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

Say Your Prayers


Just a couple of radical Christian assassins out for a drive.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Roger Allam, Derek Jacobi, Vinette Robinson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Matthew Steer, George Potts, Max Upton, Mike Baxandall, Cathy Baxandall, Tiffany Clare, Vivienne Race, Elliot Halidu, Dave Peel, Will Barton, Zach Webster, Jimmy Wilde, Louis Brogan, Helen Simmons, Emily Layton. Directed by Harry Mitchell

 

Sometimes when you read politicians and analysts speak, you’d think that the tribalism that affects modern society is something new but in fact humans have ALWAYS been tribal. If it wasn’t actual tribes, it was country versus country, city versus town, rural versus urban, one religion against another. We have always found reasons to hate The Other.

Tim (Melling) and Vic (Brooke) are two orphaned brothers, brought up by the somewhat obsessive Father Enoch (Jacobi). He has sent them on a mission – to murder noted atheist author Professor William Huxley (Allam), likely no relation to Aldous. He is speaking at a literary festival at a small village in Yorkshire, so he will be far from the safety of crowded city streets.

Tim is a gentle soul and somewhat simple and he bollocks it up by choosing someone (Barton) who looks similar to Professor Huxley – from behind, that is. Vic has anger issues and is much more gung-ho about the whole thing. When Father Enoch gets the word that an innocent man has been killed, he is more than a little miffed.

In the meantime, Tim has met and fallen for Imelda (Robinson), who unbeknownst to Tim has been carrying on a long-distance relationship with the Professor. Meanwhile, on the tail of the bumbling assassins is strident foul-mouthed Inspector Brough (Martin) and her friendlier, long-suffering partner Hodge (Spencer-Longhurst). With Father Enoch now insisting that the boys kill the Professor in a public way and Tim, who once was reluctant to take life until he met the royal arsehole that is Huxley, and Vic not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, will righteousness triumph over self-righteousness?

This is a dark British comedy that skewers organized religion, zealotry (of every persuasion), TV cops and literary festivals all at once and has quite a lark doing it. One of the notable things is that Mitchell (who also co-wrote the movie) does is have a kind of Greek chorus following the boys around – except they are a British choral society of elderly men singing traditional British songs and hymns. They are actually quite lovely to hear and the incongruity of seeing immaculately dressed (in matching blazers) a choir of old men standing in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors is a running joke throughout the movie.

Melling has come a long way from Dudley Dursley, whom he played in the Harry Potter movies. There is nothing of the bully in Tim, who is gentle and simple, with a yearning to love. He is the tragic figure here as he is caught by events that he can’t escape from. He is more or less the straight man here, although he is the spindle around which the entire movie turns. Most of the other main characters (with the exceptions of Imelda and Hodge) are fairly unpleasant or even despicable but in the cases of Enoch and Huxley, are resolute and even passionate about their beliefs.

Allom and Jacobi are both old pros who know how to deliver and do so here, but Melling may well be a rising star with a little more range than some of his other Potter co-stars that have continued their careers in acting since Harry’s saga came to an end. He also has some decent comic chops, although the humor is largely situational here; there aren’t a lot of one-liners.

But the humor is superior to most of the other comedies I’ve seen thus far this year. If you like your comedies bone-dry with a bite, if you like your comedies to tackle big issues, this is the movie you seek, grasshopper.

REASONS TO SEE: Wickedly funny. Not so much a Greek chorus as a British one.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit on the blasphemous side.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of profanity, violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in a television studio were actually filmed at the University of Bradford’s studio which is used for teaching aspiring broadcast students how to set up a set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Estate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Amber’s Descent

Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad


The Hargrove family makes preparations for the unthinkable.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Susan Hargrove, Geddie Hargrove, Tom Hargrove, Miles Hargrove, Oscar Tejada, Claudia Greiner, Robert Clarx, Uli Greiner, David Little, Raford Hargrove, Peter Greiner, David Parkinson. Directed by Miles Hargrove

 

In the 90s, kidnappings by political, terrorist and guerilla groups and drug cartels reached epidemic proportions. So much so that a cottage industry sprang up around expert negotiators, and men dedicated to acting as liaisons between the kidnappers and the families of their victims. It was a nightmare scenario for anyone working abroad.

