Autumn Road


Stop hearse-ing around.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Justin Meeks, Lar Park-Lincoln, George Welder, Maddy-Lea Hendrix, Ranger Lerway, Jonas Lerway, Jordan Wright, Kerry McCormick, Buddy Love, Maya Alexander, Sydney Aucerman, Matt Williams, Kenneth Fisher, Christian Baker, Rick Jezak, Gideon Bing, Damien Bannister, Madison Pine. Directed by Riley Cusick

 

One of the things many of us look forward to about October is the haunted house attraction. Walking through a maze of corridors, looking at scenes of disturbing violence (or the results of same), having actors leap out from dark corners to scare the bejeezus out of us, and the horrific (or sexy) costumes, not only of the staff but also of those in line to go through. It’s a familiar rite of autumn.

Twins Vincent (J. Lerway) and Charlie (R. Lerway) are the teenage sons of a man (Meeks) who has for years run such an attraction in a small Texas town. They are friends with Winnie (Hendrix), who has a crush on the shy and retiring Charlie. In turn the creepy and impulsive control-challenged Vincent likes Winnie but when it’s time to go trick-or-treating, Charlie bows out, remaining in the prop hearse in the front of the haunted house while Winnie and Vincent walk the town. Afterwards, Winnie goes into the hearse to chat with Charlie, and is never seen again. Did Charlie murder the girl, or did Vincent do it in a fit of jealous rage? I’m not telling.

Years later, Winnie’s little sister Laura (Linklater) returns to town after an abortive attempt to become an actress in Los Angeles is capped off with an unexpected and ghoulish tragedy. She’s not particularly eager to visit her mom (Lincoln), who fell apart after Winnie’s disappearance. At the local diner, she runs into Charlie and like her sister before her, takes a liking to the shy young man (Cusick), while feeling a little nervous about the still-creepy Vincent (also Cusick) who from time to time assaults patrons of the haunted house he and Charlie inherited. Her appearance triggers Vincent and Charlie, who have a secret to protect. But is it the secret you might think it is?

One has to admire the gumption of Cusick who not only wrote and directed the movie, but also starred in two critical roles. That’s a lot to take on – maybe too much, for the movie lacks a whole lot of focus, which had Cusick been less torn with all of the different roles he had to play for the film, he might have been able to see the movie with a bit more objectivity and correct some very basic problems.

One of the most glaring is the pacing. The movie is an hour and a half long, but feels much longer. Things take a very long time to develop and by the time we get to the climax, it’s more of a relief that you might feel after arriving at a service station after walking several miles to get there when your car breaks down. That’s not the feeling any director wants his audience to come away from his film with.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit. One place that Cusick does excel in is creating an evocative tone. Also worth noting is that there are some effective shocks, one taking place about 22 minutes in that will absolutely take your breath away. There are a lot of plot points that you never see coming, and that can be a good thing.

But there are also some plot points that are nonsensical, and some inconsistencies (like an employee of the haunted house who quits very forcefully and yet is back the next day without any sort of comment) and some characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense. Cusick the writer and Cusick the director could both do with a more judicious editor.

REASONS TO SEE: There is some genuine creepiness and some fairly shocking violence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is waaaaaaaaay ssssslllloooowwwwww.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, profanity and scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Linklater is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Fest
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Infinite

13 Minutes


A sight you never want to see in your neighborhood.

(2021) Disaster (Quiver) Thora Birch, Paz Vega, Trace Adkins, Anne Heche, Amy Smart, Sofia Vassilieva, Peter Facinelli, Laura Spencer, Will Peltz, Yancey Arias, Gabriel Jarret, Tokala Black Elk, Shaylee Mansfield, Darryl Cox, Davi Santos, Ginger Gilmartin, James Austin Kerr, April Warren, Kyle Jacob Henry, Addison Metcalf, Lena Harmon, Allyson Crisofaro, Erin Herring, Leesa Neidel. Directed by Lindsay Gossling

Tornadoes are a bitch. They strike without any sort of warning and can leave apocalyptic devastation in their wake. Often, they hit small towns that are less able to recover as easily as a big city might.

