Catch the Fair One


Kali Reis has the intensity of a caged lion ready to spring.

(2021) Crime Drama (IFC) Kali Reis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Chu, Michael Drayer, Kimberly Guerrero, Lisa Emery, Kevin Dunn, Jonathan Kowalsky, Gerald Webb, Isabelle Chester, Shelly Vincent, Matt Godfrey, Emmett Printup, Jordan Smith, Rae Anna Gott, Wesley Leung, Aaron Kriegler, Sam Seward, Christine Lauer, Sheri Fairchild, Marcus, Elizabeth Manente, Mainaku Borrero. Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

It is a dirty little secret in modern America that indigenous women are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery at an inordinate rate. Advocacy groups report that about 90% of those taken end up murdered once their “purpose” has been served.

Kaylee “KO” Uppashaw (Reis, a boxing champion making her acting debut) prepares for a championship fight with her trainer, Brick (Vincent, also a fighter), going through the pre-fight rituals of getting taped up, having her gloves slipped on, and waiting in the wings for her introduction. She wakes up in a squalid women’s shelter. Was the championship fight a dream or a memory? We’re never sure which, but likely the former.

Kaylee works as a waitress in a diner. She has fallen into such a state where she takes uneaten food off the plates of her customers and brings it home to eat. She sleeps with a razor blade secreted in her mouth, to defend herself if she needs to protect her possesions or her life. She has fallen far from the spotlight she once occupied, and perhaps understandably so; her kid sister Weeta (Borrero) disappeared after walking home alone after visiting Kaylee who was training at her gym (Kaylee wanted to stay a little longer and work; Weeta needed to get back home). Kaylee’s guilt led to estrangement from her mother (Guerrero), the end of her boxing career, and a descent into substance abuse.

The authorities were of little help. Desperate to find her sister and perhaps find redemption, she decides to go looking for her on her own. Researching the local sex trade (the police were able to discover that Weeta was sold into a sex trafficking ring) she discovers a pair of pimps who specialize in pairing up native American women with clients who wanted them. Kaylee decides to allow herself to get into their stable. From then on, things don’t go exactly as she plans.

Basically, the second half of the movie changes tone and focus, going from an intense, emotional, gut-wrenching drama into a fairly typical action film of the revenge genre. While the fight scenes are outstanding (as you’d expect they would be), the change is jarring and makes it feel like two completely different movies were spliced together.

Reis, who hasn’t acted professionally prior to this, is a revelation. She brings a quiet intensity to her role as Kaylee. Kaylee doesn’t say a whole lot; she does her talking with her fists, her eyes and her body language. There is a confrontation with her mother early on in the movie, where she unloads a little bit: “You have a living daughter right here in front of you,” she cries as her mother, who runs a support group for families with missing children, turns to stone. It’s powerful and I wish there had been more scenes like this, showing the devastating effect Weeta’s disappearance had on her family.

This is not the kind of film you want when you’re looking for a pick-me-up; it’s dark, gritty and suffused with an air of impending tragedy. While Kaylee is hopeful that she’ll reunite with her sister, the odds are stacked against her. The ride is a bumpy one, and at times you’ll be tempted to turn away, especially at some of the more wrenching moments. This isn’t always an easy film to watch, but there’s some important material here about a problem that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. When a character with casual cruelty tells Kaylee “Nobody is looking (for her sister) because nobody cares,” he is stating the reality of the situation overall. That’s a fact that needs changing.

REASONS TO SEE: Reis shows a great deal of grit and intensity as a performer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Becomes more of a revenge action thriller in the second half, a move that doesn’t blend well with the dramatic first half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reis was the first person of mixed Native American heritage to win a boxing title. Like her character in the movie, she is of Native American and Cape Verdean descent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trade
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dumbo (2019)

La Soga: Salvation


La Soga doing what he does best.

(2021) Action (Screen Media) Manny Perez, Sarah Jorge León, Hada Vanessa, Chris McGarry, Juan Fernández, Félix Germán, Vicente Suriel, Billy M. Mejia, Albania Matos, Jay Ramirez, Joseph Cepin, Siegfried Puello, Pablo Rodriguez Masjoan, Brazu Montanez, Jhomphy Ventura, Michael Ras Wolf, Leonel Severino, Joyce Vandreuil, Jose Gutierrez, Juan Babyface Matos, Yakim Parker, Rose Peralta. Directed by Manny Perez

 

Back in 2009, La Soga had the distinction of being the first movie from the Dominican Republic to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. A dozen years later, the sequel repeated the feat and is now finding theatrical and streaming release here in the United States.

