The Dead of Night


Colby Crain takes a beer break.

(2021) Horror (Shout!) Jake Etheridge, Colby Crain, Leah Bezozo, Kyle Overstreet, Matthew Lawrence, Lance Henriksen, Charlotte McKee, Darius Homayoun, Merritt C. Glover, Boots Southerland, Jack Lutz, Jesse Kinser, Ellen Gerstein, Mark Speno, Chris Ranney, Tim Stafford, Maria Robison, Brian Patrick Buckley, Harrison Wirstrom, Rudy Benta, Sid Goodloe, Connie Hanley. Directed by Robert Dean

 

Some people prefer the hustle and bustle of a big city. Others prefer a more rural existence. There is something about living in the country – isolated, quiet, peaceful. You quickly learn to fend for yourself in a situation like that because if trouble comes, there’s nobody to come save you.

In a small New Mexico town a couple of drifters, both wearing wolf skins and masks, murder a pick-up truck driver and steal his truck. They move on into town where an annual rodeo is taking place. One of the stars, Colt Skeen (Homayoun) – a local boy – hooks up with Maddie (MeKee), the daughter of unpopular local developer (Speno) who has just announced that he is running for mayor, to a dreadfully stony silence. They repair in Colt’s rundown RV to an empty field (there are a lot of them around town) for a tryst, only to be interrupted by the wolfskin killers.

The killing of the young people take place near the ranch of Tommy (Etheridge), who has some things on his mind. His sister June (Crain) is leaving town the next day to fly out to Germany to be with her fiancée who is stationed on a base there. Young sheriff’s deputy Luke (Lawrence), who has a thing for June, suspects that Tommy has something to do with the killings which makes things even harder for the brother and sister who are already on thin ice with each other – Tommy wants her to stay and help run the family ranch, while June is happy to be anywhere but there.

But June is determined, so her friends Amber (Bezozo) and Ryan (Overstreet) throw a farewell party at her house for her. In the meantime, Tommy witnesses the wolfskin killers murdering an old man. He is detected but escapes, bringing the killers to his ranch – where they’ll terrorize the siblings and their guests. Blood will spill before a twist nobody will see coming gives the movie a punch in the gut.

Up until that twist, this is fairly standard stuff; mysterious masked strangers killing seemingly without rhyme or reason, murdering people at random simply because their paths cross. That has been a popular theme in horror movies, particularly of late. In these anxiety-ridden times, I think we’re all suspicious of just about everyone else. And we’re not too sure about ourselves.

There’s some real nice empty spaces cinematography courtesy of Troy Scoughton Jr., and while there is a country and western feel to the proceedings that give it a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre overlay, which is nice and welcome in these times. The performances by the young cast are solid and Dean gives a lot more thought to character development than the average horror director, who tend to line up the body count more than anything else. You may notice genre veteran Lance Henriksen in the cast, but don’t be fooled – he’s only in the film for a very brief cup of coffee, and really has not much of an impact overall, which is a shame because he is the sort of actor who normally adds a great deal to any film he’s in. They could have used him in a larger role.

And there is a body count here, but curiously, not a whole lot of gore. The murders often take place off-screen and the gore is kept to a minimum. That might not sit well with hardcore horror fans, but there are compensations – namely, the character development I mentioned earlier. I wish that there had been a little more thought given to the plot, though, which is fairly derivative throughout until the climax. All in all, not a bad effort but a tame one when it comes to gore and horrific images.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to build the suspense nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many standard slasher tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of violence, and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in New Mexico and is based on a childhood fear of writer/director Dean, who grew up in an isolated rural environment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Minutes to Midnight

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The Reunited States


Susan Bro wants to give the whole world a hug.

(2021) Documentary (Dark Star) David Leaverton, Susan Bro, Mark Gerzon, Erin Leaverton, Steven Olikara, Greg Orman, Jay Hooper, Jeramy Anderson, Orlando Paden, Bear Cadman, Professor Rob Lee, Carri Hicks. Directed by Ben Rekhi

 

One thing both the left and the right can agree on is that our country is deeply divided politically. Never since the Civil War have passions been so inflamed on both sides…or both sides so intractable that they have stopped listening to one another. Regardless of who wins elections, this is a dangerous situation for the future of our country as we sink further and further into an abyss that can only lead to bloodshed.

