Film Review: “The Rescue”

Directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
National Geographic Documentary Films

A little over three years ago, a junior association football team, made up of 12 boys and one adult, went into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand before monsoon season. But Mother Nature arrived early, trapping the 13 in the cave. I’m sure you remember this because it was all over the news and around the globe, even as a lot of eyes were glued to FIFA’s crown jewel, the World Cup. Suffice to say, something about humans being trapped underground or lost underground has always fascinated people (the Chilean miners or the boy in the well for example). But what makes this story more impactful, and particularly “The Rescue,” is a reminder that when we come together, miraculous things happen.

Having worked in news during that time period, I remember this story very well. I say that because even “The Rescue” was able to teach me a few things and keep me on the edge of my seat as it peeled back layers to the true story. The tension is palpable for several reasons, first the footage of divers in underwater caves, constantly painting a picture of the bleak scenario they found themselves in; water dark and thick like mud and cave spaces where it was nearly impossible for just one person to squeeze through. The complimentary piece to these visuals is the interviews. The divers discuss some of the bleak thoughts crossing their minds, like how after several days they began to suspect that this would become a body recovery operation instead of a rescue operation or how they emotionally prepared for the possibility of seeing a corpse in the thick unforgiving waters.

It may also be how the documentary paints the operation because there were not a lot of reasons why anyone should have been optimistic about this operation. I even remember thinking no one would have survived when the news crews descended on Thailand. That’s because not only were divers combating blackout rushing water conditions in the cave, but outside thousands of volunteers were attempting to stop more water from pouring into the tiny cave, and sometimes failing. Even the Thai Navy SEALS, who were the first professional organization on the scene, conceded that they were in over their heads, handing the reins to several divers. But one of the more fascinating, humanistic angles of the film is how even the heroes had their flaws, whether it was cultural or emotional.

I knew how the story ended because it wasn’t that long ago. I knew, just like I’m sure you reading this do, that the 12 boys and their coach survived. Unfortunately, a Thai Navy SEAL died, but in a lot of ways, the operation was still a success that millions would have never guessed. I had to see this through even though I knew the twists and turns. Unlike the divers, I wasn’t in the dark about what laid before me. I wasn’t sure if it was the emotional toll of the film or not, but I began to feel like I was watching something that seems so alien now. A movie where people were being people, showing equal amounts of vigor, intelligence, and, but most importantly, compassion. We see how people from around the globe helped in their own way, whether it was flying in to help with the effort or lending advice over the phone, dozens of countries and thousands of people thought about the best way to rescue the lives of 12 children and a man whom they’ve never met. “The Rescue” gives us something we crave, simply because we are human, a little hope and a rescue, against all odds.

 

Film Review: “South of Heaven”

Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly and Mike Colter
Directed by: Aharon Keshales
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
RLJE Films

I don’t really invest much in film synopses for the simple fact that it’s a form of advertising. I’m sure if it was up to the director or writer, they’d want something vague so that the audience could be blissfully unaware of what they will experience. So maybe the director wrote the synopsis for “South of Heaven.” According to IMDb, “Convicted felon Jimmy gets early parole after serving twelve years for armed robbery. Upon his release, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best last year of her life – unfortunately it’s not that simple.” Unfortunately, this movie isn’t that simple.

Jimmy (played by Sudeikis with that Midwestern Ted Lasso accent) gets out of the jail at the beginning of the film and we watch as he reunites with his fiance, Annie (Lilly) – so far so good. Unfortunately for Jimmy, who is not only attempting to give the love of his life the best last year of her life, but is also trying to keep his moral compass straight and narrow, his parole office is crooked – so far it’s interesting. And then things just get…peculiar. Actually, that’s too nice of a word. Things get batshit.

I’m not sure how much I should reveal because this movie takes so many different bizarre turns. I went from casually watching to trying to figure out if I should laugh or be frustrated. Director and writer Aharon Keshales did 2013’s “Big Bad Wolves,” a very underrated film that I enjoyed on multiple viewings. I can’t say the same thing for “South of Heaven” because there seems to be this creative idea of monkeying with the criminal simplicities that the story uses. It’s one thing to tinker with the genre formula to craft something unique, but it’s another to grab the wheel and go careening off a cliff into unpredictability. If “South of Heaven” wants to be violently graphic and unpredictable, it should have at least attempted a little class and ingenuity instead of smashing viewer’s faces with a metaphorical hammer. I really wish I could articulate this through examples, but then I’d spoil the batshittery of the film.

In the beginning, the movie establishes a sweet and wholesome relationship between Jimmy and Annie, but as time goes on, you can’t help but wonder if Annie is simply stuck because of her lethal diagnosis. Maybe they’re two odd ducks who are making it work, but watching Jimmy go from a very buttery likable man to an 80s action star in the midst of a rampage is hardly believable or likable. I couldn’t tell if I should be upset that the film wasted everyone’s time or simply wanted us to throw out our sensibilities of wanting to like the character and simply cheer on the wildly unreasonable person Jimmy is or has become. That’s another thing, you never know if Jimmy has always has sociopathic tendencies or if “love” did this to him. I’m going to err on the side of caution though. “South of Heaven” had a loaded gun ready to blow audiences away, but instead it loaded that gun with blanks.

 

Film Review: “Puppet Killer”

Starring: Aleks Paunovic, Lee Majdoub and Lisa Durupt
Directed by: Lisa Ovies
Rated: NR
Running Time: 83 minutes
IndustryWorks Studios

After years on the festival circuit, “Puppet Killer” is finally getting a wide release thanks to Regal Cinemas. “Puppet Killer,” which I saw back in 2019 at Panic Fest, has slowly picked up dozens of awards on the festival circuit, most likely delighting audiences like the one I was in attendance with before the pandemic descended on America. It’s zany, silly, dumb and gory. I say dumb with affection because this movie knows what tropes it’s making fun of and leans heavily into them throughout. So, if you’re a fan of the slasher genre, this is a potential gory classic waiting for you to watch.

