Film Review: “Tremors: Shrieker Island”

NOTE: Hello readers – Mike Smith here. My apologies for the late posting of this review. It should have been posted over a week ago and I completely skipped over it.

  • TREMORS: SHRIEKER ISLAND
  • Starring: Michael Gross, Jon Heder
  • Directed by: Don Michael Paul
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running time: 1hr 43 mins
  • Universal 1440 Entertainment


      No one could’ve predicted in 1990 that TREMORS,  a box office flop that was essentially a rip-off of JAWS about sandworms would still be birthing sequels thirty years later. Yet, here we are in 2020 with the seventh installment in the franchise and a cult following that mostly doesn’t find the need to pass judgment no matter how bad the CGI gets nor how crazy the plotlines get. That fact will remain true beyond the release of Tremors: Shrieker Island. You either celebrate Burt Gummer or you’ll never voluntarily watch this film.

     In this latest adventure with underground monsters, a billionaire hunter (Richard Brake) has begun shipping Graboids out to a private island for a group of wealthy outdoorsmen, a twisted spin on The Most Dangerous  Game. When things inevitably go wrong, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) is once again called in to save the day.

     If you were a fan of the original Tremors and have been put off by the direct to video vibes the franchise have given, I may suggest now is the time to return for maximum time investment payoff. Although missing still are the charming practical effects of earlier installments, Shrieker Island is a hard divergence from the lighter atmosphere of Burt’s more recent battles with these monsters.

      Frequently referential of Jurassic Park and Predator and, I can’t believe I’m writing this, Jaws: The Revenge… Shrieker Island borrows the dark bits and pieces of a lot of familiars and delivers a solidly entertaining adventure. Yes, you’ll need to suspend disbelief. Yes, this might be senseless cash grab. No, you’re not getting any side character development.  Yes, Burt Gummer is still one of the greatest heroes ever and so no, you won’t care about any of the above. 

 The Tremors universe has gifted us with a bevy of wild creatures beyond the 1990 film’s original Graboid.  Here you’ll get the biggest and messiest of them, with more modifications and maybe a score to settle?  While his casting announcement initially prompted eye rolls from many, “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder aides in grooming a surprisingly nice dynamic alongside Michael Gross who is as outrageous as ever and, sometimes, surprisingly emotional. 

Tremors: Shrieker Island will be available on Digital, Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand on October 20th 2020.

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: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

  • BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM:  DELIVERY OF PRODIGIOUBRIBE TO AMERICAN REGIME FOR MAKE BENEFIT ONCE GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN  (whew!) 
  • Starring:  Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova and Rudy Giuliani
  • Directed by: Jason Woliner
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 35 mins
  • AMAZON Studios

2006 was definitely the year of BORAT.  The film, featuring the amazing Sacha Baron Cohen as a foreign journalist sent to America to report on what the country is like, was like nothing ever seen before.  As the presumed “fish out of water” Borat was invited into some very unusual places in our society, sadly (for those caught on camera) revealing the darker, prejudiced side of America.  The questions is:  could he (and, more importantly) should he try it again?

We find Borat (Cohen) doing hard labor, his punishment for having embarrassed his beloved country of Kasakhstan.  However, many things have changed since Borat’s last trip.  There is a new “premier” in charge of America.  One that has the ability of making friends with presumed enemies.  Borat is given his freedom if he will agree to take the country’s most famous celebrity, Johnny the Monkey, to the states and offer him as a bribe to President Trump.  Borat agrees but a wrench is thrown into his plans when, after opening the crate that was supposed to contain Johnny the Money he instead finds his long neglected 15 year old daughter (Bakalova) who claims that Johnny sadly ate himself during the voyage.  The girl has spent many years in her cage watching the animated fairy tale of the refugee woman Melania, who is now a princess.  Deciding to offer his daughter to Trump, Borat begins his journey.  And the hijinks begin!

You would think that EVERYONE in America would recognize Cohen/Borat as he makes his way across the country.  In 2006 you couldn’t go anywhere without anyone mimicking “That nice,” his best known catch-phrase.  And, in the beginning, that is true.  People stop him on the street stop him or try to high five him.  Which means Borat must disguise himself in order to set his plans in motion.  Along the way he learns about Qanon, spends some time with some good old boys – during their time together they write a song about Barack Obama with the chorus “Inject him with the Wuhan Flu” – and infiltrates a conference where Vice President Mike Pence is the featured speaker.  And then there’s Rudy Giuliani.  More about him later. 

  The film also has a sub-plot, where Borat’s daughter, who he introduces as Sandra Jessica Parker Drummond, is taught how to be a lady in our society.  She also is encouraged to get breast implants and constantly refers to a Kazakhstanian “handbook” that informs her of life’s lessons, including one that maintains her “vagine” has teeth and will eat her arm if she ever touches herself “down there.” 

Where I felt the first film was mostly spontaneous, this one is about 50/50 spontaneous and scripted.  Both versions are hilarious, though one is rather disturbing.  You may have seen the many reports detailing Rudy Giuliani’s interaction with Sandra Jessica Parker Drummond, who poses as a journalist (her life dream) and somehow finagles an interview with the former NYC mayor.  If you’ve seen Cohen’s work as Ali G or in various guises on his Showtime show “Who is America,” you know that there will be some questions asked to which the interviewer will reveal his ill-suited answers.  However, things go from whacky to creepy when Giuliani becomes overly friendly with the girl.  That’s all I’m going to say here.  I don’t want to spoil the “big reveal” but I will say that the first thing I asked Alexa after the film was “is Rudy Giuliani married?”

At this time in history the entire world can use a good laugh.  And there are plenty to go around here.  And, with the US Presidential Election less than three weeks away, a lot of food for thought.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” – the truncated title – premieres October 23 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. 

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.

Streaming Review: “Welcome to the Blumhouse Presents ‘Evil Eye'”

  • EVIL EYE
  • Starring: stars Sunita Mani, Sarita Choudhury, Omar Maskati
  • Directed by: Elan Dassani , Rajeev Dassani
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running time: 1hr 30 mins
  • Blumhouse Productions

Rounding out the initial four films released at part of Amazon’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” package is twin-brothers Elan and Rajeev Dassani directed “Evil Eye.” Blumhouse once again delivering projects supporting diverse creators with inclusive casts, “Evil Eye” explores a culturally specific thriller that at first glance might seem centered around a practice that a majority of audiences won’t be able to identify with: arranged marriages – but the deeper theme here is one that unfortunately all too many will have experience with… making “Evil Eye” a film that feminists may champion

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Exploring spiritual concepts of reincarnation and karma inject fascinating albeit culturally specific supernatural elements into what’s basically a story of an overprotective mother constantly attempting to virtually connect and intervene in her daughter’s love life in efforts to redirect her perceived fate. Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is a young Indian woman living a modern Americanized lifestyle after her parents return to their home in Delhi, India.  Her superstitious and paranoid mother, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) is in frequent contact and constantly in need of status updates on her daughter’s love life. Concerned that if she doesn’t find a husband before thirty her daughter will be alone forever, Usha goes to great lengths and frequent astrological consultations to attempt matchmaking for Pallavi. When Pallavi finally meets a promising young Indian man, Usha’s husband and family feels she should finally be content but we quickly learn that Usha’s past has forecasted the return of evil doing, taken form in Pallavi’s new love interest, Sandeep (Omar Maskati). 

Usha’s paranoia is soon understood by audiences: she was the victim of long term emotional and physical domestic abuse. Secretly responsible for bringing her abuser to his death, Usha suggests that he has returned, reincarnated as Sandeep.  Observing from across the ocean how he uses his charms, passively controlling and using his resources to convince Pallavi to relocate and quit her job, Usha sees must act quickly to save her daughter when no one believes in her visions.

“Evil Eye” is another installment of “Welcome to the Blumhouse” that’s hard to quantify as horror. While the heart of this film is assuredly one of the greatest horrors for so many people, especially females and parents of females, it is better to go in with appropriate genre expectations for this thriller which has only momentary touches of the supernatural but still succeeds in entertaining as tense and relevant horror-adjacent storytelling.

Streaming Review: “Welcome to the Blumhouse Presents ‘Nocturne'”

  • NOCTURNE
  • Starring: stars Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon
  • Directed by: Zu Quirke
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running time: 1hr 30 mins
  • Blumhouse Productions

After tragedy strikes the student body of a prestigious boarding school, a pair of talented twin musicians return home to visit their parents. Whilst entertaining guests you learn that one of their classmates has died by suicide and, via their parents’ snobby friends inquiries,  that the twins will be going separate ways the following school year. Shy and inexperienced Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) has to hustle to keep up with her more accomplished sister Vivian (Madison Iseman), whom everything seems to come naturally and more abundantly for — multiple suitors, praise from family and teaching staff and, most importantly, a coveted spot at Juilliard. 

When the girls return to school, it is announced that the recently deceased student has opened a highly contested slot at the Senior Concert. Rumors fly that perhaps Juilliard will send scouts and both sisters decide to audition but during her preparation, Juliet finds a notebook left behind by their former classmate, billowing with dark scrawlings and chilling sketches. 

After taking ownership of the notebook, a series of highly uncharacteristic social misadventures reveals that Juliet has seemingly made somewhat of a Faustian deal to propel her musical career towards stardom.

 With a backdrop of unlikable adult figures insisting on managing expectations, railing against the social media narratives of achievable stardom for all, Juliet retorts that she doesn’t even have social media and should be removed from being lumped in with her generation’s  sense of entitlement. But will she be able to resist the temptation as the world starts coming to her oh-so-much more freely?Sydney Sweeney shines here, giving a truly emotional performance.

Despite the supernatural elements at play, there is still very much a reminder of the pain and traumas that so many young girls have to survive while navigating the social hierarchy of high school. Even amongst a very specialized niche population, that “Mean Girls” chapter plays a hard hand between these sisters. I very much enjoyed Nocturne and won’t do it the disservice of suggesting anyone seriously compare it Argento’s “Suspiria” or Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of it but horror fans would be hard pressed to not notice some at least basic themes pulled from there and I can easily offer it up as a modern companion to the 70s giallo classic.

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.

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