Luisito (Perez, who also wrote and directed the sequel) is living a quiet life in Pawtucket, Rhode Island with his girlfriend Lia (León), trying to forget his past as a hitman for the secret police in his home country of the Dominican Republic, going by the code name of La Soga. The two have spent the last decade moving from place to place, trying to stay away from vengeful drug lords who still want a pound of Luisito’s flesh. But now, it seems, they have found the tranquility and anonymity they both desire and are thinking about finally starting a family. In fact, Lia has just discovered the she is pregnant, and is looking forward to breaking the good news to her boyfriend.

But before she can, his past finally catches up with him, in the person of Federal agent James McCann (McGarry), who jovially likes to be called “Jimmy Mac.” He has a job for La Soga, which Luisito doesn’t want to take. He knows that he and Lia must once more go on the run. He just needs to pick up his last paycheck from the bodega he works in and they can go, but he is ambushed there by McCann’s men. He survives the ambush, and hurries home, to find the apartment in chaos and Lia gone. He gets a phone call from McCann; he has Lia, and will kill her if that job he wanted done doesn’t get done. Luisito has no choice but to take on the assignment, which is to kill a Dominican drug lord before he can go on trial.

But it turns out there’s another player in the game, one with a far more personal stake in the goings-on, and just as deadly as Luisito. Now, he has to find Lia, rescue her and avoid all manner of assassins if he is to save his family.

As action films go, this one is somewhat generic. Perez has a kind of smoldering, brooding presence that is generally suitable for the genre, but he also isn’t a superhuman killing machine either; he is perhaps the most ordinary action hero that I’ve ever seen in a genre film, and that’s truly welcome. When your hero is virtually unstoppable, it tends to take the tension out of the cinematic equation.

The movie is generally well-written, but doesn’t offer any variation on tried-and-true formulas, so in that sense the movie is entirely forgettable. Still, León has a great deal of screen presence, even though it isn’t utilized much, and Perez does a pretty good job as well. While the action sequences aren’t innovative, they are at least competently done and devoid of any CGI assistance. Generally speaking, this is a throwback to the B-movie action films of the Eighties and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Luisito is a different kind of action hero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very standard action flick in many respects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English translation of La Soga is “the Rope.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicario
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Yardie

Kate


“That’s why I became an actress…for the glamour!”

(2021) Action (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Michel Huisman, Miyavi, Mari Yamamoto, Hirotaka Renge, Kazuya Tanabe, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Gemma Brooke Allen, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Koji Nishiyama, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Shinji Uchiyama, Miku Kobato. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a badass super-competent assassin yearns to leave the business of turning people into worm food behind them, only to find out that their employers are unwilling to let them retire. Said badass super-competent assassin goes ballistic in an attempt to take revenge on those who have done them wrong. I noticed you haven’t stopped me.

Kate (Winstead) is a badass super-competent assassin, and has been raised to be such by her handler Varrick (Harrelson) since she was an orphaned child. But she wants out and a chance to live a relatively normal life and maybe even start a family. When her last assignment doesn’t work out as planned, she discovers that she’s been poisoned and has 24 agonizing hours to live.

As you might imagine, Kate doesn’t intend to go gently into that good night. Instead, she intends to rage, rage against the dying of the light and, more specifically, against those who poisoned her. Her investigation – which is done with guns and blades to cut down on time – leads her to a Yakuza clan chief named Kijima (Kunimura), but he is too well-guarded to go after directly. The way in is through his teenage niece Ani (Martineau) who at first is a kidnap victim but eventually begins to realize that she and Kate have a lot in common, and begins to access her own inner badass super-competent assassin.

This Japan-set Netflix extravaganza benefits from having the good folks at 87North, the production team responsible for the John Wick series, working with them and that particular franchise heavily influences the proceedings here. One of the things that is positive here is that the badass super-competent assassin here is female and that she develops a protégé relationship with a young woman, which is a nice gender-switch for this type of movie.

