As much as I love science fiction movies, I’m not big into the whole Artificial Intelligence (AI) thing; cyborgs, robots, androids are okay (Deathlok, that canned dude from LOST IN SPACE, the Vision) but, a lot of times, the attempt to make these types into a “normal” human-like construct just leaves me cold. With that as background, I wasn’t sure about UNCANNY and where it would fall on the spectrum; the advance publicity and trailer promised a creepy sort of stalker thing with the possibility of a very violent second half. Uh… kinda.
UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Mark Webber) (publicity still)
The story has a rather claustrophobic feel… it mostly takes place in one location (an apartment/suite/laboratory called Workspace 18) with only three characters for roughly ninety-eight percent of the movie. David Kressen (Mark Webber, who strikes me as a younger version of the brilliant Jeffrey Combs) is a reclusive (and amazingly well-adjusted) boy genius who has been left to his own devices for the past ten years, charged with creating the ultimate robotic AI; his roommate, Adam (David Clayton Rogers), is the result of Kressen’s work and has taken his creator’s last name. The introduction of a third individual, reporter (and failed roboticist) Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths), is initially met with trepidation and mild annoyance from David and confusion from Adam. Joy has been sent to conduct a week’s worth of interviews for a feature story on Kressen and his work. She is totally taken aback when David reveals the truth about Adam and, thus, the three embark upon an intellectually stimulating few days; as the continued interaction leads to more intimate feelings between Kressen and Andrews, Adam begins to exhibit some very human reactions: Love, jealousy, confusion and, finally, hate and revenge. By the fourth day, the situation has become a bizarre lovers’ triangle, with Adam infringing upon and, at times, outright sabotaging the others’ time together. Adam also develops some new voyeuristic tendencies, which come to a head when he gives a gift to Joy, in the form of a prototype robotic eye with, naturally (and completely unknown to the receiver), a camera. The better to secretly watch you mediate in your underwear, my dear.
UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Lucy Griffiths, Mark Webber) (publicity still)
The whole movie is very quiet and serene, three highly intelligent beings discussing the things that they enjoy most and interacting in the most reasonable fashion imaginable… until the final twenty minutes or so. When Joy discovers what Adam has been up to, she takes Kressen aside to let him know what his creation is capable of; Kressen tells her she shouldn’t worry too much… it’s just Adam adjusting his learning curve and adding new stimuli and knowledge to his matrix. David does, however, confront Adam about his actions; Adam apologizes and – as far as Kressen is concerned – the incident is forgotten. Adam hasn’t forgotten and, when he tries to stick his tongue down Andrews’ throat, she objects and David chastises Adam, sending him to his room like a misbehaving child; a very childlike outburst from Adam stuns creator and reporter alike. That’s really the extent of the violence, though there is a nice (if rather anticipated) twist-ending that delivers the “evil corporate construct” message like a very quiet sucker-punch to the solar-plexus. That message, delivered by Rainn Wilson as the deliciously sinister Simon Castle, Kressen’s benefactor/employer, will send a chill down your spine and have you looking over your shoulder as you conduct your day-to-day life for, at least, a few days. And, that, friends, is what a good piece of science-fiction should do… leave you questioning the reality of the subject matter at hand; first-time screenwriter Shahin Chandrasoma (who is a surgeon specializing in robotic urology) and acclaimed director/editor Matthew Leutwyler have certainly accomplished that.
UNCANNY (Lucy Griffiths, David Clayton Rogers) (publicity still)
UNCANNY succeeded in holding my attention and stimulating my mind much more than I would have thought possible, given the subject matter and the subtly delicate approach. This kind of story probably isn’t for everybody… teens and young kids will undoubtedly be bored out of their gourds waiting for something, ANYTHING to happen and, by the time it does, will probably have given up on the whole thing. However, if YOU stay with it, I think that you’ll be grateful you didn’t give up on UNCANNY too soon. The movie is available on DVD and as a digital download.
(IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT/CALIBER MEDIA/DESTROY ALL ENTERTAINMENT/REVEK ENTERTAINMENT (83 minutes; Unrated); 2015)
Today’s version of the slasher movie is very rarely a nuanced thing; these flicks are more about the body count, finding unique ways to raise that body count, as well as making sure that a fair number of the bodies being counted are either scantily clad or completely unclad… there is generally no rhyme or reason for the slaughter, as the slasher (rather human, spirit, demon or other) just shows up and starts hacking. I’m not going to tell you that certain aspects of the genre are not here in spades with SOME KIND OF HATE but, the reasons are well-placed and well-thought-out. The writers‘ (Brian DeLeeuw and Adam Egypt Mortimer co-wrote the screenplay) original concept and script was titled BULLIED, so there is much more of a message here than the usual “let’s go to the woods, get drunk and screw” mentality of one of these things. Obviously, bullying is a horrible problem pervading our society, particularly our school systems. It isn’t a new thing… there have always been older, bigger, richer, prettier, whatever type of people who feel a need to push and belittle those they deem to be beneath them; sometimes a bully is someone who is so insecure that they attack others just to feel good about themselves. The problem – and the symptoms – seems to be getting worse, with the number of victims rising daily. Even without the vengeful spirit aspect of this movie, the under-riding theme is enough of a horror story on its own merits. This ain’t no AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL or one of those “Very Special Episodes,” though… there’s too much blood.