There are some people who want to change that, and this film – inspired by the non-fiction book by Mark Gerzon, who appears onscreen from time to time to give an overview of the situation – looks at a few of them. We meet Greg Orman, a third party gubernatorial candidate for Kansas in the 2018 elections who fights the uphill battle of convincing people that they aren’t wasting tgheir votes by voting for him; Steven Olikara puts together a coalition of Millennial politicians from both sides of the aisle. David Leaverton, a former Republican operative who had no problem demonizing the left and doing whatever it took to win races, becomes disenchanted with the results of his work and decides to pack up his family in an RV and go to all fifty states and talk to people of both political sides of the argument. Finally, and most poignantly, there’s Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2016, taking up her daughter’s mantle for racial equality and justice.

There are some heavy emotional moments here, including Erin Leaverton embracing an African-American woman whose skin color contributed to medical professionals disbelieving her situation which led to tragedy, and Susan Bro admitting to David Leaverton that she didn’t want to meet with him at first because she felt that people like him contributed to the rage that led to her daughter’s murder.

An issue I have is somewhat endemic to the movie in general; it has to walk a tight line to begin with as not to become a partisan diatribe itself, so often it leaves  details out about specific policies and beliefs. I understand the tendency, but it seems to me that if we can’t even talk about issues for fear of offending or enraging one side or the other, we’ve already lost the war.

Still, this is a movie that provides something that’s in short supply these days; hope that things can get better. It will take a shift in attitude and perhaps a degree of maturity that our nation has yet to demonstrate in the actions of its cirizens of late, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. “I don’t know if the reconciliation you’re talking about is even possible,” one interviewee admits on-camera. All I know is that it is completely impossible if we don’t make the attempt.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional throughout. A hopeful sign that there are some people working to bridge the gap between the left and the right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Frustratingly thin on concrete etails.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CNN commentator Van Jones and The View host  Meghan McCain are among the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien

A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story


Thanks to Bruce Brown, summer never need end.

(2020) Documentary (1091) Bruce Brown, Chad McQueen, Hobie Alter, Mert Lawwill, Jack O’Neill, Kenny Roberts, Wingnut Weaver, Jack McCoy, Don King, Dana Brown, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Troy Lee, Gerry Lopez, Chris Husband, Mark Martinson, R. Paul Allen, Syd Cole, Wing Lam, Pat O’Connell, Henry Preece, Jose Angel, Wade Brown, Cathi O’Neill, Joey Cabell, Nancie Brown. Directed by Dana Brown

 

In the late 50s and early 60s, surfer culture was a heck of a lot different than it is today; less stoners with long hair on fiberglass boards and more cleancut Beach Boy types with wooden boards. Bruce Brown was a part of that scene and documented it with his seminal documentary The Endless Summer which has rightfully become a classic. He followed up that with On Any Sunday which documented motorcycle racing and riding, again back when most people thought everyone who rode a bike was automatically a Hell’s Angel. Both of his documentaries were not only groundbreaking, they helped popularized two separate sports – surfing and cycle racing – and Brown, perhaps sensing he had done more than most men cold accomplish in two lifetimes, retired from filmmaking until twenty years later when he helped his son out on a sequel to The Endless Summer.

After Bruce’s beloved wife Patricia died of cancer, he went into a tailspin, rarely living the farmhouse in which he and his dog Rusty – perhaps the epitome of a free-spirited mutt – spent most of their days. In 2014, eight years after his wife’s passing, his children convinced him to get out and visit some of his most cherished friends on what they euphemistically called “The Heroes Tour,” as most of these people were heroes to Bruce in one way or another. Bruce finally relented and agreed to go – provided he could bring Rusty along.

And thus Bruce went to visit several of his friends throughout the country, including surfing legends Hobie Alter, Henry Preece, Jack O’Neill and Grubby Clark. He also headed over to the homes of motorcycle riders like Mert Lawwill, Kenny Roberts and Chad McQueen, son of legendary actor Steve McQueen who had become close friends with Bruce after Bruce got him to help finance On Any Sunday. Not only were these men great surfers and riders, they were also innovators who invented the fiberglass board, the neoprene wetsuit and other things that helped make them wealthy.

