Road to Nowhere


A noir setup.

A noir setup.

(2010) Thriller (Monterey Media) Tygh Runyan, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, John Diehl, Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Robert Kolar, Nic Paul, Fabio Testi, Fabio Tricamo, Moxie, Peter Bart, Pete Manos, Mallory Culbert, Beck Latimore, Thomas Nelson, Bonnie Pointer, Jim Galan, Jim Rowell, Gregory Rentis, Larry Lerner, Lathan McKay, Michael Bigham, Araceli Lemos, Sarah Dorsey. Directed by Monte Hellman

I have heard it said that movies are a reflection of real life, and as time has gone by, real life has become a reflection of the movies. There is an awful lot of truth in that, sometimes more than we know.

Mitchell Haven (Runyan) is a moviemaker working on a film in North Carolina about a crime scandal. He has hired virtual unknown actress Lauren Graham (Sossamon) to play the role of Velma Duran (Sossamon), daughter of a Cuban national involved in an embezzling scheme with politician Rafe Taschen, played by actor Cary Stewart (De Young).

But art may well be imitating art as the director begins to fall for his leading lady, who may know more about the original crime than she lets on. And as flashbacks of the original crime tell us, the lines between movie and life are starting to blur significantly.

There is a definite noir feel here almost to the point of parody. Hellman is well-known for more anti-establishment sorts of films that tend to break rules and take chances. This is as mainstream a film as he’s directed (at least that I’ve seen), Silent Night Deadly Night 3 notwithstanding – it was subversive for its time as I recall (I haven’t seen it in almost 20 years).

I have to admit that most of my impression of Sossamon has been fairly rote, but she really shines here and proves that she is well-suited to a mysterious femme fatale role. She tends to get more sexpot roles and while she does well with those, the added air of mystery and potential mayhem really suits her. Not that Shannyn Sossamon is planning to murder anyone, mind you. She just plays someone like that on TV….or, in this movie.

One of the big problems here is that Hellman jumps back and forth from the movie to the crime (using the same actors playing the actors who committed the crime) and very often you are confused as to what you are watching which I suspect is deliberate on Hellman’s part. Fiction and reality collide and merge until it is impossible to tell which is which and perhaps that’s the whole point. It didn’t work for me however, possibly because I was being overly analytical about it. Sometimes it’s best just to let things kind of happen and allow them to wash over you without overthinking them.

This is a bit intellectual as noir films go, and a bit noir as intellectual films go. It’s really neither six of one nor half a dozen of the other and curiously unsatisfying when all is said and done. This isn’t the movie I would have expected Hellman to mount a comeback on. Not that I want to see him rehash his old style but I would have hoped for something a little less pedantic than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Sossamon is at her very best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Often confusing, particularly as to timeline.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language (though not a ton) and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A Q&A from the Nashville Film Festival and on the Blu-Ray edition, an interview with Sossamon.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161,619 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shameless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Bank Job

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Sinister 2


Bughuul reminds us there's no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

Bughuul reminds us there’s no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumarin, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King, Michael B. Woods, Tory O. Davis, Howie Johnson, Grace Holuby, John Francis Mountain, Nicole Santini. Directed by Ciarán Foy

There are monsters in this world; people who beat their wives, their children. People who create an atmosphere of fear, all so they can feel like a big man. One can run away from monsters like that; but then there’s no running away from the demons that follow you.

Courtney Collins (Sossamon) has separated from her husband with the intention of divorcing him. He is an abusive, evil man who has turned her twin sons Dylan (R.D. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan) into a terrified, nightmare-ridden boy (the former) and a mean, spiteful kid (the latter). She has found an old farmhouse with a de-consecrated church in the yard.

What she doesn’t know is that the house was the scene of a horrible crime in which an entire family was slaughtered – chained to the church floor and eaten alive by rats – with the young son missing. Investigating the crime is a Detective (Ransone) who was once a Deputy investigating a similar crime in the first Sinister. It weighs heavily on his mind that he couldn’t save his friend Ellison Oswalt and his family from the same fate; in fact, he was accused and later acquitted of the heinous crime, although he lost his job over it.