SOME KIND OF HATE (Ronen Rubinstein) (photo credit BENJI BAKSHI)
The lead character, Lincoln, is your standard issue dark and brooding angst-ridden type… a quiet, artistic tortured soul who is abused at home and bullied at school (played to the quiet, brooding hilt by Ronen Rubenstein, who explained in a recent interview that, while he was never really bullied, one of his friends was bullied to the point that he committed suicide). Lincoln tries to stay out of the way of the big-man-on-campus, spoiled jock who delights in torturing those he deems too different (Lincoln is an “art fag” who doesn’t look or dress like everybody else); the loutish tormentor – his friends and hangers-on trailing behind like puppies – finds Lincoln alone and pushes the kid over the edge. Of course, when Lincoln retaliates, he is the one deemed a troublemaker and he is the one sentenced to a rehabilitation facility for teens with anti-social proclivities. The secluded “camp” is one of those “let’s get in touch with our feelings,” hippie psuedo-religious places for “troubled youth” that MAKE you wanna go all Jason Voorhees just to shut up the directors and counselors. The name of this place? Why, Mind’s Eye Academy, of course. There are the usual group of screw-ups and misfits, all stunningly beautiful, most with darker problems and secrets than the things that had them sent to the MEA; naturally, they have all learned to play the game and fooled the staff into believing they have assimilated. Lincoln is befriended by another newcomer, his bunk-mate Isaac (Spencer Breslin), a sorta boastful, obnoxious kid who ended up at the camp for “porn hacking” the computer system at his school. Everyone definitely is not copacetic with the new kid, though, as a tough named Willie (Maestro Harrell) and his goons start pushing Lincoln to see how long it will take before he goes crazy and attacks them. Ah… good times. Good times.
SOME KIND OF HATE Ronen Rubinstein, Grace Phipps, Spencer Breslin) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)
Lincoln finds solace and a kindred spirit in another societal reject, Kaitlin (played by Grace Phipps, a refugee from Disney, who starred in the tween-sation TEEN BEACH MOVIE and its sequel), a bad girl cheerleader whose coping mechanism was/is cutting; Kaitlin is another kid with a secret… she has first person knowledge of what bullying can lead to but, she doesn’t share with Lincoln until much later. After the third altercation with Willie and his minions, which sees Lincoln lashing out and hitting his tormentor, Lincoln is drawn to the basement of an old building, just to get away from everything and to get his thoughts together. Still enraged, he blurts out, “I wish they were all dead!” That phrase brings forth the spirit of Moira (another former Disney star, Sierra McCormick, who played the oddball genius Olive in a series called ANT Farm; she may also be remembered for her role as Lilith for a couple of episodes during season four of SUPERNATURAL, her only other appearance within the horror genre), a former student at the Academy; Moira was driven to suicide by the taunts and bullying of her peers and now seeks vengeance for herself and for other victims of bullying. Part of the appeal of such movies is discovering how and why violent things start happening, so I don’t want to spoil the fun for you; let’s just say, that soon after Moira’s appearance, Willie is found dead, with deep cuts all over his body and a razor blade in his hand. The first sign that things are not all sunshine and light at the Mind’s Eye Academy occurs as a sleazy sheriff’s deputy comes to investigate Willie’s apparent suicide: The deputy tells Krauss, the assistant director of the facility (Noah Segan), “It’s an hour drive – each way – every time I gotta come out here to pick up another dead kid.”
SOME KIND OF HATE (Sierra McCormick) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)
As the body count starts to rise, Kaitlin begins to think that Lincoln is the one killingthe bullys; he tells her and Isaac about Moira but, Kaitlin has her doubts until she follows Lincoln back to the basement, where he confronts Moira and begs her to stop. Moira, once again feeling betrayed, tells the boy, “I’m yours Lincoln… and you’re mine.” Now a believer, Kaitlin seeks out Moira and the two bond over a bit of self-loathing and bloodletting, as the vengeful spirit recruits the other to help with the devastation. Now, I know that you guys are pretty sharp, so you’ve probably already guessed a lot about this movie that I didn’t share here, but… I think that there are still enough scares and more than enough buckets of blood to keep you engaged ’til the end. And, if you stick around, there’s a quick tease to let us all know that there will be a sequel. While the underlying current (bullying) is something that the kids should be made aware of, I’m going to suggest that you keep this one away from them until they’re sixteen, at least. The flick is available on DVD or Blu-Ray, as a digital download or Video-On-Demand.
I had the chance to speak to the star of SOME KIND OF HATE, Ronen Rubenstein regarding this movie and another project that will be premiering soon. It’s called CONDEMNED and is in select theaters on November 13. The movie also stars Dylan Penn as a rich kid, squatting with her boyfriend in an abandoned building. Unfortunately, we had horrible reception (he lost signal at least once), which means that I wasn’t able to save enough of our conversation to post the whole thing here. However, he did have this to say about CONDEMNED: “It’s funny, it’s gory; some scenes make you want to throw up, some scenes make you want to laugh.” You had me at “throw up,” Ronen. We’ll definitely be looking for that one soon. Until then, here’s the trailer:
So, the press release for the independent action flick AWAKEN shows up in my inbox and, I’m thinking, “Okay… the premise sounds promising but, I’m so afraid it’s gonna be nothing more than a distaff version of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.” But, then, the clincher… the movie features one of my favorite character actors, David Keith. And… he’s doing interviews! How could I possibly turn this one down?
Obviously, I couldn‘t and… I didn’t. So, before we take an in-depth look at the movie, here’s my conversation with actor David Keith. While Mister Keith may not really be as intense as many of his characters, he is nonetheless a passionate performer and a compassionate human being.
THE MULE: It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Since you’re on a little bit of a schedule here, let’s talk about AWAKEN and then a couple of other questions. How did you become involved in this project?
DAVID: The producer, Natalie Burn, is an old friend of mine and she asked if I would do her a favor and come play a small role in the movie.
AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)
THE MULE: You said “small role.” It is a rather small role but, in my mind anyway, fairly pivotal to the story.
DAVID: Yeah… you can’t really harvest organs without a surgeon.
THE MULE: Right. I didn’t wanna give anything away. I guess I shoulda read the back of the box… it may very well tell us what the bad guys are kinda up to. I got the feeling that, possibly, your character wasn’t so much into the way things were being done, but you were just there to help where you could.