Winstead has done some decent action heroine work in the past, but she’s never been better than she is here. While the character of Kate doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional baggage – she’s been trained since childhood that way – Winstead still manages to imbue the character with humanity. Even as Kate’s body begins to betray her and the poison begins to reduce her reactions and bodily functionality into obstacles for her to overcome, Kate still carries herself with a lethal presence that is all Winstead. It’s a compelling action lead portrayal.

Martineau makes Ani much less annoying than the character might have been in less capable hands. A lot of time the teen protégé role tends to be a means for a younger audience to relate to the film and often most writers portray them as quipping, arrogant jerks who end up knowing more than the lead and saving the day. That kind of thing tends to make me want to gag.

Not that teens can’t be heroic; there are a whole lot of them out there who are, but there are plenty who are not. That’s true of all age groups, by the way. But I digress.

The Japanese-setting is neon-drenched, stylistically reminding of films like John Wick and Black Rain. I do think though that the movie missed an opportunity by making Japanese culture somewhat stereotypical; I would have preferred a deeper dive into the richness of it, a well waiting to be tapped, but alas, the filmmakers preferred to go the safer, easier route. Kate seems to be a modern samurai, or more accurately in this instance a ronin, but they don’t really explore that aspect at all, really. They should have.

Still, the movie is an entertaining if somewhat overly-familiar action movie that is executed reasonably well. With a little more care and love, this could have been something truly special rather than the decent diversion that it is.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really terrific action sequences, and Winstead makes a solid action heroine.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is going to feel a little bit familiar (a lot familiar, actually).
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of profanity, and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth occasion (and counting) that Winstead has portrayed a character named Kate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/28/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.=
COMPARISON SHOPPING: D.O.A.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Soga: Salvation

Stoker Hills


All tied up on a Saturday night.

(2020) Found Footage (Screen Media) Tony Todd, Steffani Brass, David Gridley, Vince Hill-Bedford, William Lee Scott, Tyler Clark, Eric Etebari, Danny Nucci, John Beasley, Thomas R. Martin, Maya Nucci, Joy McElveen, Jason Sweat, Michael Faulkner, Vinny O’Brien, Atticus Nations, Sara Friedman. Directed by Benjamin Louis

 

It wasn’t that long ago when found footage films were the bee’s knees in the horror genre. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without smacking a found footage film. But eventually, they fell out of favor – and to be truthful, the subgenre has always been kind of limiting (more on that in a minute), and these days, they tend to be pretty rare.

Ryan (Gridley), Jake (Hill-Bedford) and Erica (Brass) are film students in Professor Smith’s (Todd) class. The students are getting ready to begin work on their film projects for the class, and Jake is already filming everything he can – including Professor Smith’s class. Ryan and Jake are excited about the movie they are about to shoot – it’s called Streetwalkers and it’s about zombie hookers and tars Erica as a prostitute who becomes a zombie. Jake’s ex-girlfriend, Dani (Clark), who won the previous year’s student film of the year award, is skeptical about the project, adding fuel to the fire.

But on the first night of shooting, something unexpected occurs. A car pulls up alongside Erica, the bemused filmmakers believing that the driver thinks she’s an actual hooker…then without warning, grabs the screaming girl and throws her in the car, roaring away before the boys can catch up. Of course Jake continues filming as the boys give chase.

Sometime later, the camera is found along with a dead body, and police detectives Adams (Etebari) and Stafford (Scott) who watch the footage and realize that at least two of the three kids are still missing. A race against time ensues to find them, with only the clues in the camera to guide them. Given that there have been a number of unexplained disappearances lately, this could be the sign that something much more terrible is going on than a couple of kids making a movie that got out of hand.

One of the things (and there are many) that essentially derailed the found footage explosion is that the movies tend to be pretty much the same, generally but Stoker Hills twists that on its ear, by ot only using found footage but more conventional storyteliing techniques as well, utilizing the detectives watching the footage and taking the clues from it to find the missing kids. That much is innovative.

But one of the things that made found footage less viable than other horror subgenres is that you have to create a reason for the footage to exist and while in some cases it works (the Paranormal Activity films largely rely on security camera footage), that doesn’t always work as in this case; most people, chasing after someone who is in mortal peril, aren’t likely to keep filming. Their concentration is going to be on rescuing the person who is in trouble.