Jamie (Paunovic) has had a stereotypical horror life. As a baby, he’s gifted a puppet, named Simon (Majdoub), by his horror movie obsessed mother. As he grows older, he and his mom develop a Christmas tradition of watching horrors next to their lit-up Christmas tree; while the puppet becomes a mainstay of their lives. Unfortunately, Jamie’s mom succumbs to cancer and the horror around the holiday’s tradition dies with his step mom who see no need for blood and guts with her Christmas cheer. So predictably, she meets an untimely fate. Cut forward to the present where Jamie, who is now in high school, is about to revisit that home where his stepmom died with five friends who are unknowingly about to meet Simon.

“Puppet Killer” is not an introductory film for horror newbies because so much of the plot, humor and kills rely on horror film knowledge. For instance, if you don’t understand why it’s consistently funny that Jamie and his friends are in high school, whilst the actors are all easily 30+, if not 40+, then you’ll need to load up on slasher films before even getting one of the film’s best running gags. For those curious minds, you’ll either have a stack of horror film homework to watch before attempting a viewing of “Puppet Killer” or your horror film knowledge will help you pass the test with flying colors as you laugh along with the absurdity of the film.

I say this because a huge charm with “Puppet Killer” is self-awareness. Not only does this film know and understand its horror roots, but on a second level it understands it’s indie and leans heavily into the esthetics of a shoestring budget film. Any minor complaints I may have I’ve decided not to bother mentioning because “Puppet Killer” has this low budget charm that’s hard to ignore. I’d love to believe this is a film destined to become a midnight cult classic, but it’s hard to gauge which films have that gusto, or if the idea of a film becoming a cult classic is simply a part of an era that has passed us as we drift closer to more films being streamed. Regardless, horror fans will remember “Puppet Killer” for years if they stumble across this diamond in the rough.

Panic Film Fest Announces Lineup for Hybrid In-Person and Virtual Online Programming

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Panic Fest kicks off two weeks of genre packed programming as the ninth annual festival begins April 8, 2021, virtually and in person at Screenland Armour in Kansas City, MO. 

“We are absolutely thrilled to be able to offer Panic Fest as both in-person and virtual experiences. It’s important that we allow for all comfort levels and situations. The prospect of bringing Panic Fest to the entire country is unbelievably exciting for us,” says Panic Fest Co-Founder Adam Roberts. 

This year’s lineup includes over 25 feature films and 40+ short films from around the world in addition to signature podcasts, special events, and virtual meet-ups via the Gather platform. 

Panic Fest Co-Founder Tim KC Canton says, “We know that our festival is built upon networking and a sense of community. We wanted to ensure that when people attend virtually that it feels like our festival. That they walk away with new relationships as well as discovering new, emerging voices through our unparalleled programming.”

For the first time in fest history, all films will be in contention for awards picked by audience members. “Each year we assemble a panel of judges to decipher the awards. This year we’re putting that in the hands of our attendees,” says Canton.

Panic Fest continues their partnerships with IFC Films, Shudder, Dark Sky Films, Epic Pictures, Dark Star Pictures, and Fangoria. New this year as presenting sponsors are 4 Hands Brewing Company and Logboat Brewing Company. 

“Horror movies and great beer. It’s one of the all-time great matches and we couldn’t be happier with our new partners,” says Roberts.

The festival will utilize the latest in networking applications to bring the fest experience into your home with meet-ups, happy hours, and more over the Gather platform and special events via Clubhouse. 

Panic Fest kicks off April 8, 2021, as one of the leading genre festivals in the world. Don’t miss what MovieMaker Magazine and Dread Central have named one of the best genre festivals in the world for three years running.

Get your tickets here.

Feature Film Programming

An Ideal Host
D: Robert Woods
Regional Premiere, 1h 25minLiz just wants to host the perfect dinner party but an unexpected guest sends the evening into chaos, with potentially apocalyptic consequences.

An Unquiet Grave
D: Terence Kray
Regional Premiere, 1h 12min
A year after the death of his wife, a man enlists her sister to help him bring her back.

Below the Fold
D: Clayton Scott
World Premiere, 1h 32min
Without a trace, Susie Potter vanished from her home in the quiet town of Skidmore, Missouri. Ten years later, two reporters uncover a harrowing new detail, which leads them on an obsessive hunt for the truth through the dark labyrinth of rural northwest Missouri.

Benny Loves You
D: Karl Holt
Regional Premiere, 1h 34min
Jack is desperately trying for a new start in life, but when he throws away his childhood bear Benny, it’s a move that can only end in death.

The Blazing World
D: Carlson Young
Regional Premiere, 1h 41min
Decades after the accidental drowning of her twin sister, a self-destructive young woman returns to her family home, finding herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive.

Blood Conscious
D: Timothy Covell
North American Premiere, 1h 46min
A vacationing family turns the tables on a mass shooter who claims to be fighting demonic forces.

Caveat
D: Damian Mc Carthy
Regional Premiere, 1h 28min
A lone drifter suffering from partial memory loss accepts a job to look after a psychologically troubled woman in an abandoned house on an isolated island.

Censor
D: Prano Bailey-Bond
Regional Premiere, 1h 24min
After viewing a strangely familiar video nasty, Enid, a film censor, sets out to solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, embarking on a quest that dissolves the line between fiction and reality.

