Blog Archives

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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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.

My High School Years in Film: 1996

I thought it would be fun to do an overview of movies that came out while I was in high school. The first video covers August to December 1996, when I entered high school as a freshman at Maine West in Des Plaines, Illinois. Yeah, it’s blatant nostalgia, even though the ’90s was a lousy decade to be a teenager. What were your favorite films from the late ’90s?

Is Hollywood Imploding?

The idea that Hollywood is a place where dirty old men lure young women (and sometimes boys) with promises of stardom has been around pretty much from its inception. It’s an open secret some call the “casting couch culture.” Harry Cohn, co-founder and president of Columbia Pictures until 1958, was rumored to have a private room next to his office for dalliances, and accusations against Harvey Weinstein go back decades.

Who, then, is surprised by rampant libertinism and degeneracy in the entertainment industry? It’s been on the cover of every tabloid magazine since the beginning of print media. So why have all these accusations of sexual improprieties suddenly bubbled to the surface, and does it have anything to do with declining ticket sales?

Forbes recently ran an article citing 2017’s summer movie season as the lowest grossing summer for the movie business in 25 years. While it mentioned fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it mainly blamed the rising cost of theater attendance and a generational preference for watching movies on mobile devices.

It’s true ticket and concession prices have become grossly over inflated, but these explanations hardly scratch the surface. Young people aren’t going to the theater because they’d rather watch movies on a phone? Ridiculous. I think it has much more to do with the poor quality of films coming out of Hollywood. Netflix has experienced tremendous growth partly because their original movies and series are compelling, funny, clever, and creative.

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) follows two interstellar agents on a quest to uncover the cause of a mysterious radiation bubble in Alpha, a massive space station home to over a thousand species from across the galaxy.

Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are reluctant heroes. Valerian seems more concerned with convincing Laureline to marry him and Laureline in keeping Valerian out of trouble. Overall, the film is visually stunning, creative, rich with color and spectacle, and epic in scale. Cara Delevingne is beautiful and charming. Just enough to make it good but not great.

Valerian is largely a victim of poor timing. Valérian and Laureline came out in 1967 and though not well known in the U.S., had a huge influence on sci-fi films, including The Fifth Element (for which artist Jean-Claude Mézières created concept art). Unfortunately, by 2017 the movie feels like a copy of all the things its source material inspired.

I found myself constantly recognizing characters and settings I’ve seen before, including from The Fifth Element but also films like Avatar (2009). You can’t help comparing the Mülians to Pandorans. They’re virtually identical both in appearance and what they represent.

The only element that “feels original” is the concept of inter-dimensional travel, which was brilliantly executed in a scene in which Valerian and Laureline travel to a market to retrieve a rare creature. In our dimension, the setting is an open desert and a walled enclosure, but by putting on special equipment, shoppers are able to enter another dimension to a bustling, multi-story shopper’s paradise.

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First Impressions of Valerian

I haven’t watched a movie in a theater in a while, so I decided to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend over the other two on my wish list: Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I picked Valerian because it has mixed reviews and I wanted to judge for myself. Here are my first impressions after seeing the film:

  • It was good! It was visually stunning, imaginative, and reminded me of The Fifth Element (1997). I like the idea of inter-dimensional travel and traveling to a parallel dimension to shop, which you know humans would do.
  • The aliens were really cool, though I’m not sure why amphibian humanoids would have breasts. Are they also mammals?
  • Dane DeHaan, who played Major Valerian, basically reprised his role in A Cure for Wellness (2016), which doesn’t bode well for his acting range. He lacked a personality in both films.
  • Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline) is a British actress who hides her accent well. She played Margo in Paper Towns (2015), which I loved. I take back calling her a discount Emma Watson.
  • Clive Owen is wasted in this film as Commander Arun Filitt. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
  • Maybe things will change in the future, but if Major Valerian were in today’s military, he would be court-martialed for seeping with his subordinates and keeping their photos as trophies.
  • Major Valerian is introduced as a daring ladies man and Sergeant Laureline as uptight and studious, yet Valerian is an officer and she’s an NCO. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed: she damns the rules and he’s suddenly reluctant to break them.
  • If the film needs to recap the entire plot at the end for the audience to understand it, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, there’s a huge problem.

I’ll post a complete review later this week!