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.

Streaming Review: “You Don’t Nomi”

YOU DON’T NOMI
Directed By: Jeffrey McHale
Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Paul Verhoeven, Adam Nayman, April Kidwell
Runtime: 92 mins.
RLJE Films

My introduction to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was definitely by accident on some random childhood afternoon on a local network because my memories are of a hazy mishmash of ‘why does Jesse-from-Saved by the Bell looked Like That?’ and laughing at the crude 90s tech that they used to ‘paint’ dodgy cgi bras over very naked chests. So in tackling McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi, I knew I’d have to take another look. I don’t regret it as such but I was not converted into the cult that this doc’s trailer alluded to. That doesn’t mean You Don’t Nomi isn’t worth a look for the uninitiated. On its surface, You Don’t Nomi may appear a puff piece on something so-bad-it’s-good but it puts in a surprising amount of work to show not only Showgirls’s second life as a camp crowdpleaser but also how a critically reviled film evolves over time–even in the eyes of its filmmakers.

There is no better way to describe the 1995 critical reception to Showgirls than dog pile. It was brutal in that way that it becomes a sport unto itself to find the snarkiest pull quotes. It tanked Elizabeth Berkley’s transition from sitcom actress to the big screen and took the sexual thriller momentum that Verhoeven had in the US off of 1992’s Basic Instinct and sent him back to the more marketable sci-fi with Starship Troopers (Instinct was preceded by Total Recall and Robocop). The doc delves deep into Verhoeven’s career and finds parallels and themes that connect Showgirls back into his work in Europe before he escaped to Hollywood. Unfortunately the documentary did not manage to include modern interviews with any of the creative forces on the film but again, in diving into archived footage, the documentary exposes how Verhoeven and Berkeley in particular have decided over time to try and sell that they knew all along that their film was camp. As one of the speakers in the doc says, camp is “failed seriousness,” so I don’t really buy their attempt to control that narrative but as a storyline in the documentary, it’s very amusing.

Despite the box office flopping, Showgirls found a second life in midnight screenings, drag shows and an off-broadway musical. For me, Nomi hits its stride by zeroing in on the experience that the actress who played Nomi in the musical parody had and the difference it made in her life. Watching her account, as well as those of the drag hosts of sold out midnight showings I kept thinking about that speech from Pixar’s Ratatouille where critic Anton Ego says “the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” -Hey if McHale can take a campy stripper movie seriously, I can defer to the wisdom of the cartoon rat movie. Even though I couldn’t relate to their obsession, I can certainly pinpoint pop culture hills I will die on and on that level I enjoyed hearing from such a well researched niche.

You Don’t Nomi is now streaming On Demand and digital, an additional review by Mike Gencarelli was posted earlier here

TFF 2020 Review: “The Trip to Greece”

THE TRIP TO GREECE
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 103 mins.
IFC Films

Through no fault of its own, The Trip to Greece is arriving on VOD today with some extra baggage. Seeing as this release comes at a time when the world doesn’t know how and when we might resume the kind of care free international tourism that stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoy, it’s hard to judge how this film might hit you. Is armchair tourism at this juncture escapism or masochism? At this point in the series, given this is the fourth time around with this specific formula, that might be the only factor in your decision making. As with their first three trips–starting in England the duo then hit Italy and Spain–the vistas are gorgeous, the food looks delicious and the impressions are plentiful. What sets this one apart, fittingly for ancient Greece, is the injection of some tragedy within the film’s “plot” separate from the context of its release. The result of this turn is a film that is more an admirable finale than the hilarious joyrides that its predecessors were.

The setup is slim, as always, with the comedians ostensibly working on some article while retracing the trail covered in The Odyssey from modern day Turkey to Ithaca. Ten years of Odyssey condensed into six days of jet setting. The structure sets their agenda but then Brydon and Coogan’s conversations go off the rails as needed. This time around, Coogan has recently received dramatic accolades for his portrayal of Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie and a lot of their comedic tension comes from Coogan trying to emphasize his newly minted dramatic chops while Brydon firmly still categorizes his buddy as a comedian. If there were an Olympics for negging, these two would surely medal. The guys are hilarious at oneupmanship whether it’s picking up on a Mick Jagger impression and doing their own take or attempting to turn the the mundanity of a restaurant check into a game show round. In these sequences this series always hits its stride and credit must go to director Michael Winterbottom and his editor Marc Ricardson for often wringing another laugh out of a moment by just cutting on the right beat.

