Posts Tagged ‘movie’

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.

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.

 

 

 

Call me a glutton for punishment if you must, but the rather “blah” feeling that the latest installment in Nigel Bach’s Bad Ben series left me with got the wheels in what passes for my “mind” spinning — “these one-man ‘found footage’ horrors, they’re a tricky thing to pull off,” I thought to myself, “and Bach, who’s had what passes for ‘success’ with this sort of thing, well, he must have spawned some imitators, right? I mean, theoretically at least, anybody with a camera of any sort, even just an iPhone, can do what he’s done (not that they should, mind you), but has anyone else actually given it a shot? I guess if there’s one place I could find similar productions, it would have to be Amazon Prime, would it not? So — do they have anything remotely similar?”

Okay, so my thoughts weren’t that well-organized or succinctly-stated, nevertheless — I got that proverbial “wild hair” to find the closest thing to a non-Bach-made Bad Ben that I could, and what did I come up with? Well — nothing too terribly similar, as it turns out.

Mind you, it was late at night and I wasn’t feeling that ambitious, so I simply followed Amazon’s “People Who Watched This Also Watched —” suggestions, and where they led me was to British writer/director/producer’s 2018 “mockumentary” opus The House On Mansfield Street. Yeah, I figure I know where he got the name for his fictitious street, too, but the name Richard Mansfield, it rang a bell — and sure enough, I had seen (and reviewed) one of his 2017 flicks (I say “one of” because he made a few, actually), The Demonic Tapes. It didn’t do much for me, truth be told, but what the hell? I figured I’d see if his filmmaking skills have improved, and when I read on IMDB that this one was made for just 300 pounds (current exchange rates put that right around $394 in US currency), I was more than curious to do what I do so often, namely : seeing how much an enterprising auteur can do with so little.

Not to give away too much too early on (whoops), but as you’d probably expect with resources this limited (it was primarily shot in one house, apart from an opening sequence in a car), results are mixed : Mansfield’s ostensible “star,” amateur filmmaker Nick Greene (more-than-competently portrayed by Matthew Hunt) is documenting his move from London to an unnamed smaller town, but things go wonky in his new spread pretty much right off the bat, the stereotypical inexplicable noises graduating to the stereotypical moving objects graduating to — the stereotypical bigger, more serious shit. If this sounds more Paranormal Activity than it does Bad Ben, you’re not too far off the mark, and the constant “night-vision” camera work certainly reinforces that notion. Mansfield’s cinematography is more accomplished than usual for productions of this sort, though, so even though this flick’s pacing is slow bordering on the glacial, it generally remains at least watchable throughout, thanks mainly to its solid technical execution and the likability of its protagonist.

Another big difference between this and at least two of the Bad Ben movies : this isn’t strictly a “solo venture,” at least in front of the camera. Actors Daniel Mansfield (who I assume to be Richard’s brother) and Kathryn Redwood have small but semi-significant parts as Jon and Emma, respectively, and each manage to make the most of limited screen time. Hunt is definitely a one-man act for 90-plus percent of the film, but he’s not, strictly speaking, the only presence on screen from start to finish.  To say nothing of the apparitions and all that, of course.

And speaking of “all that,” despite my rather curt dismissal of many of the shopworn “scare” elements on offer here, a good chunk of Mansfield’s screenplay actually leads audiences to believe that there is something entirely different going on in this house than the usual paranormal flick revolves around — really up until the very end, in fact, when things whiplash back to “bog standard” status seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a bit of a disappointing way to wrap up a story that had been flirting with something not wholly original, by any means, but at least unexpected, and the first nine-tenths of the film probably deserves better than what the final tenth gives it, but even still — The House On Mansfield Street is a more effective use of $394 than most of us (myself included) could manage, and Richard Mansfield has plenty to be proud of here. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for whatever he does next.

If writer/director/actor Nigel Bach — the pride of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey — holds true to form, eventually he’ll see this review, and won’t be able to resist leaving a snarky, self-congratulatory, vaguely passive-aggressive comment on it. How do I know this? Allow me to explain —

When I hacked out a fairly positive write-up of Bach’s first film, Bad Ben, I didn’t hear a peep from the guy — but when I wrote a negative review of his next one, Steelmanville Road : A Bad Ben Prequel, he stopped by and “congratulated” me on my “little blog,” boasted about how well his movies were doing, and implied that I’d never achieve as much with my life as he has with his. Then he “thanked” me for my time and effort, and that was that. Honestly, it was enough to make me not want to like the supposed “conclusion” to his then-trilogy, Badder Ben : The Final Chapter.

