Panic Fest 2020 Announces Short Film Showcase Lineup

Kansas City, MO – Named one of MovieMaker Magazine’s Best Genre Fest in the World in 2019 and 2020  – Panic Fest has expanded and announced films for it’s Short Film Showcase.

This year they have expanded from two blocks of films to four blocks. The first will be a Short Film Preview Night Block, which will screen on Thursday, January 23rd at Screenland Armour. The following three blocks will be on January 25th.

Opening weekend will take place January 24th-26th with extended weekday programming January 27th-30th. The Short Film Showcase will be sponsored this year by Shudder and the Best of Fest showcase winner will receive a free year of the subscription service.

PREVIEW NIGHT BLOCK (Jan. 23rd) 75 mins
Allergic Overreaction
Black Mass
Best Friends Forever
She Must Vanish
The Unseen
Merger

SHORT FILM SHOWCASE BLOCK #1 (Jan. 25th) 90 mins
Night of the Shooter
Let Me Play
Hellevate
Night Crawl
See You On the Other Side
Amber
Pepper
Imagine a World
Feeder

SHORT FILM SHOWCASE BLOCK #2 (Jan. 25th) 90 mins
Lane 9
Go Back
Killer Confidence
Haunting of Pottersfield
Swipe
Night Owls
Here There Be Tygers
Hotel
Pathosis

SHORT FILM SHOWCASE BLOCK #3 (Jan. 25th )90 mins
Conspiracy Cruise
Safe States
Momma Don’t Go
Buffalo & Trout
Daughter of Dismay
A Noise That Carries
Mateo
The Burden
The Animator

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Film Review: “Dark Waters”

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Rated: R
Running Time: 126 minutes
Focus Features

“Dark Waters” sounds like the title to a horror movie, and it kind of is. Potentially, probably, most likely, sitting in your gut right now is a chemical that you didn’t know you were being poisoned with. It was marketed as safe and did what it was supposed to do, help make life a little more convenient. The solutions to some of our minor inconveniences means that these secret chemicals will take forever to break down. That means even after we’re dead and decomposed, they will still be there.

“Dark Waters” is about the moral journey of corporate lawyer, Andrew Billott (Ruffalo). He goes from defending the big boys to defending the little guy. It comes after he’s approached by West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Not only are Tennant’s cows dying at an alarming rate, but their remains reveal startling organ problems and grotesque mutations. Tennant believes the American conglomerate, DuPont, is to blame. Tennant says their landfill upstream poisoned the water that his cow’s drink from. What Billott doesn’t know, is that he’s about to uncover a decades-long public health crisis, that’s been kept under wraps.

Based on real-life events documents in a New York Times Magazine article, “Dark Waters” is a 21st century David vs. Goliath. It’s not only about corporate wrongdoing, but the bureaucratic red tape that’s allowed it to fester outside the public eye. We learn how DuPont stepped through gaping loopholes in the EPA’s regulatory system, and then attempted to take advantage of the political system, at the local, state and federal level, when Billott busts out the flashlight and begins digging through DuPont’s dirty laundry.

Ruffalo, whose characters should be foaming mad, and sometimes is, plays Billott as a modest, soft and well-spoken attorney. He’s angry behind-the-scenes, but when coming face-to-face with DuPont’s legal team and leaders, he’s methodical and calm. It’s the kind of performance that makes it seem like every other actor is overacting, especially when Tim Robbins sticks his head in. This is Ruffalo’s vehicle, as it should be since his name is all over it, and he takes command of the ship with extraordinary confidence.

Despite the message and Ruffalo’s performance, “Dark Waters” suffers from a choppy pace and the overwhelming feeling that’s it outstaying it’s welcome towards the end. Granted, it’s a two-hour movie that tries to condense a decade and a half or more worth of actual content. But there’s still a lot of odd editing choices. At times, the movie smartly condenses years with on-screen text to show the passage of time or fill the audience in on some key plot points. Other times, it appears to be twiddling it’s thumbs, content with unnecessary back story and a handful of bizarre cameos. Cameos that feel a little grotesque considering the movie’s content. It barrels forward at full-steam in the beginning, but begins to lose a lot of its punch as the movie comes to a close, which is a bit unfortunate.

“Dark Waters” is the kind of film that should make us all feel concerned about the kind of toxins that have been deemed safe by the government, as well as the products that are continually marketed as safe by unchecked corporate America. Even though this movie is far from perfect, Ruffalo should feel proud to have his name all over this. Anyone who sees this movie will think twice about the marketing fed to them daily, the companies that promise to have their best interest, and the politicians who say “Trust us.”

Film Review: “Marriage Story”

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Netflix

It’s an impressive feat to reach out to an audience and make them feel something, especially when those audience members aren’t able to relate to the plight at hand. I say this because I’ve never been married, so I haven’t experienced the painful complications surrounding divorce. Despite that, I felt the pain, sorrow, and heartbreak experienced throughout “Marriage Story.”

