I know, I know — at this point there’s pretty much nothing about director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 that hasn’t already been said, but here I am anyway, chiming in with my two cents’ worth long after whatever admittedly slight amount of relevance my opinion might have to prospective viewers has long since left the building. Still, I wanna talk about it anyway, and there’s a good reason for that :

I was, you see, a skeptic when it came to this flick. I was less impressed with Arrival than I was apparently meant to be, I saw no actual need for this sequel, and unlike its celluloid progenitor it’s not based on anything Philip K. Dick actually wrote, so — at most, I was figuring it would be alright. Hopefully it wouldn’t detract from the legacy of the original. But no way did I figure it would prove itself to be actually necessary.

Happily, I was wrong on all counts. Blade Runner 2049 is pretty goddamn awesome stuff.

Ryan Gosling’s a great casting choice as protagonist “K,” for one thing : he’s just basically doing what he always does, true, but what he always does is perfect for this flick, and besides, that’s always been the case with Harrison Ford, too. Both actors have a distinctly limited range (especially Ford), but when a project arises that fits that range to the proverbial “K” — sorry, “T” — then hey, they’re in business. In Blade Runner 2049, they’re both firmly in business.

There’s some reasonably good fleshing out of the dystopian future first shown in the original on offer here, too — “K” is shown to have a “relationship” with an AI operating system named Joi (played by Ana de Armas); the day-to-day work life of the Blade Runners is extrapolated on in greater detail, complete with workplace politics (and Robin Wright for a boss); the predatory capitalism we’re all too depressingly familiar with today is revealed to have reached a peak with the rise of Niander Wallace (a suitably creepy Jared Leto) to the top of the empire left in shambles by the now-late Dr. Tyrell; the economics of feeding an overpopulated world — as well as its off-world colonies — plays very nearly a central role in the plot. All this is both fascinating and logically consistent with what we know from before.

And while we’re on the subject of consistency, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish certainly carry over the aesthetics of Jordan Cronenweth and Vangelis, respectively. You’d honestly think this film was made by the same people as the first, and only a year or two later. I believe that “seamless” is the term we’re looking for.

And yet, on its own, that fealty wouldn’t be enough to recommend it (even with an awesome cameo from Edward James Olmos going in its favor), and might even be considered a “strike” against it if it showed no unique storytelling ambition in its own right — fortunately for us all, that’s hardly the case here, as Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who is a carry-over from the first flick) and Michael Green concoct a genuinely intriguing mystery, complete with a couple of big red herrings, and make a pretty gutsy call by definitively answering (probably to the consternation of some, but whatever) one of the major points of fan conjecture that has festered over the years in regards to the true nature of Rick Deckard’s identity. All told, then, this is a movie — and, specifically, a screenplay — that’s certainly determined to live up to pre-set expectations, yet just as certainly unwilling to be downright confined by them.

There’s no Rutger Hauer-esque main “bad guy” here, it’s true (although Dave Bautista gives it a solid shot in the early going), but there’s plenty else to keep you on the edge of your seat and fully involved from the opening to the closing bell, both aesthetically and conceptually. Blade Runner 2049 is, then, something truly unique in the big-budget sequel game — a natural extension of what has come before, but one that seeks to build on it not by going bigger and louder, but broader and deeper.

For the final entry in our look at some of the lesser-seen (and even lesser-budgeted) flicks available for your Halloween viewing pleasure via Amazon Prime’s streaming service, we come to a curious, and often fascinating, little number called The Grinn, which was filmed earlier this year in Pacific Grove, California for (at least as IMDB would have it) the king’s ransom of precisely $300.

And, honestly, in may ways it shows : the sound quality can be uneven, some of the camera angles are a bit suspect, and the script is obviously an amateur effort with some real pacing problems — but here’s the kicker : it’s both inventive and surprising enough that you’ll likely be more than willing to overlook its production and plotting flaws.

