A still from 'The Perfection'.
June 10, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Fortississimo

2018 / 90 min. / USA / Dir. by Richard Shepard / Premiered online on May 24, 2019

In April, Twitter account @NetflixFilm — one of the streaming giant’s many attempts to appeal to hip cinephiles via this newfangled social-media thing — garnered some unwanted attention by praising a standout shot from a recent horror addition to their film library: “I just want to shout out this split diopter shot from Final Destination 3 because it looks like it came right out of a Hitchcock/De Palma film.” Users were quick to criticize both the tweet’s inaccuracy — Hitchcock rarely used split diopters (though De Palma’s films do employ the technique frequently) — the account’s flop-sweaty attempt at Film Twitter pandering. Luckily for Netflix, the embarrassing tweet was all but forgotten by the next day.

Then, almost exactly a month later, the streaming service released Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, a campy thriller that the company snapped up at Fantastic Fest in Austin back in 2018. As it turns out, Shepard’s film is filled with split-diopter shots, as though Netflix had been hinting at what was to come. The account was quick to point this out in a pedantic, multi-tweet rant on The Perfection’s release date, going on at length about the intended effect that split diopters have on the viewer, citing multiple examples of them from film history and explaining the difference between the technique and deep focus. (“The unnaturalness of the shots [creates] a disorienting effect & helps enhance the film’s constant sense of trepidation,” the account’s author writes, practically instructing the viewer on how to feel.)

In truth, no amount of Film School 101 bloviating is preferable to actually experiencing the abstract shots and jarring cuts contained in the first few minutes of The Perfection. Seconds in, a split diopter is used to show Charlotte Willmore — played by Allison Williams in full Get Out (2017) mode, straddling the line between serious and this-can’t-be-serious — staring at her dead mother’s body. This is followed by some spliced-together footage of a young Charlotte and a slowly spinning shot of present-day Charlotte at her mother’s bedside. Some overtly expository dialogue from a pair of aunts just outside the room establishes the backstory. Ten year ago, Charlotte gave up her life as cello prodigy, but — as she says in a phone call to Anton (Steven Weber), her former teacher and owner of the prestigious music school she used to attend — she is now free to return to the world of classical music, given that her mother has “finally passed away.” 

This phone call takes Charlotte to Shanghai, where Anton and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), are in the process of narrowing three potential cello students down to one. Assisting Anton and Paloma with their selection is Elizabeth Wells (Dear White People’s Logan Browning), a fellow cellist who ascended to success when Charlotte left the school. After an awkward, mutually fangirlish conversation and an impromptu cello duet, Lizzy and Charlotte’s artistic camaraderie quickly turns physical. The two decide to go backpacking through rural China to get away for a few days, but not before celebrating their newfound relationship with a night out.

Unfortunately, Lizzy wakes up feeling awful after their evening of excess. Dismissing it as hangover symptoms at first, the two quickly begin to sense that something isn’t quite right, especially when they realize that Lizzy’s symptoms match those of a mysterious epidemic sweeping through southern China. The two grow more hysterical as Lizzy gets sicker, eventually resulting in their ejection from a bus and their stranding in the middle of nowhere. From here, a genuinely surprising twist serves as a D.C. al Coda of sorts, as the film hurls the viewer back to the moment the couple awakens following their night of partying. The feature then provides an alternate perspective on the events thus far before jumping into the next act. 

This twist is shocking and effective enough to excuse much of peculiar dialogue and hokey performances that characterize the film’s first act. With an hour left and the rug pulled out from under the viewer, The Perfection could honestly go in any direction. Unfortunately, the direction Shepard’s film chooses for its second half pales in comparison to the wild ride of the first. What initially presents itself as a jealousy-fueled thriller quickly devolves into a three-way quest for vengeance between the film’s leads. The film returns to same rewind-time device that worked so well in the first instance, but it fails to garner the same jaw-dropping impact on the second go-round.

Regardless of how effective these plot devices are, The Perfection clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, the most obvious being De Palma’s plethora of psychological thrillers. The film also has plenty in common with Whiplash (2014) – another entry in the musical-prodigy-psychodrama subgenre – and with the South Korean revenge films of Park Chan-wook. However, despite these cinematic touchstones, something feels a little off about Shepard’s final product, which never truly manages to feel cinematic itself. 

Some of this may be attributable to the creative team’s television-heavy background. Shepard and Williams are both veterans of HBO’s Girls (2012-17), the latter as a one of the ensemble dramedy’s stars and the former as a director. Co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, meanwhile, are best known as producers and writers on the never-ending cult phenomenon Supernatural (2005-19). Intertitles suggest that The Perfection’s four chapters are intended to mirror the movements of a musical composition, but this structure also conveniently allows Shepard, Charmelo, and Snyder to approach the story episodically. Director of photography Vanja Cernjul is likewise a prestige-television stalwart, which might explain why the lighting in The Perfection is so luminously harsh, as if everything is glowing, soap opera-style. In a time when television is constantly being referred to as “cinematic,” The Perfection illustrates that episodic TV and feature films require completely different creative approaches to function most effectively.

Ultimately, after a quick, bloody climax and a startling final shot, Shepard’s feature leaves the viewer stupefied. The film feels like seedy, campy perfection when the first big twist reveals itself around the halfway point, but ventures into dangerous and reductive territory when it employs the outdated abuse-equals-empowerment narrative that has been a staple of countless revenge thrillers. At first, all those split-diopter shots feel startling and novel, but the technique is less effective by the time it makes its 10th or 15th appearance. Each plot twist fills the viewer with an exciting uncertainty, but the film consistently falls back into familiar tropes before too long. This back-and-forth is incessant, flip-flopping from tired to wired and back again for the duration of the film’s 90-minute runtime. The Perfection is undoubtedly a B-movie, but the result lies somewhere between B-sharp and B-flat.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Rocketman'.
June 5, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Madman Across the Water

2019 / UK, USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Dexter Fletcher / Opens in wide release on May 31, 2019

Early in Rocketman, musical prodigy Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley) – who will eventually assume the stage name Elton John as an adult (Taron Egerton) – sits on his bed late at night, feverishly studying sheet music. He raises a hand to conduct his imaginary orchestra, and the film’s eponymous song – already evoked by a glitzy title sequence – slowly builds on the film’s soundtrack. The camera pans from the young maestro’s gesticulating hands to a manifestation of a full orchestra floating in a twinkly night sky before him. It’s an moment of cinematic fantasy that might have made even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger envious.

The sequence, even more so than an earlier dancing-in-the-streets number in which Reginald leads his family and London suburb neighbors through “The Bitch Is Back,” announces that Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is far more adventurous than most of the by-the-numbers rock-star narratives that have preceded it. Specifically, Rocketman will inevitably be compared to last year’s Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, not only because that global box-office smash (and Oscar winner, ugh) is so fresh in viewers’ memories, but also because Rhapsody’s sole credited director, Bryan Singer, was replaced by Fletcher himself late in production. Fletcher's latest bests Rhapsody in nearly every possible detail, elevated beyond its precursors by its resolve to become a full-on old-school musical fantasia.

Granted, this Elton John jukebox musical doesn’t reach the sort of bold and experimental heights attained by Todd Haynes’ biopic trilogy: Barbie-doll-starring experiment Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987); glam-rock identity-investigation Velvet Goldmine (1998); and many-faces-of-Bob Dylan essay film I’m Not There (2007). Rocketman still slavishly hews to the familiar story turns of lesser films like Elvis (1979), Walk the Line (2005), and Rhapsody, charting the rise-fall-redemption arc of its subject. What’s between Fletcher’s show-stopping numbers is simply above-average Hollywood filmmaking.

Rocketman is structured as a series of flashbacks told from the rehab facility that John enters – bursting through its doors wearing a bombastically ornate phoenix-rising costume – when he is at the peak of his fame and a nadir in his personal life. The film uses the pop star’s biggest hits to tell his story, but it largely forgoes slogging through John’s catalog to depict the actual creation of these tracks. Instead, the feature employs the songs thematically, playing fast and loose with the chronology of the artist’s discography. (“Your Song” is the sole exception in getting the behind-the-scenes treatment, but given its still-supreme status and its use here as an ode to platonic love, that can be forgiven.)

Although Dexter’s nimble and propulsive direction means each musical interlude is suffused with a cinematic glee, mileage varies on the thematic interpolation of the music into the narrative of Rocketman. The verses of “I Want Love,” a minor 2001 comeback for Elton John, are traded off between the Dwight family members in an early Terence Davies-esque sequence that lays the groundwork for the film’s pat armchair psychology. The raucous “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” rollicks through Reginald’s sexual and musical coming-of-age, alternating between his early local pub shows and a hazy nocturnal carnival. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is Bernie Taupin’s (Jamie Bell) send-off to his songwriting partner after Elton’s narcissistic downward spiral into drug addiction and self-importance. Even more on the nose is the appearance of “I’m Still Standing,” and anyone familiar with the triumphant comeback song can discern its placement within this traditional narrative.

