Panic Fest Film Review: “Watcher”

Starring: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman and Burn Gorman
Directed by: Chloe Okuno
Rated: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Shudder

During “Watcher,” I was reminded of a scene from the first season of “Master of None.” It shows the carefree nature of a man walking home from a night of drinking, as he giggles and dances sloppily on his way home. The flipside, which we see, is a woman, walking home, after that same night of drinking with the man, petrified because she can hear footsteps behind her. Instead of a joyous walk home, she speed walks without revealing to her potential captor that she knows she’s being followed. “Watcher” doesn’t take place in one night nor is the fear immediate, it creeps in over an hour and a half as we watch Julia (Monroe) sense and fight back against someone who may or may not be watching her from afar.

Julia, an American, starts out of her element. She’s in Romania’s capital, supporting her boyfriend who’s so busy at work, he hardly has time to see her, much less show up for dinner on time. Julia spends her days walking about town, having trouble communicating since she doesn’t speak Romanian, and wondering what is happening across the street. At night, she stares out her window and sees the lives of others, whether they’re at the dinner table, in front of a TV, or staring right back at her. She knows he’s there, even when she can’t see him. Her boyfriend shrugs it off, becoming more concerned about her mental health and damn near everyone around her seems content on brushing things off even as a serial killer stalks the streets as evident by his murders being details on the news.

The “Watcher” is a slow-burn, as it lets Julia and the audience settle into Eastern Europe, without ever making us feel fully comfortable with some affective jump scares and lingering shots that have us holding our breath. The influences are clear for this film as director/writer Okuno utilizes elements from films, like “Rear Window,” but I’m a little disappointed she never twisted any of those elements in an attempt to modernize or fool the audience. While “Watcher” is a great thriller homage that taps deeply into paranoia, it never quite does anything unique that makes it stand out as an instant classic, even though it’s shot and feels like it should be one.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Chamber of Terror”

Starring: Timothy Paul McCarthy, Jessica Vano and Ry Barrett
Directed by: Michael Pereira
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

In the opening moments of “The Chamber of Terror” we meet Nash Caruthers (McCarthy), a deep-voiced renegade. He’s sealing up a member of the Ackerman crime family alive in a coffin, making short grandiose statements about his personal revenge. The audience knows nothing about any of this and yet the movie continues to chug along. We flash forward a month later where Caruthers finds himself in the Ackerman family’s underground torture dungeon where revenge meets revenge, as well as the paranormal.

Any more info would ruin “The Chamber of Terror” even though I’ll admit the first 10 minutes of the film had me wondering if I had made a mistake hitting the play button, but thankfully this is all a part of writer/director Pereira’s plan. I would implore you not to turn it off even though that opening feels like a film school student who watched “Boondock Saints” way too much. Thank God I don’t rely on my gut instincts that much or else I would have missed out on the best low budget gorefest I’ve seen in years. And by low-budget, I mean that they probably spent the majority of their budget on every exploding head, blood geyser and chunky internal organs littered across this film.

As the movie progresses, the plot gets sillier and more intricate, with characters gradually breaking the fourth wall as if they realize they’re in some kind of film worthy of an 80s Saturday night on a UHF channel. Caruthers delivers most of the silliness, fighting back against his captors in bizarre ways and delivering phony lines that even Bruce Campbell would struggle saying with a straight face. It’s a difficult film to describe because its only inherent purpose is to introduce outlandish characters and watch them interact in a blood-soaked sandbox.

“WolfCop,” another Panic Fest film that has made the rounds for its comedic approach to insane ideas, is referenced early on in the film. If you’ve seen “WolfCop,” then you know what kind of film you’re in for and if not, don’t take your love of horror too seriously, or even “Chamber of Terror” for that matter. While “The Chamber of Terror” sounds like a bad haunted house attraction in a shopping mall, the film itself is a confidently directed horror comedy that gets more ridiculous and bloody as the film goes on. By the end, you hope that Caruthers winds up in another misadventure.

Panic Fest Film Review: “CRABS!”

Starring: Kurt Carley, Robert Craighead and Bryce Durfee
Directed by: Pierce Berolzheimer
Rated: NR
Running Time: 80 minutes

Sometimes it’s difficult to type or relay articulate thoughts with intentionally silly movies. CRABS! is the kind of film that I could easily just type, “Turn your brain off, pop an edible or get some beers, and enjoy the schlocky magic.” However, I can’t because you’re expecting an actual critique. All I can say in my opening paragraph is if my simplistic line above about the movie isn’t something that is in your own wheelhouse of pop-culture entertainment, just go-ahead and know you won’t like this movie.

For the rest of us though…CRABS! is a melting pot of Ed Wood and Japanese Kaiju monsters, with sprinklings of Gremlins, Tremors and CGI that might break Asylum films budget. CRABS! let’s you know immediately what kind of film you’re in for as the opening sequences are as follows: a crab makes cutesie noises as a nuclear power plant explodes, a young couple is having sex vigorously on the beach in broad daylight, a crab (potentially the one that got a front row seat to radioactivity) comes up to the couple only to kill the horny lovers. Once again, if your funny bone isn’t tickled before the title credits, then you won’t like the rest of the film.

