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: “Antebellum”

  • ANTEBELLUM
  • Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone
  • Directed by: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins
  • Lionsgate 

Kansas City native Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) gets an overdue opportunity to be a headline star in the alleged horror flick “Antebellum.” While Monáe burns brightly on the silver screen as a successful sociologist in present day and as a slave on a cotton plantation, “Antebellum” is such a meandering, sluggish work of cinema that you want to scream out, “Get on with it!” Furthermore, placing this film in the horror genre is a fallacy because while the story itself is horrific on every level imaginable, it is not necessarily a “horror” film like recent classics as “Us” and “Get Out.” 

We first meet Eden (Monáe) after Confederate officer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston, “Fargo” the TV series) executes a female slave as she tries to escape a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War. Eden is subsequently branded with a hot iron by a disgusting Confederate general who claims her as his own personal property. Despite the failure of the escape attempt, current and newly arrived slaves look to Eden as someone who can lead them to freedom. However, Eden tells anyone who approaches her to keep their eyes down and follow the Captain’s rules about not speaking unless spoken to. 

After being raped by the General, Eden dreams of being renowned sociologist and author Veronica Henley in modern day America. A woman who has found a balance between being a wife/mother and having a successful career, Veronica is often sought after for interviews and speaking engagements. One of whom is a mysterious southern-speaking woman named Elizabeth (Jena Malone in an almost maniacal performance), who bears a striking resemblance to the plantation’s white matriarch. After celebrating with friends, Veronica takes an Uber ride to her hotel, but discovers that Elizabeth, whom she only met via an awkward online conversation, is driving and Veronica is subsequently knocked out with a blow to the head. 

“Antebellum” does have an interesting twist, but there are so many glaring breadcrumbs that it is almost expected. Additionally, just to get to the “surprise” it takes as long to get there as it does to walk across the Sahara Desert. The supposed climax is a little clumsy and not as rewarding as one might hope it to be. Monáe is a delight to watch, though, as she infuses both of her characters with grace and an inner strength that is almost tangible. With superb skill, she contrasts these elements with a sense of sheer terror and tremendous pain when called upon to do so. 

Overall, “Antebellum” does have an intriguing premise with a talented star, but it fails to deliver on almost every level, and unfortunately, Monáe is left to carry the load as her supporting cast is largely forgettable. Much like the film.

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. 

Film Review: “Murder in the Woods”

  • MURDER IN THE WOODS
  • Starring: José Julián, Jeanette Samano and Danny Trejo
  • Directed by: Luis Iga Garza
  • Rated: R
  • Running time: 1 hr 30 minutes
  • REZINATE entertainment

This is an equation we’re all familiar with. Woodsy atmosphere plus amply endowed and oversexed girls plus alcohol, minus clothing divided by a grim anniversary equals amateur orgy meets bloodbath.

“Murder in the Woods,” from writer/director Luis Iga Garza, pulls a lot of familiar notes together with a Latina influence to deliver a safe but enjoyably brisk slash-y adventure. The film features a cast full of Latino actors intended for mainstream English speaking audiences. The absence of cultural stereotypes is refreshing and, frankly, demanded in 2020. It’s interesting to see how this story pulls cues from, essentially, an entire decade of slasher tropes whilst turning that genre on it’s head.

Pressing forward as audiences increasingly support (and insist on) elevating voices of creators of color it can be assumed that this will become more the norm. That said, I can only help that titles like this will prove to be a gateway for more original storytelling to highlight spooky delights from new ancestral wells. It’s imperative that if this route is important to you that you demand it with your support of projects like this. It may very well be the first American slasher featuring exclusively actors of color and that is very much an achievement of note.

That being said, “Murder in the Woods” is rather aggressively force feeding a large helping of nostalgic nods so your enjoyment of this film is going to be largely dependent on if throwbacks are still your jam or not. Although refreshingly diverse, this circle of youths is here to remind us that, no matter their skin color, entitled suburbanites can only behave so progressively.

The trusted roles of smart virgin, loose popular girl and frat-bros are still going strong here. Spooky local sheriff? They made sure Danny Trejo was strong-armed in for that quota too. So again, if the punishment of badly behaved teens via plentiful gore is still in your wheelhouse then this one is a go for you – and face it, sometimes that’s the comfort food that all horror fans crave. After a stint at drive-ins last month, MURDER is coming to VOD on September 18th and I think this might be a perfect title to recreate the drive-in atmosphere in your backyard via projector if that’s plausible. Some popcorn and an outdoor ambiance with flashlights and friends might be all you need to let this one headline a solid night of jump scares and fun. 