However, this conceit reveals that Rocketman at least understands the subversive essence of pop music in conveying messages through presentational code, whereas Bohemian Rhapsody just lazily trotted out the origin stories of Queen singles as if the actors were doing a live reading of the band’s Wikipedia page. Further complicating these ideas is that this dissemination of meaning through code is of great importance to the lives of queer people – a group to which both Elton John and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury belong – especially within cultural climates that suppress queer identities. Rhapsody made the fatal mistake of equating Mercury’s sexuality with his downfall – dying-damsel moment of coughing blood into a handkerchief to signal his AIDS diagnosis and all – and had nothing on its mind about this intersection of performance, pop-music forms, and identity. In Fletcher’s film, a mentor succinctly elucidates the paradox of queer identity and pop performance to Elton John before his career takes off in earnest: “You have to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”

In this regard (and many others), the director seems to address complaints lobbed against the previous film with which he is tenuously associated – most conspicuously the accusation that Rhapsody obscured Mercury’s sexuality to make that film more palatable for hetero audiences. Granted, the sole sex scene between John and his self-serving manager-cum-lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), pulls a Call Me by Your Name (2017) by panning up to billowing curtains at the peak of the couple’s sexual intimacy. However, Rocketman does not repeat Rhapsody’s sins. In fact, Fletcher’s latest could rightfully enter the all-too-small pantheon of populist films about the queer concerns of coming out, unrequited love, gender performance, and public personas (albeit through the lens of a white cisgender man).

None of this would come with such startling clarity if it weren’t for the supremely fine-tuned performance of Egerton. He lends credibility to the character of Elton John not by impersonation but by creating a fully formed human being who evolves from pit-in-the-stomach anxiety to devil-may-care narcissism. The actor, best known for leading the Kingsmen action films, manages to induce great empathy in the audience, despite the distance afforded by being one of the great rock stars of the 20th century. Doubtlessly, some critics will complain that the actor’s singing voice doesn’t quite sound like John’s, but that’s to the creative team and Egerton’s credit: Verisimilitude isn’t necessary when more ecstatic truths are deployed.

Some of those truths may be called into question, however. Even with the character of Elton John as the unreliable narrator of his own story, Elton John the executive producer is still somewhere behind the camera calling some shots. There’s nothing outrageous about a musician playing around in the sandbox of his own biography and discography, molding the narrative into whatever shape he likes. On the contrary, Rocketman is relatively forthright about John’s shortcomings as a human being. However, the musician’s egocentrism occasionally intrudes on the film’s credibility, in both its factual and fantasy modes. During the musician’s debut performance across the pond in a popular Los Angeles nightclub, the audience and the performer levitate in ecstasy. Later, some self-aggrandizing pre-end-credits title cards announce the (admittedly) important charity work John has done in the years since the film proper’s narrative ends. Although these are small gestures – and fair enough in sketching John as a human who can syncretize disparate identities into a whole – their overbearing weight is enough to keep filmgoers’ feet firmly planted on the ground.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Starfish'.
June 3, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Convent

2018 / UK / 81 min. / Dir. by Paul Hyett / Premiered online and opened in select cities on May 3, 2019

Nunsploitation horror is in something of a slump lately, between last year’s aimless spook story The Nun and a streak of unmemorable VOD clunkers (The Devil’s Doorway, Welcome to Mercy, St. Agatha). Director Paul Hyett’s witless demonic-possession flick The Convent does nothing to rectify this unfortunate trend. While on trial for murder, Hannah Arterton’s 17th-century English commoner is offered sanctuary by an order of religious sisters. Their gloomy priory, it turns out, is haunted by a voracious Satanic presence, one that is not entirely uninvited. Hyett at least has the good sense to lean into his film’s unabashed trashiness, larding the plot with occult freakiness, lesbian eroticism, and copious, Fulci-esque gore. This almost makes The Convent feel like a dime-store burlesque of Ken Russell (The Devils, Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm), or it would, if the film didn’t prove to be such a tedious slog. Turning such profane raw materials into a lackluster array of stock horror drivel is damn unforgivable. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other major platforms.]

The Nightshifter (Morto Não Fala)

2018 / Brazil / 110 min. / Dir. by Dennison Ramalho / Premiered online on May 23, 2019

Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) works the graveyard shift at a São Paulo morgue, which gives him plenty of time to exercise his singular gift: conversing with the recently deceased. This mostly entails trite exchanges with stunned accident victims and vengeful street thugs. However, one day an opportunity arises for Stênio to dispose of his odious wife’s lover, and the temptation is too much for the put-upon working stiff to resist. Director Ramalho starts with a vivid hook seemingly plucked from an old Tales from the Crypt episode, and initially it seems as if the premise might yield some darkly ironic fruit. Unfortunately, the film eventually collapses into a meandering, bog-standard story about a vengeful ghost. Dodgy digital effects aside, there are flashes of vicious inspiration in the film’s set pieces – a bit involving a glass-coated kite string, for example, has a Saw-like ghastliness. However, The Nightshifter is mostly content to pummel its distasteful protagonist with tiresome haunted-house shocks for an unwarranted 110 minutes. Rating: C [Now available to stream on Shudder.]

Starfish

2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Al White / Opened in select cities on March 13, 2019; premiered online on May 28, 2019

Director Al White’s mesmeric, utterly unclassifiable debut feature establishes its thematic core in its first 20 minutes. Troubled twentysomething Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) mourns the passing of her best friend Grace by breaking into the dead woman’s apartment in their sleepy Colorado town. Starfish takes is sweet time in this passage, steeping in Aubrey’s shattering grief – and other unresolved demons – with a delicate attentiveness to Grace’s indie-cool worldly possessions, including an enigmatic mixtape. Abruptly, the “elevated” sci-fi-horror of last year’s Annihilation and The Endless forces its way into Aubrey’s mourning process with mysterious monoliths, bizarre phenomena, and slavering alien creatures. Ambitious and weird in a gratifying way, Starfish relies on diverse methods – including an anime music video and a scene of meta-horror straight out of Inland Empire (2006) – but at its heart are Gardner’s intrepid performance and a messy, humane meditation on fear, fuckups, and forgiveness. It’s The Mist (2007) as a one-woman college radio show, with a dollop of Another Earth (2011) and a dash of Tarkovsky. So, yeah: weird. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase from Google Play and other major platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'.
May 30, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Royal Rumble

2019 / USA, Japan / 131 min. / Dir. by Michael Dougherty / Opens in wide release on May 31, 2019

Godzilla began his cinematic life as a not-so-subtle metaphor for nuclear weapons, but the pop-cultural endurance of this colossal, city-leveling radioactive reptile – arguably the great post-World War II movie monster – is attributable in part to his flexibility. While the Godzilla novice might be tempted to regard the Japanese kaiju film (and its international cousins) as a monolithic and homogeneous subgenre, the reality is much more complex and, well, pretty damn weird. The 32 official Godzilla films produced by Japanese studio Toho run the gamut, from the overt atomic terror of Ishirō Honda’s groundbreaking original (1954) to psychedelic eco-parable (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, 1971) to kiddie-flick silliness (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973) to exhausting sci-fi lunacy (Godzilla: Final Wars, 2004).

That said, the Godzilla franchise is currently in the depths of a profoundly pessimistic era, thematically speaking. (The “Reiwa period,” per the Japanese imperial parlance used to categorize the Toho features). The series is as blatantly apocalyptic as it’s been since Honda’s original, or at least since the grim anti-nuclear jeremiad The Return of Godzilla (1985). This shift was purportedly inspired in part by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The tonal change is evident straightaway in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, a “hard reboot” that writer/co-director Hideaki Anno drenches in the paralyzing horror of a massive natural or human-made disaster. (Bizarrely yet compellingly, Anno and co-director Shinji Higuchi also turn the film into a bureaucratic satire-procedural about collective problem-solving.) Toho doubled down on this bleak tone in the Godzilla trilogy it subsequently produced with animation studio Polygon Pictures, films subtitled Planet of the Monsters (2017), City on the Edge of Battle (2018), and The Planet Eater (2018). That trio of features blends Godzilla tropes with the conventions of futurist anime to create a post-apocalyptic sci-fi saga, one in which the titular leviathan and his kaiju nemeses are reimagined in a darker, more desolate context.

The handful of American Godzilla films have always been confined to a sort of parallel, semi-embarrassing sideshow, their relationship to the Toho films primarily one of licensing. (The ‘Zilla of TriStar’s notorious 1998 Hollywood film even became a target of outright mockery in the Toho features of the early 2000s.) It’s accordingly surprising that director Gareth Edwards’ remake/reboot Godzilla (2014) has ended up feeling so consistent with the Reiwa-period Japanese features that immediately followed it. Although there is no narrative connection between those films and Edwards’, the 2014 feature captures the same feeling of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, an uncommon tone for the franchise that nonetheless seems like a natural fit. Edwards’ Godzilla has its glaring flaws – a dishwater-dull “hero,” overly dark visuals, and the elimination of its best performers before the second act – but it also has awe-inspiring and frankly terrifying monster action, superbly conveying the sense that humanity is simply beneath the notice of the planet's battling behemoths. Much like Shin Godzilla, the 2014 American feature is the uncommon disaster flick in which toppling skyscrapers, normally a source of cheap Hollywood spectacle, evoke a fitting sensation of horror and powerlessness.