DAVID: Well, all he’s washed up. He’s probably lost his license, he’s a drunk and he’s just trying to live out the rest of his days, making some money. But, he does want to do it right. If it’s going to be done, he certainly has given up on the moral question of what he’s doing but, he doesn’t want these kids brought in dead, ’cause then the organs die. He wants to harvest the organs while the person’s still breathing. Dead makes it a little worse; that makes his job work better… you take a live organ over somebody who’s dead or beaten up.
THE MULE: So, this whole thing… there are bad-assess wall-to-wall. I mean, from, I guess, former bad-asses to current bad-asses to future bad-asses… everybody just kinda comes in and pretty much kicks butt and worries about the fall-out later. It’s gotta be fun to work on something that’s almost wall-to-wall action.
DAVID: Well, of course, I represent the part where there isn’t much action. Most of the fighting and action that you see went on when I wasn’t on set. Now, there were some fight scenes shot while I was waiting to shoot my scenes, so I saw a couple of those things. I was only there three or four days and those were the days that they were shooting my scenes, which was a lot more dialogue. I was involved in the dialogue scenes more than in the action.
THE MULE: Okay. So, you didn’t get to actually partake, so to speak, of any of the bad-assery.
DAVID: Not really. No.
LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)
THE MULE: Speaking of which, I’ve gotta tell you that one of my all-time favorite episodes of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT is the one that you played the character “Hawk.”
DAVID: Yeah… I was kind of hoping they would make a spin-off of that character.
THE MULE: Yeah. It could have been a recurring character or a spin-off.
DAVID: I did do another LAW AND ORDER after that but, it was CRIMINAL INTENT and a completely different character.
HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)
THE MULE: You have done… so many great things through the years and, I guess, what may be the ultimate chick flick, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Do you have any favorite roles or favorite movies or TV series that you’ve worked on through the years?
DAVID: Yes. My favorite role was Elvis Presley in HEARTBREAK HOTEL because I’m a frustrated rock star and I got to the singing myself, go into a recording studio and perform onstage. My two favorite television shows were THE CLASS, which was a sit-com, 2006 and 7 and that was just really a riot… an absolutely hilarious show that didn’t make it. And then, LONE STAR, which was probably the best writing of any project I’ve ever worked on… in any medium. And, that show… a few episodes on Fox and then it got yanked. It was brilliant. Basically, those were the shows that were pearls before swine, in my opinion. They were too smart for the average television audience.
THE MULE: That seems to happen a lot.
DAVID: Um-hm. It has to achieve a certain level of mediocrity in television if you’re going to be successful.
THE MULE: Maybe it’s because people just can’t commit to something like that. Know what I mean?
DAVID: They want to multitask. They need to be able to take phone calls while the show’s on or go get a sandwich. And, if it’s multifaceted and has any sort of depth or texture or tapestry to it, then it demands your full attention. If you make a television show that’s as good as a movie, you’re not gonna want to get up and go get your popcorn. That was the fate of both of those shows, I think. Too smart, too clever.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)
THE MULE: Too nuanced for their own good. So, where are you headed after this… after AWAKEN? Do you have anything else lined up?
DAVID: Well, I’ve had some minor medical issues that kept me out of show business for the past few months but, there’s always something around the corner. I’m enjoying being a Mister Mom.
THE MULE: That’s a completely different lifestyle, isn’t it?
THE MULE: That’s great. I know you have another interview in a few minutes, so I’ll let you go. Just let me say that I like the movie… like watching the old stuff on TV or DVDs and I really appreciate your time.
Billie Kope (played by Natalie Burn, whose most high-profile appearance to date is probably THE EXPENDABLES 3), on a search for her sister, who disappeared in Mexico, finds herself alone and very confused when she wakes up on the beach of a remote island. As she begins to regain her bearings, she is surprised by the screams of a frightened young woman; nearly walking to a trap, she is saved and befriended by a group of people who have also been kidnapped and transported to the island for some nefarious reason. This group is populated by a number of well-known character actors, including Phillip Tan (as Todd), Edward Furlong (as Berto), Augie Duke (as Chloe) and Robert Davi (as Quintin). As Billie soon learns, her abduction (and those of the others) are linked to a sinister group of black ops soldiers, who are seemingly hunting them merely for the sport of it. What’s really happening is an intricate organ harvesting operation involving – and you had to see this one coming – her sister, Kat (Chrisa Campbell).
AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)
The plot – a twist on the Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” – is one that’s turned up over and over again in movies, television (including an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, with Rory Calhoun starring as “The Hunter”), literature and comic books but,with enough of a spin to keep it interesting. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the cast is filled with recognizable faces (if not names): Vinnie Jones as the ruthless black op leader, Michael Pare as his second in command, Jason London as the head of the organ harvesting cartel and Michael Copon as the love interest/hero of the piece. Daryl Hannah appears as Mao, a “customer”searching for a liver donor with the proper chi for her daughter; her performance is over-the-top and cartoonish, the one weak link in an otherwise solid cast. Conversely, David Keith, as Walsh, the disgraced doctor hired to perform the surgeries, gives a nuanced, believeable performance as he struggles with what his life has become and, ultimately, with saving as many lives as he can to atone for his past (and current) indiscretion. Miss Burn (who is also writer, producer, casting director, as well as doing her own stunts) is definitely easy on the eyes, kinda like a cross between Lucy Lawless and Juliette Lewis, only… softer.
AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)
The action sequences tend to work better than the rest of the story, especially the dialogue which occasionally borders on the soap-ish (as in operas). The one exception is the final shoot-out, which like Miss Hannah’s acting, comes across rather like cartoon violence (but, honestly… I do likes me some mindless cartoon violence). Having said that, AWAKEN does manage to engage and hold your attention; the actors are certainly nice to look at (with the possible exceptions of Jones and Daz Crawford as Stitch). The movie works equally well as an action/adventure dude’s night-in, as a chick flick or even as a date night feature. Some of the concepts may be to advanced for kids younger than twelve and the R rating is due to the violence. My recommendation? Suspend all semblance of believability and strap yourself in for a fun ride. AWAKEN is available in digital, DVD and Video-On-Demand.
