Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
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The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Ravage


This is one shutterbug you really shouldn’t mess with.

(2019) Action (BrainstormAnnabelle Dexter-Jones, Bruce Dern, Eric Nelsen, Robert Longstreet, Joshua Brady, Ross Partridge, Chris Pinkalla, Drake Shannon, Michael Weaver. Directed by Teddy Grennan

 

One of the mainstays of grindhouse cinema in the 70s and 80s was the plotline that involved a young woman getting wronged (generally involving rape) by one or a bunch of redneck-types and then goes out to kick the ever-loving deplorable out of ‘em. Those movies fell out of favor, mainly because films depicting rape are frowned upon these days (which is a good thing). But, the kick-ass woman archetype has been passed down through the years in horror films and in revenge thrillers like this one.

Harper Sykes (Dexter-Jones) is a renowned nature photographer who has been acclaimed for going to remote and sometimes dangerous areas to get her shots and it has paid off; she has photographed two species that were thought to be extinct. Now she’s closer to home, in the (fictional) Watchatoomy Valley where, it is whispered, there are homicidal Catholics and cannibalistic Chinese living in the dense woods.

As she looks for a specific species of bird in the wilderness, she stumbles across something she’s not meant to see; a group of good ole boys feeding a man to their dogs. Sickened, she takes pictures of the perpetrators and high-tails it to the local police. Before she can show the sympathetic sheriff (Partridge) her pictures, she is abducted by the bad guys and taken to their leader, Ravener (Longstreet).

She is beaten and raped, but manages to escape, leading the men on a deadly chase where she turns out to be surprisingly vicious herself. On the way back, she runs into a nice old man (Dern) and winds up making it back to town, where a not-so-pleasant surprise waits for her.

This is as brutal a film as you’re going to see this year; it has elements of torture porn and the aforementioned grindhouse fare, but there is a bit of a modern vibe to it as well, so it never feels like a rehash of something that has come before. One of the reasons the movie works so well is the performance of Dexter-Jones, who is vulnerable at times, but hard as nails when the chips are down. She has all the makings of both an excellent action hero and a fine scream queen. She definitely has the confidence and charisma to carry a movie as she does here as she’s in almost every scene.

Most of the gore here is implied and for those who are concerned that the rape will trigger sensitive sorts, it is never actually shown onscreen but alluded to in dialogue. The ending is a wild one; you may be blown away or you may be disgusted. Either way, you won’t look the same way at dairy farms again.

There are a few problems here; most of the film is told in the form of a flashback, so we know in advance that the heroine is going to survive, even though she is bandaged head to toe in her interrogation scenes with a skeptical state detective (Weaver), which leads to another issue here – some cringe-inducing plot points. Why would a detective assume that a world-renowned photographer (as Harper is set up to be) is a demented meth-head? Why doesn’t she utilize the motorbikes that are available to her several times during the course of the film instead of trying to hike out on foot? And why does someone as methodical and as obviously well-trained as Harper is end up trusting someone who she doesn’t know, especially after she’s been burned before more than once?

Other than those sorts of things, this is a movie that grabs you by the throat and shakes you like a rabid dog with a piece of diseased flyblown meat in its maw. There isn’t anything terribly redeeming and considering the abuse that Harper takes, no triumphant feminist message; it’s just bad things happening to a good person who may have looked like a fairly vulnerable girl but turned out to be an ass-kicker of the first order. I enjoyed just about every minute of it.

REASONS TO SEE: A lot better than you think it’s going to be. Dexter-Jones proves to be an excellent action hero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of profanity, and some sexual/rape references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Virginia near Somerset.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mother’s Day (1980)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Train to Busan Presents Peninsula

Cold Pursuit


”It’ll be a cold day in Hell when Liam Neeson does another action mov….oh, crap!”

 (2019) Action (SummitLiam Neeson, Laura Dern, Micheál Richardson, Michael Eklund, Bradley Stryker, Wesley MacInnes, Tom Bateman, Domenick Lombardozzi, Nicholas Holmes, Jim Shield, Aleks Paunovic, Glenn Ennis, Benjamin Hollingsworth, John Dornan, Emmy Rossum, Chris W. Cook, Venus Terzo, Dani Alvarado, Julia Jones, William Forsythe, Elizabeth Thai. Directed by Hans Petter Moland

 

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Liam Neeson should know; he’s made a living the last decade or two playing aggrieved fathers/husbands/friends kicking the shit out of those who have done him wrong. So it’s kind of fitting that this, what he has said will be his final action role, is set in a Colorado ski resort.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, the snowplow driver who has recently won a citizen of the year award for the town. However, his civic acclaim hides the fact that the tiny little hamlet has a problem with crime and violence. Nels isn’t immune from it; his son Kyle (Richardson) turns up dead of a heroin overdose. Nels and his wife (Dern) are devastated, but it smells fishy to Nels. His son ever used drugs and Nels would know if he had, right? So he goes on a one man crusade to find out the truth, even if he has to kill every lowlife drug dealer and criminal in town. And there are an awful lot of them.

