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THE BEATLES: GET BACK

(DISNEY PICTURES/APPLE CORPS LTD/WINGNUT FILMS (468 minutes; Rated PG-13); 2021)

You can’t really argue that GET BACK, the new three-part documentary directed by Peter Jackson about a pivotal month in the life of the Beatles during their last year together, isn’t THE cultural media event of Fall 2021. It’s been talked about for months, Paul McCartney himself did an NPR interview in which he discussed it, and it aroused the emotions of Beatle fans everywhere when the pandemic caused the project to morph from an intended theatrical film to a much longer documentary to be streamed exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, for three nights over the Thanksgiving holiday. Speculation in advance was intense, as one contingent of fans feared it would “whitewash” the long-discussed tensions of the Fab Four in their final days (which the previous LET IT BE documentary certainly left one with knowledge of), and another contingent waited for validation of long held beliefs: that Yoko broke up the Beatles, that Paul was a dictatorial tyrant in those last days, that George Harrison had simply had enough and stormed out in anger, and that the lads were simply incapable of working together creatively anymore after the many pressures of being the most successful and influential rock band in history.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (John Lennon, Peter Jackson) (publicity still)

Well, then. New Zealand’s legendary director Jackson, never having been shy about tackling enormous, “impossible” projects (remember that LORD OF THE RINGS thing?) has a mega documentary for YOU! And guess what? You can put everything you thought you knew about the Beatles’ final days aside, and marvel at the intimate scope and cumulative effect of this roughly eight-hour saga and the many revelations it contains. First, some clarity: This is not really a film about the “final days” of the Fabs. What we have here is a cinema diary of just over three weeks from January 1969, when the band was working on a planned project that became LET IT BE, intended to be a film, album and concert that would capture their intention to “get back” to a more youthful, spontaneous atmosphere that’d harken back to… well, when they were more youthful and spontaneous. A look at the ACTUAL last days of the Beatles would focus on the ABBEY ROAD recording, the massive tensions created by Allen Klein being hired to manage their financial affairs (a pivotal decision supported by all but McCartney, who fought it tooth and nail and had to sue the other three to put an end to Klein’s shady practices), and John Lennon’s increasing desire to be with Yoko and do his own thing instead of being wrapped up in the monstrous machine that was THE BEATLES. You see all the seeds of this stuff in Jackson’s doc: Klein is introduced in the latter half of it, Yoko is seen at John’s side throughout most of the footage, and songs that later appeared on ABBEY ROAD are indeed rehearsed and talked about in many segments. But no, this is NOT an investigation of what broke up the Beatles. Jackson was given access to 60+ hours of unseen video and roughly 150 hours of unheard audio, and from this massive trove, he culled together a day-by-day record of what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing during those fabled days first at Twickenham Studio (where they were under pressure to get stuff done before the movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN was to take over the place, starring Ringo and Peter Sellers), and later at #3 Saville Row, home to the Beatles’ own Apple Records label. The band had a reasonably interesting project in mind; you can’t fault their intentions, and all seemed eager to dive in and work after a fairly long break following the White Album. But things did NOT go smoothly, and we see quite clearly that they were in over their heads, unable to figure out WHERE to stage a live performance, WHICH songs to record and HOW to carry on efficiently without a “daddy figure” (as McCartney refers to Brian Epstein, who’d previously sheltered the boys to some extent from the worst tensions brought on by fame and industry pressures). Jackson had an absolutely daunting task here: All this footage has been buried in a vault for half a century, and the Beatles clearly had NO taste for delving into a pile o’ stuff that would, rumor had it, show them in their worst moments, unable to cooperate with each other long enough to simply record a new album and go on about the business of being the world’s biggest band.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) (publicity still)