Tony Todd is the headliner here, but sadly he’s only on for a couple of scenes (including the very first) and doesn’t really play much of a role here, but he still command the screen in any case. The three young leads do pretty good work (and Brass does a fine job looking uncomfortable in the hyper-sexual outfit she’s forced to wear). The characters of the detectives are poorly written though; they look like a couple of guys who have watched way too many noir movies (one of them even wears a fedora and a trenchcoat) and they don’t act like any sort of competent police detective.

This movie is a bit of a contradiction. There are quite a few basic flaws here, but there’s also some real creativity. The two kind of counterbalance each other, leaving a fairly enjoyable horror-thriller with a fair amount of gore and enough interest in the plot to keep one watching until the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is just compelling enough to be worthwhile.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much formula, too much exposition, too many missteps in plot points.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, violence, gore and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the third feature directed by the Haiti-born Louis, it is the first film he has directed since 2004.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creep
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mr. Birthday

13 Fanboy


Bubble baths can be a dangerous place in a slasher movie.

(2021) Horror (Deskpop) Dee Wallace, Hayley Reece Greenbauer, Corey Feldman, Kane Hodder, Lar Park-Lincoln, Judie Aronson, Tracie Savage, Jennifer Banko, C.J. Graham, Drew Leighty, Ron Sloan, Debra Sullivan, Poppy Gillett, Kaylee Hall, Hayley Duncan, Taylor Rodriguez, Nigel Lawes, Caslin Rose, Darren Barcomb, Tiffany Helm, James Cantu, Deborah Voorhees, Liana Cockfield. Directed by Deborah Voorhees

 

For folks my age and a bit younger, the Eighties were a magic time for both movies and music; it was morning in America, and the multiplexes – something fairly new at the time – were filled with low-budget slasher movies and cheapo horror. It isn’t hard to look back on those days with fondness. It seemed that every other week there was a new movie guaranteed to make your date cram her head into your shoulder – or put his protective arm around you. There were franchises a-plenty to keep us interested in our latest indestructible serial killer.

One of those franchises was the Friday the 13th franchise, with hockey masked killer Jason Voorhees at the center. If you’re wondering why no new movies have been made in that particular series since 2009 when the Marcus Nispel-directed reboot was made. Since then, the rights have been tied up in a lawsuit that was only recently decided over who earned the copyright, although as it turns out, things still remain complicated; original writer Victor Miller was awarded domestic rights in the lawsuit, but original director Sean S. Cunningham retains the international rights. It seems as though it will still be a very long time before Jason dons the hockey mask once again.

But until then, we have 13 Fanboy. Co-written and directed by Deborah Voorhees (no relation to Jason), who played Tina in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, this is as much a love letter to fans as it is a visceral horror movie playing on the fears of actresses regarding the sometimes-toxic obsession of fans. The movie has a cast of actors from the franchise (and a few who weren’t) playing versions f themselves. Dee Wallace, the mom from E.T. and the heroine of The Howling, was good friends with Deborah Voorhees, but pooh-poohs her fears about an obsessed fan. The stalker then stabbed Voorhees to death on her ranch, witnessed by her granddaughter Kelsie (Gillett).

13 years after the murder (I’m sure the amount of time elapsed wasn’t chosen randomly), Dee still feels guilty about not believing her friend. She has kept close contact with Kelsie (Greenbauer), a budding actress who also teaches a self-defense class and has had a successful career as an MMA fighter as well. Kelsie also notices that actresses from the movie series are being picked off, one by one, and the police seem apathetic to it. Could this be the same killer who took her grandmother away all those years ago?

It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to tell you that it is, and that Dee and Kelsie will have to be smarter and tougher than the killer if they are to survive. The movie gives us an intimate view of fan culture as well as the bond between the actresses whose moments of glory came in films like Friday the 13th and its successors. The filmmakers utilize practical effects throughout rather than digital – they couldn’t have had much of a budget – but they did spring for graphics identifying each actor and the role they played in the series. There are some exceptions; former teen heartthrob Corey Feldman (who did play Tommy in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in 1984, plays ultra-sleazy producer Mike Merryman here, overacting shamelessly, and why not? Voorhees seems to be making this for the fans as much as exorcising her own fears here. That does give the movie a kind of schizophrenia that makes you wonder if it had been originally intended to be a serious examination of fan obsession, but the ending – with too many twists to be satisfying – seems to indicate that it wasn’t ever intended to be that way. Still, it makes one wonder “what if” in a good way.