(KETCHUP ENTERTAINMENT/COPPERHEART ENTERTAINMENT (86 minutes; Unrated); 2015)
When actor David Hewlett decided to write a Sci-Fi movie, I’m sure the concept looked pretty good on paper and – you know what? – even with a couple of black holes in the plot and unspoken back stories (due, no doubt, to time and budgetary constraints), the finished product looks pretty good, too. Hewlett’s script is equal parts 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY, TRON, WAR GAMES and just about every slasher movie ever made; toss in some nifty KILL BILL style fight scenes and a cast of beautiful – if limited – actors and you have a rollicking good time of a space opera with DEBUG.
DEBUG (Tenika Davis, Jason Mamoa) (publicity still)
The concept is relatively simple: Convicts on a work release derelict spaceship clean-up detail (got that?) are dispatched for one final debugging assignment before returning to lock-up; the debugging is of the computer kind, as long dormant vessels with still-functioning systems tend to become infected with various viruses and need to be cleaned before a reboot and a return to active service. We get a glimpse of just how corrupt the system is in a prologue that sees the sole survivor on-board, one of 1,200 prisoners (a terror-fraught cameo by Tenika Davis), stalked by a physical manifestation of the infected security program (malevolently played by future Aquaman, Jason Momoa). Suffice to say, bad things happen. The cleaners are under the supervision of a no nonsense (though somehow good-natured) guard named Capra (Adrian Holmes), who gets hijacked by the virus, doing its gruesome bidding. Capra’s eventual demise is kind of a side-splitter.
DEBUG (Adrian Holmes) (publicity still)
Of course, each member of the convict crew has their own little secret: Lara (Sidney Leeder) and team leader Mel (Kerr Hewitt) are – if not romantically – sexually involved; Diondra (Jaydn Wong) is looking for a quick score, but ends up with a splitting headache for her troubles; Samson’s exit (and, by extension, CARRIE’s Kyle Mac) was so quick, I’m not too sure I can even tell you what his secret was or what happened to him; tough-as-nails scarey chick Kaida (who really has a heart of gold, much like – I’m sure – the actress who portrays her, Jeananne Goossen) is all business, as she hacks into the rogue system for a bit of virtual butt kicking; James (played by Adam Butcher, Momoa’s co-star in WOLVES) is a former cadet whose dreams were smashed after pleading guilty to a cyber-crime committed by his younger brother. Each, seemingly working against the others, are given their own little vignette, as they are assigned different sections of the ship to work on; most interact with various “creature comfort” programs, all under the control of the evil “I Am” (Momoa), leading to varying degrees of pain and suffering. The final confrontation with the I Am and the ultimate sacrifice by one team member is right up there with other such selfless gestures for which the genre is so well known (Spock’s final moments in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN remain untouchable in that area).
DEBUG (Jeananne Goossen) (publicity still)
There are a plethora of direct-to-DVD Science-Fiction movies released every week, most of which are totally forgettable and many of those are utterly regrettable; DEBUG rises above the dross with an imaginative script and cold, antiseptic sets that add to the creepy machines-in-control aspect; the small blasts of color (the convicts’ orange jumpsuits and, yeah… a whole lot of blood) tend to be rather jarring against the bright lights and stark white of the spaceship. This is a movie that would have benefited from another 20 to 30 minutes. That’s something that I very rarely say about any movie but, here, the extra time would have definitely made an already strong feature into a great one, allowing the characters to be fleshed out more fully (we don’t really know why most of the crew are in prison or what motivates their actions on this mission), as well as offering a more in-depth examination of just how the ship’s computers became so corrupt.
DEBUG is unrated but, due to some strong language and some fairly brutal scenes of violence and death (a couple of which are quite imaginative), this one probably shouldn’t be viewed by anyone younger than, say, twelve. It’s not really a great date flick or family movie night fare… in fact, it may not be anything that the female of the species will find appealing at all. Having said that, it’ll play really well for a bunch of guys just hanging out in a man cave somewhere.
(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/JAM FILMS (95 minutes; Rated PG-13); 2015)
Can I tell you guys something? I don’t like golf. Never have and, considering my curmudgeon-like obstinacy and advanced years, probably never will. Everything about the sport (at least ’til Tiger came along… and, maybe, John Daly before him) is too quiet, too polite! I’ve only ever played the game (rather accurately dubbed by my father, “Cow Pasture Pool”) once. I shot a 64… I quit after the first hole. Here’s another little secret: I don’t like golf movies; except, of course, CADDYSHACK (and, yeah… I’ll even throw CADDYSHACK II in there, as well). Until now. THE SQUEEZE is more of a caper movie or a gangster movie but, with golf as the central element behind all of the intrigue and death threats, I think we can fairly safely call it a “golf movie.”
THE SQUEEZE (Jeremy Sumpter) (publicity stills)
Most “based on actual events” stories are only marginally based on those events; THE SQUEEZE is no exception. Jeremy Sumpter (who was apparently in a television show called FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS… I’m sure the little girls know the one I’m talking about) plays golf savant Augie Baccas, a character loosely based on a guy named Keith Flatt. Baccas – like Flatt – is the Meadowlark Lemon of his small town’s golf club, winning a one day tournament by a course record fifteen shots. The flick begins, as most do, with Augie indulging in a game of cross country extreme golf with his friends, including his girlfriend, Natalie (played by Jillian Murray, whose resume includes the latest installment of the CABIN FEVER horror franchise). With Augie bemoaning his financial state and his inability to make a better life for his mother and little sister (all three are under the thumb of the abusive Baccas patriarch), golf and Natalie are his only escapes; he dreams of joining the PGA Tour and qualifying for the US Open.