For the Hargrove family, it was a nightmare that became all too real. In 1994, the family – which had been all over the world for father Tom Hargrove’s job, had moved to Cali, Colombia where drug cartels were in the midst of a bloody war and where antigovernmental guerillas were terrorizing the populace almost as much as government soldiers were. Tom worked as an agricultural advisor, introducing new types of farming techniques and crops to help reduce starvation and make farming more productive in the reason. While Tom was in Vietnam during the war, the Viet Cong had targeted him but when they discovered that he was bringing new types of rice that would yield more in the region, he was left alone. Tom figured that this would protect him, that he was there to help the people who were in dire need of it, although kidnappings were common in the region.

He thought wrong. At what appeared to be a routine police check point on his way to work one morning, he was removed from his car by armed guerillas from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist group that aimed to overthrow the government and stop drug-related violence in the region. His wife, Susan, was alone in Colombia; her sons Geddie and Miles were both away at college but they both rushed to Cali to be by her side. Her German neighbors, Uli and Claudia Greiner and their son Peter, also provided support as did Tom’s brother Raford, who came in from Texas to lend a hand. They also hired former federal agent Oscar Tejada as their advisor to help them navigate the minefield that was negotiating with the kidnappers.

Miles had become obsessed with a new camcorder that he had gotten, much to the dismay of his father who was a little weary of being constantly filmed by his son. He documented the ordeal from the point of view of the family, from the major events – phone calls from the guerillas, strategy sessions, the setting up of secure phone lines so that nobody could listen in, and the ransom drops, which were tense affairs as the sums of money were always at risk for being confiscated by corrupt police – and family dinners, little bits of life as the family tried to somehow cope with the unbelievable stress of not knowing whether Tom was alive or not and if he would be returned alive once all was said and done. They grimly watch footage of kidnap victims being discovered machine-gunned by their kidnappers after the ransom was paid.

The footage is almost exclusively from Miles’ camcorder and so the quality is often poor, which might give some pause, but that would be a mistake. Some of the film plays almost like a spy thriller, with a sequence of the family trying to pay the ransom harrowing as they are followed by parties unknown – is it someone from the police or from the kidnappers? – plus they go for weeks and even months without hearing from the kidnappers, whose mountain location is imperiled by government forces seeking to eradicate them. The underlying worry was that Tom might be executed by the guerillas as the government made their situation untenable, or be caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the kidnappers and the army.

There are also interviews with some of the principles including mom Susan, the neighbors Uli and Claudia Greiner, Oscar Tejada and Geddie and Miles Hargrove that were conducted twenty years after the fact. Tom also kept an illicit diary he kept hidden in his money belt during the long ordeal and we are shown excerpts of that as well, some of which is almost impossible to read.

If you’re looking for great emotional releases, you won’t find many here; the family manage to keep control of their emotions admirably considering the circumstances. The ever-present eye of the camera give us an unflinching inside look at what the family went through that is both intimate and compelling. My only gripe is that Miles has a tendency to push the mundane aspects a little harder than he needed to which pads the running time a bit more than was necessary, but this is true crime done as perfectly as it can be.

REASONS TO SEE: An incredible, personal story. Plays like a crime thriller – except it’s a documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the home video footage feels extraneous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Proof of Life is based on this incident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Proof of Life
,FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah

The Walrus and the Whistleblower


Phil Demers is at the center of the protest.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Phil Demers, Doug Draper, Ted Satci, John Holer, Michael Noonen, Catherine Ens-Hurwood, Carolyn Narononni, Naomi Rose, Brendan Kelly, Angela Bontivagna, Ron Bucholz, Holly Lake, Murray Sinclair, Elizabeth May. Directed by Nathalie Bibeau

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’ve never understood the appeal of watching trained animals perform. I’m not really big on zoos, although I am all for interacting with animals in a safe environment for both humans and the animals themselves. I have no problem with teaching children the wonders of the animal kingdom and the importance of respecting other species different than our own. So when I have the opportunity to go to marine parks where trained dolphins and killer whales perform for a stadium full of spectators, I am not terribly enthusiastic about attending. However, I realize that a lot of people feel differently than I do on the subject.

Marineland, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, has been showcasing performing dolphins, killer whales and other marine mammals since opening its doors in 1961. It is the largest employer in the area which has little other industry besides tourism. In 2000, they brought in walruses and trainer Phil Demers developed a special relationship with Smooshi – so named because she had a habit of smooshing up against his face – who imprinted on him, which to be honest I’m not sure whether or not that is unusual since that’s one of many avenues that the film never explores (this gets to be a theme throughout the movie and is its greatest drawback). The two were inseparable.

