Archive for June, 2016


It’s not every day that you find an unassuming, largely unheralded gem hidden deep in the Netflix horror section, so what the heck — when you do, in fact, stumble across one, it’s probably worth crowing about just a little bit, right? So allow me to introduce you, dear reader, to first-time director Leigh Janiak’s 2014 effort, Honeymoon.

Filmed in rural North Carolina with two British leads (not that you can tell, mind you — their American accents are flawless) for a reported $1 million, this flick is a perfect example of how much you can do with a small cast,  an insular location, a “been there, done that” premise, and what looks to be a rather short filming schedule, as long as you’ve got a director who understands how to build suspense, get great performances from their actors, and keep his or her audience on their proverbial toes by way of expert pacing, a well-timed and pitch-perfect musical score, and keen utilization of a darkly tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs that viewers  can easily follow to what is, frankly, a logical — and even unsurprising — conclusion. Honestly, all you up-and-coming indie horror auteurs out there — I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it one more time : there’s no need to reinvent the wheel if you know how to roll the one that’s already there just right.


Here’s our setup : Newlyweds Bea (played by Rose Leslie from Game Of Thrones) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) are heading to a remote lakefront cabin for their titular honeymoon. On the way, they attempt to grab a bite at a local restaurant that, as coincidence would have it, happens to be owned by one of Bea’s old friends, a guy named Will (Ben Huber). Good old Will is acting very strange and distant, though, and when his wife, Annie (Hanna Brown) shows up, she’s acting even more bizarre than he is. So, hey, the place is closed anyway and our young lovebirds need to get the hell out. The first night in the admittedly-cliched “cabin in the woods” seems to go well enough and all that, but then Paul wakes up to discover that his new bride gone with next to no trace, and ultimately finds her wandering in the woods dazed, disoriented, naked, and with no memory of how she got there. From that point on, it slowly starts to become clear that this honeymoon is on pretty shaky ground, and that the same may very well be the case for the marriage itself, given that Bea’s acting freakier and more unhinged all the time. Was she really just sleepwalking that night, or did something far more sinister and unspeakable take place?


As mentioned earlier, there are any number of less-than-subtle clues interspersed throughout here, and by the time the “revelations” hit they’re anything but, yet none of that really matters all that much because the cast does such a fine job of selling you on their confusion that you needn’t worry too much about the fact that yours is non-existent. Would an “out of left field” -style surprise have been welcome? Sure, I guess, but it’s always risky — if your “twist” is a stupid one, it can wreck everything you’ve built, and there’s no real need to rock a boat that’s navigating its choppy waters with so much finesse, anyway.

Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei both deserve a ton of credit for their work here, as smart and effective dialogue goes a long way toward elevating their well-worn premise to a higher plateau, but again, I really feel the need to single out the cast for their superb work, because they’re the ones who have imbued this material with a sense of mystery and suspense that, in all honesty, may not be there to any great extent on paper. Our principal tandem is terrific, sure, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that both Huber and Brown also manage to make more than the most of their ultra-limited screen time, as well, and give us a textbook definition of “cameos that really do matter.” When you have so few actors working on a production, the “weight” riding on each of their shoulders individually is all the heavier, yet everyone here bears it with near-amazing results. Kudos all around.


I know it probably sounds strange and maybe even more than a bit stupid to sing such high praises for a film that I freely admit packs little in terms of the truly unexpected, employs a damn-near-done-to-death premise, and relies on the basics of good acting, smart dialogue and characterization, and dynamic direction to tell a rather standard-issue tale in an anything-but-standard way, but seriously — give Honeymoon (which is also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Magnet Pictures) a shot and see if you don’t agree with me completely.


Of all our shameful pastimes here in the US — and let’s be honest, there are plenty to choose from — trashing on immigrants has to rank right at or near the very top of the list, and given some of the headlines we’re seeing coming from Europe in recent weeks and months, it appears we’re not alone in being way less welcoming than we should be to our new friends and neighbors. You can toss all the tired arguments at me you want — “these people don’t speak our language,” “they come from a totally different culture,” “they don’t share our customs,” “they don’t understand how we do things here,” etc. — the simple fact is that the exact same thing was said about your Irish, German, Italian, French, etc. ancestors, and I bet that if they knew their family lineage would end up producing the same kind of xenophobic, nativist assholes that were giving them a hard time a century or two ago, they’d have thought long and hard about whether or not keeping the ol’ bloodline going was such a good idea.

And then there’s another factor too few “native-born” folks seem to take into consideration, namely : most of these people have endured hardships that would break any one of us in a fucking day just to get here, never mind the terrors they’re feeling back home that made leaving everything they know and love behind a necessity in the first place. Right now we’re stuck with a buffoon of a presidential candidate who’s making this anti-immigrant appeal the very centerpiece of his embarrassing and stupid campaign, but fortunately I have a viable solution to offer : anyone even considering voting for Donald Trump should be forced, by law, to sit down and watch French writer/director Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Cannes Palme D’Or winner Dheepan.


