Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

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Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception

The Midnight Matinee


The filmmakers of Midnight Matinee are appealing to a potential audience one viewer at a time.

(2017) Horror Anthology (IP Productions) Maggie Tehan, Justin Doesch, Juan-Pablo Veizaga, Shaun Woodland, Ian Flanders, Melissa Merry, Aggie Binkley, Maggie Binkley, Becky Edwards, Jimmy Edwards, Sophie Edwards, Jennifer McCormick, Santiago Veizaga. Directed by Justin Doesch

 

I’m a bit of a sucker for horror anthologies. I always go into them hoping I’ll get that rare and magical experience – when all the stories within the anthology are terrific. It hasn’t happened yet but I still keep hoping.

Justin Doesch, the man behind the camera for this anthology, is a name you should remember. He’s definitely got a ton of potential and a boatload of vision. He’s delivered five pretty solid stories in an amazing 42 minutes – an average of about eight minutes per segment. I have nothing against short, taut storytelling but my main complaint here is that some of the segments could have used some fleshing out; there was an unfinished feeling to some of them as if key scenes hadn’t made it into the final product.

The opening segment, “Open Sea,” is one of those. It is a bit of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Open Water. Brian (Doesch) is taking his girlfriend Lauren (Tehan) out on his boat on the ocean for some scuba diving but with a specific purpose; he means to propose to her. Unfortunately, man proposes and sometimes, the ocean disposes. The Blair Witch aspect is that Brian intends to document the big day but he ends up documenting something else. It actually is a pretty decent segment but it felt rushed in terms of pacing and the payoff, one of the better effects shots of the film, could have used a bit more build-up.

“Let Go” is the weakest of the five. It’s modern dating with a twist. Let’s just say that if you think you’ve got problem with the dating scene, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Unfortunately, I found my attention wandering during this one although it does have a pretty decent twist. “Premonition” also utilizes found footage but in a totally unique and different way. A little girl who is prescient tries to warn someone against a life or death situation…but being psychic doesn’t mean you get to save people. Timing, as they say, is everything.

The next sequence was my favorite and happened to be the only non-horror segment of the bunch. “Frances” concerns Nikolai (Flanders), a kind of a low-level criminal screw-up who’s got one job – to pass along a package to Frances (Merry), a blind courier for a criminal boss. Simple enough – but Nikolai is the kind of guy who could mess up boiling an egg. You’re expecting some horrific twist so when the twist comes it comes out of left field. Who said that a horror anthology has to be all horror?

Finally, “Night Night” brings the film to a close about an exhausted father (J-P Veizaga) who is pestered by a son (S. Veizaga) who simply won’t go to bed – he’s certain that there is something terrible after him. This was the scariest sequence of the five and ends the movie on a nice note, or not-so-nice depending how you look at it. For my money, it is one of the better directed segments of the five.

There isn’t a ton of bloodshed and the special effects are minimal. It’s clear that Doesch had a minuscule budget and at times it shows on screen; for example, the “Premonition” set looks like a set rather than a lived-in home. That kind of thing can take the viewer out of the film. Still, if you can get past the low-budget production values, there is some entertainment to be had here, particularly the final two sequences although seeing Tehan in a bikini is certainly worth a look.

Doesch has an excellent eye and despite all the limitations that a micro-budget puts on a filmmaker he shows here that he has the talent and the imagination to really turn some heads. As it is, I think he has enormous promise and even if this almost has a work in progress feel to it, at least the investment of your time isn’t galling. 42 minutes for an early look at a director who has every sign of going places isn’t too much to ask.

REASONS TO GO: Doesch has a fine eye for camera angles and scene composition.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the shorts could have used some fleshing out. Some of the low budget shows in places. Other than the final segment, I didn’t find any of the shorts excessively scary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images and situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doesch was the 2017 recipient of the Amazon Filmmaker of the Year award.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: VHS
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Double Life

BnB HELL


I know why the caged girl screams.

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kimberly Woods, Rudy Dobrev, Carol Stanzione, Timothy Lee DePriest, Victor Turpin, John Stevenson, Olivia Rush, Jessica Graham, Shayla Famouri, Tallie L. Brinson, Mark Halau, Stefanie Maxwell. Directed by Andrew Jordan

 

There’s something about staying in a hotel, motel or bed and breakfast that is appealing. Staying in a room that is clean and fresh in a place we’re unfamiliar with appeals to the adventurous side. Some hotels should be checked out of more quickly than others. Other places to stay shouldn’t be checked into at all.

Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway is one such place. Run by a rather curmudgeonly matron who insists that everyone call her Momma (Stanzione), her bed and breakfast promises spectacular views of the Hollywood Hills (and delivers on them) although the rundown, ramshackle inn has seen better days. The interior design leaves a bit to be desired as well, coming with decor that one can only call eclectic – apparently Momma has a thing for wizards. She also has a thing for disappearing guests.

One of them is the twin sister of Willa (Woods) who is investigating her sister’s disappearance. Her last known residence was Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway, although Momma claims not to remember the young girl despite the fact she’d only checked in a month ago and let’s face it, the bed and breakfast isn’t exactly teeming with throngs of guests. In fact, the only other one currently in the BnB is Marco (Dobrev), a student waiting for school to start so he can check into the dormitory he’s slated for. Although the two don’t hit it off right away, they quickly become fast friends.

Other than wizard figurines, the rooms come equipped with video cameras that guests can record positive reviews of the BnB so that Momma can post them as online advertisements. So far her plan hasn’t worked exactly well but it does give Willa a means of finding out whether or not her twin sister positively stayed there and maybe a clue as to what happened to her. Something strange is going on at Momma’s Hollywood Hideaway and it isn’t all about the creepy neighbor (Halau).

I think we’ve seen this movie before. Videotapes of previous guests who have come to grisly ends? Been there. A proprietor who is rude and distrustful? Done that. A creepy red herring? Got the t-shirt. Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of originality here in terms of plot and character. I will say that Willa and Marco seem to be more sensible than most horror film heroes so there is that going for it. However, that’s not enough to overcome a pedestrian script which occasionally seems to be flailing around in the dark, quite literally sometimes.

Woods actually makes a pretty decent scream queen. She is tough, single-minded and pretty – she has all the ingredients to make the fan-boy heart beat faster. Dobrev is also an attractive hero/hunk and he works well together with Woods here. The rest of the cast does as well as they can do considering that many of them are pretty much stock horror film characters.

The most cardinal sin that Jordan commits as director, however, is the lack of suspense. Movies like this live and die on the tension they build and there really isn’t very much. I found my attention wandering at various times of the movie which is not a very good sign. Most people who are likely to rent or buy this will know the difference early on between the red herrings and the usual suspects. Guessing who the true killer is won’t take long for most.

There are some supernatural overtones to the film but they are never fully explored and it feels almost like the script was rewritten during shooting to tone them down. I get the sense that the supernatural elements are meant to be misdirection but they kind of peter out. I would have liked to see it explored a little more; it could have made the final film more interesting.

At first I characterized this as a horror film but I eventually changed my mind. The film is light on gore and nudity and while there are women in peril (and one in bra and panties in a kennel) the average horror fan will likely find this a bit too tame for his tastes. Torture porn this ain’t.

I’ve definitely seen worse suspense movies than this. The acting is good and while the script is a little on the cliché side, at least it hits most of the right notes. There are moments that are pretty enjoyable here in a guilty pleasure kind of way and although I realize I’m damning the film with faint praise for all its flaws it doesn’t miss the mark by much. If you wanted to invest your time and money into a viewing of this I wouldn’t say that either was wasted but I wouldn’t say you’ll be discovering a hidden gem either.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the murder scenes were well put-together. The supernatural overtones were nice, although I wish they had been developed a little bit better.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is heavy on the clichés, light on suspense. Horror fans will likely find this a little bit too tame.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be violence, sensuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dobrev is best known for his work on the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube (coming soon to Vudu)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motel Hell
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Birdshot