When we first meet the New York couple, Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson), they’re narrating all the little things that they like about one another. We come to find out they’re both mentally going over a list of things they love about one another. The lists were at the behest of a mediator because their marriage is falling apart. Both stay silent over the list, choosing to never read them. Charlie, a playwright, and Nicole, an actress, have decided that marriage counseling isn’t right for them, and maybe their union isn’t right for them as well. Things erode further as Nicole accepts an acting job in Los Angeles, taking their son with her. Things crumble even further once Nicole is told by a friend about a divorce lawyer.

The narrations at the beginning feel like a distant memory midway through the movie. The split reaches a point where it becomes about who can do the most emotional damage, no dime spared. Even their more cordial conversations, feel tense because they’re on the verge of lunging at one another a delivering another blow to the other’s heart. Thankfully some of the tension is undercut by sardonic comedy and moments where ancillary characters simply help the two main characters breathe.

There is no right and wrong in “Marriage Story,” because it’s all messy, just like a real-life divorce. Now granted, director/writer Noah Baumbach does a fantastic job of layering each character with relatable and detestable attributes. We see moments of selfishness and selflessness from Charlie and Nicole. Baumbach does slip up in the middle and towards the end as he tends to focus more on Charlie’s distress and misery, rather than giving the audience a peek at what kind of turmoil is going on with Nicole.

“Marriage Story” offers up two of the best performance to date from Driver and Johansson, who are simply magnetic together on-screen. The dialogue is brutal, honest and straightforward, which bats away any potentially dull moments. Their divorce is a slow-moving car crash that you can’t look away from because of how engrossing it is, but because of how well Charlie and Nicole have been written, you can only hope that they both make it out OK in the end.

Film Review: “Knives Out”

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Lionsgate

About two years ago, around this time of year, I was criticizing Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as being stuffy and unimaginative despite the ensemble cast and production budget. Unlike that dreary and forgettable whodunit, “Knives Out” is a welcome addition to the murder-mystery genre.

The mystery in “Knives Out” is spun around the apparent suicide of the Thrombley family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer). The suspects are the surrounding Thrombley family, made up of a cast characters played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and others. Each of the Thrombley’s has their own selfish reasons or reasoning for wanting to kill Harlan. Simply put, they’re leeches. But the police aren’t the ones looking into the possibility of foul play. Private detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig), was tasked with finding the killer after a mysterious letter arrived at his door. So he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Armas), to track down clues and interview family members.

Just like “Clue” and “Murder by Death” before it, “Knives Out” works first as a comedy, and second as a mystery that twists and turns until the very end. Even when you think you’ve figured it all out, the movie manages to unravel a little bit more. If I was to nitpick, just a wee bit, it’d be that the movie reveals a little bit too much, too early on, and takes its time revealing a few more of the twists. However, the comedy masks a lot of its pacing flaws. The silliness of the characters is inevitably undermined by their ulterior motives by the end of the film. The final frame serves as an unmasking for the film’s allegory, which writer/director Rian Johnson has carefully pieced together over the course of a few hours.

“Knives Out,” a modern throwback, works best when it’s delivering one-liners and verbal gut punches during family squabbles. The material moves so fast, that I’m certain there will be some people giving this a re-watch to see what kind of jokes they missed out on. “Knives Out” is engaging, fun, and clever, and what more could you want from a whodunit?

Film Review: “The Report”

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Benning and Ted Levine 
Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Amazon Studios

It’s easy to lose sight of things that happen with all the constant distractions that we have nowadays. Especially in 2019, it’s difficult to keep up with all the headlines, much less remember ones that happened in 2014. “The Report” is a reminder about one of those headlines that may have skirted under the rug, but it’s a sobering reminder that we shouldn’t let it go away anytime soon.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real-life Senate investigator tasked with looking into the use of torture by the CIA during the War on Terror. It’s established early on that Jones is a meticulous, by-the-books staffer. He’s ready to shine his light into every crevice in the search for the truth, but he has one hand tied behind his back. The agreement between the Senate and the CIA means that he doesn’t get to take any findings with him from a pale, bleak, windowless underground office space at the CIA, and he regularly finds that files are being deleted as he searches. However, those hurdles aren’t going to stop Jones from uncovering what the CIA did and what the CIA doesn’t want anyone to know.

Despite the dense information that “The Report” has to condense, it does it in a reasonable amount of time. It’s the kind of movie that can feel like its three to four hours long, when in reality it’s barely two. That’s not necessarily a knock because Driver is magnificently engrossing as Jones, delivering these exciting monologues when everyone else is procedurally discussing things. This is the kind of political thriller that you’d expect to be flashy, but it’s not. Much of the scenery is straight-forward, the surroundings are bland and some of the characters have to repress their outrage or disgust because of the D.C. environment they’re in.

While Driver is a tour de force in this, its director/writer Scott Z. Burns who should deserve a lot of credit for making this film as entertaining as it is. He manages to whittle down a nearly 7,000 page report into a movie, while also hopping along a lengthy timeline flawlessly, without confusing or talking down to the audience. Anyone who keeps up-to-date with the news will surely be able to follow along and know what’s coming next, but most of the general public will be stunned, if not upset depending on their political affiliations.