A rough, rugged, and decidedly visceral film, Dheepan takes the cliched “you can take the warrior out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the warrior” premise to a tragic new plateau as it follows the travails of its titular character (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan) from defeat on the battlefields of Sri Lanka, where he was a Tamil Tiger who lost his wife and both his children and is certain to be either imprisoned or killed himself now that a cease-fire has been declared, to the purportedly more “civilized” war zone of a suburban Paris housing project rife with gang violence. With him on the journey are a young woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a little girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), both without surviving families themselves,  who are posing as his wife and daughter in order to make it easier for all of them to claim political asylum once the cargo ship they’re smuggled onto docks in France.

Needless to say these folks are all living well beyond what we would consider to be “the margins” of society as Dheepan does just about anything (see image above) to earn enough to keep a roof over all their heads for one more night, but when he lands a gig as the live-in caretaker at the government-subsidized tower block just mentioned, he thinks their luck is finally beginning to change. Illyaal gets enrolled in school for the first time, Yalini finds work herself cooking and cleaning for an invalid in the complex named Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi), and something of a more genuine familial bond forms between all three of them, complete with unsure, unsteady, but very real romance between the two ostensible “parents” of the household. But you just know that nothing good can last forever —


When Monsieur Habib’s good-for-less-than-nothing son, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is released from prison and moves in with his old man, the everyday dangers of life in the Parisian equivalent of the Cabrini Green escalate along with the drug trafficking that seems to follow in his wake, and soon Dheepan’s always-tenuous mental state begins to fracture as every single nightmarish vision and memory he’d been fleeing comes pouring into his mind. Antonythasan delivers a masterful performance from start to finish in this film, but as his character’s hold on sanity deteriorates, he really knocks it out of the park — seriously, this is one of the finest acting jobs you’ll see in this, or any other, year. And when his pseudo-“family” finds its very survival directly threatened thanks to the French equivalent of a “drive-by” shooting, well — all bets are off, and the Tamil Tiger is forced back into a role he desperately hoped to never have to adopt again.


As far as stark portrayals of the refugee experience go, you’re not going to find a better or more honest one than Dheepan. In addition to getting “grade-A” performances from his entire cast, Audiard expertly paces events here, alternating between tenderness and tension so that what it all “hits the fan” in the film’s climactic final act, every single movement and action is rife with consequence and import. His over-arching goal may have been (heck, probably was) simply to tell a relevant, topical, and realistic story deeply rooted in the human condition (a worthy enough ambition in and of itself), but what he’s delivered instead is an absolute masterclass on cinematic drama that any young filmmaker would do well to learn from — as would the entire “immigrant-bashing” crowd. The best flick I’ve seen in the theater so far this year, without question.


Horror fans everywhere were reasonably enthusiastic at the prospect, first announced a few years ago now, of a newly-“reimagined” version of the classic TV series Tales From The Darkside being developed for the CW network under the creative guidance of up-and-coming author Joe Hill,  and why not? Hill comes from about as distinguished a genre pedigree as one can imagine, after all (in case you didn’t know his full name is Joseph Hillman King), and has some best-selling and critically-acclaimed novels of his own under his belt (one of which, Horns, was adapted by Alexandre Aja into a darn fine feature film), as well as a little comic-book series you just may have heard of called Locke & Key. Surely this would be a pretty good little show whenever it finally hit our screens, right?

Except, of course, it never did. Somewhere along the twisting, winding, perilous length that is Hollywood’s pre-production pipeline, things god scuttled, and CW “suits” pulled the plug on the project for reasons known only to them before any of us ever got to see what was being cooked up. But in today’s multi-media marketplace, nothing is ever truly dead, and the wise folks at IDW Publishing decided to get in touch with Hill, see if they might be able to make something of his unused scripts, and maybe even get his Locke & Key co-creator, Garbriel Rodriguez, involved on the artistic side. The end result? It’s at your LCS now in the form of the new Tales From The Darkside four-issue mini-series.


The original syndicated TFTDS TV show was a late-night series comprised of 30-minute “one and done” episodes that told fairly basic horror stories with no real connecting theme or thread to unite to unite them, but Hill’s revamp apparently revolved around the semi-random appearance of something called “darkside events” — metaphysical incursions from the great void beyond designed to dish out either cosmic reward or retribution to folks who have recently done something really good or really bad. It’s a simple but effective conceit that’s employed to good effect in this debut issue, titled “Sleepwalker,” about a spoiled rich kid who takes a summer lifeguarding job and has a woman die on his watch because he was hung over and fell asleep behind his sunglasses, and I have no doubt that in the three installments remaining these “events” will function basically as portals into — well, The Darkside Zone, for lack of a better way of putting it. Our protagonist this time out could certainly be forgiven for thinking he had stumbled through Rod Serling’s dimensional doorway as every single person he encounters ends up giving him a taste of his own medicine after his mother’s high-priced lawyers manage to procure his very own “Get Out Of Jail, Free” card for him — which is probably all you really need to know in order to get a general gist of what’s on offer in the pages of this comic.