Except, that is not what happened. The story was WAY more complex than that, and not nearly so bleak. This amazing documentary allows us to travel back in time and be “flies on the wall” at the daily recording sessions, where the four lads discuss various songs and impulses, jam spontaneously, and gradually shape the compositions that would eventually become the songs most of us know like the back of our hands by now. Repeated segments showing the evolution of songs such as “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Two of Us” are fascinating, and from a songwriting point of view, the insight into the process is invaluable. You may get sick of some of the repetition, but I’m pretty sure most committed Beatles fans won’t mind at all. To see how “Get Back” evolved from being a “protest song” about immigrants to a more aesthetically vague pop/rock tune that the boys agreed should be the next single, is captivating. And “Two of Us” has layers of resonance about the close relationship between Paul and John, both in the actual lyrics of the song (“You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches/Out ahead… “) and in the discussions we are privy to about the arrangement, in terms of whether it should be a simple acoustic song or something more sonically dense, with many scenes showing the two most famous songwriters working closely together to try to get it right. They ALL want to do that, and these things take TIME. Plain and simple. We see them getting impatient, making fun of themselves, and trying various things over and over. It could and does get tedious at times. The infamous exchange between Paul and George where the latter mutters that he’ll “play anything you want, or I won’t play at all if it will please you… ” that was a focal point in LET IT BE, occurs here with much greater context, that primarily being that Paul was trying to be the taskmaster and keep the group focused, not only on specific arrangements but on getting things DONE in a timely manner. With the full backdrop of the proceedings on display here, it’s pretty reasonable, and George’s impatience is understandable, not because McCartney was a jerk, but because “it’s all too much” at times. Plain and simple.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (publicity still)

George, of course, does walk out for a while; every essay about this documentary has talked about that. In 1969, Harrison was truly coming into his own as a songwriter, and there are two pivotal scenes that deal with this. A remarkable private conversation between Paul and John is captured on audio. John declares, “It’s like George said, he didn’t get enough satisfaction anymore because of the compromise he had to make to be together… it’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed to… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” Paul is listening, clearly, and responds: “Yeah, we treat him a bit like that. See, because he knows what we’re on about. But I do think that he’s right. That’s why I think we’ve got the problem now, the four of us. You go one way, George one way, and me another… “

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (photo credit LINDA MCCARTNEY/APPLE CORPS LTD)

The revelatory conversation continues with John openly stating he’s intimidated at times by Paul’s insistence on certain arrangements, and how he’s sometimes given up speaking out in favor of his own thing. He admits that “sometimes you’re right” to Paul, but that other times he has disagreed with the final results. In the context of all we know about the Beatles, this is just groundbreaking, to have this inside look at a tension-packed time. Meanwhile, we’re all aware of what was coming next for George Harrison. He was writing tons of new songs, including numbers like “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and a little tune called “Something.” A much talked-about scene shows George struggling with the line to follow “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like… ” Lennon comically suggests singing anything at all until a good fit is found. “Attracts me like a cauliflower,” he suggests, and a different scene shows George singing “attracts me like a pomegranate.” This is all pretty amusing, but when you step back for a moment and realize you’re seeing one of the greatest songs ever written in its infancy, a song that was obviously one of the highlights of the Beatles’ soon-to-be final studio album, ABBEY ROAD, you can’t help but be totally caught up in George’s place in music history right here. There’s a separate conversation between John and George where the latter tells John he’s written about “20 new songs” and that it would take ten more Beatle albums to get them all out there at the current rate of “two George songs per album.” George suggests he may just have to do a solo album, something which at first surprises John, and then seems to turn a light bulb on in his head. We all know what actually happened, and it’s simply another revelatory moment. So is seeing George being the pragmatic one through most of this documentary. While the others are brainstorming ludicrous ideas like doing a performance at an ancient historical site in Libya, or taking a selected group of fans on a large ship across the ocean to be the audience for whatever they’re gonna do, George wryly declares “We can’t even get Fender to send us a free amp.” This documentary will almost certainly increase your respect for George Harrison and his importance to the Beatles…

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Billy Preston, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Yoko Ono) (photo courtesy: THE BEATLES)

Does the film show Paul McCartney as a raging egomaniac? No, because they ALL clearly were. Remember, they were already the most famous group in the world with endless expectations heaped upon them everywhere. We get to see various members reading their own press at the time, richly entertaining, including George reading a bit about him and John coming to physical blows, an event that did NOT actually happen. Paul is definitely shown paying the most attention to specific song arrangements, and the reality of trying to meet their deadlines, but he is about collaboration all the way. It’s amazing to see him and John working together closely; you really WANT them to figure everything out and keep making remarkable music. Songs that never became official Beatle songs are given bits of time, such as McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” and “Another Day” and Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and “Child of Nature,” which would in a couple of years morph into “Jealous Guy.” And wow, is there some fun seeing early versions of ABBEY ROAD tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (showing Beatles road manager Mal Evans banging a device gleefully), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “Polythene Pam” enter the picture. Everything is a question mark in this film: WHAT songs will they record? WHAT songs will they play for whatever live concert they are going to do? How can they possibly deliver when they feel they only have maybe half a dozen songs with fully developed arrangements?

