines and how soccer represents a break from that routine of studying, prayer and classes. We see Grayson being taught how to administer the Last Rites, and he seems to be able enough and certainly a compassionate sort. He talks repeatedly about service, of giving comfort to his community and seeing the priesthood not as a job but as a vocation, a calling that means more to him than the idea of starting a family, something that didn’t sit too well with his girlfriend at the time (she was invited to his ordination ceremony but declined to come, for which one could hardly blame her).

The public image problem is discussed, although more in terms of how people only see the negative side of the Church in the papers. And then we discover that one of the interview subjects being followed has been forced to leave his job in the church for having fathered a child after being ordained. For the sake of transparency, I think I should insert here that while a student at a Jesuit university, one of my teachers – a priest – was defrocked for having a relationship with a woman, whom he later married. He was also stripped of his job as a teacher and department head, which I thought was excessive. Certainly there were plenty of non-clergy teaching at the University, but this was a little while ago and they were far less tolerant of priests deciding to follow their hearts I suppose.

On a technical note, there were at least two fairly sizable portions of the film that had a graphic posted that the footage was not displayed due to a rights clearance issue – hopefully those will be resolved and those watching on VOD will either see the missing footage or have the audio cut from the film. It makes viewing the film as a critic a bit awkward.

The movie tended to skirt the issues a little bit. I don’t think it was the filmmakers intention to bring it up at all, but I think that all those looking to join the Roman Catholic clergy need to be aware that this is an issue that they are going to have to grapple with for some time to come. Getting the trust back will be a long and difficult process, and while seeing them cavort in shorts on the soccer field may at least humanize the priests a little bit – they are all human beings, after all – the movie doesn’t quite succeed in making the priesthood an attractive vocation, nor does it deal with the ongoing problem that the Church is faced with very well. There are moments that are fun, and interesting, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Humanizes members of the priesthood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as a recruiting ad for the priesthood.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Clericus Cup was founded following soccer stadium violence in which a police officer was killed by rioting fans; members of the clergy who loved the game wanted to show it could be played peacefully with great sportsmanship.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Religion of Sports
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Rebel Hearts

Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

It’s Not a Burden


They care for us when we’re young; we care for them when they’re old.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Michelle Boyaner, Elaine Boyaner George, Brother Kenneth, Morris Boyaner, Esther Lapiduss, Maxine Lapiduss, Sally Lapiduss. Directed by Michelle Boyaner

 

We are seeing a shift in America’s age; we are getting older as a nation. The baby boomers are now retiring and often, being forced into retirement communities and assisted living centers. Their adult children often end up caring for them the same way their parents cared for them as children. It’s time, the film seems to be saying, to return the favor.

Documentary director Michelle Boyaner found herself in that position with her own parents. She has a bit of a unique situation; her parents divorced when she was younger after having had eight children together. Her mom Elaine decided (for reasons that she sort of addresses in the movie) that she couldn’t be a mom any longer, so all eight of the children were sent to live with their father while Elaine moved to Utah, converted to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and married a new husband. Michelle, the oldest, helped raise her siblings, but a chasm had been formed between her and her mother. The relationship between the two women was cordial, but very cold.

It was assumed that Michelle’s younger sister Danielle would be the one to look after Elaine when her mom started showing signs of dementia, but Danielle passed away unexpectedly. On her deathbed, she made Elaine promise to look after their mom. Michelle, still harboring resentment towards her mother, reluctantly agreed.

The film is subtitled The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents and there is some humor here. Michelle (and most of the other caregiving subjects interviewed here) counsels patience, and that’s excellent advice. For example, Elaine has trouble remembering that she sold her house on Serenade Lane in Huntington Beach in 1983. She constantly refers to the house and Michelle often has to remind her that it’s no longer hers.

