On paper, SLEEP NO MORE (also known as 200 HOURS, the working title) looks like a cool, ingenious sci-fi thriller; in fact, I was kinda hyped to check it out. I can’t say that the viewing experience made me wanna dig my eyes out (a not-so-veiled reference to an early event in the flick) but… I can tell you that the basic plot, cliched storytelling, unlikable characters and flat, cardboard acting (by some very good actors, by the way) left me feeling that I had just wasted an hour-and-a-half of my life.
SLEEP NO MORE (Stephen Ellis, Keli Price) (publicity still)
So, here’s the premise: The year is 1986 (or thereabouts) and a group of grad students are taking part in a “sleep study” at a prestigious university somewhere (they’re ALWAYS somewhere, aren’t they?). The study theorizes that if one can go 200 hours without sleep, that person will reach “lucidity” and will be free of the constraints of sleep. All of this, of course, is dependent upon an experimental drug called cogniphan. When one of the test subjects (played by Lukas Gage) goes off the deep end, the funding for the project is rescinded and the plug pulled. As this happens right before summer break, the remaining subjects, wont to abandon the study volunteer to remain at the research facility for the two weeks necessary to obtain “lucidity.” Dale (Stephen Ellis), one of the four, is leery of staying on after witnessing the gruesome end of their fellow guinea pig but, having the hots for Holly (Christine Dwyer), decides to stick around and becomes the group’s control subject. The dominant force among the students, Joe (Keli Price), is – to use technical terminology – schtupping Doctor Ella Whatley (Yasmine Aker), the faculty advisor, so he doesn’t fall to the circumstantial evidence that she may have – uh – exaggerated the truth about animal tests that may or may not have been used to further advance the testing into human territory. And, from there, things become a bit murky.
SLEEP NO MORE (Brea Grant, Keli Price) (publicity still)
Seemingly, the only semi-intelligent scientist in the bunch is Frannie (Brea Grant) who lays her cards on the table, folds her hand and gets the heck outta Dodge after Dale accidentally ingests a vial of the no-dose drug. Everything and everyone begins to devolve from that point. Of course, she’s pulled back into the insanity by Joe mere hours before his scheduled “lucidity.” Why? Because the hallucinations that they all experienced turned out to be real manifestations from the dream world, ticked off that they ain’t got nowhere to go what with no one doing any sleeping. Makes sense to me. I mean, I tend to get very cross if I don’t have anybody to play with for a few days. Anyway, without blowing the ending for you if you’re still interested in sitting through SLEEP NO MORE, I’ll just say that there is no happy ending here. That phrase actually has a dual meaning here. Hopefully, the first is rather obvious from my brief descriptions; the second, however, comes from the fact that the ending leaves things wide open for a sequel. I can honestly say that I would have to be severely sleep-deprived to sit through another one of these things. But, I’ll just leave this trailer right here so you can make your own decision about watching (or not watching) SLEEP NO MORE:
The movie is available on DVD, Video On Demand or as a digital download. It does feature some harsh language, several graphic scenes of violence, the usual gratuitous nudity (via a video of an obscure slasher movie from the ‘80s) and equally gratuitous 1980s British pop confectioneries. You have been warned!
The much anticipated thriller from filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar makes its DVD and Blu-Ray – as well as digital and On-Demand platforms – debut on May 10, 2106. The film is set in 1990, as a Minnesota youth, Angela (Emma Watson), accuses her father of sexually abusing her as a child. Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) investigates the girl’s allegations and becomes embroiled in tales of repressed memories and Satanic rituals. The palette of this movie is suitably dark and, like Amenabar’s genre-hopping classic, THE OTHERS, the twists and turns here keep you guessing. The plot features elements of horror, crime drama and psychological thriller all rolled into one, as first Angela, then her father begin to remember a past that may or may not be real. Hawke is at his brooding best as Detective Kenner, while the rest of the formidable cast (including David Thewlis) are swept along in his vortex. Watson is doing her best to move past her HARRY POTTER character, as she chooses roles that are far edgier than the sweet Hermione Granger. Just watching the trailer, I’m not sure this will earn her any new fans (or convince her longtime fans that she is anyone other than Hermione). Time… and a full viewing of REGRESSION… will tell.
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.
(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.
