DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Followed


The devil wants your coffee.

(2018) Horror (Global ViewMatthew Solomon, John Savage, Tim Drier, Sam Valentine, Caitlin Grace, Kelsey Griswold, Christopher Martin, Sarah Chang, Karan Sagoo, Ethan Alexander, Terumi Shimazu, Sonia Lopez Pizarro, Thaddeus Ek, Gregory Adkins, Doreen Fox Loughlin, India Adams, Blanca Blanco, Kate Romero, Santiago Postigo, David Nesler, JoAnna de Castro. Directed by Antoine Le

 

We live in an age when anybody can become an Internet star, and it doesn’t necessarily take talent so much as an ability to get noticed in a crowded milieu. Vlogger Mike a.k.a. DropTheMike (Solomon) comes to us from the mean streets of L.A., taking us on a haunted tour of the locations of suicides and murders. However, his numbers aren’t as high as he would like them to be and in order to drive them up so that he can get himself a $250,000 sponsorship, he decides to film a special Halloween edition – from the Lennox Hotel, the most haunted location in the city.

His cameraman Christopher (Drier) who has no problem going to the exteriors of these notorious locations, balks at spending the night inside of one; unlike Mike, he believes in the supernatural. Mike ups the pay and hires Christopher’s crush, Dani (Valentine) to do sound in order to get his DP back into the fold. Add workaholic on-site editor Nic (Grace) to the mix and it’s “let’s put on a show” time, kids.

At first it’s all fun and games, but genuinely spooky things begin to happen, from loud knocks on their bedroom door, to the discovery of body parts in various places in the hotel, to half-glimpsed sightings of people who aren’t there…you know the drill. Eventually, the fear factor is ratcheted up until the crew begin to desert the project one by one and Mike is left to face the unknown alone.

The movie is done in a found footage style, but in a clever way that avoids some of the more annoying tropes of the sub-genre. A framing device of a heavy-breathing presence uploading various segments to the vlog is effective, albeit a bit over-the-top. Then again, horror thrives on over-the-top, the more the better.

There is a subtle, sly satire on the whole vlogging culture. Mike is sufficiently obnoxious – he’s based loosely on real vloggers PewDiePie and Logan Paul – that at times we wish someone would call him on his insensitivity (mostly his mates just give him the eye-rolls of people who are all too familiar with a friend’s remarks, but what are you gonna do) and certainly, there are elements of creepypasta here (most of the denizens of the hotel have that feel. In fact, much of the movie seems to harken back to other movies, from The Shining to The Blair Witch Project to Grave Encounters and so on – you may end up frustrated that so much is borrowed from other films. That doesn’t make the movie any less fun.

Some of the scares are well-executed, but there is a tendency for the scary sequences to be filmed with handheld cameras in dim lighting so that a lot of the sources of the fright are barely glimpsed. I suppose that’s a function of a very low budget – when you can’t afford terrific make-up effects, you hide them by making sure that the audience never gets a clear view of them. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but that’s where a critic’s mind automatically goes and, I’m sure, many horror fans as well. Also, keep in mind this is one of at least three horror films involving vloggers coming out this month alone.

Still, this is a pretty good horror movie and as were just getting into the season for them, it’s a good start to getting your terror on. The movie played in drive-ins in June and just hit VOD platforms. If you ask your local drive-in (or pop-up drive-in) nicely, they might rent it for you; this is the kind of film that’s perfect for that kind of venue. But it’s not a bad idea to turn the lights down in your bedroom and watch this on your TV screen…or laptop. But if you really want a good scare, do a Google search for the Hotel Cecil. That might just chill you to the bone.

REASONS TO SEE: Some decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not super original.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific and disturbing images, plenty of profanity, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hotel Lennox is based on the real-life Hotel Cecil, where serial killer Richard Ramirez reportedly stayed and committed some of his crimes; also the Meghan Kim incident is based on the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian college student who disappeared while staying there and whose actions, caught on surveillance video, were similar to that of Meghan Kim; Lam’s body was later discovered in a hotel water tank.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, iScreeningroom, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shining
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Blackbird

Musical Comedy Whore


All the world’s an off-Broadway stage.

(2020) Musical Comedy (Breaking Glass) David Pevsner. Directed by Brendan Russo

 

David Pevsner is a Los Angeles-based actor, comedian and singer who has loved musical comedies all his life. Now, some will stereotype him as a gay man for that – and he happens to be gay – but not all gay men know the lyrics to every song in Cabaret. I suspect Pevsner might.

This one-man show, filmed live, is essentially a confessional about his life which has been sordid at times – he for some time worked as a prostitute even as he was singing on Broadway – fun at times and unbearably lonely at other times, but he narrates the details with a keen sense of humor, and an occasionally bawdy tune, accompanied only by a pianist who harmonizes with him from time to time vocally.

This isn’t for those who are squeamish about gay men having sex, because Pevsner talks about it a lot; in fact even if you’re okay with it might have a “TMI” reaction to the monologues overall, but if you bear with it and check your hang-ups at the door (or more accurately, at the streaming site) you might learn something about human nature and maybe even a little bit about yourself.

=Filmed versions of a stage show live and die by how good the audience response is; Pevsner wasn’t blessed with a particularly vocal audience and at times some of the funniest lines are met with dead silence, which doesn’t help matters much. Pevsner is an engaging performer, self-effacing and without any sort of filter. Some of the songs work, some don’t; some of the jokes work, some don’t but there is no denying that this project comes from Pevsner’s heart.

From time to time Pevsner talks about things in life that are painful, some unbearably so – like the first real relationship he was in that despite the obvious love he had for his partner (and still does, if the show is any indication), the relationship became toxic and he had to give it up. I think we’ve all been through that kind of thing – loving someone deeply who was clearly no good for us and having to give it up to save ourselves from falling apart.

Yeah, I get that at times this comes off like a therapy session for a mature queen, but it takes all types to make a world. I’ve been fortunate enough to be friends with a wide range of gay men in my time (living for 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area makes that almost inevitable) and while not all of them are like Pevsner, some are and the world is a better place with them in it as far as I’m concerned.

=So will you like this? Well, that depends on how open-minded you are about frank discussions of a gay man’s sexual history, and whether or not you like musical comedies your own self, because there’s a lot of singing and it is very much in the vein of modern musicals. I will confess I’m more of a classicist when it comes to musical theater, but there were things about A Chorus Line that I loved and the music is in many ways in that vein, so be forewarned – this is a bit of a niche video, but if you fit into that niche, you’ll find this entertaining and enlightening.

REASONS TO SEE: Funny and poignant in equal doses.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels like we’re listening in on a psychotherapy session.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole mess of profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The show was filmed at the Colony Theater in beautiful downtown Burbank, California.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanda Sykes: Not Normal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Class Action Park

Hollywood Fringe


Kirk and Prediger can’t believe the dialogue coming out of their mouths.

(2020) Comedy (Sleeper CellJennifer Prediger, Justin Kirk, Nishi Munshi, Maya Stojan, Tory Devon Smith, Rainbow Underhill, Erica Hernandez, Jim Holmes, Terryn Westbrook, Cyd Strittmatter, Frank Cappello, Shaughn Buchholz, Aaron Conte, Miles Dausuel, Amit May Cohen, Max Goudsmit, Neel Ghosh, Jolene Kay, Charley Koontz, Aimee McGuire, Anna Shields, Michelle Nakamoto. Directed by Meghan Huber and Wyatt McDill

I would assume at least some of my readers have attended a local fringe festival (and here in Orlando we happen to have a good one). For those not in the know, fringe festivals are a festival of short, generally experimental or avant garde performance media, generally theatrical in nature although some fringe festivals also include short film screenings. Fringe performances are meant to push the boundaries a bit, sometimes dealing with uncomfortable subject matter, sometimes involving audience participation, sometimes being really weird and way out there. Fringe festivals are something of an acquired taste, one I’m sad to say that I’ve never acquired and I’ve been to a few, mostly in California.

This piece is essentially a feature length fringe festival film involving married couple Samantha (Prediger) and Travis (Kirk). They are struggling actors and writers, originally from the Midwest but gradually coming to the realization that they are approaching 40 and have nothing to show for it. They have one last shot – a TV show they have developed about a self-sustaining farm – which they have pitched to a fictional network. If this doesn’t click for them, they have decided to leave L.A. and move back home and start a different life.

But there’s good news and there’s bad news for them; the series is picked up. Yay! But the network only wants Travis, finding Samantha to be too unlikable. Boo! This puts a strain on their marriage as Travis continues on with the show, getting more and more disillusioned as the network changes their original concept into something completely unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Samantha is looking to put on a piece from their younger days, entitled The Alien Play and after auditioning a group of actors from a long line of really bad actors, settles on a group of highly strung actors who, like Samantha, haven’t found success yet  Samantha is turning into a drama teacher as well as theater director, and as Travis gets discouraged, she gets more energized.

But wait! Is that what’s really happening? Co-directors McDill and Huber leave that extremely open-ended, presenting the story as a series of short vignettes that have an audience, generally a very small one. We are left to wonder whether this is reality or performance or a clever mix of both, and the filmmakers leave it to the audience to decide which. That’s to the good. Also to the good is Prediger, who has just enough of an edge to be interesting, but not so much as to be unlikable. She has some real screen presence and has a good deal of potential, kind of like a poor man’s Tina Fey.

But this is often a slog to watch. The dialogue is flat out bad; it is like the dialogue you’d find in a badly written community play. Now, that might well have been done on purpose, but it gets extremely annoying, as does the hand clapping and melodica blowing in between scenes. What probably sounded like an original idea on paper becomes on film somewhat gimmicky and overbearing. Less is definitely more.

I can’t say as I enjoyed this film very much, but take that with a grain of sand – as I intimated earlier, I’m not a big fan of fringe theater to begin with and that is a personal preference. The acting here is decent and the idea would be intriguing if the execution wasn’t so annoying. It comes off a little bit pretentious, like a Fringe performance without the intelligence, innovation or humor. Chalk this up as a noble failure.

REASONS TO SEE: Prediger has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: Real. People. Don’t. Talk. Like. This. Very much like spending 90 minutes with people you can’t stand to be around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Huber and McDill are a married couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Your local fringe festival.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
3-Day Weekend

I Am Woman


Hear her roar.

(2019) Music Biography (Quiver)Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Gardarople, Jordan Roskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Gus Murray, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Scout Bowman, Liam Douglas, Coco Greenstone, Gregg Arthur, Nicola Frew, Shakila Zab, Katerina Tsompanis, Frank Violi, Maddison-Cleo Musumeci. Directed by Unjoo Moon

It is hard to overstate the importance of Helen Reddy to pop culture. Most people know her through her iconic “I Am Woman,” essentially the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, but in the mid to late 70s she had a string of hits that made her one of the most popular performers in the world.

It wasn’t always that way. When Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) won a singing contest in her native Australia, the prize was a recording contract for Mercury Records. She arrived in New York City with her three-year-old daughter in tow, only to discover that the misogynist executives at Mercury had no intention of honoring the contract. One must wonder how many heads rolled after Reddy achieved her international superstardom.,

She decided to give it a go in the US and moved in a roach-infested apartment, paying the rent (barely) with cocktail lounge singing gigs. She was befriended by fellow Aussie and influential rock critic Lillian Roxon (Macdonald) who championed her career. At a rent party, she met Jeff Wald (Peters), an aspiring talent manager. She eventually married him, and the expectation was that he would manage her career and get her that elusive record contract, but he needed to establish himself first.

Frustrated by his lack of support, she finally forced him to work harder to get her signed which finally happened. After a couple of minor hits, “I Am Woman” came out in 1974 and swept the charts, winning her a Grammy (where she famously thanked God, because “she makes all things possible”) and began a string of hits including “Leave Me Alone,” and “Angie Baby.”