Film Review: “TENET”

  • TENET
  • Starring:  John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh
  • Directed by: Christopher Nolan
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 30 mins
  • Warner Bros

It’s rare when you can go to a film, notice an actor’s performance and make a mental note that “this person is going to be great someday.”  I made such a note in 1981 when I saw a little comedy called “Carbon Copy,” which was the story of a white man (George Segal) who discovers he has a black son.  The actor portraying the son was so natural on screen…so assured, and I walked out of the theatre thinking I had to keep an eye out for this guy.  Four decades later he is a nine-time Oscar nominee – and winner of two Academy Awards – we all know named Denzel Washington.  I made that same mental note a couple of years ago after seeing Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning film “BlacKKKlansman.”  The actor in question here was John David Washington.  Denzel’s son.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as John David proves with his performance in Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, “Tenet.”

Like another of Nolan’s previous films, “Inception,” it is hard to talk about “Tenet” without spoiling the fun of the movie-going experience.  I think I can get away with saying that it is an espionage-themed thriller with an amazing time bending premise that I really couldn’t discuss if I wanted to because I still haven’t figured everything out.  Nolan has created an incredible storyline that takes the viewer literally all over the world in search of something that, if not located, can have repercussions the world over.

The story is propelled by some amazing on-screen performances.  Mr. Washington takes hold of the screen in every scene he’s in, holding his own against other amazingly talented actors.  Not only is he powerful on screen but he exudes a strong self-confidence.  In fact, may I be the first to suggest that, if Idris Elba doesn’t become the next James Bond, the producers give Mr. Washington a call.  Pattinson, who with recent strong performances in films like “The Lighthouse” and “Highlife,” has left the stigma of the ‘Twilight” series in the rearview mirror.  His character here has a sly air about him, enough so that I feel much better about his being cast to be the next Batman.  As a Russian villain (are there any other kind) Branagh is downright frightening.  As his long suffering wife, Elizabeth Debecki is both heart-breaking and beautiful.

Technically the film is a masterpiece.  The production design is first rate and the various locations jump off the screen like three-dimensional postcards.  The film is reminiscent of the Bond films of the late 70s and early 80s, chock full of brutal fights and hair raising car chases.  The soundtrack literally knocks you back in your seat, so this is a film to pay close attention to less you miss something on screen.

Before the film started, one of my fellow critics asked the following question:  If you are going to recommend people see this movie, are you going to tell them it’s all right to go back into movie theatres?  An excellent question.  I actually did that – suggested putting on a mask and going to the movies – in my review of “Unhinged” last week.  But really that is something only you, the reader, can decide for yourself.  I will say that if ever a movie deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible it is “Tenet.”

I am confident in saying that if you go to see it you will not be disappointed. 

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: “Unhinged”

UNHINGED
Starring:  Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius and Gabriel Bateman
Directed by: Derrick Borte
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hur 38 mins
Solstice Studios

It’s happened to everyone.  I know it’s happened to me.  You’re behind someone at a red light and, when the light turns green, they don’t move.  Usually I’ll give them a couple of seconds and give them a courtesy tap
on the horn.  How about you?

On a dark rainy night, Tom Cooper (a beefy and never better Crowe) sits in his truck outside a darkened house.  He removes his wedding ring and tosses it behind him.  After striking a match and letting it burn down to his fingers he grabs a hatchet and a gasoline can and makes his way to the front door.  Soon, the occupants of the house are dead and the home is in flames.  Tom, it seems, is having a bad day.

Rachel (Pistorius) is awakened by a call from her attorney.  Her soon-to-be-ex-husband is asking for more in the settlement.  Realizing she is running late, she needs to take her son, Kyle (Bateman) to school and has a business appointment, she hurries out the door.  Making good time she finds herself behind a truck at a red light.  Rather than giving a courtesy tap on the horn, she blares her impatience.  Then she does it again.  As the light begin to change to red she speeds around the still unmoving vehicle.  Rachel is about to have an even badder day.

A thrill-ride of a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat, “Unhinged” displays its opening credits over images of social unrest and images of people acting out angrily while snippets of newscasts decrying the current situation in the world are broadcast.  Though obviously filmed some time ago, the film could easily be set today.  Tom tracks Rachel down on the road and asks for an apology.  She refuses, informing him that she is having a bad day.  This triggers the bottled rage in Tom (we learn later that he too has been divorced) and what could have been settled with a sincere “I’m Sorry” soon becomes a tragic story with innocent bodies left it its wake. 