The film does do that shift for the dramatic though by adding in ominous black and white dream sequences rooted in Greek myth for Coogan and introducing a family health crisis as well. I haven’t been able to suss out if that part was based on something in Coogan’s actual life or entirely fabricated for the film but if the latter, it seems an odd choice. At one point they also take a detour to a refugee camp after coming across a former colleague of Coogan’s who’s based there. While it is, as I said above, admirable that this series of extreme-first-world tourism actually takes a moment to observe the realities of a host country, it comes off more as momentary lip service rather than genuine reflection. Eventually the back home problem for Coogan split the comedic duo apart for the remainder of the film much to its detriment. Where the pair end up does have the air of finality, which this installment supposedly is, so I understand the choice. Overall I enjoyed Brydon and Coogan’s competitive company as I always have, just wish that this finale could have focused more on the series’ strengths as it headed off into the sunset.

Note: The Trip To Greece was due to make its North American premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

TFF 2020 Review: “Inheritance”

Note: Inheritance was due to make its world premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

INHERITANCE
Starring: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Chace Crawford, Connie Nielson, Patrick Warburton
Directed by: Vaughn Stein
Runtime: 111 mins.
Vertical Entertainment
Not Rated

Early on in Inheritance, the will of deceased banker Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) is read out to his district attorney daughter Lauren (Lily Collins) and her congressman brother William (Chace Crawford). While the campaigning son takes a massive twenty million dollars, his sister “only” gets one million. If you think that’s the main source of strife in this family then oh boy, strap in because that difference barely scratches the surface of Lauren’s problems. Director Vaughn Stein’s new thriller releasing on VOD this week after having been a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection, takes a hard turn into its potential-horror setup but doesn’t fully embrace it with leads who can’t sell it.

The monetary discrepancy between Lauren and her brother quickly gives way to Lauren receiving her actual inheritance in the form of a mysterious key and a video from her late father urging her to keep the truth buried. Not to be too cynical but it’s pretty expected that a wealthy family like these Monroes–populated with bankers, lawyers and politicians–is going to have its share of skeletons in its closet. Stein’s film does this cliché one better by Archer leaving his daughter a full grown man chained up in a bunker. Thanks, dad. The bunker man is named Morgan (Simon Pegg) and seems to know everything about Lauren who desperately wants to know the whys and hows of Morgan’s disgusting situation. More than that, Lauren must face a crisis of conscious whether to heed her father’s will, especially in the middle of her brother’s re-election or release the bedraggled, pitiable Morgan with his trove of family secrets.

Simon Pegg has long been one of my favorite actors, whether in leading the “Cornetto trilogy” or popping up in larger fare like Star Trek or even better the Mission: Impossible series, but saddled in this film with the heavy wig and grime of Morgan’s imprisonment and, worse, a ropey American accent, and he is utterly wasted. The main tension in Inheritance should come from whether Lauren can muster enough pity for Morgan to release him or Pegg can be sufficiently menacing in his blackmail of the Monroes to achieve his ends. But in their contained scenes, the dynamic never coalesces into real tension. Where you’re expecting someone to actually strike, they just keep talking in circles. And I can’t underscore enough how badly Pegg’s US accent hobbles how threatening his character could have been. There are later parts in the film where I imagine Pegg was really having fun with it, but too much of the runtime for his character is leaden stuff. Collins, 31, for her part as a DA in Manhattan is much too young to hold such a role and comes off as someone playing dress up. It was hard to take either of them seriously in these parts.

For a movie where the crux of the problem is a man chained up in a basement, Inheritance is just overall way too bland. Outside of Pegg and Collins, the Monroe family and their posse come off as stock soap opera characters. Chace Crawford, so good on “The Boys,” is as ridiculous as a hot-shot congressman as Collins is as the DA. Ultimately their rich people problems–and secrets–aren’t as shocking as the film wants them to be.

Inheritance is available on DirectTV and releases on VOD on May 22nd

Film Review: “Clementine”

Starring: Sonya Walger, Otmara Marrero and Sydney Sweeney
Directed by: Lara Gallagher
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
Oscilloscope

Very rarely am I tempted to turn off a movie, but unable to because I’m curious as to what is happening and what will happen. “Clementine” opens on Karen (Marrero) getting a good morning wake-up call from her lover named D (Walger). The bliss is incredibly short-lived as the film smash cuts to the aftermath of a bad break-up, which D initiated. A heartbroken Karen then heads to D’s lakeside house, breaks in, and temporarily sets up shop.

The film dug its hooks into me from the very beginning and I couldn’t let go, as much as I wanted to. That’s because at times the film is very meandering, the dialogue is often mumbled and I honestly am not invested in Karen. But just as soon as I pull out one of the film’s hooks, the movie introduces Lana (Sweeney), a peculiar, sweet, potential seductress that talks with Karen. But unlike Karen, she’s not necessarily confident in her own sexual identity, seemingly turned off and turned on by the prospect of a steamy lakeside fling or relationship.