And speaking of  the plot, here’s a brief, reasonably-“spoiler”-free rundown : A guy named Vance (played by John Carroll) wakes up with no memory of where he is, why he’s there, or even who he is beyond knowing his own name. Fortunately, he has a “guide” of sorts : one who first communicates with him only by means of his cell phone, but then later “takes charge” personally — but by then, larger questions have arisen. Is all this taking place only in Vance’s mind? And if so, is he even still alive? And what’s with the weird, scurrying figure in the mask?

Disjointed flashbacks of questionable veracity fill in a lot of the blanks (or do they?), and give supporting players such as Sarah Leight and Michka Hawkins a chance to relieve Carroll of shouldering the entire load as far as the acting in concerned, but it’s not until the film’s (really rather memorable, it must be said) third act that everything comes together in a way that can truly be said to “make sense.” If this all sounds a bit Memento-ish, you’re not too far off the mark, but this is no simple amnesia tale told in reverse in that Vance’s own sanity, as well as the reliability of his memories, is constantly in question. The first 2/3 of the film are a bit of a slog at times (I warned you about the pacing here), but stick with it and I think you’ll find the investment of your time and attention during even the slowest sequences really pays off by the time all is said and done.

As mentioned a moment ago, Carroll doesn’t have to carry the weight of the entire production on his back, but as I think should be obvious by now, he’s required to carry most of it —and for an amateur actor, he’s more than up to the task. His confusion, fear, and frustration are palpable, and the film’s sparse and enclosed setting is probably his best “co-star” in that regard : there’s no sure footing to be had, either mentally or physically, in The Grimm, and the quality of the acting and the (mostly-) singular location both reinforces this feeling and, on a purely practical level, helps alleviate the necessarily-dodgy nature of some of the movie’s production values. No flick made for $300 is ever going to be close to perfect, but this one at least does a whole lot more than just give it “the old college try.”

About the nearest thing to an unforgivable sin to be found here is the fact that, as things turn out, our titular “Grinn” (the figure in the mask) turns out to be completely superfluous to requirements, but if that’s my one major gripe,  then hey — you’d have to say that Kalamane, his sparse cast, and even more sparse crew have done one heck of a job here, and that by saving this one to the end of our Amazon Prime Halloween overview, we’re closing on a very high note indeed. I guess there’s nothing more to do here, then, but for me to recommend in the strongest possible terms that you give The Grimm a shot at your earliest convenience — and to wish you a safe and happy Halloween, of course!

 

 

 

Hey, it wouldn’t be a Halloween on Amazon Prime without a new film from our guy Ryan Callaway to check out, would it?

Of course not, and just the other day his latest popped up on there — Messenger Of Wrath, which “wrapped” production just a few short weeks ago and marks something of a departure in the veteran micro-budget auteur‘s output in that it’s the first time, at least to my knowledge, that he’s delved into the burgeoning “home invasion” sub-genre, but fear not : as with all things Callaway (or maybe that should be Callaways, given that his wife, Amy, produces all these flicks — this being no exception), there’s a twist here to set it apart from its competitors/contemporaries. But it’s not one that I’m going to give away in case you decide to watch this movie, so rest easy on that score — we’re keeping things (relatively) “spoiler-free” for purposes of this review.

Genre branch-out aside, however, this is still, in many ways, a “typical” Callaway film in that it was produced on a shoestring budget, filmed in New Jersey, has a lengthy (some would argue padded) runtime, is populated by a cast of regulars (specifically Madeline Lupi, Melissa Malone, Hiram Ortiz, Brittini Schreiber, Hayley Wayne, and Isabella Mays — to name only those I recognized off the top of my head), and features strong and independent women or girls in most of the lead roles. It’s also essentially bereft of gore, nudity, and even (for the most part) cursing, so it’s not one you’re probably gonna want to watch over a few beers with your friends.

If you’re still willing to give it a whirl even bearing in mind all those caveats, however, what you’ll find is a relatively tense and well-executed psychological thriller with reasonably compelling characterization, smart (if plentiful) dialogue — and, in this case, some pretty good acting, as well. Surely we can forgive its lack of entrails and viscera, then, can’t we?