(Digital and DVD; IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT/DREAD CENTRAL MEDIA/RUTHLESS PICTURES (100 minutes; Unrated); 2015)
ZOMBIEWORLD is quite the mixed bag. If you like your zombies (and their victims, potential victims and survivors) on the creepy, scary, gritty side of the ook factor scale, you may wanna give this one a pass; if, however, a little bit (well… actually, a whole lot) of mindless zombie shenanigans (that’s a joke, son… I say, I say… a joke!) is more to your liking, then this may very well be the odd little patchwork quilt of a zombie apocalypse for you. The thing gathers several short films from around the world, loosely held together by quintessential news anchor Marvin Gloatt (over-played to the hilt by the brilliant Bill Oberst, Junior), who is first heard beating back several members of the reanimated news staff before taking his seat before the camera and announcing that he had been bitten by one of them; the professional that he is, the anchorman vows to stay on the air until the end…. hilarity definitely does ensue! Interspersed with Gloatt’s spots and the shorts are several public service announcements informing us how to recognize, fight, kill and survive a confrontation with a zombie. These PSAs are so over-the-top funny that one of the monsters would be dining on your grey matter before you could catch your breath from laughing so hard.
The flick starts off with a confounding opening sequence called DARK TIMES. Apparently, a nuclear reactor has brought on the zombie apocalypse in a Tallahassee swamp and, gosh darn it… wouldn’t you know, it hits right in the middle of the plant’s Christmas party. Everything is shown from the point of view of – just a guess here – the slowest guy in the group; this guy witnesses everything from the zombies’ table manners to the military might of the Florida State Militia to Santa’s claws as they eviscerate the poor sap. And, of course, the aliens. Oh, yeah! That’s right… I said “aliens.” The whole thing is dark and moody and chaotic and, hey… who doesn’t like a zombified Kris Kringle, huh? As we head back to the news desk, we get a little history report on the origins of zombies. According to ol’ Marvin, it would seem that the first infection happened some 2,000 years ago, when some guy named Lazarus was raised from the dead. In a totally outrageous and sacrilegious gore-fest from Spain (that means you’re gonna be reading this one, English pig-dog!) called FIST OF JESUS, our Lord and Savior miscalculates the spiritual mojo when he brings Lazarus back from the dead, creating the first zombie. Lazarus very quickly makes an entire army of zombies… uh… make that three entire armies: Lazarus’ people, the Israelites; the Roman centurions; and, of course, the cowboys. As Jesus (portrayed by a stoic Marc Velasco) and Judas (yup… that Judas!) haul butt out of town, they are confronted by the armies of undead corpses. Realizing that they’re trapped and will have to make a stand, Jesus asks Judas (played by a less-than-stoic Noe Blancafort) if he has any weapons; Judas says that all he has is one fish and hands it over to Jesus… So, you know where this one is going, right? As Jesus multiplies the fish, he begins to hurl them at the oncoming hoard, beheading them, dismembering them and wreaking a general havoc; Judas joins in with a giant swordfish from Heaven only knows where (and you know that’s the truth!), leaving an hilarious trail of blood and body parts in his wake. The premise, the action and the make-up and special effects are so over-the-top that you’ve just got to give a tip of the hat to directors David Munoz and Adrian Cardona for creating such a blasphemously funny film.
ZOMBIEWORLD (Marc Velasco in FIST OF JESUS) (publicity still)
The most straight-forward and, ultimately, most effective piece is HOME, a tale of seclusion and an inate will to survive. A young woman (Jamie McDowell) struggles against her loneliness and an ever-growing amount of walking dead. Her mental lynchpin is a photo depicting her in happier times, with a young man who turns out to be her fiance. The final scene is, possibly, one of the greatest and most visceral visuals ever seen in a zombie movie. A couple of the shorter pieces, DEAD RUSH and TELEPORTAL, come off as first-person shooter video games (one figurative, but with an ax, the other quite literal); both are kinda goofy, but TELEPORTAL comes off looking better and, thus, is more authentic. One of the weirdest shorts is CERTIFIED, a strange period piece featuring a brilliantly subversive switch ending. The rural mail route setting and, later, learning that the mailman is not only new on the route, but new to the area leads to certain conclusions – especially after hearing the story of family tragedy laid out by a young girl (played with a twinkle in her eyes by Rebecca Spicher) and taking in a series of bizarre coincidences. Aside from HOME, this is probably the best work of this collection, regardless of the shocking ending. The final piece is BRUTAL RELAX, which comes from the same warped minds that produced FIST OF JESUS so, again, you’ve got some reading to do. The basic premise is the same, without the God complex: A high-strung man is told to find a way to relax, eventually ending up on a secluded (and amazingly crowded) beach, flopping in a therapeutic mud hole and cranking up his iPod. As the guy drifts off into a blissful oblivion, the beach is overrun by ugly green water zombies; as the putrid corpses gorge on the other sun worshippers, the guy’s batteries run down, killing his iPod and his happiness groove. What follows, naturally, is an overwhelmingly crazy set-to between the guy and the hapless water zombies. BRUTAL RELAX is fun, but it really just comes off as a manic Benny Hill skit… a bad Benny Hill skit. Which is okay by me.