Much of what Jones’ and the audience find out as the film progresses is absolutely horrific. Not only is the U.S. participating in immoral techniques, but they don’t work. There comes a point in the film where the CIA plays defense, saying that the facts are misinterpreted and that Jones’ work is nothing but a witch hunt. It might be saying something about temporary day and what’s going on in the nation right now, but I’d like to believe that “The Report” is doing its due diligence at highlighting the work of public servants. Jones’ was in a thankless position, under threat of prison time and espionage. He was doing, what many seeing this movie would believe to be, his public duty and looking for answers that the public needs to know.

Film Review: “The Irishman”

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
Running Time: 209 minutes
Netflix

There’s a lot of background noise surrounding Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” On one hand, you have the general movie-going crowd groaning over the stuffed runtime, and on the other hand, you have industry insiders bemoaning the dispute that Netflix has had with cinemas. In a lot of ways, these issues stem from an older generation, wondering why they need to sit through a movie this long or would want to seek out a movie that isn’t at their local conglomerate movie theater. These feel like such miniscule problems when you watch this film and realize it’s one of the best movies of 2019.

When we first meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), he’s beside himself in a nursing home. No one pays any mind or bothers talking to the WWII veteran turned truck driver turned hitman. He has a wild story to tell, but no one to tell it to. So, he tells it to the audience. It begins in 1950’s Pennsylvania, where his stonewalling in court earns the respect of local gangster, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two quickly develop a bond and appreciation, so Bufalino starts having Frank do odd jobs, not petty crimes mind you, but murder. Frank makes a big enough splash that he’s soon introduced to infamous teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). That’s when things get weird and violent.

Unlike Scorsese’s previous crime and mob movies, this film moves at a confident, quiet pace. It’s not sexually bombastic like “Wolf of Wall Street,” or violently speedy like “Goodfellas.” It has a lot to say and it’s going to take its God damn time. It has two and a half decades to cover, along with various flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrative structure is built around the most shocking revelation of this movie, which most anyone with an understanding of criminal history in the U.S. should know before turning this movie on, but just in case, I won’t reveal it. Despite the lengthy runtime and the years of story the film pours over, this movie is rarely boring.

Scorsese is a master at making overly long films. He makes three hours seem like a walk through the park. It’s the style in which he shoots, the way he tells the character’s story and the outlandishness that he captures on screen. It’s almost like he taps into this primal ID, making us feast on the depravity of others. But “The Irishman” takes on small, but major step towards a different path. “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t end well for the film’s antagonists. Their punishment is generally a mundane end to their life, but “The Irishman” takes it a step further. It shows that this wild lifestyle, filled with action and fun, ends alone. The final 30 minutes are bittersweet.

It unfolds in such an interesting way, that we become more wrapped up in Frank’s life and how he manages to balance these violent side gigs with a picturesque home life, with a wife and kids. We get little breadcrumbs about the Bufalino crime family and how much their tentacles have penetrated the East Coast. We also get a lot of intriguing political dramas as Pacino pushes the limits of overacting through Hoffa. Pacino never quite reaches the unnecessary acting heights of a film like “Scent of a Woman,” but he comes precariously close. Hoffa is crafted in such a flawed manner, that you come to sympathize and loathe him from scene-to-scene. Meanwhile, Pesci, in his most reserved role, is just as menacing as ever behind the wrinkles of Bufalino. There’s a lot of creative supporting work here as well from the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel.

Putting a sweeping epic like this on Netflix seems bizarre to many. Decades ago, folks would have lined up around the block to see this film and theaters would have slapped an intermission in the middle so that people could refill on sugar drinks and salty popcorn. Instead this movie will be watched by people on their TVs at home, their computers, or even on their smartphone. There are a lot of people wondering why this film isn’t being shown the classic way. Maybe Scorsese recognizes the direction the industry is heading. He recently caught flack or making a negative comment about Marvel films, even though they were grossly taken out of context in the never-ending effort to satisfy today’s outrage culture. “The Irishman” feels like a bookend to a beloved genre, as Scorsese reflects on his past and says goodbye to the murderous crooks that made his career.

Film Review: “Midway”

Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson and Luke Evans
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 138 minutes
Lionsgate

I haven’t seen the 1976 war epic, “Midway,” but unfortunately I’ve seen the 2019 “Midway.” Even though I haven’t seen the 70’s dramatization, I’m sure it’s still better than Roland Emmerich’s bombastic vision. Whereas the Jack Smight film had star power like Charleton Heston and Henry Fonda, Emmerich decided to see which one of the Jonas Brothers was available, what unheard of actor Ed Skrein was up to, and if Woody Harrelson could do some work for pennies on the dollar.

“Midway” is about one of the most pivotal battles in the Pacific Theater during WWII. This update begins with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, before it slowly transitions to the formulation of the Battle of Midway. The nitty gritty of this film, the abundance of characters, is at the core. Going over all the characters in this movie would be pointless, since the majority, while being real-life heroes, are forgettable. That’s because their heroics are delivered by wooden actors or are shifted into place in front of the camera so they can deliver some cliché dialogue and unnecessary exposition. This is the kind of movie that’ll make you appreciate “Dunkirk” if you weren’t a fan of that movie.

