[Fantastic Fest 2023] THE LAST STOP IN YUMA COUNTY -- A Taut One-Location Thriller Full of Personality
Review by Daniel Lima
Alfred Hitchock’s maxim about “the bomb under the table” — that setting up a volatile situation that could explode at any moment is more rewarding to an audience than a sudden shock that comes out of nowhere — is oft-repeated but rarely put into practice. It’s simply easier to catch people off guard with something out of left field. The directorial debut of writer-director Francis Galluppi, The Last Stop in Yuma County, is an exceedingly well-executed and tense one-location thriller, living up to Hitchcock’s tenet admirably… that is, until it doesn’t.
A gas station on an isolated stretch of desert highway in the early ‘70s is out of fuel, and the truck supposed to replenish it is running late. Anyone looking to replenish their vehicle is forced to wait at the local diner. This includes two men who just held up a bank. The day wears on, more people file in, and it becomes unclear if everyone will be able to make it out.
Almost the entire film is set at the diner and neighboring station, and it goes to great lengths to establish the geography of the space — an important part of any story rooted in one location. From early on, the camera glides through and around the locale, giving the audience a sense of where all the characters are in relation to one another. Between the deliberate blocking, framing, and mobile camerawork, by the end of the movie, anyone would be able to map out the entire place.
That place is lovingly brought to life through set, sound, and costume design. There is an emptiness to the diner, a sense that its best days are long behind it, the still air only disrupted by the happenstance of a late fuel delivery. Sunbeams reveal dust, the worn wallpaper and kitchen appliances reveal age, and the quiet punctuated by conversation and a whirring fan hangs heavy with heat and tension. The costumes go a long way in selling the personality of the place and the characters who populate it, with just a glance communicating who that person is, how they carry themselves, and the life they’ve let. Beyond nailing the period setting, these details make even this desolate place feel alive and distinct.
The character work is perhaps the crowning achievement of Yuma County. There are no inorganic exposition dumps explaining anyone, beyond the kind of pleasantries people caught in this situation would exchange, yet so much comes through the diction, the colloquialisms, the respect characters accord each other. The dialogue has a nuance and flair to it that requires pitch-perfect performances. The cast rises to the challenge, nailing every minute idiosyncrasy and creating the feeling that this seemingly momentous one day is merely one day in a long, storied life for everyone involved. Everyone is fantastic, from Jim Cummings’s meekly mannered traveling salesman, to Nicholas Logan’s oafish criminal, to Jocelin Donahue’s composed and quick-thinking waitress. The entire ensemble does such a good job, you can almost predict how everyone will react as events unfold after only a couple minutes spent with them.
All this makes the wait for that “bomb under the table” to go off incredibly harrowing. The characters are all so endearing that seeing anyone meet their end would be devastating. The cinematography efficiently sets up every wrinkle and twist in the unfolding drama, while maintaining a clarity that escapes many a seasoned filmmaker. That the command of rhythm and pacing is every bit a match to the cinematography almost goes without saying. Yuma County accomplishes so much with its limited setting, from a first-time writer-director, that it’s hard not to be baffled while watching that first hour.
Unfortunately, there is a narrative shift that undermines the movie. None of the film’s merits disappear — it is still a taut and slick character-driven thriller — but the story has very little to go, long before the credits roll. The final note it ends on is confounding, feeling more like the ending of a particularly cynical short that was haphazardly tacked onto a story that had been so electric. Appropriate as it may be, it feels completely disconnected from the characters that had popped off the screen.
In spite of that, The Last Stop in Yuma County is a fun, effective thriller that uses its colorful ensemble and highly specific setting to great effect. That it is only the first feature film from Galluppi is shocking, and is a very auspicious start to a hopefully long career.
The Last Stop in Yuma County premiered at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
Review by Daniel Lima
The anthology horror film has existed since the early days of cinema — a natural extension of that pervasive human ritual of sharing scary stories around a campfire. It’s an inherently uneven endeavor, but the idea of a neatly packaged collage of terrifying tales, each formed by a different creative vision, is too enticing to pass up. V/H/S/85, the latest in the V/H/S found footage horror series, is further proof that as tantalizing as the prospect is, it’s all too easy for the contributors on a project like this to abandon their role as storytellers themselves.