In the small fictional Oklahoma town of Minninnewah right in the heart of Tornado Alley, things start with a distant rumble and troubling weather reports that bad weather could be in the offing. Veteran farmer Rick (Adkins) scoffs, having been through enough false alarms in his time to be skeptical at the words of warning coming over the TV. His son Luke (Peltz) is late coming in the night before, managing to miss a lightning strike on their barn that left it completely gutted. Dad, needless to say, is less than thrilled. ‘I hope she was worth it,” he tells him. The fact is, though, that there was no girl. Instead, Luke was spending the night with a man – Daniel (Santos), who works for his Dad (and by extension, for him).

Ana (Vega) works as a hotel maid for an insufferable boss who doesn’t like Hispanics much and her undocumented husband Carlos (Arias) less. Ana lets it roll off her back like water off a duck; she has saved enough for a down payment on a house, even though the supercilious real estate agent (Neidel) who deigns to sign the paperwork while in the midst of her salon appointment, then sniffs “It was barely worth the commission” behind her back after she leaves. Maddy (Vassilieva), who is coloring her hair, has problems of her own; she’s pregnant and the baby daddy (Kerr) doesn’t want to get married, and isn’t so keen on an abortion either, which is what Maddy wants – although when she goes in to the clinic, Tammy (Heche) insists on showing her an ultrasound of the fetus and trying to talk her out of aborting the child. Tammy, as it turns out, is married to Rick and is Luke’s mom.

Maddy is the daughter of single mom Jessie (Birch) who works at an auto repair place, putting up with the patronizing, the sexual harassment and the unreliable customers who wait until the last minute to get their emergency vehicles serviced. When Maddy breaks the news of her delicate condition, essie turns out to be ferociously supportive which might bring a tear to the softer viewer. Maddy also babysits Peyton (Mansfield), the daughter of TV weatherman Brad (Facinelli) and his wife (Smart) is the emergency services department head for Minninnewah. They have jobs to do, so when their sitter flakes out, Maddy gets the call.

All of this small-town drama will begin to recede into inconsequentiality when the town is given a mere thirteen minutes warning that they are going to be hit head-on by a massive tornado. Lives will hang in the balance depending on what each individual citizen does next.

I was surprised that I found the individual stories pretty compelling and while the cast is solid, it performs even better than I expected them to. Not to mention that the tornado sequence is authentically terrifying, even more so than the comparable sequence in Twister that had a far bigger budget to work with than this film did. We also see the devastation from the twister; the town is absolutely leveled and it’s hard to believe anyone survived the destruction, let alone the number that eventually did. On that note, I’m not sure how to address that without giving a spoiler away here; let’s just say that the movie is robbed of an emotional catharsis that it might have had. Some might even feel a bit cheated.

Some of the plot threads feel a bit melodramatic, coming out of disaster movie tropes that are a bit dated at this point. I think the movie might have benefited by having maybe one less thread – for example, the weather man and the emergency services director had little to do except look worried and give out advice on what to do if the storm hits directly. Also, I found it a bit disconcerting that people who had acted like complete and utter jerks throughout the movie turned heroic in the aftermath with one person who professed racist views taking care of an injured Hispanic tornado victim. That just seems inconsistent to me.

Still in all, this is surprisingly entertaining and the tornado and its aftermath are absolutely wonderful. I would recommend the movie highly just for those elements alone.