Here’s the thing, though — for all my numerous and obvious faults, I’m always an honest appraiser of the flicks I check out, and I absolutely loved what I thought to be the “last” installment of the Bad Ben “saga,” and stated as much plainly and proudly. Again, no word from Bach — and so when I say I expect a comment this time out, you already know which way this review is going to go.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but as of right now, it looks as though Bach really should have quit while he was ahead, because 2018’s Bad Ben : The Mandela Effect (notice the misspelling of the film’s own title in its makeshift “poster” — never a good sign) isn’t so much running on fumes as it is sputtering, and maybe even threatening to stall out altogether. Believe it or not, though, that’s a real shame in my estimation, as you could make a pretty solid argument that this is the single-most unlikely “franchise” in horror history, a noble attempt by one guy, armed with nothing more than an iPhone, to create a genuine grassroots phenomenon by means of no greater a “distribution network” than Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. Bach’s not just “on” the cutting edge with this extended project of his, he is the cutting edge, and he deserves an awful lot of credit for that. With a budget of zero dollars, he’s produced a reasonably popular series of films from the confines of his own home (or car, or yard), and has acted as his own one-man crew both behind the “camera” and, to a large extent, in front of it. That’s admirable. That takes guts.

But that doesn’t mean he should milk his own premise for a whole lot more than it’s worth, and that’s what he’s done with this fourth film, I’m sorry to report.

After branching out and expanding his cast the last two times out, Bad Ben : The Mandela Effect is once again strictly a solo venture, with Bach himself back as Tom Riley, protagonist and narrator of this assemblage of ostensibly “found” footage cobbled together from the security cameras that are a positively ubiquitous feature in his life, but here he’s going all Groundhog Day on us, demonstrating that the bumps in the night that so disturbed his existence when he first bought his home are either happening over and over again in more or less the exact same sequence in various parallel realities — or else he’s stuck in some sort of fatal repetition “feedback loop” in this reality, doomed by fate (again and again) to experience the same shit over and over unless and until he finds a way to break the cycle.

It’s an intriguing enough premise, no doubt about that, but it’s one that runs out of steam fairly early on here, and Bach kinda feels like he’s mailing in his performance as surely as he is his script.  This is such a tedious retread, in fact, that it seems as if we’ve seen it all before, even if we’ve only seem something very much like it before — until this fourth and latest chapter, that is, when we (along with Bach.Riley himself, of course) are forced to live through essentially the exact same sequence of events ad nauseum. Even though this flick only clocks in at 67 minutes, it’s still an utter bore and a complete waste of time, and yes — while I do feel bad about saying that for reasons already expounded upon, I can’t in good conscience recommend this one to even the most hard-core of Bad Ben fans.

That being said, when I heard that Bach was already putting out a casting call for yet another film in this series, I was as cautiously optimistic as I was unsurprised. The Bad Ben “phenomenon” may seem to be pretty well played-out, but Bach really has been a trailblazer, and his franchise deserves to end on a higher note than this. Whether or not it will remains to be seen, of course, but I was of the opinion that he should pack it in after part two, only to be happily proven wrong by the third. I’m hoping to be every bit as mistaken this time around, as well, but it’s all dependent upon whether or not Bach breaks his own mold and does something entirely unexpected one more time — the “back (to back, to back, to back) to basics” approach of Bad Ben : The Mandela Effect is a serious (to say nothing of repetitious) step in entirely the wrong direction.

After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.

Sometimes. you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — am I right?

I know that I certainly was the other night and so, after a bit of browsing, I decided to scratch the particular celluloid itch I was feeling by streaming writer-director Scott Frank’s 2014 cinematic adaptation of legendary hard-boiled crime fiction author Lawrence Block’s popular novel A Walk Among The Tombstones via our local cable service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD should you choose to go that route), and whaddya know? What I found underneath the typically slick, borderline-“artsy” modern direction and cinematography, and decidedly lurid subject matter, was actually an old-school PI drama, anchored by some very strong performances, that would more than likely make the likes of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and even Humphrey Bogart proud.

That means it comes with one fairly big downside, though — for all attempted twists and turns it’s actually pretty predictable, but we’ll get to that in a bit more detail in fairly short order. First the good : bucking his post-Taken typecasting as a middle-aged “tough guy,” Liam Neeson reminds us all that that he’s actually a multi-faceted and cerebral actor in his lead turn as troubled former-cop-turned-unlicensed gumshoe Matt Scudder, a guy who is haunted by the memory of a little girl one of his stray bullets killed back when he was “on the job,” and is now (okay, fair enough, seemingly constantly) struggling to maintain his fragile newly-found sobriety. Not exactly looking for work, he’s nevertheless intrigued enough by an offer that comes his way when his old pal Howie (portrayed by Eric Nelsen), acting as a “go-between,” lets him know about a potentially-unsavory character who needs some strictly “off the books” assistance — and soon enough, Scudder is back in action after first refusing the gig, cajoled into the stereotypical “one last job” by smooth-talking (and ominous as all hell) drug dealer Kenny Kristo (brought to life with considerable aplomb by Dan Stevens, who’s a million miles away for his Downton Abbey role with this one), whose wife has been kidnapped by a couple of psycho thugs — who, it seems, may have gone ahead and killed her even after their ransom demands were met. In due course, Sudder’s investigations leads him to conclude they may also have done the same to several others, all of whom seem to track back to Kristo’s unsavory life and business in one way or another, and then — they strike again. While Scudder is on the case. And, of course, there’s no way he’s gonna let that stand.

