Film Review: “See for Me”

Starring: Skyler Davenport, Jessica Parker Kennedy and Kim Coates
Directed by: Randall Okita
Rated: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
IFC Midnight

Sophie (Davenport) is a former alpine skier who had her young career derailed by an accident that left her blind. Sympathy doesn’t extend too far for Sophie because it’s hard to tell if she’s bitter about the accident or is ignorantly irresponsible. I say this because our introduction to Sophie is brief, but it highlights how talented she is, despite being rough around the edges. We see how crafty she is when it comes to getting around after aggressively turning down her mom’s advice and help before heading off to a mansion in the middle of the woods to cat-sit. If you have any remaining sympathy for Sophie, the movie throws that out the window for you quickly after. That’s because when she arrives at the home, meets the cat and says goodbye to the homeowner as they head out the door, Sophie quickly begins scouting the location for something to steal because as she puts it later in the film, “No one suspects the blind girl.”

“See for Me” enjoys playing with the viewer’s sympathy, as much as it enjoys having Sophie play with horror clichés; for when the sun sets and Sophie heads off to bed is when some safe cracking burglars show up thinking the house is empty. With the help of a phone app, Sophie has to make several decisions over the course of the film: fight, flee or team up with the burglars who weren’t expecting a blind girl to crash their party. That last one will throw you for a loop as the movie continues to work itself into improbable scenarios with equally improbable characters.

For a movie that doesn’t quite have an original concept, it has quite the original execution. Unfortunately, the originality is very entrenched in spoilers so I can’t discuss them, but I will tell you that the movie is not without its flaws. Despite a decent cast, creepy setting and entertaining set-up, the film struggles with shaking off thriller tropes, like the bad guy reveal that’s supposed to shock us (it doesn’t) or the cat-and-mouse games played by the characters in the sprawling mansion. The action is lackluster, but the character study of Sophie is the most fascinating part. Davenport, who’s blind in real-life, is most likely channeling a lot of real-life moments into Sophie’s character, bringing a lot of authenticity to a character that’s usually portrayed by someone with vision in Hollywood. Without that authenticity, “See for Me” runs the risk of becoming cruel and unrealistic.

While “See for Me” isn’t like 2016’s “Don’t Breathe,” probably because “See for Me” is way more low budget, but it still will upend expectations for those who flip it on. A film like “Don’t Breathe” is in a complex and sometimes silly setting, while a film like “The Village” uses a handicap like a cliché. “See for Me” finds the middle ground, simplicity in its setting and treating Sophie like a person, not a trope.  

Film Review: “The Rescue”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Film Review: “South of Heaven”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Film Review: “Puppet Killer”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Synchronic”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Friendsgiving”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Push”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “The Swerve”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “The 24th”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Fisherman’s Friends”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Yes, God, Yes”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Blessed Child”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Relic”

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

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

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

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

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

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