Michelle spends a good deal of time interviewing a whole lot of other people in similar situations – adult children acting as caregivers to elderly parents, most with some form of dementia or another. For example, we get the vivacious 96-year-old entertainer from Pittsburgh whose daughters don’t quite have the energy to keep up with her, or the aging monk who runs a care home for retired monks who have no family to care for them, or the former dancer on Broadway who is visited by members of the LGBTQ community who act as “chosen family” members. Some of their stories are touching, others humorous but many of them are actually kind of similar. This is a case where less is definitely more; I would have preferred fewer testimonials, but more in-depth ones. Then again, I’m definitely a quality over quantity kind of guy.

The central story revolves around a metaphor of an amusement park in which you try to survive the rides without throwing up afterwards, and the metaphor is kind of apt. One thing for certain is that you have to have a plan; most of us are going to face the aging of our loved ones at some point and should have a working idea of the options available to them. The movie does show a few of them – parents living with their children, parents living in residential care facilities, parents with visiting health care professionals that perform in-home treatment on a regular basis.

The movie has some truly heartbreaking moments and wise viewers will have some tissue paper handy to dab away moisture at the corner of their eyes that might unexpectedly erupt. One of the things that I took away from the film was that the estrangement between Michelle and her mother more or less evaporated during the time she was caring for her and the time the two spent together actually strengthened their bonds which I don’t think the younger woman expected. I wouldn’t say that this is indispensable – the film is a bit unfocused and repetitive in places, and could have done with more information on how to find support if you find yourself in a situation where you’re providing care for an elderly parent or parents with dementia. However, this certainly gives a perspective on the situation and might be a good starting point for those who see the road ahead leading in that very direction.

REASONS TO SEE: The journey is heartbreaking. The ending is extremely poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used fewer interview subjects and more depth on the ones they chose to keep.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some frank conversations about the consequences of aging and dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Boyaner was previously nominated for an Emmy for her 2015 film Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It Is Not Over Yet
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Undercover Punch and Gun

Women


In the clutches of a predator.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) Anna Maiche, Anna Marie Dobbins, Adam Dorsey, Michael Simon Hall, Cindy Hogan, Christian I. Noble, Erinn Jones, Christi Cawley, Susanna Matza, Kylie Deire, Kristin Samuelson, David E. McMahon, Victor Rivera, Isaak Wells, Heather Fusari, Denise Gossett, Anthony del Negro, Shea Stewart. Edward Hubay, Ebony Mason, Kelly Schwartz. Directed by Anton Sigurdsson

 

The line between depicting the exploitation of women and actually exploiting them is razor-thin. It is hard to depict torture and sexual assault without crossing that line; good intentions aside, it can get you into trouble in an era where rape culture is being called out for what it is throughout our society.

Detective Hawk (Dorsey) is working a case of a grisly find; a desiccated corpse of a woman is found in the trunk of a car in a junkyard in a small Florida town. As he works the case, he discovers that the woman had gone to the local college where another co-ed, Jennifer (Dobbins) had disappeared some months past. In fact, as Hawk looks into it, there are several beautiful young girls who have passed away. Their relatives all received postcards that basically said “I’m fine. Don’t look for me,” and all took the sociology class of Professor Bradley Gilmore (Hall).

To cap things off, another co-ed – Haley (Maiche) has turned up missing as well. Hawk has some personal demons of his own – his mother is a heroin addict, as was his sister who had similarly vanished and then turned up dead. However, he hasn’t told his mother that his sister has passed on; her emotional state is such that it might just send her over the edge.

Hawk knows that Gilmore has the girls. He has rape accusations in his past, but the charges were dropped – his wealthy family paid off the victims. In the meantime, Professor Bradley is using rape and torture to mold Haley into the perfect wife. Jennifer, who has survived by essentially capitulating to his warped demands, advises her to play along if she wants to live, but Hailey knows she can’t live like this – she plans to escape, although Jennifer implores her not to try. Can Detective Hawk find the girls in time, or can they find a way to escape? If not, the girls will surely die.

Icelandic director Sigurdsson has a difficult task; to make a movie in which women are systematically tortured, humiliated and sexually abused without being exploitive. I’ll be honest with you; I think in some ways, he did succeed and in others, he did not. For example, there’s no overt nudity and most of the sexual assaults take place off-camera. On the other hand, the women in the film are largely shown in victim roles, whether victims of a sexual predator or of drug abuse. While Hailey is at least a strong female character and Jennifer is in her own way, both are largely helpless in their situation.

