Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never

The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

Destroyer


Here’s a face that’s seen a lot of miles down a hard road.

(2018) Crime Drama (Annapurna) Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Colby French, Kelvin Han Yee, Joseph Fatu, Cuete Yeska, Doug Simpson, Kate Clauson, Jan Hoag, Cecily Breaux. Directed by Karyn Kusama

 

One of the first things we see in this gritty L.A.-set crime drama is the face of Nicole Kidman, but it’s not the glamorous beauty that we have come to know; her face is aging, careworn and dead-eyed, the face of someone who has had the shit kicked out of her by life and is just going through the motions until she dies.

This is L.A.P.D.’s finest Erin Bell, and she is damaged goods. An incident back in the 90s when she and her partner Chris (Stan) had infiltrated the gang of a charismatic bank robber named Silas (Kebbell) has changed her forever. Now, Silas is back and Erin knows that there can be no justice for one such as he unless she metes it out herself, and this is what she intends to do.

This is not the Nicole Kidman you’ve ever seen before. Erin Bell is a piece of work, as they like to say in cop shows. She bends the system until it breaks, has not a single relationship with anyone that can be termed even remotely healthy. She walks with a shuffle like an old lady going to the corner store to buy latkes but it is her eyes that generate the most hideous visage of all, the eyes of a woman who has seen Hell and understands that’s where she belongs. You won’t like Erin Bell much, but you’ll love the job Kidman does playing her.

You’ll also like the rest of the impressive cast, all of whom do sterling work. This is a sun-drenched film which is fitting; most noir films are more comfortable in nighttime settings, but this one demands the lurid, unflinching light of day. This is one of Kidman’s best performances ever and it ill serve as one of the talented Kusama’s better films.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman is an absolute force. The supporting cast is pretty strong, too.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a little bit diffuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole mess o’ profanity, a lot of violence, some sexual material and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sebastian Stan originally auditioned for the role of Silas, but Kusama felt he’d make a better love interest for Kidman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brick Mansions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Social Ones

Jinn (2018)


East meets west.

(2018) Drama (Orion) Simone Missick, Zoe Renee, Hisham Tawfiq, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Dorian Missick, Kelly Jenrette, Ashlei Foushee, Maya Morales, Upasana Beharee, Damien D. Smith, Horace Dodd, John Zderko, Emily Adams, Megan Clancy, Kobie Dozier, Matthew Excel, Gabriel Garzaro, Sara Kamine, Mike C. Manning, Fahad Olayan, Che Ladon, Evelyn Smith, Kat Purgal. Directed by Nijla Mu’min

We use the term “coming of age” blithely when it comes to movies, but in reality, it is no easy thing. It is often excruciatingly painful and difficult to manage even under perfect circumstances. As we all know, circumstances are rarely perfect.

Summer Jennings (Renee) looks to have a near-perfect life. A beautiful African-American girl in her senior year in high school, she is in love with dance and is hoping to get in to Cal Arts. Her mother, Jade (S. Missick) has been divorced from her dad for a while, but she has a great job as a local TV meteorologist. Summer has a dance team – a clique, really – and plenty of friends.

Jade feels like she’s missing something in her life and one day decides to go to a mosque. She is received warmly there, particularly by the Imam (Tawfiq) and after an afternoon of prayers and reading the Koran, decides to convert to Islam. At first, with the school talent show coming up, Summer barely notices but the more Jade gets into it, the more zeal she has. She insists that Summer also convert and Summer does, but Summer is exploring her sexuality, as teenage girls will, and trying to fit her new religion into the life she’s used to. Her attraction to Tahir (Harrison), the son of another single mom at the mosque (Jenrette) further complicates things.

First time writer-director Mu’min based the script on her own experiences growing up in Oakland (the story is transplanted to Los Angeles) and in the richly drawn Summer the experience shows. Renee is quite a find, rarely making a misstep in her performance, showing a lot of maturity in her body language and in her choices. She is definitely a talent to look out for.

