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When you see the price they paid I’m sure you’ll come and join the masquerade.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm Hope Raymond, Eliza Bolvin, Brian Smick, Zachary Cowan, Valerie Fachman, Hans Probst, Ashley Raggs, Mioyoko Sakatani, Perry Fenton, Vicky Lopez, Mira Gutoff, Hunter Ridenour, George Arana, Jaime Soltys, Tony Clark, Wendy Taylor, Wendy Wyatt-Mair, Trevor Ossian Cameron, Malachi Maynard, Ethan Fry, Amber Tiana, Celina Garcia. Directed by Scott J. Ramsey

 

There are movies that exist in a larger universe, whether it be a shared cinematic universe like Marvel or the Friday the 13th franchise, or in our own reality. Then there are other movies that seem to exist in their own space, separate from what we know and understand. They create their own reality – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either.

In a beautiful mansion on the rugged Central California coast, a monthly masquerade ball for charity is about to take place. Run by a group called the Foundation (which is also the name of the production company for this and other films, something that might feel a bit uppity to some), the privacy and security of those attending are taken very seriously. The ball is by invitation only. Everyone is required to wear masks and I’m not talking the kind that the CDC recommends. Nobody is allowed to use their own names – they’re all assigned letter-and-number code names, like B7 or G8. I’m not sure if this makes them sound like spies or bingo numbers.

The grand muckety-muck of the Foundation is Christian (Raymond), also known as the Queen, and she and a select few realize that the charity ball is just a pretense; once the checkbooks are put away and the more repressed sorts have gone home for the evening, the party turns into a huge sex party where anything (and everything) goes, so long as those who attend are not forced to do things they don’t want to do. At this particular party, Christian notices an interloper and she eventually susses out the identity of Stella (Bolvin), an old rival from high school. She is now a fairly well-known sex cam performer, although her boyfriend Jackson (Cowan) isn’t aware of that fact – he thinks she’s teaching night school. She was invited by Christian’s right hand man Danny (Smick), ostensibly to add some notoriety to the mix, but in large part to get under the skin of his employer.

It doesn’t seem to faze Christian much, and she ends up inviting Stella to the next one, urging her to bring along Jackson – whom Christian had a serious crush on back in high school. At the next party, things start to go horribly wrong for Christian as her secret perversion is revealed, her mother Lynda (Fichman), a former pop star, and who suffers from dementia, turns up and all of this threatens the entire structure of the Foundation.

This is described – accurately enough – as an erotic thriller mixed in with LGBTQ+ camp with, I might add, some dark comedy thrown in for good measure. But the real meat of the movie is as a character study, as the movie really looks in at the fragile reality behind the façade of a strong capable woman that is Christian.

The movie enjoys some sumptuous production values considering its low budget, and enjoys a really nifty soundtrack. The movie missteps a bit with the acting performances – the acting is like what you might find at a Broadway audition circa 1957 and is a little overly broad and stiff for the movie camera. Some of the dialogue is cringeworthy, even though (I think) it’s meant as satire. The film owes a lot to Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the set-up and the overall air of decadence, but there’s a very thin line between pushing boundaries and coming off as pretentious.

This isn’t strictly LGBTQ+ either – I would categorize the sex more as pansexual than anything else – and while there is a certain amount of fluidity in the lead characters’ sexuality (particularly Christian’s) there is all kinds of hooking up going on that will titillate those of any sexual preference, although there is surprisingly little graphic sexual content considering the setting.

The ending is not at all what you would expect; normally I find that to be a good thing, but to be honest, it didn’t feel earned and the more I thought about it as time has gone by since I screened the film, the less it felt right. To be fair, this was never meant to be a movie for a wide audience; this isn’t going to be everyone’s brand of vodka. If you’re the sort who delights in the erotic (particularly the fringes of same), this might well be the kind of entertainment you’re looking for and then some. For most though, it’s going to be a hard sell.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are surprisingly strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well over the line into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and sexual references as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A companion album featuring music by goth-pop artists The Major Arcana (of which director Scott J. Ramsey is a member) entitled At the Devil’s Ball was released in conjunction with the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Earwig and the Witch

Patriots Day


These cops have no idea what's coming.

These cops have no idea what’s coming.

(2016) True Life Drama (CBS) Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michele Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Christopher O’Shea, Rachel Brosnahan, Jake Picking, Lana Condor, Jimmy O. Yang, Melissa Benoist, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Martine Asaf, Michael Beach, Khandi Alexander, Cliff Moylan, Claudia Castriotta, James Colby, Billy Smith, Paige MacLean. Directed by Peter Berg

 

In many ways, our worth is determined by how our resolve is tested. It is at our worst moments when the best in us is drawn out. When the city of Boston was faced with an attack on their very identity, they showed the world more than extraordinary strength; they were Boston strong.

Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is not having a good day. He’s a gifted police officer who also has a gift for opening his mouth at the wrong moment. He has one more punishment duty to deal with – working as a uniformed officer at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. That also means putting on the yellow reflective vest which he thinks makes him look silly. His wife Carol (Monaghan) thinks it looks cute. To top it all off, Tommy’s knee is aching after kicking in a drug dealer’s door the night before and he forgets his brace at home; he asks Carol to bring it down to the finish line for him.

But Tommy’s day is about to get worse. Two Chechnyan brothers, Douchebag #1 (Melikidze) and Douchebag #2 (Wolff) have plans of their own. They plant two homemade bombs among the throngs watching the race at the finish line. After they stroll away, lost in the crowd, the bombs detonate, killing three people (including a child) and wounding scores. All is mayhem at the finish line.

Tommy takes charge, getting ambulances routed in and telling race officials to keep runners away. Medical personnel – some of them ex-military who knew what to do with wounds of this nature – respond immediately. Tommy’s boss, Commissioner Ed Davis (Goodman) takes charge as the FBI, in the person of Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Bacon) who takes immediate charge once he recognizes this was an act of terrorism.

But finding the bombers is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even with all the cameras trained on the event, not many were pointed at the crowd. With Tommy’s help knowing the area as well as he does, the authorities begin to close in on the perpetrators of this vile act but it will take the largest manhunt in U.S. history to catch these guys.

I was really glad I saw the documentary on the Marathon bombing (see below) the night before I saw this movie, mainly because I was able to see how close to the actual events the movie came. While the documentary focused on the victims and their recovery, this movie has more focus on the manhunt and those participating in it.

One of those participating in it is Saunders and while Wahlberg does a great job of developing his character, one of the big problems is that Saunders is wholly fictional. We soon realize that because he appears at nearly every major plot point in the film which after awhile takes me as a viewer out of the realism of the movie because other than that the movie is extremely realistic which is an impressive accomplishment for a Hollywood film.

The recreation of the bombing itself is impressive; Berg masterfully works in actual camera footage of the blast along with staged re-creations of it. Berg repeats this at various portions of the film. The Patriots Day bombing was one of the most documented incidents in history and there is a lot of footage available, some of it wildly seen, some of it not so much. Still, we get a good glimpse of the various stages of the manhunt, from the bombing itself to the capture of Douchebag #1 and Douchebag #2.

If you’re wondering why I don’t use the names of the two bombers, it’s because I don’t want history to remember them. If I could, I’d expunge their names from every document, from every post – from everywhere. People like this should be erased from history. They don’t deserve to be remembered.

On the other hand, the good people of Boston – the survivors of the bombing, the law enforcement personnel who chased and caught those miserable scumbags, the medics and surgeons who worked tirelessly on healing the wounded, even those who came out in support of Boston. There has been some grousing that this was made too soon after the bombing – only three years had passed when this was released. I probably am not someone who can judge this properly; I would leave that to the citizens of Boston, particularly those affected by the tragedy. However, this is certainly a movie that honors and respects the victims and those who fought to bring the douchebags to justice so all in all, I don’t think anyone can complain overly much about that.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly accurate. Strong performances throughout the cast buoy the film.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a loss of credibility by having Wahlberg play a fictional character.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and graphic images of injuries, some drug use and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg that was based on a true story; the other two are Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Decanted: A Winemaker’s Journey

Paranormal Activity 2


Paranormal Activity 2

Has this franchise already gone to the dogs?

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsberg, Vivis, William Juan Prieto, Jackson Xenia Prieto, David Bierend.  Directed by Tod Williams

If at first you succeed, goes the Hollywood logic, make a sequel and if possible, put as little variation into the formula that made the first movie a success as possible. Sometimes that works out nicely and other times, well…

Daniel Rey (Boland), his wife Kristi (Grayden) and their teenage daughter Ali (Ephraim) have a new addition to the family; newborn son Hunter (the Prieto twins) who’s just come home for the first time. Unfortunately, their house gets trashed by apparent vandals who take nothing but the incident is sufficiently disturbing enough for Daniel to install a system of security cameras in the house.

Flash-forward a bit. Hunter is crawling and able to stand, although he’s not walking yet. Things are beginning to go bump in the night and clang in the day; a frying pan falls from its place, seemingly without provocation. A pool cleaner rises up out of the pool without explanation. Cabinet doors fly open by themselves.

Most of the activity seems centered around Hunter. Further explanation comes from Ali’s internet research, and the fact that Kristi is sister to Katie (Featherston), who along with Micah (Sloat) were the protagonists of the Paranormal Activity. This takes place in the two months before the activities in Paranormal Activity and in case you didn’t figure it out, a graphic reading “60 Days before Micah Sloan’s death” should fill in the blanks. Portentous ain’t it?