The big question though, for people interested in watching this film, is whether or not it pays tribute to the brave men and women who fought in the Second World War. Kind of, minus the brave women part. The only time we see women, they’re bothering their brave significant others or saying “I’ll go powder my nose,” as a euphemism for crying over the potential loss of their husband. “Midway” is the kind of movie you could compare to Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” because of the way they both handled their subject material. It reaches a few gimmicky crescendos, plucking at the American heart strings, but not enough to be sappy, but slightly enough to honor the real heroes during this battle, especially towards the end. Throughout we’re introduced to characters that don’t matter or whose deaths should mean something, but it’s handled so haphazardly that you’re more likely to question who died, rather than mourn their loss.

I think my biggest complaint with this movie is how pandering it is to Chinese audiences. There’s been a lot of talk in the mainstream lately about China’s influence in sports and pop culture. The biggest finger pointing has been towards the NBA and Disney, who can’t be blamed for obeying the almighty dollar, who has commanded them to submit to Xi Jinping. “Midway,” Emmerich, and Lionsgate seemed to have committed the ultimate sin in this regard. Their intent ultimately feels disingenuous because they’ve decided to tell a tale about American perseverance, while bending the knee to their Chinese financiers. I think theatergoers expecting nothing, or unaware of China’s influence on Hollywood, will be pleasantly surprised by “Midway,” and may even have a positive reaction. I feel like most people will have the same problems I had with it. “Midway” has so many ethical and moral problems, that ultimately, any good intentions are torpedoed.

Film Review: “The Lighthouse”

Starring: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
A24

When “The Lighthouse” opens, we watch as two lighthouse keepers sourly look towards a tiny island dotting the vast ocean ahead. Towering above the horizon is the lighthouse that they’ll be in charge of for the next four weeks. We won’t learn who these lighthouse keepers are, much less their names, until much later in the movie. That’s because both don’t know each other or seem concerned about exchanging pleasantries. The younger lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), is given the more strenuous duties on the miniature island, while the older lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), mysteriously secludes himself in the lighthouse.

Taking place in the late 19th century, Wake, a curmudgeonly veteran of the lighthouse trade, holds on to several superstitions, which he rambles on about like its Sunday gospel. He warns his counterpart about bothering or harming the seagulls that permeate the island because the pesky seabirds house the souls of dead sailors. We also hear from him that the previous lighthouse keeper went mad, claiming to have been beckoned by the call of nearby sirens. Winslow, who’s initially suspicious of his superior and the tales he tells, finds a mermaid token stuffed into his mattress as he settles in. That seems to trigger an avalanche of bizarre happenings and sights on the miniscule space of land.

“The Lighthouse” finds a multitude of reasons for these lighthouse keepers to go inevitably go mad. Everything from cabin fever and mistrust, to the mass consumption of alcohol and the reality that their four weeks may become longer as a storm approaches. As the film progresses, it’s difficult to tell which lighthouse keeper is telling the truth, which one is hallucinating, and what exactly is happening, if anything, on the island. Dread drips throughout this film, thanks to a bombastic soundtrack and the movie being filmed in black and white. The terrors of the night and day are enhanced by the monochromatic landscape and sets.

On a technical level, this film is hauntingly gorgeous. When we see the lighthouse at night, we expect a monster to be perched on top, but instead it’s Wake, who appears to be bewitched by the light he claims to protect. When Winslow moves about the island with his work duties, whether it’s during blustery rain storms or in the dead of night, it feels lonely and isolated because all he has are his thoughts and visions. Neither have anything to attach themselves to, other than their work, especially since neither appears to have a busy work hobby, much less a book. Yet if something is on the island with them, we know that Winslow and Wake have no way to escape.

“The Lighthouse” manages to feel claustrophobic despite all the space given to these actors to play in. Despite their tiny lodging, they appear to have all the room in the world when they need to yell at or lung at one another. Dafoe, a natural in acting, seems to go through the motions at the beginning, as if he’s stretching the sea legs of his conniving character. He shines as bright as a lighthouse in the final act though, specifically in one scene I won’t reveal and another where his character delivers a chilling soliloquy. Equally impressive is Pattinson, who has the heaviest lifting throughout as his character descends into madness. The nightmarish visions and back-breaking work eventually tears down Winslow’s tough guy persona at the beginning. Pattinson channels fear and paranoia through his piercing eyes.

As evidenced by some of the more horrific or horror-centric films of 2019, “Midsommar” and “Climax” come to mind, “The Lighthouse” is a movie that you let digest. Having a gut reaction afterwards would do a disservice to the craft presented on-screen. As a reviewer, I’m in a pinch because a second viewing would solidify my overall attitude towards this film, but I do know that my initial experience was positive. Even though we’re trapped with these characters for nearly two hours, the film never feels long because it’s unnerving. Director Robert Eggers finds the right moments to be overtly creepy, violent and sexual, just like he did in his previous film, “The Witch.” There are also numerous light moments of humor that help undercut a lot of the palpable tension. “The Lighthouse” won’t make you jump or have you turning on a night light when you get home, but it may haunt your dreams like any good campfire tale of terror.

Film Review: “Joker”

Joker

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Much like the Joker’s origin in “The Killing Joke,” Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up comedian. Before he can reach that pie in the sky dream, he makes ends meet as a clown-for-hire, takes care of his ailing mother in a rat-infested apartment, and attempts to deal with several mental illnesses. There’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about Arthur, and that seems to be casually ingrained into him by his co-workers, passersby on the street and even his own mother. But if the title of the film wasn’t a big enough clue, there’s a lot in life that’s in store for Arthur.

It’d be disingenuous to try and rank all those who’ve portrayed the Joker (minus Jared Leto) because of the drastically different material they were given. However, “Joker” stands tall in its own category because it’s surrounded by subpar films. Villain origin stories aren’t great fodder, just look at “Venom” and “Hannibal.” But “Joker” isn’t just an origin story for the clown prince of crime, it’s a character study, something that’s never been done before on screen. Breaking down the Joker is a tricky task and there’s really no right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. While Phoenix does it magically nuanced way, director/writer Todd Phillips handles it in ham-fisted fashion.

Phillips is more well-known for his “Hangover” trilogy or juvenile 2000 film, “Road Trip.” Behind the camera, Phillips is more than capable of telling a gritty crime story, drawing from what I can only assume is movies he grew up on and influenced him to become a filmmaker in the first place, “Taxi Driver,” “Kings of Comedy” and “Network.” He encapsulates that late 70s/early 80s glow well, emulating its style, color palette and nihilism. Where he falls remarkably short is writing a script that’s on par with those classics. Phillips makes a lot of leaps in logic, despite grounding the main character in a very realistic Gotham.

There’s nothing supernatural or superhuman about Fleck’s life. There’s no vat of chemicals to fall in or scars that he’s telling conflicting stories about. Everything that makes Fleck the hero and villain of his own story, is inside. So what makes a lot of the “Joker” work is the acting and not Phillips. That’s because the director gives away several mid, and late, storytelling reveals by relying on clichés early on. Anyone familiar with the Batman lore or movies involving psychosis will be able to spot plot twists and turns involving characters or the plot. Phillips’ maturity with his hands behind the camera unfortunately doesn’t translate when the pen meets the paper.

I’ll give credit to Phillips for one aspect, and that’s at least using one of the film’s tropes to set-up discussion about the ending of the film. Since Phillips has noted this is a stand-alone film (meaning it doesn’t fit into the DC Cinematic Universe and won’t have a sequel), there’s a lot to take away from the final 15 minutes. That’s where I assume a lot of the pre-release controversy stems from. Several people have weighed in on what they believe Phillips is intending to say, but I’m in the minority because I’m not sure Phillips is actually trying to say anything in particular. I believe he structured it in such a neutral fashion, that the discussion will simply be guided by the ideology of the viewer.

But for all the hype, controversy, praise, condemnation and mystery, the only thing worthy of discussion for years to come is the performance by Phoenix; everything else feels like contemporary background noise. Phoenix, as he’s done in nearly every role he’s been given, is absolutely magnetic. Despite the derivative nature of the script, Phoenix keeps his character wildly unpredictable while combining antihero elements and sociopathic tendencies. We’re not just witnessing the birth of a supervillain, we’re watching a true descent into madness.

Film Review: “Angel Has Fallen”

Starring: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman and Jada Pinkett Smith
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Lionsgate

You ever have that moment where you’re surprised that something is popular enough to still be hanging around? You know what I’m talking about. Like when you hear about how “The Simpsons” has been renewed for another season or when Woody Allen released another movie. Much to my surprise, 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen” has warranted not one, but two sequels. I don’t have to wonder too long about why that’s possible because the third of this franchise, “Angel Has Fallen,” answers that question quickly with mind numbing action.

In the reportedly final installment of this franchise, terrorists are making yet another assassination attempt. This time they’re not only targeting a worldwide figurehead, U.S. President Trumbull (Freeman), but they’re using U.S. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) as the fall guy for the whole affair. So not only does Agent Banning have to find out who the real perpetrators are, while fighting them, but he also has to deal with various federal government agencies chasing him down. That’s about as simple as I can whittle down the absolute mess that this story is.

While the film’s story is fairly cut and dry, the foundation of the plot crumbles underneath any sight of logic, but this isn’t a franchise or movie that lends itself to being intelligent. Everything about these movies, as well as the newest one, is loud and dumb, like a caveman shouting at the top of his lungs while swinging a big club. The use of graphic blood and violence keeps these films from being too cartoonish, on a level like the “Fast and Furious” franchise. There are several moments of self-awareness, though, that make it seem like the creators are sometimes in on the joke that these movies are silly trash.

That’s why it’s so odd to see so many dramatic elements being wedged in, especially with Banning’s character. The filmmakers start the movie off with breadcrumbs that Banning is dealing with some form of PTSD and work fatigue, even though that plot thread only pays off in one predictable way by the end. We’re also introduced to Banning’s estranged father (Nick Nolte), who’s living in the middle of the West Virginia forests, so that we can add a layer of family drama to the whole shebang. By the end, these components really feel meaningless because of how poorly they’re handled, unless you’ve somehow managed to grow attached to this character over the years.

“Angel Has Fallen” fails only because it strives to be something it’s not, a competent action flick like “Die Hard” or any “Mad Max” film. It earns gold stars for filling numerous scenes with vacuous shootouts, lunkhead fist fighting and earth-rattling explosions. It somehow manages to screw up some of that though, with poorly lit sequences or chase scenes at night that fail to illuminate what’s happening. Fans of these films will get their money’s worth; everyone else will feel too indifferent by the end to ask for their money back.

 

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Film Review: “Ready or Not”

Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody and Mark O’Brien
Directed By: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Rated: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I guess a film like “The Hunt” was a little bit too on the nose. There were several disappointed horror junkies, back on August 7th, when it was announced the latest Blumhouse film would be shelved after several mass shootings in America, along with some rumored outrage by President Trump. Maybe those disappointed filmgoers, who are going this year without another “Purge” movie as well, can get a cathartic release from “Ready or Not.”

It’s Grace (Weaving) and Daniel Le Lomas’ (Brody) wedding day. The young couple is getting married at the Le Lomas’ mansion, which was built on a card and board game empire. Daniel’s family, which he begrudgingly introduces to Grace, is an eclectic bunch. Which is a nice way of saying they’re a bunch of snobby 1%’s who believe Grace is a gold digger. Whether or not they warm up to Daniel’s love seems to come down to strange family ritual, a game. Grace must draw a playing card from the film’s McGuffin, and play the game that’s printed on that card. She’s told by several other people who’ve married into the family that they simply played a game Chess or a round of Old Maid. She draws Hide and Seek.

You’ll be disappointed if you go into “Ready or Not” expecting a rich satire about politics and class, but if you’re expecting a gory good time you’ll be stuffed. The goal of Hide and Seek, for the Le Lomas’ family, is to hunt down and kill Grace. This isn’t supposed to be for sport, but to maintain an otherworldly pact, which is certainly a dig at the corrupting power of wealth. If you start thinking about some of the film’s inherent flaws, the set-up quickly falls apart and you’ll begin to wonder about things like logic. So don’t think too hard during this one.

The film isn’t short on violent deaths, blood and visually graphic tomfoolery. It’s all played for comedic effect and eye-wincing shock. Some of the more comedic moments are when one of the drugged out members of the Le Lomas family continuously manages to find accidental ways to kill mansion staff, while some of the most visually disturbing scenes include one where a character makes unfortunate use of a gaping wound in their hand. The scenes unfortunately smack audiences at a blistering pace. There’s a lot of downtime for the characters to wordlessly linger from scene-to-scene and discuss inconsequential plot points.

“Ready or Not” promises a fun cat-and-mouse game, but ends up repeating the formula of Grace being captured, but only to escape. This happens about half a dozen times, if not more, including three times in the climax. At least the movie wrings out a strong performance from Weaving, who has the makings of a scream queen. She has a cold icy stare when her character is in vengeance mode, as well as a perfect high-pitched scream during moments of physical agony and mental anguish. Everyone else is casually fine. The problem is that the actors portraying the Le Lomas clan can’t decide whether or not to be cognizant of the absurdity of it all.

“Ready or Not” sits in between the two extremes of horror content in 2019. It’s not a complete misfire like “Ma,” but it isn’t as intricately put together as “Midsommar” or “Us.” It’s a film that’ll satisfy the late night sweet tooth for people wanting to gnaw on a dark comedy and have guilty belly laughs. It’s the kind of genre mash-up that would have developed a cult following in the 80’s.

Film Review: “Good Boys”

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon
Directed By: Gene Stupnitsky
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
Universal Pictures

More than lately, it feels like we’ve been inundated with coming-of-age movies. Just off the top of my head, we’ve had “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade,” “Booksmart,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Love, Simon,” “Blockers,” “Mid90s,” and to some extent, “IT.” Most of those movies are natural extensions of the genre which now include women, the LGBT community, Millennials and Generation Z. So “Good Boys” just feels like a casual dose of more of the same before the arrival of the 2010s.

To say that “Good Boys” has a story, feels a bit disingenuous to the film’s true narrative which feels more like several sketch ideas strung loosely together. To cut straight to the core of what’s happening; Max (Tremblay), Lucas (Williams) and Thor (Noon) have skipped school to fix several spin-off problems caused by Max’s invitation to a party where he and his pals will finally be able to kiss a girl. The problems this invitation have caused involve the destruction of a pricey drone, the theft of drugs, the need to buy drugs, and being chased all around their neighborhood by some angsty high schoolers. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before and several shenanigans feel reminiscent of “Superbad.”

This plot doesn’t really take shape from the get-go. “Good Boys” actually looks and feels amateurish for the first dozen or so minutes, coming off like a string of riffs on preteens being clueless preteens as they navigate a tricky minefield of sex talk, sex toys and dirty jokes. At least the movie is smart enough to recognize that most 12-year-olds talk a big game, but are as clueless as any kid entering a sex education class for the first time when it comes to the actual act of doing it. The inherent comedy of young kids saying four-letter words quickly loses its luster, but it’s the personalities of our three boys that the film actually finds some real comedy in.

Lucas is like Lincoln, he cannot tell a lie. His inability to fib further dooms the trio during their perilous journey or confuses adults because of how blunt he’s being. Thor is a theater geek who’s burying his own passion so he can try and impress other tweens. Unfortunately he’s not privy to the fact that they’ll never like him, no matter how many sips of a beer he’ll take. Max is the only one invested in this adventure, since he was the only one to actually be invited to the kissing party. He actually had to coerce the cool kids into allowing him to bring Lucas and Thor. It sets up the film’s final act fairly well. For a movie that’s as foul-mouthed as “American Pie,” it’s good to see that there’s an actual attempt at teaching a lesson in maturity and growth.

