Rust Creek


Kentucky back roads are full of unusual roadkill.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Hermione Corfield, Jay Paulson, Micah Hauptman, Sean O’Bryan, Daniel R. Hill, John Marshall Jones, Jeremy Glazer, Jake Kidwell, Denise Dal Vera, Laura Guzman, Virginia Schneider. Directed by Jen McGowan

 

Road trips are a favorite of mine. There’s no better way to see the countryside, to get a feel for those who live there. However, there are some roads that are best not traveled upon.

Sawyer (Corfield) is one of those college students who are popping up everywhere – bright, ambitious, and fiercely determined to follow the road they’ve mapped out for themselves. Yes, that spells “irritating” for us older folks who once were bright, ambitious and fiercely determined to follow the road we mapped out for ourselves but somehow took a wrong turn.

Sawyer has also made a wrong turn. She’s driving through the backwoods of Kentucky during Thanksgiving week to get to Washington DC for a job interview and not just any job interview – one for her dream job. The Interstate is literally bumper to bumper with holiday traffic so she decides to take a road less traveled. Her GPS turns out to be unhelpful to say the least – sending her down roads that don’t exist or in dubious directions. Hopelessly lost, she stops to get her bearings and consult an actual paper map.

That’s when she gets the attention of Hollister (Hauptman) and Buck (Hill), a couple of locals – brothers and from an inbred family, judging from appearances. Things quickly get creepy and before you can say “isn’t that the kid from Deliverance?” she’s saying “you’re making me uncomfortable” and one of them makes a try for a Presidential pussy grab which goes over about as well as you’d expect. Things escalate and both of the Backwoods Boys get stabbed but unfortunately so does our heroine.

She escapes into the woods though, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She’s bleeding and the Kentucky woods are no joke in November. She eventually passes out and finds herself awake and in restraint in a trailer that looks like its seen better days. So too has the guy living there, Josh (Kidwell) who to make matters worse is a meth cooker and brother to both Hollister and Buck.

But Josh is different and he knows what the score is; why the Sheriff (O’Bryan) seems unconcerned with an abandoned car and missing persons report, and what Buck and Hollister were up to. Sawyer knows she’s in over her head but if she’s going to get out of this alive she’s going to have to be even tougher than she’s ever been.

Sawyer is one of the strongest and fiercest female characters in a low budget thriller to come along in a long time and Corfield does her justice. She could well be a 21st century Ripley, but strangely during the second half of the film her character’s strength seems to be sapped and she is almost waiting for Josh to save her. I can understand that a character as traumatized as she is during the course of the movie might lose some of her steam but I think the film would have been better served had Sawyer been more of a force throughout. I could see her being a role model but then….well, not so much.

Cinematographer Michelle Lawler gets to play in the Kentucky woods and she hits it out of the park, turning this into as beautifully shot a thriller as you are likely to see anytime soon. The woods are deceptively beautiful, the bad guys notwithstanding and it almost gives me thoughts of moving there someday. Almost.

The movie is a little bit on the long side as we learn more about meth cooking than I think most of us will ever want to know. Also Buck and Hollister are so stereotypical that the state of Kentucky might seriously think of protesting the film for perpetuating those stereotypes. I’m not saying that guys like his don’t exist, but they’re given not a lick of character development and that, too, hurts the film.

Still, this is a solid and eminently watchable thriller that has some really high points but just misses on others. It’s out in theaters for a limited run and also on VOD if it’s not playing in a theater convenient to you. As January films go, this one isn’t half-bad.

REASONS TO GO: Corfield is one of the strongest and fiercest scream queens to come along in years. The Kentucky scenery is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat long. The villains are for the most part stereotypical rednecks.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production company, Lunacy, has a mandate to support female filmmakers; thus most of the key behind the camera roles have been filled by women, including director, writer, director of photography, production designer, sound mixer and colorist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Archer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Christmas Chronicles

Dave Made a Maze


The Tiki God of garbage gazes over his domain.

