“Model Hunger” – (Movie Review)

 

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

Model Hunger (2016), the eighty-four minute full-length directorial feature debut from veteran actress Debbie Rochon, is cinematic madness. This is true in the gleefully off the rails tone Rochon so wonderfully presents. Such brilliantly intertwines the dark comedy of John Waters with the detailed splatter of an early tour de force from director Peter Jackson. There is also more than a touch of Troma Entertainment head, Lloyd Kaufmann. Ironically, the previously stated low-budget craftsman, and related company, Rochon has starred in more than a few films for. There is also a clear inspiration from the Italian maestros of terror, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, stylistically perceivable herein.

Such a component is also strikingly evident in Lynn Lowry’s vivid, increasingly unhinged performance. Lowry ever-intriguingly portrays the lead murderess with a deceptively gentle southern exterior, Ginny Reilly. But, one of the most remarkable feats Rochon and screenwriter James Morgart evoke is the delicate balance of adult humor and occasionally tongue-in-cheek, but largely serious, horror. The two complement one another throughout. Most remarkably, they are often orchestrated in the same sequence. Such only heightens the sensation of continually mounting lunacy which accompanies Reilly’s mannerisms. This is made all the more observable as the meritoriously made movie runs towards its sinisterly smirk-inducing climax. In addition, the effortless command Rochon and Morgart have over the material run far beyond the victorious interchanges and juggling of atmosphere and categorical shifts.

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Rochon and Morgart begin the tale by following a pair of Spartans cheerleaders, Katie and Missy (Samantha Hoy and Lisa Dee, who both give determined renditions of the stereotypical genre teen), to Reilly’s door. In a narrative shift reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the focus for the rest of the affair turns suddenly away from these potential heroines. After several minutes we find ourselves unexpectedly following the villanious protagonist, and cannibal, Reilly. Embittered from the rejection she has received from the business which was supposed to welcome her with open arms, she enacts violent revenge on those who might’ve passed the modeling industry’s rigorous standards. Reilly’s secret doings, most of which involve inflicting pain upon her victims before killing them in her basement, are threatened when Sal Lombardo (an enactment by Carmine Capobianco that is commanding and proficient) and Debbie (an exhibition by Tiffany Shepis that is ever-engaging) arrive in the community. Slowly, suspicions arise. As the high body count of this presentation rises, this mutual misgiving only accumulates.

The story itself, perfect for a grindhouse undertaking such as this, has been done in various manners beforehand. Regardless, the structure Rochon and Morgart evoke is so unique, wholly original and unpredictable that such a criticism is decidedly minor. Moreover, the pace is breakneck. Reilly’s good natured façade is broken early. This is signaled as the bloodbath imparts at a mere eleven minutes in. Afterward, the progression of such terrifying instances rarely wavers. This is as the chronicle continually twists and builds upon itself. All the while, we are given just enough exposition into Reilly and Debbie to care for the both of them. This is considering the personal faults the fiction makes clearly visible throughout. This is done without breaking up the interestingly mounted arc and general movement of the plot.

We are given two key flashback sequences of exposition. One can be found around the twenty-five minute mark. The other is arises a little over an hour into the production. Both are well done. They sting with the disapproval of body shaming, as well as the equally odious idea of beauty and parental disapproval, which has leaves many so acrimonious. Still, the photoplay doesn’t weigh itself down with its social conscious. This is an entertaining, old-school, late-night fright flick. It simply uses this as a window into understanding the various psychosis that the labor concentrates upon. Such is also utilized as a potential key into the obsessions, a product of the aforementioned delirium, the depiction is concerned with unveiling.

It is mirrored through a program, which always seems to be about to air, called Suzi’s Secret. The show is played for laughs. It also triumphantly generates them. Regardless, it also potently and powerfully brings forth through the aforementioned modus. This item reinforces how the strict guidelines of appearance affects, not only some of those present in the fiction, but society as a whole. Such is another of the many remarkable feats this terrifically conceived opus naturally pulls off.

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Similarly, Rochon’s behind the camera work is edgy and claustrophobic. Likewise, Morgart’s script is excellent. It provides the perfect celluloid playground for the players who inhabit the roles Morgart has penned to have wild fun with their turns. This is something everyone involved certainly notices and brings forth tenfold. To its further credit, the script also cracks with witty dialogue and characterizations. The piece walks the fine line between believability and the incredible. Despite this, it never breaks away from either. What is just as striking is Morgart’s clever and intelligent use of the age-old voice-over trope. Such narration comes from Reilly. This element is used in a manner that often reminded me of many of the nasty tidbits Margaret White would spout at her most overzealous in Stephen King’s classic novel, Carrie (1974). It also mechanizes expertly to augment the sense of Reilly’s perspective which radiates stalwartly throughout the picture. The incorporation of Michael Winters (a depiction by the continually fantastic Michael Thurber which matches Lowry’s portrayal in eccentricity and sheer bravura), as an initially pesky and almost voyeuristic neighborhood resident, adds to the bizarre intrigue transcendent through every frame. Simultaneously, the deaths are increasingly elaborate and imaginative. There is a torturous segment in the finale involving a virginal, “Restorationist” youth that is especially cringe-worthy. This particular section is as taunt, suspenseful and fantastically engineered as they come.

The New York shot and Wild Eye Releasing distributed account also sports an original score from Harry Manfredini, who is known for his legendary theme for Friday the 13th (1980). He gives us an illuminating, almost visceral orchestration. It resonates spellbindingly. The composition is frantic, complex and undoubtedly masterful. It, in the tradition of the greatest musical numbers in moving picture history, almost seems to jump right out of the framework and into our minds. Comparably, Wolfgang Meyer’s cinematography is grim and gritty. It gorgeously enhances the resonate mood of the endeavor. The same can be said for the smooth display of editing Darryl Leblanc provides. Relatedly, the sound, art, camera, costume and make-up department deliver in their respective fields spectacularly. Rochon’s exertion is impeccably cast by Richard Egbert. Suzi Lorraine, as the guffaw-inducing personality credited as TV Show Host Suzi, issues an endearing, standout demonstration. Additionally, David Marancik as Officer Jason O’ Bannon, Robert Bozek as Reginald Burke and Bette Cassatt as Chloe are phenomenal. This B-grade gem also showcases impressive special effects by Rod Durrick, Leblanc, Paul Mafuz and Ingrid Okola. The visual aspect of such a constituent, also constructed by Leblanc, is just as extraordinary.

With 246 acting gigs under her belt over a thirty-four year span, Rochon is more than acquainted with what makes audiences scream in both consternation and joy. She is also just as familiar with the inner-workings of the big screen itself. This is more than perceivable at any given interval of Model Hunger. Rochon has gifted her spectators, fans new and old, with a perpetually solid and dazzling addition to her ever-expanding catalogue. The photoplay is brutal, darkly comic, tightly-knit, thoughtful and engaging in equal strides. It is also more than willing to plentifully offer what viewers have come to commonly expect in the category of revulsion. It is rare that we get such a captivating combination of all these arrangements. Such is especially accurate of a gore drenched midnight movie. What is just as infrequent is for someone to prove their operative abilities on both sides of the lens so stirringly. Rochon, who remains a marvelous and ever-evolving talent, does just that and more. This is a winner. It will more than delight those who are left famished from the current trend of limp, anemic entries filling theaters as of late. Feed your appetite for a slickly erected and professionally made journey into insanity. See this delightfully morbid configuration at all costs.

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“The Amityville Terror” – (Movie Review)

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *** out of *****.

It has been nearly thirty-nine years since Jay Anson’s #1 best-seller, The Amityville Horror, first captivated audiences with its initial September 13th, 1977 release. In much the same vein, the original, same titled entry in the cinematic series, spawned by Anson’s endlessly fascinating and re-readable tome, has just celebrated its thirty-seventh anniversary. On July 27th, 1979, director Stuart Rosenberg and screenwriter Sandor Stern gave us a faithful, now classic adaptation of Anson’s supposedly true haunted house saga. As time accrued, various theatrical and straight to video sequels, one blasphemously awful remake in 2005 and uncountable documentaries appeared later on. The most notable of which was My Amityville Horror, which starred Daniel Lutz himself, from 2012. What started with George and Kathleen Lutz’s 28 day combat with the ethereal, and ran from December 18th of 1975 to January 14th of 1976, is still an unwavering pop culture phenomenon.

