Language Lessons


Beauty and the beast.

(2021) Drama (Shout!) Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Desean Terry, Christine Quesada. Directed by Natalie Morales

 

Friendships can develop in unlikely places, and in unlikely ways. In this modern age of communication, we don’t even need to live in the same hemisphere to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with someone else. That can be a double-edged sword.

Cariño (Morales) is a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica when she dials into a Zoom meeting with a new student. That turns out to be middle aged Adam (Duplass), who received 100 lessons in Spanish as a birthday gift from his husband Will (Terry). Adam and Will live in a rambling mansion in the Oakland hills and fairly drip with wealth and privilege. Cariño lives in an area of much natural beauty that she likes to show off to her students. As it turns out, Adam already speaks Spanish fairly fluently, but had mentioned offhandedly that he was rusty and needed an immersion course to get him back to fluency. Will pounced on that tidbit of information, as married partners will, and voila.

But the situation turns on a dime when Adam informs her of a personal tragedy. He is numb, bewildered and somewhat lost. Cariño, who barely knows him, is nevertheless kind, sympathetic and comforting and Adam begins to feel a real friendship with her.

As the lessons progress, we see that the two people from apparently disparate backgrounds begin to bond, and despite the reluctance of Cariño to let her walls down, the teacher and student become friends. But isn’t it true that some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed? Not in this case.

I think it’s safe to say that this movie is long on charm and short on production values; it’s essentially filmed as a series of Zoom calls and while the two stars are almost always onscreen together, they’re never physically in the same place until the very final scene. Even so, there’s a great deal of chemistry between the two. Both Morales and Duplass have a great deal of onscreen charm and charisma, and both utilize both of those traits to the hilt here. Duplass, in particular, delivers a performance that is often raw and emotional, although Morales gets a few juicy scenes of her own. However, the one thing that is the center of the film – the friendship between the two – is believable every second that it develops.

There is a bit of fantasy indulgence here – I wonder if the movie would have fared a little bit better had Adam been not so wealthy, although two years’ worth of weekly Spanish lessons might be an indulgence only a wealthy person would consider. It’s just that the ending felt a little contrived because of it, and might have been a bit more realistic had the writers not been given too easy of an out.

One thing I really liked about the movie is that you never know where it’s going next. Too often, movies follow familiar formulae and tread well-travelled trails. Not so this one; even though there are a few tropes here and there, they feel like they belong rather than they were inserted for convenience or as cinematic shorthand. You do have to work for this one a little bit, but in a pleasant way and that is certainly not often the case, even for a lot of independent films.

Most of the movie is in Spanish, although it is amusing to note that the subtitles also reflect Adam’s grammatical errors as well. And while the movie is about the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, there is also dealing with loss and disappointment, but in the grand tradition of movies dealing with grief, it ends up being a life-affirming experience.

Some might be suffering from Zoom fatigue and may not necessarily want to spend an hour and a half watching someone else’s Zoom conversation, but that would be a shame because this is a deeply emotional movie that delivers all the feels, something all of us can use lately. Also, as an additional bonus, it doesn’t mention COVID at all, although clearly the pandemic had a lot to do with the way this was filmed. While it’s playing exclusively in theaters at the moment, it will doubtlessly be available to stream soon. And although I find myself writing a closing sentence I never thought I’d ever use, you may want to wait for it to hit a streaming or VOD service – if ever a movie was meant to be seen on a laptop, it’s this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Duplass and Morales are both incredibly charming and deliver powerful performances. You never know where the movie is going. Like most films about loss, it’s very life-affirming.
REASONS TO AVOID: People might be a little burned out by communicating via Zoom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Morales’ first feature film as a director; she also directed several episodes of Duplass’ anthology TV series Room 104.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Italian for Beginners
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Azor

The Show (2020)


Not quite a paper moon.