REASONS TO SEE: The tornado sequence is legitimately terrifying. Better than we had any right to expect.
REASON TO AVOID: Maybe one or two stories deteriorate into melodrama.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, adult themes, sensuality and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several extras are former or current first responders who have actually responded to tornado disasters in the area the movie was filmed in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
13 Fanboy

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

(2021) Suspense (Screen Media) Barry Pepper, Colm Feore, Eve Harlow, Carlo Rota, Jayne Eastwood, Nazneen Contractor, Laura Vandervoort, Karen Robinson, Rainbow Sun Francks, Greg Bryk, John Kirkpatrick, Ryan Malcolm, Reid Janisse, Juan Carlos Valis, Tim Progosh, Brian Cook, Anthony Ferri, Plato Fountidakis, Susie Blanco. Directed by Brad Turner

 

When you’re talking about shadowy spy agencies (not so much the CIA of Jason Bourne or the MI:6 of James Bond) you are generally talking about murky moral compasses and blindingly serious characters who are extremely competent at killing, only without the ability to let loose a bon mot at the moment of vanquishing his opponent.

Nicholas Shaw (Pepper) is one such. He is meticulous, and never ever misses. He is out of the game now, retired to a bucolic small town where he regularly has breakfast in the local café and orders books from the local book store, getting on nicely with his neighbors. They would never suspect that in a previous life, he was a deadly assassin.

And they DEFINITELY wouldn’t guess that he was captured and tortured, giving up the identities of eight members of his team who were then murdered by Quentin, a mysterious crime boss. Nicholas doesn’t remember much of this, only that he needs to lay low for a short time – the rest of his life, say. Then, his past comes walking through his door in the person of Elias Kane (Feore), his former boss. It seems that Elias’ daughter Fiona (Harlow) went out looking for Quentin and has since been captured. She is likely dead, but there is only one person living who knows the true identity of Quentin – that is Nicholas, although he doesn’t remember that crucial piece of information. So as he is the only person who could possibly rescue Fiona, he will have to un-retire and go after the person responsible for taking away everything from him. Sounds fair.

Some critics have compared this to the Bourne franchise, and that’s not inaccurate although Robert Ludlum’s world is much more well thought out. Pepper, who has played sharpshooters before, is perfect for this kind of work, and he is the stand-out here. However, if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is here, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t go to movies much.

The action sequences are decent enough, although the movie could use more of them. The script is on the talky side, which isn’t a point in its favor. Pepper would do better in a role where he has less dialogue – not that he isn’t good at dialogue, but his character would be more effective if he spoke less, and Pepper is a good enough actor that he could pull off getting things across without having to spell things out.

Overall, this isn’t bad entertainment if you’re waiting for a new John Wick film to come down the pike (that’s still another year away, true believers) although I caution you that there is far less action than in that estimable franchise nor is the world here as fully developed as that one. One could say it’s a low-rent Jason Bourne without the exotic locations or the exquisite plotting. No, that’s not it either; this is more a B-movie low-budget spy thriller of the sort Bruce Willis was doing a decade or two ago. There’s something to be said for those films, so long as your expectations aren’t that high.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining super-competent assassin thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly serious; could have used some lighter moments to break up the monotony.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner has more than thirty years of experience, mainly in the television side doing episodes of 24 and Homeland, among others.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cold Light of Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
It Is Not Over Yet

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacurau


A town like no other.

(2019) Action (Kino LorberBárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Carlos Francisco, Luciana Souza, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Buda Lira, Clebia Sousa, Danny Barbosa, Edison Silva, Eduarda Samara, Fabiola Liper, Ingrid Trigueiro, Jamila Facury, Jr. Black, Suzy Lopes. Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho

 

In the northeast corner of Brazil is the sertão, the Brazilian version of the Australian outback. It’s a region rarely seen in Brazilian cinema which tends to focus more on urban wildernesses, with an occasional detour into Amazonian rain forests. There are plenty of interesting stories to be had in the sertão as well.

In this bone-dry dusty environment lies the small village of Bacurau. Taking place a few years from now, the town has recently been squabbling with local authorities which have dammed up their water supply, forcing them to have water delivered in tanker trucks. It is in one of these that Teresa (Colen) rides into town for her grandmother’s funeral.