Moland directed this remake of his own Swedish film In Order of Disappearance from five years ago, and infuses it with an almost satirical, quirky sense of humor – each bad guy that joins the Choir Invisible gets an onscreen tombstone with his colorful gang nickname emblazoned on it. The hits keep getting harder and bloodier and while Neeson thrives with this sort of thing, here he seems oddly low-key.

The big bad is played by Tom Bateman who overacts gleefully and shamelessly. Normally a role like a drug lord named Viking would be ripe for that sort of thing, but Bateman takes it over the line into parody which is no Bueno in a film like this. Action fans will enjoy some particularly grisly deaths, but film fans will A) wonder why Laura Dern is onscreen for all of 90 seconds, and B), how does a snowplow driver turn into a lethal assassin of paranoid gang members. Well, you don’t go to an action film for logic, right?

REASONS TO SEE: Has elements of satire to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lackluster action film whose comic jabs don’t always hit the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, drug content, sexual references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richardson, who plays Neeson’s son, is his son in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peppermint
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things

Mortal Engines


A dystopian vista.

(2018) Science Fiction (UniversalHera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchison, Regé-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne, Frankie Adams, Leifur Sigurdarson, Kahn West, Andrew Lees, Sophie Cox, Kee Chan, Sarah Peirse, Mark Hadlow, Caren Pistorius, Poppy McLeod. Directed by Christian Rivers

 

Bigger, as we have all come to learn, is not necessarily better. More often than not, bigger is just…not as small. When it comes to movies, we do love our big loud blockbusters, but sometimes we take a gander at the trailer, mutter “I can’t even” and move on to another podcast.

Based on the four-book young adult series by Phillip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set a millennium into the future when the surface of the earth has been razed by wars. Cities have become motorized literally – they are on wheels – and roam the landscape like pirate ships, absorbing smaller cities and using their innards for fuel. Think the opening sequence of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life but on a grander scale

Young Hester (Hilmar) lives in the dystopian future and she has a thirst for revenge against London’s heroic leader Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) and attempts to assassinate him but is foiled by historian Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) who discovers Valentine’s terrible secret. For this he is ejected from the city along with Hester, both of whom are left to make their way in the blasted landscape. The two hook up with swashbuckling Anna Fang (Kim) while trying to elude homicidal cyborg Shrike (Lang).

The images here are fantastic and the premise is imaginative, if impractical and somewhat illogical. Peter Jackson co-wrote this and was a producer on the project which explains it’s nine figure budget. Unfortunately, the plot is so convoluted and full of outright thievery from other franchises (Star Wars in particular) that once you get past the overwhelming visuals you are left with a plot that isn’t very good and characters that aren’t very interesting.

While I admit to being a junkie for Hugo Weaving (and he does elevate the movie significantly), he is offset by Hilmar who is the lead. She has almost no personality which is the fault of the writers, and no charisma which she has to look inwardly for. Putting a young person at the forefront of a big budget tentpole is always risky, but in this case that risk didn’t pay off.

This is still wonderful eye candy but little else. It the writers had put as much creativity to the story and characters that the special effects teams did to their craft, this would have potentially the start of a bold new franchise. Instead, it will go down in the annals of Hollywood as one of the biggest flops of all time.

REASONS TO SEE: The visuals are impressive and imaginative. I’d see Hugo Weaving in anything.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is nonsensical and borrows too liberally from Star Wars. Hilmar has almost no presence whatsoever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leila George, who plays Katherine Valentine, is the daughter of Vincent D’Onofrio and Greta Scacchi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of Ember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Welcome to Marwen

Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

Camp Cold Brook


Shooting a ghost hunt in an abandoned summer camp where a bunch of campers died? What could go wrong?

