Film Review: “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Infinite Storm”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Cyrano”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Strawberry Mansion”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Those Who Walk Away”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: “Lotawana”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Sundown”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “The Abandon”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Imperfect”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “GameStop: Rise of the Players”

Directed by: Jonah Tulis
Rated: NR
Running Time: 94 minutes

There’s a current trend happening with documentaries and I’m pointing the finger of blame directly at Youtube. This trend is to hop on a big moment in contemporary history immediately and then attempt to encompass and explain the entire scenario in a brief documentary film. I blame Youtube because Youtube content creators are doing this on a daily basis, sometimes foregoing things like facts and pertinent information that sometimes comes with the passage of time. It’s kind of like a “strike when the iron is hot” idea.

Since my full-time job is in news, I will admit that this wasn’t a structure created by Youtube, but I would say was created by TV news organizations that are wanting to quickly and briefly explain complex situations and condense lengthy interviews. Sometimes it works, but that requires a news room with a large staff with good ethics and knowledge of storytelling. So, when a documentary like “GameStop: Rise of the Players” comes out, I have to wonder if what I’m being told is the God honest truth because so many players in this story are still actively participating in what happened.

If you didn’t know, or had been doing a media break last year (and honestly, I wouldn’t blame you), a little brick-and-mortar store by the name of GameStop was, at least through public perception, dying. Stores were closing, the stock was starting to look like it was going to be worth less than a few mere dollars and the video game industry itself was evolving towards a digital market. But something odd happened, the stock began to double, then triple, then quadruple, in value, but it kept going. Not just over a period of months or week, but hours and then minutes. So, what was going on?

“GameStop: Rise of the Players” kind of explains all this with spliced footage of talking heads on 24-hour news networks, but that really isn’t the meat of the film. The best thing the documentary offers is one-on-one interviews with stock traders who benefited from GameStop’s meteoric stock. Some are simply down on their luck individuals looking to turn things around by, quite literally, gambling on the stock market. It’s these personal stories that make us root for these individuals, as well as GameStop’s stock, throughout the film. Some of the people benefiting were always going to be well off, so I can’t speak to my sympathy or rooting of them, but for the individuals who were having to move back in with their parents or who had received a devastating cancer diagnosis, I’m glad to see their David vs. Goliath story on-screen.

That being said, I wish the film had more context which wouldn’t be possible in the time frame the documentary was created. A quick Google search shows that the GameStop stock is still percolating with hot gossip, whether people are talking about the stock making another climb to infamy or media outlets looking at the aftermath as if the stock will now be left to die. The story of GameStop has yet to be fully told, yet here we are with a documentary claiming to do just that. While I knew most of what was being discussed, I couldn’t help but think that even someone who knew the basics of what happened would still be confused about what was happening. At times the documentary seems to forget that maybe you don’t know about certain things, like how these people were talking to each other over Discord or the phenomenon of people seeking financial advice on Youtube. “GameStop: Rise of the Players” attempts to tell a story, but just like GameStop’s old brick-and-mortar stores, it offers nothing new.

Film Review: “Slapface”

Starring: August Maturo, Mike Manning and Libe Barer
Directed by: Jeremiah Kipp
Rated: NR
Running Time: 85 minutes

When we first meet Lucas (Maturo), he and his brother Tom (Manning) are mourning the loss of their mother. To deal with this trauma, and his brother’s trauma as well, Tom forces Lucas to mourn with him via a game called ‘slapface’, which might be exactly what you think it is. The two brothers sit across from each other and slap one another repeatedly, hitting harder as the game goes on.

When the two aren’t physically beating each other in grief, Tom is finding the bottom of a bottle of liquor and Lucas is practicing witchcraft. One of these is not like the other. “Slapface,” a film that took me a while to grasp the concept of, is about Lucas more than it is about Tom. Lucas is not only enduring physical violence at home, but is enduring mental and emotional torture from classmates who bully him as well as the Virago Witch, which he summons into existence.