Sigurdsson also wrote the screenplay and he doesn’t devote much thought to character development. Only Hawk gets any sort of background at all, and Sigurdsson didn’t even give him a first name – Tony, perhaps? – which is not a good idea because in a movie like this, you need your audience to relate to the characters in it and quite frankly, we’re not given enough background for any of them to really develop any sort of simpatico with any of them. The closest one to it is Detective Hawk, and Adam Dorsey’s performance isn’t bad given the circumstances, but he isn’t given a lot of help.

Sigurdsson does have a good feel for tone and while the movie is a slow builder, it does find its footing late in the movie and the final twenty minutes are pretty good. To get there, though, you have to wade through about an hour that is slower than your last period class on the last day of school, or the last hour of work on a Friday before a holiday weekend. One reviewer I read called this misogynistic garbage, and I can understand where she’s coming from, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous to ascribe motivations to someone you have never met and don’t know. Looing as objectively as I can at the final product, I can say there are elements that could be construed as misogyny here, but that doesn’t make this a misogynistic. I agree, the film is quite underwhelming, and I don’t think that it adds anything new to the kidnapping subgenre but it isn’t completely devoid of value either.

REASONS TO SEE: Does get the tension level up nicely late in the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-building – perhaps too much so.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references, sexual content, profanity, rape and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some scenes were filmed at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with students there appearing as extras in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collector
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow’s Hope

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

The Oak Room


Not the guy you want to see come into your bar after closing.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell, Adam Seybold. Directed by Cody Calahan

 

You’ve heard it before. A guy walks into a bar at closing time (or shortly thereafter) with a story to tell. It’s a dark and stormy night and the snow is falling, and the rest of the world is asleep, but those in the bar are very much awake.

Bartender Paul (Outerbridge) is closing up when a masked, hooded figure walks in – not something you want in the middle of a dark and stormy night. After nearly clobbering said figure with a baseball bat, the stranger removes his mask to reveal that he is Steve (Mitte), also someone Paul in particular is not happy to see. See, Paul was buddies with Steve’s Dad Gordon (N. Campbell) – everyone’s dad is named Gordon in Canada – and Steve had left town to go to college, flunked out and promptly disappeared. He hadn’t even come home for Dad’s funeral, so Paul was left to foot the bill. He still has Gordon’s ashes in a tackle box, waiting for Steve. Steve owes Paul, that’s for sure – but Steve wants to repay Paul with a story.

Steve’s not a particularly good storyteller – he tells Paul the ending of the story first, and is eager to tell him the beginning, but Paul isn’t interested. Paul has a story of his own to tell. And so the two men swap stories in the cold, wintery night, and there is something darker taking place in the bar than a winter storm could account for.

There’s a feeling of noir to the film, and that’s a good thing. The movie owes its gestation to a stage play, and there is definitely a stagey feel to the single set production which takes place in two separate bars, including the titularly named Oak Room – which isn’t the bar that Steve and Paul are sitting in. There isn’t a ton of action – how could there be when you’re talking about two guys telling stories, and those stories include stories about guys telling stories – and there’s a ton of dialogue, nor is the dialogue particularly snappy. What the film IS successful at is keeping the viewer’s interest and keeping the tension building, and there’s something to be said for that.

The themes of father-son relationships and their breakdowns, mistaken identities (as a metaphor, or at least that’s what I figured), and the place of stories in modern culture are all well-taken and require a little bit of thought from the viewer. Even so, this is the kind of movie you can sit back and watch on a cold, dark night if you’re looking for a certain type of atmosphere and not necessarily have to think too hard. How much effort you put into the movie won’t necessarily determine your enjoyment of it, which is a rare feat in moviemaking. I don’t always see it in the movies I review, but I try to applaud it when I do see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Your interest is piqued throughout. Has noir-ish elements with a Northern edge.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit stage-y and may be a bit too dialogue-heavy for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drinking and violence – some of it graphic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No women appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch .44
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
My Wonderful Wanda