The most immediately aggravating thing about the 2014’s film’s direct sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is its tepid interest in revisiting that novel mood of apocalyptic terror. The screenplay from Dougherty and Zach Shields – with an additional story credit to Max Borenstein – is most preoccupied with creating a globe-hopping action epic in the spirit of cheesy 1990s sci-fi blockbusters like Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998). KotM isn’t as remotely insipid as those films, but it shares some of their more conspicuous traits: a glossy, faintly laughable futurism; a disconcerting hard-on for the U.S. military; and a script that favors earnest, hokey speeches peppered with tongue-in-cheek one-liners. Even the film’s human antagonists – a cabal of radical, violent ecoterrorists led by an ex-MI6 British mastermind (Charles Dance) – feel like refugees from some lost Arnold Schwarzenegger flick that was plucked from a Blockbuster Video shelf 25 years ago.

Dougherty has written superhero films of varying quality (X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns), but his real claim to fame among genre enthusiasts is as a director of cult horror comedies (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus). It’s difficult to determine whether the distinctly 1990s style of his inaugural Godzilla film constitutes a semi-ironic homage to an earlier, tackier Hollywood era or just standard flattery by mimicry. Regardless, it ensures that KotM has a self-consciously schlocky quality that is at odds with the primeval, god-level horror that the film strains to evoke.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is more of an ensemble effort than its 2014 predecessor, although the heart of the narrative is plainly the Russell family: paleobiologist mom Emma (Vera Farmiga); animal behaviorist dad Mark (Kyle Chandler); and 12-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Both adult Russells have connections with the secretive cryptozoology agency Monarch, and unfortunately, the whole family was in San Francisco at the time of Godzilla’s climactic 2014 smackdown with the parasitic MUTO super-organisms. Indeed, KotM opens with a flashback: As the victorious Godzilla lurches back into the sea, the Russells desperately search through mountains of rubble for their young son, Andrew. The loss of their oldest child drives a wedge between Emma and Mark, and five years later, they’ve split up to pursue their scientific careers on different sides of the globe. He’s filming wolf behavior in the Colorado wilderness, while she’s working at a clandestine Monarch facility in China, where Madison – in the fine tradition of many a precocious kaiju-film kid – evidently has the run of the place.

This facility houses a gestating Titan, one of several gargantuan, god-like prehistoric creatures that Monarch has discovered over the past few decades. The first of these was Godzilla, awakened by the U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and ’50s. The colossal ape depicted in the 1970s-set Kong: Skull Island (2017) is another. Most of the remaining Titans appear to be slumbering, although the giant, glowing egg that houses the Chinese Titan – dubbed Mothra by the Monarch technicians – has just begun to hatch. Fortunately, Emma has recently perfected a portable bioacoustics gadget, codenamed “Orca,” which allows her to capture, remix, and broadcast the peculiar sonic language that the Titans seem to share (despite their morphological diversity). Using the Orca, she manages to calm the enormous silkworm larva that emerges from the egg. However, their human-to-monster tête-à-tête is interrupted by the literally explosive arrival of the nefarious Col. Jonah (Dance) and his militaristic tree-huggers, who are rumored to traffic in black-market Titan DNA.

Mothra manages to escape during the chaos and cocoon herself under a waterfall, but Jonah eliminates the Monarch staff, steals the Orca, and abducts both Emma and Madison – the former being one of two people in the world who understands the intricacies of the device. The other would be Mark, who years ago helped Emma design a prototype, which is why the Monarch leadership shortly appears on his doorstep in Colorado. Paleozoologists Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, both reprising their roles from the 2014 feature) and the agency’s unctuous director of technology, Dr. Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), all plead for Mark’s assistance in tracking down the pilfered Orca. However, Mark – who has nothing but contempt for the Titans and Monarch’s benign stance toward them – is primarily concerned for the safety of his daughter and ex-wife.

Relenting to Monarch's request, he is whisked away to an undersea research facility, one devoted to sonically tracking Godzilla’s oceanic movements in the wake of his emergence. There Mark meets more agency higher-ups, including acerbic sonographer Dr. Stanton (Bradley Whitford, essentially retreading his 2012 role from The Cabin in the Woods), Titan historian Dr. Chen (Zhang Ziyi), and Col. Foster (Aisha Hinds), a former Army Ranger officer who now leads an American special-forces unit attached to Monarch. It doesn’t take long for this group to puzzle out Jonah’s next destination: Antarctica, where a Monarch outpost stands watch over “Monster Zero,” a three-headed winged reptilian Titan encased in the polar ice. It seems that Jonah and his allies have Thanos-sized apocalyptic ambitions that have nothing to do with filching biological samples. They intend to wake the hibernating Titans one by one, re-balancing the planet’s ecosystem and healing the ravages of humankind’s millennia-long dominance. The likely demise of billions of people in this cleansing process is hand-waved away as a necessary sacrifice.

Do the dastardly eco-terrorists manage to awaken all those slumbering monsters? Does Godzilla emerge as the last best hope for humanity? Does Watanabe get to solemnly clean his glasses and speechify vaguely about the power of hope? Does one even have to ask? It’s all somewhat dismally familiar stuff, the polish lent by the 2010s visual effects notwithstanding. Admittedly, there’s a certain cheeky quality to the film’s breathless, scientifically challenged world-building that almost makes it amusing. (There’s eventually a foray into the drowned ruins of a lost, ancient civilization that is only disappointing because no one has the chutzpah to name-drop “Atlantis.”) In this, KotM has some tonal similarity to the 1950s-’70s (Shōwa period) Godzilla films, which tended to treat their science-fiction and fantasy elements with a bewildering glibness. This doesn’t exactly salvage Dougherty’s film from its own hyper-committed silliness, but it’s at least a more charitable explanation for the feature’s eye-rolling story beats than the usual studio-blockbuster stupidity.

The cast can’t do much to elevate such a trite screenplay, although they don’t really exert the effort it would take to do so. Dramatic stalwarts like Farmiga, Chandler, and Watanabe are essentially just working in their customary, sweatpants-comfortable modes. (And who can blame them? This is a $200 million Godzilla film, after all.) No one else leaves much of an impression, including Brown, who the screenwriters give zilch to work with beyond, “You’re an angsty, witless, reckless pre-teen; also, you love your mom and dad.” Every little positive morsel the film proffers is seemingly upstaged by a more pervasive negative. As an example, Hinds’ colonel is that vanishingly rare character, a black woman military commander in a Hollywood blockbuster, and almost all the named military characters are people of color. (Spoiler: They even survive to the end!) This welcome gesture of representation is soured by the film’s propagandistic, wall-to-wall obsession with weapons technology and military operations. (Most embarrassingly, the film is practically a 131-minute commercial for the V-22 Osprey aircraft, that poster child for budget-busting Defense Department boondoggles.)

None of this may matter to viewers who walk into KotM seeking the spectacle of epic monster-on-monster battles – as opposed to airtight world-building and nuanced character drama, which, if one is being honest, have never exactly been series staples. As a director, Dougherty doesn’t quite have Edwards’ affinity for bigness, a trait the latter director honed with his kaiju-on-a-shoestring 2010 debut feature, Monsters. As a filmmaker whos has previously been besotted with the beauty of autumnal and wintery nightmares, Dougherty is prone to prioritizing gorgeous, screencap-worthy shots over the overwhelming sense of scale that made Godzilla 2014 so exhilarating. This isn’t to say that delectable visuals aren’t a welcome trait in a film like KotM, which possesses two key elements that work in its favor: plenty of monsters and plenty of locations. Long before the gigantic, mutant pterosaur Rodan emerges from a Mexican volcano, annihilating a city merely by flying over it, it’s obvious that the film has poured its passion into art direction and visual effects, with creature design an obvious standout. Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan are the marquee stars here, along with long-time Godzilla rival King Ghidorah, although KotM also offers up a cavalcade of original supporting Titans, many of whom suggest Toho kaiju like Anguirus (Godzilla Raids Again, 1955) and Kumonga (Son of Godzilla, 1967).

The film’s monsters are rendered with phenomenal attention to detail, evincing a mindful effort to visually distinguish them from one another, perhaps in recognition of the way that Godzilla’s early Shōwa-period foes often blended together into one grayish-green reptilian blur. Ghidorah’s design here is more explicitly mythological than in previous iterations, evoking a Chinese dragon rather a than a real-world animal. (There’s also a handmade “offness” to his golden scaly hide and facial features that suggests the stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen.) Mothra has a luminous, almost angelic appearance in this film that sets her apart from the rest of the Titans, who tend toward more bestial or repulsive forms. The film even manages to find a roundabout way to work in the Shobijin, the twin fairies that traditionally serve as Mothra’s heralds and priestesses in the Toho films.