Hill’s TV scripts are being adapted for the printed page by Michael Benedetto, but I think it’s fair to assume that the essence of them is surviving intact, and while the breadth and scope of Locke & Key can’t in any way be expected to be duplicated in a four-issue anthology series, it’s refreshing to see the talents of these individuals at work in a more “self-contained” and “scaled-back” format. We knew that Hill and Rodriguez could tackle sprawling epics, sure, but one installment in with Tales From The Darkside and it’s already crystal clear that simple-but-effective macabre morality plays are well within their wheelhouse, as well, and while it would or could be tempting to assume that our creators might try to get away with “mailing it in” on a project like this, at least if you’re a hardened cynic like I am, the simple truth is that, as Rodriguez’s superbly fluid double-splash image reproduced below shows, no one’s doing anything of the sort here. There’s going to be a lot of attention being paid to this new take on Tales From The Darkside, and who knows? Maybe the studio execs will take notice and decide that this idea has some life in it yet.


One brief final note : the one member of the Locke & Key team conspicuous by his absence here is colorist extraordinaire Jay Fotos, and while there’s nothing wrong with Ryan Hill’s hues in the least, fans will no doubt be very  pleased to see that the entire gang is getting back together later this year for a very special project teased in a “house ad” at the back of this comic. Even if the rest of the book sucked — which it absolutely doesn’t — I would feel that my $3.99 was well-spent just for this fucking promo page.

Yeah — that’s how big it the news is. And even if Tales From The Darkside doesn’t prove to be your cup of tea, you’ll still be over the moon about what these creators have coming up next. Trust me.


Question of the day : can an 86-minute movie totally redeem itself in the last 10 minutes? I confess I don’t know the answer myself, but director Eytan Rockaway’s 2015  indie horror The Abandoned (which played the horror film festival circuit, and even “enjoyed” a very limited theatrical run last year, under its original title, The Confines, before undergoing a name-change for Blu-ray/DVD and streaming service release via IFC Midnight) certainly comes pretty close. It gathers up a few too many strikes against it in the early going to completely pull its metaphorical fat out of the fire, it’s true, but if you do decide to stick it out to the end, you’ll at least give yourself the opportunity to see the best part, and who knows? Maybe you won’t walk away from it feeling your time was completely wasted.

I gave Rockaway’s obviously-low-budget little opus a go on Netflix last night (hence the conspicuous lack of information in this review regarding the film’s physical-storage specs), and really only kept going beyond the first 30 minutes out of sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness, but it’s just as well I did because now I have an excuse not only to review it, but to give it something of a middling recommendation (albeit one loaded with caveats). The problem, though — as I’m sure is already apparent — is that you have to wade through a awful lot of boring, cliched crap to get to the good stuff.


Here, then, are the story particulars : a mentally disturbed young lady known only as “Streak” (played by Louisa Krause) is attempting to put her life back together after an unspecified breakdown of some sort and does what anyone in her position would do, I suppose — takes a job as a third-shift security guard at a creepy-ass, cavernous, dilapidated,  abandoned building. Her co-worker, Cooper (waitaminit, isn’t that —? Holy shit, yes, it’s Jason Patric!), is pretty much the biggest a-hole you’ll ever meet in your life, literally devoid of anything even resembling a single redeeming quality, but when Streak decides to allow a homeless man named Jim (Mark Margolis), who’s trying to find shelter from an apparently-vicious storm, access to one of the rooms under her charge, all hell breaks loose as she’s confronted with a nightmarish series of visions — or are they memories? — that threaten to once again send her completely over the brink.

If this sounds like a road you’ve been down before, that’s because it is. There’s literally nothing new on offer here and every sad, old horror trope is paraded in front of your eyes with no regard for your continued sanity, much less that of our hapless protagonist. It all seems terribly shrill, unimaginative, and even condescending. Do Rockaway and his screenwriter, Ido Fluk, think we’re all suckers, or what?


It would certainly seem that they do, but as Cooper slowly begins to do a 180 and threaten to become likable, you start to think that maybe something else might be going on here — and the film’s rapid-fire final act shows that to indeed be the case. I can’t say much more without incurring the wrath of the “spoiler police,” but I will go so far as to state that if you ever wondered what would happen if an otherwise-lackluster horror flick decided to pull a twisted version of the ending to The Wizard Of Oz out from somewhere deep up its own ass, well — congratulations, you need not search any further for your answer. I literally don’t know where this idea came from, but damned if it doesn’t work — and work very well, at that.


Unfortunately, it’s really the only thing about The Abandoned that does. Both Patric and Margolis do serviceable enough work in their supporting roles, I suppose, but Krause has a long way to go before she can carry a film, and Rockaway’s visual style is very much “standard-issue modern horror.” This is a film that has absolutely nothing to recommend in its favor from start to nearly finish — but its completely unexpected, whacked-out finale is just about enough to save it.