The set-up here is deceptively simple : precocious 12-year-old girl Three Ballentine (played by Lupi, who really shines in this featured turn) is left home alone one evening when her usually-quiet exurban residence is set upon by a gang of masked intruders.  Her internal “survival mode” switch kicks in pretty quickly and she proves to be rather ingenious at evading and/or thwarting her would-be kidnappers/assailants, but here’s where the twist comes in, and it’s one that dovetails with prior Callaway efforts, so I’ll keep things suitably oblique : when the chase moves outdoors, both Three and her pursuers discover that they have a much bigger problem to worry about, and it’s one that potentially threatens all of them and doesn’t really discriminate between “good guys”and “bad” —

My one semi-major gripe here is that this film probably would have benefited from having 20-30 minutes excised from it, which would have resulted in a more brisk and terse affair fraught with a bit more tension, but Callaway has always been one to give his stories (and his characters) plenty of “breathing room,” and I don’t foresee that changing anytime in the near future. Aside from that, though, problems are really quite few and far between, and Messenger Of Wrath may indeed be the most well-executed example of the whole “Callaway Ethos” to date. A very well-done flick from one of the micro-budget scene’s most prolific — and interesting — filmmakers.

 

The recent release of Jigsaw proves, I guess, that the whole “torture porn” thing isn’t over with just yet, but earlier in 2017 low-budget writer/director Joshua Shreve beat the latest installment of the Saw franchise out of the gate with his straight-to-streaming (and, I guess, DVD, but for our purposes the fact that it’s available on Amazon Prime is all that really matters) effort Talon Falls — the question is, did he beat its at its own game?

There’s no question that this story about four road-tripping teens (played by Morgan Wiggins, Ryan Rudolph, Jordyn Rudolph, and Brad Bell) who make a pit-stop at a Kentucky roadside “scream park” featuring a plethora of blood, torture, and gore that all seems a little bit too realistic is, in fact, sadistic in the extreme — especially when the burly rednecks who run the joynt kidnap all our protagonists, one by one, and proceed to show ’em how things are really done at this backwoods splatter-show — but there’s a decidedly clinical feel to the whole endeavor that not only reduces the grotesque and (should-be) disturbing to a mere business, but robs it of its its ability to shock, as well.

In other words, no matter how bad things get here — and they do get pretty goddamn bad — it all feels terribly expected.

You name it, we’ve seen it : the animal masks. The hatchets and axes. The makeshift “medical” devices designed to inflict maximum bodily harm. The evil inbred yokels. The fetishistic focus on torment. The free-flowing blood, viscera, and entrails. It’s all shot with surprising professionalism by cinematographer Jeff Steinborn, to be sure, but damn — the gore and torture should be excruciating here, but they’ve got nothing on how excruciatingly predictable the plot is.

I guess that the titular Talon Falls is a real Halloween attraction (the flick was shot there), and that’s cool and all, but that’s about the only thing to set this apart from any of the other “torture porn” flicks that were big business about a decade ago, other than the more-competent-than-usual acting of “final girl” Lyndsey (Wiggins) and the slightly-more-menacing-than-most figure of chief killer Tiny (Tim McCain), who cuts a pretty cool — and suitably silent — figure as he chases people around, trusses ’em up, and all that.

Seriously, though — if you’ve seen House Of 1000 Corpses (and, come on, you know you have) then you’ve seen Talon Falls. In fact, you’ve seen a much better version of Talon Falls. It’s not that Shreve and Co. aren’t trying or anything — clearly they are — but what they’re trying to do is make a movie that’s already been made (and more than once, at that), and just do it cheaper. Serious gorehounds will probably find enough here to keep them interested, and more power to ’em (hey, I’m not one to judge), but for the rest of us? This is one you can safely skip — and in my considered opinion that’s precisely what you should do. The only thing that hurts about this flick is watching it.