I was introduced to Russell Crowe through his performance as the nasty skinhead Hando in the film “Romper Stomper.”  Other roles, like the quick tempered Bud White in “L.A. Confidential” and his Academy Award winning performance as Maximus in “Gladiator” pretty much cement him in my mind as the one guy in Hollywood you would never want to piss off.  Tom Cooper is no exception.  With his soft spoken manner and quiet tone, the rage built up in Tom seeps through his eyes, making him one scary guy.  As Rachel, Ms. Pistorius has a quiet toughness that allows her to stand up to the physical and emotional torment she is being put through.  Young Mr. Bateman is equally strong, portraying a real teen-ager who is both frightened and resourceful.

Director Borte, who directed and co-wrote 2018’s outstanding “American Dreamers” keeps the action moving and doesn’t miss a beat in building up the audience’s suspense.

As theatres begin to open up again, I strongly recommend putting on a mask and heading to see “Unhinged.” 

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: “Fisherman’s Friends”

FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS
Directed By: Chris Foggin
Starring: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Sam Swainsbury, Tuppence Middleton
Runtime: 112 mins.
Samuel Goldwyn Films

A hot shot London music agent named Danny (Mays) becomes entangled with some seaside villagers when he is ditched by his stag party buddies in Chris Foggin’s Fisherman’s Friends. Loosely based on a true story, the Fisherman’s Friends are a group of local musicians that Danny discovers singing sea shanties. Under peer pressure from his pals, Danny decides to ingratiate himself with the band in order to secure a record deal to take home. Along the way, he strikes up a romance with one of the group’s daughters and entrenches himself in local politics. With its picturesque setting, its city folk-country folk clashes and its romcom meet cute, Fisherman’s Friends has all the hallmarks of well, a Hallmark movie! Without the pesky Christmas baggage. Whether you’re on board with this style depends upon whether you’re up to this level of coziness and predictability.

The flimsy setup to get city boy Danny stranded in Cornwall happens after his clique’s bachelor party yachting excursion falls through. Once it becomes clear they won’t be embraced by the locals after their drunken paddle boarding lands them in need of rescuing from the town’s fishermen, the trio of Londoners hightail it out of there leaving Danny stuck as a joke. It’s a pretty drastic prank but seeing as it passes the movie over from a carload of annoying bro caricatures and into the wonderfully capable and more weathered hands of cast like James Purefoy and David Hayman, the brevity is welcome.

There is a real warmth to the Cornwall setting and Foggin loads his soundtrack up with the Fisherman’s Friends sea shanties to keep everything pleasantly humming along. Sam Swainsbury as Rowan, the youngest member of the band, particularly shines in some of his solos as well as in playing the owner of the town’s financially struggling pub. His plot line gives the movie some needed stakes where the Fisherman’s Friends’ musical dealings are concerned. Meanwhile, the less defined village characters all manage to get their quippy jabs in at Danny in ways that are sure to wring a smile or pleasant chuckle from most viewers. It’s also nice to see Daniel Mays take a turn at a contemporary leading role seeing as I’m primarily used to seeing him pop in and out of so many period blockbusters.

When the film veers from the musical talent into Danny’s romantic relationship with Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of Purefoy’s character, you do lose some of that momentum while awaiting the fate of the titular band. Not least of all because one senses this movie will inevitably end happily so the requisite romcom roadblocks feel all the more rote. That said, even if you find yourself drifting somewhat, the kernel of the real life underdog musicians’ tale is compelling enough and the soundtrack is buoyant enough to keep it all afloat.

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.

Film Review: “Blessed Child”

Directed by: Cara Jones
Rated: NR
Running Time: 74 minutes

There’s a statement/joke I’ve heard when it comes to talking about cults and religion. It goes something like, “Cults + Time = Religion.” Granted, I could be butchering it. Regardless, the joke is that all religions started out as cults before legitimizing themselves. I say this first and foremost because “Blessed Child” deals with the personal story of Cara Jones and her time in the Unification Church, a new religious movement born in South Korea, which focuses on the teachings of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus range from the mainstream (Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) to the extreme (Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, etc.). My understanding is that the Unification Church toes the line between these two polar opposites. If you’re looking for an in-depth look at the church, “Blessed Child” is not for you. But if you’ve done a little bit of general reading on Unification Church, “Blessed Child” serves as an intimate look at its impact.