(2016) Fantasy Comedy (Foton) Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Stephanie Allynne, Adam Busch, Scott Krinsky, James Urbaniak, John Hennigan, Frank Caeti, Scott Narver, Kirsten Vangsness, Drew Knigga, Kamilla Alnes, Rick Overton, Timothy Nordwind, Etienne Eckert, Brittney Deutsch, Jessica Graves. Directed by Bill Watterson

The imagination can be a powerful thing. It can create entire worlds…entire realities. It can change one’s life in a heartbeat. Of course, it comes in real handy when making movies as well.

Dave (Thune) is one of those guys who just pisses away his life. He has a thousand ideas for things but he never follows them through to the end. As a result, as he hits 30 and wonders where his life is taking him, he feels a failure even though he has a beautiful girlfriend named Anna (Kumbhani) and a bunch of friends who think he’s cool.

One weekend, Anna is out of town on a business trip and Dave is bored out of his skull. He decides to construct a maze out of cardboard in the living room – an elaborate one. Like many projects that become obsessions, it takes on a life of its own.

When Anna arrives home, she discovers the maze in her living room and can find neither hide nor hair of Dave. Eventually she hears his voice calling from inside the cardboard creation. It turns out that he’s gotten lost in the maze. That sounds absolutely unbelievable but Dave insists that it is much bigger on the inside. Anna means to knock it down so he can get out but he begs her not to – he wants to finish something for once in his life.

He doesn’t want her to go in and get her either – a rescue mission is too dangerous as there are booby traps and trip wires. Nonetheless, Anna calls Dave’s best friend Gordon (Busch) and he calls a few other friends (despite being told explicitly not to) and soon there’s a party in Dave’s living room which includes power couple Greg (Nordwind) and Brynn (Allynne), ubernerd Jane (Vangsness), a random homeless guy (Overton), Harry (Urbaniak), a documentary film maker with his boom operator (Caeti) and camera operator (Narver) and a couple of Flemish tourists (Knigga and Alnes) and Leonard (Krinsky) who is just…Leonard.

They all go in after him and find a world they could never imagined; living origami, a Tiki God that spurts out living ribbon, rooms that evolve on their own and yes, a Minotaur (Hennigan) for good measure. Not everyone is going to make it out alive, but then again, not all of them were really living anyway.

I gotta hand it to first-time filmmaker Watterson – he has oodles of imagination. The production design here may be low-budget but it is absolutely captivating. The world of the maze isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen…well, most of it is anyway. The crew used 30,000 square feet of cardboard to construct the maze and…well, every penny is on the screen as some critics like to say.

Watterson also uses perspective as an additional effect to keep the viewer off balance, and he wisely refrains from using it overmuch. One of the things that encourage me about this new director is that he knows how to keep from being repetitive while remaining creative. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Thune has plenty of charisma and likability in the lead role and I can see him building on this and getting some plum roles in the near future. Certainly performances like this will make him eligible for romantic comedy leads as well as straight comedies. Thune has a pretty rosy future.

There are a few faces here from TV, like Vangsness from Criminal Minds, Allynne from One Mississippi and Krinsky from Chuck but most of the others with the exception of Thune are largely not well known and Thune is known mostly for being a stand-up comic with appearances on stand-up shows and @Midnight.

Be warned though that in watching this you’re likely to suffer hipster overload. The movie is lousy with them and those who find them insufferable may find themselves heading for the exit. The soundtrack is full of indie rock and the male characters with beards. You may want to dose yourself with anti-hipster medicine before coming to see this.