The Carnivores
D: Caleb Michael Johnson
Regional Premiere, 1h 17min
Alice and Bret’s dog Harvey is dying, and he’s ruining everything. What had been a bright little family is quickly getting consumed by clouds of self-doubt, suspicion, and a disturbing amount of ground beef.

The Djinn
D: David Charbonier, Justin Powell, Clayton Scott
North American Premiere, 1h 22min
A mute boy is trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster when he makes a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.

Duncan
D: John Valley
Regional Premiere, 1h 31min
A dark social satire inspired by the real-life conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. An amateur journalist and a far-right militiaman team up to expose the ugly truth behind rumors involving sex cults, a pizza place, and the lizard people.

Honeydew
D: Devereux Milburn
1h 46min
Strange cravings and hallucinations befall a young couple after seeking shelter in the home of an aging farmer and her peculiar son.

Jakob’s Wife
D: Travis Stevens
Regional Premiere, 1h 38min
Anne, married to a small-town minister, feels her life has been shrinking over the past 30 years. Encountering “The Master” brings her a new sense of power and an appetite to live bolder. However, the change comes with a heavy body count.

Katherine’s Lullaby
D: Savvas Christou
Regional Premiere, 1h 29min
A teenage runaway who’s trapped by a delusional man, pretends to be his daughter in order to escape.

Keeping Company
D: Josh Wallace
Regional Premiere, 1h 22min
A fateful chain of events begin to unravel after two brash insurance salesmen go knocking on the wrong door and find themselves trapped in a stranger’s basement.

The Last Matinee
D: Maximiliano Contenti
U.S. Premiere, 1h 28min
It’s a soaking wet day with rain pouring down and one of the best things to do is to go seek refuge in a great old cinema. There’s only one problem: A scary murderer is on the loose and he also has taken refuge there.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It Too
D: Jonathan Cuartas
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
Two mysterious siblings find themselves at odds over care for their frail and sickly younger brother.

Night Drive
D: Brad Baruh, Meghan Leon
Regional Premiere, 1h 22min
A rideshare driver’s life is turned upside down after an unexpected series of misfortunes.

The Old Ways
D: Christopher Alender
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
Cristina, a journalist of Mexican origin, travels to her ancestral home in Veracruz to investigate a story of sorcery and healing. There, she is kidnapped by a group of locals who claim she’s the devil incarnate.

Parallel Minds
D: Benjamin Ross Hayden
Regional Premiere, 1h 26min
In the near future, an A.I. called URM is investigated by a detective and researcher for a lab about to release a contact lens with the power to record what the eye can see to re-create memories.

Prisoners of Ghostland
D: Sion Sono
Regional Premiere, 1h 40min
A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Red Snow
D: Sean Nichols Lynch
World Premiere, 1h 20min
A struggling vampire romance novelist must defend herself against real-life vampires during Christmas in Lake Tahoe.

She Watches From the Woods
D: Beau Ballinger
World Premiere, 1h 19min
A troubled artist with a dark past attempts to make peace with her dying mother while investigating the mysterious death of her teenage sister.

The Stylist
D: Jill Gevargizian
1h 45min
A lonely hair stylist becomes obsessed with the lives of her clients and descends into murderous madness.

Threshold
D: Powell Robinson, Patrick Robert Young
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
A sister claims to be cursed and persuades her brother to embark on a cross-country road trip to break her spell.

Vicious Fun
D: Cody Calahan
U.S. Premiere, 1h 36min
Joel, a caustic 1980s film critic for a national horror magazine, finds himself unwittingly trapped in a self-help group for serial killers. With no other choice, Joel attempts to blend in or risk becoming the next victim.

The Whooper Returns
D: Samuel Krebs
U.S. Premiere, 1h 24min
Following the death of their mother, four estranged siblings find themselves fighting for their inheritance and their lives when an eccentric stranger arrives, claiming their famous haunted childhood home was left to her.

Short Film Programming

“Aftertaste” D: Chloe Wicks
“Bloodshed” D: Paolo Mancini, Daniel Watchorn
“Body of Mined” D: Eric Jungmann
“Coil” D: Spencer Ryerson
“Crock Pot” D: Ty Jones
“Death Scene” D: Mando Franco
“Deep Learning” D: Andrew Laudone
“Diabla” D: Maya Korn
“Diving Bell” D: Kyle Brewis, Josh Klaassen
“Dystopia” D: Laura Ugolini
“Gastral Projection” D: Zachary Eglinton
“Green Cobra” D: Sigurd Culhane
“Hare Hunt” D: Ken van Mierlo
“Hey, It’s Me.” D: Courtney Sposato, Mark Sposato
“Koreatown Ghost Story” D: Minsun Park, Teddy Tenenbaum
“Lake Forest Road” D: Ashton Avila
“Late Night” D: JJ Pollack
“Love Bite” D: Charles de Lauzirika
“Make A Wish” D: Dinh Thai
“Mourn” D: Joanna Tsanis

“New Not Normal Trilogy Supercut” D: Ryan Oksenberg
“No One is Coming” D: Matthew Barber, Nathaniel Barber
“Occurrance” D: Deb 
“Pare” D: Lauren Sick
“Pirouette” D: Peter Howard, Glenn Delaney
“Strayed” D: Sarah Bonrepaux
“Stuck” D: David Mikalson
“Suspense” D: Jacob Burghart, Ben Burghart
“Sweet Nothings” D: Christian Klein
“The Good Samaritan” D: Jonathan Norberg, Maria Forslin
“The Occult Son” D: Patrick Murphy
“The Rage” D: Steven DeRock
“The Relic” D: J.M. Logan
“The Rule of Three” D: Elwood Quincy Walker
“The Snoop” D: Tom Hipp, Scott Hipp
“There’s Someone in the Garden” D: Nicholas Cole
“Watcher” D: Meg Swertlow
“Who Wants Dessert?” D: Venita Ozols-Graham
“Witches Midnight” D: Lisa Ovies