A thorough appraisal of the micro-budget horror offerings available for streaming on Amazon Prime would’t be complete if we didn’t check out at least one rip-off of The Exorcist (there are literally dozens to choose from), and so I rolled the dice on writer/director David Spaltro’s 2015 effort, Dark Exorcism (originally released under the title In The Dark, not sure when or why the name-change happened), which manages to stand out from the pack in that it features four female leads — but apart from that, I’ll give the game away right at the outset (never an advisable thing to do in the review game, I know, but what the fuck) and just state plainly that this is “been there, done that” stuff all the way.

If you’re still reading, then, here are the particulars : art student Bethany Mills (played by Grace Folsom) has recently survived a horrific accident that claimed the life of her father, and subsequently moved back in with her mother, Joan (Catherine Cobb Ryan), who is becoming increasingly disturbed by both her daughter’s borderline-unhinged behavior, as well as a series of paintings she’s undertaken that features decidedly morbid themes and iconography. Time to call in the professionals!

The “professionals,” in this case, are parapsychologist Lois Kearne (Fiona Horrigan), and skeptical grad student Veronica Carpenter (Lynn Justinger), who’s doing her thesis on on the paranormal and is along for the ride basically to function in the “audience’s eyes and ears” role, the idea being that we’re supposed to drop our resistance to the whole notion of demonic possession along with her as events spiral increasingly out of control. Kearne herself admits that the vast majority of cases she’s investigated over the years either ended up having perfectly rational explanations or were outright hoaxes, but she insists that a small handful really were genuinely inexplicable, and while she’s not sold on this one falling into that category immediately, she lets it be known that it has all the hallmarks of something that might be a “legit” possession, while Veronica, for her part, remains unconvinced — and remains unconvinced — and remains unconvinced —

Right up to the point where it pretty much can’t be denied anymore no matter how stubborn you are. Finally! But by then, trust me, your interest in the proceedings has already worn pretty thin.

On the plus side, the production values of this flick are fairly competent across the board. The acting is uniformly solid if unremarkable, the effects are reasonably impressive, the music’s pretty decent, and the sets, cinematography, and lighting are all effective enough as far as these things go. No one involved with the production either in front of or behind the camera need hang their head in shame. And yet —

There’s really nothing that stands out, either. This is a road very well-traveled, and surprises are nowhere to be found. Spaltro seems to be playing at something of a “faith-based” angle here, too, which results in a whole bunch of boring and hackneyed metaphysical monologues apparently designed to scare us all back into the pews on Sunday mornings. That kind of heavy-handed lecturing is, of course, something we can all do without — and, at the end of the day, the same can be said of Dark Exorcism in general.

At this point, you have to wonder where and when this whole “ghost hunting” thing will end.

“Reality” TV is full of this kind of crap, of course, as is the “micro-budget” horror scene, and on a purely practical level it certainly makes sense : you don’t need much money, after all, to make a film where amateur acting, equally amateur cinematography (usually of the “shaky-cam” variety), and “hinted at but not really seen” effects work are built right into the story itself. In short, where unprofessionalism is not only countenanced, but expected. With all that in mind, then, it would probably be terribly naive to expect this burgeoning sub-genre of “found footage” horror (a sub-genre in and of itself) to go away anytime soon — but goddamn, sometimes I wish it would.

Case in point : 2015’s Ghostfinders, a zero-budget effort that comes our way courtesy of writer/director/producer/nominal “star” Luke Hill (and his one-off — and one-man — production outfit, Amalgam Movieworks), who, along two paranormal-hunter cohorts (played by Mallory Culbert and Quincy Kuykendall), decides to check out a house so fucking haunted that its most recent owners split after just one night in the place — not that it being a potential deathrap has prevented them from trying to rent it out to unsuspecting suckers ever since, mind you. But none of the tenants have hung around for very long, either.

The litany of complaints about the house amounts to “we’ve heard this all before” stuff — strange noises, apparitions appearing and disappearing, that sort of thing. In other words, there’s no attempt at anything resembling originality here — which is hardly an unforgivable sin in my book provided all the bog-standard shit on offer is well-executed or presented in a fashion that at least threatens to be somewhat interesting. Care to place a wager on whether or not Hill and Co. manage to pull that off?