Like you, I’m sure, I’ve learned to become more than suspicious of the Netflix “Recommended For You” list, and more often than not find myself wondering if whatever algorithm comes up with it really takes into consideration my prior viewing habits at all. Once in awhile, though — just once in awhile — the damn thing comes up trumps and scuttles my plans to quit paying attention to it altogether for at least a little bit longer. Last night was just such an occasion, as a 2015 indie horror flick from a director I’ve never heard of named Mike Testin found its way to the top of my recommendations and, having nothing else and/or better to do, I decided to give it a go, only to walk away from it 90 minutes later pleasantly surprised by the whole thing and reasonably eager to get off my ass and tell you good folks out there with free time on your hands to watch it, as well.

Mind you, Dementia is far from a perfect film, and probably isn’t worth a purchase on Blu-ray or DVD (where it’s available from IFC Films’ “IFC Midnight” label), but it’s definitely deserving of either a rental or a quick press of the red “play” arrow on Netflix — but let’s do things in the polite order of business here and talk about what does work before delving into what doesn’t. Sound fair? Okay, I’m glad you agree.


The setup at the heart of this movie is a fairly simple one — aging Vietnam vet George Lockhart (played by Gene Jones, who you may remember as the only good thing about Ti West’s The Sacrament) appears to be losing his marbles and,  sure enough, when doctors confirm that he’s experiencing a form of early-onset dementia, his grown, largely estranged children Shebly (Hassie Harrison) and Jerry (Peter Cilella) go on the hunt for a live-in nurse to look after their old man because they don’t want to be bothered with the cantankerous geriatric bastard themselves. Their selection process seems a little less than rigorous, relying mostly on whoever is sent their way, but a young lady with seemingly good experience in the field named Michelle (Kristina Klebe, last referenced on this site for her role in the superb  DePalma-esque thriller Proxy) absolutely wows ’em and gets the job. And, of course, right away she starts filling George’s head with all kinds of exquisite nonsense about himself and his past that simply can’t be true — or can it?


By the time Michelle starts adding physical abuse to her repetoire of torment, both our heads and George’s are so tied up in knots that, who knows? Either we come to believe that maybe the crotchety coot’s got it coming, or if he doesn’t, well — this is some seriously sick shit that’s going down. The two lead performances here are so damn good (and the same can be said of the always-awesome Richard Riehle, who turns up in one of his customary just-above-cameo-level roles) that they go a long way toward selling you on the idea that anything could be happening here and that either the patient or his nurse is a really warped effing sicko, but here’s the one big problem that prevents Dementia from moving into the “modern horror classic” ranks — screenwriter Meredith Berg’s script is more or less a gigantic black hole sucking anything remotely resembling suspense deep into its hungry maw and never letting it escape. You’ll know well before the flick hits the halfway point who Michelle really is, why she’s doing what she’s doing, and whether or not her actions are justified. And all the good acting in the world can’t do a damn thing to change that, unfortunately.


Not that Testin, his cast, and his crew aren’t to be commended for doing their level best to trick you into believing that maybe you’ve got it all wrong, of course. They most certainly are. And they really do convince you to hang onto your “come on, it can’t be so simple — can it?” sense of disbelief all the way through to the end. But when said end does arrive, along with said explanations, and it all does prove to be every bit as straightforward as you were afraid it might be, well — it really is a bit of a letdown, simply because any film this well-shot and well-acted deserves a better wrap-up than this one gives both itself and us.

Still, what the heck, I had a pretty good time with Dementia (how weird would that statement sound in any other context?), in spite of the fact that it may be guilty of promising at least a little bit more than it actually delivers — and if you go in fore-armed with the knowledge that, contrary to what may appear to be the case, everything really is exactly what it seems to be, chances are that you’ll find it to be plenty worth your while, as well.


Some folks still call WWII “the good war” — but you don’t hear many veterans of the conflict calling it that, do you? No, that term seems to be the exclusive domain of those who either sat it out or were too young to have fought in it. I might grant you that other euphemisms people use to describe it, such as “the last war where we were clearly on the side of right,” might be a little bit closer to the truth given that the Axis powers, Germany in particular, were clearly in need of stopping, but shit — it’s not like Stalinist Russia was the most noble of allies, and it’s not like we in the US had purely altruistic motives underpinning our involvement in either Europe or the Pacific ourselves. A “good war”? Sorry, but there’s no such thing.

Today, of course, we’ve at least made some minor headway in terms of dealing with the problems returning veterans have re-integrating into purportedly “peaceful” society, but in the aftermath of WWII, most of the guys who were suffering from what we now recognize to be PTSD were just told that they had “shellshock” by Army shrinks, given some morphine, and sent on their way. Many were plagued by vivid nightmares for the rest of their lives, many never did “figure out” how to reconcile the wartime atrocities they’d either witnessed or participated in with family life Stateside, and far too many ended up taking their own lives. Again, a “good war”? Spare me.