“Blessed Child” starts in 1995, where director Jones is getting married, alongside hundreds of other couples at an Olympic sized stadium before the Unification Church. She shouts, along with thousands, her marriage vows on the field, while holding the hand of a man she barely knows. It’s surreal to believe and see something bizarre and forced, especially when it happened in my own lifetime in a first-world country. The marriage, and her time in the Unification Church, didn’t last long. We’re not told exactly how she left (or escaped), but we know that she had to make a difficult choice; leaving her parents and family behind in a potential cult.

While Jones’ story is definitely the crux of the film, there’s a lot of other viewpoints included in this documentary. Jones talks with others who left (or escaped) the Unification Church. We learn that people left the church due to their own sexual orientation, for socioeconomic reasons, or a person’s general feeling of being excluded for whatever reason. The documentary doesn’t necessarily paint the Unification Church in a negative light, but it isn’t about to paint it in a flattering one.

“Blessed Child” has a surprising amount of nuance, especially since outsiders tend to label participants in these kind of religious sects as “nuts” or “brainwashed sheep.” The film establishes some solid reasoning as to why people become attracted to what it preaches. It uses this through archive footage and interviews. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t pull back the curtain enough for me to get a general enough feeling about the inner workings of the Unification Church. Halfway through the movie I opened up Wikipedia and hit up Google to answer some of my more burning questions. If anything, “Blessed Child” may be a form of self-medication and therapy for Jones, who reckons with her emotions.

Not to say that Jones’ story isn’t interesting or compelling, but at times it feels like there’s not enough information to digest, hence it’s incredibly brief running time. “Blessed Child” is a fairly interesting documentary, but not on par with others dealing with this subject matter. The reason it’s watchable though, is because Jones bares so much of herself that it’s fascinating to watch Jones break down and eventually reconcile with her parents and herself. 

Film Review: “Relic”

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
IFC Midnight

Every once and awhile, I still encounter someone who tells me that the horror genre is trash; that it’s nothing but blood, guts and boobs. It doesn’t take me long to rattle off a list of contemporary horrors that don’t fit that mold, and generally scare, thrill and linger in the psyche of viewers. “Get Out” is always an easy one to point to, as well as “It Follows,” “The Mist,” and others. In the current age of quarantine, I can now point to a streaming option that’ll push any viewer to the edge of their seat and leave them petrified through the end credits.

“Relic” opens on Kay (Mortimer) and Sam (Heathcote), the daughter and granddaughter of Edna (Nevin), visiting Edna’s house which sits by itself in dense, foreboding woods. The reason for their trip is that they’ve been told Edna has gone missing. The only thing that greets the mother/daughter duo upon their arrival is strange creaks and groans made by the house, as well as several mysterious notes that range from innocuous (“turn the light off”) to insidious (“DON’T FOLLOW IT”). Just as the authorities are called and a search for Edna begins, she reappears unannounced in the house one morning, making tea, acting as if nothing happened, despite the soles of her feet being covered in dark grime.

“Relic” relies on shadows, haunting imagery, and our general fear of the dark and unknown to keep us off kilter from the get-go. But it’s as the movie progresses, that “Relic” finds other scare tactics within the realm of mental health. The dive into realistic fears is combined with other tricks and treats from the horror genre grab bag. It’s a film that manages to earn some of its cheaper jump scares as opposed to throwing them in randomly mad libs-style like most mainstream horror films or any subpar Blumhouse production.

“Relic” takes it’s time, moving at a creepy pace, slowly sinking its claws in your mind. The directorial debut for Natlie Erika James is nothing short of impressive. The film moves with such confidence, that you suspect a veteran filmmaker is behind the lens. Having only written and directed a handful of shorts in the past, James also reveals the kind of equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking craftsmanship that Stephen King and Rod Sterling spent decades perfecting. James joins others, like Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) and Emma Tammi (“The Wind”), when finding the unsettling middle ground between cerebral horror and spook house tropes.

The film’s atmosphere grips you immediately, letting you know upfront that not everything is as it seems and that something is horribly wrong with Edna. Nearly every viewer will recognize that Edna is suffering from a mental illness at her ripe age, most likely dementia.  But just like “Hereditary” a few years ago, the supernatural and family history can collide in frightening ways. The movie effortlessly keeps us on pins and needles, even when we think we’ve figured it all out. There’s this nauseating foreshadowing that we can’t shake as “Relic” reaches its climax. Even when the true horror reveals itself, we’re left with a pit in our stomach because we know what will happen next, even as the film ends.

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