That and an ending that doesn’t live up to the rest of the movie aside, this is a very strong entry in the ranks of indie films this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get some distribution from one of the big indies. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that is going to show up in a lot of best of the year lists this year.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the most amazing production design you’ll see in a film this year. Thune is an engaging and earnest lead. Watterson has a good eye for perspective. One of the most imaginative films at this year’s Florida Film Festival.
REASONS TO STAY: Hipster overload. The ending is a tad weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director is not related to the cartoonist of the same name who created Calvin & Hobbes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cool World
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: For Ahkeem

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

The Objective


The Objective

Just what IS the Objective?

(2008) Science Fiction (IFC) Jonas Ball, Matt Anderson, Jon Huertas, Michael C. Williams, Sam Hunter, Jeff Prewett, Kenny Taylor, Chems-Eddine Zinoune, Qzaibar Allal. Directed by Daniel Myrick

All is fair in love and war, but in war nothing is ever what it seems to be, particularly when the word “intelligence” is attached to it.

It is only months after 9-11 and the conflict in Afghanistan is just getting started. CIA agent Benjamin Keynes (Ball) is trying to find a cleric in the remote mountains of that country, ostensibly to get his blessings for the U.S. invasion to wipe out the Taliban. However, as Chief Warrant Officer Wally Tamer (Anderson) and his team of Sgt. Degetau (Huertas), Sgt. Trinoski (Williams), Sgt. Cole (Hunter), Sgt. Sadler (Prewett) and MSgt. Tanner (Taylor) discover, that was never their objective in the first place.

Apparently satellites have discovered a massive power surge in the mountains and the concern is that the Taliban has a super-weapon of some sort hidden away, and it’s their job to find it. With their native guide (Zinoune) leading the way they soon become hopelessly lost. That’s when the going gets strange.

Unexplainable noises and lights bedevil them. Phantom helicopters seem to be just over the next ridge but never appear. They are fired upon close by but when they arrive at the location that they were fired on from there’s no sign that there was anybody ever there. As ominous as these things are, things begin to get more dangerous – and more deadly. It soon becomes clear that Keynes knows far more than he’s telling them, and that they are up against an adversary that is beyond anything they have ever faced before.

Director Myrick was one of the guys responsible for The Blair Witch Project, and he brought along Williams who also starred in that movie. Like in his magnum opus, there is a low budget vibe here, a less-is-more style of filmmaking. Most of the tension is brought on by things off-camera, allowing the viewer’s imagination to take off with them.

He also utilizes a cast mainly of unknowns which has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, you’re never distracted by famous faces. To the bad, the acting isn’t always top notch, although it is solid for the most part.

The problem here is the same one faced by our actual soldiers in Afghanistan; mostly we’re faced with a lot of scenes of soldiers marching around, going nowhere punctuated by scenes of sudden and extreme violence. It can be effective in places, but at times it feels like we’ve marched a long damn way to get there and our feet are starting to get tired.

Ball not only is the lead but he handles the voiceover narration as well (that sound you hear are mainstream critics cringing). He is tasked with playing a guy who holds everything inside, from information to emotions which can make it difficult for audiences to latch onto him as their proxy. He does as much as anybody could do I suppose, but still he remains difficult to really get to know throughout the movie and that was a bit bothersome to me as a viewer – although if Myrick was trying to get the audience to feel as in the dark as the soldiers, he succeeded.

There are a few optical effects near the end and it does get a little bit trippy, but on the whole this is a solid, tension-inducing sci-fi thriller. It got a laughable one-screen one day release on which it made $95, so I imagine they are hoping to make back their investment either in the DVD release or the cable run (which I understand is on Showtime at the moment). It’s really not too bad, but it is rather flawed – so be forewarned, at least more than the poor slobs who marched out to Afghanistan to find a cleric were.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid if unspectacular sci-fi horror film set in the Afghanistan war is at least somewhat unique.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to relate to the lead characters and despite some good action sequences, it’s mostly watching soldiers march in the desert.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language, some violence and some disturbing visuals. I would feel okay with older teens watching this and maybe mature younger teens as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael C. Williams utters the same line in this movie (“Effing Savages”) as he does in Eduardo Sanchez’ 2006 horror movie Altered. Williams also starred in The Blair Witch Project which Myrick and Sanchez co-directed; whether or not the line of dialogue was an intentional link between the two films is unknown.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Myrick at the Tribeca Film Festival is on the disk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s safe to say that it lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Cheri

The Stepfather (2009)


The Stepfather

Dylan Walsh has a point to make.