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy DISNEY PICTURES)

But what is NOT yet truly a question: Are the Beatles going to break up? NO, that is not yet obvious. There are no “fights” in the conventional sense here; the lads are having a good time, they clown around, they crack jokes. It’s surprising in particular to see how good-humored Lennon is most of the time. He’s happy to have Yoko around (SHE, by the way, is almost continually a gentle presence, never intrusive, and even defended by Paul in a couple of scenes (“they just wanna be together, you know… “). With remarkable foresight, Paul declares in one scene, “Wouldn’t it be funny if in 50 years people say, ‘Oh, Yoko broke up the Beatles because she sat on an amplifier?'” So there’s plenty of myth smashing in GET BACK. When this footage was being shot by original LET IT BE director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (looking more youthful than you’d think and probably a bit in over his head), there were still several possible futures for the Beatles. That is crucial, because this film is NOT a breakup film. It’s about ambition, mega fame, the ups and downs of collaboration, artistic egos stretched to the limit, and problem solving on a grand scale. Watch the happy look on John Lennon’s face when keyboardist Billy Preston enters the scene and shows effortlessly that he can spruce up the arrangements on some of these new songs. “You’re IN the band!” Lennon tells him. Watch a fetching Linda Eastman and her energetic young daughter Heather, respectively, holding hands with Paul and taking photos (Linda and Paul were two months away from their fabled wedding at the time of this footage) and dancing around the studio gleefully, exuberant as a young girl could be. And watch, for the first time, the legendary “rooftop concert” in its entirety, the Beatles’ final live appearance, which of course was filmed on top of Savile Row, to the delight of some on the street below and the consternation of many others, including the British bobbies, who amusingly try to shut things down because of complaints. People on the street are interviewed and shown in effective cross cuts as the Beatles play, reflecting a reasonable cross section of opinions. This is music history, folks. But it’s told in a fresh, fascinating manner that changes what we thought we knew about the Beatles. And Peter Jackson wisely avoids any present-day interviews… he stated his desire to avoid that sort of thing. Nope, this is time capsule stuff, our unique opportunity to experience what the Beatles were going through in January of 1969.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS LIMITED)

It’s amazing, honestly. What was to follow was the group throwing up their hands in despair at their inability to complete the planned album (in a still controversial move, the whole thing was handed over to Phil Spector, resulting in an album that almost no one would be completely happy with), a stunning decision to record a brand-new studio album that would give George Martin one more chance to fully produce the band, George Harrison a chance to show he’d finally equalled the others in songwriting prowess, and give McCartney a chance to spearhead perhaps the greatest medley ever featured on a rock album; a furious legal battle over Allen Klein and the failure of the other three Beatles to stop McCartney from releasing his debut solo album BEFORE the release of LET IT BE (the accompanying press at the time appeared to show McCartney “officially” announcing the end of the Beatles, even though that isn’t quite accurate), a disbelieving fan kingdom unwilling to believe it was “the end,” and of course, lots and lots of nasty comments and bad feelings. But that was what would FOLLOW the events in GET BACK. It is NOT what we see on screen, which is in fact an energetic, lively, mostly upbeat look at an intense collaborative period by four of the most famous musicians in history and their handlers, all trying to respond to the immense pressure of gargantuan fame. GET BACK really is a treat, if sometimes a patience-testing experience, that will be richly rewarding for dedicated Beatles fans. You won’t forget it if you watch it with focus and attention. There are scenes that are simply stunning in what they tell us, all these years later. And it’s invaluable as a detailed look at the creative process itself. Sure, it’s a pain to have to find a way to get Disney+ in order to watch this thing. But do it. Really. There has never been a documentary as insightful and surprising, in musical terms, as THE BEATLES: GET BACK. We owe Peter Jackson a debt of gratitude for pulling this off, and let’s be happy for Paul, Ringo and the wives of John and George, for seeing a critical record set straight at last.

UPDATE: Since this review was written, a DVD of the film was scheduled for release in February 2022. Apparently, a few copies managed to make it into the hands of some lucky fans, though once Amazon’s stock was depleted, the Disney Company pulled the package from its schedule and in April announced that the title has been delayed indefinitely due to “authoring challenges.” It now appears that the DVD and Blu-Ray editions will be released, at least in the UK, on July 26. The three-part docuseries is still streaming at Disney+.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand

PARADISE COVE

(QUIVER DISTRIBUTION/VOLTAGE PICTURES/CRASHING WAVE PRODUCTIONS/SUNSET PICTURES/THUNDER STUDIOS (144 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

I don’t know, sometimes it’s not that complicated. Despite the fact I’ve been watching more movies than usual in the pandemic era and have in general been predisposed to like most of them, I still require an engaging plot and some kind of cinematic ZIP to push my thumb to the UP position. And the little sucker is resisting efforts to do so when it comes to PARADISE COVE, a new Malibu-set thriller directed by Martin Guigui. The only known star in this thing is Mena Suvari, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long while. It was good to have a new appearance by her as kind of a guide, and she’s decent here as the restless, aching-to-get-pregnant wife of a guy who just took possession of the shell of his late mother’s beach house in Malibu, which needs – let’s just say – a ton of work. The setting is lovely enough, and our young couple, Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Suvari) are shown admiring the view, playing with their tiny dog, and clinking wine glasses together as they discuss how much they want to have a child and Tracey’s apparent difficulty getting pregnant. Knox doesn’t seem too bothered by anything, and assures his wife that everything’s going to work out fine.

PARADISE COVE (TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

It’s a jolt, then, to discover that they have a mysterious squatter living below their abode-in-progress. That would be Bree (Kristen Bauer van Straten), a shifty, wild-eyed woman who looks older than her twenty-something age and is more than well-known to the locals, including a bar maid who telegraphs that something may be amiss with this gal, and to Sheriff Garcia (Ruben Garfias), who sees her mostly as a harmless nuisance. Ah, but Bree is more than just a danger in paradise. She is clearly unhinged, manipulative and not receptive in the least to Knox’s efforts to get her to relocate. A bit of background is provided about a tragedy she endured with a young son, and Knox tries to be sympathetic to her. But she’s not the sort to “work out a deal” with him or anything. And she quickly gets on the bad side of Tracey, too, who hardly wants to set aside her preoccupations with pregnancy and finances to deal with this crazy lady. Sparks are gonna fly, you might say. And sharp knives, hammers and coldly barbed insults are also gonna be utilized. That kinda stuff can definitely impinge on the aesthetic beauty of crashing waves and crying seagulls outside the window. A scene of Bree sneaking into the shower with Knox is downright ludicrous, and it’s sort of where I began losing patience with this film. Although Bree is reasonably attractive, I simply did NOT believe Knox would react as he did in this scene, not after what had already happened. In fact, Knox’s less-than-smart decisions throughout the movie detract from the sympathy he might have earned as the central character. He’s not all that bright, slow at putting the big picture together, and less than a truly reassuring husband for poor Tracey. As an actor, Grinnell LOOKS the part of an in-over-his-head husband, and he fits nicely with Suvari’s mostly plaintive, concerned wife. But he’s missing something in the charisma department, and his performance is simply too low-key in these proceedings. By the time a big confrontation occurs, there has not been enough energy built up to give this “thriller” an actual thrill. You just sort of want to get it over with.

PARADISE COVE (MENA SUVARI, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

I will say that the premise is a reasonably interesting one – the list of movies about deranged homeless females in Malibu is a short one, as far as I know. And Bauer van Straten’s is the notable performance here. She’s a character who is not overtly psychopathic… more someone who gets under your skin by being rude and insensitive, and then starts doing increasingly nasty things without warning until you and your new place are in BIG trouble. The character has some compelling moments, and yeah, she’ll likely creep you out plenty. There’s a bit of “Fatal Attraction-lite” about Bree and her doings here.

PARADISE COVE (KRISTIN BAUER VAN STRATEN, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

But ultimately this movie is somewhat of a tiresome watch, despite the scenic setting. Nobody is genuinely likable, the plot pushes at the limits of credibility a bit too often, and Knox and Tracey, while you basically ROOT for them, are kind of a bland, unromantic couple. The film lacks any big or genuinely impactful scenes that would make you invest more deeply in these characters. And as a so-called “thriller,” there’s a paucity in that regard, also, except for one or two sudden moments. Mena Suvari fans might enjoy seeing her in a sizable role like this, and some may find the film an okay diversion. But my stomach felt empty at the end of the movie and so did my brain. Not exactly “Paradise,” in other words, for my cinema-loving self.

PARADISE COVE is available now On Demand.

WAITING FOR YOUR CALL: THE TIMOTHY WOODARD, JUNIOR INTERVIEW

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR (photo credit: EVAN DE NORMANDIE)

Timothy Woodward, Junior is an actor, a writer, a producer and a director. He has done at least one of those jobs, and in some cases, most of those jobs on a variety of TV shows and film projects, including STUDIO CITY, HICKOK, BEYOND THE LAW, AMERICAN VIOLENCE and THE FINAL WISH.

Woodward’s current project is THE CALL, a psychological horror movie set in 1987 and starring the wonderful duo of Lin Shaye (THE FINAL WISH and the INSIDIOUS franchise) and Tobin Bell (the SAW franchise) as a seclusive couple who, after being tormented by four teenage pranksters (played by Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning and Sloane Morgan Siegel), suffer a horrible tragedy. Edward Cranston calls the four to tell them that his wife, Edith, has died and has named each of them in her will. There’s a catch, however. For them to collect the money, each of them must go to a room in the Cranston home and make a phone call… to Edith, who had a telephone buried with her. If the youths can stay on the line for one minute, they will get their inheritance. Along the way, each must face their biggest fears and regrets. The film is a dark and brooding character study that occasionally brings to mind the lurid Slasher flicks of the 1980s in vivid splashes of red.

THE CALL DVD box

After a brief run at drive-in theaters in October, THE CALL will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 15 at the usual outlets. This brief phone interview with Timothy was conducted on October 2, the day of the film’s theatrical release.

THE MULE: So, we got ten minutes. Let’s jump right into it. Watched the movie last night. I liked it… a lot. I’ve gotta say, a lot of stuff made sense to me that didn’t make sense in the trailer. Primarily, the press release said that it was set in 1987 and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why such a bizarre… I mean, why pick 1987? And then… I mean, this is an homage to those classic Horror/Slasher movies from that time period.

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR: Yeah. For sure. And, you know, I turned four years old in 1987. That was the first year I watched my first ever Horror movie. So, that’s also why I picked that year. Could be the setting, ‘cause it was originally kind of generic ‘80s, so I picked ‘87. I just thought there was a lot of Horror that was coming out around that time. I kinda started setting out the sort of ‘80s Horror vibe.

THE MULE: Yeah, it worked really well, too.

TWJ: Thank you. I think we’re gonna release another trailer that’s gonna have more of an ‘80s vibe. We had two and we were going back and forth on which one we were gonna use. We didn’t want people, when they saw the trailer, to think that we were using the ‘80s almost as a crutch. So, we wanted to kinda catch people with the hook and then potentially release another one where we kinda focus on, you know, the more… as we get closer to the movie, the uniqueness instead of violence in the trailer.

THE CALL (Lin Shaye) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Sure, sure. The one thing I gotta ask you, man: Working with Lin and Tobin had to be just absolutely incredible. How did you snag them for this work? I know that Lin had… she’s got a production credit in there but, other than that, how did you end up choosing them for these roles and how was it to work with them?

TWJ: So, I got the script, actually, from Lin’s manager through Lin. They were already producers on it and they gave it to me to direct. I worked with Lin on THE FINAL WISH. Jeffrey Reddick (producer on both films) and I had a really good rapport and working relationship on that movie and they liked what I did. They came to me and said, “Hey, look, we’ve got this script and we’d like you to direct it, maybe come on board as producer. What do you think?” And I wanted to work with Miss Lin again… in a heartbeat so, I read it, liked the concept and we started punching up the characters and, I think a couple months later we were in production, ready to go.

THE CALL (Tobin Bell) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

And, you know, the idea of Edward Cranston… we were trying to figure out… there’s this couple, revenge that has to happen, there’s… if you’ve seen the film, there’>s probably things that aren’t in the trailer, it’s not just a straight they break windows and a revenge thing by any means. So, you wanted someone who would feel suspect a little bit, did he have anything to with this. Someone, you know, who just fit and Tobin had come across in conversations between me, Gina (Rugolo, another producer on the film) and Lin and he just felt like a perfect fit from the start. I’m just so glad we went that direction because I think he did such a great job and Lin and him had such good chemistry immediately. Which, you usually don’t see people just walk on set, you know, never really met in person or worked together before in person and they’re iconic like that, in a certain genre, and then they just click and they disappear into their characters like they are just who they are, you know. They look like they fit, they feel like they fit and those scenes were so easy because their chemistry was so good. It was just point the camera and shoot.

THE MULE: Yeah. That’s amazing that you got into production so quickly. That almost never happens.

TWJ: Yeah, we were lucky that we were able to do it, to pull it off.

THE MULE: The… uh… I’m gonna put “teenagers” in quotes here, but they all really pretty much hit the spot with their characters and the horror aspect, their horror at what was going on… from originally, >you know, the whole prank thing… there’s a backstory there that’s just amazing.

TWJ: Thank you, man. Yeah, that’s something that I carved out… even while we were filming, I was coming up with different situations and ideas for that because the backstory in the original script wasn’t fleshed out much for each character, it wasn’t much more of a blueprint. The two weren’t originally brothers and we said, “Hey, let’s make them brothers.” I worked with Jeffrey Reddick and Patrick – Patrcik Stibbs, who wrote it and Jeffrey Reddick, who was a producer – and, I was like, “Let’s make these guys brothers and, then, kinda create a situation for all of them where it’s just a little bit more personal.” You know, the idea is, hopefully you think one way about a person, then you feel another way in another moment. And it makes you feel for them or you don’t. It’s just to make them feel more three dimensional, so they didn’t just feel like complete cardboard characters until you feel like, “Hey, I understand why this person may be this way.” I can understand what this person’s going through.

THE CALL (Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning, Sloane Morgan Siegel) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Right. I was actually going to say that, without giving anything away, all four of those characters come with baggage that kinda makes sense for… the way they turned out. Let’s put it that way.

TWJ: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, for sure. And, their story for why they’re doing what they’re doing, you know… again, can’t give away too much… but, you feel one way, you think one way and then, it’s something else and the trailer tells you something completely different. That’s kind of the idea, we want you going in not really knowing exactly what it is you’re going to see and exactly who to pull for and in what way and be just… entertaining, you know. A psychological war. Psychological war is important to me because I think that’s… the idea of living in your mind and repeating your worst nightmares and your dreams… I mean, your fears on loop and repeat, that’s pretty terrible thing to be, you know.

THE MULE: And, it does work on that level, as well, as far as psychological horror, psychological thriller, whatever you want to call it. And, not only is it an homage back to those very bloody ‘80s kind of Horror things, but even back further than that when the horror wasn’t actually shown on screen, it was just intimated. I mean, it works really well because there’s stuff going on in that… in the final third of that movie that really… it sets the standard for stuff to come, I think.

THE CALL (Brooklyn Anne Miller) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

TWJ: Yeah. That was the idea and it’s just a little bit… people are like, “Well, you got Tobin from SAW and SAW was gory… ” and people kinda automatically assume from the trailer that it’s gonna be really just this… gory film and I’m going, “You may be surprised. It’s not going to be just like you think.” It’s very different… on purpose. It was done that way because I think your mind can imagine way worse than what I can show you. If I can show you a piece of it, your mind can go other places, you know. So, that’s the thing about it. Whether it’s JAWS and the shark, you know… if you see it all the time it becomes this way… But, we wanted to pull out spots in a few areas to make your mind go, “Oh, shit!” and just let you wonder what they’re going through. Even at the end of it, ya know.

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.