However, Demers was disturbed at the way the animals in general were treated at the park – a recurring litany that has dogged Marineland for decades. When a type of algae starting growing in the water that was harmful to the animals, they responded by using chlorine to kill it which in turn caused painful chemical burns that eventually no amount of drugs could soothe. When Demers discovered the tragic and torturous route Smooshi (and the other walruses that Marineland eventually added to the show) took in being purchased for the park, Demers finally resigned his job. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

He became an animal rights activist, picketing Marineland and taking on the Twitter handle WalrusWhisperer to bring the plight of the animals to the attention of the general public. He would be barred from the grounds of Marineland and later a large lawsuit was brought on by the marie park against him. In the meantime, Canada began to take up legislation to ban the keeping of certain marine mammals (but ironically, not walruses) from marine parks and aquariums. It is an uphill battle and Demers is basically a bearded David facing an unforgiving and vengeful Goliath but he soldiers on.

The movie takes a lot of its cues from Blackfish although its focus is on a specific incident even more so than Blackfish, which broadened its scope to look at animal abuse in marine parks globally. The laser-like focus here is on Marineland and its owner John Holer (who passed away during film, an event that caused mixed reactions in Demers) to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps with the wider focus of the other film, Bibeau might have felt she didn’t need to expand her view, but basically honed in on Demers’ story and while it is an admirable one, it could have used further context. The only negativity that comes in was that some of his fellow activists are frustrated with him because he refuses to embrace veganism, and what criticism is leveled at Demers is largely leveled by himself – “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole. I know the vein in my forehead is bulging,” he admits in a moment of self-examination.

The importance of the subject is unquestioned and the fact that in the years since Blackfish was released it appears that there hasn’t been a ton of change in the policies regarding the way marine parks treat the animals in their care is something that at least deserves mention, but it never is. Also Demers proclaims that he doesn’t want to win money out of all of this; he just wants Smooshi, but to what end? Releasing her back into the wild would be impractical at best and deadly at worst; she’s lived her entire life in captivity and doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. So where would Demers keep her? There doesn’t appear to be much room in his house for her, and the bill for feeding a walrus would be appalling. But whatever plans Demers has for the care of Smooshi once released from the park are never elaborated on.

And that’s really symbolic for the movie as a whole; I don’t think Bibeau had much of a plan in assembling this film. Certainly it is an important story, and certainly it means a lot to her personally (see Trivial Pursuits below) but it feels like she didn’t really want to make much effort to dot her I’s and cross her T’s and this is a film that could badly use both, even if the story is compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating David vs. Goliath story. The footage of Smooshi and Demers being separated is absolutely heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leaves too many important questions unexplored.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug use and disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bibeau knew of Demers because he was her brother’s best friend growing up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Discovery Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Come True

The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien


Tim O’Brien says hi.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasTim O’Brien, Dan Rather, Timmy O’Brien, Tad O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Marlon James.  Directed by Aaron Matthews

 

War is hell, we all know that. It is a last resort, something nobody wants to see except for a segment of society enamored with the nobility of sacrifice to an almost morbid degree. So, too, writing is hell. Conjuring words from the deepest places in our minds, the most hidden, private, personal spaces laid bare for all to see – the process is not so much sitting down at a laptop and typing away as ripping bits of your flesh and soul away with tweezers. For the good writers, that is; that goes without saying.

Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam an his experiences there fueled eleven books that are among the best ever written by an American. His tomes Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried should be required reading for any American, particularly for those too young to remember the Vietnam war and the Sixties in general. He became a father late in life, and in order to be a decent dad, he turned away from writing and turned towards his responsibilities as a father. Most of his income today is derived from a teaching career at the University of Texas at San Marcos, and from frequent appearances on the lecture circuit. Otherwise, he lives a comfortable life in suburban Austin, attending the basketball games of his now-teenage sons, helping with homework, comforting them when they are frightened.

