Category Archives: Film and Television

Super Dark Times: A Harrowing and Tense Coming-of-Age Thriller

In Super Dark Times (2017), a teen must come to grips with his increasingly psychotic friend in this harrowing and tense coming-of-age thriller. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and directed by Kevin Phillips, this indie film’s competency highlights why Hollywood is failing. Younger, more creative filmmakers are using technology and innovation to craft solid, beautifully-rendered films that put big-budget studios to shame.

Director Kevin Phillips is mostly known for his short film cinematography, and he’s spent the past twelve years honing his craft. Nearly every scene in this film is beautiful, but it’s not another example of “style over substance.” The movie is structurally sound, competently written, and the dialogue is believable. It reminds me of films from the ’80s and early ’90s, which tried to ground fantastic or extreme situations in reality.

As Super Dark Times opens, a buck has accidentally crashed into a high school and severely injured itself. Two police officers clear the scene and put it down. This dramatic and brutal scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Enter four acquaintances, childhood friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and an 8th-grader named Charlie (Sawyer Barth). Zach and Josh both have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but she eventually chooses Zach.

The kids discover a bag of marijuana and a samurai sword in Josh’s brother’s bedroom and take it to a park to mess around. Josh and Daryl get into an argument and Josh accidentally stabs him in the neck, killing him. The teens hide Daryl’s body in the woods and try to forget about the crime, but Josh’s increasingly erratic behavior stokes Zach’s guilt and paranoia. The film’s sickening climax is disturbing and difficult to watch, but the entire film has you on edge from start to finish.

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The Hatred: Rock Bottom Horror

Four college coeds and a young girl must survive the night in a farmhouse haunted by an ex-NAZI and his daughter in The Hatred (2017), written and directed by Michael G. Kehoe. The horror genre has long attracted up-and-coming filmmakers willing to take risks on shoestring budgets. This sometimes leads to cinematic masterpieces but often amounts to trash fit for the landfill. This film belongs solidly in the latter category.

As The Hatred opens, Samuel Sears (Andrew Divoff), his school teacher wife, Miriam (Nina Siemaszko), and daughter, Alice (Darby Walker) are living on an isolated farm. Samuel was a high ranking NAZI who changed his name and fled to the U.S. after the Second World War. He receives a medieval relic in the mail, drowns his daughter for rebelling against him, and then dies for some reason while his wife passively looks on.

Forty years later, recent college graduate Regan (Sarah Davenport) and her vapid sorority friends, Layan (Gabrielle Bourne), Samantha (Bayley Corman), and Betaine (Alisha Wainwright) drive out to her professor’s new country home, where she will babysit his daughter, Irene (Shae Smolik). As strange things begin to happen, will they unravel the mystery of Alice’s death and escape alive?

The Hatred is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I struggled to find a single redeeming quality. Normally, with low budget pictures, it’s unintentionally funny, or there’s memorable dialogue, or a clever concept, or just some good old fashioned T&A. The Hatred had none of those things.

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Free State of Jones

An ex-Confederate organizes a rebellion in southeastern Mississippi during the American Civil War and continues to battle for equal rights for freedmen during Reconstruction in Free State of Jones (2016), written and directed by Gary Ross. The film alternates between the 1860s and a 1948 miscegenation trial, to the detriment of both. Free State of Jones bombed at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.

The film begins at the Battle of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, October 3-4, 1862, in which Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attempted to dislodge Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans from fortifications around the town of Corinth. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medical orderly in the Confederate army from Jones County, a predominantly poor area with few slaves.

Knight is disgruntled to learn of a Confederate law that allows sons of plantation owners to avoid military service depending on the number of slaves his family owns. This was designed to guard against slave uprisings, but it angered some poor whites who believed they were fighting a “rich man’s war”. When Knight returns the body of his nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) to his home county, he learns that Confederate Captain Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) is excessively confiscating goods from the local population.