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Amber Heard, Nancy Linehan Charles, Braeden Lemasters. Directed by Nelson McCormick

Family is at the core of our value system. Everything we do, all of our decisions are made for the benefit of our family, at least so goes the theory. Of course, there are families and then again there are families.

David Harris (Walsh) wants a family in the worst way. He seems a nice enough man and when vulnerable divorcee Susan Harding (Ward) wanders into the grocery store he’s shopping at, they strike up a conversation, which leads to romance. David is a widower whose wife and daughter died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, something that gets Susan’s nurturing instincts going into overdrive. Everyone, from the neighbors to Susan’s kids, think David is a heck of a guy.

The only one who doesn’t is Michael (Badgley), the eldest Harding. He’s been away at military school for some unspecified troublemaking and has just returned home. Something about David just doesn’t ring true to Michael, whether it’s the fact that David can’t get his daughter’s name straight or that he seems to have a creepy unnatural fascination for Michael’s girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Either way, Michael’s got his eyes on David and it isn’t long before he figures out the terrible truth.

You see, David is actually a serial killer (not a spoiler kids – this is revealed in the movie’s opening moments) who insinuates himself into a family, then butchers them when they don’t live up to his high standards of what a family should be. He also has no problems offing anyone who gets in his way, whether it is a nosy neighbor or Susan’s boorish ex (Tenney). It isn’t long before David begins to think it’s time to take care of his new family and find himself another.

This is the remake of a 1987 movie that starred Terry O’Quinn (John Locke of “Lost”) in the title role. That movie attained cult status after a mediocre theatrical run due to word of mouth video rentals, enough to spawn two sequels (one with O’Quinn and the other without). Invariably, this is going to be compared to the original.

The makers of the remake also were responsible for the Prom Night remake, which bodes ill for this one. Part of the problem is that they’re going for an entirely different audience; rather than hitting hardcore horror aficionados, they’re going for more of a teen audience, which means that they have to go for a PG-13 rating. That makes for bloodless horror, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but this is the kind of story that becomes more effective when you are a little more visceral.

While the cast is made up of broadcast and cable TV veterans, some very good (Walsh is excellent in “Nip/Tuck” while Tenney is a standout in “The Closer”) and some less so (Badgley in “Gossip Girl,” Turco in “The Agency”), Ward excels as the mom who is blinded to her new man’s darker side. Walsh does his best, but in the end he isn’t able to carry the role of the evil stepfather as well as O’Quinn did 20 years ago; in defense of Walsh, he isn’t exactly handed a whole lot to work with.

The results here is a movie that doesn’t really have the kind of cachet to interest teens, nor does it have the scares and the gore to capture a horror film fan. It therefore becomes neither fish nor fowl, satisfying neither audience. If I had any advice to hand out to the filmmakers, I’d tell them that when handed a horror movie, don’t hide behind terms like “psychological thriller” to justify your decisions; just go for the gusto and you’ll not only make a better movie, you’ll get more butts in theater seats as a reward.

WHY RENT THIS: The young cast certainly looks good in bathing suits.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too bland and bloodless for its own good, it’s a psychological thriller with few thrills.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of sex, as well as a few naughty words here and there. Mostly, the problem here is thematic and the images which can be pretty rough on the sensitive or the immature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star of the original The Stepfather Terry O’Quinn was offered a cameo in the remake, but declined. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray comes equipped with the Sony movieIQ feature that periodically puts pop ups of trivia and factoids related to the scene you’re watching or the general movie overall.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World