And yet explorations of the psychological and physical trauma of WWII vets have been sparse in the popular culture, and remain so even to this day, which is why I’m glad that comics legend Howard Chaykin is delving into that troubled and troubling territory in his new five-parter from Image, Midnight Of The Soul. Oh, sure, many of the standard pulp/noir trappings that have been Chaykin’s stock in trade for the past three decades or more (flawed in the extreme protagonists, dangerous femme fatales, hard-boiled and misogynistic narration, road-to-hell-style alcoholism, etc.) are all on full and flagrant display here, but it seems that the ol’ master is determined to deal with them in a bit more substantive way this time around than he has in previous (and rightly-celebrated) efforts like American Flagg!The Shadow, or American Century.

And hey, who knows? Maybe — just maybe — Chaykin, who is now in his early 70s, is going to prove to be yet another of those creators (like Kirby, Ditko, and Wood, among others)  who saves his most personal and insightful work for the latter stages of his career. Certain projects he’s undertaken in recent years such as his Century West graphic novel and his criminally-overlooked Buck Rogers mini-series provide plenty of top-quality fodder for the notion that this may, in fact, be the case, and while it’s still too early to say whether or not Midnight Of The Soul will follow that pattern, all signs seem to be pointing in that direction —and that’s definitely something worth getting at least a little bit excited about.


Our hard-luck less-than-hero this time around is one Joel Breakstone, who was on hand for the liberation of Auschwitz and in many key respects never really left that behind. He’s been diving to the bottom of every bottle he can find ever since, and in his few moments of clarity is attempting to make it as a pulp sci-fi writer — with no success. His long-suffering wife, Patricia, has been footing the bills for the household while her old man struggles in vain to get his shit together, but she’s clearly and understandably at the end of her rope, and the machinations of  her sleazy brother,  Steve — such as assuming her and Joel’s mortgage in exchange for a year’s rent — aren’t doing much to help matters.  Don’t let the quaint 1950s Long Island setting here fool you in the least — this couple is doomed, and they both know it. Joel never leaves the house, and when Patricia does, well — let’s just say she does what she has to do to in order to get by, but her nocturnal activities are leading her right into a whole mess of trouble, and it’s trouble of the sort that’s only going to be compounded once hubby knows the score. Which, by the end of this issue, he does. And the revelations prove to be enough to finally get him off his drunken ass.


Heading out on your motorcycle with revenge on your mind is never the greatest idea even if you’re sober, of course, but given that Joel is anything but and that his wife, unbeknownst to him, is in a shitload of danger that he actually isn’t the source of, it’s going to be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out. Chaykin’s art has, admittedly, taken a step back in recent years in terms of its fluidity and formerly- tight line control — and the new electronic age isn’t exactly proving to be his ally if the clunky digitally-inserted backgrounds here are any indication — but a “dated” and “past its prime” look actually fits pretty well thematically with the story being presented here, and the man’s scripting chops are still in tip- top form. There’s a definite sense here that we’re watching a consummate pro at work in a genre he clearly knows intimately, even if he’s not terribly comfortable with all the new tools at his disposal.

The same is also and obviously true of his longtime letterer, Ken Bruzenak, whose stylish sound effects have been a mainstay in Chaykin comics for decades, but who doesn’t quite seem to have a firm handle on many of the various digital fonts in vogue in the comic book world of 2016. You can see all the elements of what’s made this such a successful and long-standing partnership on display, but somehow it all feels just a little off — which, again, isn’t even necessarily meant as a criticism in this case since it amps up the book’s inherent “nostalgia value,” even if entirely by accident.

One member of “Team Chaykin” that I’m going to have to give a little bit less of a “free pass” to, though, is his colorist of choice in recent years, Jesus Aburtov. There’s no doubt that he’s an immensely talented creator, but the bright, even garish, computerized hues that he employed with such a high degree of skill on previous projects like the aforementioned Buck Rogers and 2014’s The Shadow : Midnight In Moscow look decidedly out of place here and detract from the overall noir aesthetic that everyone else is clearly going for. With the action in subsequent issues moving into the streets of New York City, my earnest hope is that he’ll tone down his palette somewhat to match his surroundings and their historical context, but as far as this debut installment goes, the sad fact is that the colors stick  out like a swollen thumb.


On the whole, though, there’s no reason in the world not to be borderline wildly optimistic about the dark ride down that comics’ most obvious heir to the pulp legacy is taking us on with this book. Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but in my mind a new Howard Chaykin series is still an honest-to-God event, damnit, and Midnight Of The Soul #1 is a fine piece of evidence for the prosecution as to why I feel this to be the case. I hope that young creators with a penchant for all things noir are paying very close and careful attention to what Chaykin’s doing here, because so far he’s putting on a fucking clinic.

Stand aside, kids, your time will come — but for now, let’s all be content to sit back and watch the distinguished veteran do what he does best at least one more time, shall we?





