SEE YOU IN VALHALLA

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/TARNOL GROUP PICTURES (82 minutes; Rated R); 2015)

SeeYouInValhalla_2D

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)

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)

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 (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.


JOHN DOE: VIGILANTE

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/MAIN STREET FILMS/RAPIDFIRE ENTERTAINMENT (93 minutes; Rated R); 2015)

John Doe Vigilante

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)

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)

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)

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.


AUTUMN BLOOD

(DVD and Digital; ARC ENTERTAINMENT/DREAMRUNNER PICTURES/MOUNTAIN FILMS (99 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

Autumn Blood 2D flat

AUTUMN BLOOD is a very quiet, almost pastoral movie, filled with moments of unbelievable brutality, violence and pain. Beautifully filmed in the mountains around Tirol, Austria, the scenery is breathtaking and there is a sense that we may be watching a story set in the untamed wild west of the United States; the only things visible to place the movie in modern times are the vehicles, farm machinery and weaponry. The opening sequence of the film sets the stage as, six years earlier, a farming family’s lives are shattered when the father is killed by the mayor of the nearby village. The inference from what happens prior is that the mayor either raped the mother or they were having an affair. At any rate, the father is dead, leaving the mother to care for her two young children.

AUTUMN BLOOD (Sophie Lowe, Maximilian Harnisch) (publicity still)

AUTUMN BLOOD (Sophie Lowe, Maximilian Harnisch) (publicity still)

The movie shifts to the mother and her now sixteen year old daughter (played with an innocence that seems almost too real to be acting, by Sophie Lowe, an ethereal, waifish beauty who may be best known for her role as Alice in the television series, ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND) and ten year old son (Maximilian Harnisch), who hasn’t spoken a word since witnessing his father’s death. There’s a gentleness and a sense of idyllic contentment, or maybe it’s resignation to their lots in life… whatever it is, the mother does her best to give the children a good life.

AUTUMN BLOOD (Gustaf Skarsgard, Sophie Lowe) (publicity still)

AUTUMN BLOOD (Gustaf Skarsgard, Sophie Lowe) (publicity still)

The girl’s innocence is probably best displayed as she swims/bathes in a secluded pond; she lays, drying on the rocks, completely at one with her surroundings. As she lay there one morning, dreaming, a hunter (the mayor’s son, played by Samuel Vauramo) breaks her reverie. Totally unaffected and unashamed, she doesn’t try to cover herself. It isn’t until the man grabs her and bends in to kiss her that she begins to understand his intentions and tries to fight him off. Beaten and bloody, the girl eventually makes her way home. She is met by her brother who helps her into their house, where more heartache awaits. As the boy was doing chores around the farm and while the girl was being brutalized, their mother had finally succumbed to the loneliness (or guilt, as there are several clues that she was, in fact, somehow involved with the mayor), ending her own life (at least, that’s how I read the scene). As the girl cleanses her wounds and tries to wash away the rape, she makes the decision to quietly bury their mother and keep her death a secret so that she and her brother wouldn’t be taken from their home and, possibly, separated.

AUTUMN BLOOD (Peter Stormare, Sophie Lowe) (publicity still)

AUTUMN BLOOD (Peter Stormare, Sophie Lowe) (publicity still)

On a trip into town, the girl, still showing signs of the beating she took, is waited on by a caring banker who grows suspicious and calls a social worker to check on the family situation. The girl also encounters the mayor (a steely-eyed Peter Stormare) in the local church, as well as being intimidated by the town butcher (played with a sense of monstrous depravity by Gustaf Skarsgard), the hunter and another friend. Later that night, the three men pay the children a visit, threatening to kill the boy and, once again, forcing themselves upon the girl. The mayor suspects his son and the others are, at the very least, up to no good and, possibly, in far more trouble than he has the power to get them out of.

AUTUMN BLOOD (Samuel Vauramo, Peter Stormare) (publicity still)

AUTUMN BLOOD (Samuel Vauramo, Peter Stormare) (publicity still)

Now knowing of the mayor’s suspicions, the three decide to kill the only witnesses to their crimes. As the girl and her brother try to allude their would-be executioners, the film takes on a disturbing DELIVERENCE quality. Amidst the scenic backdrop of the Austrian countryside, the three stalk the siblings for the final third of the movie. As is always the case in such chase scenes, the villains are dispatched, one in a fairly standard fashion, the other two in less obvious ways. The chase sequence, which encompasses two days, is chilling, thrilling and nicely staged. I do, however, question the need for the girl to doff her clothing once she finds a suitable hiding place for the night; it just seems incongruous and more than a bit exploitive. If you’re paying close attention all the way through AUTUMN BLOOD, the final scene offers a little hint as to the relationship between the mother and the mayor and… I ain’t sayin’ no more. You’re going to have to connect the dots yourself.

AUTUMN BLOOD (Tim Morten Uhlenbrock, Gustaf Skarsgard, Samuel Vauramo) (publicity still)

AUTUMN BLOOD (Tim Morten Uhlenbrock, Gustaf Skarsgard, Samuel Vauramo) (publicity still)

As mentioned, the movie has some nudity, violence and two brutal rape scenes, so it has an R rating, though it seems that most teens (say, 12 and over) wouldn’t be too shocked or permanently damaged if they watched it, depending on their sensitivity to such things. I originally felt that the rapes would be dealbreakers for a majority of viewers but, the overall quality of the story eventually won me over. By the way, about those rape and nude scenes… Sophie Lowe was 21 years old when the film began shooting so, everything was above board and legal.