There is a feeling of authenticity to the relationships Summer has and the choices that she makes. Summer is not always the ideal daughter – she can be casually cruel to her friends and her burgeoning sexuality causes her to make some poor choices, but Summer is basically a decent young girl trying to find herself amidst all the hormones and most teens will certainly see some common ground with their own experiences, particularly African-American girls but I think regardless of ethnic background, there is some insight to be had here even if you are not a teen any longer.

The movie treats Islam with respect, something that is kind of rare these days. It is portrayed here as a kind and compassionate belief system. Yes, Jade does tend to go overboard with the strict adherence but that tends to be true of any convert to a new religion. We do see Jade having to cope with her station’s reluctance to allow her on the air wearing a head scarf, but the anti-Islam hysteria that has swept the nation over the past 20 years isn’t referred to much, just obliquely.

This is a very good film, although it is bound to make a lot of far right sorts apoplectic. The title refers to a mythical creature that changes its form, and refers to Summer, who is throughout the film trying new looks, new hairstyles (you could make a drinking game out of the various colors she dyes her hair). That is another part of being a teenage girl, finding a look that expresses who they are. This movie ought to help some girls, searching for an identity, to bring their choices into focus.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong movie for teens, particularly African-American girls.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to lean towards the soap opera side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorian Missick, who play’s Jade’s ex-husband David, is married to Simone Missick (who plays Jade) in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waves
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Rewind

My Darling Vivian


He walked the line for her.

(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.

Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.

Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.

His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.

Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.

On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.

Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.

But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.

Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.

Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.

Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.

But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).

This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.

The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
South Mountain

By Day’s End


Any corridor is dangerous during the zombie apocalypse.

(2020) Found Footage Horror (Breaking GlassLyndsey Lantz, Andrea Nelson, Joshua Keller Katz, Diana Castrillon, Bill Oberst Jr. (voice), Maria Olsen, Devlin Wilder, Umberto Celisano, Nadia Jordan (voice), Devon Russell, Kyle Nunn, Amber Hawkins, Roy Ying, Matthew Lee, Janaki Tambe, Helen Audie, Shirley Aikens. Directed by Michael Souder

While many of us are stuck at home by social distancing – voluntary or otherwise – caused by a deadly pandemic, a virus-driven zombie apocalypse movie might not be precisely the best choice in social distancing viewing. Still…

Carly (Lantz) has just purchased a video camera. After dropping out of med school just short of graduating, she intends to take up a career as a videographer instead and even has a wedding lined up to shoot on the weekend. She lives with Rina (Nelson), her girlfriend and a lawyer who is, unfortunately, out of work. This set of circumstances has forced them to take up residence in a squalid L.A.-area motel.

The dingy surroundings might well be a metaphor for the relationship between the two women. Andrea is on edge, sniping and picking on Carly at every turn. Carly doesn’t seem to be taking their circumstances seriously. Their romance is definitely on the rocks, with a twist of lemon even.

But this relationship movie is interrupted by the intrusion of a screaming woman; Gloria (Castrillon) who has been bitten by her husband (Celisano), the maintenance guy for the hotel. All of a sudden, this romance has turned into a zombie movie and the two women are not close to being prepared for it.

=Fortunately, Wyatt (Katz) is. The ex-military man has a cache of weapons and ammo in a hotel storeroom and is aware of a safe zone that the army has set up. Now all they have to do is get there.

This is a found footage film, a sub-genre that seems to be making a comeback this year after taking 2019 off. As found footage films go, this one is pretty standard with plenty of shaky-cam video camera footage and grainy security camera footage mixed in for good measure.

The performances here are pretty decent, all things considered. It is a micro-budget film and most of what budget they have went to make-up effects which incidentally are also pretty decent. The script is full of zombie movie tropes as well as found footage tropes, and never really rises above them to do something different, despite having two lesbians as the lead – which is refreshing. And to the credit of Lantz and Nelson, the relationship between Carly and Rina is pretty realistic, full of missteps and failings but loving when push comes to shove – which it does.

