Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.

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Damn, but it’s been awhile since we did one of these “International Weirdness” columns looking at strange cinema from other parts of the globe around these parts — and that’s no one’s fault but my own, for which I duly apologize. And I further apologize for the fact that it’s returning under less than auspicious circumstances, but what can I do? Last night, you see, I made the mistake of watching a 2011 Australian “found footage” horror flick on Amazon Prime (it’s probably also available on DVD, maybe even Blu-ray, not that you should care) titled — wait for it — Found Footage, and I’d literally be remiss in my civic duty not to warn you off from it in the strongest possible terms.

So — what’s it about? Well, it’s about a killer named Darius McKenzie (played by Matt Doran, who I understand is something of a “known quantity” on Australian television, and who also co-directed this steaming pile of kangaroo shit along with its screenwriter, Samuel Bartlett), who — kills people. Particularly women (bet you didn’t see that coming). And “films” it on his digital camcorder. And — that’s it.

No, seriously, that’s it. He’s busted by the end and this “footage” was purportedly “found” by the Australian Federal Police, so they’ve pretty much got him dead to rights. We know exactly how this flick wraps up, then — but we also know exactly what’s going to happen in it from the word “go.” And that’s its greatest sin apart from its blatant misogyny, atrocious acting, and cheesy-even-by-the-standards-of-this-sort-of-thing production values.

Honestly, I’m not at all sure why POV Horror — who have actually put out some films that I quite enjoy (although I fully admit to not being nearly as “down” on this whole subgenre as, apparently, most sensible folks are) — picked this thing up for international distribution. It literally has nothing going for it apart from some fairly realistic practical effects work and a short (64 minutes, if I’m not mistaken) run time. And when all you can say about a movie is “hey, at least it wasn’t longer,” well — that really isn’t saying much, is it?

I dearly hope that some of the actresses involved in this way-beyond-dubious project were fairly paid for their work, but somehow I doubt that. All the likes of Catherine Jeramus, Lisa Fineberg, and Alison Gallagher had to do, on a purely technical level, was show up, scream a lot, and pretend to be violently murdered, but seriously : there’s an indelible stain on one’s career that comes part and parcel with attachment to anything this undoubtedly sorry and they deserve appropriate compensation for that. Although, in fairness, perhaps the most appropriate compensation they could have asked for is simply having their names removed from it.

So, yeah, there’s just no sugar-coating it, under-selling it, or over-stating it : Found Footage really is just that bad. It’s one of those flicks where you honestly wonder why the hell anyone even bothered to make it, and none of the answers you can come up with are particularly pleasant. It won’t scare you, surprise you, or in any way even interest you. I’d call it worthless, but in truth it probably has negative value — I’ll certainly never get back the hour(-ish) of my life that I sunk into watching it, and for that I’m not so much disappointed as I am actively pissed off. I was robbed of time that would have been better spent watching my fingernails grow or the flagpole rust.

 

With the Oscar nominations having hit earlier the day of this writing, everybody’s talking about RomaA Star Is BornBohemian RhapsodyBlack Panther, etc. But there was a robbery committed in plain sight that seems to be going entirely unremarked-upon. I speak of the fact that writer/director Paul Schrader’s most remarkable film probably since Affliction, the criminally-underappreciated First Reformed, received precisely one nomination.

It’s in a category it could very well win, Best Original Screenplay — especially given that it won in same at the DGA Awards — but seriously : this is smart, nuanced, thought-provoking, intellectually and emotionally compelling filmmaking of the highest order, anchored by two incredibly strong central performances, pitch-perfect direction, and subtly impressive work by all and sundry behind the camera as the flick’s cinematography, musical score, editing, and production design are all in no way flashy, but essentially flawless.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little bit miffed.

For those unfamiliar with the plot particulars, Ethan Hawke exceeds any possible expectations in a stellar turn as the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, who heads up a small upstate New York church that relies on tourism and the largesse of a neighboring “mega-church” for its survival. His house of worship is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and while he finds the celebrations commensurate with the “birthday” swiftly spinning out of his control, he’s also confronting his own crisis of faith engendered by the suicide of a disillusioned-with-existence parishoner named Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), a veteran who had fallen in with what’s derisively referred to as the “eco-terrorist” crowd after a stint in the military had run its course.