The acting in this flick is lousy, the dialogue is dull, the hand-held camerawork is sloppy and unimaginative, the story is rote and predictable, the “scares” are non-existent, the effects are lifeless — there isn’t anything here you haven’t seen before, haven’t seen done better, and haven’t fallen asleep watching. And good effing luck staying awake here, too. I did — just barely, but I honestly wish I hadn’t. Sleep, after all, is a precious commodity in this life, while “found footage” ghost-hunter movies are anything but.

I could strain my brain for fucking days trying to dream up even one reason for you to spend your valuable time on Ghostfinders, and I’d still come up empty. There’s just nothing here — or, more specifically, there’s nothing worth seeing. Or at least nothing worth seeing again. Luke Hill clearly knew all the boxes he had to check off the list that people who make films of this sort apparently keep handy and, having placed a big red “X” in all of them, he figured that his job was done. And having warned you off this one in the strongest possible terms, guess what? So is mine.

 

Hard is it may be to believe in this day and age, there once was a time when the tag-line “Based On A True Story” was used to sell a film. It was a simpler and more naive era, I suppose — but as the years progressed, most audiences wised up to the fact that even these purportedly “true” stories were heavily fictionalized, if not outright fabrications, and so movie-makers started giving themselves a little bit of breathing room (not to mention legal protection) by claiming that their productions were merely “inspired by true stories” or, to push the degrees of separation out a bit even further, “inspired by true events.” These days, though, who are we kidding? Even these tepid labels impress precisely no one — but apparently Connecticut-based producer/director/actor BuAli Shah didn’t get the message, because he was still trying to gin up interest in his 2014 straight-to-streaming number, They Exist, by claiming that it was — you guessed it — “inspired by true stories.”

And so it probably is — if we take the term “stories” literally, as in, stories that people tell. Which are often, of course, complete bullshit.

And speaking of complete bullshit — that’s basically what They Exist amounts to. Shah stars as A.L., a (here’s a stretch) amateur filmmaker who, at the behest of a friend/rival, decides to undertake a documentary project chronicling people’s “real-life” ghost stories (or, if you prefer, “paranormal experiences”), but ends up in over his head — and even charged with murder — when one of his subjects, a young woman named Stacy (played by Heli Vaher) turns out to be haunted/possessed herself. Furthermore, her secret dovetails with one from her chronicler’s own past, and so maybe it’s not exactly a coincidence that the two of them have found themselves bound together by, ya know, ancient forces of evil and all that. If only the two of them were bound together by something more practical, like attending the same acting class —

Which isn’t to say that all the acting in this flick is lousy : supporting characters Joe (John Stagmaier) and Karen (Catalina Ceballos) at least come off as nominally interesting, but they probably should have been cast in the lead roles, to be brutally honest. Other parts are filled by members of the production team (screenwriter Ibne Naqvi plays a character named Maddy) and their siblings (Naqvi’s brother Zar turns up as a guy named Sam) or friends, which is hardly unexpected in a film with a budget this low, but it is helpful if they’re competent — and most of these folks simply aren’t.

That being said, at least a fair amount of the effects work on display here is. Stacy’s transformation in particular is well-executed, and some of the more minor make-up and practical FX really do look pretty good, as does most of the cinematography, which is often quite moody and effective. So at least the film looks good, and I’d even go so far as to say that Shah might have a real future behind the camera. He should just forget about getting back in front of it for the foreseeable future.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair, then, to say that They Exist is a completely lost cause — the story is certainly lame and predictable, and the leads struggle with their roles, but there’s some ability on display on the technical side. It’s nowhere near enough to recommend the film, that’s for sure, but who knows? Shah has made some noise on the movie’s official facebook page about a potential sequel (to be filmed in Pakistan, go figure) and maybe — just maybe — that could prove to be worth checking out, if and when it ever actually comes to pass.