This is emblematic of one of the things that King of the Monsters does best: shameless, downright giddy Godzilla fan service. The film’s story lifts elements from several Toho features, most prominently the Godzilla-vs.-Ghidorah showdown Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). However, the real appeal for kaiju devotees mostly lies in the little details, such as the plot nods to the original Godzilla – an “Oxygen Destroyer” superweapon makes an appearance – and Bear McCreary’s score, which reworks motifs from Akira Ifukube’s thunderous 1954 compositions. More generally, KotM is a film that understands the sheer, visceral thrill of a giant monster fight. The Titans clash in a variety of vivid arenas, from an Antarctic glacier howling with wind and snow to a burning, tornado-wracked Washington, D.C. Although Godzilla 2014 captured the size of its creatures better, KotM’s monster action is superior overall: a succession of vicious, animalistic death matches full of slashing, smashing, and writhing, all lit by crackling energy. Unlike the anonymous, eldritch leviathans in Pacific Rim (2013), the giants of KotM have personality, befitting a roster of movie monsters that have endured for decades.

Here and there, Dougherty exhibits an affinity for apocalyptic destruction that can be creative in is jaw-dropping splendor. There’s a moment when the smoldering Rodan obliterates an entire squadron of fighter jets simply by doing a barrel roll, a turn of events that prompts “Did that just happen?” shell shock from characters and audience alike. All this chaos is rendered with an almost painterly loveliness that can be jarring, given the popcorn-flick content on display. Simply put, King of the Monsters is an absurdly gorgeous film, at least at the Titan scale. Many of the film’s wide shots of battling monsters look like nothing so much as Rembrandt landscapes, full of deep shadow, glowing color, and menacing walls of cloud. There’s also more than a little Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel on display, with their swarming, chiaroscuro visions of Judgment and Hell. For a Godzilla aficionado, these sort of gnarly thrills and aesthetic delights are more than worth the price of some dopey dialogue and an insipid story. For everyone else ... well, there’s always the forthcoming showdown between the King of Monsters and the King of Skull Island. Or perhaps a nuanced character drama would be best instead.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Booksmart'.
May 23, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Fashionably Late

2019 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Olivia Wilde / Opens in select cities on May 24, 2019

Booksmart opens on the last day of high school for the Class of 2019 in an unspecified Los Angeles suburb – and BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) couldn’t be more ecstatic. It’s not that the past four years have been miserable for this inseparable duo. Far from it: Both girls are the sort of always-on over-achievers who put a premium on “winning” high school through academic excellence, student government, and progressive activism. Molly is the more relentless of the pair, a Type A go-getter in the mold of Tracy Flick and Leslie Knope. She’s class president, valedictorian, a champion debater, and eager to begin her matriculation “up in New Haven,” as she coyly puts it. (“You can just say ‘Yale,’” mutters their principal, played by Jason Sudeikis in clueless-dad mode.) Amy is quieter and less self-assured, but just as focused as her bestie on grades, trophies, and do-gooderism. She’s slated to spend her summer in Botswana, helping women in remote rural areas manufacture their own tampons, before heading to Columbia in the fall.

Joined at the hip since childhood, the girls are a little melancholy about going their separate ways. However, they’re also confident that all their hard work over the past four years – the straight As, perfect SAT scores, and glowing recommendation letters – has been worth it. Similarly, they have no regrets about the deprivation they’ve endured to snag slots in the Ivy League: no dating, no partying, and no fun unless it beefed up their college applications. As the last day of school winds to a close, however, Molly is shocked and appalled to discover that seemingly all their classmates have received choice acceptance letters and job offers. Affable jock Tanner (Nico Hiraga)? He’s heading Stanford on a soccer scholarship. Stoner goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who was thrice held back a grade? He’s moving directly into a six-figure software-engineer position with Google. School slut Triple A (Molly Gordon), so nicknamed for allegedly providing, um, “roadside assistance” to several guys? Horror of horrors: She’s been accepted to Yale, too.

These revelations shake the otherwise unflappable Molly to her core, and so she pitches a proposal to Amy. On this, the night before their commencement ceremony, they will cram in four years of neglected adolescent living, making up for lost time with a marathon of sex, drugs, and unsupervised misbehavior. Amy is reluctant, but Molly declares a “Malala,” a metaphorical ace card that is passed back and forth between the pair, and which effectively means, “You have to go along with what I’m suggesting, no questions asked.” For Molly, this one night of reckless hedonism is a matter of huffy principle, an over-reaction to the disheartening realization that she may have wasted the past four years of her life. Amy requires something a bit more tangible. Fortunately, Molly decrees that their destination will be the epic house party being thrown her useless vice president, dimwitted hunk Nick (Mason Gooding) – and it just so happens that Amy’s tattooed skater-girl crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) will reportedly be in attendance. Although she came out as a lesbian in her sophomore year, Amy has never so much as kissed another girl, and the prospect of some alone time with Ryan (and her cute overbite) makes her go weak in the knees.

Molly and Amy’s pact is an admittedly clever impetus for a raunchy, episodic teen comedy in the One Crazy Night sub-genre. The formula has been executed oodles of times before, of course, and it’s flexible enough to accommodate different tones: overt nostalgia trips like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), for example, or faintly fantastical nocturnal odysseys like Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). The most obvious point of reference for Booksmart, however, is undoubtedly Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), and not merely because one of that film’s breakout stars, Jonah Hill, happens to be Feldstein’s real-life brother. Both features place a devoted adolescent friendship front and center, and both grapple with the nascent separation anxiety that is bubbling beneath the surface of that relationship. Where Hill and Michael Cera’s marshmallowy losers were focused with horndog intensity on hooking up with their respective crushes, however, Booksmart is more humane and nuanced – even when it’s tripping balls or covered in vomit.

The journey that Molly and Amy are on is tangled up with a crisis of identity, a need to somehow prove to themselves that their willful embrace of a hyper-woke nerd-girl stereotype doesn’t also mean that they have to be fun-shunning killjoys. Both of them consider themselves outspoken feminists, after all – Amy’s Volvo boasts a “Warren 2020” bumper sticker, while a framed portrait of Justice Ginsburg hangs in Molly’s bedroom. And what’s more feminist than a teenage girl doing whatever she damn well pleases? As is their wont, the pair turn mildly rebellious adolescent fun into a manic science project, one where the blue ribbon of a Night to Remember can be clinched through sheer teen-girl magic. Indeed, Molly and Amy’s fervent positivity certainly seems indomitable. They’re the sort of friends who support each other by swapping foul-mouthed affirmations at the top of their lungs: “You’re fucking beautiful!!” “No, you’re fucking beautiful!!” Unsurprisingly, however, not every obstacle they encounter on their journey proves vulnerable to such intensity. Just as unsurprisingly, the unspoken resentments that are weighing on the girls’ friendship will be forced to the surface before the night is finished.

Hilarious, vulgar, and sweet in equal measure, Booksmart is the auspicious directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, from a screenplay penned by a quartet of writers: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. That female pedigree is essential to Booksmart’s giddy success, most pointedly in its affectionate, enthusiastic portrayal of Molly and Amy’s gooey platonic-life-partner bond. Feldstein and Dever are just as vital in this respect, their comic energy – the former utterly irrepressible, the latter charmingly awkward – creating a complementary feedback loop that is somehow grounded and zany all at once. It’s appealing as hell, enabling a dose of the distinctly feminine school-daze pathos that characterized Lady Bird (2007) (which also featured Feldstein) without that film’s troublesome parent-child angst or Catholic guilt.

That said, Booksmart’s charm and novelty go beyond the sparkly specificity of its central female friendship. Like last year’s woefully under-appreciated prom-night romp Blockers, Wilde’s film flips the conventions of the crude teen comedy. Molly and Amy aren’t put-upon nerds out for revenge against their popular-kid oppressors. If anything, they’re alpha-female strivers, their eyes so fixated on their bright, shining futures that they can barely be bothered to acknowledge the mere mortals milling around them. Molly’s realization that her hard-partying classmates are also destined for lustrous adulthoods might be the story’s instigating jolt, but the film also repeatedly reminds its heroines in a variety of ways that their peers are people too, with feelings, talents, and hidden depths. It never does this pedantically, and only rarely with anything like soulful earnestness. It’s a delightful little miracle in its way: a The Breakfast Club (1985) message smuggled inside an outlandish Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) package.

Unlike both Superbad and Blockers, Wilde’s film eschews rambling Apatow-ian improvisation for tight, rat-a-tat dialogue and intoxicating momentum. (Think Diablo Cody without that screenwriter’s convoluted wordplay and ersatz slang.) Although its vision of high-school life is plainly an absurd exaggeration, the film only rarely veers into off-the-wall silliness – e.g., a stop-motion sequence in which the girls hallucinate that they are trapped in Barbie-doll bodies. Wilde keeps the proceedings humming along splendidly as Molly and Amy pinball their way through not one but three parties, while the comic payoffs and callbacks pile up with gratifying speed. The film isn’t completely seamless, betraying a bit of sloppiness here and there. For example, one of the girls pointedly proposes opening their high-school time capsule – a la last year’s Eighth Grade – but this potential plot point is never shown or mentioned again. When Molly and Amy head to the public library in the hopes of digging up the party’s address through old-school research, it triggers a swaggering musical cue – which is cut short when they abruptly pinpoint their destination via social-media stalking. It feels less like a droll joke than a clumsy, running-time-conscious edit.