(2018) Horror (Shout!) Chad Michael Murray, Danielle Harris, Courtney Gains, Michael Eric Reid, Loren Ledesma, Jason Von Erman, Mary Kathryn Bryant, Candice De Visser, Cate Jones, Mary Fjelstad-Buss, Juliette Kida, Doug Van Liew, Dale Niehaus, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland, Corbin Tyler, Chloe Blotter, Pamela Bell, Connor Scott Frank, Debbi Tucker, Katie Fairbanks.  Directed by Andy Palmer

 

The paranormal investigation TV show is a staple of entertainment over the last, I don’t know, ten years, let’s say. Setting one in a staple slasher film locale – the abandoned summer camp – would indicate a melding of the two sub-genres, a good idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, that’s not the idea the filmmakers went with.

Jack Wilson (Murray) is the ruggedly handsome host of a cable TV paranormal investigation show that is in the midst of filming its third season when Jack is summoned by a network executive to be told that there won’t be a fourth season. However, Jack convinces him that the group is about to film their biggest show yet, one that will conclusively prove the existence of life after death. Reluctantly, the exec gives them one more episode to air as a summer special. If the ratings warrant it, they can talk about renewing then.

All Jack needs is a killer show, but to date mostly the group has come up snake eyes when it comes to any sort of paranormal activity. They don’t want to film at places every other paranormal investigation show has done to death; they need someplace new and preferably with a gruesome past. Production assistant Emma (De Visser) suggests a summer camp in rural Oklahoma where 20 years earlier 28 young campers drowned. The church that owns the campsite has steadfastly refused to let anyone in since then.

By an amazing coincidence, Jack grew up not far from there (non-spoiler alert: that isn’t the last amazing coincidence the plot will utilize). His mother Esther (Fjelstad-Buss) is less than pleased that her son is going to that place. Same with the least-sheriff-looking sheriff ever (Van Liew) as well as assorted townspeople. You almost expect the Scooby Do gang to show up.

But into the camp they go, Jack and Emma and jaded cameraman Kevin (Reid) and producer Angela (Harris). The cameras are placed, the lights are lit and the four of them hunker down. Soon, it starts – the unexplained noises, the half-glimpsed figures. Then, fires light and extinguish by themselves. Objects move without anyone being there. Then, things start to get real. As it turns out, a local woman whose child was killed by a church transport van, needs the lives of 30 other children to resurrect her own child through witchcraft. 28 kids died that night and the witch disappeared. Now, maybe she’s back to finish the job?

The movie has some things going for it and other things going against it. For one thing, it’s a little light on scares and the plot is on the formulaic side. Most veteran horror fans will see just about every plot point coming, quite possibly including the twist ending which, while nifty enough, wasn’t particularly shocking.

Genre legend Joe Dante was one of the producers on this, and his participation is slyly referred to in a couple of places (for example, one of the show’s tag lines is “We make the illogical logical” which was also a line used by the dad in Gremlins to promote his business. I found those little Easter eggs endearing.

This isn’t a bad horror movie but it could have been better. A little less reliance on formula and a few more legitimate scares would have gone a long way. There is some potential here though and I have high hopes that may of the performers here both on and off camera have better things ahead of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Murray has some real leading man appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat formulaic and a little light on scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are images of terror, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made the rounds on the horror film festival circuit before getting a simultaneous streaming and limited theatrical release this weekend.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grave Encounters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mid90s

Peppermint (2018)


Mommies with guns – what fun!

(2018) Action (STXJennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh, Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming, Eddie Shin, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Tyson Ritter, Ian Casselberry, Richard Cabral, Johnny Ortiz, Michael Reventar, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Gustavo Quiroz, Pell James, John Boyd, Michael Mosley, Jeff Harlan, Chris Johnson, Samantha Edelstein. Directed by Pierre Morel

 

Jennifer Garner began her career with the excellent TV spy series Alias but has since fallen out of the action genre and into roles that are mom-centric. She plays a mom here as well, but a different kind of mom.

Riley North (Garner) doesn’t have it easy; between her take-home pay as a bank teller and her husband’s (Hephner) as a mechanic there isn’t a whole lot left over. Worse still, her hours at the bank force her to miss her daughter’s (Fleming) birthday party. So, she is guilted into going with the two of them to the local Christmas carnival, only to watch her husband and daughter brutally gunned down before her very eyes.

She is able to identify the killers but the justice system fails her in spectacular fashion. Refusing to take a pay-off, she is let down by a corrupt district attorney and a corrupt judge. Things get so bad that she is put in a mental hospital, from which she escapes…and then disappears for five years.

She puts the five years to good use, learning combat training, hand-to-hand training and essentially anything that will make killing bad guys wholesale easier. When she comes back, it is as kind of a folk hero but the corrupt city government as well as the vicious drug cartel are out to take her out for good.