Speaking of those kidnappers/potential killers, they’re a couple of seriously fucked-up dudes, and actors David Harbour (who plays Ray) and Adam David Thompson (who plays Albert) definitely both reek of psychotic menace. What they’re really up to, and why, is pretty well spelled out far in advance of being stated/shown explicitly (told you we’d get back to the predictability), but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so fucking unsettling that it could easily be argued that knowing — or suspecting — what this deranged duo’s “game” is might just make things even worse.

There’s plenty of solid acting on display from the more “minor” players here, as well, with special accolades due Maurice Compte as Scudder’s long-suffering sidekick/foil Danny Ortiz, and Brian “Astro” Bradley, who not only goes toe to toe with heavyweight talents such as Neeson, but arguably even manages to steal evey scene he’s in as smart-but-cagey street kid T.J. Each and every role is straight from the “genre archetypes” playbook, it’s true (although, curiously, no “femme fatale” is on hand), but who’s gonna argue when they’re all fleshed out with this much style, skill, and depth? I’m certainly not — and neither should you.

Throw in some well-realized “period piece” authenticity that really makes you feel the grit and grime of what remains of New York’s seedy underbelly circa 1999, and what you’ve got here is a film that more than makes up for by means of execution what it lacks in originality. A Walk Among The Tombstones may not be terribly (okay, what the heck, even moderately) innovative, but like I said, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — and the next time you are, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this one.

I honestly feel halfway guilty about including a film shot only about a six-or seven-hour drive from my own house as part of my occasional “International Weirdness” series here on this site, but when you live in Minneapolis and the flick in question was made in Winnipeg, well — that’s how it goes, I guess. There isn’t much geographic distance between our towns, but there is that US/Canada border.

Winnipeg’s independent film scene has been fairly robust in recent years, as most know — comparisons to the 1990s “Toronto New Wave” have abounded — but our northern neighbors like their genre stuff, too, and 2015’s Dark Forest, brainchild of writer/director Roger Boyer, seeks to do something a little different with the classic “slasher” premise, namely : deconstruct it and turn it on its head at the same time. How best to do this? Well, how about by making it plain as day that’s what you’re up to from the outset?

The identity of the killer is never in question here, nor is a hockey or Halloween mask necessary — Peter, our villain du jour, is the kind of psycho we know all too well : a domestic abuser, and his “motivation” is equally “ripped from the headlines,” in that he’s pissed off about his girlfriend, Emily (played by Laurel McArthur) splitting for a weekend of camping in the woods with her girlfriends Michelle (Veronica Ternopolski), Jolene (Weronika Sokalska), and Francine (Jalin Desloges) and not inviting his deranged ass along. In fact, he’s so mad about the whole thing (as well as wise to the obvious fact that some kind of “intervention” will probably be taking place) that he’s gonna head out to the (dark) forest to find them and kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way — before doing in the ladies, of course.

Yeah, as you’ve probably guessed, the ’80s influences are apparent here, even beyond the basic “teens in the woods” set-up —we’ve got a “hot” car, “hot” girls, a nerd, even a synth-music score. But Boyer, despite having (obviously, if we’re being honest) very little money to work with finds a way to mix the old and the new by ditching the “damsels in distress” paradigm in favor of the  modern “strong female protagonists” we are, thankfully, becoming more accustomed to. So we’re not looking at anything entirely original by any means, but we’re not strictly mired in yet another “throwback,” either. That, my friends, is what I call a relief.

The film — which, incidentally and before I forget, is available free for streaming to Amazon Prime members and has also been released on Blu-ray and DVD —has its flaws, to be sure, but all the principal players are at the very least competent, and Scullard positively relishes his chance to ham it up as a homicidal maniac, while giving his performance just enough “real world” gravitas to avoid becoming a caricature. The supporting cast doesn’t necessarily fare as well, largely being as unprofessional as, let’s face it, we should expect from a bare-bones production such as this, but even there, the occasional standout — such as Genevieve DeGraves as Kim — punches above their weight class and manages to make a solid impression.

Now, I do recall saying something about Scullard also turning the classic “slasher” formula on its head, as well, but we won’t give away too much about that. Suffice to say these ladies are no shrinking violets and that leads to some — interesting things happening. Which is a pretty fair summation of Dark Forest on the whole, come to think of it : yes, you’ve seen most of what’s on offer here done before, and you’ve seen it done better, but it’s ambitious enough to want to at least do them differently, and it’s well-executed enough to get more than it probably should out of what it has to work with.

 

 

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.