But as he entered his seventh decade of life, O’Brien knew that chances are he wouldn’t live long enough to see his two sons Timmy and Tad grow into manhood. A lifelong two pack a day smoker, his health has been showing signs of wear and tear. Also, it troubled him that his sons never asked him a single question about his experiences in the war. He knew the time was fast approaching when his sons would have to make their way through life without him. And so he decided to write one last book for himself, to say everything he needed to say, but more importantly, for them, so they could hear their father’s voice after he was gone.

This documentary takes place over the four years it took for O’Brien to write his most recent book, Dad’s Maybe Book. During the course of filming, he struggled with writer’s block, often going into the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning to scrub the tiles with paper towels and disinfectant to try and get his mind out of the endless loop of frustration. He also suffers a serious bout of pneumonia that had him hallucinating and scaring the bejeezus out of not only his sons but his wife Meredith as well.

Matthews takes a cinema verité fly on the wall approach, rarely interviewing O’Brien or his family formally, but rather letting them say what’s on their mind. It’s an approach that works for directors like Errol Morris, but we end up being frustrated here because there’s no real context for anything; this movie may well have been titled Things That Happened While Tim O’Brien Wrote His Last Book. No context? No insight either; not really. We do hear about Tim’s thought’s on his mortality, but no real further exploration of them. Recently, Esquire magazine conducted an interview with him in which he goes much further into his motivations for writing the book and doing the movie, and there is far more insight into the soul of Tim O’Brien there then in this movie. But then again, I guess most people will agree that the book is always better than the movie.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Brien is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, feels little more than a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was 71 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stray

Take Me to Tarzana


Making plans over a single generic beer; now THAT’S living the high life!

(2021) Comedy (GravitasJonathan Bennett, Maria Conchita Alonso, Samantha Robinson, Oliver Cooper, Kahyun Kim, Andrew Creer, Owen Harn, Kent Shocknek, Chris Coppola, Kimberly Joy McBride, Betsy Hume, Bob Wiltfong, Henry Brooke, Desiree Staples, Emanuel Hernandez, Denny Nolan, Andrew J. Rice, Ivan Ehlers, Kevin Dembinsky, Elle Vernee.  Directed by Maceo Greenberg

 

These days, big corporations and in particular, Big Tech make big targets. So do creepy, misogynist bosses. We all know that everyone hates all of those things. Well, ALMOST everyone.

Miles (Creer) works at Teleplex, a data mining company. It’s a far from ideal working environment, with a boss (Cooper) who is as abusive as they come and with unreasonable expectations. People are worked like the wage slaves they are and Miles can barely afford to live in the apartment he rents, despite having what most woud consider a stable job.

His cubicle is next to Jane (Robinson), one of those incredibly beautiful girls who always seem to be absolutely unobtainable. She has crosses to bear of her own; that same boss, Charles, consistently demeans her and she seems to have to work twice as hard as the men to earn any sort of respect.

But things are a lot worse than Mies thought they were; in fact, Charles has hidden cameras all over the building including under Jane’s desk and in the women’s bathroom, the better to perve on all the gals in the office. When he brings this to Jane’s attention, rather than go to the police or even to HR, she wants to get back at Charles in a more meaningful way. They enlist Miles’ party animal friend Jameson (Bennett) to help dig up the real goods on the company but when they get the dirt on Charles, they discover that the hidden cameras are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as workplace comedies go, the top of the pyramid is the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space with which this film shares some thematic elements in common. I think, however, that Greenberg is loathe to have his own film compared to that classic comedy; for one thing, he shifts tones about two thirds of the way through the film in what can only be described as a jarring and unexpected manner. From that point, the movie falls off the rails in a big way.

That’s a shame, because up to that point it’s pretty enjoyable. I might have wished for edgier comedy, but the leads of Robinson and Creer are pretty nifty. Both are very likable and although Miles is a bit on the wishy washy side, Jane is a strong, powerful woman whom you wouldn’t want to cross. The character of Jameson, though, seemed to be somewhat unnecessary to me; he’s meant to provide comic relief but his Spicoli-like antics really don’t do anything to make the film better.