Things get complicated when Knight meets and falls in love with a slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), despite being married to Serena (Keri Russell). He fights back against the tax collectors and hides out in the swamp, where he meets fugitive slaves and befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali). Together with other deserters, they successfully rebel against the Confederacy and proclaim a Free State of Jones. After the war, freed slaves struggle against a segregationist South.

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The Beguiled: A Pastel Remake

A wounded Union soldier is sheltered at a girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, igniting pent-up passions and jealousy in this pale imitation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood classic, itself based on the 1966 Southern Gothic novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. The Beguiled (2017), written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is a remake no one asked for, visually beautiful but emotionally monochrome.

John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a corporal in the 66th New York and wounded in the leg while fighting somewhere in Virginia in the summer of 1864. He stumbles through the wilderness and collapses. Amy (Oona Laurence), a young student at the nearby Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, discovers him and takes him back to the neglected school.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) stitches Corporal McBurney’s wound and allows him to stay long enough to recover. Meanwhile, he attracts the attention of the other young ladies of the house, Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), and especially their teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

McBurney is passive but emotionally manipulative. He pledges his love for Edwina, but after catching him in flagrante delicto with Alicia, she accidentally pushes him down the stairs, which opens his wound and breaks his leg. Miss Martha amputates his limb below the knee to prevent infection. McBurney flies into a rage when he sees what she has done, gratuitously injures Amy’s pet turtle, and terrorizes the girls with a revolver.

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First Impressions of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I braved jet lag and the bitter cold last night to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a theater, as I have for all three Disney Star Wars releases (okay, one was at the Baghdad Embassy and the other in Florida, so it wasn’t too cold those other times). I should have known it was a bad sign when Disney entrusted a director with a handful of films under his belt, Rian Johnson, to not only direct the film but also write it. Honestly, I thought this was the worst of the Disney Star Wars films. Here are some of my first impressions.

  • The pointless and silly exposition was so annoying I almost walked out of the theater. Something would happen, and then a character would turn to another character and describe what just happened. How dumb does Rian Johnson think his audience is?
  • Just when I thought they were going to take the series in a completely new direction, they bring it back to the same damn thing. Again.
  • In the opening battle, the First Order sends out a handful of TIE Fighters to confront the Resistance bombers while their Star Destroyers sit there and do nothing.
  • I’m glad Disney decided to fix its messed up galactic politics from The Force Awakens, but do the good guys have to be rebels in order to be the good guys? They do this because we naturally root for the underdog, but surely there are other ways to create a good vs. evil plot line. Wouldn’t it be interesting, for instance, if the First Order and New Republic had to work together against a powerful external enemy?
  • Speaking of which, I’m not happy with the way Disney took the entire post-Return of the Jedi timeline and extended universe developed in comics, novels, and video games and just threw it in the trash.
  • The subplot of the gambling planet is pointless, and Finn and Rose Tico are morons. They’re running out of time, but waste so much of it just wandering around, concerned with freeing a bunch of animals. Then, after escaping captivity, instead of trying to find the guy they came to find, they run off with a sketchy character they randomly met in jail who of course ultimately sells them out.
  • The scene where Rey jumps into the “Dark Side” cave is pointless and doesn’t contribute to the plot or story in any meaningful way.
  • Why does the Resistance leadership refuse to listen to Poe Dameron, a loyal and longtime member, or answer his questions, while they allow a former storm trooper with questionable loyalty, Finn, to discuss plans with Leia Organa and pretty much do whatever he wants?
  • Continuing the trend from Rogue One, this felt like watching a video game with the way everything was so contrived. “In order to do X we need to find Y,” and “We have to hit this weapon in exactly this one way to destroy it.”

Ultimately, The Last Jedi was so disappointing. I know it’s gotten good reviews, but I just don’t see why. It’s literally the exact same thing we’ve seen in every Star Wars movie with only a slight variation. It teases you several times into thinking it’s finally going to break new ground, but ultimately ends up in the exact same place. I’m no longer excited to watch the upcoming sequel because I probably already have.