ZOMBIEWORLD (Rebecca Spicher in CERTIFIED) (publicity still)
There are a couple of very forgettable pieces that either try too hard for that sense of stark hyper-realism that worked so well with HOME, or for the lunatic slapstick style that may work with FIST OF JESUS and BRUTAL RELAX or with Oberst’s slowly marinating Marvin Gloatt, but they fall just short of the mark for me. The bottom line is this: ZOMBIEWORLD is a fun way to kill a couple of hours and a few brain cells; unfortunately, the cartoon violence, Noah-like floods of blood (and an equally gross amount of dismembered and disemboweled bodies and corresponding parts) and less-than-gentile language makes it verboten for kids under, say, twelve or thirteen years old. Some may also be offended by the rewrite of the Gospels, turning Jesus into a zombie-killing machine. But, if your goat isn’t easily got by that sorta thing, I say, “Go for it!”
“Mad genius Joe Deninzon fiddles while Stratospheerius burns.” That could be the ad copy tagline for this new single from one of the most eclectic groups around today. Stratospheerius plays a wicked Zappa-like fusion of rock and funk, peppered with a jazzy metallic seasoning. If you think that’s as beautifully chaotic as it sounds, you would be correct. “Guilty of Innocence” is the second of four single releases coming this year, leading up to full-length album in 2016.
Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius (Lucianna Padmore, Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Jamie Bishop) (publicity photo)
According to Joe, the track was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” The rhythm section of bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lays down a powerful, funky groove as Deninzon’s spastic violin leads and Aurelien Budynek’s muscular metal riffs drive the tune. If you’re a fan of the previously mentioned Frank Zappa or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but are unfamiliar with Stratospheerius, “Guilty of Innocence” is a great jumping on place; it’s available at CD Baby, Amazon and all of the other “usual places” and, of course, at the group’s Bandcamp page (along with the previous single, “Behind the Curtain.”)
I recently reviewed a “kiddie” movie called AVA AND LALA, a really bad example of what passes for “family-friendly” viewing these days (it actually received positive reviews from several Christian sites, even though the Ava character has virtually no redeeming values and exemplifies many non-Christian traits, such as disrespect to others, covetousness and hubris). Still cringing from that experience, I approached UNDER WRAPS with a sense of trepidation. Just a few minutes into the flick, I found myself mumbling, “Now, this is more like it!” UNDER WRAPS is, thankfully, standard-issue American style animation and storytelling (though most of the production team and animators are British or Indian), with plenty of adventure, action, comedy, thrills, chills and a message that everyone can relate to.
UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)
The story centers around twelve-year-old Danny (voiced by Nick Wolfhard) and his wi-fi starved older sister, Eleanor (Kazumi Evans), whose archeologist parents (Brian Drummond and Brooke Shields) have dragged them halfway around the world on an Egyptian expedition. Danny is excited to help his parents; they, unfortunately for him, think he’s too young and… uh… too “hands on” to take into the tomb. In his quest for adventure, he tends to act before he thinks things all the way through, leading to plenty of broken relics, groundings and, of course, releasing a curse that turns his parents into mummies. Unlike Ava from the previously reviewed AVA AND LALA, the kids learn their lessons early on as, through the course of the flick, they learn the importance of family, working together to reverse the curse before the sun sets and their parents become permanently mummified.
UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)
The curse is accidentally activated when Danny drops and breaks a relic he took from the tomb, setting into motion a fun, fast-paced adventure through the Howard’s hometown. As he and Eleanor take charge (and try to hide their rapidly deteriorating parents), they are stopped by a pair of marginally inept police officers (Brenda Crichlow, Colin Murdock). The officers continue to show up at the worst times possible, leading to some of the funniest moments of the movie. One of the funniest moments occurs when the kids go shopping for the ingredients needed to stop the curse. The cops, of course, take their coffee break in the same grocery. By this point, the parents have become the children, not listening to instructions to remain in the vehicle and out of site. They do neither and are soon wreaking havoc in the store. Drake Bell voices an excitable kid in a squid costume who, after being set upon by Mister Howard, gets no sympathy from anyone because, “That’s a mummy… mummies don’t eat brains. Zombies eat brains.” The mummified Howards, naturally, win the award for best costume.
UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)
Along the way, the siblings are set upon by a monstrous mummy (who looks a lot like Iron Maiden’s mascot and cover boy, Eddie), who is looking to retrieve the broken artifact. Eleanor and Danny finally decide that they may be in over their heads as sundown approaches and take their parents’ assistant, Peter (Matthew Lillard), into their confidence. This leads to a final confrontation as the four Howards, Peter, the two cops and the Pharaoh mummy converge for a final showdown. It should be fun for the younger kids to follow the clues throughout to figure out how the story ends.
UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)
The movie is rated PG. It does feature some rude humor and the Pharaoh mummy can be a pretty scary thing for really young kids; the action sequences are fairly mild and funny enough to be enjoyed by everybody in the family. UNDER WRAPS would be a good Halloween “scare” for kids above, say, the age of eight, particularly tweeners. The messages of responsibility and working together as a family will not be lost on that age group.
(DVD/Blu-Ray and Digital; Image Entertainment/Hannibal Classics/Patriot Pictures (98 minutes/Unrated); 2014)
After decades of watching THE THREE STOOGES and slasher movies, I thought I understood brutality. After living through the onset of the TWILIGHT saga, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, I realized just how wrong I was… that was true brutality. Now, along comes Nicholas Cage in RAGE and I humbly bow to the utter brutality, the unbelievable carnage of this tale of redemption lost, revenge and blind, uncontrollable… well, you read the name of the movie, right? I‘vealways considered Nicolas Cage to be the poor man’s John Travolta. As the only role I ever liked Travolta in was Vinnie Barbarino in WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (okay… maybe he wasn’t horrible in PULP FICTION, but still… ) you can understand where Mister Cage falls on my list of favorite actors. Every Cage performance I’ve ever seen is one dimensional; like Travolta (and Jim Carrey and Will Farrell), the guy plays the same character every time out! I loved KICK ASS; Nicolas Cage’s acting in KICK ASS… not so much. Having said that, even though he really doesn’t change his MO this time out, he somehow manages to carry the film in a rather impressive fashion, facial contortions aside.
RAGE (Nicolas Cage and Aubrey Peeples) (publicity still)
Cage stars as Paul Maguire, a man who – though a loving father and husband and well-respected businessman – has a few dark secrets in his past. The presumed gangland kidnapping and subsequent murder of his teenage daughter sends Maguire into a spiral of grief and anger, fueling a violent rage that he thought was a distant memory, a part of his past never to be visited again. As the story progresses, we learn that the death of his first wife (and the mother of daughter Caitlin) saved Paul from himself and the self-destructive criminal activities of his youth. We’re never really sure where his money comes from (though we have a pretty good idea), but it seems that the mayor, as well as Detective Peter Saint John (portrayed by a stoic Danny Glover) know of his mob connections and his criminal past, possibly turning a blind eye, as Maguire’s company continues to bring prosperity to their city.
RAGE (Danny Glover and Nicolas Cage) (publicity still)
As the distraught Maguire continues to deteriorate mentally (and morally), he seeks out his old gang, also respected businessmen by this time, to mete out – not justice – a horrible retribution on those responsible for his misery. The “old gang” (a brooding, in debt bar owner played by Max Ryan and a troubled, womanizing drunk played by Michael McGrady) are – at least on the surface – willing to back Paul’s play, no matter what. It seems that the three had a bit of a run in with the Russian mob as teenagers and, now, it looks like someone has been talking out of class. That’s the only explanation in Maguire’s mind that makes any sense; who else would want to see him suffer? The trio go on a brutal rampage looking for the head of the Russian mafia, a man named Chernov (deliciously portrayed by Pasha Lychnikoff, the go-to guy in Hollywood if you need a cold and calculating, quietly violent Eastern European criminal type). Ryan’s character, Kane, is eventually captured by the Russians and, as he’s being tortured for information, Maguire frantically tries to contact Danny (McGrady) for help. Remember what I told you about him earlier? Booze and women?
RAGE (Pasha Lychnikoff) (publicity still)
As Detective Saint John continues to confront Maguire about his actions, it is painfully obvious that he has no clue how to bring this killing spree vendetta to an end; arrest is apparently not the answer (an officer actually has him in ‘cuffs after a car chase that results in much vehicular damage and scores of insurance claims; Saint John releases him). The body count continues to rise, as does the property damage. Maguire continues his downward spiral, reliving the incident with the Russians from his youth until the audience has the full backstory and a fairly cohesive idea of who the killers are and why. This is far as I go in revealing the plot to RAGE; anything else would ruin the whole thing for you. There is a psychological element at work here that will have you examining your own life, thinking, “How would I react if someone I loved were kidnapped and murdered? Would I go to these extreme measures for revenge or justice?” Obviously, RAGE, takes the answers to the ultimate extreme. So, let’s just say that this flick is a thrill ride of revenge and betrayal and, in the end, the bad guy doesn’t always win, but… neither, necessarily, do the good guys!
RAGE (Max Ryan, Nicolas Cage and Michael McGrady) (publicity still)
For those of you who are into such things, the DVD (and, I’m assuming, the other formats, too) has a few bonus features, including some “making of… ” featurettes, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.