All in all the movie is mostly likable but that shift from workplace comedy to faux thriller really dooms it. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of giving this a try from your local streaming service for a weekend pizza and movie night on a cod winter evening, but then again I think you could probably do better as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Creer and Robinson have much potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor needs more edge.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Office Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Judas and the Black Messiah

The Mimic (2020)


One of these guys is just like the other.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Thomas Sadoski, Jake Robinson, Austin Pendleton, Gina Gershon, Jessica Walter, M. Emmett Walsh, Marilu Henner, Tammy Blanchard, Didi Conn, Matthew Maher, Josh Pais, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Doug Plaut, Steve Routman, Teddy Coluca, Vanna Pilgrim, Drew Porschen, Victoria Mahal-Sky, Diane DeSalvo-Beebe, Connie Porcellini. Directed by Thomas F. Mazziotti

 

There’s no telling how we’re going to react to other people upon first meeting them. Some folks just charm the bejeezus out of us and we respond to that; others we can take or leave – most of the others, in fact. Then there are those where are feelings go the other way; we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we know there’s something off about that person and we instinctively dislike them.

Our Narrator (Sadoski) – who is never given a name – works for a community newspaper in a tony small town while he works on a screenplay. A new neighbor comes into his life, a man that the Narrator calls The Kid (Robinson), mainly because it irritates the Kid to be called that. The Kid is almost puppy-eager to please, but amid his wide-eyed gosh shucks demeanor there is an undercurrent that the Kid might not be quite so gosh shucks – trending more towards the No Please Don’t Hurt Me side. The Narrator is quite sure that the Kid is a sociopath.

And so the Narrator takes it upon himself to keep the Kid in close proximity so he can better observe him. The Narrator isn’t always able to hide his contempt for the Kid, and they often have disagreements. The Narrator, a widower, is also beginning to develop feelings for the Kid’s wife (Pilgrim).

The dialogue has a lot of snap to it, taking its cues from screwball comedies (the fact that it’s set at a newspaper could well be a nod to His Gal Friday). But for all the machine gun-like delivery hat Sadoski and Robinson manage, the laugh-out-loud funny quotient is unusually low. A lot of it is because the two leads are mainly just too unlikable; the Narrator is a bit of a pompous know-it-all and the Kid is just downright creepy.

In some ways, Mazziotti is trying too hard to make the movie relevant and fresh. It feels sometimes that he’s not confident enough to let the film stand on its own merits; he has to kind of gink it up a bit with screwy situations that don’t feel real, and with zippy one-liners that occasionally fall flat. I get the sense that Mazziotti is trying a bit too hard; if he had done some punchier jokes and went less for oddball and more for snappy he would have had something here

I do see what Mazziotti was trying to do, and to be honest while he isn’t always successful, he doesn’t always fail either. I can’t say I wouldn’t mind seeing a well-made comedy in this style again; it is definitely a lost art. The movie needs a bit more punch with the humor and a little less highbrow. Never talk down to your audience, a maxim that serves well in all sorts of artistic endeavors. I felt a bit talked down to after viewing this, but on the plus side there is definitely some strong points here to recommend the movie.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty snappy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a little too hard to be different.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mazziotti got his start doing television production at WPIX in New York City
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keeping Up With the Joneses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Young Hearts

Baby Done


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Rose Matafeo, Matthew Lewis, Rachel House, Nic Sampson, Madeleine Sami, Matenga Ashby, Fasitua Amosa, Loren Taylor, Olivia Tennet, Kura Forrester, Alice Snedden, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Sam Snedden, Bree Peters, Hayley Sproull, Brett O’Gorman, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Angella Dravid, Guy Montgomery, Beth Allen. Directed by Curtis Vowell

 

We all react to pregnancy differently – whether our own or our partner’s. Some look forward to it eagerly as a new beginning; some see it as an end to a carefree life of fun and irresponsibility. The act of having a baby is, no matter how you react to it, a life-changing affair. There are no manuals and most couples (and singles) approach impending parenthood with the terror of the unknown staring them in the face.

Zoe (Matafeo) is a young arborist – down under in New Zealand, that means tree surgeon – who has big plans. She wants to win the World Tree Climbing Championship in British Columbia, for one thing (I didn’t know that was a thing either). Bungee jumping, having a threesome, and a whole laundry list of Type A shenanigans for another. But when she learns she’s preggers, her first reaction is denia. (“It’s a tapeworm. More often than not, that’s what it is”) to the point where she hides it from her partner in business and in life, Tim (Lewis). But at a gender reveal party for another couple, her competitive nature comes out and she spills the beans.