THE SQUEEZE (Jillian Murray, Christopher McDonald, Jeremy Sumpter) (publicity stll)
After a particularly brutal confrontation with his father, Augie is offered a way to make enough money to remove his family from his drunken lout of a father. That offer comes from a gambler named Riverboat (a sleazy, almost endearing character portrayed by Christopher McDonald) who, driving cross country to Las Vegas for a poker tournament, after hearing a report of Augie’s phenomenal feat on the local radio station, changes course to locate the young man to convince him to come to Vegas and use his talents in high-stakes matches against unsuspecting golfers. Along for the ride is Riverboat’s high-maintenance wife, Jessie (Katherine LaNasa), whose provocative dress and coyly flirtatious demeanor are so distracting to opponents that she is as important to Riverboat’s game plan as are his gambling skills. Naturally, Natalie is concerned and angered that Augie would compromise his reputation and integrity for a quick buck, earned in a rather dubious fashion under the tutelage of an obvious shyster. She has Augie leaning toward turning down the offer until Riverboat waves a stack of hundred dollar bills under his nose. The decision made, Augie asks Natalie to look after his sister and mother and, though she refuses to speak to him, she does agree to keep an eye on his family.
THE SQUEEZE (Jeremy Sumpter, Jillian Murray, Christopher McDonald) (publicity still)
Working their way to Las Vegas, Augie, Riverboat and Jessie play the best of the best at every course along the way, amassing a nice little nest egg for the ultimate Vegas fleecing: Riverboat plans to engage notorious card sharp and mid-level gangster Jimmy Diamonds (Micahel Nouri) in a poker game. After winning big, Riverboat suggests a golf match between Augie and Diamonds, giving the latter a chance to win his money back. Diamonds knows a ringer when he sees one and counters with a ringer of his own, reigning NCAA champion Aaron Bolt (Jason Dohring, who was in some movie about some television series that I never watched), who has made his own deal with a much more violent devil. Diamonds sets Augie up and, breaking in to his hotel room, tells Augie that if he does not lose the next day’s million dollar round to Bolt, he will end up in the deep end of a swimming pool with lead weights tied to his ankles. When Augie tries to get out of his deal with Riverboat, the gambler tells him in no uncertain terms that if he does not WIN the million dollar challenge, HE will kill him. With Augie caught between a rock and very hard place, the final third of the movie features enough twists and turns and all-out action (as well as some questions best left unanswered) to make THE SQUEEZE one cool thrill ride of a caper flick.
THE SQUEEZE (Christopher McDonald; Katherine LaNasa) (publicity stills)
The attention to detail in the golf sequences is amazing. Sumpter (and, I understand, Dohring, as well) can really play and most of their golf shots – even the trick shots – are real and were generally first takes. Sumpter, in fact, could probably qualify for a spot on the Tour. Of course, the main reason that everything looks so legitimate is because writer/producer/director Terry Jastrow was a junior champion himself and actually caddied for Arnold Palmer; he also became a producer at ABC Sports at the age of 22, winning seven Emmy Awards for his groundbreaking golf coverage. The fact that he’s married to actress Anne Archer is merely a bonus as regards THE SQUEEZE. The family, relationship, gambling and action sequences range from stilted to over-the-top, though, honestly, a couple of the characters call for an over-the-top performance (particularly Jessie and, to a lesser extent, Riverboat); Sumpter’s portrayal of Augie is the most grounded and believable but, overall, the cast does a good job.
THE SQUEEZE (Michael Nouri) (publicity still)
I’ve seen THE SQUEEZE reviewed as a “Faith-based” production and, I suppose, it does have certain elements that could cause it to be considered a morality play of sorts. However, there are also some dirty, gritty elements (coarse language, some drug use and sexual situations, not to mention the violence) that would probably exclude it from most “Family” movie lists. Having said that, parents shouldn’t necessarily shy away from making it a family movie night option; I wouldn’t be too concerned about allowing a twelve year old to watch it. The film would also make a great date night offering for Mom and Dad. If the actual game of golf was more like a cross between this flick and CADDYSHACK, I might actually find myself a bit more interested in it.
(IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT/LIBERTY LANE PRODUCTIONS/RUTHLESS PICTURES (103 minutes; Unrated); 2015)
Your parents always told you that bad things would happen if you lied to them or let your friends (or a bunch of people you thought were your friends) influence you to do something stupid, like partying in the haunted woods just outside of town. THE POLTERGEIST OF BORLEY FOREST is truth positive that your parents were right… if you go to a party in the woods (or the beach or your bestie’s house or anywhere, really), an evil, murderous spirit will follow you home and harm your loved ones. Of course, this has been happening since the dawn of mankind, which is why parents are always warning their kids about such wanton teenage frivolity but, as most teens are – at the very least – hard-headed or – far more often than would seem possible – brain dead and insist on “making our own mistakes,” and why the curse continues to thrive. And, this is why filmmakers continue to make movies warning about the dangers proscribed above.
THE POLTERGEIST OF BORLEY FOREST (publicity still)
Marina Petrano plays Paige, the questionable teenager… I mean, the teenager in question who, against her better judgment and her parents’ express wishes, is asked by her friend, Ava (played with a stunning indifference by Weston Adwell), to go to a party in the secluded and preternatural Borley Forest. When Ava does a no-show, Paige, bored with the illicit high-jinx and illegal shenanigans of the boorish people that make up her friend’s clique, starts looking for a ride home. Naturally, she gets lost in the woods (I mean… seriously, what self-respecting horror story doesn’t involve somebody getting lost somewhere?), ending up under the “haunted ghost” tree of Borley Forest, where a local lynch mob exacted their own kind of justice on a pair of brothers believed to be responsible for the disappearances of at least three teenage girls during the 1950s. From that point forward, strange and unexplained things started happening to Paige and her friends and family, with an odd “stalker/love interest” plot device tossed in to put savvy horror movie buffs off the scent of what was really happening.