I say “Slapface” took me a while to grasp the concept because I really wasn’t sure what I was getting from this film. The opening felt silly and I wasn’t quite sure why a prepubescent boy was suddenly dabbling in witchcraft, but this is the kind of film that really hits you over the head before the credits. The Witch itself isn’t scary, but it’s not there to frighten us with cheap jump scares, nor is it there to harm Lucas. The Witch, after being summoned, appears to randomly pop-up when the story calls for it, a hint at what the film is actually trying to say. Like any good dramatic horror movie, the point isn’t to simply scare us and have us move on with our lives, “Slapface” shows us the unfortunate outcome of an extreme situation that can be applied to the real world.

Maturo does an incredible job in the role, showing the wildly high strung emotions that a child his age would go through, sometimes appearing carefree about the events around him while flipping on a dime in a fit of rage or sadness. It’s clear that Lucas isn’t confronting his feelings, instead opting to bottle them up. Even during the game ‘slapface’ he withholds, possibly fearing the aggression and sadness that’s building up inside him. As an actor, Maturo channels that same kind of fear, sadness and frustration we once saw in Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” As for everyone else, the acting is fine, but doesn’t stand out as much as Maturo.

While the Virago Witch in “Slapface” is far from unique or creative, what the monster represents is entirely fresh. For those interested in a late night creature feature packed with scares and gore, look elsewhere. For those who want psychological horror, you’ve come to the right place, but prepare yourself for your own slap in the face.

Film Review: “A Shot Through the Wall”

Starring: Kenny Leu, Ciara Renee and Clifton Davis
Directed by: Aimee Long
Rated: NR
Running Time: 89 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

There are plenty of days where I feel like nuance is missing. I say that because we have so much content at our fingertips now, it’s hard to really dive into the meat of something. We need to get to the next piece of content to devour, so we look at the headline or photo and move on. Without diving too deep into the realm of politics “A Shot Through the Wall” still manages to do a very impressive job of reminding us that not everything is black and white.

Mike Tan (Leu), the son of two Chinese immigrants, is a fresh-faced street cop in New York City. Unfortunately for him, his white and also fresh-faced partner looks for trouble where it isn’t, spotting a few young African-American teens who “should be in school.” One of those teens flees, for reasons we don’t know and soon won’t care about. Tan, just a dozen steps behind the teen, ends up in an apartment complex, unholsters his gun, but accidentally fires off a shot under pressure. That one accidental gunshot enters an apartment, killing an African-American man and setting off a chain of events.

“A Shot Through the Wall” plays with a lot of unfortunate things that happen during officer-involved shootings. We see the immediate outrage from the public, even when all the facts aren’t in yet. We also see the cellphone footage that’s released of Officer Tan attempting to revive the man he accidentally shot. What the cellphone doesn’t capture, is everything that led up to that shooting, as well as everything after. Nonetheless, the cellphone footage captures only one part of the incident which still paints Officer Tan in a negative light. We also see accusations of racism and conspiratorial thinking along the lines of police cover-ups, as well as the threat of vigilantes looking for their own brand of justice. On the flip side, we do see how police attempt to smooth things over, through potential plea deals and PR campaigns. While all of this is interesting, that’s not what makes “A Shot Through the Wall” unique, because we’ve seen this before in other movies.

“A Shot Through the Wall” takes us through the emotional toll this takes on Tan, his family, his African-American fiancée and others. The movie does make a critical mistake in not showing us the emotional pain the actual victims family and friends are going through, but that may also be a creative choice on the end of Aimee Long in her first written and directed film. She’s not shy about showing some unmentionable truths, like the fact that Tan isn’t racist at all, but his parents are. Or the fact that Tan goes back and forth on whether or not to put his relationship on the line by publicly proclaiming, “I have a black girlfriend, so I can’t be a racist who shot an unarmed black man.”

In the end though, and throughout the movie, the audience has to wonder: Is Officer Tan innocent? It’s a tough call and the movie, to it’s credits, opts to let Officer Tan say if he is or isn’t himself before the credits roll. “A Shot Through the Wall” isn’t about red vs. blue, Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter, or any of the usual nonsense that’s associated with officer-involved shootings nowadays. It’s about the pain of it all. For that, I’m grateful I watched “A Shot Through the Wall” because we sometimes need a reminder that we’re all humans on this random spinning globe and the only way to confront pain is head-on.

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.