Most of the men and women that Bruce visited on that trip are gone now (Alter had terminal cancer at the time Brown visited him), but their contributions remain. Best of all, we get to remember them as young, beautiful and strong from their appearances in Bruce’s surfing and riding films. Bruce himself is an engaging character and watching him interact with his friends is kind of comfortable; none of them seem to mind that the camera is there. The only time things get uncomfortable is when Bruce is talking about his late wife and abruptly tears up; it is clear that she was the love of his life and that he is horribly lonely without her. His pain is palpable in that moment.

Because the film is directed by Bruce’s son, it can be forgiven if the movie feels a bit hagiographic; this is intended mostly as a tribute from a son to his father and his father’s friends, and to chronicle a life well-lived which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, particularly these days. Don’t go looking for objectivity here, because you won’t find it – nor should you.

But mostly, this is a feel-good movie as the lion in winter visits his friends, reminiscing about the good times and kidding around with each other as if no time had passed at all. These were the beautiful gods of the beach and the track, whose smiles lit up the screen and reminded us that it is more important to do what you love because out lives, as rich as they can be, are also terribly short.

REASONS TO SEE: A story of a life well-lived. Kind of like a home movie – in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: When Brown speaks about his late wife, it can be hard to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce Brown passed away in 2017, three years after most of this movie was filmed; his son still lives in the farmhouse along with Bruce’s dog Rusty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
DTF

An Irish Story: This is My Home


On the road again.

(2020) Music Documentary (VisionDave Browne, Dave Rooney, Jose Andres, John Good, Tony McGuinness, Joanne Rooney, Aisha Browne, Joe Magee, Jessie Nickoley, Chad George, Greg Ahn, Gavin Carpenter, Simon Knuusen, Heather Lingle, Daragh Kenney, Teresa Murphy, Henry Parnell, Steve Carey, Russ Warner, Jonathan Adams, Kevin Lowney, Teresa de la Haba. Directed by Karl Nickoley

 

There is an old saying: “The luck of the Irish.” Any Irishman will smile ruefully at the cliché, clap you on the back and tell you that it’s all bad luck. Looking at the history of Ireland, you can’t disagree.

Dave Browne and Dave Rooney are two Irish gentlemen who now live in the United States – Las Vegas, to be exact – and make up the Irish folk band the Black Donnellys. Some may be aware of their Guinness world record owned by Browne, for playing guitar continuously for 114 hours straight at Dublin’s legendary Temple Bar.

The duo – both hoping to get their green cards and eventually become American citizens – hit on exploring their new home and at the same time, making the record books once again by playing 60 shows in all 50 states in just 40 days. It might sound easy on paper, but trust me – it’s anything but.

We’re brought along on their journey, starting with a gig in their home base and then heading down to Arizona and California and continuing on and on and on. Everyone knows what Murphy’s Law is – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – but let us not forget that Murphy was an Irishman (he was also an optimist, but that’s another story for another day). The RV that they rent has mechanical issues. A volcanic eruption in Hawaii threatens their flight back to the mainland. Gigs get canceled with little notice, causing them to scramble.

Throughout the boys keep their sense of humor intact, even though the grind of the blitzkrieg tour clearly begins to wear on them. They also have financial issues on the way; at last they break down and start a GoFundMe page to help them get through the tour and their fans come through. It’s amazing how people respond sometimes when you just ask for help.

The music is rousing and guaranteed to get you out of your seat and on your feet, clapping your hands and dancing like a fool. Be sure to have plenty of Guinness on hand when you’re watching this at home.

The main attraction here is Browne and Rooney, however. They are about as Irish as you can get, telling stories effortlessly and with self-deprecating humor. They are charming, genuine and extremely likable. They get reflective from time to time on the struggles of Irish immigrants in the United States, and of course the things that have troubled their beautiful homeland.

Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you feel better and let’s face it, who doesn’t need that? This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting – but it was just what I needed.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is wonderful. Browne and Rooney are charming, engaging storytellers. A truly entertaining music doc.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit repetitive in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are more fookin’ F-bombs than you can fookin’ count.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Black Donnellys are currently the house band at the Ri Ra Irish Pub in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Direction: This is Us
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dosed

Dead Ant


Rock on!!!

(2017) Horror Comedy (Cinedigm) Tom Arnold, Sean Astin, Jake Busey, Rhys Coiro, Leisha Hailey, Michael Horse, Danny Woodburn, Sydney Sweeney, Joy Llaye, Natasha Blasick, Michelle Campbell, Angelica Chitwood, Cameron Richardson, Nick Mason, Amber Martinez, Nic Novicki, Ewart Chin, David A. Lockhart, Camilla Jackson, Cortney Palm, Abigail Johns. Directed by Ron Carlson

 

Some movies should be seen in an art house, preferably one with a bar where you can hang out with fellow film buffs and discuss the nuances of the filmmaking you just witnessed – this isn’t one of those. Other movies should be seen in the local multiplexes with lots of popcorn and ice cold soda – this isn’t one of those either. No, this is the type of film that should be seen in a Times Square grindhouse circa 1979 – or in my case, the Jose Theater in downtown San Jose circa 1985.

Aging metal band Sonic Grave hasn’t gotten the memo that the 80s are long over. They’ve essentially made a career milking their one and only hit, a power ballad that now the band detests. They have been just hanging on through the machinations of their ruthless manager Danny (Arnold) but even he knows the band is fast approaching the end of the line. They have one shot at a comeback; a gig at a music festival in the California desert. No, not that one; the organizers of Coachella wouldn’t even take his calls. Instead, they’re going to “No-Chella,” a kind of Slamdance to the better-known festival’s Sundance

Danny knows they need to write some songs that will blow everyone away and get the band’s name known again so he takes the into the desert with a brief pit stop for some shrooms so that the band can get creative. They meet with Native American shaman Bigfoot (Horse) and his bodyguard Firecracker (Woodburn) who I must say has an impressive arsenal. Bigfoot is known for his variety of psychedelic mushrooms called The Moon but he has an even more potent fungus for sale – The Sun. He warns them that while under the influence they must not harm any living thing on the sacred grounds and that the mushrooms must be taken after sundown.

The rockers, being rockers and all, don’t listen and their train wreck of a bass player, Art (Astin) goes out to – um, relieve himself – and drowns a hapless ant in a stream of his own relief. The group, including shrieking singer Merrick (Busey), stoner guitar God Pager (Coiro) and level-headed drummer Stevie (Hailey) as well as two party girls Sam (Sweeney) and Lisa (Llaye) are attacked by ants that grow in size every time the hapless musicians kill one of them. Can these metalheads outwit the giant ants or will they become ant food?

This movie is actually a mash-up of a lot of different kinds of grindhouse films, from giant critter horror to stoner comedy to 80s music videos to psychedelic road trip. It never takes itself completely seriously but it doesn’t fail to deliver the goods either. That’s not to say there aren’t some missteps, but at least they are honestly come by. The movie declares it’s intentions from the very first scene in which a nubile hippie chick is chased through the desert by a gigantic ant. As she flees, she sheds her clothes and throws them in the general direction of the oncoming ant. I don’t know how much more grindhouse a film can get than that. Oddly enough, that is the last nudity seen in the film so arrive at the theater on time for those who are fans of the female form.

Arnold has made a career out of playing the same sort of guy pretty much in every role (which I suspect is pretty much the same guy that Tom Arnold actually is, although not as much of a schmuck). Most of the really funny lines in the movie are his and to his credit he gives it the same kind of effort that he gave in True Lies. That’s what you call a pro, right there.

The movie is filled with the kind of clichés that metal lovers have had to endure for years and I suppose some of them are earned, but there are plenty of people who play and love heavy metal who aren’t dumber than rocks and not all of them have fried their brains with sex, drugs and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Some of you fans of the music may find the portrayal of your kind to be wearisome, but I think (I may be wrong about this one) that it is meant in good spirit.

The mainly CGI special effects are cheesy as all get out and that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It at least keeps with the film’s oeuvre. While this isn’t going to break any records for originality, the filmmakers at least have the courage of their convictions and have crafted a pleasant and occasionally charming entertainment that wouldn’t feel out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s VHS collection (if ever a 21st century movie screamed for a VHS release it’s this one) and that’s pretty high praise in my book.

REASONS TO GO: The film is goofy and charming from the get-go.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are downright cheesy.
FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s plenty of violence and gore, a whole lot of drug use, a boatload of profanity, a few horrific images and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson’s last film was set in a cold climate. Not wanting to undergo that kind of hardship again, he deliberately wrote this film set in a warmer climate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Colossal
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
How It Ends

Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall

Tammy


Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh, Ben Falcone, Sarah Baker, Rich Williams, Steve Little, Dakota Lee, Mark L. Young, Mia Rose Frampton, Steve Mallory, Keith Welborn, Oscar Gale, Justin Smith, Barbara Weetman. Directed by Ben Falcone

Sometimes we manage to become people we never intended ourselves to be. Through circumstances that are sometimes entirely out of our control – but not always – we find ourselves being the very people we swore we’d never be. Generally that revelation is accompanied by bitterness and self-loathing.