Refreshingly for a story set in high school, Booksmart doesn’t have any real villains to speak of: no violent bully; no vicious queen bee; no country-club asshole driving his birthday BMW. It’s an optimistic, raucous Gen Z fable that has no time for sexism, racism, homophobia, or fat-shaming. (There is a bit of slut-shaming, but the film makes a point to smack it down in due course.) The only dragons to be slain are Molly and Amy’s own supercilious misconceptions about their classmates. More than anything, this is what makes Booksmart a quietly radical sort of high-school comedy: It’s a film packed with broad archetypes that feel like lovable characters instead of mean-spirited cartoons.

It certainly helps that the supporting cast is replete with delightful little comedic turns. The adult characters are all enjoyable, especially Jessica Williams as the prototypical Hot, Cool Teacher and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s conservative Christian parents who (paradoxically) are way too enthusiastic about her finding a girlfriend. The real standouts, however, are the high-schoolers. There’s Skyler Gisondo as gregarious rich-boy doofus Jared, who seems to be half Ali G and half Chris Hemsworth’s airhead receptionist from Ghostbusters (2016). There’s Noah Galvin as drama-club commandant George, whose piquant flamboyance is unexpectedly studded with low-key gags. (His summer staging of the Bard’s classics? “Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot.”) The film’s undisputed scene-stealer, however, is Billie Lourd as unclassifiable space cadet Gigi, a fount of questionable druggie wisdom and Gucci excess who seems to pop up wherever Molly and Amy find themselves, like the killer in a slasher film. Thanks in part to this oddball student body, high school has never looked so ridiculous, frenetic, or unforgettable.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Trial by Fire'.
May 23, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Burning Down the House

2018 / 127 min. / USA / Dir. by Edward Zwick / Opened in select cities on May 17, 2019

Saying a film is so bad it becomes a parody of its original intentions is sort of a critical cliché. The would-be prestige film Trial by Fire proves that assessment sometimes necessary by unknowingly (one would hope) taking it one step further and becoming a full realization of the fake Oscar-bait film-within-a-film around which The Player (1992) revolves, the death-row drama Habeas Corpus. The joke within the early-’90s Robert Altman opus is that the intention of mounting a purposely dour indie film for the sake of prestige is just as insidious as a tentpole money grab from a big studio. By the end of The Player, Habeas Corpus becomes both: the Dream Factory at its most well-oiled and cynical.

A tedious and toothless screed against the U.S. criminal-justice system, Trial by Fire comes from one of the foremost awards-hungry filmmakers working today, Edward Zwick, whose directorial products are exactly the aim of Altman’s Hollywood satire. Although Zwick does have a prized golden statuette for producing Shakespeare in Love (1998) — a notoriously contentious bestowment — his most recently directed stabs at awards glory include the swing-and-misses of the World War II actioner Defiance (2008), the romantic drama Love & Other Drugs (2010), and the Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice (2014).

Trial by Fire is as anonymously executed as these past works, with the dubious addition of the hamfisted writing that embodies Zwick’s penchant for self-serious “issue” films. Here, he’s working from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, the 2010 Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for Precious. That screenplay is in turn adapted from journalist David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker article about Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas man convicted and sentenced to death for the arson of his own home, which resulted in the deaths of his two young daughters. The incident came to Grann’s attention after the 2004 execution of Willingham and long after Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a playwright and Willingham’s unlikely ally, failed to have the conviction and sentencing overturned with new evidence that would likely prove the inmate’s innocence.

To denigrate Zwick’s latest is not to criticize the subject matter. On the contrary, the injustices faced by incarcerated and wrongfully convicted citizens is a topic worthy of increasing exploration in the media. Ava DuVernay's great 2016 documentary 13th traced today’s abusive and unfairly biased prison system to the abolishment of slavery, and the true-crime wave has wrought countless podcasts and television series about the criminal-justice system. However, Trial by Fire is just a pale facsimile of I Want to Live! (1957) for the Serial era, a feckless rehash of well-trod material that repurposes beats from its forebears to manipulate its audience into swallowing its own supposed importance. Only Dern manages to transcend the material in creating a life-like figure – she’s rarely capable of anything else – while the rest of the cast are just fine to stay within the confines of the script’s after-school-special mode.

That Gilbert and her investigation into the incident don’t materialize until halfway into the film betrays its makers’ inability to find any potentially interesting angles in the material. Instead of a Citizen Kane-like structure that could refract “truth” through inquiry, the film plods through the years linearly, opening on the fire that would eventually lead to Willingham’s execution. As the ensuing police investigation and trial commence, Willingham and his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), are oddly portrayed without grief, as if to allude to their possible guilt in committing the crime. The film, however, doesn’t appear to be interested in that kind of subversive obfuscation and instead supplants grief or guilt with strident declarations of the couple’s innocence.

As Willingham, O’Connell’s performance is as presentational as the bad wigs he dons throughout the film. It’s not until his volatile bumpkin character meets with Gilbert through the prison's visiting-room glass that the actor reaches nuance – a clear sign that Dern is doing much of the work here to elevate the proceedings. Gilbert, a single mother of two teens whose father has recently died, is built with far more interesting detail. There are shades of a romantic connection between Gilbert and Willingham, which are further complicated by her excavation into his violent past. The rhetorical shift to her perspective does slightly reinvigorate the familiar prison horror story that precedes it.

If it weren’t for the nonchalant mistreatment of material deserving a more complicated film, Trial by Fire might have become a laughable camp object. The computer-generated fire laid over the Willingham’s home just can’t seem to cause any tangible damage, and, in a later flashback, these phony flames act as a backdrop as Cameron howls, “My babies are burning!” Just as absurd is the arc of death-row guard Daniels (Chris Coy) from abusive monster to empathetic friend of Willingham’s — not to mention the character’s role in the inmate’s execution. The film’s ultimate denouement, however, in which a garbage trucks acts as an anti-deus ex machina, is the straw that breaks this extremely feeble camel’s back. The real trial by fire with Zwick’s film is its viewers’ ability to believe almost anything about it.

Rating: D+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum'.
May 17, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Wick-ed Fun

2019 / USA / 130 min. / Dir. by Chad Stahelski / Opens in wide release on May 17, 2019

The world of the John Wick films is ludicrous one, a hyperreal cinematic universe in which seemingly half the people on the planet are deadly international assassins. This global network of hired killers operates according to long-standing traditions, traffics in a unified currency of gold coins, and communicates via a hive of pin-up girl technicians operating archaic switchboards (which are also, curiously enough, linked to every assassin’s cell phone). It’s a cloak-and-dagger fantasy of analog information and tangible objects: archives of ink-stamped bound dossiers; unbreakable boons sealed with bloody thumbprints; and open contracts written on blackboards, like in a bookie’s parlor from an old gangster flick. Virtually all criminal activity in this preposterous reality is controlled by an oligarchic council known as the High Table, where syndicates such as the Camorra, Bratva, and Yakuza set the global rules for contract killings. As is mentioned more than once in this franchise, it’s these ironclad principles that separate the business of murder-for-hire from the savagery of animals.

It’s all quite absurd, of course, a world-building effort that reflects the “rule of cool” distortions of big-budget international action cinema, but also the outré, paranoid style of crime-epic comics like 100 Bullets and Wanted. As the John Wick series has superbly demonstrated, selling such silliness to the audience for two hours at a stretch requires just the right amount of deadpan sincerity. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that writer-creator Derek Kolstad, director Chad Stahelski, and star Keanu Reeves treat the franchise’s mythos completely straight, but their approach evinces a professional reverence for the exaggerations of genre filmmaking. Even scene-stealing actors such as Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne modulate their styles in deference to the franchise’s tone, settling on plummy gentility and tattered acidity, respectively.

There’s no room for camp, kitsch, or winking meta-cleverness in John Wick. These are Action Movies that know they are Action Movies, but – and this is a fine yet vital distinction – they never let the viewer know they know they are Action Movies. Whereas other recent pinnacles of the genre have favored apocalyptic momentum (Mad Max: Fury Road) or jaw-dropping human spectacle (the past three Mission: Impossibles), John Wick revels in the uncut, unironic badassery of an unstoppable antihero murdering the shit out of countless, faceless enemies. That essential core of escapist, ultra-violent pleasure – and the cinematic virtuosity with which Stahelski conveys it – is why everything else about the John Wick series works so well, including the franchise’s increasingly baroque mythos of shadow histories and secret societies.

The first film (2014) introduced the viewer to the assassin John Wick (Reeves) a.k.a. Baba Yaga, who successfully extricated himself from the “business” some five years ago to pursue a blissfully anonymous life with his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). When she suddenly falls ill and dies, John’s only companion becomes a beagle puppy, a posthumous gift from Helen to ameliorate his grief and loneliness. Unfortunately, shortly after his wife’s passing, John has a chance encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen), the spoiled heir-apparent of a NYC-based Russian syndicate. Iosef takes a liking to John’s vintage 1969 Mustang, and the gangster and his goons later break into John’s house to steal the car, beating him viciously and gratuitously killing his dog. This sets off a vengeful rampage for the ages, as John comes out of retirement to murder his way through the entire cartel, including its ruthless patriarch (the late Michael Nyqvist), who happens to be a former employer of John’s services.