(2020) Neo-Noir Fantasy (Shout!) Tom Burke, Ellie Bamber, Darrell D’Silva, Christopher Fairbank, Siobhan Hewlett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Julian Bleach, Babou Cesay, Alan Moore, Richard Dillane, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Oaklee Pendergast, Ethan Rouse, Eric Lampaert, Sheila Atim, Bradley John, Robert Goodman, Josie Taylor, Daniel Tuite, Stewart Magrath, Gayle Richardson. Directed by Mitch Jenkins

 

Alan Moore, the writer/creator of such graphic novel works as The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke and From Hell, has often been described variously as curmudgeonly, grumpy, cranky, cross, and outspoken. He certainly hasn’t pulled punches regarding his opinion of cinematic adaptations of his work (he hates them, in case you were wondering). Now, he has decided to write a screenplay of his own, following up on a series of shorts he wrote for director Mitch Jenkins, entitled Show Pieces which act as a kind of prequel to this feature. No, you don’t need to see them in order to enjoy The Show although it wouldn’t hurt.

In any case, Fletcher Dennis (Burke) shows up in Northampton, the town in which Moore grew up and which he regards clearly with some fondness. He is looking for a James Mitchum, discovering that he took a severe fall outside a nightclub and has died of his wounds. Dennis shows up at the local hospital where Mitchum was taken, masquerading as his brother Bob, looking for his effects – specifically a necklace with a gold cross on which a jeweled rose is centered.

Not finding it despite a helpful morgue attendant (Bleach) who intones “I see dead people,” to which Dennis responds “You work in a hospital!” However, Dennis heads to the boarding house Mitchum was staying in and arranges to rent his room from the vivacious landlady Becky (Bamber) who doubles as a walking tour guide of Northampton, where I imagine there isn’t much call for walking tours. He also discovers that a young woman named Faith Harrington (Hewlett) was brought in at the same time as Mitchum and may hold some clue to the mystery of the missing cross.

As he digs into the mystery, aided by Faith, he will run into a drug kingpin named John Conqueror (Atim) who uses voodoo as a marketing tool, a dead comedy team that owned a working class pub that burned to the ground decades earlier, but pops up in their dreams, Dennis’ foul-mouthed client (Fairbank) and a couple of gumshoes named Tim (Pendergast, Rouse) who are likely around ten or eleven years old, operate out of a clubhouse, take payment in energy drinks, and speak noir-esque narration (their scenes are filmed in black and white).

Moore shows up as Frank Metterton, one half of the deceased comic duo whose beard and costume gives his head the shape of a crescent moon, and whose sonorous voice seems to imply more than perhaps he actually delivers. He’s actually pretty good in the role, but his arcane and occasionally obscure sense of humor shows up throughout the movie, making the film a good deal more fun than you might expect. Moore has always been, in some ways, has always cultivated the persona of the outsider, and it serves him well here.

This is not a straightforward noir film, although the genre plainly informs the action and Moore is just as plainly delivering his own version of it. Some of the tropes are skewered with sly wit, others are a bit more overt, but this isn’t a spoof so much as it is an homage. It is also, however, willfully weird, wearing its strangeness as a badge of honor with somewhat skewed camera angles, unsettling visuals and dialogue that makes Wes Anderson look like Michael Bay.

The movie is a little long and it definitely takes its time in getting where its going, but there are rewards to be had here. Fans of Alan Moore will no doubt want to rush and see this and as it is only playing for a single night as a Fathom event (locally, it can be seen at the  AMC Altamonte Mall and the AMC Disney Springs) tomorrow (Thursday, August 26th), while others who prefer more straightforward fare might not be in such a hurry to check it out. Nonetheless, I found it entertaining enough so long as you are willing to stay with it and let yourself fall under its spell.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully weird, but hard to ignore.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing needed to have been picked up a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hewlett’s Faith Harrington was the subject of the first of five Show Pieces shorts, three of which have been collected together under that name and are currently available on Shudder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scanner Darkly
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Finding Kendrick Johnson

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

Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Linda and the Mockingbirds


For some, the border wall is more than just a barrier.

(2020) Music Documentary (Shout!) Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eugene Rodriguez, James Keach, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Marie-Astrid Do Rodriguez. Directed by James Keach

 

It is no secret that the current President made border security, specifically on our Southern border, a campaign issue, one which has carried over into his administration. The building of the Wall is much more than symbolic, particularly to those who have emigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America to make a better life for their families – just as Irish immigrants did during the potato famine, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe did during the programs, as Vietnamese immigrants did after the fall of Saigon and as any number of immigrants did from all over the world over the past two and a half centuries.

