The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

Women


In the clutches of a predator.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) Anna Maiche, Anna Marie Dobbins, Adam Dorsey, Michael Simon Hall, Cindy Hogan, Christian I. Noble, Erinn Jones, Christi Cawley, Susanna Matza, Kylie Deire, Kristin Samuelson, David E. McMahon, Victor Rivera, Isaak Wells, Heather Fusari, Denise Gossett, Anthony del Negro, Shea Stewart. Edward Hubay, Ebony Mason, Kelly Schwartz. Directed by Anton Sigurdsson

 

The line between depicting the exploitation of women and actually exploiting them is razor-thin. It is hard to depict torture and sexual assault without crossing that line; good intentions aside, it can get you into trouble in an era where rape culture is being called out for what it is throughout our society.

Detective Hawk (Dorsey) is working a case of a grisly find; a desiccated corpse of a woman is found in the trunk of a car in a junkyard in a small Florida town. As he works the case, he discovers that the woman had gone to the local college where another co-ed, Jennifer (Dobbins) had disappeared some months past. In fact, as Hawk looks into it, there are several beautiful young girls who have passed away. Their relatives all received postcards that basically said “I’m fine. Don’t look for me,” and all took the sociology class of Professor Bradley Gilmore (Hall).

To cap things off, another co-ed – Haley (Maiche) has turned up missing as well. Hawk has some personal demons of his own – his mother is a heroin addict, as was his sister who had similarly vanished and then turned up dead. However, he hasn’t told his mother that his sister has passed on; her emotional state is such that it might just send her over the edge.

Hawk knows that Gilmore has the girls. He has rape accusations in his past, but the charges were dropped – his wealthy family paid off the victims. In the meantime, Professor Bradley is using rape and torture to mold Haley into the perfect wife. Jennifer, who has survived by essentially capitulating to his warped demands, advises her to play along if she wants to live, but Hailey knows she can’t live like this – she plans to escape, although Jennifer implores her not to try. Can Detective Hawk find the girls in time, or can they find a way to escape? If not, the girls will surely die.

Icelandic director Sigurdsson has a difficult task; to make a movie in which women are systematically tortured, humiliated and sexually abused without being exploitive. I’ll be honest with you; I think in some ways, he did succeed and in others, he did not. For example, there’s no overt nudity and most of the sexual assaults take place off-camera. On the other hand, the women in the film are largely shown in victim roles, whether victims of a sexual predator or of drug abuse. While Hailey is at least a strong female character and Jennifer is in her own way, both are largely helpless in their situation.

Sigurdsson also wrote the screenplay and he doesn’t devote much thought to character development. Only Hawk gets any sort of background at all, and Sigurdsson didn’t even give him a first name – Tony, perhaps? – which is not a good idea because in a movie like this, you need your audience to relate to the characters in it and quite frankly, we’re not given enough background for any of them to really develop any sort of simpatico with any of them. The closest one to it is Detective Hawk, and Adam Dorsey’s performance isn’t bad given the circumstances, but he isn’t given a lot of help.

Sigurdsson does have a good feel for tone and while the movie is a slow builder, it does find its footing late in the movie and the final twenty minutes are pretty good. To get there, though, you have to wade through about an hour that is slower than your last period class on the last day of school, or the last hour of work on a Friday before a holiday weekend. One reviewer I read called this misogynistic garbage, and I can understand where she’s coming from, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous to ascribe motivations to someone you have never met and don’t know. Looing as objectively as I can at the final product, I can say there are elements that could be construed as misogyny here, but that doesn’t make this a misogynistic. I agree, the film is quite underwhelming, and I don’t think that it adds anything new to the kidnapping subgenre but it isn’t completely devoid of value either.

REASONS TO SEE: Does get the tension level up nicely late in the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-building – perhaps too much so.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references, sexual content, profanity, rape and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some scenes were filmed at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with students there appearing as extras in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collector
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow’s Hope

Goodbye Honey


Dawn just keeps on truckin’.

(2020) Thriller (Freestyle) Pamela Jayne Morgan, Juliette Alice Gobin, Paul C. Kelly, Jake Laurence, Peyton Michelle Edwards, Rafe Soule, Aaron Mitchell, Stacey van Gorder, Keara Benton, J Bones. Directed by Max Strand

 

Truckers are unsung American heroes. They are sometimes portrayed as not too bright, or hellraisers, or rednecks (which some would see as a badge of honor), or corrupt (particularly when discussing the Teamsters Union of the Jimmy Hoffa era) and while there are instances of those things that have occurred and continue to occur. What is rarely discussed is the sacrifices that long-haul truckers make, moving goods and sometimes, our lives, across the country getting little sleep and being away from their families for extended periods. During the pandemic, they continued to work and a good many of them were rewarded with doses of COVID.