In John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), the assassin’s apparent re-entry into the murder-for-hire racket prompts a Camorra princeling named Santino (Riccardo Scarmarcio) to call in an old blood-debt. He orders John to slay a High Table member – the ganglord’s own sister (Claudia Gerini), it turns out – and then promptly double-crosses him. The second feature culminated with John committing an unpardonable sin, executing Santino in the NYC branch of the Continental, a sort of full-service hotel for assassins that is also considered a consecrated sanctuary. “No business on Continental grounds,” is the credo of the hotel’s dapper manager, Winston (McShane), who is obliged to declare John excummunicado for his offense. Winston is courteous enough, however, to give John a one-hour head start before every killer in the world is notified of the $14 million contract that the High Table places on his head.

The third feature – clunkily titled John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – picks up almost exactly where the prior film left off, with John racing through the streets of NYC as the clock ticks down. Short on allies, resources, and safe havens, he attempts to retrieve a rainy-day stash and initiate a desperate stratagem: seek out the Elder who sits above the High Table and beg for a chance to atone for his transgressions. This requires John to somehow get from New York to Morocco, which in turn necessitates that he contact a succession of old associates who have little interest in entangling themselves with a persona non grata. While executing this risky ploy, John is also dodging a seemingly limitless supply of would-be assassins. The most lethal of these is Zero (Mark Dacascos), a street-stall sushi chef who also happens to be a professional killer with an army of ninja minions at his disposal. Zero is elated to have a shot at “the legend” John Wick, and his relentless pursuit of his quarry is as much about fanboy glee as it is professional tenacity.

Meanwhile, the chickens come home to roost for the men who aided John, however tangentially, in the previous film. The High Table dispatches a chilly, humorless Adjudicator (Billions’ Asia Kate Dillon) to NYC, and they give both Winston and streetwise mastermind the Bowery King (Fishburne) a week to set their affairs in order before “relieving” them of their positions. (Winston is being punished for that hour of amnesty, and the Bowery King for providing John with a pistol and seven bullets.) Neither man seems inclined to just roll over and submit to the High Table’s sentence, however. Nor does Winston’s stalwart and immaculate concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick), who is friendly enough with John to care for his new dog while the man is dealing with the whole “international fugitive” thing.

There’s undeniably a mythic appeal to John Wick’s ornate world-building, which in Parabellum rather amusingly incorporates details that seem to have been lifted directly from the Assassin’s Creed video game series. While the story in those games – and the best-forgotten 2016 film adaptation – involves an eternal shadow war tinged with science-fiction and supernatural gobbledygook, John Wick keeps things (relatively) grounded in a matrix of blood-soaked tradition and cold, hard capitalism. Which isn’t to say that Stahelski’s films are realistic – far, far from it – but, rather, that their heightened Action Movie reality drolly masks a resonant spiritual kinship with our own cynical world.  This is the case even when John marches, vision-quest-style, into the North African desert in search of the Elder. This character alludes to Rashid ad-Din Sinan – the “Old Man of the Mountain” who led the real-world Order of Assassins in 12th-century Syria – although for most viewers he is likely to evoke Prince Faisel as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Even in the orientalist opulence of the Elder’s desert tent, however, the Faustian bargains feel distinctly corporate: As it turns out, loyalty to the prevailing economic order can only be demonstrated through unfeeling ruthlessness and blood sacrifice.

Of course, the real show in a John Wick film is the breakneck, bone-crunching action, wherein Reeves’ near-superhuman killer punches, stabs, and shoots his way through a truly staggering quantity of goons, all of which is depicted with peerless cinematic lucidity. It’s impossible to overstate how vital Stahelski’s stuntperson résumé – and that of Atomic Blonde’s (2017) David Leitch, who served as an uncredited co-director on the first John Wick – is to the success of the franchise. These are films made by people who truly appreciate the bloody-knuckle craft of cinematic action. This is reflected in the way that every set-piece is filmed: a preference for medium-to-wide shots and long takes; rigorous attention to the practical details of martial arts and firearms; the unflinching, hard-R depiction of every grisly death; and the absence of that bane of 21st-century action cinema, pointless over-editing. (Paul Greengrass’ first two Bourne features remain essential entries in the genre, but, alas, all the wrong people seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from their frenetic visuals.)

The first John Wick was invigorating in part due to the striking counter-example it provided to everything else passing for Hollywood action cinema in the 2010s; an illustration of just how tedious, confused, and downright sloppy the genre had become. Chapter 2 upped the ante, not so much by staging more elaborate set-pieces and piling the bodies higher – although it did do those things – but by giving the series’ gritty violence a giallo sensibility, with bolder, downright hallucinogenic colors and more absurdly theatrical settings and motifs. Mario Bava never staged a scene where a naked woman calmly and defiantly slits her wrists and then sinks into a steaming bath in a candlelit crypt – but it sure seems like something he might have done.

With Chapter 3, Stahelski keeps the proceedings fresh primarily by adding new twists on the props and terrain in the fight sequences: a brawl in a warehouse full of antique melee weapons, with hundreds of knives within easy reach; a motorcycle chase that is simultaneously a sword fight; a duel in a three-story private museum made of glass, with digital billboards suffusing the unfolding bloodbath in the glow of luxury consumerism. At various points, John takes out his enemies with handguns, rifles, shotguns, daggers, hatchets, swords, a leather belt, an antique book, and a horse. In Morocco, an old ally, Sofia (Halle Berry) brings another weapon to the table: her pair of flawlessly obedient Belgian Malinois, who rip into foes with predatory gusto. (For the dog-lovers in the audience, this provides a nice bit of revenge-by-proxy for John’s poor, slain beagle.)

Brain-spattering headshots have always been a series staple, but Chapter 3 offers up even more gruesome, visceral violence than previous outings, particularly when it comes to knife injuries. There’s a particularly nasty nod to Lucio Fulci that almost tips into gross-out sadism – even if you haven't see The Beyond (1981), you’ll know it when you see it. This copious gore, as well a few ludicrously protracted fight sequences, suggest that Stahelski has been taking notes from the past decade of Southeast Asian action cinema, with its over-the-top violence and marathon-length brawls. Another tell: The presence of The Raid’s (2011) Yuyan Ruhian as one of Zero’s ninja lieutenants. Genre enthusiasts certainly need no convincing that the dance of steel, bullets, and human bodies can make for great cinema, but Parabellum drives the point home when John visits a ballet theater that doubles as a Belarusian cartel’s headquarters. As a ballerina pulls a ruined nail free from her mangled big toe with a gratuitous squelch, the organization’s Director (Anjelica Huston) proclaims, “Art is pain.” Or, put another way, there is art in pain (and death).

All of this is to say that Parabellum does the things that a John Wick film should do, and at the top-notch level that one has come to expect from the series. The fight choreography and stunt work are center stage, of course, but the film’s incandescent cinematography from Dan Laustsen and the sumptuous production design from Kevin Kavanaugh – both returning talents from Chapter 2 – are no less impressive. Provided the series remains this exciting, inventive, and visually invigorating, and assuming the 54-year-old Reeves is still willing to turn himself into bruised hamburger in the name of entertainment, anyone who appreciates the sweet science of cinematic violence should welcome a new John Wick film. Conversely, it should go without saying that anyone who quails at such violence should absolutely avoid these films. Luckily for viewers in the former category, the epilogue of Parabellum implies that John Wick still has business to attend to.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Hustle'.
May 17, 2019
By Joshua Ray

A Criminal Enterprise

2019 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Chris Addison / Opened in wide release on May 10, 2019

One can’t begrudge the makers of The Hustle for wanting to update the Michael Caine and Steve Martin-starring cult comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – itself a remake of the forgotten Bedtime Story (1964) with David Niven and Marlon Brando. This gender-flipped con-woman comedy could have been an opportunity to upstage last year's wan, neutered Ocean’s 8 by upending the 1988 film’s raunchy spectacle of despicable men and allowing women to relish the opportunity to do bad. Instead, the finished product is even more of a disappointment than the Ocean’s sequel: an unfunny, empty-minded cash-in on a (just) cultural shift towards more women’s stories, fiction and not. 

The Hustle is ostensibly a vehicle for its star and producer, Rebel Wilson, the deadpan Aussie comedic actor known for scene-stealing in the Pitch Perfect franchise and in her breakout role in Bridesmaids (2011). It is with no joy to report that her low-level confidence woman, Penny, is largely an extension of the same familiar Wilson persona, complete with her laboriously extended scenes of the Apatow-ian faux-improvised bits that worked well in small bursts in her previous supporting work. Here, these moments – dead air that feels as if it takes up half the film’s runtime –  are antithetical to what could be (or maybe should be) a screw-tight, hijinx-filled romp.

Not that Scoundrels was anything like a balletic, zany farce of peak Hawksian screwball, but the leaden The Hustle retroactively makes it seem so. This remake, however, does mostly follow its precursor’s narrative beats and cringe-worthy political incorrectness but with some choice technological updates. After her Tinder catfishing scheme –  milking gross dudes for cash for her imaginary friend’s breast implant surgery – goes awry, Penny escapes to the South of France where she has a chance meeting with Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway). Josephine is, at first glance, a refined, erudite British society woman until she flaunts her own big-scale cons in an effort to dissuade Penny from infringing on her territory.