Recently, the purportedly evil Dutch Colonial house located at 112 Ocean Avenue formed the backdrop of the opening sequence of writer and director James Wan’s brilliant follow-up, The Conjuring 2 (2016). In the aforementioned span, there has also been a number of low-budget items cashing in on the Amityville name. This is often with little or no relationship to the source material. Nonsensical, derivative features such as Amityville: Vanishing Point (2016), as well as the deplorable The Amityville Playhouse (2015), used the name of the town in Long Beach, New York as its only remarkable selling point. The Amityville Legacy (2016) was equally insipid. Nevertheless, it attempted to join itself, via a cursed antique toy monkey, to the preface of the primary narrative. At least the Dustin Ferguson and Mike Johnson directed and penned exertion had the good sense to incorporate a creative concept. Most importantly, it only lasted a meager sixty-six minutes.

Among this seemingly unyielding wave of related monikers is the August 2nd unveiled The Amityville Terror (2016). Luckily, this induction shares more of the hallmark qualities of the former than the latter. By simply doing so, it towers above its varied competition. This is, simply, because it possesses more of the sense of old-fashioned horror movie fun which made the inceptive Amityville pictures so memorable than the bulk of its predecessors. This is even if, in its brisk eighty-four minute duration, there is hardly anything here that the most timid genre fan would honestly assess as ‘new’ or ‘genuinely terrifying’. However, the tepid shocks are smartly fashioned. Even wiser is its restraint. This is especially visible in its minimalistic use of the, sadly, all too common jump scare tactic.

Regardless, the composition offers standard, plot serving archetypes. The same criticism can be liberally applied to the dialogue and routine situations. But, these are, for the most part, likably and believably delivered. There is a smooth authenticity here. It earns extra points, at least for this nostalgia admiring fright addict, in its ability to parallel itself so stalwartly to the overall feel of a garden variety terror flick from twenty to thirty years ago.

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With a reported budget of $500,000, the AZ Films Studios, Uncork’d Entertainment, Master Key and Marquis Productions undertaking focuses in on a family moving to a new home. In an arc cut from almost any other modern day tale of this ilk, the kin all too gradually finds out that a malicious spirit is attached to and refusing to leave the residence without a fight. With this rises the inevitable sequences of the well-concealed information of the violent past. All of this is done in as much of a carbon copy modus as you would expect. This time around, the unknown tragedy involves a youth named Jimmie Oberest. It becomes known that he once drowned his baby sister in a tub of acid. But, as can be surmised long beforehand, this pivotal data comes when the presence inside the Amityville home is at its most menacing and inescapable. Soon our antagonists find out that the townspeople are also untrustworthy themselves. They want to keep the once close-knit ancestry there for their own mysterious reasons. It’s a thin account. But, it is just enough to keep us enthralled while getting us from one wraithlike incident to another. This is true even considering the familiarity of all the ingredients at play.

In retrospect, the whole fiction itself traces in its own way around what transpired in The Amityville Horror. There is a quick build-up of supernatural events in the first act. We are intriguingly thrown into the middle of a paranormal manifestation when the labor commences. This is mixed with the human focus in the mid-section. All of this makes these previously stated components all the more evident. Such actions, simultaneously, creates a pace that starts out intriguingly. The opus as a whole is often sluggish. This is a common impression director Michael Angelo and screenwriter Amanda Barton hand their spectators. This is before the energetic, satisfactory climax of the photoplay. It is an odd, but not entirely unpleasant, way of structuring the composition.

Also augmenting the connection to the initial account, is the murderous backstory. We are also witness to the father, this time named Mike (in an authentic, intriguing and rounded performance by Bobby Emprechtinger), and his slowly diminishing grasp on reality. This draws a continued equivalence to both the Amityville franchise and the ardent tropes of similarly nail-biting exhibitions of celluloid. Such a comparison also provides us with an intriguingly orchestrated death at nearly an hour. This also is a product arising from Mike’s increasingly unbalanced condition.

The tone is also more competently issued and serious than most current Amityville endeavors. Further assisting matters is that there are also slight nods to Stanley Kubrick’s epic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980). This gravitates during an early happenstance involving a bath tub. Correspondingly, there is an equally obvious collation to be drawn from a smirk-inducing moment where a demonic face peers through a fractured door. Such occurs within the amusing and engaging final twenty minutes. These slight winks at its spectators undoubtedly heightens the enjoyable nature of the material. This climactic segment also calls to mind Sam Raimi’s splatter masterpiece, The Evil Dead (1981). Such is observable in its impressive, 80’s appropriate effects. These are courtesy of Frederique Barrera. It is also exhibited in the general sense of chaos in this section.

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Angelo and Barton’s exertion, both of whom arrange skillful but indecipherable work in their separate departments, lingers a beat too long on the character-oriented emphasis of the middle forty-five minutes. This is while giving us exposition, such as an all too tired and Young Adult genre worthy flirtatious friendship between our heroine, Hailey (Nicole Tompkins in a wonderful, vulnerable enactment) and Brett (Trevor Stines in an exceptional depiction). This section can easily be deemed as commonplace as the leads themselves. Yet, there is undoubted chemistry among Tompkins and Stines. It certainly elevates the frequent scenes they are in together. More than anything, it amends us, amid an otherwise non-relatable gathering, someone to frankly care and root for.

This inclusion also instills a nice balance between the human and the spectral. Even though there is nothing new about those we encounter on-screen, the aforesaid personalities come off as well fleshed out. They are entities that we know well. In turn, we find ourselves caring more than a little about. Needless to say, this is an absorbing, well-made watch. It is one which is, unfortunately, cut short by a concluding epilogue that stands as the most predictable aspect in Angelo and Barton’s arsenal. The final credits constituent, complete with newspapers proclaiming the horrifying matters that we learned of in the undergoing, is uniformly rote.

Scripter Barton is effectively creepy as Mike’s sister, Shae. Lai-Ling Bernstein as Jenny, Phillip Day as William and David Cranston, Cher Hubscher as Sally and Kim Nielsen as Jessica all exude phenomenal showcases in their respective roles. Likewise, Tony Kaye as the sexually obsessed Delilah, Priscilla Emprechtinger as Claire and Sarah Lieving as Mrs. Taylor fare just as well. They all round out a certainly capable cast of varied individuals. The variety of the small town dispositions herein never becomes uniquely molded. Yet, the talent behind them makes them both fresh and charismatic. Ultimately, this diverse nature evokes one of the strongest points herein.

Darren Morze’s music is atmospheric and solid all around. Michael S. Ojeda’s editing and cinematography is sharp and masterfully constructed. Larae Mychel and LaRae Wilson’s costume design is superb. These elements enhance the credibility at hand indefinitely. The sound and make-up departments offer splendid contributions to the quality of the piece. Stephen Krystek, who is credited with the poster art viewable above, does beautifully in his particular artistic field.

With Blumhouse Productions’ long delayed Amityville: The Awakening now scheduled for January of 2017 and other efforts such as Amityville High (2016) and Amityville: No Escape (2016) vowing for ticket buyers’ attention in the near future, it’s hard to tell if The Amityville Terror can hold its standing as one of the better, albeit non-cannon, installments in the on-going series. Despite this, I can state with certainty that this is a comfortably exhilarating popcorn venture. Though it may not merit multiple glances, it is well worth a look. It doesn’t come anywhere near the daring darkness of the criminally underrated sequel, Amityville II: The Possession (1982). Also, the movie is not as rampant with its mystic goings on as Amityville: It’s About Time (1992). Yet, it remains a welcome addition to the cycle. The result is a minor, but charming foray into subtle trepidation. It is strengthened by its ardor for, as well as the manner in which it embraces and makes the most of, its B-show trappings. For someone who whose personal interest is immediately thwarted to any ghostly account the trusted Amityville name, this is more than reason enough to recommend what Angelo and Barton have erected.