CRABS! has an eclectic cast, featuring a boy in a wheelchair looking to create robotic legs, his girlfriend and her thirsty mom who teaches at the high school in town (she acts equally flirty and airheaded with the men and students in town), a foreign exchange student who is given the most ludicrous dialogue to say with his ridiculous accent, and a Sheriff’s Department that’s only made up of two men; both who really enjoy smoking pot. The plot, which there actually is one, is nonsense and almost unnecessary. Even a hint of scrutiny would make the plot crumble like a house of cards in a windstorm. Yet again, it’s definitely the kind of film that fits the phrase, “leave your brain at the door.”

However, even though the film wears its influences on its sleeve like a soldier being pinned with badges of honor, CRABS! really doesn’t offer anything new or different to a genre that’s ever changing and evolving. While it is an enjoyable trip, it’s not a film that’ll stick with you for years or even be begging for a rewatch; I’m not even sure if an unnecessary sequel is in the future for this film. “CRABS!” is intentionally terrible, and as long you understand that you might have a lot of fun with it.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Outwaters”

Starring: Robbie Banfitch, Angela Bosolis and Scott Shamell
Directed by: Robbie Banfitch
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

According to the San Francisco Gate, 1-2 people die every year In the Mojave Desert, specifically because it’s home to Death Valley. The iconic national park is known for its unforgivable heat, a record of 134 degrees in 1913, and being the driest and having the lowest elevation on the North American continent. It seems like every fact involving Death Valley, or even the Mojave Desert, is dreadful in its own unique way. But a new reason to avoid these three million acres will be found on three video camera memory cards.

The first memory card in “The Outwaters” shows us four people who aren’t necessarily brave enough to venture into Death Valley for fun, but more or less, have a legitimate reason. Robbie (Banfitch) is directing a music video for musician Michelle (Michelle May). In tow are his brother and a make-up artist, with the men in one tent and the women in another. They aren’t ignoring any warning signs or ominous news reports before they head off into the hottest place in the world. In fact, nothing would lead them to believe they are in danger, until night falls on their first night in the desert.

In the dead of night, a booming, rattling noise is heard. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. It awakens everyone, but no one can see the cause. Is it a nearby vehicle? Is it the distant sound of thunder from a storm? Is it otherworldly? After some tense moments, they ease their nerves by settling on the idea that it’s distant thunder, but the idea seems false. We see it on their faces as they go back into their tents. Soon though, that’s not the only disturbing thing to happen and when the proverbial shit hits the fan, it’s sudden and frightening.

“The Outwaters” spends a decent amount of time setting everything up like pieces on a chess board. While I assume most people will be checking their phones during this, the set-up is crafty in that it feels realistic, natural and ultimately foreboding. It’s like a warm sip of cocoa before being shoved into an ice-cold lake. The second half of the film can only be described as bloody, trippy and ultimately nightmarish.

What made “The Blair Witch Project” a jumping off point for those in horror in 1999, is seen once again in “The Outwaters.” Banfitch (who writes, directs, stars, edits and probably did damn near everything else) pulls out all the stops to lull us into safety before throwing us in the hellish fires of his final act, which are equally unexplainable and hard to watch. The simplicity of the shots is never grotesque, but the ideas they convey take our minds to some morbid places about what is potentially happening to Robbie and the others.

As I’ve noted before and very recently, the found footage genre is a difficult one, with very few finding a unique and different way to tell the story, but “The Outwaters” almost feels like a rebirth, making you forget about the clichés of the genre as well as some other nagging questions that arise when you watch a found footage film. For instance, why does Robbie keep filming? In the darkness of the desert, it’s the only light he has to see with and if he turns it off, what demons/monsters/aliens are waiting to pounce? We feel for him as he cries and moans with every new moment he captures on his digital handheld. Eventually it feels like “The Outwaters” transcends the found-footage genre as it becomes viler and more repulsive. This is definitely the closest we’ll ever get to someone’s nightmare coming to life on-screen.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Masking Threshold”

Starring: Ethan Haslam, Johannes Grenzfurthner and Jason Scott Sadofsky
Directed by: Johannes Grenzfurthner
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes

What would be a good horror for Zoomers, the generation born in the very late 90s and early 2000s? Certain movies are able to tap into something in each generation, whether it be nuclear fears from generations who lived basically from the 50s to 80s or utilizing the internet to drum up interest like the “Blair Witch Project” did for my generation. I think “Masking Threshold” may be the kind of film that Zoomers will take notice of because it’s not your typical spook house genre film, instead focusing on the inherent narcissism that social media and self-filming can create.