In the meantime, her close friend Roxon had passed away after a severe asthma attack and hubby Jeff had blown most of her fortune on cocaine. She eventually would divorce him, and her career came essentially to an end, although that really isn’t covered in the film.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t covered in the film. Moon is apparently a friend of Reddy (whom she met at an awards show) but delivered a very basic version of her biography. We see none of her ex-husband’s attempts to sabotage her career after their divorce, nor do we see much of her creative process. Mostly what we see is her early struggles and then her marital problems later on. You’re given a sense of her status of a feminist icon, but we never get a sense of what Helen herself thought of this.

Cobham-Hervey has a good deal of presence in the role of Reddy but it oddly doesn’t manifest in the concert footage. For the most part, Cobham-Hervey performs with a bemused smirk on her face; I never saw Reddy live myself but I understand she was a dynamic performer in her heyday. There’s no sense of that here, nor of her flinty sense of humor which characterized her entire career.

I also think it was a major mistake for the production to use Aussie performer Chelsea Cullen to dub Reddy’s voice – people are coming not just to see a biopic on her life but to hear her music as well. While Cullen does a decent job mimicking her phrasing and style, I think most people watching the movie are going to miss her actual vocals. If you’re going to make a biography of a singer, you should get the rights to use their actual voice. See Bohemian Rhapsody for an example.

This is the kind of movie that will end up being damned by faint praise. The heart is in the right place, but the execution is lacking. This feels like a Behind the Music version of a pop icon’s life story, and it leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. However, Reddy’s importance both to pop music and to pop culture make this a worthwhile venture, albeit one that could have been a much better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Cobham-Hervey has great presence as Reddy in the non-performance sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cobham-Hervey is strangely distance in the performance sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Unjoo Moon and cinematographer Dion Beebe are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hollywood Fringe

Day 13


Colton comforts Rachel as an LAPD cop looks on.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Alex MacNicoll, G. Hannelius, Meyrick Murphy, JT Palmer, Martin Kove, Darlene Vogel, Shakira Ja’nai Paye, Jonathan Ohye, Harvey B. Jackson, Hollis W. Chambers, Jeremy J. Tutson, Bobby Milhouse, Lauren Donoghue. Directed by Jax Medel

We never really know what’s going on with our neighbors; we might see them to wave to as they get into their car or pick up their mail, but by-and-large we are completely clueless about what goes on behind those closed doors. Sometimes, it’s actually for the best that we don’t know.

Colton (MacNicoll) is a bored teen on summer vacation in the suburbs of L.A. who has been given the unenviable task of babysitting his bratty younger sister Rachel (Murphy) while his mom (Vogel) takes off on a two-week girl’s trip to Barcelona. Colton’s Dad took off a while ago, leaving the three of them to fend for themselves.

Colton’s buddy Michael (Palmer) is constantly trying to get him to come out and play as it were, but Colton has an unusually keen sense of responsibility for a kid his age, plus his interest has been piqued; the long-abandoned house across the street has been showing signs of life; lights flickering on and off in the darkness, shadows moving against the lights. He is a curious sort, so he spends a bundle of money on surveillance equipment and failing to find anything concrete, takes a walk over himself to investigate. There he finds Heather (Hannelius), who has just moved in with her foster father (Kove). He is instantly smitten by her but turns down his requests to go out with him; her foster father, it seems, is something of a disciplinarian.

As Colton continues to observe the house, it turns out that the foster dad is a lot more than just a disciplinarian and Colton begins to fear for Heather’s safety. He takes his concerns to the police, but they don’t believe him and he ends up with a restraining order taken out on him – perhaps the quickest in the history of California – by dear old foster dad. Colton becomes convinced that Heather is in imminent danger, but as it turns out he really has no idea of just what he’s up against.

Some critics have compared this to Rear Window and it’s true that there’s a superficial resemblance, but it ends there and it really isn’t a fair comparison; the Hitchcock film is a classic that delivers enough tension for several heart attacks and a fiendishly concocted plot that keeps the viewer guessing. It’s not fair to expect something like that from a low-budget indie film.

One of the swerves in the film (and this really isn’t too much of a spoiler) is that the movie goes from thriller to straight-out horror in the final half hour which might be a little wrenching for some viewers. It’s actually a good idea, although it has been done before, also with a teen protagonist.