Having already portrayed an upper-crust criminal in the all-female Ocean’s reboot and cat-burglar par excellence Selina Kyle in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Hathaway would seem perfect for the haughty and sly Josephine. Hamstrung by an easily excised British accent that she can’t quite master (and not to mention the tedious, by-committee script), this is unfortunately not the case. Hathaway comes off as stiff in the worst way through most of the film, save in for some setups for gags that run for far too long. Her swindle of a diamond engagement ring from Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is an easy highlight – until the joke is repeated for the next 15 minutes of screentime. 

Viewers might anticipate a twist in which Josephine is actually some country yokel putting on airs for her marks, but The Hustle goes beyond the obvious for the truly lowest-hanging fruit as it marches through the Scoundrels narrative. Josephine enlists Penny, but that too turns out to be a con. The two then go toe-to-toe by wagering on who can conquer supposed tech-wizard good-guy Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) first. What drives this rote and predictable plotting is a sheen of “wokeness” that actually carries veiled strains of ableism (two cons hinge on Penny feigning disabilities) and homophobia. Josephine appears to be a lesbian – although her queerness is desexualized to the point of nonexistence – but queer people and queerness are the butt of several nuance-free jokes. Penny’s sexual openness thankfully goes without shaming, but it later falls prey to humdrum rom-com machinations.

The film’s director, Chris Addison, comes from the school of Armando Iannucci, having appeared as an actor in Iannucci’s British political farce The Thick of It (2005-12); its quasi-film adaptation, In the Loop (2012); and as a producer and director on Veep (2012-19). With The Hustle, that comedy lineage is in no way apparent, as the results lack even a modicum of the acerbic wit, screwball tendencies, or subversive schadenfreude of those works. Even at its lowest, Veep earns its acidity through its “nasty women” characters’ humanism, whereas The Hustle simply evaporates upon contact.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Under the Silver Lake'.
May 9, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma

2018 / USA / 139 min. / dir. by David Robert Mitchell / Opened in select cities on April 19, 2019; premiered online on April 22, 2019

“Break the code, solve the crime.” As FBI Agent Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan asserted this maxim with the G-man’s typical rock-ribbed certainty during the first season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s epochal series Twin Peaks (1990-91). Cooper was convinced that a methodical untangling of clues – both conventional and mystical – would allow him and his law-enforcement allies to riddle out the answer to the show’s central mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? Indeed, much of the superficial appeal of Twin Peaks lay in the apparent density of its symbology, wherein every quirky detail seemed gravid with meaning, no matter how tangential it might have appeared to the question of who took the life of Twin Peaks, Wash.’s beloved homecoming queen. Of course, the perverse twist of Lynch and Frost’s series was that all the codes were a distraction, the murder mystery was beside the point, and righteousness was no bulwark against the cosmos’ unfathomable darkness. (A pessimistic view that was only reinforced by Lynch and Frost’s more radical and explicitly auteurist sequel series, Twin Peaks: The Return [2017].)

Under the Silver Lake, the third feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover [2010], It Follows [2014]) has a comparable relationship with mystery. On the one hand, the entire film is constructed around the seductive power of hidden messages, obscure symbols, and fringe conspiracy theories. The film’s protagonist gradually becomes obsessed with such minutiae, and Mitchell is counting on the viewer being similarly enticed by the feature’s wall-to-wall carpeting of Reddit-baiting clues. As with Twin Peaks, however, Under the Silver Lake frustrates the audience’s decryption efforts at every turn. The riddles pile up faster than the answers, and every other avenue of investigation seems to lead to a shaggy-dog punchline. Mitchell’s feature wants to have its cake and eat it too, pandering to conspiratorial thinking while also mocking its (typically male) practitioners as small-minded, insufferable crypto-narcissists. (It’s essentially the cinematic equivalent of that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “Pepe Silvia” meme.) The film walks a razor-thin tightrope in this respect, and Mitchell doesn’t always maintain his footing, often teetering on the verge of endorsing what it aims to satirize. However, even when it fumbles, Under the Silver Lake remains a weird, audacious, and intoxicating work.

Vibrating to the discordant tones of Los Angeles-based slacker noir – especially The Big Lebowski (1998) and Inherent Vice (2014) – Under the Silver Lake centers on Sam (Andrew Garfield), an aimless, jobless thirtysomething deadbeat who’s a few days shy of eviction from his apartment. Sam’s also a bit of a creep when it comes to women: When he’s not accepting listless afternoon booty calls from an underemployed actress (Riki Lindhome), he’s using binoculars to ogle the habitually topless, bird-fancying GILF (Wendy Vanden Heuvel) whose second-floor balcony is catty-corner to his own. However, when Sam spies a leggy blond tenant he’s never noticed before lounging by the pool, this newcomer focuses his starry-eyed, lustful attention like no one other woman in his vicinity. He later arranges to “accidentally” bump into this enticing girl-next-door, Sarah (Riley Keough), who calls out his voyeurism with coquettish amusement. He admires her little dog and she invites him in for a drink. They get high, flirt, and kiss. She cuts the evening short when her roommates abruptly return home – with a mystery man dressed as a pirate; what’s that about? – but he extracts a promise for more romance to come: “See you tomorrow?”

Sam awakens the next day with an uncharacteristic spring in his step, but his good mood is deflated when he finds Sarah’s apartment utterly vacant, as though she and her roommates had packed up and moved out overnight. The complex’s manager doesn’t find the situation strange – “She wanted to leave. How does that not make sense?” – but Sam is baffled and more than a little hurt by this next-level ghosting. What truly triggers his nascent obsession, however, is a strange symbol he spies painted on the abandoned apartment’s wall. Later, an underground cartoonist (Patrick Fischler) explains that the sigil is hobo code for “Stay quiet.” (Fischler’s presence adds another layer of meta-movie weirdness to the proceedings, given that he previously appeared in Lynch’s Hollywood fever dream Mulholland Drive [2001], portraying a man whose nightmare comes to life in the alley behind a greasy spoon.)

There’s something bizarre about the whole situation, which is one reason Sam feels compelled to shadow a woman (Zoisia Mamet) who he catches rifling through a box of Sarah’s left-behind junk. She and two other women (Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Laura Leigh) criss-cross LA in a white Volkswagen Rabbit convertible – we see what you did there, Mr. Mitchell – while Sam tails them from a distance. The trio stop to watch as strange numbers blink on a football-field scoreboard, before eventually arriving at a hip rooftop party where a local act known as Jesus and the Brides of Dracula warble their goth-rock ballads. (Hey, didn’t Sam see them on the cover of a weekly alt newspaper earlier?) Everyone is talking about the mysterious disappearance of billionaire Jefferson Severence, as well as the depraved crimes of the “Dog-Killer” who’s been mutilating pooches in Sam’s neighborhood. What does it all mean? And what the hell happened to Sarah?

So it goes: down, down, down into the fetid crevasses of conspiratorial logic, where every Hollyweird curlicue seems to contain a hidden message, sinister connotation, or pointing finger directed at some other arcane signpost. Sam isn’t a novice to this sort of thinking, as it turns out. As he explains to his actress friend-with-benefits, he’s been taking notes on Vanna White’s eye movements on Wheel of Fortune for years, convinced that they comprise a secret code intended for a select few. “That sounds strange to you,” he observes, mid-rant, when he notices her incredulous, concerned expression. “I mean … a little,” she replies. Whenever Sam or one of his conspiracy-theory fellow travelers starts working themselves into a frenzy about everything being connected, man, one can’t help but think of The Maltese Falcon (1941): “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Sam embodies a certain stripe of fevered slacker man-child, one who has substituted neurotic exegesis of political and cultural particles for the basics of adulting. Sam can’t (or won’t) hold down a job or do his own laundry, but he frantically sifts through album liner notes, hand-drawn local zines, and back issues of Nintendo Power in search of breadcrumbs. He even plays vinyl records backward to find subliminal messages, evoking the “Paul is dead” urban legend and the satanic panic of the 1980s (both of which proved to be bullshit, it bears noting). “There’s an entire generation of boys raised by movies and video games,” kvetches Sam’s similarly shiftless bar buddy (Topher Grace), but it’s unclear if either man thinks of himself in such terms, even as they unwittingly re-enact a scene from Body Double (1984) by playing peeping Tom with a laptop-linked drone. It never occurs to Sam that he might be on the wrong path – in life in general or specifically with respect to Sarah’s disappearance – even as he’s getting stalked, threatened, drugged, beat up, chained up, shot at, and sprayed in the face by a skunk. Indeed, Sam takes every roadblock as confirmation that he’s getting closer to the truth; he’s overflowing with the 4chan dirtbag’s version of anti-hater smarm.