Every time I inched closer to turning the movie off, another curveball would come at me and pretty soon, I was determined to see what was going to happen between Karen and Lana, even if I didn’t enjoy the outcome. So once the credits rolled, I didn’t feel like I got a satisfying payoff, but some part of me felt something positive. It’s an emotion I’ve grappled with for a few days now because I’m still unsure as to what I’m supposed to take away from the movie. I can conclude to some extent that “Clementine” is a deeply personal LGBTQ movie with elements of #MeToo in it. I think. 

The movie isn’t very direct. It’s not a mainstream film like “Love, Simon,” even though that movie and “Clementine” are similar because of their coming-of-age theme and relationship dynamics. “Clementine” is just a lot more subdued and I’m not sure if some of the lapses in storytelling are intentional or just amateurish. I believe they’re intentional because a lot of other pieces of this film are expertly done. The soundtrack is ripe with tension, the cinematography and settings are absolutely gorgeous and the acting (when I can hear it) is magnificent. It’s just hard for me to make a recommendation because I don’t think I’m qualified to.

Yes I’m a film critic, but I also understand that some movies speak to certain demographics and they’re not meant for mass consumption. I can assume things, but I also don’t want to say that that’s what “Clementine” is aiming for because I don’t have a spot in which to claim knowledge. I also don’t want to spoil the movie. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I enjoyed this movie that I found boring. Which ultimately is a contradiction on the surface level.

I can’t make a recommendation for “Clementine,” but I do know certain people who will enjoy this more than me. People who’ve been in a vicious emotional cycle, been in a manipulative relationship and those of the LGBTQ community will understand this movie better than I. I can relate on a generic level, but this film is a bit too esoteric for me to sink my teeth into. Maybe over time I will have a better grasp of what “Clementine” means, but for right now, I’m content with simply stating that “Clementine” exists and if anything in this review peaked your interest, by all means seek it out.

Film Review: “South Mountain”

SOUTH MOUNTAIN
Starring: Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols
Directed by: Hilary Brougher
Runtime: 85 mins.
Breaking Glass Pictures

Behind the stillness of a home in the rural Catskills is a wealth of roiling emotion beautifully realized in writer-director Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain. The feature, which debuts on DVD and VOD today stars Talia Balsam who gives an achingly vulnerable central performance.

On a summer evening, Lila (Balsam) is having a cookout with her family and friends as she preps for her daughters to leave her with an empty nest. And if there’s a subtle tension between Lila and her husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), well that may be because Edgar is sneaking off within this very household to video call a mistress actively giving birth to his child under the guise of a “work call.” Yikes.

What’s remarkable about Brougher’s film is the situation has all the potential to wade into overwrought melodrama but it never does. Instead, Balsam plays Lila with a fragility that occasionally tips over into flashes of rage but remains thoroughly grounded. Cohen too, whose philandering intro really gives him an uphill battle with the viewers, manages to wrangle sympathy as Edgar in the sensitivity he brings to the more fraught scenes with Balsam. Their dynamic of him knowing it is over versus her not quite ready to let go is compelling.

The lovely performances are all given solid support from Brougher’s production and sound design which really evoke both the encroaching summer and Lila’s isolation. The lush greenery and rustic house are their own character which composer Herdis Stefansdottir subtly accents with a sparse musical score that knows when to take a backseat to the chorus of birds, insects and rumbling clouds. Ultimately, Brougher’s film achieves a beautiful balance between the permanence of Lila’s place in the mountain and the ever shifting circumstances of her life and most intimate relationships.

Film Review: “Human Capital”

HUMAN CAPITAL
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Marisa Tomei, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Not Rated
Running Time: 95 mins.
Vertical Entertainment

An academic awards dinner serves as a turning point for multiple families when a hit and run accident leaves one of its wait staff dead in Marc Meyers’s Human Capital. The film boasts a solid cast lead by Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard and Marisa Tomei but its rigid structuring choices throw the film off balance as it delves ever deeper into the melodramatic. The resolution to its mystery proves murky and is not quite given enough space to breathe before the film’s conclusion.

Director Meyers and screenwriter Oren Moverman (adapting a novel by Stephen Amidon) split the film up in such a way that the pivotal day of the dinner leading up to the murder is shown through the lens of three characters played by Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei and Maya Hawke. It’s the multi-POV strategy we’ve seen with films such as Crash, but on a smaller scale. The trouble with these rigid thirds is that while they all are sort of negotiating with varying degrees of class inequality and value in humanity over money, they don’t quite convalesce in a meaningful way. Largely they depend on leaden dialogue to hit you over the head with each character arc’s Central Theme before we shift to the next one.