Part of the biggest problem here is the character of Colton, who is very poorly written. He often does things that defy logic and common sense even for a teen – why, for example, would he be so interested in the house across the street that he is motivated to spend $600 on surveillance equipment (and where did he get the money, considering that he has no visible job). He bickers constantly with his sister and is always blowing off his friend Michael. He is clearly hung up on his father’s desertion, but never articulates it. That’s okay; teens rarely articulate things well, but for the purposes of the movie we need a little bit more fleshing out of Colton if we are to have a reasonable shot at identifying with him. MacNicoll, so capable in 13 Reasons Why, doesn’t have the experience yet to overcome this.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects and those it does have are not very good. I do like the part of the film where most of the CGI shows up, but they aren’t necessarily the highlight. There is a decent twist, but it isn’t one you shouldn’t see coming. Veteran actor Kove, who cut his teeth as the villainous sensei of Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid movies (and the recent TV show) as well as in action movies like Rambo and TV shows like Cagney and Lacey.

It takes a long time for the movie to get going and once it does, it is admirably paced but by then, most viewers will have lost interest. These days, a filmmaker has to keep the pulse of the viewer pounding if they are to keep the attention of viewers who have far too many distractions in their lives as it is; you need to grab the viewer quickly and keep holding onto them until the final reel. Otherwise, you’ll get a whole lot of viewers tuning out before the final credits roll, and that is bad news for any film.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is fairly nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: The part of Colton isn’t particularly well-developed. Really slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and some disturbing and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature length film for Medel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonAppleTVFandango NowGoogle PlayMicrosoftVimeoVuduYouTube 
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Garden Left Behind

Attack of the Unknown


Don’t look behind you.

(2020) Science Fiction (Gravitas) Richard Grieco, Tara Reid, Robert LoSardo, Jolene Andersen, Tania Fox, Douglas Tait, Robert Donavan, Ben Stobber, Scott Butler, Margo Quinn, Gerardo de Pablos, Dee Cutrone, Tamara Solomson, Mia ScozzaFave, Paul Gunn, Navin P. Kumar, Johnny Huang, Elizabeth Noelle Japhet, Al Burke, Rachel Christenson. Directed by Brandon Slagle

 

I’m not sure when H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds or when Orson Welles broadcast a version of it on the radio that they realized that someday there would be several alien invasion movies every year of varying production values and quality. I sort of doubt it. And had they known, they might well have had a good laugh.

Vernon (Grieco) is the taciturn, tough-as-nails leader of an elite SWAT team of the LAPD. They have staked out cartel leader Miguel “Hades” Aguirre (LoSardo) and after a bloody gunfight, capture the drug lord. Their triumph is tempered by the loss of one of their members and the sudden intrusion of the Feds who insist on taking over the case.

The day gets worse for Vernon as his wife serves him with divorce papers and to make matters even worse, he receives word that he has terminal myeloma. What’s next, an invasion of bloodthirsty aliens hellbent on sucking the blood of every last human being in Los Angeles?

Funny you should mention that. It’s exactly what happens, to everyone’s surprise except for maybe Vernon. He holes up with the remains of his team and a few civilians, including Hades in the detention center which is not as well-stocked with guns and ammo as you might think. They know that they can’t stay there but there’s a possibility of getting to a nearby high rise for a helicopter rescue, but first they’re going to have to fight their way through a swarm of seemingly indestructible aliens.

On paper, it sounds like the genesis of what could be a wild and fun ride, and certainly that was what director Brendan Slagle was after – at least, he has a lot of elements that are working in that direction, from a frenetic, breathless pace to a marvelous Clint Eastwood on Zen-like performance by Grieco, who is grizzled enough now that the one-time 21 Jump Street babyface has a shot at a new career doing gritty action films like this one.

