This oughtta be simple enough — Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Okay, that’s it, my job’s done — Happy New Year, everybody.

But wait just a second —

You wanna know why. I swear, everybody always wants to know why. And, hey, I can’t say as I blame you — movie tickets don’t come cheap these days and one is forced to choose wisely. I was sold on seeing this from the outset (even if it took me awhile to get my ass to the theater), being a huge fans of Baker’s 2015 shot-on-an-iPhone effort Tangerine, and this time around I was curious to see what he could/would do with some real actors, actual cameras, and a whopping two million dollar budget. Would he “sell out”? Or would he stay true to himself even though the ever-elusive “big time” was clearly beckoning?

The social and economic margins are still where Baker butters his bread, though, and frankly I’m not sure anyone in the movie biz does a better job of chronicling the day-to-day lives of those who exist there than he does — so even though he’s traded in Hollywood Boulevard transgender sex workers for Orlando motel dwellers, his naturalistic style, non-judgmental view, and aesthetic immediacy still serve him very well indeed. Single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite in a breakout performance) is all about the hustle : selling knock-off perfumes, scamming Disney World entry wristbands, waiting out back of the Waffle House for throwaways, anything to get through one more day. And yes, she’ll fuck for a buck too, if push comes to shove. Our auteur is still right in his element with her.

In tow for this decidedly hard-scrabble existence/subsistence is her precocious daughter, Moonee (speaking of breakout performances, Brooklynn Prince has one hell of a future ahead of her), who by all rights probably should be going to school more often, but seems to spend most of her time keeping on just this side of the juvenile authorities with her best friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who crashes with her mom at the fleabag next door. The kids have fun, though, and lots of company — there’s too many of ’em, in fact, for beleaguered “super” Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to keep up with.

But how long can a set-up like this last? One of Moonee’s young friends is a little firebug. Halley still likes her booze n’ drugs. The motel’s owner isn’t to keen on permanent residents. And Bobby, well, he’s got a heart of gold, but he can’t be everywhere at once, and there’s only so much you can do to keep kids protected from leering chickenhawks, state CPS agents, and their own parents’ bad decisions. Everyone’s barely holding it all together by the skin of their teeth.

The Florida Project pulls your heart in all fucking kinds of directions. On the one hand, you know Moonee wants to stay with her mom and you want her to be happy. On the other, Halley clearly can’t keep herself above water and has no business raising a kid. On a third, taking care of that kid is basically the only thing preventing her from completely teetering over into the abyss. On a fourth, raising any child under these circumstances is clearly limiting said child’s opportunities pretty drastically.

Problem is, you’ve only got two hands. And now you know how the characters in this film all probably feel.

Really, I can’t say enough good things. Baker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, don’t concern themselves with anything like a strict “plot” per se so much as just allowing events to unfold and follow the course that they’re gonna follow — kinda like how real life works. And “real life” is exactly what’s on display here — in point of fact, a side of it most of us (fortunately) never even have to think about too often. This flick will leave you counting your blessings, no doubt about it, and wondering about how “the other half” even manages to get by. How long they can hold out. How long until it all falls apart.

When it does, it hurts. Even if it’s ultimately for the best. And that’s no guarantee. Baker is too honest a filmmaker to give you any of those.

I pride myself on not impressing easily, and The Florida Project impressed me mightily. Maybe not as much as Tangerine, in the overall scheme of things, but it came pretty close, and is a far more accessible film for John and Jane Q. Public to wrap their heads around. Sean Baker is bringing his uniquely “no-frills” take on the lives of the marginalized right where it needs to be — into the hearts and minds of the people who would rather pretend they don’t exist. No more resting easy. Shit just got real.

 

It’s always a dicey proposition when you’re reviewing a new Star Wars flick. One way or another, you almost can’t win — I recall, for instance, my lukewarm review of Star Wars : The Force Awakens being met with a comment stating, I shit you not, that “I agree with all your criticisms, but you should have given it a positive review anyway.” When I asked, naturally, why the hell my review should have been more sunny even though all my criticisms were legit, said individual responded, I assume with a straight face, something to the effect of “well, it’s more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one, so you should challenge yourself more.”

If I had any sense, I would have just walked away at that point, perhaps with a quip like “it’s only ‘more difficult’ to write a positive review of a film when said film sucks,” but instead I pressed further, insisting that it takes no more effort to write a glowing review than it does to write a pissy one, which is obviously and inarguably true, and was met with a (very) poor man’s bit of philosophy about life in general, my internet sparring partner insisting that “it’s hard work to be positive about anything, and way too easy to be negative.” Uhhhmmm — okay, if you say so.

For the record, I am not “down on” life. Hell, I wasn’t even that “down on” The Force Awakens. I just thought it was a mediocre re-tread of shit we’d seen done earlier, and better. What was painfully obvious, not just in retrospect but at the time, was that this particular commenter knew that’s all the flick amounted to, as well, but he liked it anyway, and was bent out of shape that I was both decidedly more cool on it than he was, and was able to articulate in fairly cogent terms why the overflowing love it was getting at the time really didn’t make much sense.