At the funeral, the town doctor Domingas (Braga) goes on a drunken rant berating Teresa’s grandma, but like many of the townspeople she’s on edge; in addition to water being cut off, their cell service has ceased. Soon, they also notice that the town can no longer be found on GPS maps. Then, there are sightings of mysterious UFOs and an entire family turns up massacred. Strange visitors show up from the city to go dirt biking in the wilderness. And who are those strangers in the hunting lodge outside of town?

Things are about to get ugly in Bacurau, and they call on outlaw Lunga (Pereira) to help defend the town. The strangers, white tourists from America and the UK, are planning on hunting the most dangerous game and Bacurau – sold out by their mayor Tony Junior (Lima) who despises the town anyway – is their game preserve.

The look and feel of the film owe a lot to John Carpenter and more to the point, Sergio Leone. You could well call this Once Upon a Time in Brazil. Although the score is more electronic in nature, you can almost hear the strains of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack.

This is a glorious mash-up of a variety of styles and there is a charmingly offbeat feel to the movie. Bacurau is full of real characters but none really so off-kilter as to undermine the film. This is definitely an ensemble piece because although they seem to be setting up Teresa as the central character, she isn’t really the lead. Equal time is given to reformed outlaw Pacote (Aquino), Lunga, Domingas and a few others. It does take a little while to get going but once it does, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

Ostensibly set “a few years from now,” the movie is very much an allegory on modern Brazil and definitely a hate letter to ruler Jair Bolsonaro and as much so for foreign corporate interests who come in, utilize the country’s vast natural resources and leave nothing for those who live there.

But this isn’t just social commentary. This is also satisfyingly entertaining, even at times, zany. You can’t help but root for the citizens of Bacurau just as you can’t help but enjoy this fun – with a message – flick.

PLEASE NOTE: This film will be available on Enzian On-Demand starting today. A portion of the online streaming rental will go to the Enzian. Members should definitely take advantage of this; see a great film at home and benefit our beloved Enzian. Go to this page for more information on EOD, or here to stream the film and benefit the Enzian.

REASONS TO SEE: Off-beat in a good way. Has a charmingly retro feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The collected works of Sergio Leone.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Irish Story: This is My Home

BrightBurn


With eyes all aglow.

(2019) Superhero Horror (Screen Gems) Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Steve Blackehart, Mike Dunston, Annie Humphrey. Directed by David Yarovesky

 

Superman was very much a product of his times, an alien baby adopted by human parents when his spaceship crashed to Earth. Possessed of nearly godlike powers, he uses those powers for good and upholding truth, justice and the American way. Even in the midst of a Depression, that seemed very plausible to most Americans, particularly in the Heartland where the Superman saga was initially set.

Nowadays, we see things differently. Take the same storyline – with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman taking the roles of Ma and Pa Kent – and even essentially the same location (Kansas) and set in in 2019 and what you have is not an inspiration but sheer terror. This kid is no way going to use his powers for good but instead to tear this country into pieces – small ones.

=It’s a nifty concept although there have been other dark superhero stories before, even horror tinged ones but almost all of them have been on the printed page. There are plenty of nods to the Superman mythos, from the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Dunn), the superhero to the red, yellow and blue color scheme that Brandon often wears to the superpowers themselves. At times it gets heavy handed.

The movie was produced by James Gunn who has been a frequent critic of the President and the movie, written by one of his brothers and a cousin, makes some political allusions that are hard to ignore, although some are a bit more tenuous than others. Certainly, those who are sensitive to such things will notice.

Banks actually does a terrific job as a cross between the aforementioned Ma Kent and Laurie Strode. She captures a mother’s undying need to believe in the best of her child even as her husband exclaims “He’s not our child! We found him in the woods!” which is accurate enough but misses the point completely, just like a man as I can hear many women thinking. Most of the rest of the cast is solid.

The ending is anti-climactic which isn’t surprising because the writers pretty much paint themselves into a corner which leads to predictability. I had high hopes for this one because of Gunn’s involvement but this doesn’t live up to the standards of most of his other films. It isn’t a bad movie but it’s disappointing given its pedigree.