This is pretty standard revenge-flick fare with not a whole lot in the originality department. As mentioned, Garner is excellent in her role, one that combines her latter career maternal roles with her early career kickass roles. The movie is unusually bloody for its type (which is saying something) and there have been some rumblings from woke film critics who notice that most of the bad guys are Hispanic. Villains who aren’t old white men are apparently no longer acceptable. I know the LAPD won’t like this film very much at all.

I’m not bothered by that any more than I would have been bothered if the villains were Russians, or Arabs, or any other nationality you can name. Somebody has to be the bad guy and there are plenty of Hispanic criminals out there, just like there are plenty of Russian ones, Arab criminals and any other nationality you can name. Still, the movie does itself a disservice by simply relying on tried and true tropes that are predictable as well as overused. The results are a lackluster movie that wastes a fine performance by Jennifer Garner.

REASONS TO SEE: Garner would make Linda Hamilton proud.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard, unremarkable revenge action thriller.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Garner has used the same stunt double (Shauna Duggins) for almost twenty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo TV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rhythm Section
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Fahrenheit 11/9

Beyond the Law (2019)


Once a badass, always a badass.

(2019) Action (CinedigmJohnny Messner, Steven Seagal, DMX, Bill Cobbs, Zack Ward, Randy Charach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Chester Rushing, Saxon Sharbino, Kim DeLonghi, Jeff M. Hill, Sean Kanan, Yulia Klass, Ken Garito, Scotch Hopkins, Mitchell J. Johnson, Mike Ferguson, Madeleine Wade, Victoria De Mare, Cody Renee Cameron, Kansas Bowling, Brialynn Massie. Directed by James Cullen Bressack

 

Some of you may be old enough to remember the era of direct-to-VHS action films; others who are longer in the tooth may remember the action movies of such purveyors as Cannon Films, New World and AVCO Embassy. They were often characterized as schlock, but they were entertaining to say the least.

=This new flick harkens back to those eras and those types of films. Here, ex-cop Frank Wilson (Messner) finds out from Detective Munce (DMX) that his estranged son Chance (Rushing) has been brutally murdered. Chance has made a series of really terrible decisions, not the least of which was getting involved with Desmond Packard (Ward), the particularly bloodthirsty son of mobster Finn Adair (Seagal) who has a history with Frank.

=Realizing that his son won’t get any justice from the hopelessly corrupt cops on the city Frank leaves his mountain cabin to return to the place he once worked as a cop in. It hasn’t changed much, but it has changed – and not for the better. He will have to fight off Desmond’s goons, corrupt cops and at the end of the day, the father of his son’s killer if he is to get justice for Chance.

The plot sounds like something you’ve seen before and it is; revenge films are one of the core types of action movies. Some might be attracted to seeing this by the presence of Seagal but they are likely to leave disappointed; Seagal has only a supporting role in the movie and mostly sits behind a desk, puffing on a cigar and lecturing his son on all the ways he’s gone wrong in his life. Seagal appears only in one fight scene and that so briefly that if you blink you just might miss it.

This is really Messner’s movie and when last I saw him in Silencer, I thought he had a future. I still do, but this is definitely a step backwards. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Seagal (who only has one scene with him) but Messner mumbles his lines in a low gravelly voice that you kind of hope for subtitles. Seagal has always been a mumbler and with his thick Louisiana accent it can be hard sometimes to make out what the two men are saying.

This is a low budget affair and while the action sequences are competent, they are pretty sparse, so we have to rely on the ability of the actors to hold our attention. Sadly, despite having a fairly decent cast, that doesn’t happen. Most of the performances here are stiff and lack believability. Then again, given that they have a script with dialogue that doesn’t sound like it could ever possibly be uttered by an actual human being for whom English is a first language, and plot points that feel like they’ve been borrowed from dozens of B-movies from the 70s, 80s and 90s and you’ve got yourself a hot mess here.

Still, as terrible an actor as Seagal is, he has always had that indefinable something that made him a star. Strangely, he still has it but the filmmakers don’t utilize him as well. Years ago, Seagal would have been playing Frank Wilson and maybe the movie would have worked better in that instance but one gets the sense that Seagal isn’t terribly interested in re-exploring old trails. Incidentally, those hoping that this is a sequel to Seagal’s action classic Above the Law will also be disappointed; the two films have nothing in common other than the last two words of their titles.

REASONS TO SEE: Seagal still has plenty of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is pretty stiff. The film is riddled with clichés from the script to the score.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and profanity as well as some drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basically, any Steven Seagal movie
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Report