THE POLTERGEIST OF BORLEY FOREST (Marina Petrano) (publicity still)
Yeah… that doesn’t really work when the antagonist is featured in the title of the movie but, as padding and uncomfortable dialogue go, I reckon this definitely qualifies; plus, it adds a little something extra for the TWILIGHT set to glom onto and keep them interested, I suppose. Keeping the last two sentences in mind, the original title of the film was YOU WILL LOVE ME but, I guess, the producers figured that would be a dead giveaway to the plot and changed it to something less obvious. After being left high-and-dry by Ava and amazingly turned on/freaked out by the attentions of older new guy Cooper (a rather bemused Nicholas Barrera in one of the better performances in the film), Paige turns to another friend, Jenna (Rebecca Barrow Hall), for consolation; when the pair is attacked by the demon ghost, Jenna becomes a true teenager, as catatonia sets in. Confused by the attack on Jenna and angry with Ava for setting the whole thing in motion, Paige demands that Ava help her, alongside her brother (a frightfully laconic Christopher Ingle), sister-in-law (an “Eh… it’s a paycheck” performance from Rhea Rossiter), Cooper and one of the dumbest parapsychologists in any movie… ever, Doctor Hidalgo (played by Jason Beck); when Hidalgo learns that Paige had been in Borley Forest, he relates the story of a haunted or possessed tree that no one can never seem to locate once they’ve initially encountered it. When the frightened teens tell the (insert snickering noise here) Doctor that the entity seems to disappear once the lights are turned on, he utters what may be the most cogent words of his entire life: “A preference for darkness is not the same as a fear of light.” I guess why he has that degree hanging on the wall behind him.
THE POLTERGEIST OF BORLEY FOREST (Marina Petrano) (publicity still)
Anyway, once the group decides to go into the woods and confront the bogey, things start to pick up story-wise; the dialogue and the actors delivering said dialogue, unfortunately, don’t pick up. Of course, the whole thing wraps up very nicely with a “surprise” ending that you can see coming from at least four movies away. Look… I’m not saying that …BORLEY FOREST is a bad flick, I’m just saying that it ain’t that good; oh, I’ve seen far worse and I suppose the youngsters will enjoy destroying a few braincells watching it, but it doesn’t even come close to meeting my threshold of tolerance for ignoramus entertainment and my threshold is set fairly low (I mean, I nearly made it through three minutes of that horrid DUKES OF HAZZARD movie once, so you know I’ve got staying power). The “unrated” designation may make it seem more appealing but, even if the frights were scarier and the script wasn’t so hackneyed, the producers probably coulda gotten away with a PG-13; that’s how mild every aspect (horror, sexual situations, alcohol consumption by minors, et cetera) of THE POLTERGEIST OF BORLEY FOREST truly is. A shame, really, as, on paper, the concept seems to work.
(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/TARNOL GROUP PICTURES (82 minutes; Rated R); 2015)
Taking dysfunction to an entirely new level, SEE YOU IN VALHALLA follows the Burwood family as they gather after several years apart to mourn their brother, a troubled young man who found peace living in a Viking colony. After Maxwell (played in pivotal flashbacks by Jake McDorman, whose most high profile role to date has been in AMERICAN SNIPER) – who had adopted the Viking name Magnus – and his girlfriend left the colony, she drifted back into drugs, dying of an overdose and sending the distraught young man spiraling out of control; taking justice into his own hands, Magnus attacked the drug dealer and his associates with a broadsword, effectively committing suicide by proxy.
SEE YOU IN VALHALLA (Jake McDorman) (publicity still)
The youngest Burwood, Johana, learns of her brother’s death from a television news report. As Johana (played by MODERN FAMILY’s Sarah Hyland, who is also a co-producer on the project) sits stunned, there’s a knock at her door; it’s Peter, her scheduled date. Telling Peter (Alex Frost) that she forgot about their plans, she apologizes and tells him about her brother. What Johana intended to be a casual get-together meant something far different for the smitten Peter, who immediately volunteers to accompany her back home. With Peter in tow, Johana heads for home, where she is greeted by her father, Woody (Conor O’Farrell), a man who had always been a bit distant toward his children and further distanced himself as he enveloped himself in grief after the death of his wife; with Woody is his live-in nurse (and former grocery delivery person), Faye (Emma Bell), a spirit so free that she is continually mere nanoseconds away from floating away. Already at the home is Jo’s older brother, Barry (played by Bret Harrison, who has starred in two of my favorite TV series of the past fifteen years, the deeply twisted GROUNDED FOR LIFE and the wildly underrated REAPER) and his life partner, Makewi (a more-than-a-little off-center performance from Steve Howey, who has an impressive resume, including a recurring role in SONS OF ANARCHY, but will probably forever be known for his role of Reba McEntire’s screwball son-in-law, Van on REBA).
SEE YOU IN VALHALLA (Bret Harrison, Steve Howey, Michael Weston, Sarah Hyland, Alex Frost) (publicity still)
The final piece of the Burwood family mosaic is oldest brother Don (Michael Weston), a holier-than-thou perfectionist who blames Woody for all of his (well-hidden) problems (actually, he blames his father for the extinction of the dinosaurs and every other ill that has beset this planet since the dawn of time). With the arrival of Don and his Nazi-in-training teenage daughter, Ashley (snarkily portrayed by Odeya Rush), the sniping, cheap shots and fist-throwing begins. Throughout it all, Jo manages to stay fairly well out of the line of fire… until the entire family convenes for supper, where Ashley admits her superiority over all others by announcing her plans to remain a virgin until marriage and qualifies that decision by pointing out that “at least I won’t have to get an abortion,” a subject that is a widespread rumor about Jo amongst the general populace but never discussed in the Burwood home. Johana, of course, takes umbrage to the condescending remark, which suddenly turns into a free-for-all yelling and shoving match between Woody and Don. Tragedy, quite naturally, ensues… something so startling that it brings the three quarreling siblings together and sees Pete and, especially, the zen philosophy of Makewi showing their true worth to this insane family to whom they have become, at the very least, satellites caught in their gravitational pull. The ending, a hair-brained scheme concocted by the two that brings the whole family together, is truly touching.