There is a scene which might remind viewers uncomfortably of the recent events on the set of the film Rust, although here it is a prop knife that is switched and a stunt double is accidentally killed. The fact that the film within a film was being shot in New Mexico is an eerie coincidence, but one that perhaps takes us a bit out of this film. That’s just one of those bizarre things that sometimes happens in life.

The thing to remember here is that this really is going to be delightful for those who love the original movies and take part in convention culture. In that sense, the movie is a rousing success; it does celebrate the love between the fans and the actors and gives some actors, many of whom are likely missing the loss of convention income during the pandemic, a chance to shine in the sun once again, and some do. Kane Hodder gets an uncharacteristic monologue that actually was quite effective, while Tracie Savage shows she can still be a scream queen with the best of them. There is also a fight late in the film between former Jason C.J. Graham and the masked killer in which C.J. bellows “You want a shot at the title?” which gets the blood pumping nicely. All in all, this is a nifty little film that is flawed perhaps but ultimately a satisfying work, particularly for fans.

REASONS TO SEE: Really fan-friendly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many plot twists mar the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, brief nudity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first release by new distributor Deskpop Entertainment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Nightmare
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Gig is Up

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

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

Goodbye Honey


Dawn just keeps on truckin’.

(2020) Thriller (Freestyle) Pamela Jayne Morgan, Juliette Alice Gobin, Paul C. Kelly, Jake Laurence, Peyton Michelle Edwards, Rafe Soule, Aaron Mitchell, Stacey van Gorder, Keara Benton, J Bones. Directed by Max Strand

 

Truckers are unsung American heroes. They are sometimes portrayed as not too bright, or hellraisers, or rednecks (which some would see as a badge of honor), or corrupt (particularly when discussing the Teamsters Union of the Jimmy Hoffa era) and while there are instances of those things that have occurred and continue to occur. What is rarely discussed is the sacrifices that long-haul truckers make, moving goods and sometimes, our lives, across the country getting little sleep and being away from their families for extended periods. During the pandemic, they continued to work and a good many of them were rewarded with doses of COVID.

Dawn Miller (Morgan) is one such trucker and she owns her own company, Nate’s Haul and Go, named for her late husband who founded the company. After his recent passing, she took over his seat in the cab, and this night she is moving the belongings of one Cass Rodick (Kelly) who is one of those clients who has a tendency to micromanage. It is late at night and she can barely keep her eyes open, so she pulls off the road into the parking lot of a state park to get a few hours of shut-eye before finishing the job.

But her plans for a nap are interrupted by an insistent banging on the door to her cab. A pretty young woman, who introduces herself as Phoebe (Gobin), at first requests some water which Dawn is happy to share. Then, a request to use the phone to call the cops. You see, Phoebe has just escaped from being abducted and has spent the last four months in a guy’s basement. Just then, Dawn’s client calls and has a million bazillion questions, with Phoebe getting more nervous by the second. What if her captor comes along while Dawn is on the phone answering questions from this guy? She reaches for the phone and as you would expect, bad things happen. The phone falls and becomes an expensive paperweight. Although Dawn is a little skeptical about Phoebe’s far-fetched tale, she agrees to drive Phoebe to the nearest town to find a police station, but there’s just one problem – Dawn can’t find the keys to the ignition.

Strand shows a marvelous touch for thrillers, keeping the suspense at a high level throughout. He’s aided by the (necessarily) underlit cinematography that creates all sorts of shadows, perfect for those who would do these women harm to hide in. He is also aided by an electronic musical score (unfortunately uncredited) that is very reminiscent of the 70s work by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It gives the viewer a feeling of unease.

Also worth noting is the performances of the two leading ladies, particularly Morgan who gives Dawn a kind of rough-around-the-edges personality. Her suspicious nature may be hard for some to identify with, but then as the movie goes on it is revealed that she has good reason to be the way she is, and while the revelations aren’t mind-bending in any way, they do justify some of the action although not all of it.