Dawn Miller (Morgan) is one such trucker and she owns her own company, Nate’s Haul and Go, named for her late husband who founded the company. After his recent passing, she took over his seat in the cab, and this night she is moving the belongings of one Cass Rodick (Kelly) who is one of those clients who has a tendency to micromanage. It is late at night and she can barely keep her eyes open, so she pulls off the road into the parking lot of a state park to get a few hours of shut-eye before finishing the job.

But her plans for a nap are interrupted by an insistent banging on the door to her cab. A pretty young woman, who introduces herself as Phoebe (Gobin), at first requests some water which Dawn is happy to share. Then, a request to use the phone to call the cops. You see, Phoebe has just escaped from being abducted and has spent the last four months in a guy’s basement. Just then, Dawn’s client calls and has a million bazillion questions, with Phoebe getting more nervous by the second. What if her captor comes along while Dawn is on the phone answering questions from this guy? She reaches for the phone and as you would expect, bad things happen. The phone falls and becomes an expensive paperweight. Although Dawn is a little skeptical about Phoebe’s far-fetched tale, she agrees to drive Phoebe to the nearest town to find a police station, but there’s just one problem – Dawn can’t find the keys to the ignition.

Strand shows a marvelous touch for thrillers, keeping the suspense at a high level throughout. He’s aided by the (necessarily) underlit cinematography that creates all sorts of shadows, perfect for those who would do these women harm to hide in. He is also aided by an electronic musical score (unfortunately uncredited) that is very reminiscent of the 70s work by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It gives the viewer a feeling of unease.

Also worth noting is the performances of the two leading ladies, particularly Morgan who gives Dawn a kind of rough-around-the-edges personality. Her suspicious nature may be hard for some to identify with, but then as the movie goes on it is revealed that she has good reason to be the way she is, and while the revelations aren’t mind-bending in any way, they do justify some of the action although not all of it.

And there’s the rub. Some of the writing here is not very good, to put it bluntly. There’s a whole section in which a couple of young men, looking to do some drugs in the park, decide to humiliate and torture Dawn in exchange for the use of their cell phone. The scene doesn’t play at all well, and Dawn, who comes off in every way as a strong, no-bullshit kind of gal during the rest of the film, gives in way too easily to the degrading requests of the boys. That part of the film feels like titillation for its own sake, an just a hair misogynistic.

That tone is at odds with the rest of the movie, in which Morgan comes off as a capable, strong woman who makes a wonderful lead character. It also calls forth the sad truth that few middle-aged women get roles like this; when they do, they are generally in supporting or even cameo roles. We need more movies with characters like Dawn in the forefront. It would have been nice if she could have been allowed to show that strength of character throughout.

REASONS TO SEE: The suspense level is kept at a nice boiling point.
REASONS TO AVOID: The storytelling can get muddled from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in plentitude here as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strand previously directed a couple of short films. This marks his feature-length debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snatched
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
State Funeral

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

The Oak Room


Not the guy you want to see come into your bar after closing.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell, Adam Seybold. Directed by Cody Calahan

 

You’ve heard it before. A guy walks into a bar at closing time (or shortly thereafter) with a story to tell. It’s a dark and stormy night and the snow is falling, and the rest of the world is asleep, but those in the bar are very much awake.

Bartender Paul (Outerbridge) is closing up when a masked, hooded figure walks in – not something you want in the middle of a dark and stormy night. After nearly clobbering said figure with a baseball bat, the stranger removes his mask to reveal that he is Steve (Mitte), also someone Paul in particular is not happy to see. See, Paul was buddies with Steve’s Dad Gordon (N. Campbell) – everyone’s dad is named Gordon in Canada – and Steve had left town to go to college, flunked out and promptly disappeared. He hadn’t even come home for Dad’s funeral, so Paul was left to foot the bill. He still has Gordon’s ashes in a tackle box, waiting for Steve. Steve owes Paul, that’s for sure – but Steve wants to repay Paul with a story.

Steve’s not a particularly good storyteller – he tells Paul the ending of the story first, and is eager to tell him the beginning, but Paul isn’t interested. Paul has a story of his own to tell. And so the two men swap stories in the cold, wintery night, and there is something darker taking place in the bar than a winter storm could account for.

There’s a feeling of noir to the film, and that’s a good thing. The movie owes its gestation to a stage play, and there is definitely a stagey feel to the single set production which takes place in two separate bars, including the titularly named Oak Room – which isn’t the bar that Steve and Paul are sitting in. There isn’t a ton of action – how could there be when you’re talking about two guys telling stories, and those stories include stories about guys telling stories – and there’s a ton of dialogue, nor is the dialogue particularly snappy. What the film IS successful at is keeping the viewer’s interest and keeping the tension building, and there’s something to be said for that.