Zoe has spent her life defying convention and living on her own terms. Her obstetrician father is a bit clinical of the whole thing, but her mum is blunt: “You’re not cut out for being a mum.” That seems harsh at first but as the picture progresses, we begin to see that Mommy Dearest may have a point. As the due date continues to approach, Tim grows more excited and fearful and Zoe’s denial and disappointment reach record highs. Can their relationship survive having a baby?

This isn’t exactly new territory for movies, although having a prospective mom flat-out delusional is kind of a first. The movie has a kind of sitcom feel to it, often relying on its characters doing things that reasonable people would never do. Yes, I understand that people who are in this situation can sometimes lose perspective, but here it feels forced and unnatural, making the comedy at times a little awkward.

The saving grace here is that the couple – Zoe and Tim – as played by Kiwi TV vets Matafeo and Lewis – are charming as all get-out and there’s a real chemistry between them that works. Matafeo, in particular, is delightful as a Type A personality who has lots of plans who is terrified that the impending Blessed Event is going to force her to change her identity into something she doesn’t necessarily want to be – a Mom. She’s not the sort who takes easily to being told what to do in any case. I can say I’ve known a fair amount of women in my time who fit that description.

The movie is also refreshingly frank with some of the indignities that pregnant women have to suffer through. The ending comes as no surprise and is about as squishy as you might imagine, but it keeps the tone overall sweet and light.

We have all been through a year of heavy and portentous and many of us need a break from it. You could do a lot worse than this light comedy that is reasonably inoffensive and in all honesty, none too challenging in terms of viewer investment. But sometimes, that’s just the perfect tonic.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly clinical about the difficulties of pregnancy.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) is one of the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Months
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Knocking

Grizzly II: Revenge


She’s a big’un!

(1983) Horror (GravitasSteve Inwood, Deborah Raffin, John Rhys-Davies, Louise Fletcher, Deborah Foreman, Dick Anthony Williams, Jack Starrett, Charles Cyphers, Marc Alaimo, Laura Dern, Barbie Wilde, Ian McNeice, Charles Young, Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, Billy Boyle, Nigel Dolman, Edward Meeks, Timothy Spall. Directed by Andre Szöts

 

Some movies are most definitely products of their eras. You can look at them and immediately say “Oh, that’s a noir film from the 40s” or “that’s a 70s anti-hero film.” The 80s were like that; movies from that decade had a style and a presence all their own, much like the music and fashion of the time. Sometimes, that’s a very good thing. In this case, not so much.

When poachers kill a bear cub and remove its gall bladder for its aphrodisiac qualities – one would think it would work much better as a laxative – mama bear goes ballistic and starts shredding every humanoid she lays eyes on in Summit National Park. Park ranger Nic (Inwood) is trying to rally his rangers for an upcoming rock concert that park manager Ms. Draygon (Fletcher) insists must go off without a hitch, 15-foot-bear or not. The hunky ranger brings aboard the “best grizzly tracker” in the business, the French-Candian Bouchard (Rhys-Davies) with an accident that would embarrass Pepe LePew – much to the horror of “bear manager” (don’t all national parks have one?) Samantha (Raffin). Ahh, but the show must go on, something that the makers of this film took much to heart.

The story of how this movie finally made it into theaters 38 years after it was filmed probably makes a more interesting movie than the one that actually got made. Lensed at the tail-end (‘scuse the pun) of the killer animal craze that Jaws created, this sequel that nobody wanted was filmed in Hungary while the Cold War was still in full swing and the Iron Curtain was still Iron. The producers apparently ran out of funds before post-production could be commenced, and the uncompleted movie languished on the shelf, famous only for the future stars that appeared in it – all cast because of their famous relatives, being unknowns at the time. In fact, this movie has three Oscar-winners in its cast (two of them are killed before the movie is even five minutes old, so there’s that) but you’d never know it. But somehow, an unfinished work print started making the rounds on YouTube and at genre film festivals until original producer Suzanne Nagy, realizing that there was an audience for this, finished the special effects and got the movie edited for release. There is no disguising the mechanical bear, however.

Interspersed with the action is concert footage of very bad Hungarian new wve bands performing at the faux concert….in Hungarian. Yes, this concert that is supposedly taking place in an American national park features songs sung in a language only a tiny percentage of the population here speaks. And the music is about what you’d expect it would be.

This is the kind of movie that’s enjoyed more in retrospect. While you’re actually watching it, you might find yourself having a hard time keeping from turning the bloody thing off. In fact, those who do see the movie from start to finish should get some sort of merit badge.