Now he has made it his mission to stop the demon Bughuul who is responsible for these murders. Bughuul, through the lost children he abducts, influences a child in a family moving into the home where one of these murders occurs to become his minion; when the family moves out, the child films the gruesome murders he commits. Afterwards, Bughuul takes his soul to join his legion of lost children.

Now the kids are after Dylan, showing him the murder films which stop the nightmares. The Detective is unnerved to find people living in the house – he’d been told it was vacant and had plans to burn it to the ground, stopping the demon’s reign of terror. He grows attracted to Courtney and the feeling is mutual. But with her ex Clinton (Coco) hot on her trail and hell bent on taking the kids back home with him, with no judge or law enforcement official in rural Indiana willing to stand up to the wealthy Clinton, Courtney is caught between hell and a hard place – literally.

Although a sequel pretty much to the first Sinister, this has little in common with the first film. No Ethan Hawke, for one thing – Sossamon is the biggest name in the cast which helps keep the costs low and the profit margin high. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original, is still on board as co-writer and producer but it is Irish director Foy, who has a nifty thriller called The Citadel to his credit, in the chair here.

The first film was incredibly creepy; the atmosphere was much more intense than it is here. There is more a Children of the Corn vibe which is said to be on purpose; Foy had wanted the film to be a tribute to the Stephen King story which spawned a plethora of cinematic stinkers – and has a lot in common thematically with both of the Sinister films. While some might find the homespun Indiana cornfield look frightening, it doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

Ransone does, though. Moving from a background comedy relief character to genuine horror hero, we get the kind of hero we can all get behind; he’s not brawny or a particularly good fighter (he gets beaten up at least twice during the film) but he is smart and sympathetic. He’s a nice guy whom we fear is going to finish last.

The movie’s subtext having to do with abusive husbands/fathers is welcome. Often the physical abuse is given as a reason as why abused kids turn into psychotic serial killers but here it is shown as terrifying as anything the demon can conjure up; there’s a scene where the Collins family is having dinner and Clinton eats first while the others sit in frightened silence, awaiting the signal that they can eat. It’s as stark and scary a scene in any horror movie this year. Sadly, none of the Bughuul stuff can equal it.

Part of the problem is that the kid actors in the movie who take up most of the screen time range from adequate to hard to watch. A movie like this by necessity requires a good number of child actors and that’s a double edged sword; if you can get good ones, it ratchets up the fear factor. If not, it can make your film look amateurish. It doesn’t quite sink to that level, but it certainly isn’t elevated by the performances of the children. And that’s not a knock on the kids, mind you – I don’t think it’s for lack of effort on their part, but they do have an awful lot of burden on their shoulders and that might be a little too much to ask of them.

Another issue I had with the movie is the various snuff films. The death scenes are so elaborate that to a large extent they aren’t believable. Sure, the kids are being helped by a demonic presence but it doesn’t feel like a kid could come up with these complex killing methods, ranging from putting a family on crucifixes and burning them alive to hanging them upside down above a swamp where alligators take their heads off. Gruesome fun to be sure, but not believable gruesome fun.

Even despite the deficiencies this ends up with a slightly higher rating than the first Sinister, largely because the ending of the first one was such a stinker. The ending here is a lot better; and while Bughuul is not the terrifying monster that maybe this franchise needs, the movie is scary enough in a white bread kind of way that it makes the movie worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Fairly creepy. Ransone steps up nicely. Like the inclusion of the abusive father.
REASONS TO STAY: Children of the Corn vibe doesn’t work. The filmed death scenes too elaborate. Overreliance on kid actors.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, much of it gruesome; bloody and disturbing images, and some fairly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only returning characters from the first film are Bughuul himself and the Detective, who in the first film was Deputy So & So (he never gets a name); here he is Detective So & So.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Insidious
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mistress America

New Releases for the Week of August 21, 2015


Sinister 2SINISTER 2

(Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley. Directed by Ciaran Foy

A single mom and her nine-year-old twins move into a house trying to pick up the pieces and start a new life. What they don’t realize is that they’ve moved into a house that has been marked for death by the demon Bughuul and his pint-sized minions of mayhem. It will be a race against the clock for the courageous mom to avoid the fate that befell the families that Bughuul has previously turned his infernal attentions to. The sequel to the surprise 2012 hit.