Souder does a good job in several scenes making the tension rise, but there are also some head-scratching moments where he misses some opportunities. However, at a sleek 73 minutes the movie isn’t going to tax anyone’s patience. The relationship scenes early on are the best reason to see this, although there is some fun to be had once the dead start chowing down on the living.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some really tense moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a standard plotline with few surprises.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Souder..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tape

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band


The name of the band is The Band.

(2019) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, John Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins, John Scheele, Jimmy Vivino, Larry Campbell, George Semkiw. Directed by David Roher

 

There is absolutely no disputing that The Band were one of the most talented and influential ensembles to ever grace a rock and roll stage. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer/singer Levon Helm, bassist/singer Rick Danko, pianist/singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson essentially created the Americana subgenre and made music that was both timeless and timely, both symbolizing an era and transcending it.

They formed as the back-up band to wild blues singer Ronnie Hawkins, known initially as The Hawks. When Bob Dylan absconded with them to back him up during his “Dylan goes electric” tour, they were roundly booed at every appearance. It was only when they went out on their own under their generic “The Band” moniker that they finally began hearing cheers.

Albums like Music From Big Pink and The Band were classics, yielding such songs as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek,” but the strength of The Band was in their tight arrangements, superior songwriting and raw, emotional vocals particularly from Helm but also from Danko and Manuel. It would all come to an end in 1975 with the release of The Last Waltz¸ the group’s last concert (and the last time all five of them would appear together onstage) and the accompanying documentary by Martin Scorsese.

This new film comes mainly from Robertson’s perspective; he is the only band member interviewed for it (although remarks by Helm and Danko appear from earlier interviews) and it is based on his own memoirs. There is sadly a real lack of contemporary footage of the Band in concert, particularly in their days as backup bands for Hawkins and Dylan so there is a lot of reliance on talking head interviews from fans like Scorsese and Springsteen (whose “Atlantic City” they covered on their post-Robertson album Jericho) as well as with Robertson’s wife Dominique and producer John Simon.

Robertson is an engaging storyteller but we really only get his viewpoint – only he and Hudson remain still alive from the group, and Hudson who was notoriously shy, doesn’t appear other than as a performer in the film. Much is made of the group’s drug abuse, with Manuel, Danko and Helm all flirting with heroin (Robertson and Hudson did not, and Robertson blames the group’s eventual dissolution on drug abuse, citing a harrowing story of Manuel getting into a car wreck with Robertson’s wife aboard). Although the film essentially ends with The Last Waltz, it neglects to mention that the group went on to record several albums and tour sans Robertson afterwards, although Robertson insists that he had always intended that The Last Waltz was meant to signal a temporary hiatus and that they always planned to get back together, shrugging it off with a disarming “but they just forgot, I guess.” By that time, Robertson was continuing to record on his own and was also pursuing an acting career.

He also glosses over the post-breakup feuds and enmity having to do with royalties and songwriting credit, which Helm in particular felt should have belonged to the entire group and not just Robertson since they did most of the arranging. Although there was bad blood, Robertson tells that when Helm was dying in 2012, he flew out to be by his side when Helm was on his deathbed.

That the group was once close and had a rare kind of cohesion can’t be argued; that there was bad blood afterwards – well, even brothers fight; sometimes more bitterly than most. This is a pretty decent tribute to a group that deserves more recognition than they got from the public, having shaped country, rock and roll and folk music with a sound that at the time was revolutionary but toI day is merely influential. I would have preferred that the film be less hagiographic and include more voices than just Robertson’s but that wasn’t to be; Manuel passed away in 1996, Danko in 1998 and Helm as mentioned before in 2012. With three fifths of the group gone, it just makes one wonder how the perspective would have changed had some of them been there to give their point of view.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty nifty performance footage. A bittersweet look at one of the most influential groups of all time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the celebrity testimonials.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robertson penned two songs for the 1959 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks album Mr. Dynamo when Robertson was only 15 years old.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beanpole

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill