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

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Live and on location.

Live and on location.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, Scott Takeda, Eli Goodman, Soledad O’Brien, Thomas Kretschmann, Vic Browder, Ava del Cielo. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

There is a certain glamour in war correspondence. Being close to the front lines, embedded with fighting units, hearing the bullets whine overhead, seeing the results of the carnage…it takes a certain kind of personality to love it.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copywriter for a cable news network whose career is going nowhere. So, too is her love life as her boyfriend (Charles) is rarely home and when he is he’s not really engaged. When the opportunity to volunteer to cover the war in Afghanistan arises, she seizes at it like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.

Once in Kabul, her perceptions change. What was a desperate move to save a floundering career and a boring life becomes a lifestyle. Aided by a crusty Marine Crops general (Thornton), a lecherous local public official (Molina) and a gentle but effective local fixer (Abbott), she begins to learn her way about the armed forces and Afghanistan. She is befriended by a blonde and beautiful rival (Robbie) and an irreverent Scottish photographer (Freeman) with whom she shares moments of terror – and drunken revelry as well.

However, modern mass media is a monster with an endless appetite and the sorts of stories that should be getting told aren’t. Kim’s frustration begins to tell, particularly as her star – once on the rise – is definitely on the wane at the network. She needs a big new story to save her and when it finally presents itself, might just end up being a little too close to home.

This is based on the memoirs of an actual war correspondent, Kim Barker (the first “R” is inexplicably left out) who worked for the print media (not cable) and whose life story only slightly resembled what appears in the film. Ah, Hollywood – but then again, nobody ever said this was a documentary anyway. It was also mostly filmed in New Mexico, standing in for Afghanistan.

There has been some controversy regarding the casting, with white actors Molina and Abbott playing Afghan roles and I can see the point. Then again, both of them do very fine work here – which is likely why they were hired. I don’t know that you necessarily have to hire the same ethnic group to play every single role – and there is more scrutiny on Hollywood’s non-white employment record as of late. I’m not insensitive to that. However, it also must be said that the PC press can take that to extremes, so let us be wary of that. There’s inclusive and there’s impractical.

Fey does some of the best work of her career. That said, she is the queen of the smug look; she is also the queen of the cabbage patch which she seems to work in to her every film (stop it, Tina…just…stop it). There are occasions when that is inappropriate in the film and you’re taken out of a serious moment and thrust into an SNL sketch. However, throughout most of the movie, we get to see a greater emotional range than we’re used to from Fey. She still hasn’t shown the kind of range that one needs to be a great dramatic actress but I think it’s within her grasp. She certainly takes a step in the right direction here.

We’ve seen the life of a war correspondent in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and I’ll be honest, in some ways this film is a bit redundant but in other ways it makes a nice companion piece. We get that it is indeed a masculine profession but there are plenty of women who do it now and seeing the experiences of one is certainly welcome and worthy.

The movie isn’t exactly action-packed although it has its moments; there are an awful lot of expository scenes and that might irritate the attention-challenged. Plus one other roadblock is that films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have traditionally not done well at the box office (with one or two exceptions); perhaps the American public is war-weary but I think it is more that the American public really doesn’t care.

I do like the concept behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but I’m a little disappointed about the execution. There is plenty to recommend about it here, but the movie fails to take advantage of some of its potential by going for easy when they should go for deep. Don’t expect a movie that’s going to ultimately give you a ton of insight (when it could have) but at least it will be entertaining while it is not terribly illuminating.

REASONS TO GO: Solid dramatic performance by Fey. Nicely illustrates the allure of a war correspondent’s life.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the slow-paced side. A little bit too glib at times.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, some brutal war images, a little bit of drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fey dedicated the film to her father, who passed away during filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Forbidden Kingdom

Ahead of Time


Ahead of Time

Ruth Gruber, back in the day.

(2009) Documentary (Vitagraph) Ruth Gruber, Louisa Herz Leopold, Eli Wallach (voice), Dava Sobel, Lee Taylor, Harold Ickes, Manya Hartmayer Breuer, Tom Segey, Ike Aronowitz, Mordechai Rossman, Therese Plummer (voice). Directed by Robert Richman

Some people live extraordinary lives. We know about a lot of them – Amelia Earhart, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Onassis – but some we hear little or nothing about. In a few cases that’s truly a shame.

Ruth Gruber is one. A strong-willed, sharp-as-a-tack woman who got her doctorate at 18, she worked for the government documenting Alaska as a homesteading location for soldiers prior to World War II, she also worked for the State department smuggling Jewish refugees into the United States during the war, documenting attacks on refugee ships after it.

She was a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily News and bore witness to some of the most significant events of the 20th century. She was often allowed where no other women were – to the new state of Jordan (she was the first female journalist allowed in) the Soviet Union and on board the Exodus, a refugee ship that had been denied access to Israel by the British and was turned back to send the Holocaust survivors to Germany.

97 years old when this was filmed (she will turn 100 this year), she is still as sharp as ever and is very objective about her own life story, which shows her journalistic training. She has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody tells it as well as she does during the course of the film.

Unfortunately director Richman (who was a cinematographer on An Inconvenient Truth) tends to use a lot of talking heads here and despite the fascinating subject, the movie gets awfully dry in places. That’s just kind of a forewarning.

The subject is so fascinating that you can’t help but be sucked in however. Ruth Gruber is the kind of role model that most women would be proud to emulate – if they knew who she was.

WHY RENT THIS: A portrait of an amazing woman who most people don’t know much about these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit talky and sometimes a bit dry.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of smoking but otherwise nothing you couldn’t show to the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gruber was close friends with author Virginia Woolf early in her career.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,024 on an unreported production budget; the movie might have broken even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: John Carpenter’s The Ward