Rondo


See no evil.

(2018) Sex Thriller (Artsploitation) Brenna Otts, Luke Sorge, Jazz Copeland, Gena Shaw, Reggie De Morton, Michael Vasicek, G. C. Clark, Kevin Sean Ryan, Iva Nora, Meagan Kiefel, Steve Van Beckum (narrator), Joseph M. Veals, Ashley Gagnon. Directed by Drew Barnhardt

 

Not many who are reading this will remember the golden era of grindhouse films. Those were the days when movies that were full of graphic violence, plenty of (female) nudity and lots of sex. But the 70s came and went and gradually those types of films fell out of favor. However, they influenced dozens of modern directors, not the least of whom are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Rondo director Drew Barnhardt is evidently another one so influenced. His latest would feel right at home in Times Square circa 1977. It’s got elements of slasher films, black comedies, psychological thrillers, a revenge epic and even grindhouse porn.

Paul (Sorge) is recently returned from Afghanistan and like many veterans, has returned with a case of severe PTSD. To cope, he has turned to self-medicating with alcohol. He’s hit rock bottom, losing his job and his apartment. Reduced to sleeping on his sister Jill’s (Otts) couch, she finally confronts him after catching him drinking – and sends him to a therapist named Cassie Wright (Shaw) whom she recently met.

With nothing left to lose, he heads to Cassie’s office where she basically tells him that the key to beating his addictions is simply to get laid. She gives him an address to go to for a kinky party, and the password for entry: Rondo. After some soul searching, he decides to go. There he enters a miasma of sex and murder, one that will drag his sister and father (Vasicek) into the middle of.

Like many grindhouse films of that era, Rondo doesn’t have much of a budget. The effects are practical albeit some occasionally over the top – whoever planted the squibs for the final confrontation had a field day. Therefore, a film like this has to rely on a decent plot – which it has. It also has to rely on decent performances and there we get a little bit dicey as the acting tends to be stiff, perhaps by design. It also has to rely on graphic sex and violence – and the film gets full marks for that. Barnhardt is obviously not afraid to push the envelope on that score.

The dialogue is fairly noir and has a few gems in it, such as “If you’re gonna live in the swamp, you’d better make friends with the gators.” There is voiceover narration which is done in kind of a “tough guy” noir tone. Unfortunately, the tone is a bit off; the voiceover narration in the cult TV show Pushing Daisies utilizes a stuffy British tone and it works as comedy, but the narration here ends up being annoying and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but it’s inconsistent; at times during the movie every little event is commented on but then long stretches go by without any narration.

The soundtrack is pretty nifty, retaining elements of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and working really well in enhancing the action. Speaking of action, the denouement featuring a beautiful woman in bra and panties wielding a machine gun which has to be the wet dream of an NRA card carrier, and works as black comedy here. In fact, there are sly comic overtones throughout although sometimes you kind of have to look for them.

Fans of exploitation films will get a kick out of this one. Fans of the directors who utilize those influences in their work may also find this entertaining. However, if you find those sorts of films distasteful, this really isn’t the movie for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Catchy dialogue and nifty score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the performances were on the wooden side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, graphic violence, gore, graphic nudity, graphic sex – pretty much graphic everything.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film was shot in the Washington Park and LoDo districts in Denver.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Apostle

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Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

Veteran (Beterang)


Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

(2015) Cop Action Comedy (CJ EntertainmentJeong-min Hwang, Ah In Yoo, Hae-jin Yoo, Dai-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong, Woong-in Jeong, Yoon-ju Jang, Shi-hoo Kim, Kyung Jin, In-yeong Yu, Kil-kang Ahn, Ho-jin Chun, Zoltán Durkó, Eung-soo Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Su-dam Park, Jake Patchett, Young-chang Song. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo

Being a cop means understanding the difference between justice and closure. One doesn’t necessarily ensure the other. Sometimes you don’t get either. It’s very rare that you get both.

Detective Do-cheol Seo (Hwang) is a bit cocky and something of a hot shot. Bad guys rarely make it to the station without a few bumps, bruises or broken bones when he arrests them. Because he is so good at taking down Seoul’s more violent element, his superiors tend to look the other way, even after breaking up a violent car thief ring, infiltrating them with the help of trucker Bae (W.I. Jeong) who brings his little boy along, mainly because he can’t afford to have anyone watch him while his wife and he work. Bae and Seo develop a friendship during the long truck ride.

Celebrating his success that night, Detective Seo runs into Tae-oh Jo (A.I. Yoo), the son of a billionaire industrialist and a high-ranking executive in his company.  Seo immediately knows that the spoiled Jo is bad news, sadistic and arrogant. Seo senses that Jo is going to be trouble but he can’t really arrest him for his suspicions.

Shortly after that Seo’s friend attempts suicide by jumping off the office building owned by Jo’s company. Seo smells a rat and despite the smooth denials by Jo’s assistant and fellow executive Sang-Moo Choi (H.J. Yoo) who is the serpent to Jo’s shark. Seo decides to investigate the suspicious “suicide” attempt. However the company has influential friends in high places and Seo finds himself frustrated at every turn, sometimes by cops directly on the take.

In the meantime Jo is getting more and more reckless and doing more and more cocaine. Through smooth Choi he attempts to bribe Seo’s wife who turns it down flat and berates her husband for putting her into that position. In the meantime, Jo begins to get sloppy and make mistakes and is obliged to leave the country but not before throwing himself one last big blowout party but that quickly disintegrates and leads to a bloody confrontation between Jo and Seo.

There’s enough humor here to warrant calling it a comedy although the synopsis is more that of a hard bitten police procedural. The humor may be a little over-the-top for American audiences who tend to prefer their over-the-top humor to be more profane. One of the running jokes is the petite police woman (Jang) who kicks everybody’s ass.

This was a major hit in Asia this past summer and is just now making the rounds at a select few film festivals and will likely be hitting more film festivals in the spring. I hope so; this is one of those movies that is absolutely entertaining. There’s plenty of well-choreographed action – and Hwang turns out to be an extremely skilled martial artist.

But as good as Hwang is, Hae-jin Yoo is even better. A matinee idol in Korea, he plays the psychotic villain here and the baby-faced actor is absolutely perfect, delivering one of the best villainous performances of the year. He can be charming and charismatic but out of left field he’ll do something despicable and sadistic, forcing Bae to get into a Fight Club-style brawl in his office – in front of his own son, who sobs while his father is pummeled into a bloody pulp by his manager.

The story isn’t anything to write home about; the commentaries on corporate culture in Korea probably are going to fly right over the head of the average American audience, and we have seen plenty of lone cop fighting insurmountable corruption movies from both sides of the Pacific. Still, this one is so much better than most, with terrific performances, really good action sequences and some genuinely funny moments. This ain’t art but it’s pure entertainment, which is an art in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Kinetic action sequences. One of the nastiest villains ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor might be a bit broad for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some profanity and drug use as well as a hint of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite only having been released this past August in South Korea, the movie has already become one of the top ten all-time box office champs in that country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!