Unfortunately I found the first arc, that of Schreiber’s Drew, to be the most compelling of the three stories. His character figures largest into the characters who felt most genuine–his daughter Shannon (Hawke) and his pregnant wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”). Schreiber is also easily relatable as a man woefully out of his depth when trying to make a big deal with Sarsgaard’s slimy hedge fund manager Quint. While the film is in no way interested in clarifying the economics at play, Schreiber’s everyman persona makes up for it in his desperate reactions. I felt more interested in the fallout of his bad decisions than I did in getting to crux of the car accident plot.

Beyond Schreiber the film severely underserves the remainder of the cast. I found little to care about in Tomei and Sarsgaard’s relationship. They’re constantly sniping at each other and no doubt trying to hammer home that money can’t buy happiness. Tomei is eventually driven into the arms of a colleague played by Paul Sparks. Usually Sparks is a welcome addition but here it feels like he’s retreading the role he had during his tenure on “House of Cards.” Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi is a sneering Wall Street bro sidekick to Sarsgaard and feels straight out of an 80’s movie. Eventually the film turns itself over to exciting newcomers Hawke and Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”) but again, their romance and how it all ties into the central mystery drags and feels like it’s trying to throw even more big social themes into the mix in the rush to the finish.

Human Capital is currently available on VOD

Film Review: “Feedback”

FEEDBACK
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Ivana Baquero
Directed By: Pedro C. Alonso
Not Rated
Running Time 98 min
Blue Fox Entertainment

A London radio station transforms into a pressure cooker when a late night host is held captive in his own recording studio. What starts as a not-wholly-unexpected hostage situation for the controversial host quickly reveals the thugs have more personal than political reasons for their chosen target. Director Pedro Alonso’s Feedback, which is now out on VOD and releases February 18th on DVD, is a tightly orchestrated thriller that hinges on a strong leading performance from Eddie Marsan despite a questionable point of view. 

Dolan Jarvis (Marsan) has been attacked before. Anchoring a late night radio show called “Grim Reality” where he rages on all things political (Brexit, Russian election tampering, et al), he isn’t as shaken as the average person returning to work after having been attacked by angry listeners. That said, his producer (Anthony Head) is still angling to force a co-host on him in the form of rocker Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson, “Peaky Blinders”). As he starts his usual broadcast, a group of masked thugs trap Jarvis in his studio and threaten him to stick to their exact script when Wilde arrives. At first Jarvis balks but he gets on board when he realizes his daughter, who also happens to be in the radio offices that night, as well as his young studio technicians are threatened as well.

What should be a limiting contrivance–holding all action captive in a recording space–is actually one of the film’s strengths. Alonso goes a long way to making sure that the viewers feel Jarvis’s claustrophobia as his assailants bear down on him. The pristine studio also makes for a good visual contrast with the acts of violence. Then in the latter stages of the film, he keeps throwing Marsan further into situations where he feels more and more like a rat in a maze. It’s highly stressful and highly effective.

Marsan meanwhile as the victim gains a lot of sympathy when he’s first caught that pays off in dividends for the film. Alonso pulls a bit of a switcheroo by firmly placing the audience on Jarvis’s team so to speak before the ostensible villains of the piece get him and Wilde to expose more of their past digressions on air. If it weren’t for Marsan and Anderson’s respective charisma, I think this film would have run a real risk of losing viewers completely when all is said and done. Your mileage may vary, but despite where the film takes the characters, it still delivers several gasp-inducing thrills and is worthwhile for Marsan’s performance.

Film Review: “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

BIRDS OF PREY
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 mins.
Warner Brothers

After a major breakup, one Harley Quinn is down in the dumps. But dammit if she’s not going to lift herself out of it and take audiences along for the ride. And what a wild ride it is. Cathy Yan and producer/Harley herself, Margot Robbie deliver a creative, intense and above all, fun burst of action that really couldn’t be better placed on the calendar than right before Valentine’s Day. Grab your favorite colorful candy, your friends, your pet hyenas (just not any shitty exes) and go.

For those unfamiliar with Ms Quinn, director Yan opens with a helpful primer without  having to look at a single frame of Suicide Squad. HQ was a brilliant med student-turned-psychiatrist-turned-lover of the Joker, her former patient. It was a position that allowed her to get away with murder, possibly literally. No one was crossing the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately for her, it was also a subjugated position. Her schemes weren’t appreciated when they succeeded, she was abused and taken for granted. Yan doesn’t go into the particulars of the breakup and blessedly doesn’t bring Jared Leto or any other iteration of “Mr. J” in here—because he’s besides the point—but Harley is a bit of a mess as a result. She’s already dealing with an identity crisis when a crime lord named Roman Sionis (McGregor) places a bounty on the young girl that Harley herself is meant to be delivering to him in 24 hours, on pain of death. 

If the above has you questioning where the “Birds of Prey” from the title come in, you would be right, but I’d also wonder if you watched a single trailer for this movie. This is very much the Harley show. Her teammates come in gradually—Black Canary (Smolett-Bell) first and most prominently, followed by police officer Renee Montoya (Perez) and Huntress (Winstead). They all have their own grievances with Roman. The good news is, Harley cheerfully gets you up to speed on their backstories as they join the party. Meanwhile the actresses truly make the most of their limited screen time. Winstead in particular sells an assassin who is as fierce in battle as she is socially awkward. I mean, if all you do is train for vengeance, yeah, you might not be great with new friends.

The person who gets the most time to balance out Harley’s zaniness with his own brand of ham is Ewan McGregor as Roman, aka The Black Mask. He and main enforcer, Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are operating on their own levels of strange and flamboyant and I was into it. Again, he could have even gone for more over the top as far as I’m concerned, but his finale left me more than satisfied. Above all, if the worst I can say about this movie is I wanted more and not less in a time where bloated two and a half hour runtimes are the norm (sorry, Aquaman!) that’s not a bad thing.

Finally not to mix up my IPs or anything, but as this movie unfurled, I actually thought of Disney Imagineers. As it goes, they’re encouraged to “plus” their rides and attractions–a phrase they use when taking a solid idea and ramping it up with “what if?” possibilities. Every action sequence in Birds of Prey feels like it’s been plussed. It’s not enough that the stunt work be impeccable but what if everyone also dressed fantastic? Or what if a gunfight takes place among rainbow smoke bombs? Turn on some sprinklers while you’re at it! Have a climax in a carnival. The result is a film that feels like a comic book in the best of ways.

Going into the new year, I was majorly psyched for the trifecta of big name female-led superhero movies we have coming our way. Birds of Prey just blew the doors off 2020 and raised the shiny, glittery bar. Bring on Natasha and Diana.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Scare Package”

Starring: Jeremy King, Noah Segan and Toni Trucks
Directed by: Courtney and Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes

For a moment if you could, look at two different subgenres; horror anthologies and horror parodies. There are some strong candidates in each category. For anthologies, you got “Creepshow” and “Trick R Treat.” For parodies, you got “Scary Movie” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” I know I’m leaving a few movies out of the categories, but there’s a reason I want you to think about these two. How difficult do you think it is to combine them? I know what some of you are thinking. “Cabin in the Woods.” But what if a horror anthology parody film even subverted that?

I know my opening salvo promises grand things, but for most horror aficionados, I promise that you’ll love “Scare Package.” Very rarely do I want to immediately rewatch an anthology film or parody after leaving the theater, so this is a rare occasion for me. The main reason is that anthologies stay out their welcome and parodies require an audience to soak up the hit or miss laughs. “Scare Package” is the kind of film that’s prime for an audience, but will certainly make most people sitting at home alone smirk at its mocking nature.

The one thing that makes “Scare Package” work, is Aaron B. Koontz, the man in charge of the wrap-around story, as well as the overall product. One caveat that Koontz revealed at Panic Fest, which this movie was screened at, was that he allowed creative freedom to all other directors and writers, while providing oversight. He wasn’t a guiding hand, but he certain was able to cherry pick the scripts that best fit his overall vision. It’s a delicate balancing act, which pays off in dividends. While some shorts in the anthology fit the ridiculing nature, other shorts don’t sneer as much, but still pay homage to an idea or manage to riff on a pop-culture idea.

I’d really like to dive into the individual shorts, but I’d feel it’s unfair and that I’d fall into the stereotype of reviewing anthology films; breaking each one down, outlining strengths and weaknesses while revealing which ones I favored. For a movie like “V/H/S,” I’d find that as a completely fair form of critique, but for “Scare Package,” it feels unfair. While a film like “V/H/S” is so scattershot, “Scare Package” is a, not to sound cliché, complete package. Everything is so fluid, you sometimes forget you’re watching an anthology.

The one thing “Scare Package” avoids is length. Sometimes these movies linger too long, even if the shorts and movie as a whole are good. A movie like “ABCs of Death” can work, but you find yourself fast forwarding on rewatches. With “Scare Package” you’ll undoubtedly find yourself finding some new nod or wink every time. The movie as a whole, and each individual short, serve as little bows to the ideas and genres that they parody. But like I said at the beginning, it also parodies “Cabin in the Woods,” which is becoming a genre on its own, where characters knowingly acknowledge or reference the tropes of the genre that are currently on display. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Koontz does it well, without disregarding the merits of the idea altogether.

