Category Archives: Reviews

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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Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day, July 2, 1863. July 2 was the Confederacy’s last, best hope for winning a decisive victory on Northern soil. Like the previous day, it started badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet ubiquitous action by generals George G. Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and won what became the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

This book is far superior to Pfanz’s later works on Gettysburg, but it only focuses on the action on the Union left flank and not on Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. That received its own book-length treatment. The omission was a relief to this reader, since its grueling 624-page length already pushed the limits of my attention span.

As a micro history, Gettysburg: The Second Day almost entirely focuses on the tactical, rather than strategic, aspects of the battle. It would be unfair to say the author never engages in higher level thinking about the events, but he devotes the lion’s share of text to describing what happened and not how or why.

The maps were helpful because in addition to giving readers a visual representation of the verbosely detailed text, they featured a chronological summary of events. That helped put everything into context.

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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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Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day, July 1, 1863. July 1 went badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet quick thinking by generals like Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and set the stage for what would become the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

While the author’s strategic overview falls flat, Pfanz shines in his detailed tactical descriptions of the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Blocher’s Knoll, and the subsequent Union retreat through Gettysburg and rally on Cemetery Hill.

Gettysburg: The First Day is not a linear history. Though it is roughly arranged chronologically, the narrative jumps back and forth from events leading up to the battle to the battle itself. As Union and Confederate units appear on the field, Pfanz pauses to reflect on how each unit arrived, sometimes across the span of several days. In such a long narrative, this has a tendency to cause the reader to lose track of how events tie together.

Pfanz’s attempt to describe the armies’ approach to Gettysburg is particularly sloppy. The writing is so awful I briefly wondered if the book was self-published. The author lacks the strategic depth and understanding of Stephen W. Sears, and for a masterful retelling of the entire campaign, read Sears’ Gettysburg (2004). Pfanz focuses almost exclusively on what occurred, not why.

The author’s grasp of history shines through at the tactical level. When Pfanz describes the gritty events of July 1, 1863 in all their gruesome detail, he brings to life the men who fought that day, from the lowliest private to commanding generals. While most authors focus on the exploits of commissioned officers, Pfanz’s narrative includes enlisted men and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). NCOs form the backbone of the U.S. Army and many of the best officers, both North and South, began their careers as enlisted men.

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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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The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern

the-battles-for-spotsylvania-court-house-and-the-road-to-yellow-tavern-may-7-12-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant broke convention and flanked Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee’s entrenched army by frontal assault reached a chilling climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle.

Drawing on previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional wisdom to construct a detailed and thorough account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania, including the rise of Union cavalry commander Philip Sheridan and death of the legendary J.E.B. Stuart. This is the second of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Wilderness, General Grant learned from his mistakes, but familiar problems still shadowed his army. At Spotsylvania, Ambrose Burnside continued to conduct the IX Corps at a glacial pace. His failings “… were so flagrant that the army talked about them openly.” While Sheridan’s ride south in pursuit of J.E.B. Stewart earned him fame and resulted in Stewart’s death, it also deprived Grant of the eyes and ears of his army at a critical time. The result was eight days of brutal combat, with little to show for it. Once again, Grant’s divided command was a hindrance.

The Battle of Spotsylvania showed Grant’s stubborn determination and persistence, but Rhea puts the blame squarely on Grant for his failure to decisively defeat Lee. Grant’s impulsiveness and impatience undermined what was otherwise a sound strategy. He imposed unrealistic timetables and gave little time for preparation, so plans that looked good on paper failed miserably in execution. As the battle progressed, Grant took an increasingly active role and sidelined Maj. Gen. Meade. Meade was unable or unwilling to temper Grant’s more aggressive tendencies.

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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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