Like most B-movies, this one has a budget that would cause Kevin Feige (the producer of Marvel movies, for those wondering who he is) hysterics. The best-known actors are Grieco and Tara Reid, who is in a blink-and-you-missed-it flashback of a previous alien invasion – apparently there were no Sharknado movies in production at the time. The CGI is okay, not great but the aliens are actually laughable; guys in felt suits with headpieces left over from This Island Earth that Ed Wood would have loved.

There are a few needless subplots that probably should have been jettisoned to streamline this a bit more, but as they say, it’s all in good fun and it’s mostly harmless, unless you object to seeing bad things happen to good cops. This isn’t going to make anybody forget Independence Day but if you like your sci-fi cheesy, gritty and violent, this might just be for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Cheesy in kind of a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The aliens are really unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence, some nudity and sex, as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Slagle took several concepts in the film from a short story he wrote in middle school called “Blood is the Cure.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Psychomagic: A Healing Art

After So Many Days


Jim and Sam will play anywhere for anyone.

 (2020) Musical Documentary (Tiny RoomJim Hanft, Samantha Yonack. Directed by Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack

Making music is something that many of us do in one way or another. It is an expression of our passion, in most cases. To do it professionally requires a different kind of passion; a kind of madness, really. The business of making music is a frustrating and often unforgiving one. Keeping your sanity given the kind of indifference and heartache that often follows in being a professional musician is no easy task.

So, one has to wonder about the husband/wife duo of Jim and Sam. Freshly married in 2017, they found their career was in a morass and their creative juices simply weren’t flowing. Rather than taking a break, which often leads to a much more extended absence than intended, they decided to launch themselves both feet into their mutual career – to play a gig every day for a full year.

So, yeah, you have to wonder if they weren’t a little crazy for even considering the plan. Like the Irish band the Black Donnellys who undertook a similarly difficult venture as documented in An Irish Story: This is My Home, Jim and Sam set out to take the bull by the horns, which had to be daunting when you considered the logistics. Heap onto that the fact that they didn’t plan extensively; when they set out on the road from their Los Angeles home, they had about three weeks of gigs planned and that was it. The road they were on would take them to 14 different countries, particularly Sweden where they had recorded their first EP and had a bit of a fan base, but they also ended up in Eastern Europe and the UK as well.

The two documented their ordeal and created an absolutely wonderful documentary from it. I don’t think that non-professionals will ever get a better idea of the obstacles faced by professional musicians than this film, which shows them in thick and thin; having financial issues and a looming eviction from their apartment, transportation issues, and canceled gigs leading to scrambling to play in front of someone, anyone that they could find, sometimes venturing into convenience stores, restaurants and tobacco shops to play impromptu sets. In one memorable scene, they stop by the side of the road and play for a very attentive herd of cows.

The two captured their gigs on cell phones, and inexpensive video cameras but even so, the quality is pretty good in terms of the cinematography. The two make for compelling subjects, and while they bicker from time to time, they seem to have gotten along extremely well considering the circumstances. Being together with anyone 24/7 for a year can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Hanft said in an interview that the two of them were forced to solve issues quickly, or risk long four-hour car rides angry with one another.

What you will take away most from this documentary, however, is the music which is really very special. Their harmonies are magical and their songs tuneful and full of lovely pop hooks. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, and some melancholy reflective numbers. If you’re taste is anything like mine, you’ll likely be scrambling to find their music online.

Their solution to their musical malaise is not for every musician, in case you think something like this is going to solve all of your problems. The relationship was tested and so was their passion for their craft. They performed day after day, sometimes in front of indifferent audiences, occasionally nursing colds or the flu, whether they were in a good place mentally or not. While they did things largely on their own, they did have a manager looking out for them (in the film, he’s mainly a voice on the telephone until the final scenes).

“The show must go on” is a bit of an aphorism, but these two took it to almost ridiculous lengths but you have to admire their willingness to go all-in and their perseverance once they did. Whether you agree with me or not, you’ll have their music stuck in your head for a long time after the movie is over.

The movie will continue on the Festival circuit and looks to get a theatrical or VOD release in October of this year. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is exceptional. An inspirational DIY ethic.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are tantalizing snippets of songs that you wish you could hear more of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim and Sam met at a comedy show through a mutual friend; they began writing and performing music together a week later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Falling Slowly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cured

Opus of an Angel


The blind leading the bland.