“Scare Package” not only serves as a blueprint for future horror anthology parodies, but a blueprint for anthologies and parodies. It’ll make horror fans roar with laughter, and for those who aren’t into scary flicks, they’ll find fun in all the pokes and prods at the films they can’t stomach. I enjoy the fact that the horror community enjoys comedy, even when it’s directed at themselves. “Scare Package” is damn near a revelation, especially considering that one of the modern lovers of horror/shock films, Joe Bob Briggs himself, arrives on scene. “Scare Package” pulls out all the stops to make the audience laugh and grin. Koontz talked about the makings of a sequel, with a promise that it’ll parody sequels. I look forward to the promise, and the possibility of a franchise that’ll inevitably parody franchises, remakes, and nostalgia culture.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Cleansing Hour”

Starring: Kyle Gallner, Ryan Guzman and Alix Angelis
Directed by: Damien LeVeck
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Shudder

Can found footage survive anymore? 2014’s “Unfriended” and 2018’s “Truth or Dare” played with the idea of realism by showing us that the paranormal can seep into social media and the Internet. Enter 2020’s “The Cleansing Hour,” a movie about an online stream that televises exorcisms to curious onlookers and morbid fans around the globe. Although the exorcisms, aren’t real.

Expanding on his 2016 short, Director Damien LeVeck squeezes out every drop of fun he can have in “The Cleansing Hour.” Reverend Max (Guzman) is far from being the man of God he portrays. Max and his friend Drew (Gallner) stage exorcisms, working with an online encyclopedia of demons so that every episode is fresh with a new other-worldly villain to fight. Afterwards, they generally drink and Max takes home a girl to record performing sexual acts. Their lifestyle is interrupted when things go awry during their latest broadcast though. The actor who was going to show up and be “possessed” never shows, so Drew’s fiancé Lane (Angelis) substitutes. But her acting is too good. Her voice changes, she digs her fingers into the chair she’s strapped into, shattering her nails, and her eyes have turned a stained yellow.

The movie doesn’t necessarily criticize or turn a mirror towards society, but it does take subtle digs at the social media culture permeating throughout the globe. While some people watch in horror, fully believing it’s real, others watch laughing. A livestream chat shows people who type trollish remarks as people on set begin to die, believing that it isn’t real. Or maybe they do and the Internet has made them soulless creatures. Although when the demon inhabiting Lane decides to poke fun at the digital age like one of the Evil Dead, the commentary and humor fall flat.

What helps “The Cleansing Hour,” as opposed to a film like “Truth or Dare,” is the small budget charm. The practical gore and blood effects explode, figuratively and literally. The actors, while not the best, may have a career after this film, especially Angelis who gnaws on the scenery like a demon hungry for human souls. It’s easy to forgive the cast and crew since they had a shoestring budget for a lot of the film’s flaws. Just don’t expect anything new to the exorcism genre other than the setting.

“The Cleansing Hour” is late-night fun that blends a couple of original concepts and tropes of the genre. Some might say the film has a twist, but for veterans of these movies, they’ll be able to spot the set-up. Even though I suspected the eventual outcome, I didn’t mind because of how brisk the pacing is. “The Cleaning Hour” is a surprise for those who come across it on Shudder, but don’t expect the 21st century equivalent of “The Exorcist.” 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Extra Ordinary”

Starring: Meave Higgins, Barry Ward and Will Forte
Directed by: Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Wildcard Distribution

Driving instructor Rose has a bit of a secret. Only a few people know about it, and every once and awhile, someone who is told about that secret will seek her services. That secret is her ability to communicate with the dead. But an even bigger secret, is the key to her psychic abilities which is her father, who is no longer with her. She saw the disastrous and absurd result of those abilities and refuses to use them, even if it’s for good. That is until a cute, recently widowed father, Martin (Ward), comes along because he’s been pestered by his recently deceased wife.

There’s more to the spiritual rom-com “Extra Ordinary” than just Rose and her pursuit of happiness. Causing an equal amount of commotion in the background is a one-hit wonder musician, Christian (Forte). He’s looking to rejuvenate his deceased rock career, but not with a catchy new song. He’s on the hunt for a virgin sacrifice that’ll be offered up to Satan during the blood Moon. He enters Rose’s realm when the virgin he has an eye on is Martin’s teenage daughter.

One of the biggest strengths about this film is its irreverent humor. It’s never too peculiar, it’s never too crass or mean towards it’s cast and it seems to hover like a specter in this gray area where it remains charming, no matter how outlandish it gets. Credit goes to the directors and writers, Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman, but an equal amount goes to Forte and Higgins. Higgins provides this warmth and sincerity to Rose that’ll charm your pants off, or hopefully Martin’s. Forte, a mainstay in the bizarre comedy scene of America, taps into his natural off-the-wall humor and makes every scene with Christian an absolute delight.

As much as I’d love to give this ghostly rom-com a higher grade, it still feels like the plot has been stretched a bit too thin. If it wasn’t for the consistent jokes, this movie could have easily outstayed its welcome, and nearly does. It easily could have benefited from having a five to 10 minute shave off the runtime. However, when things start to feel a little bit too long the final third of the film, “Extra Ordinary” goes straight for the comedic jugular in its final act. So without that ending, as well as the performances, this movie came precariously close to failing to live up to its title.

From the silly things ghosts inhabit to Rose’s attitude towards life, this film is a pleasant surprise. It may be a hard sell, especially since the movie begins like a “Tim and Eric” sketch and Forte’s gonzo slapstick can be a bit much for some. If you find “Extra Ordinary” on a streaming service late at night, I guarantee it’ll find a way to put a smile on your face.

Film Review: “Uncut Gems”

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett and Idina Menzel
Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
A24

Just like “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Punch-Drunk Love” before it, “Uncut Gems” will certainly fire up the debate about whether or not Adam Sandler is a good actor. I believe he’s good, if given a precise role that caters to his natural man-child characters we’ve seen in his comedies, as well as a film that allows him to let his unchecked rage loose. However, “Uncut Gems” does more than reignite that debate, it gives us what is undoubtedly Sandler’s best performance.

Sandler isn’t a traditional man-child in “Uncut Gems.” He plays somewhat successful New York City jewelry store owner, Howard Ratner. He not only sells jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars, but has NBA superstars like Kevin Garnett coming into his store. He appears to make enough money to sustain a double life. He spends half his life at a suburban mansion with his wife and kids, and the other half at a downtown apartment with his young, attractive girlfriend who also works at his jewelry store. Undercutting his entire life though, is a crippling and dangerous addiction.

It doesn’t take audiences long to recognize that Howard’s metaphorical “chasing the dragon” is sports betting. Throughout his day he pawns items, gets chased down by criminals and thugs he owes money to, and places ridiculous parlay bets so that his payout is astronomical. Howard never backs down from a threat. He puffs his chest, talks a big game, and demands respect. But we’re shown throughout the movie that he’s not a strong man. He can barely raise a fist in a fight, cowers at a strong enough threat, is far from being physically fit, and doesn’t even own a single firearm. Howard’s a proverbial powder keg.

Just like in “Good Time,” the writers and directors of “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie Brothers, have crafted an anxiety-inducing criminal journey. The path they create for their characters is a master class in suspense and dread, but we’re never concerned about the leads. Howard is a scumbag, through and through. He’s not someone to root for, and if anything, we’re hoping that he has an ill-fitting end. It’s everyone around him we’re concerned about. He has a brother, who’s with the mobsters that are demanding money from him, who only shows concern when the criminals stuff Howard in a trunk naked. Howard has a family at home that’s oblivious to the vultures circling above. He has a girlfriend, who while naive, doesn’t deserve the danger that Howard attracts. It all makes for some riveting scenes, where guns are never shown, but the threats and words exchanged foreshadow an exciting third act.

Just like Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer on this film, the Safdie Brothers love chaotic scumbags. It’s not that they’re smart or cunning. They use what little power and money they have to push everyone around them to their limits. For fans of crime thrillers, “Uncut Gems” is a must-see. For Sandler fans, you’ve never seen him like this.

Film Review: “Little Women”

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG
Running Time: 135mins
Sony Pictures

Little Women has been adapted to the screen a dozen times, so approaching it hot off of her acclaimed Lady Bird, it appears writer-director Greta Gerwig decided to adhere to its own Amy March’s strict standards: “to be great or nothing” Which is to say, Gerwig’s telling is pretty great. Emphasis on the pretty. Her ensemble cast, lead by Lady Bird alum Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), brings a fresh take to Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters amidst an absolutely gorgeously mounted production. This adaptation of Alcott’s tale of a quartet of sisters finding their way in Civil War era New England feels both classic and vividly relevant to today.

Full disclosure time–I haven’t read Alcott’s novel. Like many kids of the 90s my introduction to the March family was with 1994’s release starring Winona Ryder and Christian  Bale. It so fit into 90s cozy family fare that it came to vhs in one of those big puffy plastic boxes like Disney cartoons. This isn’t a slight against it, I love that version. But it did make me wary that I would be plodding through some well worn territory. Happily, Ms Gerwig flips the script by shirking a linear adaptation. Instead we follow our heroine Jo March (Ronan) from the point at which she’s already pitching her life story at a New York publisher, and then we go winding back and forth through her adolescence in New England. This approach gives the tales of the March’s idyllic family history a warm veneer of nostalgia, which actually feels a more honest way to see it.