Well, that was two years ago, and when the hype died down, sure enough, my opinion at the time rather solidified into something like the overall consensus view. The Force Awakens hit a number of nostalgic notes, it made people feel the right way, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground, and basically amounted to a couple hours of fan service. Clearly, then, it would be left to the second chapter of the new trilogy to actually move things forward in any kind of significant way.

As early reviews for writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars : The Last Jedi first trickled, then flowed, in, I was feeling reasonably good about its prospects to do just that : critics seemed to like it, while hard-core fans seemed to hate it. Pretty good sign right there that the amount of “fan-wank” in this was going to be minimal. It even seemed like Johnson was taking some risks here, and let’s face it, when you move forward, you’re going to necessarily leave plenty of overly-protective sorts behind. Maybe now that the Star Wars “greatest hits” reel was out of the way, we could get down to business.

And to an extent, Johnson does exactly that. Picking up essentially right where the last film left off, we see the so-called “Resistance, ” Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular, scoring a pyrrhic victory against the “Empire-Lite” that is the newly-labeled “First Order,” only to find their space armada surrounded and running low on fuel while, concurrently with all this, Daisy Ridley’s Rey attempts to lure the reclusive Luke Skywalker (played by an older, but no less wooden and whiny, Mark Hamill) out of retirement to come save the galaxy from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis, who joins Frank Oz, Lupita Nyong’o and, after a fashion, Carrie Fisher, as CGI “cast members”) and his now-apprentice — and Luke’s former trainee — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those two plotlines take up most of the flick, and certainly Rey’s eventual training (no big surprise, but she’s the titular last Jedi, not Luke) in the ways of The Force is loaded with any number of call-backs to the Luke/Yoda scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, but beyond that, yeah, the “nostalgia factor” here is kept to a welcome minimum. A third major story strand involving John Boyega’s Finn and new sidekick/potential love interest Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempting to locate, and then secure the services of, a supposed “master code breaker” in order to disable an Imperial — sorry, First Order — blockade is a bit hackneyed on the whole and too dependent on a series of lucky coincidences to be overly interesting, but I’m willing, probably just because it’s the holiday season, to give Johnson props for trying with that one, even if it’s one big “twist” moment amounts to audiences saying to themselves “hey, whaddya know, I never thought I’d see Benicio Del Toro in a Star Wars movie.”

Surprise casting moves seem to be a running theme of The Last Jedi in a more general sense, though, too, truth be told, and since we’re on that subject Laura Dern should get some credit for her turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over the Reb — goddammit, I’m doing it again — Resistance fleet when Fisher’s Princess/General Leia is incapacitated for a good chunk of the runtime. In fact, of all the various competing subplots, the one she features in prominently is probably the most effective, as her motives — and, by extension, those of the Resistance leadership itself — come into question, throwing some shades of grey into what’s usually a fairly black-and-white Star Wars cinematic “universe.” Things work out alright in the end, of course — they always do in these movies — but at least there’s some genuine intrigue and tension along the way.

Speaking of ends, though, that’s where most of the trouble here comes in. Johnson has, by my count, two “red herring” endings that he toys with until we get to the actual big finale, and by then you’re sort of ready for the thing to be over. The conclusion, when it arrives, is every bit as spectacular as it needs/is expected to be, but there’s definitely a sense that it’s past due. So, yeah, if you’re getting the idea that this film’s third act is more than a bit herky-jerky, you’re absolutely right.

Probably the biggest knock against The Last Jedi, though, is one that plagued The Force Awakens, as well : simply put, this First Order outfit just never seems like an “A-list” threat. Kylo Ren is an even more unstable basket case in this flick than he was last time (ditching the mask only accentuates his status as a lame bad guy), “Boy General” Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is about as intimidating as a frat boy incensed at getting to the liquor store ten minutes after closing time and banging on the door to get in, and when Lord Snoke is finally removed from the equation, these guys are even more decisively “Bush League” than they were before. We all know the Resistance is going to win the day in the final act of this trilogy (which will no doubt be J.J. Abrams doing an updated take on Return Of The Jedi), but damn, with this Keystone Kops crew as their adversaries, the outcome is never even momentarily in doubt.

Still, for all that, The Last Jedi has more on the “plus” side side of its ledger than the “minus.” It establishes Rey as the powerful central protagonist she needs to be, it actually gives Poe Dameron plenty to do, and Finn and Rose make a good team. In short, it’s far more concerned with the characters we’re supposed to care about now rather than those we cared about a quarter-century (or more) ago — even if Hamill gets top billing in the credits.  It steps out of the long shadow cast by the franchise’s past (hell, it’s unafraid to poke fun at its own mythology, although some of the humor comes off as a little bit forced on occasion), even if it does so in a wobbly and uneven manner, and makes a statement (albeit, again, a shaky one) about where the series is in the here and now, rather than taking all of its cues from the past.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I hope my quasi-antagonist from a couple years back reads this review, since my final verdict should be right up his alley : Star Wars : The Last Jedi has a lot of problems — some of them pretty large — but you know what? I liked it anyway.