“Good Boys” is a passable entry into the coming-of-age films, but it isn’t unique or funny enough to stand tall with classics in the genre. It also suffers from some of its best jokes being in the trailer and a somewhat scatterbrained story flow that hiccups when it comes time to deliver a wise crack or sight gag. The three child actors manage to elevate a so-so script and they’ll certainly win over the adult crowd that sees this, as well as those young ones that sneak in to see what all the fuss is about.

Film Review: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and Idris Elba
Directed by: David Leitch
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Universal Pictures

At this point, all that’s missing from the “Fast and the Furious” franchise is a TV show, Saturday morning cartoon, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and breakfast cereal. The unexpected Universal Pictures franchise has its first spin-off, giving the two men who helped rejuvenate the series their own side adventure. Luke Hobbs’ (Johnson) affable character pairs naturally with the rough around the edges Deckard Shaw (Statham). The two have spent the last two movies at each other’s throats in a jokingly, sometimes serious, manner. So it’s a little disappointing to see them relatively toothless and hollowed out in “Hobbs & Shaw”.

Their characters remain the same, but we spend a little too much time with them, making these godlike characters a bit more human. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but having them play into the long steady “family” trope of this franchise feels disingenuous. The two feel more like ancillary characters that were created to offset the eye-rolling “we’re all family” dynamic that Vin Diesel’s character has yammered on about for years. Seeing Hobbs and Shaw degraded to that level may play to the franchise’s hardcore fanbase, but not for the casual fan like me who enjoys these movies as mindless eye candy. Also, there’s only so many times we can hear Hobbs and Shaw verbally get out the measuring sticks for their manhood.

As for the story, it’s somewhat interesting, building off of “The Fate of the Furious.” The bad guy of this film, Brixton Lore (Elba), works for a secret dark web syndicate known as Etheon. Lore is part man, part android, to the point where I’m glad Hobbs name drops “The Terminator.” Lore is on the hunt for a virus that could be weaponized to eliminate the “weak” parts of the human population, i.e. mass extinction for the betterment of humanity. But before Lore can get his superhuman mitts on it, an MI6 agent injects herself with it so that Etheon can’t obtain it. Of course, who that MI6 agent is, is a twist. I won’t spoil it, but you should be able to figure out who it is before it’s revealed, if you’re operating your brain at a primitive level.

Putting aside my opening salvo, I think this movie is still enjoyable because of how absurd it is, like when Hobbs tackles assailants scaling down the side of skyscraper and landing without a scratch on top of an SUV several stories below. My qualm is that the action pieces never really reach the highs that we’ve seen before in this franchise, specifically when Justin Lin and James Wan were behind the camera. Director David Leitch gives the duo plenty of fun settings to blow-up and chase sequences for audiences to ogle at, but none of them quite have that spectacular oomph that we’ve come to know and love. Even some of the lesser movies of this franchise have that memorable moment of Herculean feats or car acrobatics, but this one didn’t quite land one. Luckily the film stops short of dragging to the two and a half hour mark, so you don’t begin to get sore in your seat from its CGI fireworks. 

“Hobbs & Shaw” delivers enough mindless fun, ludicrous fight and action sequences, and wink-at-the-camera cameos to put a smile on even the curmudgeonliest of viewers. While it sometimes lacks in those aforementioned categories, it never feels unnecessary, especially since it’s a franchise stuffed with preposterous reasoning and farcical realism; Common sense be damned. Just like the rest of the franchise, “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t benefit from the viewer attempting to apply any kind of logic. Once you flip that switch on, you can’t unflip it. So setting your brain to cruise control is the optimum way of enjoying “Hobbs and Shaw.” Enjoy it for what it is, big, dumb action porn.

Concert Review: “Tenacious D” – Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, MO

Tenacious D/Wynchester
July 27th, 2019
Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, MO

The self-named greatest band in the world, Tenacious D, stopped by Kansas City on a hot Summer night to promote their fourth studio album, “Post Apocalypto.” Their newest album isn’t filled with a lot of bangers, so the duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass stacked their setlist with more recognizable songs, predominantly leaning on their first two albums to fill their setlist. The crowd, certainly inebriated to some extent, ate up every minute of it.

Before the iconic comedy duo hit the stage, Wynchester, featuring Tenacious D’s electric guitarist, took the stage to perform some comedic country music and a handful of covers. The acoustic act was a fitting opener as they played some decent toe tapping music and joked with the crowd, although a good portion of fans weren’t even in their seats yet, as they waited in a never-ending merchandise line or loaded up on beverages before the main event. 

Once the sun set, and Black and Gass hit the stage, the real show was on. Much like other comedic acts, Weird Al and Psychostick, Tenacious D is very serious about their silliness and their act. For those who don’t know, their shtick is that they’re a couple of guys who believe they’re the greatest musicians to walk the Earth, even though they’re a couple of pot heads equipped with acoustic guitars and a severe case of writers block. They crank that persona to 11 on stage, doing a handful of sketches before specific songs and sometimes improvising with one another. For those who’ve probably never heard of the band, or know of them, I’m not sure you would enjoy attend their show because you’d certainly be out of the loop and wondering why everyone in the crowd knows every word to their sexually explicit and juvenile songs.

