Film Review: “Camp Pleasant Lake”

Starring: Jonathan Lipnicki, Bonnie Aarons and Andrew Divoff
Directed by: Thomas Walton
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
Deskpop Entertainment

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

The slasher genre is no stranger to parody. 2023 ended with “Totally Killer,” the “Scary Movie” franchise was built on slasher tropes, “Club Dread” was Broken Lizard’s follow-up to their smash hit “Super Troopers,” etc. The examples are endless. So, while “Camp Pleasant Lake” might have an interesting concept, an understanding of the slasher genre, and a cast that’s more than willing to slop it up with blood, the film barely tickles the funny bone and barely offers up anything remotely new or fresh.

“Camp Pleasant Lake” is about the titled summer camp, the site of an infamous murder from decades before, reopening under new management. The new owners are interested in cashing in on Camp Pleasant Lake’s horrific history by serving as an immersive horror attraction. Attendees are brought in on school bus, ready to see some fake blood and guts. What the owners aren’t expecting is an actual killer to show-up, who starts butchering camp workers and attendees. What follows is all promise and no payoff.

The biggest issue with “Camp Pleasant Lake” upfront is the cast. There are way too many characters and none of them are the lead. We don’t get any alone time with any and most of the time when they do talk, it’s awkward, forced, wooden and unfulfilling. The only time where “Camp Pleasant Lake” feels like a film with living breathing characters is in a flashback to the infamous incident that made Camp Pleasant Lake so…well…infamous. Even then, that flashback basically tells you who the killer is, quite easily. The only way you wouldn’t notice is if you were asleep.

Like I stated earlier, the movie just isn’t funny. The jokes are one note. If characters thinking an actual murder is fake because it’s a fake camp causes you to have giggle fits, I’d recommend this movie. For everyone else, you’re going to be wondering how many times characters can see this happen and still think it’s all staged. In fact, at one point, the killer goes to a group of remaining attendees and workers, at least 20 or more, and begins stabbing indiscriminately. At no point does a victim let out a “oh no, this is real” or anything to alert everyone living that the killer is a real killer. Nope, this just happens over and over again until the credits arrive.

All-in-all, “Camp Pleasant Lake” is empty on laughs, empty on suspense, and sometimes empty on gore despite the killer slashing his way through 30 people throughout its runtime. It’s really unfortunate because the idea behind the film is fantastic, the look of the killer is great for being low budget, and the killer’s origin story could easily be built into a franchise, but it never blossoms. Since you’ll have an unpleasant experience with “Camp Pleasant Lake,” I’d recommend a film like “Hell House LLC” or “Ruin Me,” because they do a much better job with the premise of a fake horror experience going awry.

Film Review #2: “Bob Marley: One Love”

 

  • BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE
  • Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch
  • Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins
  • Paramount Pictures

 

Nearly 42 years after his death, Reggae music pioneer Bob Marley (1945-81) continues to be legend of near-mythical proportions on a global scale. The only child from a brief marriage between a middle-aged, white British plantation overseer and an 18-year-old black Jamaican girl, Marley grew up in poverty and was bullied because of his mixed ethnicity. Despite this, he went on to have a life that Jim Morrison would have quipped was good enough to have a movie based upon it. Unfortunately, while it contains a near-Oscar worthy performance by British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir (“Secret Invasion,” “One Night in Miami”), “Bob Marley: One Love” falls far short of being a triumphant biopic.

 

With the involvement and oversight by members of his family, “One Love” delves into a specific timeframe of Marley’s life from his rise to global fame following an assassination attempt in late 1976 to his triumphant return to Jamaica in 1978 to perform the “One Love Peace Concert”. The film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard,” “Monsters and Men”), mistakenly does not provide much detail about Marley’s previous 30 years of life other than some repeated imagery that implies a sense of isolation and abandonment within the famed singer. The decision to fly through his trials and tribulations as a young man significantly weakens the sense of his ultimate triumph.

 

“One Love” tries to prevent the complicated marriage between Rita (played wonderfully by Lashana Lynch, “The Woman King,” “No Time to Die”) and Bob in some meaningful way, yet it too is glossed over with their underlying problems just briefly hinted at. Yes, there is a big scene involving them arguing but its impact is insignificant.

 

The highlights of “One Love” include Ben-Adir’s performance and, of course, its music. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission and should serve to continue to perpetuate Marley’s legacy. However, it you want to know the man on a more in-depth and intimate level, I would highly recommend the 2012 documentary, “Marley.” It is a riveting and detailed account of his life and music from his humble beginnings to his musical triumph to his untimely death.

 

On a scale of zero to five, “Bob Marley: One Love” receives ★★

 

 

Film Review #1 – “Bob Marley: One Love”

 

  • BOB MARLEY:  ONE LOVE
  • Starring:  Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, and James Norton
  • Directed by:  Reinaldo Marcus Green
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 47 mins
  • Paramount

 

As a father I’ve tried to share my love for musicians I grew up listening to to my son.  It’s a family tradition.  My father introduced me to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.  I introduced my son to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and many others.  But there was one artist I neglected to share with my son, so it was with great pride when, at the age of 14, he asked me if I’d ever heard of Bob Marley?  Of course I had.  He was another favorite.  The pride I felt came from the fact that my son, without my input, was now listening to the music of a man who had passed away three years before he was born.

 

It is a tough time to live in Jamaica.  With two very opposite people trying to take power, the citizens of the Island country are caught between both factions.  Enter Bob Marley (Ben-Adir) a Rastafarian musician who, despite his sometimes political posturing in his music, only wants to bring the people of his country together.  He and his band, the Wailiers, are currently getting ready for a large concert when their rehearsal is interrupted by gunfire.  Marley and his manager are shot, as was Marley’s wife, Rita (Lynch).  But Marley will not be deterred in his quest to share his music and his message of peace with the world.

 

Produced with the approval and input of Marley’s son, Ziggy, “Bob Marley: One Love” takes a look not only at the man, but at the rise of a new music genre’ including the creation of, in my opinion, Marley’s greatest album, “Exodus.”  But don’t take my word for it.  “Rolling Stone” magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time lists “Exodus” at number 71.

 

While the music is important, it is the man we learn about.  As portrayed by Ben-Adir, Bob Marley is a man like every other man.  He has his faults, and the film does not try to hide them from the audience.  He knows what he has to do to get his music heard – mostly traveling constantly – yet sometimes questions the methods of how his popularity is being achieved.  When Rita reminds him, “if you’re going to swim in pollution, you’re going to get polluted,” he realizes that, try as he might, he can’t control everything.

The performances are outstanding, with Mr. Ben-Adir seemingly channeling the spirit of Bob Marley.  From the way he moved to the way he spoke and sang, it is an amazing performance.  Ms. Lynch gives Rita Marley her own voice, playing her as both a loving and supportive wife as well as a no-nonsense woman who is not afraid to speak her mind.  The music, of course, is pure bliss.  Most people can tell you that Bob Marley sang “I Shot the Sherrif,” “Jamming,” and “No Woman No Cry” and the film highlights those songs but you also get a taste of some of Marley’s lesser known songs, all of them enjoyable.

 

Thanks to the hard work of Ziggy Marley, “Bob Marley: One Love” is a loving and inspiring tribute to a man who left this world much too soon.  But his music, and his message, lives on.

 

On a scale of zero to five, I give “Bob Marley: One voice” ★★★★

Film Review: “Zone of Interest”

Starring: Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
A24

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

Watch Nazis raise a family. Watch Nazis play with their kids. Watch Nazis tend to their garden. Watch Nazis get short with their Jewish house servants. Watch Nazis plan a children’s party. Watch Nazis discuss their career paths in the war machine. “Zone of Interest” is a lot of watching Nazis do mundane things while the unthinkable genocide at Auschwitz takes place just over the hedges, over the fence, in the background, or just upstream from children horsing around. That’s “Zone of Interest” for 106 minutes, nothing less, and unfortunately, nothing more.

“Zone of Interest” is visually disgusting because the family, made up of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and their five children seem to live this simple life. The children are oblivious, even when they sift through prisoner possessions, to the atrocities happening next door. Of course, if the kids did know, could they fully comprehend the extent of what’s happening?

Rudolf and Hedwig know good and well about the insufferable cruelty and mass death. Rudolf is one of the architects, but he views this simply as his work duties. Hedwig knows of her husband’s work, and what’s happening, but she’s enjoying a somewhat extravagant life with a vast, adorable cottage to raise her family with an army of trembling servants constantly cleaning, cooking and washing. So, we have to ask, do Rudolf or Hedwig care?

As I stated, Rudolf appears to have the nature of Adolf Eichmann, simply doing his job and unfortunately, being damn good at it. We never get a vibe for his feelings on it all. It’s possible he’s simply doing it because that’s what society, his government, and his wife expect him to do. While this may be horrifying, the worst part is that Rudolf never seems to reflect or realize the Holocaust he’s perpetuating. Ultimately, this makes Hedwig worse because she is personified privilege. She lords over the servants with threats of sending them to the crematorium herself or upset that her idyllic perspective and life isn’t as lavish as it could be.

What are we supposed to take away from a film like “Zone of Interest? That evil isn’t necessarily evil, more than a mass number of individuals doing a horrific thing to serve their own self-interest, whether it’s career goals, enjoying the benefits of new life, or reaping benefits from chaos? Is it that this can happen again because family responsibilities can force the average worker to become a cog in a sociopathic machine? “Zone of Interest” is actually so banal in discussing the banality of evil, it fails to deliver anything meaningful or even lasting.

I wanted to like “Zone of Interest” because it was telling an untold story of the Holocaust. When the final solution is discussed, it’s always the major players, the big wigs and Hitler. Never is it discussed or talked about how often average people did horrible things in seemingly quaint areas. Years and years ago, I visited the concentration camp Dachau and the biggest impression left on me wasn’t the crematorium where countless bodies were burned, the showers where people spent their last minutes on Earth in terror or the vast dormitories used to store thousands of starving, hopeless humans. It was how this camp of misery and death sat nestled in such a picturesque town. Dachau was in operation for over a decade and I could only imagine the people at home nearby who eventually became used to this horrific sight and went about their day. That kind of horror and shock isn’t in “Zone of Interest.”

Film Review – “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom”

 

  • AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM
  • Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson
  • Directed by: James Wan
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 4 mins
  • Warner Bros. Pictures

 

After lots of lows and some highs, the DC extended universe of films is ending with its 15th and final installment in the form of “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” Currently in theaters, “Lost Kingdom” ends the franchise on a solid note with two hours of pure popcorn fun. While Jason Momoa is no Laurence Olivier or Sidney Poitier, he does not pretend to be and instead infuses a genuine enthusiasm into a performance which does not require a lot of range. Bolstered by some enjoyable supporting performances, fun action, and few laughs, “Lost Kingdom” is an improvement over the first “Aquaman”.

 

Voiceover narrations are often so dullish that they impair a film’s progression, which is the case in the beginning with “Lost Kingdom.” Momoa provides a reflection of where his character of Arthur Curry/Aquaman has been over the past few years, and it comes across as stilted. Regardless, we learn that Aquaman has married Mera (Amber Heard) and had a son while at the same time trying to lead a double life as a reluctant king of Atlantis.

 

Concurrently, we see that David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is still hell bent on avenging the death of his father no matter what the cost. Amid his quest, Black Manta, with the assistance of a marine biologist, stumbles across an ancient Atlantean artifact in the form of a black trident. Like something out of a D&D game, the trident possesses Black Manta and its trapped creator, who resembles the King of the Dead from “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” offers Black Manta glorious purpose if he frees him.

Black Manta’s subsequent actions with other forms of ancient technology threaten to destroy the Earth’s environment. To prevent it, a war with the surface world, and save his family, Aquaman must turn to his imprisoned, disgruntled brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson) for help.

 

For someone who has been a fan of at least some of the DC movies, or the Zack Snyder universe, it is a bit sad to see the unfinished storylines come to an end. It is at least going out on a decent note as “Lost Kingdom” provides a fun way to spend just over two hours at the movie theater. There are several laughs to be had throughout its running time with plenty of action, albeit nothing we have not seen before, and decent enough special effects. The thing about “Lost Kingdom” is that it does not take itself too seriously, which would have caused it to be a complete dud if it had.

 

Abdul-Mateen II stands out once again as a man so blinded by rage and revenge that he become something less than human. Wilson is also fantastic with some great comic relief with good timing in support of Momoa. Overall, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is a nice swan song to a franchise that had its fair share of severe ups and downs.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” receives ★★½ stars out of five.

Film Review – “Maestro”

 

  • MAESTRO
  • Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan and Matt Bomer
  • Directed by:  Bradley Cooper
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time: 2 hrs 9 mins
  • Netflix

Composer Leonard Bernstein provided the music for some great shows, including the magnificent “West Side Story,” so when I heard that Bradley Cooper was going to follow up his Oscar winning “A Star is Born” with a film about Bernstein I was really excited to see it.  However, for some reason Cooper has chosen to nearly ignore the musical passions of the man to focus on the passions of the heart.  That, in a nutshell, is “Maestro.”

A phone rings, waking Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) out of a sound sleep. The voice on the other end tells him the news he’s been waiting to hear.  With lead conductor Artur Rodziński away, and the guest conductor falling ill, he is to conduct that afternoon’s performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  With no rehearsal.  Confident, Bernstein takes up the baton.  And a legend is born.

 

Oddly paced, but brilliantly acted, “Maestro” is a film that may take a second viewing to fully understand the story director Cooper wanted to tell.  The film follows the decades-long relationship between Bernstein and his actress wife Felicia (Mulligan).  Along the way there are plenty of bumps in the road, the main one being Bernstein’s infidelity with members of both sexes.

 

Along the way we do get brief glimpses of Bernstein’s musical genius – working on “On the Town,” mentoring young musicians, but what made him famous almost seems like an afterthought to Cooper and co-screenwriter Josh Singer.  And for some reason Cooper often uses long, static shots throughout entire scenes when some film editing may have made the scenes more interesting.

On a positive note, the performances are excellent.  Cooper channels Bernstein down to his voice patterns.  Mulligan carries most of the emotional baggage of the film and never delivers a false note.  Hopefully both actors will be remembered when Academy Award nominations are announced.

 

My first date with my now-wife was the film “Wedding Crashers” with a young Bradley Cooper.  He has since become a favorite of my wife and when we first saw the trailer for “Maestro” I jokingly asked if Leonard Bernstein ever took his shirt off.  Apparently he did.  But I have also grown to respect Cooper as both an actor and a filmmaker.  It borders on criminal that he did not receive an Oscar nod for his direction of “A Star is Born.”  I’m not sure if he’ll get in this category this time around but I truly admire the work and research he puts into his films.

 

On a scale of zero to five I giver “Maestro” ★★★½

Film Review: “American Fiction”

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Rated: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

I’m not going to attempt any bad barely remembered quotes, but I’ve heard a solid critique from several African American film critics about when critics, award groups and associations award black films. The critique is that the film is either a movie about the worst time for black people in America (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Color Purple,” “Django Unchained”) or how their story needs the help of a white person to tell (“The Blind Side,” “Precious,” “Green Book”). “American Fiction” feels like that critique personified.

Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who also goes by Monk, is a professor and black writer, who receives praise from his fellow academics for his books. But none from his publisher, the public, or even his family. Monk, as he’s told, directly or indirectly, isn’t “black enough.” He watches as others in his field write books that he believes not only pander to white people and the surrounding culture but demean black voices. So, he begins writing “My Pafology” to not only mock the narrative he sees, but to jokingly see if anyone cares what he writes now. Unfortunately, they do.

Almost like a meta commentary, that’s what the trailer for “American Fiction” kind of says the movie is, but at no point did I ever feel the movie was a spoof. I almost began to wonder if the trailer was intentionally selling audiences, white critics like me and America on this notion that we’re about to watch an academic parody of how black people are reduced to caricatures with so-called hood talk for stereotypical films that highlight slavery or impoverished neighborhoods. Instead “American Fiction” uses that as a kind of background noise to the real story, Monk’s life.

He comes from a lower middle-class background in the northeast, but now lives in Los Angeles, far from his two siblings and an ailing mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) who suffers from early signs of dementia. His sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), takes care of her while Monk bemoans the literary industry and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) has pretty much abandoned the family because he feels he’s being looked down upon by everyone, including Agnes. That’s because Cliff’s ex-wife divorced after catching him with another man. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know much about Agnes, because she dies suddenly from a heart attack.

Ultimately “American Fiction” is about Monk’s flawed perception because he himself seems to be living out a stereotypical American life we’ve seen in other family drama films. He’s dealing with the age of his mother, attempting to reconcile with a brother who’s nose deep in cocaine, and dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one while finding random romance in his older years. In that regard, that’s the kind of stories Monk wants people to see when it comes to black people. That’s what ultimately leads him to ridicule everything through “My Pafology.” The movie is still about a both, someone or something upping the drama in Monk’s life as the insult to professed book lovers begins to spin wildly out of control. Eventually Monk must reconcile with the fact that everyone lives life differently and similarly.

“American Fiction” plays like an indictment of society and pop-culture at-large. In some ways, it has me pondering the movies I’ve liked and if it’s simply because of my own personal expectations or if it’s because it’s telling a unique story. Do we, as critics, filmgoers, and consumers, want to hear black voices or do we want the same old narrative where white people alleviate a terrible situation or we see triumph under oppression? Do we even want to hear other minority voices or just more sad stories? There’s a lot to study in this film, for years to come. “American Fiction” tells us that everyone, while living the same experiences, enjoying the same triumphs and enduring the same tragedies, all have a unique story to tell.

Film Review: “Laced”

Starring: Dana Mackin, Hermione Lynch and Zach Tinker
Directed by: Kyle Butenhoff
Rated: NR
Running Time: 98 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

Molly (Dana Mackin) and Charlie (Kyle Butenhoff) appear to be having an intimate evening together. They share dinner in a remote cabin, surrounded by a record-breaking blizzard, and appear to have planned the whole thing. However, there’s no time for small talk, deep talk, cozying up by a roaring fire or even finishing the meal. That’s because Molly has poisoned Charlie.

I don’t want to say much more because “Laced” works purely on its performances and reveals. Sure, it doesn’t take us long to realize something is amiss and that Molly has intentionally poisoned Charlie. And sure, the initial exposition comes hot and heavy, or in the case of watching the trailer, almost too spoilery. We know things will continue to be complex and complicated, that’s why Molly has unexpected dinner guests that make “Laced” a rather effective winter thriller.

It’s an indie film so I can forgive the lack of style that could have made it more claustrophobic and made effective use of the blizzard. Seriously, I sometimes forgot a raging snowstorm was outside because of how much time is spent indoors in this singular setting without a peep. The howling wind seems like an afterthought as characters stab each other with icy dialogue. All of that being said, Mackin, Hermoine Lynch and Zach Tinker provide enough fireworks in their performances. Butenhoof, not so much, but I can’t fault an actor who dies about five minutes in.

However, Butenhoff serves as writer and director, showing a Hitchcockian knack for making the most of a simplistic story. In other hands, “Laced” would have just been another predictable murder film, but Butenhoff is creative with making us second guess the narrative, whether it’s from Molly’s perspective or the explanations of her unexpected dinner guests. While I certainly felt the film lacked that winter bite, “Laced” has enough creativity to entertain you for 90 minutes and has the potential to chill you to the bone.

Film Review: “Migration”

 

  • MIGRATION
  • Starring the voices of:  Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks and Danny DeVito
  • Directed by:  Benjamin Renner and Guylo Homsy
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 32 mins
  • Universal

 

When the animation company ILLUMINATION puts out a movie, you expect a well told story with beautifully rendered animation.  With “Migration,” those expectations are not only met, but they are also exceeded.

 

We meet the Mallard family as they leisurely relax in a beautiful, New England Pond.  Father Mack (Nanjiani) and mom Pam (Banks) spend their days watching their youngsters – Dax (Caspar Jennings) and Gwen (Trasi Gazal) – swim contently across the water.   When they are visited by a flock of ducks heading to Jamaica for the winter, they are encouraged to head south with the flock.  Mack is over-protective and prefers the safety and familiarity of the pond.  Yet Pam would like a little adventure in their lives and, with the help of the kids, convinces Mack to take flight.  Accompanied by Uncle Dan (DeVito), they head off to the adventure of a lifetime.

 

Ever since “Despicable Me,” ILLUMINATION has released a string of outstanding films that are funny, family friendly and, most of all, beautiful to watch.  I’m not sure what their secret is, but whatever it is, I hope they don’t change it.  Even mighty PIXAR has had a few duds in their past, making ILLUMINATION, in my opinion, THE leader in film animation.  “Migration” takes the Mallard family on a journey that takes them from big cities to rural countryside, with each location beautifully presented.  Often, it’s like looking at a photograph, so detailed is the animation.

The cast features both familiar names (besides Nanjiani, Banks and DeVito, the vocal talent includes Carol Kane, Keegan Michael Key and Awkwafina) and fresh, bright voices who bring the characters to life.  The script, by Benjamin Renner and Mike White – yes, “School of Rock” and “White Lotus” Mike White – is full of both fun and emotional moments.  Like other ILLUMINATION films, these are characters you want to spend time with and, most importantly, want to succeed.

 

As an added bonus, there is also a short film called “Mooned” which answers the pressing question from “Despicable Me” – What happened to Vector?

 

On a scale of zero to five, I give “Migration” ★★★★

Film Review: “DICKS: The Musical”

  • DICKS: THE MUSICAL
  • Starring:  Josh Sharp, Aaron Jackson, Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane
  • Directed by:  Larry Charles
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 26 mins
  • A24

 

Imagine being young, handsome and, um, well equipped.  You’d sing about it, wouldn’t you?  I know I would!  You’d think you had the world on a string.  Now imagine you just discovered you have a twin.  It could happen.

Craig (Sharp) and Trevor (Jackson) are both living the good life, excelling both professionally and personally.  The one thing neither has, and desires, is a family.  Though they live a few doors apart, they are each unaware of the other until a department merger at their mutual employer pits them against each other to see who the best salesman in the company is.  Noticing that there is a very strong resemblance with each other, the two eventually share enough personal details to discover they are twins, separated by their parents.  One went to live with Dad (Lane) and the other with Mom (Mullally).  Each parent has their own baggage that the lads must work through as they plot to get their folks back together.

Written by stars Sharp and Jackson, the film is directed by long time “Seinfeld” producer Larry Charles, whose directing credits include films like ”Borat” and “The Dictator” as well as multiple episodes of television shows “The Comedians” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  He knows his way around a punch line and he never allows the film’s humor to hit you over the head.  It’s funny without screaming at you, ”Hey, laugh at this!”

The cast is top shelf, and you can never go wrong when you have Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally in a musical.  I’ve seen them both on stage and that talent transfers easily to the big screen.  Sharp and Jackson are fun to watch.  They have a great chemistry with each other, and both are fine song and dance men. Supporting work by Megan Thee Stallion as the boy’s boss and Bowen Yang as God (yes, God) keep the fun going.  And then, of course, there’s the Sewer Boys!  The songs are well written and the musical numbers are well paced.

A fun, hilarious comedy, “Dicks: The Musical” is best described as “a fun and raucous Parent Trap.”  And that’s a good thing.

 

On a scale of zero to five I give “Dicks: The Musical” ★★★★

 

Film Review: “The Sacrifice Game”

Starring: Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch and Gus Kenworthy
Directed by: Jenn Wexler
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 90 minutes
Shudder

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

My partner and I enjoy doing a Christmas movie marathon every year in December. Generally, she picks the Christmas movies and I find a horror Christmas film that she’ll actually enjoy. While any horror fan would think that’s easy, she’s not really the kind of person who would enjoy “Silent Night, Deadly Night” or “Black Christmas.” It needs to have a heartwarming element or some form of character redemption. Thankfully I may have found this year’s pick with “The Sacrifice Game.”

You wouldn’t think a film like “The Sacrifice Game” could be heartwarming after it’s opening minutes, where we witness the brutal murder of a happy couple three days before Christmas. Jude, played by Mena Massoud who I last saw play Aladdin in the 2019 live-action adaptation, and three others make-up the cult that’s traveling about the 1971 countryside, cutting the flesh off people as part of an ancient ritual to summon a demon. We cut to an all-girls boarding school where we find students, Clara (Georgia Acken) and Samantha (Madison Baines), along with a teacher and her boyfriend. Clara and Samantha bond over their abandonment. We learn that Samantha was intentionally left behind at the school for holidays and that the loner Clara suffers from self-harm. The unlikely duo become friends as teacher tries to make things cheery for the two, even getting them gifts. Then the cult shows up for Christmas and all hell, quite literally, breaks loose.

Despite the gruesome kills, yuletide bloodlust and viciousness of the cult, I will reiterate that “The Sacrifice Game” is surprisingly heartwarming, much like how “Bad Santa” found humanity in a booze-soaked Santa. While the film may feel familiar, it does a fantastic job of twisting the narrative in the latter half of the film. “The Sacrifice Game” does an admirable job of warming your heart after forcing you to endure nearly an hour of brutality. It also helps that it’s one of those films where you can just tell that the group of murderers will get their comeuppance.

The film is also bolstered by the performances of the killers, specifically Massoud who chews on the scenery so ravenously, you begin to hate him for how good he is at portraying a sociopath. Acken and Baines work well with each other. I’m always impressed how horror films can find good child actors that don’t outstay their welcome or get on your nerves. Acken and Baines play such a delightful budding duo as they bring their own outcast misery to the table. Acken outshines Baines when it counts though.

While the movie does feel a tad too long, director/writer Jenn Wexler squeezes out of every drop of blood from her cast and every ounce of Christmas cheer from the ending exclamation point. There’s also a hint of girl power throughout the film, mainly because I would describe the male characters as all muscle and no brain while the women manage to be both. While “Sacrifice Game” may not become a yearly holiday watch, you won’t be disappointed if it winds up under your Christmas tree.

 

Film Review: Loop Track

Starring: Thomas Sainsbury, Hayden J. Weal and Tawanda Manyimo
Directed by: Thomas Sainsbury
Rated: NR
Running Time: 96 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

At the opening of “Loop Track,” Ian (Thomas Sainsbury) is ignoring call after call as he parks his car at the edge of a New Zealand wilderness. Sweat percolates his head even though it doesn’t appear to be hot outside. Once he sets out on a hike, to who knows where, he avoids hikers as best as he can. It’s obvious that something is going on with Ian, but we don’t know what it is. Is he outrunning somebody? Is he worried about running into someone he knows? Why is he seemingly escaping into the woods for a hike?

The potential answers are sidelined when Ian runs into the overly talkative Nicky (Hayden J. Weal). Instead of revealing what bugs him with the Nicky, who overshares about everything, Ian doubles down on the awkwardness and sweating. Stuck together, the duo stops at a hiking trail cabin for the night, encountering a honeymooning couple, Monica (Kate Simmonds) and Austin (Twaanda Manyimo). Just like the viewer, they realize something is off with Ian, but no one can figure out what it is. Oddly enough, they have a lot of patience for his panicky shenanigans.

“Loop Track” is a near masterclass in suspense, making you wonder if Ian is experiencing stress-induced delusions, if he’s legitimately seeing something distant and foreboding in the surrounding woods, or if he’s the true terror. I give major props to Sainsbury, who also wrote and directed the film. So much of the film is carried through his embarrassingly shy, self-loathing cringe character. Sainsbury also writes a perfect counter balance to Ian through Nicky, an unnaturally cheery, comic relief who seems more focused on getting laid by every female he encounters, rather than Ian’s growing paranoia. The newlyweds play as a middle ground between the two, reacting with nuance and grounded reality to Nicky’s horniness and Ian’s fears.

The payoff in the film is unpredictable, truly. Is it a good payoff though? It’s something I’ve been struggling with. My emotions in the final act ranged from genuine surprise to disappointment. That being said, the movie is crafted in such a way, even if the payoff doesn’t work for you, it has it’s claws in you and you can’t turn away. While Sainsbury may be known more for his comedic chops and talents, he has a keen sixth sense for horror. If “Loop Track” is a sign of Sainsbury’s prowess for horror, I can’t wait to see what he has in store next.

Film Review: “Wish”

 

  • WISH
  • Starring the voices of: Arioana DeBose, Chris Pine and Alan Tudyk
  • Directed by:  Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 35 mins
  • Walt Disney Pictures

 

An enchanting town where everyone is happy, ruled by a handsome king and his lovely queen.  A cute animal sidekick.  Songs you hum to yourself as you leave the theatre.  Those were the trademarks of Walt Disney Pictures animated features since long before I was a child.  It’s been a long time since I felt those feelings but, thanks to “Wish,” all is right with the animated world again.

 

“Wish” tells the story of Asha (Oscar winner DeBose) and her family who, along with other families, live in the kingdom of Rosas, which is ruled by King Magnifico (a really nasty Chris Pine) and his Queen, Amaya (Angelique Cabral).  The price to live in this beautiful kingdom?  You must make a wish and give it to the king, who will hold onto it until the time he sees fit to grant it.  As Asha’s grandfather approaches his 100th birthday, Asha is confident that his wish will finally be granted.  But first, she has a job interview to attend.

 

From the opening credits to, well, the closing credits, “Wish” is a reminder of how Walt Disney used to create his animated films.  The animation style is almost a throwback to earlier classics as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty.”  The vocal talent is top notch and the songs memorable.

DeBose, who won an Oscar for playing Maria in the remake of “West Side Story,” gives Asha not only a voice but a brain.  She is strong willed and family oriented, something that doesn’t sit well with the king who, voice by Pine, can either be syrupy smooth or brutally mean.  I knew Pine could sing (he was in Into the Woods”),  but here he gets the opportunity to really belt.  Both are joined by other familiar voices, including Tudyk, Victor Garber and Evan Peters.

 

The animation is beautifully done and the accompanying musical score, composed by “Frozen”s Dave Metzger propels the story along between songs.

 

After a series of misfires that seriously threatened the House of Mouse, I am proud to report that, with “Wish,” Disney is back!

 

On a scale of zero to five, I give “Wish” ★★★★★

Film Review: “The Marvels”

  • THE MARVELS
  • Starring:  Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani
  • Directed by:  Nia DaCosta
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 45 mins
  • Walt Disney

 

GIRL POWER!  Twenty-five years ago, that was the motto of the popular series “Powerpuff Girls.”  For a new generation, those words will belong to the Marvels.

 

On an unnamed planet, an excavation is taking place.  A large object is removed from beneath the surface.  Once broken open, it reveals the treasure being sought – a single, magical bracelet.  On Earth, in her Jersey City bedroom decked out in her Captain Marvel fan artwork, superfan Kamala Khanfff Vellani) wears a similar bracelet. It will soon take her on the adventure of her life.

 

Even with wall-to-wall action, “The Marvels” feels almost formulaic in its story.  An issue with a space portal causes Kamala, astronaut hopeful Monica Rambeau (Parris) and Captain Marvel (Larson) to randomly change places with each other whenever they use their powers.  The situations lead to some exciting flight scenes, but they are edited so quickly that it’s often hard to keep track of who is fightin who.  Thankfully, when the film pauses to catch its breath, there are some genuinely sweet and humorous moments to enjoy before the next battle.  Highlight to me was Kamala choosing to be called Ms. Marvel, hoping she can avoid any copyright issues.

 

 

The cast try their best and the trio of leads have a fun chemistry, especially Ms. Vellani, who can’t help but show her youthful exuberance of being near her hero.  And you can never be disappointed anytime Samuel L. Jackson is on your movie screen.  As with all films in the MCU, the visual effects are first-rate.  I especially enjoyed the image of dozens of cats floating helplessly in zero gravity.

 

I will say that this was the first film in the MCU where I was uncertain of some characters or their back story.  I haven’t watched any of the various Marvel-themed shows on Disney + and apparently that is where Kamala was introduced to fans.  Despite my reservations with the film, I found her to be a fun character and I may have to give “Ms. Marvel” a watch.

 

On a scale of zero to five, I give “The Marvels” ★★★

Film Review: “As We Know It”

Starring: Mike Castle, Oliver Cooper and Taylor Blackwell
Directed by: Josh Monkarsh
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
Buffalo 8 Productions

Our Score: 0.5 out of 5 Stars

When I began writing movie reviews about a decade ago, I noticed immediately that I had a problem writing more about how much I didn’t like a movie as opposed to writing a movie. I didn’t want to contribute to the general negativity of the Internet, and I wanted to celebrate one of the things I love in life, movies. So over the years I’ve tended to write more, in terms of word count and number of reviews, on movies I love. As for movies that are bad, I tend to keep it short and sweet, or sometimes don’t say anything at all if it’s at a movie festival where I could write more on something enjoyable. So, since I didn’t watch “As We Know It” at a movie festival, I’ll keep this short and sweet. This movie is downright awful.

James (Mike Castle) is dealing with writer’s block after the recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend Emily (Taylor Blackwell) He’s sulking in his Hollywood Hills home when his even longer longtime best friend Bruce (Olive Cooper) shows up. Bruce isn’t there to cheer him up though, he’s there to tell him that the world is ending due to a zombie outbreak caused by soy milk. Then there’s about 80 minutes of flat jokes, maybe six boring zombies, little blood or gore that would warrant the zombie genre tag, 90s movie references that feel more like people you don’t like laughing at their own farts, and dialogue that feels like it’s trying to be wittier than Quentin Tarantino.

If the film is a parody or an attempt to mock zombie movies, why does it take place in the 90s before the revival and rise of the zombie genre in the 2000s? If it’s attempting to make fun of Hollywood, why does it try to make James a sympathetic character? Is the film supposed to be a funny juxtaposition of friendship and love dynamics during a crisis? If so, why are the stakes so low and flimsy? The tone is such a mystery, it’s hard to tell sometimes if “As We Know It” is ridiculing the characters or if the dialogue is truly as limp and plodding as a zombie. I don’t think the acting is bad, I just don’t think the cast knew how to interpret the script or what the point of any of it was. Its ineffective script, purpose and character conversations were apparent early-on. Very rarely do I automatically know I’m going to hate a movie several minutes in.

Like I stated earlier, I don’t want to rip this movie, and unfortunately it’s very easy because it’s very bad. It reminds me a lot of my movie project in my video production class. It was a seven-minute short that sounded awesome in my brain and I thought it looked great as I wrote it out. Then the final product was handed to the professor who gave it poor marks, including how one frame was out of focus. At least “As We Know It” was in focus. It has that going for it.

 

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