It is also no secret that Linda Ronstadt was one of the most powerful voices and popular singers of the 70s into the 80s. Of Mexican descent, she remembered fondly singing traditional songs with her family, particularly her beloved grandfather who hailed from a small village in Sonora. After making an album of the music that she so loved as a child, she became aware of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Center (cenzontles is Spanish for mockingbird), founded by guitar virtuoso Eugene Rodriguez, dedicated to teaching youth of the San Francisco Bay Area music and dance forms that are largely dying out in Mexico. He was putting together a tour in Mexico for the kids to study with masters in Mexico and Ronstadt agreed to fund them and added a date to her tour to benefit the center. She has been a patron for them ever since.

As filmmaker James Keach was putting together the documentary of Ronstadt’s life, he found the artist – now unable to sing due to Parkinson’s disease – reluctant to do an interview for her own documentary. She suggested that they do the interview in Mexico, in the village where her grandfather grew up. Keach agreed, but was surprised to find that the reason for the trip wasn’t his film, but rather for the youth of Los Cenzontles to put on a concert for the village in the public square. Along for the ride was longtime Ronstadt friend Jackson Browne, who had been introduced to the cultural center by Ronstadt, and who was inspired to rewrite his song The Dreamer about the experiences of Lucina Rodriguez (one of the two main singers of the vocal group put together by the center).

The movie is about much more than a performance. It is about the modern immigrant experience, about the fear and disquiet many of them feel as they have been demonized by the current administration. Certainly, we are shown the frustration and even rage – but this isn’t an angry film. Rather, it is about the beauty of discovering one’s own culture, of how the music, dance and traditions of our past can help us find out who we are so that we may navigate the future. It’s a powerful message and one delivered over and over again in the film.

Ronstadt does on-camera interviews here, and in some ways they are disarming. She comes off at times like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, a sleeping two-year-old grandniece at her side, but there is also pride in her background and talking about the songs of her culture clearly energizes her. Of her medical condition not one word is spoken, not one word mentioned and if the only hint of its devastating effect on her life is a wistful “I wish I could sing with those kids” as some break into song on the bus ride into Mexico, you would never know she has Parkinson’s unless you already knew – and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t find out unless you read a review like this. Ronstadt has chosen not to become a poster child for her disease and while Michael J. Fox has elected to become a spokesperson for further research into a cure for it, Ronstadt prefers not to go that route, directing her energy into Los Cenzontles instead.

The movie is heartwarming and hopeful and full of amazing music, colorful handmade costumes and lovely dancing. It is a peek into the richness of Mexico’s (and Sonora’s specifically) cultural heritage, a very worthwhile endeavor particularly if your only exposure to it has been the occasional Tijuana Brass album or mariachi night at your local Chevy’s. At just under an hour long, this documentary is a worthwhile investment of your time.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is rich, passionate and warm. A frontline look at the immigrant experience.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find that the film pulls its punches a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some discussion of controversial current events.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Synchronic

The Soul Collector (8) (2019)


Good men can still do bad things.

(2019) Horror (SHOUT! FactoryTshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Keita Luna, Garth Breytenbach, Chris April, Luxolo Ndabedi, Owam Amey, Sindiwe Magona, Graham Clarke, Eve Maxagazo Andy Crawford, Jac Williams, Andres Brink. Directed by Harold Holscher

 

The South African film scene has been coming on lately, with several movies produced there getting international attention. The Soul Collector (which made the Festival rounds known as 8) is a horror movie with its roots in local traditions and mythology, certainly a heady and largely untapped source of inspiration for scare flicks.

William Ziel (Breytenbach) has been experiencing rough economic times, so he heads to the interior of South Africa to work his family farm after the death of his father (Clarke). He brings along his adopted daughter Mary (Luna), whose parents in addition to being William’s brother and sister-in-law are also dead, and his wife Sarah (Beckmann) who has demons of her own.