The nameless protagonist, physically played by writer and director Grenzfurthner and voiced by Haslam, tells viewers that he’s an IT engineer who is going to buckle down at home and begin experimenting with sounds because he has suffered from severe tinnitus for three years. His tinnitus comes in waves, sometimes with the sounds boring into his skull like a jackhammer. He’s done his research, citing different studies and sources that have investigated the reasons behind tinnitus. Unfortunately for him, all those studies and sources have no answer and that’s why he’s looking to find his own answers.

He creates a makeshift lab in his basement, where he runs simple experiments, making notes, logging information and testing if the tinnitus is affected by any specific things. The tests, at the beginning, are ultimately harmless, but this is a film playing at a horror movie festival and you know something is going to go wrong. Is his tinnitus mad science? Is he simply being haunted? UFOs? What is it? Our lead, who explains a lot of his life in the first half of the film, is a geeky gay man whose narcissistic viewpoints have actually protected him from the torment he’s endured in life. So not only is he a minority, but is probably a minority within his own group of friends because of his perception that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room. To be fair though, he is smart. A lot of this background information and inward look at his self-obsessed nature comes in the form of video diaries that he’s uploading to Youtube, as well as his reactions to comments on social media about his experiments.

“Masking Threshold” is a first-person journey into madness. Grenzfurthner’s direction has this macabre confidence as it leads you to a paranoid isolation in hell. The film casually prepares you for the horrors that will unfold with close-ups of our protagonist doing mundane, yet kind of gross things like cleaning his ear wax, chewing loudly or other things. Maybe that’s not gross for everyone, but I find those things to be visually and audibly like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just the first of many crazy things our protagonist will subject us to in his quest for audible sanity, ironically enough.

It’s hard not to think about the pandemic during a film like this because of the isolation and depression that is accompanied with the film’s lead. In a lot of ways, we’re shown the causes of what finally happens in the finale of the film, but we’re never really given a direct link to which cause. If anything, it’s like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gradually getting bigger and picking up steam. Our protagonist’s psyche is fragile from years of crippling tinnitus and viewers are taken down a path to reveal the final nails in his mind’s coffin.

“Masking Threshold” is clever in that we’re sympathetic towards the plight of our protagonist. We understand that he’s a part of marginalized communities and is dealing with a paralyzing condition. Those moves are intentional because that sympathy will be tested and eventually spit on. If there were ever a film warning people about the perils of bathing in their own conceited echo chambers, “Masking Threshold” hits the nail on the head with a worst-case scenario that can only be created when one travels down a demented wormhole that continually feeds a broken and obsessed mind. I guarantee you’ve never seen a film quite like this before.

 

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Sadness”

Starring: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei and Ying-Ru Chen
Directed by: Rob Jabbaz
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

This wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last time, that I say that I ultimately enjoyed a movie I can’t really recommend. For perspective, I’ve said that about films like “Swiss Army Man,” “Vortex” and damn near anything with Troma’s name on it. Even then, I still talk about those movies as interesting films to watch in the hopes that someone amongst my group of friends who don’t watch the insane amount of films that I and other critics watch will give it a peruse and see what I see. I don’t think that will happen with “The Sadness.”

As if the zombie genre wasn’t already slightly depressing enough with its themes of the world ending and the trashiness of society, a film like “The Sadness” comes along and spits on all of them before flipping the bird. “The Sadness” begins with a couple, Kat (Lei) and Jim (Zhu) talking before their individual days at work. It’s through this early morning, post cuddling conversation that we learn about the Alvin virus, a virus that’s clearly an allegory for COVID-19. But unlike COVID-19, the Alvin virus has an alarming chance to mutate into rabies on crack. Which it does. Once it does, the couple is already split up heading off to work and now with everything descending into chaos, they have to work their way across Taiwan’s capital to reunite, but nothing is ever that simple.

The zombie virus in “the Sadness” turns everything up to 11, as the people who become zombified don’t simply walk around slowly and munch on brains. This virus makes people act upon their most primal urges, whether it be sadistic violence or even more sadistic sex. So, if you get squeamish over sexual violence, appendages being torn off, knives entering orifices’ or a blood orgy of severed limbs and viscera, this movie is probably one huge trigger warning that will have you running to the nearest exit and trash can to throw up in. But at my screening, every person sat in their seat horrified and mesmerized with the occasional “oh my god” and “what the fuck” splattered amongst us.

While the brutality clocks in at over an hour and a half, the film manages to squeeze in every bit of plot and mayhem without sacrificing the other or making the audience members, who have the stomach for it, check their phone for a time. The actors, who deliver some of the vilest lines seen outside of a snuff film, gnaw on the scenery with such ferocity I wouldn’t be surprised if people began having nightmares about their black, red tinted haunting eyes and blood-soaked grins. It’s very clear from the get-go that director/writer Jabbaz isn’t concerned about whether or not he’ll work again.