REASONS TO SEE: Dunn is sufficiently creepy in this anti-Superman story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nice concept but a bit too heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some grisly images, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school scenes were shot in the same now-closed high school in Georgia where the middle and high school scenes were shot for the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superman: The Movie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Hunting Season (Temporada de Caza)


Father and son don’t exactly see eye to eye.

(2017) Drama (Rei Cine) Germán Palacios, Lautaro Bettoni, Boy Olmi, Rita Pauls, Pilar Benitez Vivart. Directed by Natalia Garagiola

The dynamic between a father and a son is never an easy thing. Men, like myself, are great big beasts, growling and sniffing out our rivals – even our own progeny. We circle each other in an endless game of alpha male, doing damage along the way for sure but also from time to time getting through to our sons when they need us most.

Nahuel (Bettoni) is a hot-headed teen; a star on his exclusive Buenos Aires prep school rugby squad, he is angry and bitter and lashing out in the wake of his mother’s death. One of these incidents gets him expelled from the school. His kind-hearted stepdad Bautista (Olmi) suggests that Nahuel spend some time with his biological father in Patagonia. Ernesto (Palacios) works as a game ranger in a state park, also taking in extra cash as a guide to hunting parties. He is considered one of the best in the region for these.

Nahuel isn’t all that keen on heading into what is the equivalent of going to West Virginia after living in Manhattan, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. His mood is further befouled when his father is three hours late picking him up at the airport. By the time he gets to the modest home where Ernesto lives with his much younger second wife (Pauls) and their three daughters, he is about done with any idea of making nice.

He spends most of his time being sullen, sleeping and refusing to do anything he’s asked to do – in short, being a typical teenage boy. But as Ernesto begins to let his guard down and try to understand his own flesh and blood, Nahuel gradually begins to thaw. Nahuel isn’t becoming the man his biological dad wants him to be and Ernesto certainly isn’t the father his son wants him to be but maybe – just maybe – there’s room for both to accept the other as they are.

This isn’t the first film to suggest that the best means for a father-son reconciliation is a trip into the wilderness but the cinematography by Fernando Lockett does make the idea plausible. The background is a stark Patagonian winter and there is much beauty in snow-covered meadows, trees sparkling with icicles and misty mountains rearing their formidable vistas in the background.

Veteran Argentine actor Palacios is perfect for Ernesto; a man who has lived by a certain set of rules all his life only to see his one and only son living by a different set of rules. Palacios plays Ernesto with a hint of sadness as the presence of Nahuel forces Ernesto to take stock on all the really major errors of his life. Palacios can do world-weary like just about nobody else and he has enough screen presence to make his character way more interesting than it has any right to be.

The rock star handsome Bettoni is handed a character that nobody is going to like for about the first two thirds of the film. Nahuel is spoiled, selfish, angry, a bit of a bully and cruel to boot but even he can be redeemed. American audiences may not necessarily want him to be but I suppose within every bad kid is a good kid screaming to be let out, or at least so I’m told.

The dynamic between Bettoni and Palacios is the centerpiece of the film and the two actors do a great job portraying a love-hate (emphasis on the latter at first) relationship between the two men. While there are characters orbiting the two leads who take at least some of the burden off of the two of them, Ernesto and Nahuel dominate the screen time and the movie lives or dies based on how believable their relationship is. Spoiler alert: the movie doesn’t die.

The plot and denouement are pretty much predictable for any veteran film buff so be aware that you’re not likely to be surprised by any of this. However, Garagiola does a good job of making the familiar road an interesting ride and not every director is able to do that. This was one of the highlights of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Palacios has a good deal of screen presence. The cinematography is extraordinary.
REASONS TO STAY: It pretty much goes the way you think it will.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find profanity, violence and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palacios wears a Bass Pro Shops ball cap throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
10 Billion: What’s On Your Plate?

Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point