Tammy (McCarthy) has it in her to be happy but it doesn’t look like she is. She does seem self-possessed on the exterior – belting out renditions of the Outfield’s “Your Love” in her car. Not a cappella and not on the car stereo but from an ancient boombox which may or may not be older than the Toyota Corolla she’s driving. After an unsettling encounter with a deer, her car which was already only a hair or two away from breathing its last gives up the ghost.

Not only that but the deer encounter makes her late for work, which her prissy boss Keith (Falcone) uses as an excuse to fire her. Tammy’s reaction to the news is how you might expect – she’s not the sort to take that kind of thing lying down. Having to walk home essentially she returns home early to find out that her lackadaisical husband Greg (Faxon) is having an affair with a comely neighbor (Collette).

Convinced that she needs to get out of town or go crazy, Tammy heads over to her mom’s (Janney) house. However, her mom won’t lend Tammy her car, nor front her some cash so she can go walkabout. However, her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) has a Caddy and seven grand that says road trip to Niagara Falls  which Pearl has always wanted to visit.

 

On the surface, this seems like a very bad idea. Tammy is mulish and a wreck – it’s not hard to figure out why her husband would cheat as she has taken zero care of herself and can’t be easy to live with. Worse yet, it turns out grandma is an alcoholic and a bit of a nymphomaniac, getting it on with a Louisville rancher (Cole) while Tammy is forced to sleep outside the hotel room. Only Bobby (Duplass), the sweet son of the rancher who treats Tammy decently – the first man to do so in ages – makes it anything more than excruciating.

The two women’s shenanigans cause them to blow through their cash faster than expected forcing Tammy to take some desperate measures that lead the two of them to go on the lam over at the beautiful home of Tammy’s cousin Lenore (Bates). Lenore, a lesbian who owns a chain of pet food stores and whose partner (Oh) is as sweet as pie, is a no-nonsense sort who sees what’s really going on. When Pearl and Tammy’s problems lead to a painful moment at a Fourth of July party at Lenore’s place, it becomes obvious that Tammy needs to make some changes if she’s ever going to be truly happy. The question is, is it obvious to Tammy?

McCarthy has become a star comedic actress with not only her TV success on Mike & Molly but also a string of hit movies to her credit. She co-wrote this with her husband Falcone who also directed the movie; you’d think it would be an absolute slam dunk.

Sadly, it’s not and it isn’t due to McCarthy the actress who actually does a pretty fine job in a role that is pretty similar to the ones she’s played in the past three movies; foul-mouthed, gross, obnoxious and highly sexual. The trouble is that the role isn’t given depth so much as it’s given mannerisms and the blame lies with McCarthy the writer.

McCarthy the actress isn’t alone in this issue either. None of the characters here are particularly well drawn out,  mostly given a trait and essentially left to flounder with a script conspicuously short on jokes. I get the sense the writers weren’t sure if they wanted a comedy or a heartwarming buddy movie and ended up with neither.

Reading that back, it sounds a little bit harsh and if I’m gonna be honest, there are some laughs here (some of which may be found in the trailer) and if I had to recommend the movie, I could do so grudgingly; McCarthy is an engaging enough actress that she can provide life to any movie no matter how terrible. This isn’t the funniest summer comedy ever but at least it’s better than last year’s truly awful Grown-Ups 2 – now there’s a franchise which could use McCarthy’s talents. In any case, fans of the actress probably will end up liking the movie anyway; she basically has this kind of role down pat enough that she could do it in her sleep. Those who want better from her however will have to wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Sarandon battle gamely through subpar material. Bates does her usual impressive job in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks real humor. Could have used some depth in the characters who mainly end up as caricatures.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon is only 24 years older than McCarthy, who plays her granddaughter. In addition, Janney – who plays Tammy’s mother and Pearl’s daughter – is 13 years younger than Sarandon and 11 years older than McCarthy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thelma and Louise

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Begin Again

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All