Additionally, with Jo as our primary entry point into Marches, Gerwig’s update places a greater emphasis on the sisterly bonds than their romantic entanglements. Timothee Chalamet does well as Laurie–taking over from Bale as the mischievous neighbor boy who pursues both Jo and eventually Amy (Pugh)–but for this 2019 version, he rightly takes a back seat in screen time to, for example, Jo’s bond with her ailing sister Beth (Scanlen).            

This treatment especially benefits the oft-maligned Amy March. In 1994 the duties of the youngest March were shared between a very childish Kirsten Dunst and a very cold Samantha Mathis but here Florence Pugh effortlessly takes her from tween to adulthood. Pugh is having an amazing year, from her breakthrough leading role in Fighting with My Family to a wrenching performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she is exhibiting an incredible range that she flexes even more as Amy. In this non-linear telling, Amy has the advantage of being introduced not as a clingy youngest sibling, but as the aspiring artist studying in Paris. Her childhood crimes (which are numerous and feature Pugh for the second time this year participating in arson) are more readily forgiven through an adult lens whereas when they were previously presented in “real time”, she was a little monster. Meanwhile, though Pugh is given aging assistance via wardrobe decisions and some well-deployed bangs, it is her performance, her entire bearing and pitch of her voice that fully sells Amy’s growth. It’s a special performance that I am hoping will be recognized this awards season since, if Hereditary’s snubbing last year is any indication, Academy voters might not have the stomach for Midsommar. But I digress. 

Supporting all these sparkling performances, Gerwig’s production radiates warmth and beauty. She gives us a screenplay that lets the March clan talk all over each other like a living, breathing family, costumes and settings that frequently look like they could be paintings and underscores it all with yet another winning score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”). It is a lovely holiday gift of a film.  

Film Review: “The Two Popes”

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126mins
Netflix

In 2013, the Catholic church faced a prospect it had not dealt with in 600 years when Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down as head of the Catholic Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named as his successor, taking the title of Pope Francis. The official reason Benedict gave was declining health but he also did so in the face of mounting progressive movements among the global congregation as well as the rampant allegations of sexual abuse from clergy. In Netflix’s new film, The Two Popes, writer Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) stages an imagined meeting of the minds between Benedict and Bergoglio before this changing of the guard. Each of the men having crises of faith and trying to convince the other to keep or take on the title, respectively. Fortunately for director Fernando Meirelles, acting legends Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce stepped in to play these two. Unfortunately for viewers, their discussions do not dominate the entire film as you might hope nor do those talks address the church scandals in a meaningful way. That Meirelles’s film manages to tread through such tonally rocky terrain without more of an issue is down to great performances from Pryce and Hopkins.

Meirelles’s film opens amidst the death of Pope John Paul II and the ensuing 2005 papal conclave. The highly secretive process requires a super majority of the cardinals convening in Rome to elect a new pope. Publicly it was a spectacle in which crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation of seeing white smoke to signal that choice had been made. The interior specifics of this conclave were under official oaths of secrecy. The film brings this all to vivid life within a recreation of the Vatican and introduces Bergoglio (Pryce) and Ratzinger (Hopkins) as opposing roads for the church to take at this crucial moment in time. Ratzinger is the more conservative of the two and glad-hands the other attendees like a politician while Bergoglio downplays talk from his peers who insist he is also a favorite. Ratzinger, redubbed Benedict, wins the votes. 

Anthony McCarten’s script is based on his own stage play of this story and the best parts of this film felt like a stage production. The film easily moves from the spectacle of the conclave to the intimate summit between Hopkins and Pryce with Bergoglio seeking to tender his resignation from a Benedict who refuses to grant the request. Hopkins plays Benedict here with an air of mischief that lifts all their interactions. Bergoglio is pressing Benedict with his sincere desire to leave while Benedict brushes him off and inconveniences him at every turn. Their dialogue is also peppered with charming little old man moments. Bergoglio being the more “in touch” of the two brings both ABBA and the Beatles into the discussion for example. But once the gravity of Benedict wanting to leave takes priority–he speaks of losing touch with the voice of god–and Bergoglio’s reluctance has to be supported by how he got to where he is, the film drags. As interesting as it is and as capable an actor Juan Minujín is at playing the younger version of Pryce in war torn Argentina, it shifts the focus of the film down in taking it entirely through his past.

It’s also jarring to have the two old men watching the World Cup as though they’re in a set up from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip while literally dropping out the audio of Benedict confessing regarding the abuse scandal later in the film. Such a jarring decision when we’ve already seen a lot of Bergoglio’s rough past, made me wonder if they knew acknowledging this darkness was a bridge too far in tone, your mileage may vary. Either way, I was grateful to see these two acting legends share the screen as much as they did.  

The Two Popes is now streaming on Netflix