The themes of father-son relationships and their breakdowns, mistaken identities (as a metaphor, or at least that’s what I figured), and the place of stories in modern culture are all well-taken and require a little bit of thought from the viewer. Even so, this is the kind of movie you can sit back and watch on a cold, dark night if you’re looking for a certain type of atmosphere and not necessarily have to think too hard. How much effort you put into the movie won’t necessarily determine your enjoyment of it, which is a rare feat in moviemaking. I don’t always see it in the movies I review, but I try to applaud it when I do see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Your interest is piqued throughout. Has noir-ish elements with a Northern edge.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit stage-y and may be a bit too dialogue-heavy for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drinking and violence – some of it graphic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No women appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch .44
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
My Wonderful Wanda

Dead Air (2021)


Breaker! Breaker!

(2021) Thriller (FreestyleKevin Hicks, Vickie Hicks, Chris Xavier, Luca Iacovetti, Madison Skodzinsky, Mackenzie Skodzinsky, Ryan C. Mitchell, Mark Skodzinsky.  Directed by Kevin Hicks

 

What happens to the voices that go out over the airwaves? Do they just fade and dissipate into the ether, or do they carry forever, bouncing around the cosmos, giving a kind of immortality to those who have used HAM radios or broadcast radios? Makes you think.

William (K. Hicks) has known his share of tragedy. His father (Mitchell) died when he was young; his wife passed away from leukemia not long ago, leaving him with two teen daughters (the Skodzinsky sisters) to raise by himself. His mother has also recently passed, and left him a pile of boxes of old junk to sift through. In one box, he finds his dad’s old HAM radio apparatus. On a whim, he decides to give it a whirl.

To his surprise, he makes contact with Eva (V. Hicks), a lonely woman with a touch of paranoia and more than a touch of agoraphobia. She lives in what appears to be a bunker-like basement, and spends most of her day chatting on the radio. The two strike up a friendship despite some wariness on Eva’s part brought on by William’s cheerful curiosity.

But William has some issues of his own, mostly dealing with some traumatic repressed memories. He’s seeing a psychiatrist (Xavier) who is pushing for hypnotherapy which William is resistant to. But as he finds opening up to Eva is emboldening him, he agrees to be hypnotized and what he discovers about his past, and it’s connection to Eva, will change his life forever.

This microbudget indie thriller is billed as a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some supernatural elements, yes, but nothing really scary as such. Vickie Hicks wrote this and Kevin directed it; both elected to star in it, giving it a kind of home movie “let’s put on a show!” vibe, but their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the screen. The acting is largely stiff and low-energy and the dialogue doesn’t help matters.

Thrillers almost demand twists and there are a few here, but by and large they’re fairly predictable, particularly if you’ve seen the trailer which I don’t recommend that you do if you’re going to watch this; the experience will be much better if you go in without any idea of what’s going on. While Kevin Hicks does a pretty decent job of building up suspense, he loses marks because much of the movie’s payoff is telegraphed in advance. This is the kind of movie that you watch once, and forget quickly.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of establishing a suspenseful aura.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting and dialogue are both subpar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frequency
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Happy Times

Take Me to Tarzana


Making plans over a single generic beer; now THAT’S living the high life!

(2021) Comedy (GravitasJonathan Bennett, Maria Conchita Alonso, Samantha Robinson, Oliver Cooper, Kahyun Kim, Andrew Creer, Owen Harn, Kent Shocknek, Chris Coppola, Kimberly Joy McBride, Betsy Hume, Bob Wiltfong, Henry Brooke, Desiree Staples, Emanuel Hernandez, Denny Nolan, Andrew J. Rice, Ivan Ehlers, Kevin Dembinsky, Elle Vernee.  Directed by Maceo Greenberg

 

These days, big corporations and in particular, Big Tech make big targets. So do creepy, misogynist bosses. We all know that everyone hates all of those things. Well, ALMOST everyone.

Miles (Creer) works at Teleplex, a data mining company. It’s a far from ideal working environment, with a boss (Cooper) who is as abusive as they come and with unreasonable expectations. People are worked like the wage slaves they are and Miles can barely afford to live in the apartment he rents, despite having what most woud consider a stable job.

His cubicle is next to Jane (Robinson), one of those incredibly beautiful girls who always seem to be absolutely unobtainable. She has crosses to bear of her own; that same boss, Charles, consistently demeans her and she seems to have to work twice as hard as the men to earn any sort of respect.

But things are a lot worse than Mies thought they were; in fact, Charles has hidden cameras all over the building including under Jane’s desk and in the women’s bathroom, the better to perve on all the gals in the office. When he brings this to Jane’s attention, rather than go to the police or even to HR, she wants to get back at Charles in a more meaningful way. They enlist Miles’ party animal friend Jameson (Bennett) to help dig up the real goods on the company but when they get the dirt on Charles, they discover that the hidden cameras are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as workplace comedies go, the top of the pyramid is the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space with which this film shares some thematic elements in common. I think, however, that Greenberg is loathe to have his own film compared to that classic comedy; for one thing, he shifts tones about two thirds of the way through the film in what can only be described as a jarring and unexpected manner. From that point, the movie falls off the rails in a big way.

That’s a shame, because up to that point it’s pretty enjoyable. I might have wished for edgier comedy, but the leads of Robinson and Creer are pretty nifty. Both are very likable and although Miles is a bit on the wishy washy side, Jane is a strong, powerful woman whom you wouldn’t want to cross. The character of Jameson, though, seemed to be somewhat unnecessary to me; he’s meant to provide comic relief but his Spicoli-like antics really don’t do anything to make the film better.

All in all the movie is mostly likable but that shift from workplace comedy to faux thriller really dooms it. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of giving this a try from your local streaming service for a weekend pizza and movie night on a cod winter evening, but then again I think you could probably do better as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Creer and Robinson have much potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor needs more edge.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Office Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Judas and the Black Messiah

X


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts Clawing at Straws (Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul)


She drives all night.

(2020) Thriller (ArtsploitationDo-yeon Jeon, Woo-sung Jung, Sung-Woo Bae, Man-sik Jeong, Jin Kyung, Shin Hyon Bin, Ga-ram Jung, Jun-han Kim, Yuh Jung Youn. Directed by Yong-hoon Kim

 

South Korea has been quietly, without fanfare, turning into a world class film capitol. It’s no accident that the most recent Best Picture came from South Korea; the movies there have been getting better and better in quality over the past 15 years, and now can proudly be put up there with any on the planet.

This ensemble noir black comedy/drama/thriller starts off with a Louis Vuitton bag left in a sauna locker. The very put-upon attendant at the gym, Jung-Man (Bae) discovering that the bag is full of cash. Enough to make a lot of problems go away, and brother, does Jung-Man have problems. His mother is convinced that Jung-Man’s wife is trying to kill her, but only if her son’s fecklessness doesn’t kill her first; she’s convinced her flesh and blood can do nothing right. The kind of money that’s in the bag can get the bitter old woman into a facility for bitter old women and Jung-Man and his wife into a nicer home.

But how did that bag get there in the first place? Oh, that’s explained in a flashback as Tae-Young (W-s Jung), a customs inspector with the moral compass that always points at his own best interests, has fallen deeply into debt to mobster Du Man (Jeong). You see, Tae’s girlfriend, brothel owner Yeon-Hee (Jeon) ran out on her debt to Du Man after Tae-Young vouched for her, meaning that now he owes her debt. He must come up with the money quickly, and so he comes up with a scheme to defraud a sucker, whose girlfriend, Mi Ran (Bin) works in the brothel of Yeon-Hee. The sucker also beats her regularly, so she enlists a Chinese client to kill the boyfriend and make it look like an accident. There is also a greasy cop who is sure that something unsavory is going on, and there’s also a serial killer on the loose. Got all that so far?

It sounds like a mess and I’ll admit that early on, it’s a bit difficult to follow. You need to be on your toes and paying attention, but I promise you, it is truly worth it. The ending brings all these separate stories together and as things slowly begin to untangle, your first instinct will be “How did I not SEE that coming” before sinking into a satisfied smirk that you’ve lucked into watching one of the better crime movies in recent memory.

The ensemble cast is really good – there’s not a false note in any performance that I could see. The movie is so well-scripted and so perfectly plotted that even though you may sometimes have some doubts that the filmmakers can tie all this together, they do. That they do with as much style and humor as they do is a tribute to their filmmaking skills; I’d put this on the level of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, two filmmakers who have clearly influenced Yong-hoon Kim a great deal.

If you like movies that keep you guessing, if you like movies that have endings that give you faith that it is still possible to create great movies, if you like movies that you like better the more you think about it after seeing it, and if you don’t mind slowly building to that point, this is a movie you need to see. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service; this one’s a keeper.

REASONS TO SEE: An intricate plot that keeps you guessing. The ending is jaw-dropping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slog at times (but worth it in the end).
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on a novel by Japanese writer Keisuke Sone.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Rakuten Viki
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knives Out
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recon

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