So why the score it got? I’ll be honest with you, the movie deserves a much lower score and in fact my initial rating was going to be much lower, but the fact of the matter is as I sit down to write this, the more I think about the movie, the more enjoyment I’m getting out of remembering how ridiculous it was. I don’t know if Clooney even remembers making the film – I assume he likely remembered a trip to Budapest – but I’m sure he was just as happy it never was released into theaters. I would love to hear what he thinks of its release…I can only imagine the expression of pain he might extrude. All in all, with Rhys-Davies and Fletcher gamely delivering what they can in the way of performances and a kind of car crash vibe that really takes hold well after you have finished watching, the experience is one that I am glad of – and one I sincerely never hope to repeat.

REASONS TO SEE: Unintentionally funny, sort of like a Plan 9 From Outer Space.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much a product of its time and not in a good way.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and plenty of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fletcher and Alaimo, who have no scenes together here, would go on a decade later to play major recurring characters in Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews, Metacritic: 7/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
76 Days

GetAWAY


That’s the way to get ahead in the movie business.

(2020) Horror (GravitasEmma Norville, Danielle Carrozza, Kyle Mangold, Franchesca Contreras, Joshua Cody, Michael Recchia, Jon Rust, Kristel Rachocki, Abigail Haggerty, Kira Jackson, Trevor Stevie Ray Ontiveros, Cherish McCormick, Joseph P. Durbin, Hank Stone, Jacob Yard, Marissa Chaffee, A.J. Cabbagestalk, Connor McLean, Stanley Payne, Ali Dougherty.  Directed by Blayne Weaver

 

It is often said (because it is absolutely true) that making movies is a collaborative effort. When everything goes smoothly, you can tell in the final product that it did. When things are more chaotic, well….

Student would-be actress Maddie (Norville) is still reeling from the break-up with her now ex-boyfriend Noah (Cody) and her bestie Harlowe (Contreras) suggests she accompany a student film company heading into the mountains at a deserted summer camp to shoot a horror movie. For one thing, it would get her some valuable film credit; for another, it would get her out of town, out of her dorm room and give her the opportunity to forget her troubles with a whole lot of drinking and flirting. Unfortunately, nobody told Noah who is also bringing along his new girlfriend Kayla (Carrozza) along for the same getaway. You just know that isn’t going to turn out well.

You don’t know the half of it. You see, unbeknownst to the clueless students, there’s another movie being filmed in the same location shoot. And this one’s a snuff film – in fact, their suddenly missing professor (McCormick) has already done a cameo. And the really fun part? They’re all tapped to be the stars.

College students fornicating, drinking, and doing drugs in a remote location with no cell service. Sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, no? Yes. And there is nothing that’s particularly memorable here compared to any one of a dozen slasher films set at Camp Crystal Lake, Sleepaway Camp or Cheerleader Camp. That isn’t to say that Weaver, who also wrote the script, wasn’t trying to at least be a little bit different, but let’s face it; the script had been sitting, forgotten, in his desk for more than a decade. He did do a polish on it, but it still feels a little dated and I don’t mean ten years – it feels like something you might have seen in 1983. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for younger viewers who ight not have seen a lot of movies from that era, but those of us who cut our teeth on slasher films from that era might find this disturbingly familiar.

Weaver, who utilizes a lot of cast and crew from the University that he teaches at, at least captures the feel of a student film, but that’s a double-edged sword. We end up with a spineless director, a tightly-wound producer and a cameraman who’s more interested in getting high than getting the shot. And all of them talking like they’re making the next iteration of Battleship Potemkin while they’re at it.

I can’t really say that this is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It just isn’t particularly memorable. The trouble with slasher films is that there’s only so many ways that you can kill somebody without making it look ludicrous or like a self-parody. If you really dig slasher films and you’re looking for some, ahem, new blood, well, here’s a whole mess of it. For those who like their horror films a little bit more inventive, there are other movies out there that would serve them better than this one.

NB: This shouldn’t be confused with Getaway, another 2020 horror film but this one starring Scout Taylor-Compton.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a certain amount of satisfaction watching these bickering ninnies get 86ed.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unremarkable, standard slasher movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, vioilence and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver was director-in-residence at Shenandoah University at the time of filming; most of the cast were students at the University.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tiger Within