And there’s the rub. Some of the writing here is not very good, to put it bluntly. There’s a whole section in which a couple of young men, looking to do some drugs in the park, decide to humiliate and torture Dawn in exchange for the use of their cell phone. The scene doesn’t play at all well, and Dawn, who comes off in every way as a strong, no-bullshit kind of gal during the rest of the film, gives in way too easily to the degrading requests of the boys. That part of the film feels like titillation for its own sake, an just a hair misogynistic.

That tone is at odds with the rest of the movie, in which Morgan comes off as a capable, strong woman who makes a wonderful lead character. It also calls forth the sad truth that few middle-aged women get roles like this; when they do, they are generally in supporting or even cameo roles. We need more movies with characters like Dawn in the forefront. It would have been nice if she could have been allowed to show that strength of character throughout.

REASONS TO SEE: The suspense level is kept at a nice boiling point.
REASONS TO AVOID: The storytelling can get muddled from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in plentitude here as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strand previously directed a couple of short films. This marks his feature-length debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snatched
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
State Funeral

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

(2021) Suspense (Screen Media) Barry Pepper, Colm Feore, Eve Harlow, Carlo Rota, Jayne Eastwood, Nazneen Contractor, Laura Vandervoort, Karen Robinson, Rainbow Sun Francks, Greg Bryk, John Kirkpatrick, Ryan Malcolm, Reid Janisse, Juan Carlos Valis, Tim Progosh, Brian Cook, Anthony Ferri, Plato Fountidakis, Susie Blanco. Directed by Brad Turner

 

When you’re talking about shadowy spy agencies (not so much the CIA of Jason Bourne or the MI:6 of James Bond) you are generally talking about murky moral compasses and blindingly serious characters who are extremely competent at killing, only without the ability to let loose a bon mot at the moment of vanquishing his opponent.

Nicholas Shaw (Pepper) is one such. He is meticulous, and never ever misses. He is out of the game now, retired to a bucolic small town where he regularly has breakfast in the local café and orders books from the local book store, getting on nicely with his neighbors. They would never suspect that in a previous life, he was a deadly assassin.

And they DEFINITELY wouldn’t guess that he was captured and tortured, giving up the identities of eight members of his team who were then murdered by Quentin, a mysterious crime boss. Nicholas doesn’t remember much of this, only that he needs to lay low for a short time – the rest of his life, say. Then, his past comes walking through his door in the person of Elias Kane (Feore), his former boss. It seems that Elias’ daughter Fiona (Harlow) went out looking for Quentin and has since been captured. She is likely dead, but there is only one person living who knows the true identity of Quentin – that is Nicholas, although he doesn’t remember that crucial piece of information. So as he is the only person who could possibly rescue Fiona, he will have to un-retire and go after the person responsible for taking away everything from him. Sounds fair.

Some critics have compared this to the Bourne franchise, and that’s not inaccurate although Robert Ludlum’s world is much more well thought out. Pepper, who has played sharpshooters before, is perfect for this kind of work, and he is the stand-out here. However, if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is here, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t go to movies much.

The action sequences are decent enough, although the movie could use more of them. The script is on the talky side, which isn’t a point in its favor. Pepper would do better in a role where he has less dialogue – not that he isn’t good at dialogue, but his character would be more effective if he spoke less, and Pepper is a good enough actor that he could pull off getting things across without having to spell things out.

Overall, this isn’t bad entertainment if you’re waiting for a new John Wick film to come down the pike (that’s still another year away, true believers) although I caution you that there is far less action than in that estimable franchise nor is the world here as fully developed as that one. One could say it’s a low-rent Jason Bourne without the exotic locations or the exquisite plotting. No, that’s not it either; this is more a B-movie low-budget spy thriller of the sort Bruce Willis was doing a decade or two ago. There’s something to be said for those films, so long as your expectations aren’t that high.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining super-competent assassin thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly serious; could have used some lighter moments to break up the monotony.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner has more than thirty years of experience, mainly in the television side doing episodes of 24 and Homeland, among others.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cold Light of Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
It Is Not Over Yet