(2017) Drama (Random) William McNamara, Cindy Pickett, Kaylynn Kubeldis, Sofya Skya, Destiny Austin, Lee Kholafai, Leila Ciancaglini, Nadja Hussein Camper, Will C, Marjo-Rikka Makela, Cristian Fagins, Don DiPaolo, Marisa Lopez, Ellison Julia, Jamison Newlander, Jon Peacy, Micah Fitzgerald, Joan Benedict Steiger, Mikul Robins, Said William Legue, Christine Kent, Sara Terho. Directed by Ali Zamani

 

What is an angel? Most of us don’t really believe in angels to begin with – whether you are religious or not. It goes without saying that nobody has ever seen one, or will willingly admit to it since if you DID admit to having seen one, chances are people are going to be quietly backing away from you. Angels are the servants of God, right? Or are they ageless creatures sent to watch over us in our hour of need? Or are they merely observers of the human condition? Wings and halos notwithstanding, we may want to believe in angels deep down even if we think they don’t exist.

When it comes to faith, Dr. Stephen Murphy (McNamara) gave at the office. He was once a successful cardiac surgeon, a happy father and husband, celebrating his little girl’s tenth birthday with a picnic at her favorite park, when his cell phone rings – an emergency surgery is necessary, life or death. And the patient is a kid just about his daughter’s age.

We catch up to Stephen a year later on his daughter’s eleventh birthday. His home is tidy, but empty; the only thing that looks out of place is the noose hanging in the kitchen. Stephen has decided that he can’t take the pain of life anymore and is going to finish himself off just as soon as he runs a final few errands. However, before he has been gone from the house very long, he sees a blind little girl (Kubeldis) knocked over by a car driven by a group of hoodlums. She’s okay, but has been separated from her classmates who are out and about on a field trip. Unable to contact her mother, he allows her to tag along on his last day. Might as well have some company, right? Besides, his paternal instincts kick in – you can’t exactly leave a blind girl alone in the city to fend for herself.

The two actually end up bonding. Stephen, initially morose and almost robotic, begins to respond to the girl’s – her name is Maria, by the way – infectious attitude. One of the most touching scenes in the film involves Stephen taking her to a movie theater playing a classic Buster Keaton silent comedy, with Stephen describing what’s happening on the screen to the blind girl. Stephen is plagued by memories, though, that soon explain what happened to his family and to Stephen, and why he is no longer interested in living. Is Maria just a blind little girl who happened to cross paths with Stephen, or is there something more going on here?

The script plays it coy, but I think its obvious by the end of the film that there is an otherworldly aspect to the movie. This is not exactly a faith-based drama – although there are elements of that, but the filmmakers choose not to hit you in the face with the faith aspects of the film. Militant atheists, however, may find some offense to be taken.

For cinema buffs, this is a movie with tons of heart but lacking in execution. Much of the movie is shot on handheld camera, and often the camera sways like the operator is having an attack of vertigo, or wants the viewer to. The performances here are stiff and the dialogue contrived.

I felt bad for Kubeldis; she’s given a difficult role to work with and her inexperience shows through, most notably in her line reading which sounds forced and not at all natural. It’s the kind of part that would be difficult for a trained professional; for a tyro making her first film appearance, it’s nearly impossible and at the very least, a hell of a lot to ask of a novice. Kubeldis has some moments where her naturally sunny disposition are infectious, but she can’t really maintain it enough to elevate the movie, which sorely needed it. She shows plenty of potential though so I hope she doesn’t get discouraged after making this film.

There are enough moments in the movie that are worthwhile that I can barely recommend it, but just barely. There are an awful lot of rookie mistakes both behind the camera and in front of it too. You can’t deny, though, that the intentions of the filmmakers were at least honorable and this is the kind of movie that we do need more of; I just would have appreciated a little more attention to detail though.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that shine.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kubeldis, who plays the blind Maria, is blind herself in real life and makes her onscreen acting debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Touched By an Angel
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Summerland

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want