William knows next to nothing about farming, but help comes in the form of Lazarus (Sebe), a wise old black man who once worked the farm. However, local villagers, led by their one-eyed chief (April), are aware of the true nature of Lazarus; he collects souls for the demonic presence occupying his daughter’s (Amey) body. Lazarus, a good man driven to an act of madness by grief and desperation, has also befriended Mary, whom the demon is dead set on feeding upon.

First-time director Holscher has crafted a film that looks really nice; beautiful vistas of the rolling plains of South Africa, as well as in-camera effects that are as effective as any CGI. He also is given the richness of African legend to work from, but sadly, resorts to jump scares and horror tropes that end up taking his movie down a few notches.

That’s not to say that the movie is entirely without merit. There are some frank discussions on the intertwining of life and death (the figure 8 is used to denote the place where the mortal world and the next realm meet, which is where the living can communicate with the dead) and Sebe is an imposing presence; intimidating when he needs to be, but clearly conflicted over his fate and the bargain he made. It is hard not to feel for Lazarus and Sebe does a good job of making the character sympathetic.

The other characters are less so; William is stubborn, refusing to see any other reality but the one that he wants to see. He is going to make this farm work no matter what! For her part, Sarah is often bitchy and vindictive, mourning that she can’t have children of her own. As for Mary, she’s not the plucky heroine of most horror movies (which is refreshing) but she keeps silkworms in a music box that plays the “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake (which is used as a motif throughout the score, at times to distraction) and is in every sense, a little weird. Then again, she’s been through a lot.

I like seeing horror movies using the mythology of other cultures, be they Latin, Eastern European, or Asian; we so rarely get to see the rich folklore of Africa used cinematically that it’s refreshing when it happens. I just wish that the director had done a little more with it here.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes us to an environment not usually found in horror films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plenty of horror tropes and jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some images of terror and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not related to the movie of the 1999 movie of the same name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golem
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Exit Plan

Lancaster Skies


Bombers fill the night of Lancaster skies.

(2019) War (Shout! FactoryJeffrey Mundell, David Dobson, Kris Saddler, Joanne Gale, Vin Hawke, Steve Hooper, Josh Collins, Callum Burn, Steven Hooper, Tom Gordon, Henry Collie, Tony Gordon, Leila Sykes, Eric Flynn, Roger Wentworth, Oria Sanders, Fiona Kimberley, Matt Davies, Bridgette Burn, Elliott Strother, Bryony James, Robert Francis, Tina Hodgson. Directed by Callum Burn

 

I take no joy out of writing a negative review. I know that most people go into making a movie with the best intentions, but things happen – sometimes there’s studio interference, sometimes the cast and crew are inexperienced, other times things just don’t click for whatever reason. I understand that there are human beings behind every movie, some having put all their passion into a project that for whatever reason just didn’t click with me; and that’s not on them so much as it is on me.

Once in a while, though, it is clear that a filmmaker’s reach exceeded his grasp. He or she perhaps had a good story and a decent cast, but budget limitations kept him/her from making the movie they wanted to make. I suspect that’s the problem here.

Lancaster Skies is meant to be a World War II epic about an English bomber crew dealing with the loss of their skipper (Tom Gordon). They are having to cope with the death of a comrade-in-arms, but also the arrival of their new captain, Douglas Miller (Mundell), who is dealing with a tragedy of his own and has become closed-off, stand-offish and generally a bit of a pill. At first, he is oil and water with the veteran crew. Only co-pilot Georgie Williams (Dobson) seems to be friendly towards him at all – well, there’s always comely WAAF Kate Hedges (Gale) who has taken a shine to the handsome but taciturn Miller.

Miller, a former Spitfire pilot, is chomping at the bit to take the fight to the Germans. With the survival rate of bomber crews right around 50% (Williams illustrates that in a bar brawl by flipping a coin a la Harvey Dent), this would seem to be on the surface a little crazy, but slowly Douglas begins to warm up to his crew and they to him. But, at last, they’ve finally gotten a mission to fly. With a tail gunner (Saddler) prone to freezing up at the worst possible moment, and a co-pilot with a devastating secret of his own, this crew will need to pull together if they are to survive their next mission.