Under the Silver Lake unfolds in a surreal, fantastical version of the City of Angels, whose slightly askew geography has rarely taken cinematic center stage in the way that it does here. In this – and other respects – Lake plays like the millennial SoCal cousin of Vertigo (1958), but with an added layer of unreality owing to the former film's proximity to the Hollywood dream factory. Indeed, Mitchell is quite cognizant of the extent to which real-world locales and pop culture can seem to blur together in Los Angeles. (How else to explain why a bust of James Dean graces Griffith Observatory alongside statues of Copernicus and Kepler?) Under the Silver Lake is so densely studded with allusions that Sam (and the viewer) is tempted to to discern meaning in every jot of on-screen information, even when that meaning is obvious, ambiguous, or just patently absurd. It’s no coincidence that Mitchell slips R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” into the soundtrack, an oblique reference to the notorious 1986 incident where a man randomly assaulted Dan Rather. Nor is it a coincidence that the bizarre, ominous demand screamed by said attacker didn’t amount to anything in the end. It was just the cry of a delusional, violent man lashing out at phantom oppressors. Also not a coincidence: Sam is seen reading David Kahn’s The Code-Breakers, which crops up in Zodiac (2007), another tale of obsession, dissatisfaction, and investigative dead ends.

There’s a discomfiting undercurrent of misogyny to the Under the Silver Lake’s paranoia, which Mitchell is trenchant enough to discern and bold enough to highlight in unflattering terms, but too cagey to explicitly condemn. As seen through Sam’s vaguely aggrieved eyes, every woman in Southern California resembles a ingenue, siren, whore, or mad, barking bitch. (Even the model on the Lasik billboard seems to be taunting him!) The feminine and the bestial are repeatedly intermingled in the film’s vocabulary, as when Fischler’s paranoid artist implants in Sam’s brain the legend of a naked, owl-masked succubus roaming nocturnal LA. Sam’s mostly obscure romantic history is given allegorical form in one of the feature’s animated zine interludes, wherein the Dog-Killer’s hatred of canines is linked to personal failures and misdirected resentment. Whether all this makes Lake itself misogynistic is unclear. However, it’s significant that while Sam is handsome and gawkily charismatic (given that he’s played by Garfield), the film takes pains to portray him as a self-absorbed scumbag, less anti-hero than un-hero. Even his purported white-knight concern for Sarah’s fate is rooted in asymmetrical horndog fantasies, not an ingrained sense of justice or decency.

The film itself seems to regard Sam’s worldview as pathetic rather than outright toxic. His conspiratorial mindset is even presented as understandable, to the extent the there is a natural human urge to sort signal from noise in the overstimulated landscape of modern life. However, Mitchell also cynically posits that all explanatory frameworks that involve secret knowledge necessarily create castes: the sheeple who just don’t get it and the keen-minded who can see through the illusion. It’s certainly not incidental that one of the weird, inter-linked conspiracies that Sam eventually uncovers – a ridiculous, patriarchal scheme that evokes the monumental hubris of the pharaohs – is itself obsessed with such unwashed masses vs. ascended elite distinctions. (Another hidden scheme alleges that every tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was penned by the same nefarious songwriting Methuselah, which would certainly explain why so many pop songs sound the same.)

By the time these and other outlandish plots are fully revealed, Under the Silver Lake has begun to go a bit off the rails, spinning its wheels to attain a 139-minute running time that the material, however compellingly daft, doesn’t really justify. Still, Mitchell’s film is exactly the sort of hallucinatory, ambitious swing for the fences that would feel like a disappointment if it didn’t go off the rails at some point. While it doesn’t peter out with the same subversive shrug that characterizes the conclusion of its spiritual kin, The Big Lebowski, the film does imply that some things aren’t worth investigating. “There’s nothing to solve, you know?” suggests one of the candy-colored vixens that drifts through Sam’s odyssey. “It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” Not that anyone will listen to such advice. Under the Silver Lake is the kind of film that will inspire dissertations that seek to unpack every reference, allusion, and production-design hat tip. (Admittedly, there aren’t many features that contain nods to both In a Lonely Place [1950] and Manos: The Hands of Fate [1966].) Mitchell will doubtlessly laugh himself hoarse when some poor, misguided soul inevitably rises to such a meaningless challenge.

Rating: B+

[Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google, iTunes, and other major online platforms.]

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Wind'.
May 1, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Wind

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Emma Tammi / Premiered online on Apr. 5, 2019

Loosely inspired by Dorothy Scarborough’s novel and the 1928 Lillian Gish vehicle of the same name, director Emma Tammi’s narrative-feature debut is a marvelously unsettling and elliptical tale of frontier terror. While her husband (Ashley Zukerman) is away for weeks at a time, homesteader Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) is obliged to face down wolves, storms, paranoia, and a demonic presence that seems to ride on the prairie winds. Tammi cross-cuts Lizzie’s present-day travails with elusive snippets of the recent past: a rifle accident, a blood-drenched birth, a neighbor’s hellfire-tinged descent into madness. The scrambled chronology effectively places the viewer inside the heroine’s numb, twitching headspace, where the promise of the frontier has been revealed as a cold, lonely hell. (Think Repulsion [1965] and The Shining [1980] by way of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Tammi’s nimble direction is epitomized by her intrepid handling of genre. The Wind is unambiguously a horror film, but it’s simultaneously a small-bore revisionist Western, one roiling with distinctly feminine fears and resentments. Rating: B+ [Now available to rent from Amazon.]

The Silence

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by John R. Leonetti / Premiered online on Apr. 10, 2019

One is hesitant to label Netflix’s tedious creature feature The Silence an outright rip-off of last year’s A Quiet Place, given that the films were shot at roughly the same time. However, John R. Leonetti’s film does throw the taut brilliance of A Quiet Place into sharp relief, simply by doing everything wrong that the latter feature does right. There’s the clunky exposition for starters, from the pointless voiceover by star Kiernan Shipka to the unpersuasive news footage that the viewer is obliged to watch over the characters’ shoulders. There’s the too-large cast, cluttered up with family and friends who are virtually guaranteed to perish by the claws of the film’s prehistoric bat-monsters. There’s the strained attempt at post-apocalyptic world-building, which offers some legitimately creepy moments but makes little sense in a 90-minute stand-alone thriller. There’s the fact that hearing actress Shipka plays a deaf character, and her ASL is evidently laughably sloppy. Perhaps most egregiously, The Silence isn’t the least bit involving or frightening. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Thriller

2018 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Dallas Jackson / Premiered online on Apr. 14, 2019

The kindest thing that can be said about director Dallas Jackson’s Thriller is that it has good albeit shallow intentions. Set in Compton, Calif., and featuring an African-American and Latinx cast, the film represents a belated attempt to diversify the 1990s slasher renaissance embodied by the likes of Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Unfortunately, Thriller proves to be a chintzy, laborious dud of a film. Ostensibly, this is a revenge story: 18-year-old Chauncey (Jason Wood) returns to his old neighborhood to exact violent retribution on the classmates whose prank sent him to juvenile detention for five years. In practice, Thriller is a cliched and deadly-dull high-school drama, one where the unstoppable murderer on the loose is given less attention than petty, pointless subplots about street cred, romantic jealousy, and a local celebrity’s publicity stunt. It’s flimsy, boring, and often outright terrible, the latter typified by Jackson’s half-hearted attempts to wedge political allegory into a Z-grade slasher. Rating: D- [Now available to stream on Netflix and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Body at Brighton Rock

2019 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Roxanne Benjamin / Premiered online on Apr. 26, 2019

The nickel summary of Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock resembles the sort of spooky, quintessentially American horror story that Ambrose Bierce or Stephen King might have penned. While posting trail warnings in a remote mountainous area, tenderfoot part-time park ranger Wendy (Karina Fontes) quickly loses her bearings, but that’s not the worst of it: She also stumbles onto a bloody corpse. Ordered via radio to stay put until search-and-rescue can locate her, Wendy is forced to endure a long night in the wilderness with only a dead man for company. Writer-director Benjamin has a great concept, but she’s hamstrung by an underwhelming cast and her own indecisiveness with respect to tone. (Is this gritty survival horror, a hallucinatory campfire tale, or a farce at the expense of a clueless city slicker?) Once Wendy is stranded with her rotting companion, the film frankly loses most of its steam, gracelessly shambling from one plot incident to another and routinely deflating tension with all-a-dream fake outs. Rating: C [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

I Trapped the Devil

2019 / USA / 82 min. / Dir. by Josh Lobo / Premiered online on Apr. 26, 2019

Writer-director Josh Lobo starts with an admirably lean premise that feels like it could have been plucked from an old Tales from the Darkside episode. When married couple Matt (AJ Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke) call on Matt’s estranged, troubled brother Steve (Scott Pythress) during the holidays, it’s obvious that the man is unbearably anxious about something. Steve eventually reveals that he has the Devil locked in his cellar, a confession whose maddening quantum uncertainty becomes the central conflict of the film. Someone is whispering to Karen from behind the cellar door, but there’s no way it can be the Prince of Darkness himself, right? Right? The performances in I Trapped the Devil are regrettably subpar, and the feature’s pacing is frustratingly glacial in stretches. That said, Lobo manages to convey the dark appeal of the film’s conceit – an infernal twist on Pascal’s wager – with wily restraint, sprinkling in ambiguous clues and nasty complications that only serve to sadistically muddy the waters. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Pay, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt