UP ON THE GLASS

(GRAVITAS VENTURES/SAVE THEM WILD DOGS (96 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Wow. I remember a review of the Viggo Mortensen film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, in which the writer used the effective line “You won’t know what hit you” to summarize the dastardly plot. That’s how I felt at the conclusion of the genuinely compelling new film UP ON THE GLASS. I really don’t want to give away much here, because this film is worth experiencing on your own, without knowing key details beforehand. It manages to be suspenseful, visually appealing and non-formulaic throughout most of its 90-minute running time, and that is quite an achievement. So here’s what I can say. Jack DiMercurio (Chase Fein), the main star of this unique film, is a restless, introspective sort who is not given to explaining his emotions or thoughts very easily, and has an uncertain employment history. He’s agreed to spend some time at the lake house of his old friend Andy Shelton (Hunter Cross), who’s a bit too abrasive and honest, but is a successful businessman who seems to have good intentions. Andy’s wife Liz (Chelsea Kurtz) is only talked about for the first portion of the movie. We learn that Jack may have once been involved with her and gets moody when her name comes up. We also have to endure the obnoxiousness of a third friend, “Mose” (Steve Holm), who joins his old buddies for the weekend. At first you think this movie is going to be a character study of these three friends, starting to feel their ages, drinking too much, and questioning each other’s life choices. They’re in a beautiful setting along Lake Michigan, enjoying the shoreline and the imposing sand dunes Andy takes them to so they can lose themselves. “There’s space out there. Men need that,” Andy tells his pals. But though we’re shown some memorable scenery, and these guys overall seem to be basically likable, friction soon develops. Andy pushes Jack to share more than the latter is comfortable with. “I think you’re TOO smart,” he tells him matter of factly. “It trips you up. You overthink things.”

UP ON THE GLASS (Chase Fein, Hunter Cross, Steve Holm) (publicity still)

For this part of the film, I was admiring the believability and charisma of the characters, especially Jack, and the bright, striking cinematography by Mark Blaszak. I was intrigued. But then there is a sudden, rather implausible event that changes the entire nature of the film. Hopefully no one gives it away to you because, despite this didn’t-see-that-coming development, the film trades on a different kind of suspense and a couple of pretty rich themes from then on. Although we’ve been treated by this point to the appearance of a couple of lovely women from town, store employees Becca (Jessica Lynn Parsons) and Kate (Nikki Brown), their part in the story is mostly minimal. Not so when Liz shows up at last. Chelsea Kurtz does a fine job investing Liz with depth of character and conflicting emotions. She and Fein have clear chemistry and authentic-sounding conversations, and there is some seriously good acting going on here, as a sense of buried romantic potential must compete with a few other developing themes. You sort of WANT these two to get together. A dripping faucet in the kitchen, which Jack promises to fix at least twice, provides a metaphor for the passing of both time and opportunity, and these two terrific actors really do make you want to see what will happen in the next scene. The grim nature of reality, however, prepares you to expect bad stuff. Director and co-writer Kevin Del Principe shows plenty of command with his helming of this tale, and he has the patience to trust that most audiences will take the ride, slow though it may be at times. I think he has the makings of an exceptional filmmaker.

UP ON THE GLASS (Chelsea Kurtz) (publicity still)

I simply can’t say a word about the ending. I watched this film early in the morning, letting a couple of its big surprises wash through me, and I want to enjoy my feeling of sheer admiration, something I don’t feel near enough these days after I screen a film. You do NOT get a neat resolution of anything with UP ON THE GLASS. It does almost nothing that you want or expect it to do. It certainly gives you a couple of complex characters with shifting motivations. And it creates its own brand of intense suspense that for me was truer to what might happen in real life than a dozen bigger budget films. And I liked all six of the principal actors, with something pretty unforgettable being captured here by Chase Fein. He’s an actor to watch. Judging from a few less enthusiastic reviews on IMDB, not everyone was enamored with Del Principe’s directorial vision, however, and you certainly could be forgiven if you don’t like the main plot twist or the way you’re left hanging at the end. But I genuinely admired this film for how it avoided the obvious at most turns, and tried to hint at much bigger themes and character conflicts than what we usually get on screen. I won’t forget UP ON THE GLASS, that’s for sure, and I plan to follow the careers of virtually everyone who played a part in making it.


ECHO BOOMERS

(SABAN FILMS/SPEAKEASY/ORGANIC MEDIA GROUP/FOTON PICTURES/DARK DREAMS ENTERTAINMENT (100 minutes; Rated R); 2020)

You set yourself a real challenge as a director by making a film about unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, something that director/co-writer Seth Savoy was probably NOT thinking that much about when he helmed ECHO BOOMERS, a sort of “millennials gone wild and destructive” story timed to coincide with the bitter division and economic meltdown of recent years (though pre-Covid). It’s hard to sympathize all that much with a quintet of college graduates bitter over debt and fewer real opportunities, who decide to work for a greedy criminal entrepreneur named Mel (Michael Shannon), robbing mansions of the well-to-do and then utterly destroying as much of their untaken possessions as possible. We know right away things aren’t going to turn out well because the film opens with an author (Lesley Ann Warren) asking the most conscience-troubled and otherwise sort of likable member of the gang named Lance (Patrick Schwarzenegger) if he’d be willing to recount the troubled tale for a book she wants to write about the dastardly crime spree. So events unfold in flashback, as Lance is asked by his cousin Jack (Gilles Geary) to join in an “opportunity” to make some good money and have some fun. We meet the crew at a poker game, with abrasive and dour Ellis (Alex Pettyfer) and the charismatic female member Allie (Hayley Law) providing the most screen presence apart from Lance. The gang have pre-arranged addresses of their wealthy targets; they then wear evil masks, go in and bust the place up big time (an explanation from Lance about the destruction preferences of each member – one likes to destroy family photos, one prefers disintegrating the most valuable objects – is genuinely painful to experience, but at least it’s given a bit of expository background), and retrieve selected paintings and other valuables for the resourceful Mel to fence through his connections. Money comes in, everyone theoretically gets paid, and that’s that.

ECHO BOOMERS (Hayley Law, Alex Pettyfer, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Oliver Cooper, Jacob Alexander, Gilles Geary) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

Not for long, though. Mel doesn’t trust his charges overall, and newcomer Lance really has a lot to prove. The gang don’t trust each other much either, and it’s quickly established that Ellis is keeping a watchful eye on Lance for his receptivity to Allie, who is obviously sort of involved with the tougher guy. Tension grows exponentially, with Lance doing a voiceover about the various “lessons” of this trade (ie: “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep”) and how these quickly evolve into rules. The “they” he refers to, of course, is those dang selfish rich people, and it doesn’t quite wash that they deserve all this intrusion and destruction, especially when the motivation of the young anarchists is so selfish and unfocused. As stated earlier, these jerks aren’t that likable; moments of character and conscience are present but scattered. What makes the film compelling is wondering where the slip-ups will occur that will bring this enterprise crashing down, trying to follow Lance’s mini-journey of morality as he’s the most relatable character, and wondering if Mel or Ellis will erupt in violence, something that is certainly hinted at. To the film’s credit, it does NOT take a truly predictable path compared to similar genre offerings, and it does have some things to say about greed and trust issues in a criminal endeavor that is clearly shaky to begin with. This sort of keeps you watching. The opening clips from CNN newsreels about the nature of the times set an interesting tone, but doesn’t really provide enough context for what has motivated these entitled lawbreakers. You’re glad when things are brought to a halt, and I give Savoy credit for keeping a steady hand as a director and pacing the story more than competently.

ECHO BOOMERS (Lesley Ann Warren) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

The actors all do fine, especially Schwarzenegger and Shannon, a veteran of countless productions. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lesley Ann Warren also, who has long been one of my all-time favorite actresses and a genuinely underrated talent for decades. She’s only in a few scenes here, which is a shame, as she always brings a certain authority and believability to anything she does. But it’s still great to catch her again. It’s impossible to say if ECHO BOOMERS will find an enthusiastic audience; it doesn’t break much new ground, and other than seeing a lot of stuff get smashed up, nothing is all that shocking. But it’s worth a view as a character study of bummed-out millennials doing dirty deeds not so dirt cheap. And maybe a rule should be added to Lance’s list which stops at 10: “You play with fire too much, and eventually you’ll probably get burned.


HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.


ROBIN’S WISH

(QUOTABLE PICTURES/VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT (77 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Our impressions of comic genius Robin Williams over the years came mostly from his manic, unpredictably spontaneous appearances on various late night talk shows, where he was a frequent guest, and from his creatively cultivated movie career, where he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was more than just an inspired funnyman in films such as GOOD WILL HUNTING (for which he won an Oscar), DEAD POETS SOCIETY, AWAKENINGS, THE FISHER KING, the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM series and many more. Williams had the kind of crazed, full-tilt energy that was hard to keep up with for audiences and fellow performers alike. “He was a constant spark,” says director Shawn Levy in the poignant new documentary ROBIN’S WISH. “I remember many many days when Ben Stiller and I were watching Robin Williams in his head just GO OFF, and that kind of manic, wildly creative bottomless pit of ideas – that mojo, that ability which was like a superpower; I’d never seen anything like it.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Shawn Levy and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

None of us had, of course. Although other comic icons like George Carlin had the ability to free-associate and connect different thematic threads inventively, Williams was unique in his rapid fire characterizations (often lasting just a few seconds), his physicality and his matchless ability to adjust immediately to a host’s question or an audience’s vibe by veering breathlessly from one comic tour de force to another. Arguably there has never been a comic artist with such an adrenaline-fueled presentation so consistently, and it could wear people out. As the movie makes clear, it sometimes did that to Williams himself. As we learn quickly in this compelling documentary, the culprit for what ultimately preyed upon and then killed Williams was a rare condition called Lewy Body Dementia, an insidious brain condition that has no cure. Williams never knew he had it.

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams memorial outside his home, 2014) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

“Lewy Body Dementia is particularly tragic in the way that it increases anxiety, increases self-doubt, causes delusions and misbeliefs that have never been present,” one of Williams’ main physicians explains. Robin’s wife, Susan Schneider, our primary “guide” for the downward journey we see the icon take in this well-realized doc, adds “When someone gets sick like that, it’s so confusing. It’s not their heart that’s sick. It’s the mainframe. It’s the computer. That’s very different.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams) (photo courtesy: RICHARD CORMAN)

Williams started showing signs of difficulty a couple of years before his death by suicide in 2014, an event that shocked the entertainment world. We hear from many of his close friends and colleagues in the movie such as Rick Overton, Mort Sahl, Shawn Levy (producer/director of the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM franchise) and David E. Kelley (producer of Williams’ final TV project, THE CRAZY ONES, in which he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar). All pay tribute to his love of performing and his boundless comic gifts. There’s a poignant segment on Williams’ close friendship with the late Christpher Reeve, and a spirited chapter on the LA comedy club the Throckmorton, where Williams began showing up for legendary, well-attended improv nights. Some of his colleagues talk about how difficult it was to even keep up with his energy. But some noticed him slowing down or starting to not show up. “There’s nothing sadder than when a comedian is by himself,” says one upon describing seeing Williams sitting alone one day.

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

Something was very wrong, and the tragedy this film makes so clear is that Williams simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Directors such as Levy describe how the actor would need to “check” if his work was okay, needing more and more reassurance. He took it personally, thinking he was losing his talent or ability to focus when in fact the truth was more insidious. Susan Schneider, who tears up and talks about how she and Williams met, how much they were in love and how gradually the change happened, makes the tragic elements of the story abundantly clear. “We had unknowingly been battling a deadly disease,” she says, “one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

It’s a marvel to see Williams doing voiceover work for some of his popular animated characters, and an eventful trip he took to entertain troops in the middle east ends up being unbearably sad. Williams had the proverbial heart of gold; he was a deeply empathetic person, wanting to make a difference to others while sometimes barely being able to reign in the untameable talent he possessed. For all the incredible work he did in his career, 63 seems far too young to be his age at death. He surely had much more to give, and though the film alludes to past episodes of substance abuse, it’s made clear that he was “sober, not on drugs” before he died. The film does a fine job of balancing observations of Williams by those who knew him best, with the need to explain about this bizarre “Lewy body” disease and the awfulness of debilitating brain disorders in general. Be warned that the grief and sadness hold more sway in this doc than the celebratory aspects of Williams’ talent, which you can find elsewhere. ROBIN’S WISH is an examination of a tragedy, an unexpected shutting of the doors on one of the most promising comedy and acting careers of all time. Director Tylor Norwood keeps matters close to the heart throughout, and gives us probably the most personal look we’ve ever had at Williams. If you’re prone to tears, you may want to keep the kleenex box close at hand while watching this movie. The degree to which Williams honestly CARED is the strongest impression you come away with. And you won’t soon forget the moment that Susan finds a scribbled note in one of her husband’s books after he died. It says, simply, “I want to help people be less afraid.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams’ wish) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

More info at: robinswishfilm.com


LIMBO

(UNCORK’D ENTERTAINMENT/ALTERNATE ENDING FILMS/LIMBO ENTERTAINMENT (89 minutes; Unrated); 2020)


Whenever I’m assigned a review for a low-budget indie type film, usually something I’ve never heard of before, I have a tendency to mentally prepare myself for an experience that’ll be tedious and hard to write about, as has been the case more than a few times. It’s just that there are only so many ways to make a film genuinely entertaining and interesting; the “surprise factor” is a rarity in below-the-radar films. Imagine my pleasant reaction, then, when LIMBO turned up, on a particularly bad day for me when I was mostly making myself kill time, and lo and behold it grabbed me right away and didn’t let go. There have been other films that combined the legal profession and the underlying theme of good versus evil – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE comes to mind – but there is enough clever, offbeat stuff in LIMBO to make it a worthy viewing experience. A timeless theme that has occurred throughout the history of films is given some curious new life here thanks to writer/director Mark H Young’s clear interest in the whole “heaven or hell” debate. And yes, I was surprised.

LIMBO (Veronica Cartwright) (publicity still)

A bad brute of a guy, Jimmy Boyle (Lew Temple) commits a senseless murder of a mother of three (Veronica Cartwright in a brief but memorable appearance), and must face justice. It’s giving nothing away to say that he dies himself; the film is concerned with whether he’s going to go to hell, or get a “redemption” that would allow him to go to heaven. So two attorneys in a dingy underworld office must argue the case: Balthazar (Lucian Charles Collier), a young looking guy with an oddly casual accent, gets to make what surely appears to be an open-and-shut case for why this reprehensible killer should go straight to hell, even though the “witnesses” called indicate he had a horrible, abusive father and a drug-addict mother. But not so fast: the white-suited new attorney for Jimmy, an attractive gal named Cassiel (Scottie Thompson) has some pluck and energy to take a deeper look into Jimmy’s past; this includes exploring his atypical relationship with a self-aware prostitute named Angela (Lauryn Canny). Balthazar is being pressured to “close this case down” quickly by a nasty rep for Lucifer named Belial (a fiery Peter Jacobson). And it sure seems like Jimmy is irredeemable; in fact, Cassiel tries to quit the case, figuring this is just NOT going so well. But Mark H Young has some things he wants to say about humanity and justice. “I’m very confused,” Cassiel tells Balthazar at one point. “I put my trust in God. But now that I’ve seen what humans can do with my own eyes, I don’t know what I believe anymore.” And the film does take a more interesting than you’d expect view of what makes a guy bad, with a couple of interesting twists.

LIMBO (Richard Rhiele, Lucian Charles Collier) (publicity still)

There is some dark humor along the way, and a crucial bit of acting levity by Richard Riehle as Phil, a wisecracking stenographer, whom film fans will remember from his role as Tom Smykowski in the cult film OFFICE SPACE. I enjoyed the understated, sort of weary back-and-forth between Collier and Thompson, two actors I was not familiar with; there’s a grudging mutual respect for the very separate worlds of good and evil that each has to represent. We do see various demons with minimal horns sticking out of their heads, including Riehle’s character, walking in and out of various scenes, and there’s an amusing sequence in a hell bar. And by the time Lucifer himself appears near the end (James Purefoy, adding to the endless unique interpretations of a character we’ve been conditioned to ALWAYS be curious about), enough interesting stuff has unfolded in this movie to make Purefoy’s performance a genuine delight.

LIMBO (James Purefoy) (publicity still)

While Temple is mostly one-dimensional in his portrayal as Jimmy, he is certainly unsettling to watch and provides a mostly compelling story arc. Thompson and Collier are both so unconventional they make things move along rather briskly, and Jacobson and Riehle are excellent. LIMBO aims for a fresh look at the most timeless theme in the world, that being good versus evil – and there are times when the plot is really a stretch. Jimmy doesn’t give us enough depth to care that much about him, and certainly there are questions of plausibility throughout. But I truly liked the setup of this film, and the whole notion of everyone getting a “trial” to see which way they are going after they die. The script has more panache than I expected, and I would say Young is a director to watch. I was never bored watching LIMBO; in fact, I am kind of eager to see it again. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, considering my not so enthusiastic attitude when the opening credits first rolled.


TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.


SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”


FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY

(BARNHART FILMS/SABOTAGE FILM GROUP (85 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

Some cities are known for unique landmarks: We have the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and its rich cultural history. Some cities have incredible skylines like Chicago and New York, or are hubs of vitality or historical significance. But poor Flint, Michigan? Not so much. This sad sack of a town first had to deal with GM pulling its factories out and decimating the employment situation, something Michael Moore covered in his documentary, ROGER AND ME. And not long after that? Well, there was kind of a water problem. You know, the color, the toxic nature of it, the corrupt state governor Rick Snyder refusing to do shit for years, people dying, that kind of thing. Talk about a raw deal! This was more like a raw SEWAGE deal, literally and metaphorically, as Flint residents kept asking questions about what was happening to their children and why no one would give them answers about the water crisis in their little city. It’s the difficult subject of a fine documentary by David Barnhart, FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY. Choose your beverage carefully when you watch this thing.

FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)

The system here is telling you that you aren’t worth anything,” says one of the besieged local residents interviewed for the movie. “This isn’t supposed to be happening in America.” No, it sure isn’t. In accumulating detail, we hear from residents about how the closing of GM plants set in motion a horrible sequence of events for this industrial burgh. It depended heavily on GM for jobs and its significance in the scheme of things. “The plants were really the heart and soul of growth and development in Flint,” an African-American local sadly tells us, surveying one of many bleak landscapes left behind. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to that. When they started moving out, that took a toll on the city.” We get to hear all about how crucial water was for the auto industry, but the water was never the same after the industry departed. Phosphates and other pollutants accumulated in the water, and already aging pipes began deteriorating at an alarming rate. One horror after another occurs: 22 million gallons of crap poured into the main river in just two days, rising lead levels, a marked decrease in fertility for the locals (and rising fetal deaths), etcetera. GM had to shut off Flint’s water supply due to the dangerous acidity of the water and the corrosion in the pipes. And in numerous scenes from C-Span and other outlets featuring outraged officials challenging Governor Snyder among others, we get to hear about the cost-cutting measures that worsened the situation, and the attempts to sidestep accountability for how bad things kept getting. Snyder does not come off too well in this documentary. Surprise, surprise… Distinguished Democrat Elijah Cummings (who died not long after this film wrapped) is shown getting increasingly angry about the awful quagmire that enveloped Flint and he doesn’t mince words. “This is a community of people rendered invisible in a thousand ways. It’s environmental racism!”” he shouts.

The sense of futility among Flint’s residents is a thematic through-line here, though many of them keep trying to raise the issue to anyone who will listen, and a female pastor in the town is quoted frequently. We’re giving specific stats about the lead content in the water, how the water pipes had a “protective scale” that failed due to cost cutting, and the increasingly ill health suffered by residents, thought to result in perhaps 119 deaths. And if you’re not outraged enough, you get to learn about how Nestle was pumping water out of Michigan for its own profit, a development that made the news more than once. You can truly lose it watching some of this awfulness, and the film wants to make sure you get the point. Poor people (mostly of color) were the primary victims of this mess, and Snyder and other inept politicians may have thought the matter wouldn’t rise to the level of a national scandal. But they were wrong. The publicity grew so intense that steps had to be taken, although they weren’t enough. It’s important to note that Lansing, a nearby city, took preventive steps to replace similarly faulty pipes, at great expense. And we hear a sobering stat that “5300 US cities were found to have overly dangerous levels of lead in their water.” Visually we see numerous vacant landscapes, deteriorating buildings, and children in school attempting to lead normal lives, despite the impossibility. You can only feel awful at the fate of these families, and despite a few corrective measures eventually being taken, the problems remain. Talk about a bitter lesson about what can happen in America when greed and indifference hold sway over the health and needs of minorities.

FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)

This is not a fun film, but writer/director Barnhart has really put a searing indictment of the problem together, with help from skilled editor Scott Lansing. We don’t always get such an informative, powerful movie when a crisis such as this occurs. It makes you wonder about all the controversial things that go on that are simply swept under the rug or factually squelched before the media and caring officials can take action. The significance of FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY goes well beyond stirring your sympathies for some unlucky people in the industrial north. It’s an awful true-life tale of the perils of capitalism, the crucial (and often ignored) need for corporate regulation, and the way helpless communities are often victimized by cynical politicians. I doubt you’ll laugh even once watching this despairing portrait of the downside of America, but you’ll learn an awful lot. And you may hesitate even more about drinking your own tap water. To think that something as essential and basic as water could be a major problem for an entire US city, well, that’s hard to stomach.


A “DEADSIGHT” BETTER THAN SOME ZOMBIE FLICKS: THE ADAM SEYBOLD INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

ADAM SEYBOLD in DEADSIGHT (publicity still)

Zombie minimalism. I doubt it will become a THING, as most audience members probably WANT to see oozing-faced members of the undead fraternity, ravenous for fresh flesh and single-minded of purpose. There is nothing discrete or casual about the way zombies behave (not that there is a rulebook on such), but director Jesse Thomas Cook (THE HOARD, SEPTIC MAN) deserves a spot on some future panel discussing the zombie cinema genre, which DEADSIGHT, after two years of industry machinations, is now a part of. It seems like Cook and his two stars, Adam Seybold and Liv Collins, are pretty familiar with zombie and plague movie lore, and mostly decided NOT to follow in the footsteps of George Romero, Danny Boyle, et al. They took their own restrained path, somewhat admirably. Cook, Seybold and Collins (who also co-wrote the script) gamely try to tell a suspenseful story in an idiom which has been done to death on both the big and small screen. Seybold plays an injured everyman, Ben Neilson, who has just had a tough eye operation, resulting in seriously impaired vision. He’s hoping to get back to his family soon, but something is terribly wrong. Ben is clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to skulking dead dudes who keep showing up hoping to snack on him. His only ally is a pregnant police officer who crosses his path, Mara Madigan (Liv Collins), taking it moment by moment in what is now a rural “zombieland.” The two must team up simply to survive.

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW

“For me the attraction of making a movie like this, is that you’re not really making a ‘zombie movie,'” said Adam Seybold, during a recent phoner, of portraying Ben with both vulnerability and determination. “I’m playing a regular person who is blind, trying to get back to my family. And I meet a woman who is trying to survive WITH me. That’s what we’re doing. All you can do is play the moment to moment truth of what is happening. There are only so many ways to show a zombie outbreak. In terms of explaining where they come from, we don’t really do that. Viewers are smart about that. There just happen to be zombies. It’s better to just let the story happen and use zombies as a backdrop.”

Oh, they’re a bit more than a backdrop. Poor Ben never knows when he is gonna hear erratic footsteps behind him, and have to fend off another attack. Mara has the firepower, however, and Ben wants her close by at all times, especially when he learns she is pregnant.

“Liv was actually pregnant during the shoot,” he revealed. She was exhausted much of the time. But she was such a trooper. I’d say, ‘You should be at home resting instead of running around with a double-barreled shotgun!”

ADAM SEYBOLD in CREEP NATION (publicity still)

The two have an easy rapport on screen, despite the rather minimal dialogue. They previously appeared in CREEP NATION together, which Seybold described as a “PSYCHO for the modern age.” In DEADSIGHT, they often spent rainy, cold days on set trying to crack jokes and keep each other grounded.

“She’s one of my favorite co-stars,” he said. “We’ve worked together a couple of times. It makes those transitions (from off-camera waiting to ACTION) easier. Some actors save it all for the camera. But Liv and I are chatty by nature, so we’d try to crack each other up between scenes. It makes such a difference when you are comfortable with someone, and you can trust each other.”

How did Seybold prepare for such a challenging shoot? After all, he has gauze wrapped around his eyes for most of the film, and there are scenes of him attempting to make his way up steep hills or maneuver through the rooms of an unfamiliar house. Seems dangerous!

ADAM SEYBOLD with JORDAN HAYES in EXIT HUMANITY (publicity still)

“As much as possible I tried to limit how much I could see,” he said. “Unless there were obvious safety issues. I’m sure there’s hours of outtakes Jesse has where I am wandering out of the shot or something. But when your eyes are closed, you’re not really acting anymore. You might be truly in danger. I think that’s why we make horror films. It takes you to that edge. Sometimes it’s miserable while you’re IN it, the frustration of not being able to see. But I chose that situation ‘cause it does take you beyond the limit. My day job is a writer, and I don’t have those concerns. My biggest decision is, am I gonna have tea or coffee?”

I commented on the surprisingly minimal action for a zombie movie, and the rather austere look of the film. Did Seybold sense it was going that way when they were shooting? “I haven’t actually seen the finished film yet,” he responded. “We shot it two years ago. I think that initially, Jesse told me, they had something a little more comedic in mind when they conceived it. That was the vibe before Liv and I. But based on our skill set, it was the way we acted together that changed the movie. Stemming from the vulnerability of these two people. So I guess the acting and direction ended up becoming more naturalistic.”

While films such as DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIELAND seemed to take pleasure in featuring gorey closeups of the dead either having flesh fiestas or getting blown to smithereens, DEADSIGHT avoids that kind of thing for the most part. Yet it is still suspenseful, and the zombies are in some ways even more believable as a result.

ADAM SEYBOLD in EJECTA (publicity still)

“They are what makes the movie,” agreed Seybold. “If the zombies don’t work, the whole thing falls apart. It’s a credit to the tone that it worked so well.” An early scene of a “transitioning” woman confronting Officer Madigan near her police car is rather unsettling; you don’t know what to expect, and Collins plays it that way. But creepier still are shadowy figures showing up a distance from Ben and starting to shuffle towards him. This sort of thing is almost never good in horror movies. And having Ben be virtually blind is an undeniably interesting touch. But whatever DEADSIGHT’s strengths, it’s unclear if audiences will discover such a “subtle” tale of the undead.

“That’s out of my control,” said Seybold. “I don’t know about niche. I’ve done enough things now where I play the game of how things will be received. You can’t write a hit on purpose, or by accident. It’s been two years since we shot the movie. It exists in a time when I was with those people. I had a great time working on the movie. Those people are my friends, like brothers and sisters. And that’ll be true, whatever the outcome.”

PART THREE: THE REVIEW

DEADSIGHT

(RLJE FILMS/RAVEN BANNER/FORESIGHT FEATURES (82 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

I’m a fan of minimalism, I gotta admit. And when you’re talking about a cinematic genre as inherently goreworthy and unhinged as zombie horror, it’s admirable if a director does NOT aim to out gross-out the likes of DAWN OF THE DEAD, 28 WEEKS LATER, WORLD WAR Z, TV shows such as THE WALKING DEAD, et cetera. Honestly, the restraint shown by director Jesse Thomas Cook in lensing this modest production was the first thing I admired.

DEADSIGHT (Adam Seybold) (publicity still)

The film opens with a partially blind man, Ben (Adam Seybold), awakening in a hospital disoriented about where he is and what the hell is going on, a story element borrowed from Danny Boyle’s classic 28 DAYS LATER. Ben’s eyes are covered in gauze wrap, and he knows enough to put drops in them periodically, but everything is quite blurry. And rather than staying put, Ben decides to wander around and see what he can suss out from his surroundings. This is not a wise choice, as periodically a shadowy figure will appear behind him or come out of nowhere, and these of course are the undead. Weirdly, they often take their time in stalking and trying to dine on Ben, which tends to give him opportunities to hide or whack the living shit out of them with his little walker weapon. Ben seems a little too bold and clever for this story, and I found it hard to believe he could just walk up hills and locate empty houses as easily as he did having very little of his eyesight to aid him. But I don’t fault Seybold as an actor; he’s reasonably effective, and not overly emotional in his portrayal.

DEADSIGHT (Liv Collins) (publicity still)

It’s a lonely journey for Ben until a female… and rather pregnant police officer named Mara Madigan (Liv Collins) crosses paths with him. Mara has had a few zombie encounters of her own, and it’s probably best that we don’t get much exposition of how this particular apocalypse came about and why Mara ended up the lone officer on her force, pretending to do her job when the only sensible pursuit is terminating these ugly zombies with extreme prejudice. There is an interesting scene early on where Mara confronts a female almost-zombie, and it’s almost poignant. Somehow the hapless officer allows the transitioning undead missy to get in her squad car and drive off. That struck me as ludicrous… wouldn’t she have shot the fuck out of her before she could get in the vehicle? And how far can you get as a soon-to-be-undead citizen, already drooling and covered with oozing sores, behind the wheel of a car? These questions are not answered; Officer Madigan continues rather calmly on foot, and reaches Ben just in time to blast a hungry fiend before it could snack on the hapless sight no-seer. Whatever tension that remains at this point comes from the cautious relationship between Ben and Mara, which is underplayed and not as well scripted as it ought to be. Still, the actors are watchable and grounded in this peculiar reality. There are no dumb speeches, and thankfully, no romance. But the two do care about each other, and Ben shows plenty of compassion upon learning that Mara is preggers.

DEADSIGHT (Jessica Vano) (publicity still)

Each zombie kill is distinct, and there are no scenes of hordes of ravenous undead descending upon our heroes, as is usually typical of these films. It’s actually a fairly quiet drama overall, with little or no excess gore. And I want to say that the cinematography is a bit better than you might expect. That is thanks to a guy named Jeff Maher, who films the empty, half forested landscape (probably the eastern US) with a disarmingly pastoral sweep, making you notice the trees and the winding rural roads at all times, so that when a creepy figure emerges from a roadside in the background, it has maximum dramatic effect. Also the film pays attention to how many bullets Officer Madigan has in her gun, a detail I appreciated. And the script counts Collins as a co-writer and producer, so bully for her for committing to every aspect of this movie. I give it points for underplaying what is normally the type of horror that absolutely goes for broke in the gore and/or black comedy department (as ZOMBIELAND did). The music score is restrained, the action is selective, and I admire the fact that very little is explained.

DEADSIGHT (Adam Seybold, Liv Collins) (publicity still)

This ends up being a minimal two-character drama overall, and I can’t name another zombie movie you can say that about. It’s pretty suspenseful, and I was not bored by DEADSIGHT, which I sort of expected to be. It’s made with attitude and an understanding of its cinematic template, while seeming determined to avoid most of the cliches of the genre. Sure, it has a few screws loose, and I would have written a few more soul-sharing conversations for the two leads, but DEADSIGHT moves briskly and economically through its contribution to a genre that would seemingly have little new territory to explore. And that’s a “dead sight” more than you have a right to ask for.


The flick is available on DVD, Digital HD and Video-On-Demand beginning Tuesday, July 2.


AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET

(ITN DISTRIBUTION/FRIGHT TECK PICTURES/DAGGER 3 MEDIA (104 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

I want to say something straight off the bat. B movies or even Grade “Z” movies should NOT be weighted against big budget or “major” films when they’re evaluated. It’s not fair. There are different tiers to moviemaking, and a low-budget production with unknown actors is NOT in competition with “regular” movies that get wide distribution. Or even a Netflix offering. Such films should be seen as what they are, lower-tier offerings that are either entertaining or NOT. And let them exist on that level for better or worse, while recognizing that they may still stink, or not. We NEED these films, and they can launch the careers of talented people sometimes. Enough said.

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (KateLynn E Newberry, Rob Jaeger, Brianna Burke) (publicity still)

So, this low-budget horror film, AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET came my way, and it survived two immediate tests for me as a viewer. First, it is entertaining. And, being a horror film, it’s actually rather suspenseful. It has some scares, and doesn’t always quite do what you might think. So I give it points for that. The titular Lilith Ratchet was an ill-fated woman who suffered losses during the Civil War (including her head) and vowed revenge for her suffering, via a series of chanted phrases which, if invoked along with her name, will cause hellish torments for those doing the chanting. When an antique shop owner sells the supposedly “shrunken head” of poor ol’ Lilith in a mysterious box many years later (the buyers are two curious young women, Alice Crow and her friend Lauren), a disturbing series of events begin to unfold, especially after Alice (KateLynn E Newberry) and Lauren (Brianna Burke) approach a paranormal radio show host named Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger), whose show “Beyond the Veil” is immensely popular with the locals. The girls want to know more about this “thing” they bought, and Hunter sees an opportunity to get serious attention if he arranges for a “chanting game” to be done live in a local watering hole on Halloween. The kids can just toss Lilith around, say those phrases, keep pouring drinks, and see what kind of merriment results. I mean, what are the odds that the demonic spirit of Lilith Ratchet (Crissy Kolarik) would suddenly return and start inflicting nasty mayhem on all these fun-loving youngsters? Well, there wouldn’t be a movie if she didn’t, right?

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (Crissy Kolarik) (publicity still)

Lilith is not your garden variety 19th century spinster, let it be said. She has terrible teeth frozen in a murderous grin, beady eyes bent on watching you take your last breath, and black, long, curving fingernails just perfect for slicing through youthful flesh. To paraphrase the Terminator, “she can’t be reasoned with, she can’t be bargained with, and she will not STOP until you are dead.” Hunter thought he was just gonna get some ratings for his podcast, and poor Alice and Lauren, while clearly spooked by disturbing visions and understandable apprehension, try to go along with the proceedings semi-enthusiastically. Nate, Lauren’s boyfriend (George Tutie), is not happy about the big “Beyond the Veil” fiesta and leaves the proceedings early. You can probably guess what happens to him. This Lilith gal, though a little too pleased with herself for her demonic ways, has an agenda, and unless the somewhat smug Mister Perry can suss out what to do, Ratchet will NOT bury the hatchet. It’s best not to get too attached to any of the characters in this film, to say the least. While most of the acting is simply functional, Newberry puts some real energy into her role as Alice and has you believing some of this craziness is really happening. She’s a gifted actress with a slew of credits as it turns out. Jaeger has a kind of generic charisma, and Burke acts like she’s at least trying. As for the nasty Ms Ratchet, her makeup designer deserves as much credit as the actress, although being singularly demonic for over 90 minutes has gotta take some concentration. The guy putting this vision on screen in its totality, however, is writer/director Eddie Lengyel, who has a good sense of pacing and a clear understanding of common horror movie tropes… the jump scare, the build-up, the power of an evil face, et cetera. Although everything in the movie is something we’ve seen before, Lengvel knows the formula well. Certain things are kind of ridiculous: the shrunken head itself, the ludicrous scene where Hunter evades Lilith by hiding in a bathroom stall with the door not even fully closed (I mean, come on… if you’re a demon and you’ve shown your ability to float in and out of EVERY physical space, how would a BATHROOM stall flummox you when you’re victim hunting?), the supposedly “crowded” party which seems to boast no more than a few dozen participants. I also was annoyed at the lack of genuine emotion shown when various characters found out their significant other had bought it. I can’t elaborate without giving stuff away, but come on… you’re gonna cry and be in anguish if your loved one is now history at the hands of a demonic old woman, right? There are a couple of exceptions to this complaint, thankfully.

All this said, there is something admirably purposeful about …THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET. It keeps moving, it has a fairly riveting nasty at the center, and it uses music well (some of that supplied by Timothy Smith). And at least a few of the actors rise to the occasion. The biggest “curse” I find in movies like this is usually that they are boring and show stupid people behaving stupidly. I was not bored watching the film, and I didn’t groan that much watching these characters. So hey, let’s give this little fright flick its due. But Eddie, my boy, I don’t think Lilith could really be called a “poltergeist.” Look up the definition. This vengeful bitch belongs in another category; she doesn’t just move objects around. She does some serious slicin’ and dicin’, and in case you decide to do a sequel (there is a hint of that), lose the “p” word. Just a thought…