Event Programming

A Puff of Smoke Short Film Special Presentation Presented by Yellow Veil Pictures
Clubhouse Weekend Hangouts
Colors of the Dark Podcast
Final Exam (Horror Trivia) FREE hosted by Ted Geoghegan
Frightday Podcast
Gather Fandom Weekend Happy Hours
Gather Weekend Filmmaker Networking Happy Hour
Knight Light Podcast
Nightmare on Film Street Podcast
Nightmare Junkhead Podcast
Screen Drafts Podcast with Rebekah Mckendry & Graham Skipper



Film Review: “Synchronic”

Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan and Katie Aselton
Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Well Go USA Entertainment

Unfortunately I’ve known too many people who’ve taken hallucinogens and claim that it has altered their perceptions and opened their minds to the world. Having never done hard drugs like DMT, I can’t speak to whether or not they did view some other worldly, but I feel like those who’ve known people who’ve taken drugs like peyote or acid can attest to the fact that habitual use or people who’ve tried multiple times will talk your ear off about how it’s revealed the world around them. There’s even a scientific community that believes hallucinogens had a hand in helping early man evolve into homosapiens. Regardless, what if that other worldly visit was real?

Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan) are New Orleans paramedics, who’ve dealt with a lot of bizarre overdoses. First off, the drug is unrecognizable and the packaging simply states ‘Synchronic.’ Secondly, some of these overdose crime scenes are unusual. One crime scene in particular left behind a message sprawled on the wall which stated, ‘Time is a lie.’ Dennis, a happily married father, doesn’t stray too much into what’s going on, but Steve wants to pry. That prying is because Steve has a terminal diagnosis, no family, and a lot of one-night stands who offer no comfort.

I won’t reveal too much about the crux of the film, the drug, because I feel like it’s a decent reveal, even though the film really spoon feeds the details so you should be able to realize what’s going on fairly early. While this would sink most films, “Synchronic” thrives because of it’s personal stories, the atmosphere it crafts and being a unique, fun genre blend. It finds a way to be an emotional buddy film, a sprawling sci-fi, and at times, a tense thriller. While I haven’t seen the previous films made by directors Benson and Moorhead, I might have to with how well crafted “Synchronic” is.

“Synchronic” doesn’t reinvent any sci-fi wheel, but it keeps you engaged and manages to pull off a few tricks along the way. Another key ingredient to the film’s entertainment is cleverly explaining everything, without explaining to the point where they create their own plothole. The intricacies of the sci-fi and humans on screen are taken care of so-well, you’re bound to forget and ignore most of the film’s flaws. 

Film Review: “Friendsgiving”

Starring: Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings and Christine Taylor
Directed by: Nicol Paone
Rated: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Saban Films

Holiday ensemble comedies conjure up bad memories, like “New Year’s Eve” or “Mother’s Day”. However, slapping together a holiday film for the latest, and possibly greatest, holiday feels like a step in the right direction. If you haven’t heard of Friendsgiving or participated in Friendsgiving, you may be missing out on the best holiday invention of the 21st century. As for the movie, “Friendsgiving,” it’s tougher to fully recommend.

Abby (Dennings) isn’t seeing her family for regular Thanksgiving and appears to be going all-out for an upcoming Friendsgiving, with her best friend Molly (Akerman). Abby needs an excuse to unwind and relax a bit because she’s going through a one-two punch of emotional turmoil. She recently came out of the closet and is now dealing with her first post-out of the closet break-up. That effort is undermined by Molly’s newest boy toy, a myriad of random friends that show up for the event, and a lot of unspoken conflicts. Just like a Friendsgiving turkey, this movie becomes stuffed, but not in a good way.

The list of characters that arrive are too numerous to keep track of, especially when half of them don’t really add much to the overall plot or narrative. It seems like some are brought in for some simple one off jokes or to bring a new drug for our two main characters to partake in. I wouldn’t say this movie is bad though, it’s just not a memorable comedy. Some of the jokes fall about as flat as the flaccid penises they’re making fun of, and some of the humor is about as clever as the ones I told in middle school. But there’s something genuinely entertaining about a cast that really dedicates 100% of its talent to the script.

Honestly, if this was a low budget film with a bunch of no-names, I’d be more inclined to not recommend this film at all. But there is something delightfully juvenile about everyone really putting forth their best efforts. It does come into play when the movie needs to get emotional, as all of these holiday themed films end up doing. The earnest attempt at humor really kicks in when a trio of Fairy Gay Mothers arrive to talk with Abby towards the latter part of the film. I only mention that simply because it was one of my favorite parts.

“Friendsgiving” is a movie I can’t really recommend or tell people to stay away from. I can genuinely say that opinion isn’t a cop out. This kind of film is in the same vein as “Bachelorette” or “Rough Night,” where the comedy isn’t memorable, the story isn’t clever, but damn it if the cast and crew did such an admirable job, I found myself smiling and forgetting about the pandemic world around me. In some ways, that’s what a good real-world Friendsgiving is, forgetting about ones problems and just enjoying some good company, food and fun. “Friendsgiving” didn’t offer any food, but two out of three ain’t bad. Since I can’t make a recommendation, watch at your own risk and you may find “Friendsgiving” rewarding.

Film Review: “Push”

Directed by: Fredrik Gerten
Rated: NR
Running Time: 92 minutes

With a moratorium on evictions and millions still unemployed in the U.S. because of the pandemic, it seems odd that house prices are at an all-time high and are expected to stay that way through 2021. Most economists would even agree that nothing makes sense this year as COVID-19 continues to rack up an astronomically high body count. But the documentary “Push” points out how something isn’t what it seems. The opportunity for affordable housing in the future is a pipe dream right now. Any remain chance is slowly beating whittled away by global conglomerates that are purchasing, hoarding, and stealing money for their own real estate monopoly aspirations. As if 2020 wasn’t depressing enough…

“Push” opens on a very familiar sight, at least for some, the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. I remember this vividly because it was the last year I had cable before pulling the plug. My cable service gave me the BBC so as soon as I saw American outlets reporting a massive structure fire in London, I flipped on the BBC to see the horror as flames enveloped a low-income residential tower. The BBC was showing clips of people waving, pleading for help from their windows, as well as airing 911 calls. Yet it seemed like the news cycle passed it by in America, especially since terrorism wasn’t the culprit. Instead it should have served as a warning about the woeful ignorance and carelessness of modern day slum lords.

“Push” meticulously lays out the dire situation we are in on a global level. Companies are buying up real-estate willy-nilly, with no regulations to stop them. While the settings are in Europe, every story and situation speaks on a human, global level. In a roundabout way this is contributing to income equality. Historically, buying and owning real estate was a way for poor to middle class residents of all countries to build their own personal wealth. But now real estate costs too much. There’s also forced gentrification (can’t blame Millennials on this one) where companies force people out of their homes or apartment complexes in a neighborhood property grab. At one point, the documentary shows a London suburb and how the majority of it was owned by foreign entities. It then shows how some of that real-estate corporations simply sit on empty properties despite no one to rent to. But these companies find ways to make money even when their property sits empty.

If you think that sounds bad, “Push” has a lot more horrifying scenarios and realities to unveil. The documentary shows you statistics and dramatic imagery that will rattle you to the core. Even if you yourself are a property owner, you won’t believe the things that are happening in sprawling urban areas. Not only are cities being groomed to be inhabited by the super-rich, but there’s an intentional effort to muscle out mom and pop stores or people who work out of their homes. Also if you live out in the country and think you’re safe, just wait until the documentary gets to the part about how these thirsty businesses are salivating over your 401k. 

The email screener for this movie stated, “ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FILMS OF 2020!!!!” First off, I don’t like superlatives because 2020 isn’t over yet and secondly, I don’t like exclamation points. In this instance though, I almost agree. Out of all the political documentaries I’ve watched this year, this one doesn’t just impact us this year, or just impact Americans. This is a documentary that impacts every living person on this planet right now. If you don’t watch “Push,” one day you’re going to wake up and wonder why you’re being priced out of your neighborhood, your home, your apartment, or whatever dwelling you find yourself in. Unfortunately, they’re coming for you, even if you don’t think so.

Film Review: “The Swerve”

Starring: Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham and Ashley Bell
Directed by: Dean Kapsalis
Rated: NR
Running Time: 95 minutes

What’s it look like to have it all? For some people, its financial stability; while for others, it’s about having a white picket fence, two-story home and kids. But ultimately it’s what makes you happy. That seems like a very obvious notion, but it isn’t. Millions of couples every year still get divorced. Millions more go to see a psychologist every year to discuss emotional and mental stress. So what makes us happy is very nuanced and different and it’s not a one shoe size fits all. That doesn’t stop the gears of society from forcing us to make decisions that we may not want to make.

Holly (Skye) is a victim of those gears. She’s trapped with a dreary husband that turns every argument onto Holly. He knows he wears the pants in the households and sometimes lords it over her. She’s also the mother of two sons that don’t view her as a mother, but more like f a personal chef and maid. She goes to a job that she’s lost all passion for, teaching. She attempts to teach classic literature, but her classroom is full of students who are mindlessly on her phone. So it isn’t surprising that during this rinse-repeat mundane life, the smallest thing, a mouse, upends everything.

As “The Swerve” goes along, several layers are peeled back, revealing that Holly is dealing with more than just a rut in her life or a hiccup along the trail. She’s stuck, doesn’t know how to escape, and everything is slowly picking away at her on the inside, and that feeling of emptiness is slowly eroding everything that made her whole and happy. “The Swerve” isn’t the kind of movie that will lay out everything and then spoon feed it to you. You have to pay attention to every little detail, every little character, and every little bit of information that dribbles out of someone’s mouth. It all builds towards a shocking, yet understandable finale.

Skye guides Holly’s character on this somber journey. Skye, whose IMDB is less than impressive, gives one of the best performances of the year. She starts out with a haggard look and approach to her acting method, before flipping the script and giving us a performance that’s equally riveting and heart breaking. Skye breathes a world of life into a character that has become lost and empty in her own life. It actually overshadows every other performance in this movie, including Claudia (Bell), Ashley’s sister. Claudia has a very integral role, but Bell is outmatched in every scene she has with Skye.

I have several nitpicky things about this film, but I feel they’re not warranted because this is Dean Kapsalis’ feature film debut. As writer and director, he shows an impressive cinematic pedigree, crafting a gripping atmosphere around an engaging narrative that refuses to let go of your psyche, even as the credits roll. When it comes to directorial debuts, this is one of the most incredible and is certainly a sign of things to come. “The Swerve” is a nearly flawless outing with palpable tension and a script that’s equally shocking and sensitive to the ground it covers.

Film Review: “All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by: Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Amazon Studios

There’s a history professor at the university I attended who gave a seminar to students about why they should vote. There was something interesting he mentioned where he said a lot of Americans take voting for granted because they were simply born here and didn’t have to fight for their voice to be heard. I know how the layman viewer would read that, but I know what the professor really meant. Democracy is something that you have to fight for constantly. Voting is something you need to do constantly. Not because voting is your duty, but because the right to vote is constantly under attack. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is not only about that topic, but it’s also the most important documentary to watch before November 3.

That’s because the documentary is about something that happens every year in America: voting. That’s because the documentary has a message that needs to be heard by all Americans: vote. That’s because the documentary is a history lesson on the most integral part of American democracy: voting. That’s because the documentary draws from the past, present, and future to show us the one thing we need to fight for every year: voting.

The documentary crams a lot of topics into its brief time, but does it in a very abstract way, by condensing a wealth of information into short, concise moments or highlighting a specific event that speaks for a countrywide problem. It touches upon the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, voter ID laws, voting rights for felons, gerrymandering and so many other topics. I really don’t want to bore you with all the others are dive into each topic because this is the kind of documentary you flip on and let yourself become awash with emotions, whether it’s sadness, angry or hope. The reason all these topics are discussed is because the documentary is building to this moment, this thesis statement that America is at risk of repeating a very dark moment in history.

Three weeks ago, I posted my review of a Donald Trump documentary, making the argument that it was a documentary that’ll inevitably be forgotten because of its timely, yet inevitably outdated material. It’s almost as if 2020 decided to give me something better to talk about in return. “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” is not only the most relevant documentary this year, but may be discussed and watched for years, if not generations, to come. With that said, watch this documentary immediately, stay informed, keep an eye on your representatives and elected leaders (local, state and federal) and vote this November. And just like that professor imparted to students, you must not only vote this year, but in every election from here on out.

Film Review: “Lost Girls & Love Hotels”

Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Takehiro Hira and Carice van Houten
Directed by: William Ollson
Rated: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Astrakan Releasing

During the pandemic, one of the podcasts that I’ve been listening to has talked a lot about how the powers to be should release “Chaos Walking.” Firstly, they want to see a Charlie Kaufman written film. Secondly, they say the studio has re-shot, re-edited and shelved the movie several times over the past several years. The podcast hosts are generally curious if it’s bad and how bad it really is. As much as I’m curious to see a movie with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, that was written by the wildly creative Charlie Kaufman, I also understand that sometimes a movie is simply bad, but not an entertaining train wreck like “The Room” or “Catwoman.” Sometimes they’re just awful and forgettable.

There’s plenty of examples, but the most recent one is “Lost Girls & Love Hotels,” a movie that’s almost spent three years collecting dust. From what I gather, it’s been kicked around for nearly a decade and a half in Hollywood, based on a book by the same name. The plot is pretty simple. Margaret (Daddario) lives in Japan as a teacher of sorts, helping flight attendants with their English. After work, she wanders aimlessly throughout bars and other clubs, having sex with strangers, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and generally staring off into space. But her sex life is the main focus, since she prefers it rough. Rough like, being choked with a belt and being tied up with zip ties or rope. I’d make some comparisons to “50 Shades of Grey,” but “Lost Girls & Love Hotels” predates “50 Shades Grey” by about five years.

The movie is a poor character study/sexual exploration trip through what I assume is Japan’s Red Light District. Unfortunately none of it is interesting. The main reason being that Margaret isn’t compelling. We can tell that she’s damaged, but we never get a feeling or even told about the extent of that damage. The information we do get is so cliché it makes you think this concept was written during the steamy sex thrillers of the 90s. When Margaret encounters Kazu (Hira), a dangerous criminal of some sort, she begins to sexually and emotionally open up, but nothing substantial about her emotions or thoughts are revealed. I could understand if it’s intentionally up for interpretation, but it’s so vague that the viewer’s interpretation can fly wildly from one extreme to another.

I assume the other characters are simply surrounding Margaret because we’re supposed to mine Margaret’s internal thoughts from questions she asks other characters, since she’s never interested in divulging about herself. However, the characters seem to act and talk to her like they know everything and don’t need to ever pick her brain. About halfway through, I think, we finally learn why she’s in Japan and why she’s a bare minimum teacher of basic flight services. That’s pretty much it in terms of character exposition. As the film goes on, Margaret’s self-destructive nature feels more nihilistic than sympathetic. There comes a moment where Margaret drunkenly stumbles across a missing poster for a young girl. The movie wants us to feel like this is poignant, but instead it comes off as tone deaf.

Bad storytelling aside, there’s really not a lot this film does right, if at all. Some scenes are so dark, I’m not sure what the hell is going on, and some characters are speaking so softly, I’m not sure what the hell they’re saying. I wish I could say something positive for the cast, because I do think the majority of them are talented, but I can’t think of a single thing. “Lost Girls & Love Hotels” is horrendously unoriginal, has nothing to say, and somehow makes BDSM sex look like the most boring thing on the planet. 

Panic Fest Presents Tricks & Treats – A Halloween Celebration

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Trick or Treaters. Candy bingeing. Horror marathons. Pumpkin carving. Costume contests. Even though this Halloween turned out to be more gnarly than Regan projectile vomiting green pea soup – that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the best time of the year together! Panic Fest won’t let Halloween die! Panic Fest Presents: TRICKS AND TREATS, a special virtual Halloween celebration that runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 1. 

Every year we look forward to these traditions but with the pandemic they are in real jeopardy of not existing this year. Fear not, Panic Fest is here to satisfy your horror appetite.The three day event features new and classic films, shorts, live events including horror themed trivia, live podcasts, special guests and more. Best of all, you, the horror community get to participate with each other throughout the weekend. Hell, we even have a ‘Best in Show’ style pumpkin carving contest. So, grab your costume and bowl of candy and join us for a jam packed weekend celebrating our favorite time of year. Tickets are now on sale with full programming coming in October. 

Have a feature or short? Submissions are open: https://filmfreeway.com/TricksTreats

Tickets on sale now: https://panicfilmfest.com/tricks

Panic Fest enters it’s 9th year and has been recognized for three years running as one of the top 25 best genre festivals in the world by MovieMaker Magazine. Panic Fest is scheduled to take place Jan. 29th – Feb. 4 2021.

Film Review: “Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump”

Directed by: Dan Partland
Running Time: 83 minutes
Rating: NR
Dark Star Pictures

This might be the first review ever where I know that I’m not going to persuade a single individual to watch this documentary or not. Political documentaries are divisive enough, but in today’s political climate of red or blue tribalism, it’s fairly easy to say that people will see it or they won’t. Add in the fact that it’s solely about President Donald Trump, you either will or won’t watch it. You either will or won’t believe the things in it. There is no gray area. You, the reader, know where you stand. So you’re either going to read this and enjoy me discussing the film, or you’re going to get mad, not read it, or read and send me an angry email.

Having worked in news since 2013, there aren’t a lot of current event documentaries that can catch me by surprise. “Unfit” is no different. “Unfit” covers a lot of ground in it’s brief timespan, starting with the inauguration of the 45th U.S. President and ending on a message of “Go and Vote.” In that timespan, the film goes over some of the more outlandish things the President has said or done, from having a rally crowd swear an oath of allegiance to calling the COVID-19 pandemic a liberal hoax.

The movie backpedals every once so we get information about his life before the White House. We learn about his upbringing, his real estate dealings, his rise to star power, and his knack for cheating in golf. There’s almost too much to cover, for one singular film under two hours, but it does something interesting throughout. The film talks with various psychologists about why President Trump should be considered a malignant narcissist, the worst of narcissists. The movie also dips back into the politicization of psychology as well as several incidents that have led towards the media or politicians from disregarding statements made by experts in the field of psychology.

If you haven’t guessed or figured out by now, “Unfit” is an argument for why you shouldn’t vote for Trump this November. So going back to what I said originally, you should already know how you’re voting. For the first time in ages, it seems like America knows what it’s voting on, at least that’s what several public polls say. So how does “Unfit” hold up as a documentary? Fairly well. The design and narrative of the film isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s structured to keep moving at a brisk pace. There are also several interviews and people who interject in the hopes of persuading some hardcore Trump haters. These interviews state something simple that’s usually lost in conversation. People who voted for Trump aren’t awful people like the President. They voted because they felt like their voice was no longer being heard, which is true for a lot of disenfranchised voters. Unfortunately, as the documentary shows, it also brings out the worst in people, but this isn’t by any means a sign of the majority or even the average Trump voter.

If I had to explain why my rating was average, I think it’s partially because (like I said earlier) there wasn’t a lot I didn’t already know. I think some people will be shocked about some of the things they hadn’t heard before because of the endless news cycle that seemingly finds some new thing to report on Trump’s past, present and future. c The message is in this moment. By the time November rolls around, that message will be done and over with. I can only think of one way this movie has a place in history, and I hope that one way never comes to fruition. Just in case, I won’t even utter it. As for those who reached the end of this review, go ahead and write me your angry emails or watch this movie. Also, don’t forget to vote.

“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” – Thomas Jefferson

Film Review: “The 24th”

Starring: Trai Byers, Aja Naomi King and Bashir Salahuddin
Directed by: Kevin Willmott
Rated: NR
Running Time: 113 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

“Death is the price for a night of justice…”

More so than ever, at least in my lifetime, African-American cinema and storytelling is pertinent to the world around us right now. As I write this, George Floyd was murdered nearly three months ago and the world got a firsthand look at the carelessness and brutality of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A movie like “The 24th” serves as a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to do in America because our savage history isn’t that far behind us.

“The 24th” focuses on several weeks in the long history of the 24th U.S Infantry Regiment, one of America’s all-black regiments. Specifically, the movie turns its gazing eyes towards Texas, where the 24th is stationed, in August, 1917. With the eyes of the world on Europe and WWI, the eyes of the 24th were set on injustice all around them. Despite being soldiers who were ready to lay their lives down for America, they were soldiers and humans who were viewed less than by the people of Houston.

The first act establishes that the Houston Police Department and several citizens don’t respect the 24th, and the film shows the police and locals several times being the instigators of conflicts in the area. A lot of it is unsettling, but necessary. The problem with the first act, is that we don’t get to spend enough time with the 24th on human level. Before we can truly get to know each one of these men, we’re shoved towards conflict and a bitter resolution. Not to say that the conflict isn’t mortifying and riveting from a storytelling perspective, but it’d be nice to relate with these men before the final act.

Writer and director, Kevin Willmott, has proven countless times since his film, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” in 2004, that he’s able to handle race relations, and the history behind it, in a nuanced and powerful way. I tend to believe that his best work comes when he has someone else behind the camera though. “The 24th” is a harrowing movie movie, with some of the dialogue being near-perfect, accompanied by some excellent acting behind those words. The problem is, it’s not great and I’ve come to expect greatness after Willmott’s work with Spike Lee in “Blackkklansman” and “Da 5 Bloods.”

Regardless of my criticisms, so much of human history is forgotten. Sometimes it’s because it genuinely was inconsequential, and other times it’s because history is sometimes viewed through a lens. So how did the largest murder trial in American history seem to be forgotten? It wasn’t, it was simply ignored. Thankfully Willmott brought this history to life and gave viewers, like me, a much welcome history lesson.

Film Review: “Uncle Peckerhead”

Starring: Chet Siegel, Ruby McCollister and Jeff Riddle
Directed by: Matthew John Lawrence
Rated: Not Yet Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Epic Pictures

Punk rock and horror just work. Both are angry, fast, short, simple and to the point. From “Surf Nazis Must Die” to “Return of the Living Dead,” there’s a lot of great elements at play anytime you get punk rockers and horror tropes mixed up. Contemporarily speaking, there isn’t much left in the proverbial tank, outside of “Green Room,” a film that I was in the minority on. But “Uncle Peckerhead” could serve as a potential rejuvenation for blast beat punk rock soundtracks laid over a gory mess.

When we meet the band Duh, made up of Judy (Siegel), Mel (McCollister) and Max (Riddle), they’re down on their luck. The trio’s touring van is repossessed, coming immediately after Judy secures several shows on a statewide tour. In a desperation move, the band begins plastering signs everywhere, hoping someone will let them rent a van for their tour. That’s when they meet Peck (David H. Littleton). Peck agrees to the van deal, but he has some stipulations. He gets to drive and be the band’s roadie. Out of options, the band agrees, even though something isn’t quite right with Peck. It’s only after their first gig on tour that they learn Peck is a flesh eating monster, with pale skin and yellow teeth, for about a dozen minutes when the clock strikes midnight.

The monster that Peck becomes isn’t scary, nor is it supposed to be. If the opening moments aren’t a clue, “Uncle Peckerhead” is a comedy-horror. My favorite kind of genre because it’s an excuse for gore and sometimes childish comedy. I mentioned “Surf Nazis Must Die” earlier because the film has a quaint Troma charm to it. If you had told me “Uncle Peckerhead” was a Troma film, I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s in the film’s DNA. Everything is cheap, but the cast dives so far into that content, that their line delivery is admirable, no matter how bad the dialogue is. The comedic timing is hit and miss, but when it hits, it’s nearly pitch perfect. So if uncomfortable situational humor and gore don’t tickle your funny bone, you should probably just avoid horror, and Troma films, altogether.

The main conflict that develops throughout this off-the-beaten path road trip film is between Judy and Peck. While Judy has her eyes set on becoming successful (which in the punk world, isn’t that successful), she has one eye on Peck. While her bandmates seem content with Peck’s blood lust, especially after he devours some metalhead bullies, Judy is understandably concerned that a trashy older man devours human flesh at night. Over time though, she begins to admire Peck because of the way he supports the band and its members. You could call him a hillbilly with a heart of gold.

I probably enjoyed “Uncle Peckerhead” more than most low-budget horror because it recognizes what it is, and doesn’t try to be different. Surprisingly by the film’s end, “Uncle Peckerhead” made me feel nostalgic. Watching a bad punk band play to a couple dozen fans looking to mosh made me miss concerts in new COVID-19 world. Campy films like “Uncle Peckerhead” are best viewed with a crowd. Unfortunately I missed this film at Panic Fest, where it premiered, so it also made me miss the cinematic experience that films offer in a crowded, dark room with strangers. I especially admire these kinds of low-budget horror gore films because the passion at work on screen spills over into the crowd, and suddenly the screening becomes a party. “Uncle Peckerhead” should satisfy the sweet tooth of passionate horror fans and give them something to bob their head to.

Film Review: “Yes, God, Yes”

Starring: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons and Wolfgang Novogratz
Directed by: Karen Maine
Rated: R
Running Time: 78 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

It’s possible I’ve mentioned this before in my stint at MediaMikes, but it bears repeating that I was a Catholic school student at one point in my life. One of the most memorable things during those four years was the sex education. It was a fairly basic education, where boys and girls were divided into separate classrooms and given the lowdown. While they explained sex in the most basic manner, much of the sex education curriculum was built around sin. Masturbation is a sin. Pre-marital sex is a sin. Pornography is a sin. The curriculum is counter-intuitive to the modern adolescent experience and “Yes, God, Yes” takes a nuanced look at the relationship between puberty and religion.

While I’m sure some people will view “Yes, God, Yes” as a 90s coming-of-age film, I’d like to believe it’s a bit more than that. 16-year-old Alice (Dyer) tries to be a good girl in the eyes of her parents, school, priest, and God. But that’s complicated when something happens while at home after school one day. She logs on to AOL (for people younger than me and older than my parents, AOL was the Internet log-in go-to) and is approached by an anonymous user in a chat room. He asks her sexual questions, sends her a nude photo, and wants to cyber (for people younger than me, and my parents age and older, I don’t want to explain that one). Compounding her sexual feelings from this brief AOL chat is a private church retreat where her sexual urges and religious beliefs collide.

Surface level, the movie is a great dramedy, with its intellectual digs at Catholicism. Beneath that surface, it highlights the failures of anti-LGBT practices and abstinence only education. The message buoyed by the emotional tug and pull that Alice faces as she tries to handle her friends, classmates, sexuality and personal beliefs. I feel like the film’s greatest strength is finding a specific grey area where it teaches instead of lectures. I won’t give it away, but the movie does a great job at showing how the hypocrites are consciously aware of their own moral pitfalls. Alice slowly uncovers how her classmates and church leaders are all guilty of the sins they believe they’re combatting. While they are made out to be hypocrites, the movie shows how conflicted they are, just like Alice.

The summer of 2020 may be remembered for all the small gems found on streaming services. “Yes, God, Yes” is one of those indie films that will delight audiences. It tickles the funny bone with crass humor and awkward situations, while buttering us up with a very sweet, sentimental tale about hormones and finding ourselves. While moments of “Yes, God, Yes” are painfully realistic, it reminds the viewer that sex is sometimes uncomfortable, odd, and confusing for everyone. While everyone has different views on sex and the discussion revolving around it, “Yes, God, Yes” shows we’re all stuck in the same boat. Our sexuality is as integral to our life as much as our personal politics and religious affiliation.