It wasn’t Michael who initially came to Rev. Toller for counseling, though, it was his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, who, like Hawke, turns in career-defining work here), understandably conflicted with the idea of bringing new life into the world at the same that her husband seemed to be giving up on his. Mary and Toller develop a complex, multi-faceted and all-too-painfully-plausible relationship tinged with longing, desire, and a kind of mutual admiration, one shot through with with basic, elemental need for human connection with perhaps the only other person who can possibly come close to understanding their respective situations, but Toller is still struggling with the death of his son on the field of battle a good few years ago and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage, as well as his unresolved feelings for the musical director at the New Life “mega-church,” Esther (Victoria Hill). It’s a rich, thick stew of psychodrama that reveals just as much about its depth and character through the mannerisms, actions, even inaction of the principal players involved as it does by means of Schrader’s humanistic, melodrama-free dialogue.

The final ingredient, though, is certainly the most combustible and also the most tantalizing : Toller finds himself drawn toward the late Michael’s uncompromising ecological worldview, thanks in no small measure to the greedy machinations of local energy company magnate Ed Balq (Michale Gaston), who just so happens to be a major funder of New Life and a close friend of its lead pastor, Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited here — appropriately, it seems to me — under his Christian name, Cedric Antonio Kyles). And guess where a whole bunch of the money for that big 250th anniversary extravaganza is coming from?

A bubbling cauldron is about to explode.

As the big day approaches, Toller finds himself going further and further off the rails, as well as deeper into the bottle, but a frightening medical diagnosis convinces him (perhaps ironically, perhaps not — it all depends on your point of view) that his path is set, his course clear, and the final act is a whirlwind of borderline-surreal storytelling and imagery that trusts viewers to make up their own minds rather than spelling things out in strict “okay, here’s what happened” terms. The ending itself has alienated some audiences and critics, it’s true, but for my money (not that I have a whole bunch), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Schrader has mapped out a trajectory for these characters and leaves it in our hands to determine exactly how they get to where they’re going. It all seems pretty damn clear to me, but I’ve read other reviews and essays on the film that posit different potential interpretations, and many make some very good points. So I’m just gonna leave it at “see it for yourself and make of it what you will,” since that seems the most honest approach to take.

And see it you definitely should. Whether on Blu-ray, DVD, or streaming on Amazon Prime, where it’s now available for members. You may not love First Reformed as unreservedly as I do, but you will be affected, and most likely impressed, by it. About the only thing I can compare it to in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities and understated-but-overwhelming emotional resonance is Ingmar Bergman’s finest work, and that’s high praise indeed coming from any quarter, I should think.

Oh, and if it doesn’t win at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, there damn well ought to be an investigation.

Just when we thought we were out — he pulls us back in!

The third (and, to date, best) installment of writer/director/actor Nigel Bach’s filmed-on-his-iPhone-in-his-own-goddamn-house Bad Ben series was supposed to be “The Final Chapter,” but here we are, one year and two more films later, and it still shows no sign of being anywhere near over. I can’t say I blame Bach — Amazon Prime keeps picking these things up, they cost nothing (or next to it) to produce, they can be cranked out fairly quickly, and they presumably turn at least a modest little profit. Just because you can keep doing something, though, doesn’t mean you should.

Let’s just call it like it is right outta the gate here : this is a remarkably unlikely indie “franchise,” and Bach deserves a lot of credit for his tenacity and belief in himself — but it’s also a franchise that’s entirely out of gas. It was bound to happen, of course — there’s only so much that can be done with a bog-standard “haunted house” premise and no money, and again, Bach should be commended for milking the whole thing for far more than anyone (myself included) ever thought possible, but still — viewers are generally aware of when a given premise has run its course, even if the filmmakers themselves are blind to it.

And, to rise to Bach’s defense once again, as lousy as Bad Ben 4 : The Mandela Effect was, I can see why he maybe thought he could go back to the well one more time once he’d put that one “in the can.” After all, that flick was pretty much a “solo venture” again — a “return to roots,” so to speak — and if it didn’t work out, what the hell? He’d done his best work with a larger (relatively speaking) cast, so maybe he could just go down that road again if part four landed with a thud. And so he has.