In other reviews on this site of recent vintage, I’ve bitched about how a particularly brutal work schedule kept me from getting to the theater to see anything new for a few months, and one of the flicks I definitely wanted to check out that hit screens in this early-2016 time frame was director William Brent Bell’s The Boy. It must have been a really solid marketing campaign that sold me on the idea of seeing this one, because Bell’s previous film, The Devil Inside, was an uninspired, derivative mess, but what can I say? Stories about evil dolls, puppets, ventriloquist’s dummies, and the like have always been right up my alley. So I was pleased as punch when a free DVD “screener” copy of this (with no extras included, but I’m not complaining) showed up in my mailbox courtesy of Universal/STX Entertainment. I guess sometimes it pays to wait things out, after all.

Right off the bat the PG-13 rating appended to this film provides a fairly clear indication that it’s going to be light on the blood and guts, but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand — once in awhile, after all, a fairly decent atmospheric/psychological horror sneaks out with “less” than an R rating, and I’m happy to report that’s exactly what The Boy is. Bell has already proven over the course of his short-but-successful (in box office terms, if not artistic ones) career that re-inventing the wheel isn’t his forte, but here, at least, he combines a number of familiar elements we all know and love into a reasonably involving and quite-nice-looking serving of something we’ve had served to us before, but certainly don’t mind sampling again.


The setup is as follows : college-age Montana girl Greta Evans (played by Lauren Cohan) is looking to split her small-town life after a nasty breakup, and ends up going about as far away from home as she possibly can when she accepts a gig as a nanny for a small boy named Brahms (think the composer) Heelshire living with his uncharacteristically elderly parents in a sprawling, musty old house in the rural English countryside (by way of British Columbia, where the film was actually shot). Mr. (Jim Norton) and Mrs. (Diana Hardcastle) Heelshire both possess the sort of polite-but-distant temperament one frankly expects to find among UK aristocracy, so no big surprises there, but Brahms himself isn’t what Greta was figuring on at all — probably because he’s made of porcelain. But what the heck, mummy and daddy treat him like the real thing, and the pay is great, so she’s more than willing to swallow her pride — eventually, mind you — and play along. Still, the fact that Brahms’ parents are so eager to split town the minute she shows up is a pretty solid clue that something else beyond the surface-level insanity that’s plain for anyone to see is going on here.

Speaking of which — the rules for “caring” for Brahms are all very clever hints in retrospect that screenwriter Stacey Menear disguises quite well, and while the “ghost living in a doll” angle has been done to death, Bell’s lushly-shot film injects the would-be-tired trope with more life than it probably either expects or, frankly, deserves. The fetching and more-than-able Cohan does a nice job in the lead role here and Rupert Evans is likable as her newfound love interest, Malcolm, but it’s not until her pyscho ex, Cole (Ben Robson) shows up out of nowhere that a real sense of dread descends over the proceedings — first from him, and then from parts unforeseen altogether. To say much more would leave me open to accusations of “spoiling” the movie, so let me just draw your attention one more time to the statement I made a second ago about the “rules” for Brahms being telltale signs that there is, perhaps, something else entirely going on here.

Lauren Cohan stars in a scene from the movie "The Boy." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/STX Productions) See MOVIE-REVIEW-THE-BOY Jan. 22, 2016.

And hey, I admit — I didn’t see the twist in this flick coming. I feel downright stupid saying that now, of course, but “how stupid am I, anyway?” moments are too few and far between in the horror and thriller genres these days, so on the rare occasions when they do occur, I’m happy to take them even if — or maybe precisely because — they make me feel like a dumb schmuck. Granted, predicating your entire film on one big twist means that it probably won’t hold up to repeat viewings, but at least it also means that the first (and perhaps only) time you see The Boy will be a fairly memorable experience.


All in all, then, Bell and his better-than-competent cast and crew have delivered a better-than-competent finished product here. A masterwork it certainly isn’t, but The Boy is most definitely worthy of both a recommendation on my part and a look on yours. It sure won’t knock your socks off, but it’ll leave you saying “hey, I’m glad I checked that out,” and that marks it as a solid (enough) cinematic accomplishment in my book.



So, here’s a tip : if you’re browsing through the titles available for streaming on Netflix and looking for something good — and I mean really fucking good — to watch, you aren’t gonna do much better than Jim Mickle’s 2014 indie crime thriller Cold In July, which was just added a couple weeks back. I know that it’s a cardinal sin in the “review game” to give away your final opinion on a film right out of the gate because people then have no reason to read any further, but seriously — you’re better off watching this flick than absorbing my words of “wisdom” about it anyway, so if you cut out right here and now in order to check it out, I promise I won’t take it personally in the least.

Okay, anybody still left? The let’s talk a little bit about why this movie is so damn good, shall we?


Crime and horror novelist Joe R. Lansdale specializes in tales as thick with tension as their Texas locales are with humidity, and Mickle and his screenwriting partner, Nick Damici, have cooked up a faithful-as-a-revival-tent-on-Sunday-morning adaptation here, taking us through more twists and turns than you’ll find in a coiled rattlesnake. What starts out as a “period piece”  home invasion movie set in 1987 when small-town Lone Star State frame shop owner Richard Dane (played by Michael C. Hall) and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw) have their humble abode broken into by a masked intruder quickly morphs into a revenge flick when Richard shoots the burglar dead, only to have the lad’s just-released-from-prison father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) start stalking framer-boy’s family and threatening to kidnap — or worse — his infant son “in exchange” for the life he took. Still, that ain’t shit compared to what’s to come, as a series of events so stomach-churning and horrific you could be forgiven for getting physically ill as they play out actually ends with Richard and Ben becoming uneasy allies once it becomes clear that whoever was shot dead breaking into the house that night was most assuredly not the junior member of the Russell clan at all — in fact, thanks to the legwork done by Ben’s war- buddy-turned-pig-farmer/part-time-private-dick, Jim Bob (Don Johnson), we come to learn that Ben’s boy Freddy is alive and well, but what he’s doing to occupy his time and earn a buck? Well, that’s enough to make the old man wish he’d never popped off the load that got him started in the first place — and since he brought this monster into the world, he’s making it his personal mission to take him out of it.


If you’re getting the notion that Cold In July is a dark, brooding piece of southern-fried psychodrama, you’re absolutely right — but it’s much more than that, as well. There’s a hell of a heaping helping of “gallows humor” and well-rounded characterization of offer here, as well. Hall’s take on Richard as a fairly simple family man plunged into a mystery he never asked for but is determined to help solve is strong enough in and of itself, but it’s Shepard and Johnson who really steal the show here, with Shepard’s Ben going from cooler-than-cool figure of menace to tortured father with a conscience and Johnson’s Jim Bob walking a fine line that has flamboyant Texan-to-the-bone on the one side and sympathetic old friend on the other. Both roles are well within each of these gentlemen’s respective wheelhouses, to be sure, but seldom do you get to see even one actor knock a “role they were born to play” out of the park in a film, let alone two. It’s a real treat, to say the least, to watch this pair of pros both doing what they do best perhaps better than they’ve ever done it before.

Mickle is to be commended for doing much more than just coaxing terrific performances out of his grade-A cast, though — he imbues everything here with a palpable sense of Dixie-style dread that is absolutely steeped in the uniquely thick stew of its time and place and delivers one gut-punch after another that, somehow, you’re eager to get up from — even though you know you’re only gonna get a harder one when you do. That takes skill, my friends, and this is skilled southern noir in its most relentlessly brutal and undeniable form.


All of which, I suppose, brings us right back to where we started — this is a flick you need to see ASAP, either via Netflix, as suggested at the outset, or by means of its IFC-released Blu-ray and/or DVD physical-storage iterations. It might be damn Cold In July, but Mickle’s film is hot enough to fry some of Jim Bob’s homemade bacon on until it sizzles.



When I was a little kid, Paul Williams was absolutely fucking everywhere. You couldn’t turn on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, or Johnny Carson without seeing him. He was a guest star on everything from cop shows like Baretta to sitcoms like The Odd Couple. He was on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island seemingly all the time. In the movies, he took everything from bit parts in big-budget flicks like Smokey And The Bandit to lead roles in singularly unique fare like Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise. He wrote songs for the likes of Barbara Streisand and The Carpenters and had a successful recording career of his own. And who could forget “The Rainbow Connection?”

Yup, there’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams was a positively ubiquitous presence across the entertainment spectrum. Until he wasn’t anymore. And that’s where director Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary Paul Williams : Still Alive (recently added to Netflix, which is how I saw it, but also available on Blu-ray and DVD) picks up the story.


People definitely change a lot over the years, but the idea that Williams now shuns the limelight is a tough one to get around for people of my generation simply because for a good decade or more he literally was the limelight. But in addition to entertaining (and, of course, earning) millions, he also fell victim to the excesses of the “Hollywood lifestyle,” and booze and drugs did a number on his head, his health, and his life. Kessler’s film documents a guy who’s troubled — often and obviously painfully so — by his past, but who isn’t running from it so much as using it as a teaching tool both for others and, crucially, himself. Both subject and director take some time to warm to each other, to be sure, but once they do, the ease of their rapport makes for a frank and memorable look at addiction, recovery, sobriety, regret, and the long, hard road to finding something resembling inner peace with oneself.


It’s also more than just a little annoying. Not because of anything Williams does or doesn’t do or say, but because Kessler often doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up and let himself fade into the background. This reaches its apex when Williams invites him along on a tour of the Philippines with him and the director can’t seem to tone down his own xenophobic impulses and paranoia, but even at its most self-(rather than subject-) indulgent, Paul Williams : Still Alive makes for pretty darn engaging, and at times even enlightening, viewing. And it’s heartening to see that Williams himself is doing well and counseling others while still maintaining a reasonably successful songwriting and voice-over career and achieving some approximation of work-life balance for both himself and his wife/manager. Simply put, he seems to finally have his shit together.

Paul Williams Still Alive

Not that getting to this point was in any way easy for the guy, of course, and his frankness and honesty in that regard is remarkable. Williams is straight-up about the fact that was an absolute asshole to his first two wives and a rotten father to his kids, and while he’s equally honest about his troubled childhood and family history with chemical dependency, he never puts the blame for his “wasted years” on anyone other than himself. There’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams is an absolutely fascinating  subject to base a film around.

Stepehn Kessler, though — not so much. And his insistence on inserting himself into the proceedings as much as possible is the one thing preventing Paul Williams : Still Alive from achieving the status of “absolutely essential showbiz documentary.” It’s good, don’t get me wrong — but it could, and probably should, have been great. There’s a semi-wistful song hanging somewhere in the gap between the two, I think — and I know just the guy to write it.




For some folks, the occasional vicarious look at people who “live on the margins” is enough. You know the type — they’re fascinated by reality-show train wrecks and Cops reruns and what have you, but really, they’re pretty happy to leave all that behind after 30 minutes or an hour and take the kids to soccer practice or go to the PTA meeting or do whatever it is that suburbanites generally do. Sounds kinda dull to me, but hey, if it’s working for them, more power to ’em.

Some of us, however, are wired a bit differently. “On the margins” won’t do for us when stories about people who live well beyond them are at our disposal. We dig flicks like Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. We know that there are millions of people who are forced to eke out a hardscrabble existence in any way that they can so that the less-than-one-percent can continue to live high off the hog and the dwindling upper-middle and straight-up-middle classes can maintain the illusion that they “have it good.” We’re hip to the fact that their are plenty of people well beyond the reach of the swiftly-fading “American dream,” and we think that no-frills looks at their lives are worthwhile not for the sake of cheap curiosity, but because that’s the real America right there, regardless of what the media and our purported “leaders” in the governmental and business worlds (is there really any difference between the two anymore?) may want us to believe. And ya know what? Let’s not kid ourselves. If the rich keep having their way — and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — life on the streets, or even in the gutters, is something we’d all better get used to.

For folks inclined toward such hard slaps of reality, there are few films I can recommend more strongly than co-writer (along with Chris Bergoch)/director Sean Baker’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival sensation Tangerine, a painfully honest, authentic, and frankly necessary look at life on arguably the most notorious urban thoroughfare of all , Hollywood Boulevard, that was picked up for distribution by the Duplass brothers’ burgeoning micro-budget empire and is now available on Netflix (as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, but not having seen it on either of those formats myself I can’t comment on any specifics in relation to those physical-storage releases).


Lets’s get one thing straight right off the bat, though — Tangerine is not a documentary, but for all intents and purposes it sure plays out like one. Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just hit the streets again after spending 28 days locked up on a bullshit possession charge that she took to protect her pimp/old man, Chester (James Ransone), but when she hears that he was stepping out on her while she was in stir with a new girl who actually is, well, a girl, she’s understandably livid and out to bust some heads. It takes some doing, but her and her best friend Alexandra/Alexander (Mya Taylor) do eventually find the young lady in question, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) after tearing up one hourly-rate motel room, crack den, charity food line, and all-night donut shop after another. And then they all find Chester. It’s Christmas Eve, but there’s gonna be more fireworks than the 4th of July.

Running concurrently with this main storyline is the pathetic-but-gripping saga of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant cab driver who’s forced to take an endless parade of pain-in-the-ass fares (the great Clu Gulager being one of them) in order to finance the desperate need for she-male cock that he, of course, keeps well-hidden from his family. Or so he thinks.


Everyone’s paths are going to violently intersect before the night is through and no one’s going to get a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean Tangerine is all gloom and doom. Far from it, in fact, as both astonishing leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, imbue their characters with a wickedly unapologetic sense of humor throughout. Yeah, they work the streets. Yeah, they smoke crack. Yeah, they hate having penises. Yeah, they’re broke and don’t know where they’re gonna sleep on any given night. You got a problem with that? Because I’m telling you, they sure as hell don’t. One unexpected plot twist near the end of the film definitely leads to them having a problem with each other, though, and watching how all that plays out and is worked through leads to one of the most unconventionally touching moments you’ll see in any film this year. Yes, on top of everything else, Tangerine packs a bit of an emotional wallop, as well.


The supporting players in this flick are uniformly excellent as well, especially Ransone as the sorry-ass, not-worth-the-trouble-and-everyone-knows-it Chester and Karagulian as the palpably conflicted Razmik. Baker is to be commended for getting such outstanding performances from his largely unprofessional cast, to be sure, but above all he earns kudos for eschewing the “freak show” or “sob story”  approaches that  lesser directors would take with this material and instead treating these people for whom clawing their way their way to “rock bottom” would be a step up with the respect and dignity they deserve. The picture he paints is by turns ugly and beautiful, as things tend to be I suppose when one’s survival is far from guaranteed, but hidden within it all is a quietly powerful message — selling your body, and maybe even your conscience, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to sell your dignity, as well.

Tangerine (and no, I still can’t figure out what the heck the title means, either) certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who proudly wear any one or more of the labels “freak,” “reject,” “degenerate,” ‘loser,” “outcast,” “creep,” or “weirdo,” well — this is a movie worth standing up and cheering at the top of our lungs over.