See the trailer, clips, a promo and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody and disturbing images, and language)

American Ultra

(Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton. Mike is an unmotivated and ambition-free convenience store clerk who wants nothing more out of life than to get high and to hang out with his girlfriend. Life rarely gives us what we want however, particularly when you are in reality a highly-trained super-skilled sleeper agent whose memories of his past life has been erased, awaiting activation. Well, he’s been activated and finds himself embroiled in the middle of a deadly government operation and all that forgotten training is going to come in real handy if he is to survive the crossfire.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Spy Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R  (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content)

Hitman: Agent 47

(20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Ciaran Hinds, Zachary Quinto, Hannah Ware. Agents are genetically engineered assassins  whose speed, strength and cunning are superior to humans. His latest target is a corporation who are mining the secrets of the Agent’s past in order to create an army of Agents whose skills may even surpass his own. The key to stopping this powerful enemy may lie with a young woman who has no idea why she is involved. This is the, appropriately enough, reboot of a videogame adaptation with an all-new cast.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, and some language)

Our Family Wedding


Our Family Wedding

Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia wonder if a remake of "The Odd Couple" is next.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Carlos Mencia, America Ferrera, Regina King, Lance Gross, Diana Maria Riva, Lupe Ontiveros, Anjelah Johnson, Charlie Murphy, Vivek Shah, Shannyn Sossamon, Warren Sapp, James Lesure. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

One of the challenges of a marriage is uniting disparate families or at least getting them to co-exist. When you add the elements of different cultures and religions, things can get awfully dicey.

Lucia Ramirez (Ferrera) and Markus Boyd (Gross) have been living together for some time and are deeply in love. She is a Columbia Law School drop-out, teaching underprivileged kids in New York. He is a Columbia Medical School grad, about to join up with Doctors Without Borders in Laos. The two want to get married, but the issue is breaking it to their folks – because they want to get married before they both leave for Laos.

Fortunately, their folks all live in Los Angeles so it’s a train ride back to the City of Angels to inform their parents. Markus’ parents were divorced early on but he was raised by Brad (Whitaker), his dad – a popular all-night DJ. Lucia’s parents – dad Miguel (Mencia) and mom Sonia (Riva) are middle class Mexican-Americans, with dad owning a tow service. Lucia has neglected to tell them that she’s dropped out of Law School and that she’s dating, let alone dating an African American guy. Now, she’s come to tell them she’s marrying him. Probably not the wisest course of action.

The dads instantly butt heads, having met previously in an unpleasant situation (Miguel towed Brad’s Jag) and they continue to constantly one-up each other. They recognize that the wedding is inevitable so each tries to impose his stamp on the ceremony, from the music to the cake to the seating arrangements. Pretty soon the pressures being placed on the kids threaten not only their relationship but those of their parents as well.

This could have been a decent enough movie – the premise is sound – but, unfortunately, it’s wildly inconsistent. For every moment that is amusing (Lucia’s serenade to Markus causing dogs to howl) there’s at least one more that makes you squirm (a wayward goat eating Viagra and then attempting to hump Brad’s leg). The hit-and-miss nature of the movie makes watching it jarring upon occasion.

Ferrera is an enormously appealing actress; her work on “Ugly Betty” as well as her breakout role in Real Women Have Curves shows this to be true. She’s also appealing here but she’s largely used in a reactive role and for a law student who supposedly has a great relationship with her dad, she makes some remarkably foolish decisions. Mencia is actually quite good as well, although he sometimes descends into shtick – but that may well be the fault of the writers more than him.

It is Whitaker who is most surprising of all. He seems uncomfortable and confused here, not nearly to the standards of an Oscar nominee who is one of the better actors working today. His comic timing seems a bit off in places and the confirmed bachelor bit wears thin quickly. I have to wonder if he saw the goat humping his leg in the script and deciding to phone it in from there.

Riva and Johnson contribute nicely as Lucia’s mother and sister respectively. However, by and large, most of the cast seems to be written to confirm racial stereotypes. It can be off-putting especially when you get the Hispanic grandmother (Ontiveros) fainting at the sight of a black man who’s dating her granddaughter. Oh, the horror.

Clearly, this country has continuing problems with race relations and I have no objection to exploring that situation, but I would rather it was not done in quite so dumb a manner. While the movie has some nice moments and occasionally a salient point to make, it torpedoes its own best intentions with infantile humor and poorly executed bits. The subject deserved better treatment – and a better script with better directorial decisions. Sadly, it got none of these.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the moments are delightful and funny. Mencia and Ferrera do a good job.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie tries too hard to be funny and falls flat. Whitaker, a terrific actor, seems lost in his role. Offensive racial stereotypes are reinforced.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations and some crude language briefly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel here but otherwise unremarkable.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Final Day of Cinema365: From the Heart

Life is Hot in Cracktown


Life is Hot in Cracktown

When in doubt, glower.

(Lightning Media) Kerry Washington, Evan Ross, Brandon Routh, RZA, Illeana Douglas, Shannyn Sossamon, Lara Flynn Boyle, Desmond Harrington, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tony Plana, Victor Razuk, Ridge Canipe, Vondie Curtis-Hall. Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo

There are those who will argue that crack cocaine is the most devastating thing to happen to the projects ever. There is certainly some merit to the argument; crack destroys lives and encourages crime. This insanely addictive drug can turn even good people into monsters.

Sometimes in the movies, you’ll see the heroes walking down an inner city alley and encounter criminals and junkies in various stages of decay. The heroes will interact briefly with them, conclude their business, and then move along. This movie is quite frankly about the people in that alley in the first place.

In a nameless inner city neighborhood lives Marybeth (Washington), a pre-op transsexual who works as a prostitute to help save the money for her operation. She lives with her boyfriend Benny (Harrington), a small-time burglar who is developing issues with his own sexuality. Manny (Razuk) is a devoted husband and father who works two jobs to support his stay-at-home wife (Sossamon) and their colicky baby. Willie (Canipe) is a wise-beyond-his-years young boy who lives in the welfare hotel where Manny is a security guard, his mom (Douglas) a crack addict who chooses drugs over her children. Willie is in love with a heartbreakingly young hooker, and looks after his sister when his mother is too high to care for anybody.

The specter of Romeo (Ross, who is the son of Diana Ross) looms over this neighborhood. He’s a vicious and ambitious thug who wants to move up the ladder in his gang. He is completely amoral and without conscience, but doesn’t have a gun yet. When he finally acquires one, all hell literally breaks loose.

Giovinazzo wrote this based on his own novel, and like those who adapt their own material he had a very difficult time in cutting judiciously. Because this is written as an ensemble piece, the movie shifts gears every time it shifts focus to another character. The overall effect is that of a car with a broken transmission, jarring the driver every time it shifts.

Giovinazzo would have been better served to focus on only a few characters and let the rest fade into the background of the story, but I can see where he might have had difficulty in doing that because there are compelling elements to each story, and compelling performances throughout. Razuk and Canipe are the most memorable of the characters and quite frankly I wouldn’t have minded devoting more time to their stories; however, Washington delivers a spectacular performance and her character’s story shouldn’t be ignored. Ross is a smoldering presence who fills the screen up with absolute dread every time he’s onscreen; you wonder what horrible thing he’s going to do.

The movie opens with an extended gang rape by Romeo and his thugs of his own girlfriend. It’s not a pretty scene and it definitely sets the tone of the movie. Giovinazzo certainly pulls no punches nor shies away from any inner city horror, no matter how cruel or vicious. This may be too intense for some, while others will enjoy wallowing in the grittiness. For me, it’s a slice of inner city life, a particularly rotten and putrid slice with maggots crawling about the carcass. I can’t say I was entertained, but then again I couldn’t tear my eyes away either.

WHY RENT THIS: This redefines gritty. You’ll want to take a shower to wash off the slime when you’re done watching.  Canipe and Razuk are the characters you’ll remember.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are too many storylines to follow to reasonably get much of a feel for many of the characters.

FAMILY VALUES: Drug use is at a premium here; there is also a good deal of foul language, violence and a fairly graphic depiction of rape. In addition there’s plenty of sex and nudity. Fun for the whole family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giovinazzo took a ten year break from directing to teach filmmaking at the New York School of Visual Arts and NYU.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Nanny McPhee Returns