You’ve heard the scuttlebutt by now, of course — Justice League is a mess; Henry Cavill’s face looks ridiculous thanks to the shooting-schedule-necessitated decision to “erase” his mustache by means of CGI; the 9th-inning additional re-shoots are easy to spot; the so-called “DCEU” is doomed thanks to this film’s poor box office performance.

Some of these points are legit (the flick is certainly uneven, tonally and structurally, Cavill’s MIA ‘stache is conspicuous in its absence, the re-shoots (and brighter, “happier” color grading) undertaken by “relief” director Joss Whedon don’t fit in with Zack Snyder’s material), while others are clearly over-stated (the sub-$100 million opening weekend has been largely off-set by a stronger than expected “hold” over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday period), but at the end of the day, even after filtering out the noise (much of it generated by a certain competing comic-book-publisher-turned-movie-studio), the simple fact remains — this is obviously an up-and-down affair.

Which, believe it or not, is actually something of an achievement in and of itself — the forced departure of original director Snyder due to family tragedy definitely meant this production had to pull some kind of a rabbit out of its hat, and while Whedon (who in the end only gets a co-writer credit that he shares with Chris Terrio) clearly steered the ship into more “light-hearted” territory a la his fan-favorite Marvel Avengers flicks, it’s hard to tell how much of what he came up with originated in his own mind, and how much was dictated by WB execs who, let’s face it, were almost certain to part ways with Snyder anyway and were reportedly displeased with the “dark” tone of what he’d come up with prior to his exit.  Indeed, everything about the finished product that is Justice League feels focus-group-tested, specifically designed to appeal to as broad (and, some would argue, dumb) an audience as possible. Snyder’s visual ambition is on full display in the early going, but is completely absent by the time the credits roll; Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, rhythmic soundtrack work is gone in favor of  Danny Elfman’s nostalgia-heavy score; jokes (not all entirely successful) fly left and right; the body count is pretty damn low for a movie about an apocalyptic alien invasion. In short, this is a movie clearly trying to be as different from its predecessors, specifically Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice, as possible. But that was never going to be an easy task with the same guy in the director’s chair.

Taking all that into account, then, the simple fact that Justice League succeeds in much of what it’s trying to do (like it or not) is pretty remarkable, and the DCEU definitely feels like it’s heading in a new, sunnier direction after this. The resurrection of Cavill’s Superman (achieved by means that can be described as “morally questionable” at best, seeing as how Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg actually dig his dead body out of the grave) seems as though it was designed to be the narrative catalyst for the change, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it sells Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman short (as does much much of the movie in general) given that the newly-formed team decides that she just can’t lead lead ’em even though she’s essentially carrying this fictitious “universe” on her back these days. That’s a pretty significant slap in the face right there.

Gadot’s not alone in getting the short shrift, though, by any means — supporting players J.K. Simmons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, and Joe Morton all get stuck with roles that punch far beneath their respective weight classes — but by and large the main starts come out of this whole thing pretty well : Jason Momoa offers a decidedly revisionist, but altogether successful, take on Aquaman; Ben Affleck again gets the Bruce Wayne/Batman balance more or less exactly right (not so easy to do in this case since he’s saddled with a lot of decidedly-out-of-character “comic relief” material); Fisher proves to be an inspired choice to play Cyborg; Ezra Miller’s Flash starts out annoying but finishes up endearing; Gadot makes more than the most of a criminally-underwritten part. Hell, Cavill even finally appears to be enjoying this whole Superman gig. The principal cast, then, proves to be more than enough to carry this film through its not-inconsiderable story bumps, logical holes, shifting styles, and dodgy effects.

Not to mention its less-than-compelling villain. Like a lot of people, I thought we were going to get a full-on clash with the villains of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World here, but in the end all we get is Ciaran Hinds as a lackluster Steppenwolf accompanied by a horde of dully-realized Parademons. Honestly, if I want a bad guy this generic and uninspiring, I’ll see a Marvel movie.

And yet, this still ends up being a somewhat pleasing — uhmmmm — crowd-pleaser. The character designs are cool, the pacing is brisk enough that you don’t need to think about the film’s flaws until it’s over, the action sequences (particularly those obviously overseen by Snyder) are stirring and dynamic, the “fist-pump” quotient is reasonably high. Yes, it’s clear that DC is trying to “Marvel-ize” their movies from here on out, but given the absurd amount of critical and financial pressure on them (Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad both being successfully tarred with the “disappointment” label despite taking in about $900 million each at the worldwide box office, roughly triple their budgets) maybe “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” was the only option they were left with.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I realize I’m in the distinct minority in finding Snyder’s vision for these flicks to be inherently more compelling than your typical brain-dead blockbuster fare, but the people have apparently spoken, and while Justice League doesn’t quite hit all its marks — there’s no way it could —  for folks who felt the DCEU had gotten off on the wrong foot, it shows that WB is more than willing to adjust course “on the fly” in order to, as the Brits say, keep the punters happy. I’m a bit pessimistic going forward, to say the least, but there was enough of the DCEU that almost was on display here to have me leaving the theater reasonably happy. For now, at any rate.

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.