Because any fans of The D would be content with a front to back cover of their first album, the concert felt a bit short because they only played six tracks off of their self-titled album. However, when I checked my phone before the encore, the duo, accompanied by a very talented backing band, had more than filled the requisite amount of time required, clocking in at nearly an hour and a half. By the time they were prepared to saunter off the stage, fans were already on their feet applauding and chanting, hungry for more, but happy with the massive helping of pot rock that they got. Fans who have yet to see the comedy rockers, like myself, will certainly leave satisfied. Those who’ve seen them before certainly won’t feel disappointed and will most certainly catch them on their next tour.

Tenacious D Set-List

  1. JB JR Rap
  2. Woman Time
  3. Save the World
  4. Post-Apocalypto Theme
  5. Rize of the Fenix
  6. Low Hangin’ Fruit
  7. Sax-a-Boom
  8. Roadie
  9. Throwdown
  10. POD
  11. Dude (I Totally Miss You)
  12. Kickapoo
  13. Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown)
  14. The Metal
  15. Dio
  16. Kielbassa
  17. Tribute
  18. Double Team
  19. Wonder Boy
  20. Fuck Her Gently

Marvel Steals the Show as San Diego Comic Con Celebrates 50 Years

By now you’ve probably heard about Disney/Marvel turning Hall H into a head spinning bonanza with the announcement of their Phase 4 slate of movies, as well as their new batch of superhero TV shows set to be released on their new streaming service, Disney+. As we’ve learned covering SDCC (for our third year now at Media Mikes), there’s a lot more to this con than the big studios throwing down the proverbial gauntlet. Although Mahershala Ali being announced as the new Blade is still pretty friggin’ awesome.

Preview Night belonged to Warner Bros., who surprisingly didn’t come loaded with their batch of DC caped crusaders despite another Wonder Woman movie on the horizon. Instead they brought the frights with an “IT: Chapter Two” panel, hosted by Conan O’Brien. While we weren’t able to snag a coveted seat inside of the Horton Grand Theatre, fans didn’t have to wait long to get a new trailer for the next chapter in clown horror. ScareDiego is quickly becoming a must-experience for fans that arrive early for Comic-Con. 

Thursday was the start to the madness as several offsites were activated and vendors on the exhibit floor quickly saw their lines capped in the early morning hours. Funko and LEGO saw the usual amount of hordes, but Mondo was the sleeper hit, with unique posters for films like “Detective Pikachu,” vinyl records (which I’m always surprised are making a comeback), and a tiki mug for “JAWS” that I’m sure the founders of MediaMikes would love to add their fanboy collection. But it didn’t take long, each and every day, for lines to be capped by volunteers to prevent clustering and to make sure people didn’t spend all day in a line where they would inevitably leave empty-handed. Although it can be frustrating being left out of the lottery for exclusives, it does give you a chance to check out the other vendors selling their own unique twist on their personal fandom. As for me, because I love a good deal, the best line was my five-minute wait for a free cricket powder protein bar. The peanut butter and jelly bug flavored goodness was in promotion of the upcoming “Snowpiercer” TV series. 

Just outside the five-decade celebration inside of the convention center, were several impressive offsites dotting the Gaslamp District. After last year’s Jack Ryan activation, some were wondering if Amazon could top their second prime activation. Long answer, sort of, short answer, no. While not as fully immersive, it provided several experiences for fans to interact with on-site actors, get some cool swag, and munch on some free Carl’s Jr. Although my favorite offsite may be a toss-up between Adult Swim’s carnival and the Alfred Pennyworth speak-easy. Both had minimal waits, plenty to do once you got inside, and lots of exclusive goodies. That shouldn’t take away from the nearly two dozen other activations that provided their own chances to geek out, including the “South Park” mini-golf course.

Now, instead of gushing over the panels I attended, I think it’s easier to make note of something, that’s a common complaint every year, but organizers of Comic Con need to recognize the cultural significance of several properties. “Rick and Morty” is too big to be in the Indigo Ballroom. Two hours before the panel on Friday, the line wrapped around inside, down a flight of stairs, through the lobby, outside to the pier, wrapped around again, and then capped itself near the convention center across the way. The same thing happened with Brooklyn 99 on Saturday, but this time in a different, but still significantly small room. I’d be willing to bet money that “Rick and Morty,” who deserves to be in Hall H, will have more viewers this upcoming season than “The Walking Dead,” which was in Hall H at that same time slot. Times change quickly these days in pop-culture and it’s important for Comic Con keep their  finger on the pulse.

For the third year in a row, we’re incredibly gracious that Comic Con has allowed us inside to cover the convention. Despite the long lines, sore feet, the current lack of cash in my bank account and the sunburn I’m rocking because I forgot to pack sunscreen, it was all worth it. It always is and always will be. We look forward to Comic Con 2020. I’ve already begun checking my couch cushions for change because July 23rd-26th, 2020, doesn’t feel that far away.