Like any good zombie film, “The Sadness” does have a message, albeit one deep in bitter nihilism. Having just exited a pandemic, “The Sadness” does reflect on humanity’s collective response to a virus as well as some jabs at the rising autocracies around the world that took advantage of the unthinkable. That being said, “The Sadness” seems to have its eye on future pandemics and how well humanity can come together to overcome the next mutated strain of a disease we have yet to encounter. If “The Sadness” is a representation of our past, present and future, I think it’s clear we are all fucked.

Film Review: “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse”

Starring: Luke McKenzie, Shantae Barnes-Cowan and Jake Ryan
Directed by: Kiah Roache-Turner
Rated: NR
Running Time: 88 minutes
XYZ Films

Unlike one of it’s clear influences, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” could care less if you haven’t seen 2014’s “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.” For the unaware, “Road of the Dead” was a “Mad Max” with zombies. But unlike “The Road Warrior,” Apocalypse keeps it’s foot on the gas and doesn’t bother reminding you who have the characters are. So as a refresher, in the world of “Wyrmwood,” zombie breath and blood are a fuel source for vehicles and other technological weaponry. It’s the kind of idea, at least on paper, that is absolutely stupid, but thanks to a gung-ho cast and plenty of zombie scenery chewing, it manages to become a modern B-movie worthy of any backwoods drive-in. But that’s “Road of the Dead,” how does its successor hold up?

Apocalypse” is about Rhys (McKenzie), an apocalyptic scavenger that bounty hunts the living and dead for his bosses, the evil remnants of the government’s military police. Rhys is handed a hefty bounty in the from of Brooke (Bianca Bradley), our zombie hybrid femme fatale from “Road of the Dead.” Brooke, we come to find out, killed Rhys’ brother making this bounty extra important for our lead. Lest I forget to explain, since the movie doesn’t, the zombie hybrids are able to tame their zombie side by drinking blood, which allows them a variety of odd zombie powers or, I guess you could say, powers that are made-up and needed when our heroes are in a predicament. Rhys has a bounty hunter’s change of heart when he encounters another hybrid, just like Brooke, by the name of Grace (Tasia Zalar).

The exposition, while thick and sometimes unnecessarily complicated in the first half of the film, is forgivable considering the richness of the film’s backdrop coupled with some spectacularly low-budget action sequences. For instance, Rhys home/compound feels like something you’d see in the video game “Fallout 4” while the ultimate battle between good and evil, the zombie hybrid alliance and the bloodthirsty military industrial complex, feels like Immortan Joe and Furiosa using Weyland-Yutani Corp. weaponry and science. If some of these pop-culture references are going over your head, you may not have as much fun as I did watching the final act bedlam of “Apocalypse” because writer/director Roache-Turner isn’t shy about his influences or leaning heavily into them.

“Apocalypse” feels nostalgic in the sense that it’s a mish-mash of 80s action, sci-fi and horror, all bathed in neon lights and shiny red gore.  If blood, guts, mayhem, carnage and the crunch of smashing vehicles is your thing, you’ll be smiling ear to ear during this. The world-building feels endless and lacking at the same time. Sometimes the small details are explained while the bigger details are glossed over, something I wish they flipped, but maybe that’s my own expectations for a sequel in general. That feeling doesn’t go away by the end, when it becomes obvious that “Apocalypse” may be the middle of an expected trilogy. Regardless of my nitpicks or hesitations, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be the first in line for a third “Wyrmwood ” so that I can quench my own thirst for high octane vioelcne and apocalyptic theatrics by over-the-top characters.

Film Review: “Infinite Storm”

Starring: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle and Denis O’Hare
Directed by: Małgorzata Szumowska
Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Bleecker Street

I’m not very vocal about my side gig as a film and pop-culture critic. I’ve found that once people find out, they expect me to have watched every movie they’ve watched or for me to have fallen in line with critical consensus or mainstream opinions about said film. That’s a different topic altogether, but I also encounter the problem of having to divulge more information than most people on whether or not I like a film. And sometimes I just like something or don’t like something. It’s nice not having to think too hard about why I feel a certain way and instead just letting those emotions be. But in film criticism, I have to dig into why I felt the way I feel after a movie. So why did a well-shot, breathtaking film like “Infinite Storm” not resonate with me?

The film begins with Pam Bales (Watts) scaling Mount Washington in New Hampshire in mid-October. Visually, we see that she’s experienced and smart. She leaves notes about her whereabouts on her car windshield as she sets out alone into the wilderness, with extra clothes, food and supplies to keep her warm, safe and well-fed if something awful arises. It’s gray and chilly looking when she sets out, but by the time she starts to get towards the peak, the conditions have turned into a white out blizzard. While she isn’t concerned, the concerns begin to arise when she finds footprints in the snow that lead to a non-verbal man half dead in the snow.

“John” (Howle) isn’t his name, but Pam refers to him by that in the hopes of eliciting some kind of response or reaction. None follow. So in the midst of the blinding snow, Pam now finds herself having to lug along the equivalent of a corpse back down the treacherous mountain she just scaled. This all sounds fascinating and at times was, but none of it clicked when all was said and done. So I go back to the problem I have as a film critic, trying to pinpoint what it was that this movie failed to do for me. I wish I could just move on and say that it didn’t work for me, but alas I’m the one having to convince you on what you should be spending your time and money on.

In an attempt to figure it out, I read the article that this movie is based on. The descriptions of the unforgiving Mount Washington in the article are reflected well in “Infinite Storm,” but I never get a feeling for who Pam is, from the movie and article. I do get way more out of who “John” is from the article, whereas the film merely hints at it. Interestingly enough, the film focuses on the emotions of Pam while the article is more of a gut punch reveal about “John”. So who is “Infinite Storm” about? The film is about Pam, which isn’t a knock, she’s an individual who was in an extreme situation and acted with bravery. The article, while written from Pam’s experiences, feels like it’s more about life and emotions in general, depicted through “John.” In fact, the ending is drastically different between real-life and the film. I don’t want to say I have some kind of psychic level of intuition, but maybe the film shouldn’t have tinkered with what actually happened. I understand the need to make Pam the focus of the film, but I also understand the morals in this story and the moral necessity is about “John,” not about Pam. Unfortunately, there is no context unless you read the article and watch the film. So if you just watch the film, you miss a lot of context and what context you do get is a brief 10 minutes at the end of the film that feels more like an incomplete epilogue.

“Infinite Storm,” while visually engaging, never makes us care about the characters. Not even the based on a true story attachment at the beginning of the film ever makes us feel like elements of the story aren’t contrived. The elements appear to be manufactured as opposed to the actual harrowing journey. For instance, “John” disappears after falling into a stream, yet miraculously appears later seemingly unharmed. The article tells no such tall tale like this. The basis of “Infinite Storm” may be true, but its emotional core appears to be built on false pretenses.

Film Review: “Cyrano”

Starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Directed by: Joe Dante
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
United Artists Releasing

I tell people that sometimes I’m grateful I’ve been ignorant of certain elements in pop-culture. 2022’s “Cyrano,” based on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a play written in 1897, has been adapted dozens of times. So what does the new one have that the others don’t? I don’t know, but I can tell you that this “Cyrano” features a dazzling performance, some solid ensemble songs and some touching moments.

In the original story, the title character has a big nose that prevents him from proclaiming his love. In this updated story, Cyrano (Dinklage) has a size problem that prevents him from professing his adoration for Roxanne (Bennett). Instead of singing his love to her he lends a helpful ear when she needs one. That leads to him watching as she begins to fall for a Christian (Harrison Jr.), a young soldier that isn’t as witty, clever or skillful with a sword as Cyrano. Despite this, a love triangle forms as Christian recruits Cyrano to win over Roxanne, but is that what’s right for everyone?

It took me a while to warm up to “Cyrano” because I wasn’t quite sure if this movie had anything to say other than “looks aren’t everything” and I’m glad it did, but it took a while. That’s because the film is littered with several music scores (some great, some mediocre) that break up the pacing of the plot, especially when the song calls for something completely unrelated to the storyline. The thing that kept me hanging on during those down moments was Dinklage’s performance, one that I can say is one of the best of the year.

Despite his stature, Dinklage commands the screen and the actors around him. Dinklage doesn’t chew the scenery, he serenades it, enchants it and morphs into it raising everyone and everything up to his level. Bennett, Harrison Jr., as well as Ben Mendelsohn in the role of villain, only appear to be acting their proverbial butts off when Dinklage is in the vicinity. Otherwise the film seems a little lost without Dinklage’s magnetic presence.

Dinklage is such a massive part of this film, I was shocked that he wasn’t the director, writer (although his wife did pen the script), editor and distributor as well. While Dinklage is more well known for his time on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” fans of his role as Tyrion Lannister may find themselves hypnotized by his quick wit and quick tongue in “Cyrano.” At the very least, “Cyrano” is a testament to Dinklage’s abilities as an actor and as a leading man in any role he’s given.

Film Review: “Strawberry Mansion”

Starring: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller and Grace Glowicki
Directed by: Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney
Rated: NR
Running Time: 91 minutes
Music Box Films

The year is 2035 (although you’d never know it’s even in the 21st century based on the technology you see in the film) and the only thing that appears to have changed are dreams and taxes. Government auditors, like James (Audley), check in on people’s dreams, assessing the costs associated with the various items that pop-up in the person’s brain. We’re not told much about this structure, which I’ll admit I’m disappointed in since the conceit is fascinating, because the real story involves one dream audit in particular. The audit of Bella (Fuller), an eccentric woman that lives by herself, involves James going through Bella’s dreams one-by-one from her youthful era, which have been recorded on VHS tapes to circumvent the establishment and it’s tax system. Nonetheless, she opens up her mind to James who’s about to open up his mind and heart to the surreal visions he’s about to experience.

“Strawberry Mansion” is like a small town carnival funhouse, most people will see it as a cheap excuse for entertainment while those with an open mind will look past the duct taped together bits and fully immerse themselves in the non-sequitur dreamscape. Part of what made me really enjoy this movie is the obvious budget issues. “Strawberry Mansion” isn’t getting a check from Disney or Miramax, but I’m sure the directors had to max out a few credit cards to cobble some scenes together. The story also gives credence to the somewhat patchwork filming because we are in a dream and dreams aren’t necessarily flawless visual feasts, but more or less flawed droplets of our own introspection and self-actualization. So when James communicates with a subconscious advertisement in an entirely pink kitchen or is the captain of a pirate ship staffed by sentient mice, we accept the insanity of the premise and the cheapness of the effects, knowing that James is in a dream state.

Even though James is viewing old dreams, he’s able to interact with the elements, including Bella, who approaches James much like you approach others in dreams, believing they are the real deal. But as the movie progresses it seems like Bella understands who James is, almost as if her dream memories know they’re dream memories. The overall messaging of the film is a little frustrating, but I feel like it’s intentionally set-up for people to take away different concepts and run with them, whether it’s a commentary on obtuse filmmaking or the dreams we attempt to analyze despite their fleeting nature. “Strawberry Mansion” could also be a meditation on humans allowing the noise and clutter of unnecessary things inhabit our lives, like advertising and government influence. I saw a lot of themes and ideas, but none of them were strong enough to sway me one way or another. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not by the creators to be like this, but in a film like “Strawberry Mansion,” there may not be a wrong answer, and therein lies the cleverness of the film at moments.

“Strawberry Mansion” is far from being a head trip action-adventure film like “Inception” or “Total Recall,” but feels more like an Adult Swim acid trip because it’s bizarre, crass at times, silly, confusing and oddly heartfelt. If you’ve ever watched the fake “Infomercials” on Adult Swim, “Strawberry Mansion” is for you. Thankfully, “Strawberry Mansion” isn’t be weird to simply be weird, so even people who aren’t the film’s target demographic may be able to take something positive away from it, even if they don’t like the film. 

Film Review: “Those Who Walk Away”

Starring: Booboo Stewart, Nils Allen Steweart and Scarlett Sperduto
Directed by: Robert Rippberger
Rated: NR
Running Time: 94 minutes
VMI Releasing

Every year I try to make it to the annual horror movie festival in my neck of the woods (Kansas City, Mo.) called Panic Fest. Over the years I’ve talked with people about this event and a lot of times I get asked the same thing, “How can you enjoy low budget horror? It’s bad.” Well, here’s the thing. I don’t need a horror film to be from Blumhouse to appreciate low budget craft and I can ignore average acting if other elements are above par. Everyone’s gotta get their start somewhere. I’ve always been more likely to judge a big budget film more critically than I am a film put together with a shoestring budget and first time director. So when I say “Those Who Walk Away” is decent, I’m potentially only telling that to people who feel the same way about low budget horrors. Everyone else will watch it and go, “How can you enjoy low budget horror? It’s bad.”

Max (Stewart) is on a tinder date with Avery (Sperduto) and the nerves are palpable as they meet in-person for the first time in a park. Avery, a theater manager who’s also in school for literature, isn’t upfront with every little detail, apologizing profusely while also cushioning the blow of lying by saying that she’s genuinely interested in Max, and that’s why she’s being honest. This is one of many red flags as the two stroll through their town making idle chit chat and revealing their own personal demons. Avery’s personal demon is clearly lying, while Max’s personal demon is his emotional inability to take care of his ailing mother. This elongated conversation and revelations are setting up the film’s monster, which doesn’t arrive until the date begins taking bizarre turns.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about “Those Who Walk Away” because my attempt at the synopsis above does more than cover basic exposition, it covers the first half of the film. That’s right, the first 40ish minutes of the film (I didn’t pause to check) is a conversation/date between Max and Avery. While this kind of set-up helps establish our characters for the second half of the film, it also prevents this movie from ever developing its aesthetic. I say that because the second half of the film is like a found footage nightmare in a still livable home that more closely resembles a condemned shack. Max finds himself in a maze of horror, even though the audience feels no fear moving forward because we’ve already spent a good chunk of time watching a bad first date.

“Those Who Walk Away” employs a lot of single takes, attempting to pull a “Birdman” by tricking the audience into believing it’s all one single take even though the director and cinematographer aren’t as adept as Inarritu at fooling people. Even though they aren’t very good at tricking us, or much less scaring us, the visuals that are created are sometimes fascinating to pick apart and sometimes do offer a mirror to Max’s psyche. Actor Booboo Stewart really gets to shine through in the latter half of the film whereas I wasn’t sure in the first half if he was still stretching his acting legs or simply channeling an introverted man on a first date.

I had to think for a bit after watching “Those Who Walk Away” because I felt that there was an important message being delivered. However, I couldn’t quite pick through the noise to see the message as the credits began to roll. It’s a good ending, but it feels like such a misfire in terms of conveying what it wants to say. “Those Who Walk Away” offers up plenty of peculiar, surreal horror moments in it’s finale, but without a cohesive message the overall look and idea feels lost. It’s difficult for me to recommend “Those Who Walk Away” because the film’s title feels like such a self-fulfilling prophecy about the audience members who will get tired of waiting for the haunted house spooks to begin, and even those who do tough it out, will most likely find themselves walking away empty-handed.

 

Film Review: “Lotawana”

Starring: Todd Blubaugh and Nicola Collie
Directed by: Trevor Hawkins
Rated: N/R 
Running Time: 97 minutes

Forrest (Blubaugh) is a wanderer. He spends his days tending to his sailboat, which doubles as his house, on a Missouri lake. He goes to land for essentials and to zip around town on his motorcycle. One day he finds another wanderer named Everly (Collie). The two fall for each other immediately and discuss a future that may never happen.

“Lotawana” reminds me a lot of 2016’s “American Honey,” and not just because both had scenes filmed in and around Kansas City, my hometown. Both films show aimless young adults coming into their own as adults even though they don’t want to become adults and do everything in their power to avoid that inevitability. Forrest, who we literally know almost next to nothing about, enjoys a simple life on a Missouri lake daydreaming about journeys around the globe he will never take. Everly, who we know barely a little bit more about, listens to these daydreams and adds to them. Neither of them is following through with those daydreams, but I won’t spoil why.

As “Lotawana” goes through the motions, we learn very little about our characters, picking up hints from the nature surrounding them as well as interactions they have with people who also live on or around the lake. Because of its vague nature, it wouldn’t surprise me if viewers had different theories as to what is happening and why. Personally, I feel like Forrest and Everly represent two ideologies when it comes to youth.

Forrest appears to be a symbol for privilege. We never really learn what he does or how he has money, but it’s clear he has no problem financially maintaining a boat with food. He also seems to be in no hurry to find a career unless that career is an unpaid internship he gives himself on his boat. Everly, who has a rocky relationship with her family, appears to be fleeing trauma she’s not willing to confront yet, if at all. Both find solace in their wanderlust, but both are following it for wrong reasons, meaning that the happiness we see on screen will eventually turn into conflict unless one of them makes the first move by making an adult decision.

Very rarely do I find myself enjoying a film that features no exposition, much less dialogue that reveals the inner workings or backstory of our characters. Most of the time I’d probably find this frustrating, but thanks to some outstanding cinematography and vignettes involving Forrest and Everly’s relationship, “Lotawana” is gorgeous and serendipitous at times. If “Lotawana” is any indication, first-time film director Trevor Hawkins has a bright future ahead.

Film Review: “Sundown”

Starring: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Iazua Larios
Directed by: Michel Franco
Rated: R
Running Time: 83 minutes
Beecker Street Media

Neil (Roth) and Allison (Gainsbourg) appear to be a happy couple on vacation in Mexico. Two kids are with them as they go to and from the beach, enjoying the sun and warmth. Then, Allison receives a call about trouble back home. The family packs, dashes to the airport, and then all of a sudden Neil says, “I forgot my passport.” No problem as he says he’ll take the next flight home and gets into a cab. But he doesn’t go back to their hotel nor has he seemingly lost his passport. What happens and why is what “Sundown” is about.

To really become engaged with this film, you need to know as little as possible. In fact, the less you know, the more my opening paragraph reveals that not everything is as it seems. Neil seems apathetic about the family tragedy and we aren’t sure why. He checks into a cheap motel, he lounges around on the beach sipping on drink after drink, and then finds a cute young woman to bring back to his cheap motel. Well, wait, what about Allison and the kids? What about that family tragedy? What’s going on?

So even if you begin to understand what is happening, because Neil doesn’t appear to be the most trustworthy and definitely least likable person in the film, are we really seeing reality? Is reality Allison and the family tragedy or is the reality the one Neil is telling this young woman? There are certain truths that are revealed as the movie goes on, but the crux of the film centers around this event. This family death back home leads to the death of whatever was happening between Neil and Allison, or it’s possibly on a more personal level with Neil. Is Neil frustrated or relieved?

“The Abandon” withholds a lot of information, expecting audiences to do some mental digging on their own. For some audiences, that could easily backfire since there are a lot of times in this film where nothing happens. I’m not saying that Roth isn’t using that nothingness to command the screen, but there really is nothing happening. That’s going to frustrate some to the point where they will no longer care about the conclusion and by the time the film ends, I’m curious if Franco even knew how to say what he wanted to say. I also realize this review is probably frustrating because much like the director, I’m not telling you much.

What I am trying to say, without spoiling the film, is that this is a tough film to enjoy, much less a tough film to fully comprehend. That’s not me saying this film is on another intellectual level, I just feel the messaging is crafted in such a way that you’re most likely going to be mad that you watched the film. While I wasn’t mad about the ending, I certainly felt let down that such a meticulously crafted and well-acted movie seemed to ultimately say nothing when it felt like it wanted to tell me everything.

Film Review: “The Abandon”

Starring: Jonathan Rosenthal and Tamara Perry
Directed by: Jason Satterlund
Rated: N/A
Running Time: 96 minutes

Back in the summer of 2002 I went to my local Blockbuster to rent “Cube” after going down an internet rabbit hole. “Cube” is about multiple people waking up in different colored cubed shaped rooms with tiny doors on all sides leading into another similar cube in a different color. The movie kept building and building, making you wonder what was going on and if they’d get out. I only mention this film because I kept getting that vibe from “The Abandon,” a film about an American soldier in Iraq who’s wounded during a firefight, only to be mysteriously transported to a cubed, bland room with no doors.

Miles (Rosenthal), the soldier, spends probably the first 20 minutes by himself in this cubed room, examining his surroundings at first before tending to his injuries he suffered in the gun battle. Before too long, his satellite phone rings. On the other line is Damsey (Perry), a woman who sometimes seems to know more about Miles than she leads on, but nonetheless she isn’t a soldier or in any way shape or form connected to the powers that have imprisoned Miles. She’s an elementary school math teacher who is also imprisoned in a cubed, bland room with no doors.

Despite the slow, and I mean really slow, start to the film, “The Abandon” begins to pick up as Miles’ and Damsey’s conversation gets more and more personal. It’s during these moments where some of the theories people might have begun to take shape. At the beginning, it’s easy to believe that aliens may be behind the whole plot, but before the final frame, I had several theories in my head, including that this may in fact be a secret sequel to “Cube.” That being said, these kinds of films hinge on two things, whether or not the person on screen can carry the somewhat solo adventure and if the ending reveal is worth it. Let’s call it a draw.

“The Abandon” is rarely boring past the first 20ish minutes of Miles frantically pacing around the cube and testing the walls. Not only are little bread crumbs scattered about for us to pick and piece together, but the film manages to create tension between Miles and Damsey, making us question Damsey’s motives and sometimes Miles’ motives. There’s a fascinating cat and mouse game for most of the film, that is until the climax and finale. So, this brings me to the payoff.

It’s not very good. The ambiguous nature of the ending is a bit too ambiguous. While I feel like there can be a straightforward answer, the messaging of the film is mixed. I won’t ruin the ending, but I really want to because it’s difficult to discuss films like these without spoiling everything. These films demand you watch through until the end because the end is what’s supposed to bring it all together, but “The Abandoned” seems to have abandoned any attempts at a cohesive conclusion. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t interesting or good, but it feels dampened by its finale.

Film Review: “Imperfect”

Directed by: Regan Linton and Brian Malone
Rated: NR
Running Time: 77 minutes

“Imperfect” opens with Regan Linton’s morning routine of showering, putting makeup on and getting clothed, but it’s different from most. That’s because in college she was in a car accident that paralyzed her, forcing her to use a wheelchair to get around. Despite her disability, she continues to live and follow her dreams. According to her, her lifelong dream has always been acting and being on the silver screen, but her new focus in “Imperfect” is an entirely different beast, directing.

“Imperfect” follows Linton’s journey as she directs the musical “Chicago” in Denver with a cast made up entirely of people with disabilities. We see people from all walks of life come to audition, some with Parkinson’s, some with autism, and nearly every disability. However, instead of focusing on those disabilities, the documentary cleverly shows us the artistic process. That’s because we watch as art elevates everyone in the production regardless of challenges they face. We watch as Linton and her crew make accommodations or changes with production schematics so that some of the actors are able to come to life on stage.

As pointed out in the film and by Linton, audiences won’t see the disabilities, but instead will see the characters and stories they tell as long as they act as well as they promised they could at their auditions. While it is impossible to see past some of the actor’s disabilities, it makes the final product of the performance that much more impressive and heartwarming when everyone comes together and puts on a real banger of a show.

Outside of taking a behind-the-scenes look at this wholly unique production, we learn about some of the actors. Some have spent years working a basic job and have merely dreamed of being on a stage to get their big break while others actually have had a big break in Hollywood, but are still relegated to stereotypical roles suited for their disability, which in a lot of cases (as the film points out) is a damn shame. Some of these people have incredible talent, not only as actors, but as singers and dancers.

Not everything is inspiring and hopeful. At times we see the pain and frustration that comes with this overwhelming process, as well as how difficult the disabilities can be. Despite the film’s brief runtime, the film never wastes a second perfectly showing who these people are, what their talents, dreams and hopes are. It’s the kind of documentary that makes you upset you didn’t experience this production yourself. Despite its title, “Imperfect” is a near flawless look at a once-in-a-lifetime production.