SEE YOU IN VALHALLA (Steve Howey, Sarah Hyland) (publicity still)
SEE YOU IN VALHALLA is a brutal look at familial in-fighting that really isn’t intended for the young’uns (the R rating is for some very coarse language more than anything else) and, though it borders on the realm of “chick flick,” there’s enough testosterone and subversive comedy (Makewi and Pete’s first encounter; Don and Barry’s argument about the latter allowing Ashley to indulge in an alcoholic beverage) to make it a great late-night date movie (several linear yards of very beautiful people certainly doesn’t hurt, either). Don’t get me wrong, it is far from perfect; there are more than enough cringe-worthy moments to fill a couple more movies but, I have come to the conclusion that great acting can overcome a marginal script and, conversely, no matter how great the script is, marginal acting will absolutely ruin it. In this case, the cast is first-rate (Howey, in particular, is a stand-out), as they manage to rise above some of the more questionable sequences to deliver an entertaining piece of family drama. Even a couple of rather convoluted plot devices involving Johana’s former boyfriend and the abortion rumor are well-acted, if not well-written. There are certainly worse ways to spend an hour-and-a-half than watching SEE YOU IN VALHALLA.
Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)
This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.
The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.
Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)
Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…
A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS
(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)
OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.
Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)
Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends likeRay Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.
Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.
Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)
THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?
PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.
I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”
THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?
PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.
Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?
PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!
THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?
PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?
Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)
THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?
PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.
THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?
THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?
PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.
OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?
PATRICK:Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.
The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.
I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.
Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)
THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?
PATRICK:I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.
THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.
(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/MAIN STREET FILMS/RAPIDFIRE ENTERTAINMENT (93 minutes; Rated R); 2015)
When I was solicited to review this Australian import, loosely based on a series of executions (or, murders, depending on your sense of justice), I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be perfectly honest, I envisioned something akin to one of those horrible, schlocky Steven Seagal flicks. Boy… was I wrong! Steven Seagal would choke on his own tongue and break every bone in his body if he were to attempt a nuanced performance like that given by Jamie Bamber as JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE.
JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE (Jamie Bamber) (publicity still)
Here’s the story: A man identified only as John Doe (a chilling, steely-eyed performance from Bamber), an accused serial killer of 33 – all reprehensible people who needed killing (pedophiles, abusive partners, gang members, crooked police, unscrupulous businessmen, et cetera… you get the idea) – is standing trial for his crimes. The scene shifts to the courthouse steps, where protestors (for and against Doe’s actions) and a rabid media are on hand as the prosecuting attorney steps to the microphone to announce the verdict; just as he is about to utter the vigilante’s fate, a huge explosion tears through the crowd. From there, the film takes on a sort of cinema verite feel, with scenes of John Doe’s brutality (as well as the injustices that led to that brutality) interspersed with a series of worldwide news reports, incidents of other like-minded citizens, a movement they call “Speak For the Dead,” taking up the cause (and their baseball bats) and – most intriguing – a prison interview with the man called John Doe, conducted by a reporter named Ken Rutherford (a brilliantly understated turn by Lachy Hulme). One reporter, closely linked to Doe, tells the camera, “He was killing career criminals. Nobody cared until the body count started rising.”
JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE (Lachy Hulme) (publicity still)
Apart from the chaos at the courthouse and a few very violent scenes of retribution, there really isn’t a lot of action going on; JOHN DOE… is what you would call a psychological thriller. If you’re thinking that means this flick is boring, I guarantee you… it is anything but; even with everything basically laid out in front of us since that first scene, there are more than a few “gotcha” moments that will stun you and leave you wondering how you could have missed some rather obvious (in retrospect) clues; even the ending will leave you guessing. By exploring the killer’s psyche, we are forced to confront the societal and personal demons that we too often ignore or accept without question. In the end, we learn that, like the system of justice we live under, we are all somehow tainted and a little corrupt. JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE will have you thinking and, maybe, looking over your shoulder… just in case.
JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE (Jamie Bamber, Isabella Woodlock) (publicity still)
I’m not really sure how to characterize this film; I mean, it probably wouldn’t make a great date movie and, with the R rating and all of the scenes of violence and brutality, it really isn’t made for family viewing, either. When and with whom you decide to watch, just know that you are in for an emotional roller coaster of a ride; it is, hands down, one of the most riveting, purely psychological explorations since 1990’s MISTER FROST.
(Digital and DVD; IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT/URBAN MOVIE CHANNEL/ROBSTAR ENTERTAINMENT (101 minutes; Unrated); 2015)
I am a sucker (pun added with bad intentions) for a good vampire flick; truth be told, I’m occasionally a sucker for a bad vampire movie. Sometimes, I’m just a sucker. While TEETH AND BLOOD arrived at my door with all kinds of promise, I gotta tell you that if it weren’t for the virtual door-to-door pulchritudinous “star power,” I probably wouldn’t have made my way through this one. Even though it is beautifully peopled, the script obviously didn’t specify that the pretty faces must also be at least fair actors. Unfortunately, the whole thing comes off as something very much like Tyler Perry’s Dracula.