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“The B.C. Butcher” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

The B.C. Butcher (2016), the fifty-one minute debut feature from then seventeen year old co-writer and director Kansas Bowling (who appears here as one of several on-screen models), operates as a winning homage to the distinctly tongue-in-cheek nature of the American cinema of the 1960’s. Billed as “the first prehistoric slasher”, the labor captures splendidly much of the spirit of the popular American International Pictures’ seven Beach Party movies. This financially stalwart series ran from 1963 to 1965. There is also more than a dash of inspiration derived from the Raquel Welch starring and Don Chaffey directed dinosaurs and ancient humans remake, One Million Years B.C. (1965) Bowling’s attempt also captures the wildly inaccurate nature of the previously stated production terrifically.

Much in line with Chaffey’s film, the girls of The B.C. Butcher are visibly wearing lipstick and other forms of make-up. These details are spectacularly done. They arrive courtesy of Jason Adcock. He is also credited with summoning the appearance of the flick’s monster. The creature himself, played admirably by Dwayne Johnson, is smirk-inducing. This is in its uncanny similarity to Leatherface from Tobe Hooper’s timeless horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Continuing the above stated comparison, the females of The B.C. Butcher are adorned in what can best be described as “Paleolithic chic”. This is a mixture of what we have come to expect of antediluvian dress with a semi-modern sensibility. Not only does this summon to the psyche the aspects mentioned earlier, but also makes one think of Michael Chapman’s failed adaption of Jean M. Auel’s novel, Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). This only adds to the heavy nostalgia Bowling’s opus elicits.

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As can be expected from the originally addressed parallel, we are lent an exuberantly cheery, decade appropriate opening title arrangement. It is beautifully orchestrated. Moreover, it uses the pleasant din of “Alley Oop”, performed by the Hollywood Argyles and penned by D. Frazier, as a wonderful modus of setting the campy and largely old-fashioned tone of the entire composition. True to form, there is also an unexpected musical performance. As is often the case with such interludes, it adds nothing to the story. Yet, it still far accelerates the fun factor of the material. With The B.C. Butcher, this comes shortly into the third act. It is a performance of the catchy track “Nobody Likes You” by The Ugly Kids (authored by A. Tijeria). Complete with watermelons mechanizing as guitars and drums, this is just like a concert item one might see from a live-action visualization of The Flintstones (1960-66). Such makes the results of this energetic, several minute depiction all the more inventive and highly endearing. What could’ve easily been filler comes off as one of the more memorable passages in the affair.

Keeping true to its obvious inspiration, the gore is, with the exception of an originating section where the main ladies of the tale are seen eating innards, nearly non-existent. For fellow Troma Entertainment fanatics this may come as a letdown. The unimaginatively executed deaths we spy here may evoke an analogous sense of disappointment. This is excluding an intentionally hilarious skit involving a woman being thrown into a hole. Such is juxtaposed with alternating shots of both a real and faux snake attacking the individual. But Bowling, who shows incredible behind the camera flare (especially considering her age), and executive producer Lloyd Kaufman know exactly what they are doing. These aforesaid faults still follow the notion of what one may logically see in a construction from fifty years ago. Such is especially true in the conception, effects, pace and general veneer of Bowling’s narrative. In turn, the undertaking comes off as both a knowing and ardent letter to a bygone era. It is one constructed, and made all the more intriguing, by its slight modern touches.

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Despite the initial shortcomings, these traits endure as a mirror of the obvious inspirations for The B.C. Butcher. Just as charmingly, Bowling has issued an enterprise that noticeably incorporates the hallmarks of a Troma epic. This is most evident in the dialogue and performances. All of which are delivered with an ‘in on the joke’ B-show wit. These qualities are also visible in one of the most victoriously humorous sequences herein. It is a flashback to the relationship between Rex (in a strong, appropriate for the material enactment by Kato Kailin where the above attributes certainly apply) and the heroine of our tale, Neandra (in a heroic yet, vulnerable turn from Leilani Fideler that is phenomenal. It is uniquely well-rounded and wholly watchable). This particular moment comes at about fifteen minutes in. It works so well because of how the whole segment operates as one successful parody of such stereotypically overdone instances usually found in film. Kailin’s depiction here, which makes all the lines he is handed come off like a rambling stand-up comic in the most effective manner possible, is what makes this strangely well-executed bit so successful. It’s intriguing, to say the least, notion of romance is equally guffaw-inducing. The laugh factor here is almost duplicated in a montage. It utilizes narrator Kadeem Hardison’s smooth narration as ambiance to create a gleeful opening scene. Such is one which cleverly comes off like a shakily recorded, though this may be intentional, trailer for the photoplay we are about to view.

Bowling, along with fellow screenwriter Kenzie Givens, chronicles Neandra’s management of a tribe of cavewomen. These include the blind prophetess Bamba (Devyn Leah), Poppy (Molly Elizabeth Ring) and Anaconda (Natasha Halevi). As you can tell, some of the slyest gags in the composition arise from a lot of of the characters’ names. After a within community sacrifice, the title fiend begins to pick of Neandra’s clan one by one. Ignoring Bamba’s prophecies of impending doom, the collective finds themselves forced into an attempt to unravel the mystery of those who have gone missing. Eventually Neandra and the angry, murderous and correspondingly despairing cave-dwelling giant, who has been thinning out Neandra’s followers, find themselves facing off against one another. Yet, their parallels to one another run deeper than they may ever know. It is a plot that is admittedly sparse, but has never feels that way. Moreover, it takes the largely replicated Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980)-like psycho on the loose elements, so often recycled, and incorporates them in a time and location never before seen. Such makes these well-worn components feel refreshingly new.

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The proficient script by Bowling and Givens is smarter than may be immediately perceptible. It is also well-structured and endlessly amusing. Tomoaki Iwakura, Aaron Meister and Richard Samuels provides sleek, vibrant and alluring cinematography. Robby DeFrain’s editing is brilliant. William Preston Bowling, Nathan Lowe and Joel Steven administer sharp displays of sound. Florent Clavel’s music department contribution helps elevate the entirety. This is with a mixture of pop and rock tunes which embody the upbeat essence of the exertion deftly. The soundtrack here is the perfect ambiance to the visuals Bowling and company have crafted. Additionally, the rest of the cast, with Miranda Robin as Dina and Rodney Bigenheimer as himself, are as cheerily active as the depictions of the leads.

Though Bowling lingers too long on the search for the individuals who have disappeared, the piece as a whole is undeniably, consistently impressive. The finale is fitting, but wonderfully underplayed. It represents another extension of remarkable ability for Bowling’s endeavor to turn dramatic tropes into comic gold. This item mechanizes incredibly well to the benefit of the product as a whole. Yet, Bowling’s immense talent, visible in her accomplished and stylish direction and literary participation unveiled within, is undeniable. This factor is illuminated in every winning wink at the audience her luminous composition exudes. It is further exposed in every purely enjoyable frame in this delightful, gleefully low-budget popcorn venture. Bowling assuredly has a bright future ahead of her. The B.C. Butcher, complimented in various means by its brief length, is many cuts above the genre competition.

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“Lights Out” – (Movie Review)

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *1/2 out of *****.

Lights Out (2016), based on the near three minute 2013 short film of the same name from director David F. Sandberg, is a cheap, cloying horror gimmick posing as a full length feature. The Atomic Monster, New Line Cinema and Grey Matter Productions release possesses a single item, a laughably redundant jump scare, in its fright arsenal. This is via a dark, ethereal figure dubbed Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey in a limited and ineffectual enactment). She all too gradually appears closer to her next victim every time the lights go out and disappears as soon as they come back on. Such is a fairly interesting notion for the Sandberg penned medium Diana first appeared in. Yet, as for an obviously pushed beyond its boundaries eighty-one minute motion picture, with a reported budget of $4.9 million, much more needs to be offered to satisfy the increasingly ravenous pallets of the average genre fanatic. This is true even with the less cinematically experienced, teenage audiences this dull, pedestrian, PG-13 rated affair is obviously catering to.

It also becomes all the more ridiculous in moments like the eye-rolling preface of this all too safe exertion. In this extended bit, Esther (in a fair turn from Lotta Losten; the star of the short this is based on) is about to leave her job at a factory late at night. Unsure if she is seeing something from the door a mere room away, she hits the light switch repeatedly. This is while the above-articulated fear tactic, wrong-headedly exposed in the movie’s trailer, flashes again and again before our eyes. In one of the first of many erroneous moves, we are not revolted by the ominous sight of Diana as Sandberg and company have obviously intended. Instead, we laugh at the absurd amount of times it takes Losten to discern if what she is seeing is real or not. Such is especially guffaw-inducing when we recognize that most people would’ve turned the lights back on once and fled immediately to safety the first time around.