I don’t really know how to begin to sort this all out. It is simply poorly done on every level. On a technical level, the color fades into almost black and white but I believe is just washed out color. It does so without warning and goes from color to washed out within even the same screen. I’m not technically proficient enough to identify whether it was a camera thing, a processing thing or a digital thing, but I can say for certain that it was an annoying thing.

The only thing stiffer than the dialogue is the actors saying it; if their upper lips were any stiffer, they would have been shot up full of Novocain. There are a lot of characters in the film and I couldn’t always differentiate between them. At length, I just gave up.

I could go on, but I think that for now, that’s enough. I do give director Callum Burn props for having the moxie to try and make a movie of this scope on a budget that was right around £80,000 – a microscopic amount compared to even most independent films. The movie wasn’t completely without merit and it is a story that deserves to be told, but perhaps Burn should have waited until he could get himself a budget to tell the story properly.

REASONS TO SEE: The title is evocative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff characters and even stiffer dialogue. Inexplicably drops in and out of color.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in five different shooting blocks over a two-year period.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memphis Belle
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Jinn (2018)

Standing Up, Falling Down


Billy Crystal still looks mah-velous!

(2019) Comedy (SHOUT!) Billy Crystal, Ben Schwartz, Eloise Mumford, Grace Gummer, Nate Corddry, Jill Hennessy, Caitlin McGee, David Castañeda, Leonard Ouzts, John Behlmann, Debra Monk, Kevin Dunn, Wade Allain-Marcus, Kate Arrington, Mike Carlsen, Charlie Hankin, Nathan James, Hassan Jordan, Glenn Kubota, Kelsey Reinhardt. Directed by Matt Ratner

 

It’s not easy to make it out there. These days, it is not uncommon for kids to move back home with their parents when things don’t go their way in a career. I know I did that when I was younger; so did my own son. Most everyone knows someone who has been in that boat at one time or another.

=For Scott Rollins (Schwartz), that ship is on an indefinite cruise. After his attempt to become a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles crashed and burned, he has moved back home to Long Island – not the Hamptons part – with his mom (Monk) who is absolutely thrilled to have him home, his Dad (Dunn) who is disappointed and his younger sister Megan (Gummer) who trades acid-tongued barbs with him and is likely none-too-pleased to see him – her life isn’t going much better than his, although she does have a really great boyfriend (Castañeda).

Scott is 34 years old, with no direction in life and an uncertain future. Although his mom is pushing him in the direction of a post office job – which he is absolutely against – he doesn’t really have much in the way of a plan B. He is pining over his ex-fiancée Becky (Mumford) whom he left to go to the West Coast for. She has since married a mutual friend (Behlmann) and still lives in town.

>He meets the very drunk Marty (Crystal) in a bar bathroom; Marty is drunk enough to be pissing in a sink but not so drunk that his aim is off. He notices a skin condition on Scott’s arm and recommends a dermatologist. As it turns out, he’s the dermatologist. A more sober Marty treats Scott’s “stress hives” and the two develop a friendship.

Like Scott, Marty is damaged goods. He is totally alone and both of his marriages didn’t go the way he wanted. His son Adam (Corddry) can’t stand the sight of him and Marty knows he drinks far too much. But as it turns out, Marty and Scott are good for each other and help each other out in ways neither one of them could have anticipated.

The movie doesn’t break any particularly new ground; the concept of a thirty-something year old kid returning home in failure to his folks’ house has been done a number of times. There aren’t a whole lot of emotional highs and lows here although to be fair the ones that are here are handled well, particularly a scene between Marty and his son late in the film.

What the movie has in spades is charm which is mainly due to the casting. All of the actors, from Parks and Recreation vet Schwartz to the legendary Crystal all exude it and Ratner wisely lets them do their thing. In particular, Crystal is outstanding. This is some of his best work since his SNL days; it’s wonderful to see him display his impressive talent and screen presence again. He’ll be 72 in March but he’s still as funny as he ever was.

Schwartz, not so much. His stand-up routines are kind of flat, even when he’s supposedly killing it; there’s a fundamental lack of understanding of what makes a stand-up funny here. The filmmakers might have been better served picking a different occupation for Scott. However, to be fair, Schwartz has some screen presence and charisma going for him and even if his stand-up material doesn’t work so well, he does a commendable job in his role.

=Definitely, the attraction here is Crystal and fans of his should flock to see this. It is available on the major streaming services now with more to come I’m sure, and at the same time it is making a brief theatrical run including here at the Old Mill Theater in the Villages for those who would prefer to see this on the big screen. This isn’t going to be a movie you can’t live without, but it has enough warmth to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s enough charm here to see the picture through. One of Crystal’s best performances ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: Is a little bit formulaic. Has a been there done that feel
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crash scene into the pizza parlor was so well-staged that residents in Long Island called the police.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Comedian (2017)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nobody’s Fool

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

Rabid (2019)


She’s got a bit of an overbite.

(2019) Horror (Shout! FactoryLaura Vandervoort, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ted Atherton, Hanneke Talbot, Stephen Huszar, Mackenzie Gray, Stephen McHattie, Kevin Hanchard, Heidi von Palleske, Joel Labelle, C.M. Punk, Edie Inksetter, Tristan Risk, Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Vanessa Jackson, Joe Bostick, Troy James, Greg Bryk, A.J. Mendez, Dion Karas, Amanda Zhou. Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska

 

The Soska sisters are a pair of Canadian identical twins who have turned into promising horror directors. Their latest, a remake of an early classic by their countryman David Cronenberg, walks a fine line between modernizing a classic and overpraising it.

Rose (Vandervoort) is a mousy wannabe fashion designer who works for the insufferable Euro-trash designer Gunter (Gray) who regularly bullies her. Her BFF Chelsea (Talbot) convinces her to come to the company party that night where hottie photographer Brad (Hollingsworth) flirts with her. When she discovers that Chelsea put him up to it, Rose storms out of the party, gets on her scooter and promptly gets into a horrific accident.

With part of her intestine missing and her face marred by a ghastly mutilation, she is certain her career is over. However, Dr. Burroughs (Atherton) proposes a radical new treatment – stem cell manipulation – that will restore her beauty and repair her injuries. It sounds too good to be true but what does she have to lose?

The treatment goes better than she would dare hope. Dr. Burroughs’ promises are kept and more; when Rose gets back to work, she does so with new-found confidence that impresses Gunter to the point that he invites her to work on his new collection. She’s living the dream now.

But not so much since it turns out there are side effects. You see, Rose has a massive craving for blood and a weird appendage growing out of her armpit. And it turns out that Rose is now carrying a kind of super-rabies that is spreading throughout the city. Living the dream has turned into a living nightmare.

This is a fairly faithful remake of the original which is best-known for being porn star Marilyn Chambers’ first legitimate screen role. There is a smattering of social satire here that is welcome and a few in-jokes; early on, an employee of Gunter’s wonders about his new line “Why are we remaking old trends?” The level of self-awareness in the film is clever and subtle.

Unfortunately, a lot of good ideas here go undeveloped and the Sisters – whose earlier films didn’t shy away from the gore, certainly seem to be a bit tamer here. There are a few gruesome scenes – the injuries to Rose’s face, as depicted above, among them – but for the most part, there is a curious lack of over-the-top gore which might have benefitted the film.

A little judicious editing might have always helped. The movie is 20 minutes longer than the original and feels long; by the time the movie reaches its denouement it feels more like a marathon than a sprint. A good horror film requires brevity. There’s none of that here.

Vandervoort, best known for her time on Smallville, does a fairly decent job although quite frankly when compared with Chambers that’s not a high bar to reach for. She shows some nice horror chops here and although I don’t think that a further career as a scream queen is necessarily in the cards for her but if she chose to go that route I think she could make some real inroads.

I had high hopes for this one given the pedigree of the Soska sisters and the original material so I was mildly disappointed. It’s still worth seeing, particularly if you’re into body manipulation horror, but this is far from essential. Still, I do believe the Soska sisters are on the verge of becoming big players in the horror genre.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally delves into social satire which it does with welcome subtlety.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is extreme and often horrific violence, disturbing images, drug use, sexuality and nudity not to mention plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Paul Lalonde is best known for his work o the Left Behind film franchise. This is his first non-faith-based film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
And Two If By Sea