TEETH AND BLOOD (Glenn Plummer) (publicity still)
The premise: Detective Mike Hung (who is more of a Sam and Dean Winchester/SUPERNATURAL monster hunter type than cop) manages to get himself assigned to a murder case at a film studio in Los Angeles. Detective Hung is teamed with Detective Sasha Colfax and the two, with cover stories in tow, head off to the studio in search of jobs… and answers to a murder and a missing corpse, of course… I mean, they are police officers. The head-turning beauty of Detective Colfax sees her becoming the new female lead (the previous star being the victim of the crime in question) in director Vincent Augustine’s latest movie, Chapel Blood. There’s no hope for Hung, as his acting chops are no way near those of Colfax, so he seeks employ as a grip (kinda like a wrench-monkey that works in the camera department). Augustine’s vision has a vampire priest (Greg Eagles, whose appearance is an obvious homage to William Marshall’s BLACULA) delivering the unholy word from the pulpit and baptizing his disciples in blood. So taken is Augustine with Colfax that he attempts a little sump’n-sump’n but, she is having neither the hanky nor the panky; having been thus rebuffed, what’s a vampire lord supposed to do… shrug his shoulder and say, “That’s alright. I understand your trepidation.”? Uh… no! He casts that thousand mile stare her way, drops his voice about 103 octaves and… enthralls her. That’s gonna come back later in the flick and bite somebody in the… neck.
TEETH AND BLOOD (Michelle van der Water, Sean Christopher) (publicity still)
In a plot hole you could maneuver an aircraft carrier through, apparently everyone on-set except the two detectives knows that the movie is made by vampires, for vampires. So, with bodies continuing to drop, what’s a good undercover police officer to do? Why, naturally, you tell the vampire boss that you’re an undercover cop. Caramba! The underlying thematic push of TEETH AND BLOOD is a vampiric gang war, revolving around a depleted blood supply (it seems that most vamps have assimilated and rather than draining a vein, they get their fix from the local blood bank), a crooked mayor (there’s always a crooked mayor!) and a deal between said mayor and Vincent Augustine to provide the city with a new synthetic blood supply. The catch is, while Augustine’s coven (I thought that was witches, but… oh, well) is tapped into the real deal, all other warring factions will be feeding on the synthetic cocktail, which inhibits the undead’s powers of regeneration. In other words, they get old and turn to dust and blow away, leaving Augustine as the supreme leader of the vampire population. This, of course, leads to double-crosses and deceit aplenty. And, a feeding frenzy that makes the zombie apocalypse sound like a trip to the beach. And, a “shock” ending that was telegraphed virtually from the beginning. And… probably a sequel.
TEETH AND BLOOD (Danielle Vega) (publicity still)
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any of the main cast. I’m going to rectify that now. Vincent Augustine is played by Glenn Plummer, who also had a hand in the script. While he does flash signs of his talent (I mean, the man CAN act), Glenn, unfortunately, comes off as rather wooden and disinterested throughout most of the film. His two “action” sequences, fight scenes between Augustine and another vampire (of which, more later) and, later, Detective Hung are poorly timed and badly staged. To be fair, though, I’m not really sure that we can lay the entire blame on Plummer for any of this; as I mentioned, he is a fine actor and, he may have just been reacting to the script and the others around him (but, then, maybe I am giving him too much credit… after all, he does have a writing credit by his name). The totally delectable Michelle van der Water, as Detective Sasha Colfax, is woefully out of place and unrelentingly unbelievable (as a cop, as a cop pretending to be an actress and – unfortunately – as an actress). Like Plummer, I’m willing to give van der Water the benefit of the doubt here, considering what she had to work with; most of her scenes involve reaction shots to what’s happening around her. She does have a few action sequences and, like those with Glenn Plummer, they come off forced and hackneyed. Detective Colfax is enthralled by Augustine, which presents a whole other set of problems for van der Water to muddle through – she just isn’t at all convincing as a hypnotized minion of darkness. The equally delectable Danielle Vega fairs slightly better in the role of Lori Franklin, the bespectacled and “timid production assistant” to Augustine. Vega’s understated performance is actually one of the few highlights of the whole flick; at least, until… Lori shows her true colors, as the cat-suited leader of a rival vampire family. Franklin’s transformation leads to a really horribly choreographed fight scene with Colfax (suddenly imbued with enhanced abilities after being enthralled), which totally leaves me cold. From the point that the timid Lori Franklin reveals her true intentions, the character becomes just another stereotype… and not even a very good one, at that.
TEETH AND BLOOD (Steffinnie Phrommany, Lyndsey Hogan) (publicity still)
Speaking of stereotypes, remember Augustine’s battle with that other vampire I mentioned earlier? That vamp, named Tyrese, is a gigantic Huggy Bear-like ghetto pimp – decked out in a very loud purple zoot suit – who has a rough time keeping his fangs out of the extras. The character is played to the 1970s exploitation hilt by comedian King Kedar and, aside from some rather dubious fight scenes and even more questionable special effects, is a bright oasis in an otherwise bleak landscape; Kedar’s vampire-out-of-time character is definitely approached with a comedic verve, but – make no mistake about it – he is also one of the more frightening aspects of a movie that lacks any sense of dread or foreboding. As the second male lead, Detective Mike Hung, Sean Christopher (he has alternately been credited as Sean Hutchinson – Christopher is his middle name – but may be more familiar as Chef Sean, a poet and hip-hop performer; Sean and his riff-heavy band, Blaze, are responsible for the flick’s title tune, a video of which you can view below), certainly seems to have some chops as an actor. Again, the main drawback to his performance comes from a script that is all over the place; added to that, the detective’s back-story is a muddled mess (that can be said of Detective Colfax and just about every character of note in TEETH AND BLOOD)… you really just can’t have any type of affinity for a guy that you know next to nothing about. I understand that the movie was made on the cheap (about 300 grand) but, truthfully, I would have preferred that less money was used on special effects (that were, ultimately, unappealing anyway) and more time and effort had been devoted to a workable script that offers better character development and a centralized plot that doesn’t send those characters off in a half dozen wildly different directions. Sometimes, these things work out and the finished product is, at least, marginally enjoyable to watch; more often than not, the final release ends up very much like TEETH AND BLOOD. If you feel you absolutely must watch this movie (or, if you belong to the local chapter of the Bad Cinema Appreciation Society), take note that it is fairly violent with some sexual overtones… you may wanna watch it after the kids have gone to bed.