Goon: A Heartfelt Sports Comedy

A down-and-out bouncer discovers he has a talent for dolling out beatings in the hockey rink in Goon (2011), a surprising independent Canadian sports comedy film written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michael Dowse. Aside from being well made, Goon features a solid, nuanced performance by Seann William Scott.

Despite dismal box office returns, Goon is almost universally praised by critics. It currently has a rating of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I overlooked it many times, because although Seann William Scott has had funny side roles in some of my favorite comedies, I just couldn’t imagine him as a leading man. I was so wrong. In Goon, Scott proves he is a competent actor capable of breaking out of the fratbro trope.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), a tough but polite simpleton, is working a dead end job as a bouncer. His friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), hosts a public access hockey call-in show. One night at an Orangetown Assassins minor league game, Doug gets into a fight with a player and the Assassins coach invites him to join the team as their “enforcer.” When his skills on the ice improve, he’s recruited to play for the Halifax Highlanders and protect their star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin), who is slow to recover from a brutal knockdown.

Along the way, he falls in love with Eva (Alison Pill), an adorkable hockey fan who sleeps around with hockey players, but is in a relationship, and discovers he might one day have to confront Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber), who was responsible for knocking out Xavier LaFlamme. Will he get the girl and defeat his rival?

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The Nice Guys: Film Noir for the Disco Era

An unlikely duo must team up to find a missing girl before a secret cabal has her murdered in The Nice Guys (2016), a comedic crime drama written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi and directed by Shane Black. Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys is a film noir for the disco era, but wasn’t originally written as a period piece. Thankfully, the writers decided to rework the concept and what resulted was one of the best films of 2016.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a muscle-for-hire who Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) pays to dissuade private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) from looking for her. March, an alcoholic who lives with his preteen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), believes Amelia is somehow connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), hired March to investigate Misty’s death because she believed Misty might still be alive.

When two anonymous men (Beau Knapp and Keith David) show up at Jackson Healy’s apartment to press him for details on Amelia’s whereabouts, he decides to pay March to help him locate Amelia before they do. Together, they discover Amelia and Misty were connected to an underground adult film allegedly exposing a conspiracy on the part of auto manufacturers to suppress the catalytic converter. Several people involved in the movie turned up dead.

Things get really complicated when Amelia’s mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, pays March and Healy to find her daughter. When Amelia literally falls into their laps, she accuses her mother of being part of the conspiracy. March and Healy slowly put the pieces together, but will they rescue her and the last remaining film reel in time to expose the truth?

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Ingrid Goes West

A social-media obsessed woman with borderline personality disorder moves to Los Angeles to insert herself into another woman’s life, severely disrupting the lives of everyone she encounters in this dark comedy by debut writer-director Matt Spicer. Ingrid Goes West (2017) has a lot to say about contemporary American society, but despite being shot and promoted as a comedy, there’s really nothing funny about it.

Its humor comes from Aubrey Plaza‘s performance as Ingrid Thorburn, the unfortunate young woman just looking for a best friend. Her portrayal is awkward, charming, and at times frightening. But even though we’re invited to laugh at her fumbled personal interactions, there are no jokes or one-liners. This lack of overt-comedy is not a deficit.

As the film opens, a distraught Ingrid maces a bride for not inviting her to the wedding and is committed to a mental hospital. Upon release, she sees Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) in a magazine and begins following her on Instagram. Ingrid comments on a photo and Taylor replies, inviting her to check it out next time she’s in LA. Coincidentally, Ingrid’s mother dies, leaving her with a $60,000 inheritance. Ingrid uses that money to move to LA and rent a house from aspiring screenwriter and Batman fanboy Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.).

Once in LA, Ingrid remakes her personality and appearance in Taylor’s image and plots to insert herself in the woman’s life, going so far as to kidnap her and her husband Ezra’s (Wyatt Russell) dog so she can return it. Ingrid and Taylor become friends, but their relationship is complicated by the appearance of Taylor’s drug-addict brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), and fashion blogger Harley Chung (Pom Klementieff), who begin to monopolize Taylor’s time.

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