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Perhaps this aforementioned criticism wouldn’t be so painfully noticeable if Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer were able to give us more of an original fiction. At the least, the team could’ve indulged in more innovative plot elements along with a meatier account. Instead, Diana and those she haunts are given garden variety backstory and motivations. The personalities we encounter are all cardboard archetypes. Luckily, they are somewhat elevated by solid performances. This is especially true of Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Rebecca. She is a stepsister to the mentally ill Sophie (in a presentation by Maria Bello that is undoubtedly skillful and gripping) and Sophie’s son, Martin (a well-done representation by Gabriel Bateman that is constrained by the commonality of Heisserer’s dim depictions). Palmer and Bateman share a palpable chemistry. It is one which makes it all too easy to see them as a pair of semi-distant relatives who are forced to rely on another unexpectedly for survival. These two are the anchor that helps keep the movie afloat. This is even as its first two acts pile on scene after scene of exposition and tired, predictable character development.

In this portion, we learn that Martin is finding himself in the tormented footsteps Rebecca endured years prior. This is with Martin falling asleep at school arriving as a telltale sign of the youth’s restless nights avoiding the nightmarish whims of Diana. After a call from a school nurse who could not reach Sophie (who is not taking her medication and becoming increasingly obsessed with Diana), Rebecca reluctantly takes Martin to her home to catch some much needed sleep. It is at this point Diana makes her presence increasingly known in Martin and Rebecca’s life. From herein, the strange noises and unnerving scratching Martin has been hearing suddenly becomes much more. It’s a simple, accustomed, but not entirely unattractive, premise. Yet, it misses nearly every opportunity it has to be anything more than a one-dimensional, strictly on the surface thriller. It doesn’t even operate satisfyingly enough as pure, mindless entertainment.

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What is worse is that all of these aforesaid instances come off more as filler than an honest attempt to get its spectators to care for our young hero and elder heroine. During this time, the terror elements are, sadly, sparse. Yet, the talk is long and uninteresting. Likewise, the cringe-worthy dialogue is that of a Lifetime Movie of the Week brought to the big screen. In much the same vein, the visual effects, credited to seven individuals, are your usual sub-par, computer generated shtick. Alongside these detracting details, we realize more than ever before, how little narrative Heisserer’s dismal script actually delivers. Simultaneously, such tedium and pointless circle running creates a punishingly slow pace. It is one that only really seems to find its footing and come to life in the surprisingly energetic and tense final twenty-five minutes.

Amid this concluding stretch, Sandberg abandons the standard, point and shoot directorial style which dominated the rest of the opus. For once he seems to finally be allowing himself to have some fun with the material. Relatedly, a late sequence in a basement excellently and claustrophobically toys with the concept of finding a light source amid increasing blackness. It is an idea that is not given half as much creativity beforehand. Despite this, we are still amended many of the categorical tropes which weighed down most of the first hour. For instance, a fiendish hand reaching out from under the bed. But, it is done in a way that is still entertaining despite its familiarity. If only this sensibility was utilized earlier, Lights Out wouldn’t be such an underwhelming chore to sit through. Just as mournfully, it goes back to these disappointing origins for an end segment that is as imitative and stale as the first fifty-six minutes.

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You know you are in trouble when the various rock and roll posters sprawled out on the walls of Rebecca’s home are more visceral, terrifying and immediately stimulating than any of the actual attempts at trepidation Sandberg invokes. Lights Out suffers from this affliction and much more. It is complimented by atmospheric, but unmemorable, music from Benjamin Wallfisch. Marc Spicer’s cinematography works best, like the rest of the endeavor, in the later and more moody sections. Still, it is pleasant enough. Michael Aller and Kirk M. Morri offer sharp editing. The sound and make-up department are fair. Yet, they suffer much the same results as the songs which accompany the fabrication. The same can be said for Shannon Kemp’s art direction, Lisa Son’s set decoration and Kristin M. Burke’s costume design. Alexander DiPersia as Bret, Billy Burke as Martin’s father and owner of the plant spied in the hackneyed opening arrangement, Paul, and the rest of the cast are adequate.

But, none of these comparatively brighter flashes can make up for the fact that most of the movie is a lumbering, overblown and underdeveloped mess. Why the usually reliable modern day master James Wan, who is producer of this vehicle and recently gave us the most accomplished offering of the summer with The Conjuring 2 (2016), would want to sully his good standing with having this title on his resume is beyond me. Sandberg’s effort is a forgettable, uninspired trek through the motions. All of which we have seen done much better, often by Wan himself, umpteen times before. Do yourself a favor and be sure to put the lights out on any further thoughts of seeing this for yourself. I guarantee that you will be better off that way.

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“Trinity” – (Movie Review)

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

Trinity (2016), the outstanding eighty-three minute feature debut from writer and director, Skip Shea, is what is most properly described as a “Lynchian nightmare”. It is an endlessly eerie and effortlessly unsettling endeavor; a journey through the psyche that perfectly blurs what is real and what is imagined. Such is conveyed with quiet, underplayed power. This is through the medium of Shea’s imaginative, genuinely eye-popping and undeniably haunting images. Such punctuates its grimly poetic, highly symbolic underpinnings masterfully. In turn, this attribute only greatly enhances its grand effect.

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What is just as remarkable is the distinct rhythm to these phantasmagorias throughout. What makes this detail all the more spectacular is that they are frequently wrapped around intelligent, scholarly conversations. These concern art, religion, Italian proverbs, scripture and the quoting of renowned minds from the past. This gives the piece, released through Racconti Romani Produzioni and Wicked Bird Media, an increasingly intellectual atmosphere. It blends masterfully with the surreal marvels and insights Shea often summons. This detail is utilized incredibly well with the various themes woven into the narrative. It also helps us see our surroundings as Michael is: as a curious but somewhat naïve youth. Shea also focuses with tremendous and intense results on the lingering psychology and aftermath of such events on the victim. This gives us a window into our traumatized lead, Michael (in a courageous, always-watchable and magnificently realized performance by Sean Carmichael). It also acts as a delicate balance between the human and the horrific aspects of this wonderfully challenging work of cinema.

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Shea tells a true tale. It focuses in on Michael meeting up with Father Tom (in an enactment by David Graziano that is occasionally vulnerably, often domineering, bold and appropriately creepy) at a coffee shop in New England. Father Tom sexually mistreated Michael, who is now an artist, as a boy. With this awkward, and unexpected, confrontation, the sentiments Michael repressed and tried to keep at bay unveil. Almost immediately, these feelings come again to the forefront. As he later journeys through three churches, an engrossing representation of Michael’s cerebral venture as a whole, Michael comprehends still and remembers the hold Father Tom had on him. It is projected regularly on-screen with chill-inducing power. With this impression, Shea builds the bulk of a picture as a terrifying meditation on the lasting hurt and ever-building torment Father Tom has caused. As we, the audience, move deeper into Michael’s brain the harder it becomes to judge what is accruing now and what has happened before. Than we begin to ponder an equally horrific thought: what if it is, in some fashion or another, beginning to transpire all over again?

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It is this emotive impetus which Shea uses brilliantly throughout the film. Not only does this get us to know the character, and those which surround him, exceptionally well but, it creates a terrific imprint of Michael’s singular perspective. Similarly, this component keeps our fascination mounting through the entirety. This sensation of stepping inside the life and deliberations of our protagonist is echoed with a Kubrickian aesthetic habitually through the affair. This is immediately noticeable in the opening moments. Here, we see several well-executed sequences of Michael going about his daily routine. This is as the classic guise of Michael’s voice as narrator offers Michael’s exclusive commentary on casual subjects. One of these is what winter is like where he resides. In the commencing minutes where this occurs, we are drawn in by Michael’s everyday likability. We are just as mesmerized by the natural tranquility and beauty, complete with gorgeous shots of the luminous veneer of piled snow on the ground, which is made all the more hypnotic by Nolan Yee’s gorgeous cinematography. But, when the concluding instances align themselves to these serene commencing bits, it is held in a far darker, more brooding respect. It is in these near-final seconds that we realize just how phenomenally Shea has let us explore the battered recesses of Michael’s inner-workings. Such also lends another bit of the repetition of reflective snapshots so prevalent herein. All of this is evidence of Shea’s stylistic bravado. Furthermore, it is proof of his absolute command of form present in every challenging frame found within this spellbinding tour de force.

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Shea keeps the pace even and appropriate through the duration. His screenplay is just as impressive and meditative as his ground-breaking and taunt direction. He gives us believable dialogue, motivations and a realistic platform for his gradually rug-pulling, horror show feat. Despite the aforementioned recurrence of some visions, all we encounter always comes off as fresh and new. In fact, this return makes the sum of Shea’s vehicle all the more like an ever-turning melody in a ghastly, but beautifully engineered, song; a ballad of one man’s tragic childhood circumstances being brought back to light. Such an illusion is made all the more potent by the remarkably funereal music courtesy of Steven Lanning-Cafaro. This particular item courses further effective dread through the soundtrack.

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Lynn Lowry is great as Michael’s Mother. Jennifer Gjulameti fares just as Michael’s Spirit Guide. Diana Porter as Sam, Maria Natapov as Maria, Anthony Ambrosino as Nick and Susan T. Travers as Susan are all transcendent in their respective roles. The same can be said for the rest of the cast. Likewise, Shea’s editing is splendidly issued. Phil ‘Skippy’ Adams, Diane Pimentel and Jessica O’ Brien lend a seamless make-up contribution. The sound department produces crisp, solid work. Adams’ special effects are just as seamless and mightily impressive.

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Shea’s feature is personal, painful and punishing. It is also intimate and sincere. This is the type of undertaking that mechanizes spectacularly on all levels. In the process, it successfully brings to the surface a multitude of sentiments. From learning Michael so deeply as this raw, unflinching experience moves along, we undergo the same gambit of emotions as Michael himself. This is proof of the movie’s triumph centrally as a drama. Visually, technically and expressively, this demands spectators’ time, reflection and attention. Trinity is fulfilling on all levels. Though it undoubtedly challengers its viewers, it is in the best way imaginable. Such makes the results of this incredible opus of real-life terror all the more potent, immediate and necessary. This is moving art as an example of individual examination and catharsis at its most memorable. Shea has crafted an absolute masterpiece.

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“Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace!” – (Movie Review)

 

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace! (2012), the exuberantly experimental seventy-three minute debut feature from director Mike Messier, is a riveting example of cinema as an extension of the stage. It is also an exceptional exhibition of the power of minimalism on-screen. This tightly wrought, meticulously paced and carefully fashioned opus arranges only the four title personalities in a mesmerizingly abyss-like room. Such is an element that is an impeccable symbol for this tale. It is one which describes the creative process, in its own nature, splendidly. This is handled in a manner that tells us that the events we are witnessing are taking place within the mind of author Sid (a powerful and captivating performance by Lawrence O’ Leary) himself. The claustrophobic chamber where this entire labor love unfolds is darkened to the point that we can only see what is immediately in front of us. This refreshing sparseness is punctuated by keeping the limit of props to a few chairs and a typewriter. Such is with the exception of one eye-popping scene. This particular segment is an enactment of what occurs inside the play itself which Sid is laboring away at throughout the production. It has been given the heading of “Blasphemer”. This portion showcases a colorful opposition to the hauntingly alluring black and white cinematography, courtesy of Tim Labonte, visible throughout this spectacular opus. Furthermore, Labonte’s editing is equally crisp, seamless and impressive throughout. These mechanisms makes the spell Messier’s successful attempt puts on its observers all the more wholly immersive and remarkable.

Messier documents the self-detesting Sid. He is at a place in his career where he is established, yet not well known enough to hire folks to etch his masterpieces for him. This he states in one frank and potent mid-production moment. He communicates with three fictional characters. The aforementioned entities he has brought to existence through the process of penning his most recent composition. These individuals are: Blood! (a well-honed performance by Jamie Tennille), Sugar! (in a rounded and magnificent turn from Stacey Forbes Iwanicki) and a variation of Sid!’s younger self, Ace! (a terrific representation from Adam Buxbaum). The bulk of the endeavor gets its introspective nature from focusing in on the many arguments, agreements and contemplative discussions all of those involved have with one another. Fantasy and reality get wonderfully blurred here. This as some of the bits seem to elude to bits that could either be from the story Sid is bringing to fruition. They also victoriously operate as well as a glimpse into Sid’s own existence and delusions. Messier configures these components in a manner that also leaves the onlookers to wonder if maybe what occurs herein could be a result of all these ingredients mixed together as one solitary agent. Enigmas such as these make the sum of this enterprise all the more striking.

Adding to the literary qualities already visibly sewn into the fabric of the narrative is four titled sections that occur at differing intervals throughout the presentation. There is one reserved for each person Messier presents us. They appear like chapters in Sid’s grand chronicle of auteurship. Blood!’s bit starts the proceedings with “The Salt in My Wounds.” Sugar! has a turn entitled: “The Girl I Never Met”. Sid!’s is dubbed: “My Broken Mirror”. Ace!’s is saved for the climactic instances of the endeavor. It has the moniker of “My Second Chance”. The aforementioned personage also has a lengthy, but undeniably rousing, monologue near the finale. This is a transcendent illustration of all the attributes which make those who dominate Messier’s undertaking stand out as unique, conflicted personalities. It also signifies Messier’s own intentions.

These come across on-screen in a self-referential nature. We see this most expressly when Sid addresses the watchers, much in the manner of Shakespeare, and says, “This is my attempt at a low-budget, character-driven, psychological drama.” This is noted in quips such as, “I am not a prophet. I’m a filmmaker!” Such adds far more depth to an already profound and envy-inducing display. We also sense how the opinions, primarily that of Sid, appear to be connected to Messier’s own sentiments. This attachment is foreseeable in the fact that Messier himself, whose behind the lens approach here is stunning and natural throughout, said the piece started as an “inspired compilation of my past poems, un-produced plays and unfinished screenplays.”

Yet, the effort, released through A man and His Camera and Stand Still Pictures, never feels constrained by the sparse materials Messier utilizes. In fact, it makes the sum of this tour de force all the more daring, liberating and hypnotic. This is as much a product of the honest, yet respectable to the theatrical roots of the piece as it is Messier’s brilliantly constructed and endlessly layered script. Assisting matters is the rhythmic, eloquent, often cryptic and introspective dialogue Messier delivers to his cast. This trait rings with an undeniable poetry. It heightens this same stirring sensibility which reverberates from all of the picture’s various technical and thematic angles. Moreover, it never gives into repeating itself in conversation or situation, as an affair which uses so little to state so much may be apt to do. Instead, every sequence is staggeringly, breathtakingly new. This is true in both the subject matter. It is just as noticeable in the personal revelations, which seem to arrive quickly and unexpectedly, it hands out to its awe-struck spectators.

What also joins stalwartly to the exertion’s credit is that Messier is unafraid to paint all of the intriguing entities he builds here as flawed. Moreover, it opens with a piece that draws us immediately into the private world of Sid and his creations. Such is executed through a pitch perfect collection of expository monologues from all involved. It ends on an equally meditative note. The commencing and concluding credits arrangements, which involve Sid’s typewriter, are imaginatively woven and appropriately low-key. They also fit the atmosphere of this reflective spectacle, with slight splashes of effective humor to pepper the proceedings, tremendously well.

Lawrence O’ Leary and Nathanael Tronerud’s music is spectacular and similarly form fitting. Stephanie Carey, Bonnie Griffin, Candice Laviree and Payal Patel provide superb make-up. Graphic designer AJ Paglia contributes solidly to the art department. William Boroteck and Labonte, who is also credited as a camera operator, orchestrate wonderful demonstrations of sound. The production design from Horacio Lertora and Melissa Mastrangelo is wonderful. It all equates a grand example of craftsmanship that makes the product all the more admirable. These essentials mix together with glorious results.

Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace! is meant to challenge and confront its audience. It also has passages of astounding vulnerability. Messier has given us an artistic triumph. Yet, we are consistently blown-away by the dimension, scope despite its limitations and variety at hand. This will also prove undeniably relatable to those of us who find ourselves taking up the same torch Sid does here endlessly. Such occurs as we sit down at our own personal instruments of writing. From here, we push ourselves through the often beautiful and equally painful struggle to produce quality material. Besides being a work for those who make stanzas and prose their life’s calling, this is a silver screen journey for fans of art house wonders, authors and fellow motion-picture creators. It is also intended for those of us who appreciate the performance form brought to a fresh medium. Yet, one would be hard pressed not to find something about any of these personalities Messier has erected that do not ring true to a wide-ranging group with interests of unimaginable range. Of all the things Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace! brilliantly accomplishes, this may be one of its most massive victories. There’s imagination, experience, as well as genuine heart here. In a narrative landscape where antagonists leave the forefront and genuine ground-breaking too often gets tossed aside for cartoonish effects. In these cases we receive the equivalent of two hours of multi-million dollar explosions. The frequency with which this transpires makes an exertion like this is all the more welcome. Messier has evoked a tour de force; a reminder of why we find ourselves returning to the movies. There is a catharsis connecting Messier to the viewer which, sadly, is often given the cold shoulder nowadays. Such makes this all the more immediate, necessary and mandatory for the serious-minded photoplay patron.

You can be informed about the character of Blood! here.

You can learn about the character of Sugar! here.

You can find out about Sid! here.

Information regarding Ace! is here.

Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace! will be screening at The Arctic Playhouse in Rhode Island on July 16th, 2016 at 8 p.m. You can buy tickets for the screening here.

“Cell” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: **1/2 out of *****.

Technology is turning us into autonomous drones. This is becoming all the more true with the passage of time. Modern dependency on social media as the primary source of wide-spread communication is all the evidence we need to back this accusation. It is also the central statement behind Stephen King’s ambitious, but overlong, Scribner published novel from 2006, Cell. In this undergoing, the term “zombie” was replaced with “phoners”. Yet, the overall comparisons to the undead are undeniable. Such is also the cornerstone of the ninety-eight minute film version. This uneven, sporadically engaging but technically inept entity will receive its official theatrical run beginning July 8th, 2016.

This notion is a perfect pulpit for King’s intended commentary. It is also wonderfully form fitting for his trademark, dark sense of humor. Such is also in line with his ability to turn real-life circumstances into otherworldly terror. These were all utilized well in the literary rendition of the saga. But, the cinematic experience, though nowhere near as overblown as many similar efforts of late, is a more tepid, straightforward affair. In turn, it is just as much a sufferer of the ‘hive mind’ its transformed counterparts suffer from. Even these aforementioned antagonists look no different than what we expect a non-living creature to traditionally look like. They are also of the grating ‘fast runner’ genus. Such is especially disappointing. This is made all the more melancholy given the way King went out his way to introduce a rather new, and intriguing, modus of morphing from man into thoughtless monster into the plot of both book and film. Furthermore, the mechanical screech these fiendish beasts elicit is far more annoying than creepy. It would laughable if it weren’t so irritating.

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The fiction, King’s first elongated stab at such an apocalyptic exertion as this, primarily concerns Clay Riddell (in a depiction by John Cusack which starts shaky but gets progressively better as it goes along). He is an artist from Maine. Riddell is on his way to Boston as part of a comic book deal. Almost immediately he meets up with a middle-aged gentleman amid the chaos, Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson in a likable, but serviceable, portrayal. Still, it is but another variation of his usual role). They are attempting to survive the threat of “The Pulse”. This is a signal sent over a global cell phone network. It is one which causes individuals using their calling devices to turn into mindless, savage brutes. All the while, Riddell is trying to return to his son, Johnny (a well-done presentation by Ethan Andrew Casto), in New England.

Along the way they, predictably, encounter a varied group. All of these are trying to avoid transformation. Among those is Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman), whose role is much smaller here than it was in the foregoing King authored epic of the same name, Charles Ardai (Stacy Keach), Chloe (Alex ter Avest), and the surviving prep school pupil, Jordan (Owen Teague). We also eventually meet Raggedy, or “The Raggedy Man” as he was dubbed in the hardcover, (Joshua Mikel). All of these personalities are intriguing in their own way. They give the piece a finer edge of watchability. Their performances all respectively back up this attribute splendidly.

The motion picture form of Cell, which will disappoint gore hounds with its nearly non-existent and perceivably faux use of the red stuff, wants to hammer us over the head with its now fairly exhausted thesis declaration. In so doing, it greatly constrains the entertainment value. Such merely ebbs and flows throughout the effort. This is also drown out by the all too conventional sub-plot of Riddell’s search for his immediate kin. There is also a general air of soullessness, as well as a blatant disregard to the traits which make audiences care. These are cast out through much of this endeavor. Such King co-penned with Adam Alleca in the most lackadaisical fashion imaginable. Regardless, the quiet, subtle atmosphere maintained through most of King’s 384 page tome is refreshingly reverberated, at least for a vast portion of the duration, in the Tod Williams (2004’s The Door in the Floor, 20010’s Paranormal Activity 2) directed undertaking.

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What also hurts the more recent transition of Cell is Williams’ lack of vision and flare. His behind the lens contribution is mediocre. Williams constructs the scenes, especially those meant to provoke fear, in a mechanical manner. The approach is essentially what you would easily call: “point and shoot”. This is done with little to no build-up or suspense. The style Williams uses here is practically indecipherable from your garden variety undead narrative. Likewise, the overall feel is far too much in line with the plethora of similarly idealized horror opuses that have also been arriving in theaters and Video on Demand in droves. Such is especially observable in the ten years between the release of the text and the photoplay variants of this chronicle.

This overwhelming familiarity is only heightened by cringe-worthy computer generated effects. Both the optical and special aspects in this category, from a collective group of over two dozen people, are equally unappealing. Such is especially evident in the various instances herein showcasing fire. What also mirrors this sensation, and parallel, is the limp characterization. This is most noticeable in the almost too fast paced initial act.

Here we are given only the briefest bits of exposition. This arrives mostly via McCourt. These moments are so rushed, and artificial, that we endure another case of those in a thriller spouting unnecessary backstory. This is while running from one routinely erected threat to the next. Luckily, this construction largely settles down in its last 2/3rds. This gives a chance for the fiction to breathe. In turn, the quality of the picture increases exponentially. The same can be said for the human categorizations as well as the enactments which embody them. During this near hour long stretch, we actually find ourselves caring for these individuals on-screen. Yet, even this component is held back by a commencement that places action above all its other aspects. This competent duration mixes with the breakneck speed of the first half hour. Such creates a general movement of events and an arc that is choppy and bizarrely structured.

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King and Alleca’s strangely bland and unusually coy screenplay oddly leaves out many of the crucial details which made those in the earliest evokation of Cell so relatable. This is also what made it pivotal to its place and period. It almost seems as if it is deliberately taking out important bits to add a sense of confusion to the proceedings. Perhaps, the screenwriters, who give us dialogue that ranges from semi-potent speeches to merely plot serving quips, were trying to instill a sensibility of what those who dominate the screen are themselves feeling. This is as they jump from one hazard to the next without much of an opportunity to contemplate their deeds. But, the conclusive result is the sensation of King and Alleca only giving us the bare essentials of the account. This is one of those rare modern silver screen occasions when the production could’ve benefited greatly from at least another twenty minutes of explanation added to the product. Such could’ve cleared things up remarkably. The engineers of the script also give us a completely different climax. It is well documented that this is because of the negative reactions to the shoulder shrug that was the last page of the tome. Though this one is satisfying enough, and far less open-ended, it still seems modeled after too much that came before it.

Further hindering this misfire is Michael Simmonds cinematography. Simmonds goes for an almost too dark veneer. Such could easily suit an endeavor such as this. Yet, what we are given is simply too drab and unpleasant to look at. This only makes the variety of flaws at hand all the more difficult to peer around. Marcelo Zarvos’ music is fair, but unmemorable. Jacob Craycroft’s editing is sloppy. This is during the unimpressive and unimaginative sequences meant to provoke excitement. Such is especially noteworthy in the opening scene in an airport in Boston. This has the incredible benefit of a cameo by schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman. In the bestseller, this was set inside Boston Commons. This drastically alters the most exhilarating, and lengthiest, segment of King’s prose rendition of the tale. Yet, it becomes more proficient, as well as the case with the source material, when the fiction begins to slow down and become more focused. The art and sound department contribute skillfully in their singular regions. Alex McCarroll’s art direction, Kristen McGary’s set decoration and Lorraine Coppin’s costume design are impressive. But, these admirable items cannot hide the fact that we have seen this far too often, and in many superior incantations, prior.

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Cell, in its original format, was partially dedicated to master of the flesh-eating ghoul, George A. Romero (1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead). King even had an uncredited bit as the voice of a Neswreader in Romero’s fifth opus of the similarly equated ilk, Diary of the Dead (2007). Their masterful 1982 anthology, Creepshow, which Romero directed and King penned, and 1993 pairing The Dark Side, where Romero successfully adapted King’s 1989 yarn with a matching moniker, resulted in two instant genre classics. There is an obvious mutual respect between these two terror maestros. It is this motivation which Cell, in both its volume and movie interpretations, appears used as an indirect catalyst.

This is especially accurate when considering the modern day consciousness, eerily reminiscent of Romero, which is injected into the fabric of Cell. In the 2006 take, the power of the imagination combined with this parallel to make the labor a nearly cinematic homage to the seventy-six year old director. In the flick, this article comes across as too much of a forced wink at its core spectators. It seems to imitate and never truly evoke the foundation laid down by Romero. Ultimately, it is the grand promise that came with the premise, the fact that it could’ve been something that could’ve been used in the same exclamatory breath as one of the previously stated cracks by Romero which is most disheartening of all. This makes Cell all the more underwhelming.

But, this is not to say that many of the bricks in said groundwork are not worthy of praise. Yet, Cell, as a whole, could’ve been a monument of an achievement, as well as a subtle letter of respect to Romero. Instead, it is just another building. One that has little more for the eye than all the other edifices on the block. Fellow King admirers and genre addicts may like it well enough to find it an intriguing diversion. But, I cannot imagine that this pairing of King, Cusack and Jackson, who gave us one of the best adaptions of King’s short stories with 2007’s superb 1408, will merit the appreciation of a second look. This is by the standards of anyone who dares travel down its all too acquainted path.

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“Lilith’s Awakening” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

From the commencing moments of Lilith’s Awakening (2016), the astonishing first fictional full-length film from Brazilian writer and director Monica Demes, an atmosphere of mesmerizing, quiet intensity is immediately evoked. This is heard in the simple, almost mechanical, grinding of a swing. It is one piloted by our enigmatic heroine, Lucy (in a brilliant portrayal by Sophia Woodword). Yet, the din produced is anything but mundane. It comes to our ears like a rhythmic, sinister song. One which is meant to conjure an unholy fiend from his slumber. All of this is initially prefaced by an unnerving yet, grimly poetic shot of the moon veiled in a foggy night sky.

This image, along with this distortion of our common perception, is the perfect set-up. Such is for this startling and singularly unique avant-garde, nightmarish, 80 minute stroke of genius. This largely subtle, psychological horror outing, derived from the gothic style, is a visual and creative marvel. It is one where trepidation is lurking in the multiple layers beneath what we view as well as looming ornately on the surface. Such creates, particularly with the dashes of the old-fashioned mixed in with the contemporary, that increasingly rare terror feature. The one which satisfies on all avenues and demands.

Heavily inspired by Bram Stoker’s immortal novel, Dracula (1897), even down to the names and its use associated with the places found herein, this masterful work tells the tale of the sexually repressed Lucy. Her life appears to be a bland, repetitive cycle. It is one she desperately wishes to escape from. She labors thanklessly for her father, Abe (in a portrayal by Steve Kennevan that is both exceptional and credible). This is at a service station in a small town in Iowa, the state where this gem was recorded, which he owns. Just as worse: her marriage to Jonathan (a terrific depiction by Sam Garles) has long lost its affection. In turn, it has become every bit as routine as the time spent at her place of employment. The solace she finds is when she mentally constructs the spectacle of an ominous female figure. Her name is Lilith (a riveting, unsettling portrayal by Barbara Eugenia). She is a menacing presence found in the woods surrounding her home. After Lucy is taken advantage of by a mechanic she toils alongside, Arthur (an enactment which is endlessly gripping), a sense of wickedness overcomes her. Slowly, she begins to sense Lilith’s presence surrounding and closing in on her. But, is it true or all in her mind?

Demes’ literary and behind the lens capabilities are taunt, terrifying and claustrophobic. She also takes risks aplenty. There are scenes that are dialogue driven. We are amended just as many segments where Demes allows the imaginatively rendered phantasmagorias to speak their volumes without a single word. Such helps make this a magnificent, captivating modus. One which incorporates both the real life and the deep slumber-like qualities visible throughout into the piece. This also assists in our ability to see the world through Lucy’s eyes. Such happens as her grasp on these essentials seem further blended. But, the smartest aspect of this tactic is that it keeps the balance between story movement and invention faultlessly even. It makes for a photoplay that, like the penned product it sprang from, is riveting in structure and execution.

She also ties together these elements with a finale that is fittingly unsettling and illusive. There is a noticable penchant for extended sights, all ravishing displays courtesy of Demes, exhibiting Lucy reflected in mirrors. Such heightens the boldness and ingenuity at hand. This attribute mechanizes spectacularly as one of the numerous low-key nods to vampire mythology strategically placed through the composition. Adding to the creative luster is the instances where the colorful, bright red splashes of blood, so vibrant it is like watching paint being thrown on a canvas, offers a departure from Alfonzo James and Gregor Kresal’s gorgeous black and white cinematography. Such only accumulates the dizzying fascination the endeavor elucidates.

The undertaking is also magnificently structured and paced. Demes gives us characters that are purposefully crafted as a mystery. Yet, we still, incredibly, impress upon ourselves that we know them. It suits the sensation brought forth by this electrifying, perplexing puzzle box of a silver screen affair terrifically.

The endeavor also benefits from chilling music by David Feldman. Andrea Acker’s costume design and Mary V. Sweeney’s art direction is phenomenal. Eden West is fantastic in her turn as Police Officer Morris. Demes’ and Lloyd Wilcox’s editing only further complements the proficient, macabre allure of all we encounter. David Feldman and Francois Wolf’s sound department contribution is top-notch. The use of such is one of the defining components of this surreal tour de force’s lingering technical nature.

It is easy to see how Deme’s impeccable, abstract talents received the attention of the Missoula, Montana maestro, David Lynch. As a matter of fact, the Ganesha Filmes and Outsiders Arts production often calls to mind Lynch’s debut cinematic opus, Eraserhead (1977). This is evident in the individuality and attention-garnering genius that is finely hammered into every frame. It is also seen in the general approach. Most readily, how it mixes the commonplace with the horrifying and hallucinogenic. There are also touches of Ingmar Bergman, Mario Bava and early George Romero woven into the proceedings. Yet, this creation is distinctly its own entity

Demes is astonishing. She has displayed more talent in one picture than countless do in their entire catalogue. What is just as startling is that she explores much of the same themes explored in Stoker’s aforementioned novel, especially its alternately inhibited and liberated views on sensuality, in a method that is always innovative and exciting. Likewise, there is never a moment that feels familiar or worn. Instead, we are given a wholly ground-breaking journey. It is one which is just the breath of fresh air cinephiles desperately need. Demes has crafted a stunning success. It is a striking, hypnotic effort. One which will assuredly grant her a legion of fans who appreciate movies as a singularly expressive experience. This is one of the best pictures I’ve seen all year. I highly recommend you seek it out.

The official site for Lilith’s Awakening is here.

The Facebook page for the film can be found here.

You can get tickets for the premiere of Lilith’s Awakening at the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles on June 11th, 2016 here.

“Hail, Caeser!” – (Movie Review)

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By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

1984’s terrific Blood Simple established Joel and Ethan Coen as a magnetic cinematic force. Since than there has been certain high-brow expectations for the writing and directing team. Over the course of nineteen feature and thirty-two years, the pair has come with an unspoken promise of witty, rhythmic banter and top-notch storytelling with each upcoming release. Their comedies, such as 1998’s The Big Lebowski and 2000’s brilliant O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? also brought forth the promise of more minimized, intelligent gags. Such was a welcome breath of air for those of us who are wearied by Hollywood’s penchant for grossly overblown, mindless physical satire.

There more seriously toned pieces, such as 2007’s Best Picture winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and 2013’s quietly masterful Inside Llewyn Davis, are among some of the most memorable photoplays of the past decade. As with any such creative force there are a few minor, often disappointing endeavors. For instance, the comic Tom Hanks starring vehicle from 2004, The Ladykillers. But, these wrong-headed moves are a rarity for them. Such is a phrase I had to keep repeating to myself. This was while sitting through the well-meaning, but fairly underwhelming, Hail, Caeser!

The story concerns an individual named Eddie Mannox (in a role by Josh Brolin that showcases his rugged charm as well as a layered and well-executed enactment). He toils at Capitol Pictures. This is a fictional filmmaking company which calls to mind the MGM of the 1930’s- 50’s. As the flick opens we watch with vague intrigue as he begins another chaotic day. His job is, among other things, to clean up the public image of Capitol Pictures’ stars. Such allows many of the brighter moments involving twin reporters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both charmingly played by Tilda Swinton). To make matters more stressful: Mannox is currently overseeing the production of the company’s biggest current release.

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This lavish, mega budget biblical epic, obviously inspired by the decade appropriate labors of Cecil B. DeMille, shares the same title of the movie itself. Most majestic of all is that the silver screen opus showcases the talents of one of their brightest stars: Baird Whitlock (in a depiction by George Clooney which is as likable and compulsively watchable as you’d expect from him). The endeavor seems geared for success. This is until a group of political minded writers, which exist to provide orientation points to the Communist scare and Hollywood blacklist that took place in the United States in the circa 1950’s period this endeavor is set, kidnap Whitlock. This is where Mannox is called in. He must keep the information of Whitlock’s abduction from leaking into the papers.

All of this should’ve indicated a knockout. The premise had the promise of another impeccably honed, multi-perspective account. This parallels what we’ve come to associate with the Coens. The actors and actresses within certainly have proven themselves capable. Their portrayals herein only re-inforce this belief. For example, Ralph Fiennes is commanding as always as Laurence Laurentz. Scarlett Johansson is great as DeeAnna Moran. Frances McDormand as C.C. Calhoun, Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle and Jonah Hill in his brief turn as Joseph Silverman all add additional layers of dimension. They increase the differing personalities which dominate this varied cast.

But, the opus itself does what I once thought was unthinkable for a Coen Brothers picture: it intermittently lumbers. This is especially true in the first forty minutes. Miraculously, it finds its footing and captures, for the most part, the unique Coen essence that we wished for all along. In this time frame, even the dialogue lacks the literate jocularity of their earlier, similarly light affairs. It follows a form much in their tradition. Nevertheless, it is too simple and straight-forward. It’s not to say it is without its entertaining ticks. Regardless, most of the first half is evidently lacking.

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There are a few mildly successful jokes sprinkled throughout this rough patch. However, the large sum of the guffaws distributed here are artificial and painfully desperate. Most of it is forced slapstick. This can be seen as an homage itself to the type of humor associated with 1950’s Hollywood. Still, it doesn’t gel. It doesn’t seem in line with the far more successful guffaws. These are those that playfully poke at the style of antiquated cinema in the last hour. They range from lavish musicals to conventional western musicals. Even splashy singing mermaid ventures get thrown into the mix. This is where Johansson’s character comes into play.

Regardless, Joel and Ethan Coen save their smartest morsels for the sequences where we watch these wide-ranging genre entries themselves alongside the audience on-screen. The songs which often accompany them are just as entertaining. This is especially true of the number attached to the rousing five and a half minute tap dance segment in The Song and Dance Man. It is just as true of the folksy ballad heard in Lazy Ol’ Moon. The narration which documents Mannox’s actions throughout are constantly smirk-inducing. There are even crafty references to real-life productions that are much at home with these fictional account shrewdly blended into the proceedings. The Gene Kelly starring and Vincent Minelli directed vehicle, An American in Paris (1951), are among them. All of these components summon the spirit of 50’s cinema tremendously well.

The pace is relatedly much in line with what you’d expect from prior Coen undertakings. Their writing is smart. Though it is ultimately a shadow of their prior penned endeavors. The direction, much like the editing, the two offer is elegant. It is on par with previous efforts. Yet, it never becomes uniquely striking. This hinders the chronicle greatly.

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Roger Deakins’ cinematography is undoubtedly a bright spot. It is luminous, cheery and eye-capturing. Besides, it fits the spirit of the flick beautifully. Carter Burwell’s music is also splendid and appropriate. It helps frame some of the more triumphant humorous flashes. Mary Zophres’ costume design, Nancy Haigh’s set decoration and Cara Brower and Dawn Swiderski’s art direction are all wonderfully fashioned. The make-up, special effects and sound department carry on the spectacular quality of these technical attributes. These angles all add to the visual appeal outstandingly.

Hail, Caeser! clocks in at one hundred and six minutes. For nearly 2/3 of that length it succeeds. It has several meditative and brilliantly artistic moments to heighten its character-oriented focus. These are all Coen trademarks. They satisfy well enough. But, the section beforehand sets the article immediately off on the wrong foot. It feels like it could use better timing. Likewise, it could’ve benefitted from a round of tightening and another re-write or two. Than it might have been worthy of what comes after it. Maybe than we could’ve had a cohesively solid addition to the Coen catalogue.

Perhaps my own expectations were so high that I need to see it a second time to see it for what it is. Either way, the Coen’s latest often felt uneven. Also, it left me not entirely fulfilled. Sadly, this one of the duo’s lesser exertions. Which, amusingly enough, is just as impressive as many others’ greatest works. Simply put: it’s worth a watch. This is as long as you don’t expect another Coen classic.

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“Regression” – (Movie Review)

 

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson are stunning in the meticulously paced psychological thriller from 2015, Regression. Concerning a detective, Bruce Kenner (Hawke), whose investigation into the rape of a young lady, Angela Gray (Watson), begins to unravel proof of a cult of satanists, the R- rated feature is moody, subtle and effectively downplayed. Writer and director Alejandro Amenabar offers a cerebral, character-oriented screenplay. It is one that is consistently engaging. Likewise, it is adorned in credible characterization and dialogue. This is until the flat, underwhelming finale. From the last act forward, much of the anticipation of greatness beautifully built-up beforehand is quickly deflated.

Amenabar, whose last horror venture was 2001’s The Others, offers taut, incredible direction. It is full of mesmerizing and striking imagery. Moreover, Amenabar builds suspense slowly and with an organic realism. This gives the one hundred and six minute effort a sophisticated, old-fashioned sensibility.

Such an attribute is so strong that even the familiarity of the sparsely utilized terror clichés assembled throughout feel spine-tingly intense and new. The dream-like sequences and its faux variants, another commonplace trope in fear cinema, are handled disturbingly well. These elements, as well as much of the tone of Amenabar’s latest, call to mind Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. Such is most obvious in their proficient design.

The piece, released through The Weinstein Company, is further complimented by gorgeously gothic atmosphere by Daniel Aranyo. Carolina Martinez Urbina’s editing, Elinor Rose Galbraith’s art direction and Roque Banos’ music are all equally impressive. The special and visual effects are wisely minimalistic, as is the endeavor as a whole. To its credit, these elements are also terrifically done. Moreover, the sound and make-up department, as well as Sonia Grande’s costume design and Friday Myer’s set decoration, are spectacular.

With The Spierig Brothers’ Daybreak from 2009, Scott Derickson’s Sinister from 2012 and James DeMonaco’s The Purge from 2013, Hawke is fashioning himself as a trustworthy name for horror. The same can be said for Amenabar and high-quality dread laced genre offerings. Though the concluding ‘twist’ is as obvious here as it was in The Others, and the he turns to the well of the tried and true a bit too often, his talent outshines these minor shortcomings. The result is a top-notch exertion that is certainly worth a watch. This is true for both the seasoned terror vet as well as those of us who enjoy well-made, haunting cinema of any genre. Especially one, such as this, which is refreshingly mature in both attitude and construction.

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