To that end, The Crescent Moon Clown — or, if you prefer, Bad Ben 5 : The Crescent Moon Clown — is not focused on Bach’s Tom Riley character (by and large, at any rate — he does pop up in what can fairly be termed a cameo), but the focus here is still tight and insular, the lone “star” being Jetta Tionne Anderson, who plays Renee, a college-age kid who’s spending her fist night alone in her parents’ new house — which just so happens, of course, to be Tom Riley’s old house. Cue things going bump in the dark.

Anyway, long story short, we’ve been here. We’ve done this. And the well is dry. Bone dry, in fact.

Anderson is likable enough, but not a tremendously competent thespian — you can tell she’s trying, and I give her all kinds of credit for that, but she struggles with that fine line between “emoting” and “exaggerating,” and the script’s “scares” are so fucking tepid that someone of her marginal ability is pretty well set up to fail as she tries, without success, to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear Bach has written. With some decent material, she might be able to pull off a smaller role, but as things are — well, let’s just say she’s out of her depth and lacks the tools and training to hide that fact.

Still, despite the fact that a film of this nature is going to rise and/or fall on the shoulders of its lead, the fault here lies — just to be perfectly clear one more time — not with Anderson, but with Bach himself, who put an inexperienced actress in a bad position just because he couldn’t let go of an idea that’s well past its expiration date. He’s shown flashes of being a genuine no-budget auteur in earlier installments of this series, so I’d be game to watch something new with his name attached to it, but that’s the rub : it has to be new. A haunted clown doll in a dusty old box may be a new “wrinkle” in the Bad Ben “mythos,” but it’s not a new concept, much less a new lease on life.

The jury, then, may be out on Bach himself as a filmmaker, but as far as his pet franchise goes, it’s crystal clear : The Crescent Moon Clown proves that you can put a fork in Bad Ben. It’s done.

Or, at least, it should be.

 

When “off the beaten path” is your norm, then what are you supposed to do when you want to go “off the beaten path” yourself? You watch something normal, I guess.

I admit that espionage “thrillers” are not high on my own personal “to-watch” list very often, but the other night, browsing through the films available on our local cable system’s streaming service, I decided to give director Billy Ray’s well-reviewed 2007 offering Breach a shot, simply because I was in the mood for something it would never occur to me to even watch, much less write about. I duly watched it — and now I’m writing about it.

Based on the investigation into, and subsequent arrest of, notorious FBI “mole” Robert Hanssen, a guy who was selling us out to the Russians long before the current president made such things fashionable, Breach is no doubt somewhat over-dramatized, but it appears not by much : Ray’s production is a classy one, with the more salacious aspects of Hanssen’s bizarre personal life dialed down, his nauseating religiosity (he;s some kind of hard-core traditionalist Catholic) dialed up, and plenty of less-than-glamorous “nuts and bolts” investigative work at the fore of the story. Mainly, though, what we’ve got here is a veritable acting clinic put on by some of the best in the business, many of whom never get nearly enough credit for consistently delivering the goods.

Chris Cooper stars as Hanssen, and he’s downright spectacular, literally inhabiting his petty, jealous, sanctimonious, thoroughly duplicitous character with gusto, verve, and disturbing veracity, and how he didn’t walk away with an Oscar for this one is a straight-up mystery to me. Maybe because wasn’t counted on to carry the whole thing himself, but was rather part of a talented ensemble? I dunno, but I do know that everyone else more than pulls their weight : Ryan Phillippe is controlled and conflicted in equal measure as newbie agent Eric O’Neill, the guy who lands the unenviable task of having to bring down Hanssen from the inside, Laura Linney is the epitome of someone who’s devoted her whole life to duty as agent Kate Burrows, O’Neill’s “handler,” and Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan both stand out as O’Neill and Hansen’s wives, respectively, both of whom do a bang-up job of communicating the unique stresses inherent in their unbearably tense (albeit for entirely different reasons) home lives.

It’s not just the principal stars who being home the bacon here, though, as veteran character actors like Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, and Bruce Davison all make the most of limited screen time and breathe extra life into thinly-written roles. High-wire tension is largely the order of the day in this one, as you’d expect (or at least hope, and in this case that hope isn’t in vain), but the extra depth these supporting players bring to the table goes a long way toward fleshing out what is, frankly, a fairly “A-to-B” story that we all know the ending of before the film even starts.

And, ya know, that bears thinking about for a minute : there’s never any doubt about how the events in Breach (which is also, I would assume, available on DVD and Blu-ray if such is your preference) are going to play out, but damn if Ray and his superb cast don’t manage to keep you on the edge of your seat every step of the way.  That might be the highest thing a flick this “boxed in” by its own necessary parameters can aspire to, and to say “mission accomplished” in this case is to sell too short the level of flat-out cinematic excellence achieved here. I was absolutely floored by how enthralling this film was, and I’m more than willing to bet that if you give it a shot, you will be, as well.

I admit, I’d blissfully forgotten about director Stewart Raffill’s godawful 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac And Me until it turned up as the first “episode” of the new “season” of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. I mean, I saw it as a kid, but I remember being fundamentally unimpressed by it even then — and now I remember why : it’s basically a 90-ish minute McDonald’s (and Coke, and Skittles — but mainly Mickey D’s) commercial strung out over the barest skeleton of a script.

If you think that’s too harsh an assessment, I assure you it’s not, and offer this mercifully brief “plot” synopsis as proof : wheelchair-bound youth Eric Cruise (played with an annoying level of over-sincerity, but no discernible talent, by Jade Calegory), his older brother, Michael (Jonathan Ward), and their mom, Janet (Christine Ebersole) are in the midst of a cross-country move from Chicago to California when an alien who was literally vacuumed aboard a NASA planetary lander along with his the family he’s now separated from stows away in the back of their mini-van after escaping government custody. Once set up in their new digs, the Cruise clan is subject to a series of weird “alien interventions,” such as when the little guy inexplicably decides to replicate the wooded area outside — in the living room of their house. The feds are hot on the tail of this extraterrestrial varmint, whom Eric has nicknamed “Mac” (for “Mysterious Alien Creature”), but fear not, as these bungling buffoons are no match for a gang of plucky teenagers led by our protagonist brothers and the literal girls next door, Debbie (Lauren Stanley) and senior sis Courtney (Katrina Caspary), who works at — McDonald’s. The kids (and several of their ostensible “friends”) are all having fun dancing and running around (keep your eyes peeled for a youthful Jennifer Aniston and Nikki Cox in the crowd of merry-makers) at a birthday party at — McDonald’s when the G-Men make their move, but by cleverly disguising “Mac” in a full-body teddy bear costume they manage to give ’em the slip and get him to his family (no need for these folks to “phone home” since they have some sort of psychic communication “wavelength” they conjure up by means of — their hands?) that’s hiding in a cave. The Earth’s atmosphere is making our visitors sick, but fortunately Coke restores them to full health, and Skittles fill their bellies with happy butterflies, and then it’s time for them to head back to their home planet after saying some less-than-tearful (for us, at any rate) farewells.

Plot holes abound in this cinematic abomination, the most noticeable probably being when Eric first gets the idea to capture “Mac” with a vacuum cleaner even though he has no reason to believe that’s gonna work because he wasn’t on the alien planet when it happened before, but that’s immaterial : something tells me that Raffill and his co-screenwriter, Steve Feke, didn’t cobble their script together to make sense, but to sell product. “Mac” is literally always drinking Coke, for instance, and Courtney has a habit of wearing her McDonald’s work uniform around even when she’s off the clock. Product placement is one thing, but Mac And Me makes all of its sponsors central to the proceedings, dispensing with the notion of “incidental” brand identification completely. It’s entirely blatant, entirely annoying, and frankly entirely cynical.

But hey, you can’t say these corporations didn’t get their money’s worth : as it turns out, producer R.J. Louis (fresh off a massive hit with The Karate Kid) actually got McDonald’s to more or less finance the entire film from top to bottom, with Coke and Skittles kicking in just enough to get in on the action, as well. So this thing doesn’t just look or feel like an extended promo spot — that’s exactly what it is. Say what you will for the Reese’s Pieces inclusion in E.T., but at least Steven Spielberg worked it into the movie rather than going the Raffill/Louis route of working a cutesy “family-friendly” science fiction yarn into their ad.

I guess the production values aren’t too bad — the alien “family” is competently-realized and the vacuuming scenes are a rather impressive example of pre-CGI effects, but that’s all I can really say in this flick’s favor : the acting is uniformly lousy, the plot is derivative and predictable, the characters are wooden in the extreme, the laughs (hell, even chuckles) are non-existent, and there is never any sense of threat or menace from the NASA (or FBI, or whatever) cops. It doesn’t even feel like anybody’s trying.

Fortunately, this crass slab of celluloid commercialization met the fate it deserved at the box office, disappearing after two weeks and a six-million-dollar gross, and while it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not like it’s some cult favorite that sells in steady and respectable numbers. I dare say I’m far from the only person who forgot about it altogether until the “riffed” MST3K version became available for streaming, and while it’s far from one of the series’ classic installments, if you’re gonna subject yourself to this dreck, watching Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo rip it to shreds is the only way of making the experience bearable.

If at first you at least partially succeed — then keep going! That seems to be the modus operandi of micro-budget horror filmmakers from Nigel Bach to Ryan Callaway to — shit, everyone in the game, right? You don’t have that much money you need to earn back from these things because they didn’t cost that much to make, obviously, but if you get a few months’ rent or mortgage payments in the can every time you put one out, then why not keep on keeping on?

Turner Clay is no exception, and since he probably recouped whatever “investment” of time and money that went into 2017’s The Blackwell Ghost, plus a little something extra for the effort, there was literally no reason for him not to go back to the well in 2018 and crank out The Blackwell Ghost 2. Amazon Prime picked up the first one, so why couldn’t they be counted on to do the same again? Such a presumption is right, of course — but none of that answers the one question that you, dear reader, are presumably here to find out about, namely : is this movie any good?

As is the case with its progenitor, the answer to that isn’t so much an unqualified “yes” as it is a “sure, what the hell?,” chiefly because it does the same things all over again and gets right what the first flick got right while also getting wrong what the first flick got wrong. It’s nominally more ambitious, which is both welcome and, frankly, to be expected, but it treads decidedly familiar ground : Clay went and made another one of his horror cheapies (a real movie, as it turns out, titled Raccoon Valley) after “surviving” his time in the Blackwell house, but he hasn’t been able to get the “experience” out of his head, so when he receives a mysterious package containing an old record and a photo of Ruth Blackwell with a young girl, he’s eager to meet the sender, who turns out to be — drumroll, please — the little girl in the picture all done growed up, who in due course allows him access to a storage facility filled with other Blackwell paraphernalia, the most intriguing item of which is a schematic of the house marked with a purportedly ominous “X” that Clay believes to be an indication of where something — or maybe even someone — is buried. Time to grab wife Terri (once again played by Terri Czapleski) and go back up to Pennsylvania even though they never leave Louisville!

Things aren’t as easy for our “mockumentarians” this time out given that the owner of the property, with whom they have a friendly rapport, is selling the place (good luck with that), but he’s willing to give Clay the keys to the joynt for three nights, and during that time another series of vaguely creepy events takes place that convinces our man and his lady love that, yeah, this house really is haunted, but aside from a bunch of conspicuous plugs for Raccoon Valley, it’s largely just more furniture moving on its own, record players turning on by themselves, footsteps in the dark, etc. The pacin’,s better, though, with events actually moving along at a fairly nice clip once they get to the house, and Clay himself is as charismatic and likable and self-deprecating as ever, so watching a slightly-amped-up version of what we’ve already seen before is certainly no chore, and often even quite fun. In other words, he’s getting better at making these things as he goes, and that’s something he should, and hopefully does, take a reasonable amount of pride in.

That being said, actual scares are still conspicuous by their absence in this second film, the run-time still feels padded (and it is just a bit longer than the first), and originality is still an item nowhere to be found on the menu. This is an agreeable enough “found footage” paranormal yarn, but it’s certainly miles away from being essential viewing and I can’t really see how it would hold much, if any, appeal to someone not already well-versed in, maybe even reasonably committed to, this particular sub-genre of homemade cinema.

And yet — for those of us (like myself), who do fit into that particular (and, yeah, particularly narrow) “fan classification,” this is a darn good time. The Blackwell Ghost 2 may be more a refined extension of the previous entry in this “franchise” than it is a “sequel” per se, but that’s okay, and Clay’s continuing development as a writer/director, as well as his genuinely engaging on-screen persona as an actor, means that there’s reason enough to not only give this flick a shot, but to look forward to The Blackwell Ghost 3 if (okay, fair enough, when) such a thing happens, as well. I’ll certainly be ready and waiting to watch, and subsequently review, it when it does.

In another lifetime — okay, in this lifetime, and right up through last year, at that — I positively drowned myself, and readers of this humble site, in horror film reviews during the month of October. That was before a little thing called Four Color Apocalypse took off like a shot and started greedily consuming every spare moment I had for writing, and before those moments became even more spare thanks to a frankly pretty goddamn grueling work schedule, but hey : it’s still “Halloween season,” is it not? And that means I’ve gotta make at least some time to watch a so-called “scary movie” or two, and to talk about ’em here. For the sake of persistent tradition, if nothing else, but also to make sure no one’s made off with the good china and silver I keep in a cabinet around these parts.

Amazon Prime is my go-to choice for micro-budget horror these days, and has been for some time, but I prefer not to “fly blind” on there whenever possible, so when I heard that the estimable Turner Clay — the backyard auteur latterly revealed to be the “brains” behind the much-speculated-upon The Phoenix Tapes ’97 (probably the last “found footage” flick that actually managed to fool wishful thinkers into believing it was “the real deal”) had jumped back behind, and in front, of the camera for not one, but two “paranormal investigator”-themed flicks in the space of the past year, I was all in to give ’em a go. First up, then : 2017’s The Blackwell Ghost.

Borrowing the same credit-omission trope as his first flick (hey, it set the “chattering class” to — well — chattering, didn’t it?) in order to imbue the proceedings with at least a thin veneer of “authenticity,” Clay introduces himself as a frustrated zombie filmmaker who wants to find some real scares, but his initial foray into ghost-hunting for the camera ends up scuttled for reasons left bizarrely oblique (truth be told, I honestly wonder why footage of this purportedly-abandoned “haunted hotel” project was even included here, the end result being that a film that only runs 59 minutes in length anyway actually feels padded), but fear not : just when it looks like our man is gonna have to go back to filming shambling corpses for the DTV crowd, a correspondent provides him with some mildly disturbing footage of the goings-on at a reputedly haunted house in Pennsylvania (whatever — this movie was actually shot in Lexington, Kentucky), and before you can say “boo!,” Clay and his wife, Terri (played by Terri Czapleski) are on a plane and headed straight for, I guess, danger.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves : when it comes to these “mockumentaries,” they often tend to rise or fall based on the sheer likability of their narrators/protagonists, given that gore, special effects, and complex technical set-pieces are usually well outside both the budget and the ability of the filmmaker, and this one is no exception. Clay’s pulling triple duty as writer, director, and nominal “star” of this flick, but surprisingly, he doesn’t appear to have spread himself too thin — he’s an engaging and relatable central figure with just enough of a sense of humor about what he’s doing to keep the tone agreeably light until things start going bump in the night. There’s very little by way of tension in this hour-long flick, it’s true, and the “big finale” revolves around water faucets turning on of their own volition, but don’t let that prejudice your view before seeing it, simply because nothing here is quite as lame as it sounds, thanks in large part to Clay’s more-than-competent acting and a pleasingly well-developed backstory that makes this particular low-rent haunting seem pretty darn plausible. Yeah, the pacing here is lackadaisical and we’ve seen all this “security camera” and “night vision” stuff a million times before, but it’s all assembled in a coherent manner and the guy tasked with being our “eyes and ears” is, refreshingly, at least not someone you feel like punching in the face.

Now, if you’re on the lookout for originality, clearly you need to be looking elsewhere, but if you can extract a reasonably good time from a tired premise — and I freely admit that I can — then you could do a hell of a lot worse than this movie. It’s predictable in the extreme, it’s true, but it never insults your intelligence, never pretends to be anything other than what it is, and even has a little bit of fun pointing out its own shortcomings. Some might consider that to be damning with faint praise, and maybe it is, but it was good enough to keep my attention and, crucially, doesn’t outstay its welcome. 90 minutes of this might be a little much but, to his credit, Clay knows that, and once we get into the “main” story, he never veers in getting to point B from point A. You’d have to be really damn gullible to think anything happening here is “real,” but I honestly don’t think that’s a big concern. It has a reasonably authentic look and feel to it — which may just be a nice way of saying that it’s smart enough to make its “warts and all” approach work for it — and, combined with its audience-friendly tone, that’s enough to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time.

Honestly, if you’ve made it this far you should have a pretty clear idea of whether or not The Blackwell Ghost sounds like the sort of thing that you’d enjoy. If not, fair enough — I really can’t hold it against anyone for having had more than enough of the whole “found footage” sub-genre as a whole — but if you’re happy to play along with a well-established set of rules and don’t expect any sort of reinvention of the wheel or anything, then I think it’s a solid bet that you’ll have a fairly good time with this one. I know that I certainly did. So, what the hell — bring on The Blackwell Ghost 2!

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away : in this case of director Faith R. Johnson’s 2017 “found footage” direct-to-video horror, The Faith Community, he (or she) appears to do a bit of both.

On the “giveth” side of the ledger, we’re not saddled with anything too extraneous here, plot-wise, in Johnson and co-writer Robert A. Trezza’s script : college-age students Hannah (played by Janessa Floyd) and Andrew (Aidan Hart) are devout Christians determined to win over their skeptic friend (and wannabe-filmmaker, he’s the guy “documenting” the proceedings) Colin (Jeffrey Brabent) and, to that end, they’re taking him to a much-talked-about “Bible camp” in the woods to experience the wonder of “God’s Green Earth” or something. It’s a simple, punchy premise that does the job quickly and succinctly, and once they arrive, shit gets pretty interesting — at first.

A rather graphic, even brutal, stage-play rendition of the story of Adam and Eve is the “entertainment” on offer for our protagonists’ first evening at Camp Nazareth, but it’s not the amateur theatrics that the trio is particularly interested in : they’re hot to meet the group’s leader, a charismatic figure known only as “The Messenger” (Jeremy Harris). Their “mockumentary” interviews with said Messenger, his right-hand man/cousin Michael (Oliver Palmer), and the various “happy campers” are uniformly gripping and smartly-written, with Harris’ performance going some way toward making even making them fun, as he’s clearly relishing his chance to play cult guru, and our principal characters are also fleshed out nicely both during these sequences and those surrounding them in the early going, just enough information being provided about their pasts in order to explain their views toward religion and make their various “arcs” seem quite believable, the two “true believers” becoming quick devotees of The Messenger’s — errrmmm — message of impending Apocalypse/Rapture, and the atheist “odd man out” feeling even more odd as his friends succumb to the sway of the camp’s insular “hive-mind” thinking.

Giving away any more of the story would probably be saying too much, but there are some aspects that strain credulity, such as Michael’s belief that he’s the so-called “Angel Of Death,” and I guess that’s as good a segue as any into the “taketh away” half of the equation : Johnson’s clearly trying here, but the overall tone of her direction is so flat and dispassionate that it makes it tough for audiences to invest themselves emotionally in what’s happening. This is a common (and in no way always accurate) knock on the “found footage” sub-genre in general, but it’s especially pronounced here and even begins to grate after awhile. The Xs and Os of the story are interesting enough that you want to buy into what Johnson is selling here, but then she does her level best, clearly more by accident than design, to say “thanks for watching, but there’s no need for you to care about this too much.”

The acting’s pretty good on the whole among the principal players, but that only goes so far, and while the single-camera trope makes sense from both a stylistic and budgetary perspective, it stops effectively covering up the absolute amateurism of many of the shots about halfway through and worse, as events spiral out of control in the pivotal “third act,” they end up coming off as more ridiculous than threatening. One of the characters — and I won’t say who, other than it’s not who you’d necessarily expect — even delivers a long, rambling monologue for the camera that’s just plain embarrassing but is meant to come off as ominous in the extreme. Points for trying, I guess, sure — but not much more than that.

And while we’re on the subject of “not much more,” this one isn’t worth much more of my time to write about, or yours to read about. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime right now if you feel like checking it out (and is most likely also available on DVD, although I didn’t bother to confirm that), but seriously — for sheer entertainment value, not to mention horror quotient, you’re probably better off reading the Bible. That’s always good for laughs and chills in equal measure, while The Faith Community ends up delivering the former inadvertently, and the latter not at all.

It’s always a little bit tricky doing an advance review of a film that hasn’t been released yet — yeah, okay, this isn’t my first time doing it, but it’s been awhile — but when a quick Google search lets you know that your appraisal will be the first posted anywhere? Then you’re playing with fire, at least to a certain extent. I mean, a lot’s going to hinge on what you have to say — hell, in a very real sense, the success or failure of the flick in question rests at least partially on your shoulders.

You’ve got some real freedom, though, too — no one can say other opinions influenced yours, no one can accuse you of being part of an “echo chamber,” no one can point out similarities between what you’ve written and what someone else has. Not that anyone’s ever said that about my stuff, mind you —

Okay, that’s a bit more preamble than you normally might be expecting, granted, but I think a certain amount of context here is important because now’s when we get into the “full disclosure” part of the proceedings : old friend of this site, New Jersey micro-budget maestro Ryan Callaway, reached out to me looking for a review for his latest, Let’s Not Meet, sent me a (somewhat unfinished, but pretty close) “screener,” and asked if I could have it ready in advance of its Amazon Prime VOD “street date” of September 30th (well, its free “street date” — I believe it’s available on Amazon for purchase already, it’s out on DVD, and it screened in some East Coast theaters back on August 31st). I told him sure, but not simply because I think Callaway’s a cool guy — more because he’s a fair one. I haven’t been entirely kind to some of his earlier productions, but it’s not like I told him to give up on the whole “movie thing” and see if his local Wal-Mart is hiring. I’ve pointed out what he’s done well, what he’s done less than well, where I think his lack of resources hindered him, and where the “low-fi” aesthetic he’s necessarily forced to adhere to has actually been beneficial. He’s been magnanimous about accepting every piece of constructive criticism, and (if I may be so bold) it even appears that he’s even taken some of my suggestions to heart, all of which is to say —

Let’s Not Meet is probably his best film to date. It’s not perfect — circumstances almost flat-out dictate that it can’t be — but it’s pretty damn good, it’s well worth your time, and now comes the part where I tell you why —

As is the case with most of Callaway’s Shady Dawn Productions features (this time Callaway is in his usual role of writer/director, while his producers are wife Amy and Sabine Davids), this one has a sprawling, ensemble cast, but the focus starts out tight and moves outward from there  : pizza delivery woman Aya Becker (played with considerable aplomb by Breanna Engle) is making her final stop of the night when she wises up to the fact that whoever owns the house she’s just entered (don’t worry, there’s a note by the doorbell, no “B and E” going on here) is attempting to lure her into some sort of trap. She’s nothing if not resourceful and quick on her feet, though, so making her escape isn’t too big a problem — but once she skedaddles, that’s when the real intrigue begins, as she encounters a group of campers who are in the midst of a terrifying and rather mysterious ordeal of their own. How are these events connected? Who, exactly, is everyone fleeing from? How are they going to make it out alive? And what’s all this got to do with a dead Satanic cult leader? As this is, again, an advance review (okay, of sorts), I’m going to studiously avoid anything that even steps the tiniest of toes into “spoiler” territory, but that doesn’t prevent me from opining in a general sense, does it? Not in the least —

As I said, the cast eventually expands out to more traditional “Callaway size,” but his actors are generally all bringing their “A” game for this one, whether we’re talking about Shady Dawn veterans like Hiram Ortiz, Ken Llamas, Tiffany Browne-Ortiz, and Carmine Giordano, or first-timers such as Georgette Vaillancourt, Kate Kenney, Millie Ortiz, or the aforementioned Engle. Not everyone is a professional, that much is obvious, but everybody punches above their weight class, and certainly no one comes off as “cardboard,” much less cringe-worthy. Those of us who know the micro-budget world pretty well know just how rare that is — especially when there are this many performers on hand.

If you believe as I do that representation matters, especially in the formerly all-white world of genre cinema, Callaway is a welcome breath of fresh air in that he always puts together diverse ensembles of actors, and women are usally the primary movers-and-shakers in his scripts, all of which is true here, but he’s thankfully toned down his author’s urge to give them all hyper-detailed backstories and instead puts just enough “meat” on their narrative “bones” to make their motivations seem sincere and their actions “in character.” He goes a bit overboard here and there on the extended dialogue scenes, and as a result the film is a little bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s not padded out by 30 or 40 wholly unnecessary minutes, as some of his past productions have been. In other words — he’s learning what works and what doesn’t as he goes along, and his increasing confidence as a filmmaker is showing in other ways, as well, with more strong shot compositions, better timing of key story “beats,” etc.

Best of all, though, this flick is just plain fun. It’s reasonably suspenseful, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously all the time, it doesn’t push against the boundaries of its limitations, and it never tries to pretend it’s something other, or greater, than it is. All of which is to say, Callaway and his cohorts clearly set out to make a solidly-executed little tongue-in-cheek horror/ thriller amalgamation here  — and that’s exactly what Let’s Not Meet is.