What worked really well in the first movie was the sense that you had no clue what was going to happen next. Things were done with light and shadow that made even ordinary vistas creepier; you looked long and hard at the footage, trying to determine what was moving all by itself or was about to. You were thrown off-guard in nearly every frame.

This time that doesn’t happen so much. The trouble with sequels is that you do have a clue what’s going to happen next and let’s face it, the sequel follows the original here pretty faithfully in terms of structure. Of course as a studio film the new one has a budget which while miniscule by Hollywood standards is still quite a bit more than the first movie.

Featherston and Sloat (who are top-billed in the credits) make only cameo appearances. The new family may have more dynamics because there are more members (including the nanny Martina (Vivis) who dabbles in Hispanic spiritualism on the side. However, there just isn’t as much realism in the relationship as with the first couple, who bickered and flirted and kidded each other so naturally they felt like a real couple. Here, this is more of a typical Hollywood family who  act the way Hollywood thinks families act.

I don’t have a problem with that, but in a case where you’re trying to give the movie a documentary you-are-there kind of feel, it makes it more difficult to achieve that feeling. The first movie did it; the second movie doesn’t and that is really where the crux of the differences between them lies. There are scares, sure – plenty of them, mostly of the gotcha variety but the atmosphere of absolute dread, the feeling of being trapped in an inevitable spiral that was going to end badly just isn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of reasons to rent this movie, none the least of which is that it is competently made, it gives you some background about events in the first movie and lays down the seeds for the next one which hopefully might give the series closure, or at least this chapter of it (the beauty of the concept is that it can be set to different houses and different families easily). I suppose that the movie already has a strike against it in that if you’ve already seen the first, this might not feel as new and refreshing. I imagine if you watch this one first you’ll wind up being fonder of it than the original. Still in all, it doesn’t really sour you on the franchise and while it doesn’t measure up in terms of impact, it still packs plenty of wallop of its own.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice scares and a bit of explanation behind the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too formulaic. The relationship between Daniel and Kristi is far less convincing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the father’s character – Daniel Rey – came from an indie rock producer who among others produced albums for the Ramones and the Misfits, posters for each can be seen in Ali’s room.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.7M on a $3M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: X-Men: First Class

Flawless (2007)


Flawless

Michael Caine and Demi Moore make their plans.

(2007) Period Crime Drama (Magnolia) Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Joss Ackland, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barras. Directed by Michael Radford

Corporate stuffed shirts have always been with us, and the movies have always used them as villains; greedy, heartless and amoral. Heist films have always been a means for audiences to vicariously thrill to these individuals getting their comeuppance, although in real life they almost never do.

Then again, this isn’t real life although to the filmmaker’s credit, it sure feels that way. Laura Quinn (Moore) is a bit of a rarity; a female executive at a London diamond exchange circa 1960. While she is clearly capable and even, in many ways, superior to her peers, she continues to knock her stiff raven-shaded bouffant against the glass ceiling. She wants nothing more than to get ahead to prove to herself that she is capable and in many ways superior, but all her long nights of chain-smoking, fretting over reports and bantering with Hobbs (Caine), a friendly night janitor, have gotten her nowhere.

To add insult to injury, she discovers that she is about to be fired by the very people who stole her ideas and then took credit for them. At first, when Hobbs – who is much more than he seems – comes to her to propose a quiet little robbery of just a few gems (which the exchange would hardly miss but would set up the both of them for life), she is appalled but as she realizes that she has no future at the exchange, she finally relents.

What follows is pretty much a standard caper film. Radford, who directed the far superior Il Postino, is certainly a capable hand at the game but to be honest, the movie suffers from the same petrifaction that permeates the London diamond exchange depicted here.

Most of that is due to Moore, who operates as if a wax figure from Tussaud’s. Rarely does she betray any emotion, some of which could be attributed to the stiff upper lip mentality of the Britain of that time, but even when she is displaying emotion it rings false. Perhaps it’s her truly atrocious accent that brings that feel along.

Fortunately, the movie also has Caine, who has fun with the grandfatherly cockney who hides a brilliant strategist with an axe to grind. Caine seems to be having more fun than everyone else in the movie combined, and for my money the movie could have used a good deal more of that sense. Far too much of the movie comes off as stodgy.

While the scenes of the actual heist build credible suspense, it is the first reel and the last where the movie falls a bit. While the movie succeeds in creating the era and brings the sexual discrimination card into play, it never really captured my imagination nor grabbed the heart the way better heist films like The Bank Job and 11 Harrowhouse did. Fans of movies like The Sting and the Oceans trilogy will find this lifeless, but that’s somewhat unfair of a comparison. The movie is solid but unspectacular, and lacks the kind of twist that these types of films really call for.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places but otherwise this is suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; My guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Objective