The framing device here, “Total Copy,” is a taped TV special about an alien creature being held under observation by a team of scientists, at first doing nothing more than watching television. Slowly, it becomes clear that the creature understands more than it might seem, but the lead researcher brushes off the concerns of his staff. Directed by David Bruckner (Ritual, The Night House), this is easily the best segment, telling a complete, cohesive story with a wry sense of humor and a mounting sense of tension. The note that it ends on is visceral and darkly comic, but also thematically rich, clarifying the nature of the alien in a way that actually makes it feel like an alien. Getting to that finale, however, is a bit of a slog.
The first segment, “No Wake,” is the most traditional, following a group of young people on a camping trip that goes horribly wrong. The standard subpar character work emphasizing that these are normal, boring people is as boring as ever, but the format forces director Mike P. Nelson (Wrong Turn, The Domestics) to dive suddenly into the horror, rather than steadily build unease and dread. That there is an additional twist and a cliffhanger ending only adds to the shaggy, pointless feeling of the short.
Gigi Saul Guerrero (Satanic Hispanics, Bingo Hell) helms “God of Death,” set during the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. A news cameraman is rescued from a collapsing building, only for him and the rescue team to stumble on something even more horrifying than the disaster around them. Most of the segment is standard found footage fare, with the characters navigating through the debris in darkness, shouting at each other, and not much else. Spicing things up is the pitch-perfect morning news segment that begins the short, and the bits of humor throughout go a long way in making wandering through ruined buildings bearable. It's not until the finale that things pop off, and even then, it feels underwhelming considering the time it took to get there. That actual news footage of the earthquake’s aftermath is used in the service of a lackluster short feels a bit distasteful.
“TKNOGD,” directed by Natasha Kermani (Lucky, Imitation Girl), is easily the worst of the pack. A woman does a performance art piece to a small audience, strapping on a VR headset and daring the God of Technology to heed her prayers. If there’s anything good to be said about this short, it’s that it does nail the amateur VHS aesthetic better than the rest, filled with uncomfortable silence and agonizing tedium. Successfully being the most painfully boring segment of an anthology film, however, is an ignoble accomplishment.
Mike P. Nelson returns with “Ambrosia,” about a family celebration that takes on a darker edge. While this is just as one note as the first three segments, it is also the shortest, and offers a decent payoff. It helps that it features one of the funniest images of the entire film.
The biggest director here is Scott Derrickson (The Black Phone, Sinister, Doctor Strange), and he turns in the only standalone short that feels like an actual story. In “Dreamkill,” a police detective begins to receive snuff footage in the mail of murders that haven’t yet occurred. This is stuffed to the brim with ideas, and while there are almost too many shifts in the narrative for its short runtime, it feels invigorating next to the drudgery that precedes it. It is doubly amusing that Derrickson seems totally uninterested in the aesthetic conceit of V/H/S, shooting in widescreen, what appears to be film in some sections, and ultimately shifting into an action movie. It doesn’t reach the heights of segments in past films, but it certainly clears the bar set by what’s here.
Ultimately, V/H/S/85 is one of the weaker entries in the franchise. It seems most of the contributors didn’t have a story in mind to tell, just one cool idea to hinge their shorts on. The portmanteau horror structure keeps the film from feeling too grueling, and it ends on a high note, but the lack of narrative direction in each section is palpable. It is a constant reminder that even in the short-form storytelling that anthology films showcase, a clear through-line is paramount.
V/H/S/85 is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
[Fantastic Fest 2023] YOUR LUCKY DAY -- A Decent Chamber Piece Thriller Undercut by Tremendously Weak Script
Review by Daniel Lima
There is little more disheartening than the dawning realization that the feature film you’re watching must be adapted from a short. That creeping feeling arrives early on in Your Lucky Day, the feature debut of writer-director Dan Brown that, yes, is adapted from his own 2010 short film of the same name. In spite of a clear directorial voice and a solid ensemble, the laborious and contrived script creates a ceiling for how effective the film can be.
On an inauspicious night in a New York corner store, a businessman wins a $156 million lottery ticket. He is immediately held at gunpoint by a down-on-his-luck drug dealer, which turns into a standoff with a beat cop. After a shootout that leaves both businessman and officer dead, the dealer attempts to convince the store owner and a young couple who happened to be there to assist him in covering things up. All parties are forced to adapt to a rapidly deteriorating situation that tests how far they’ll go for a chance at a better life.
This film seemingly has a lot on its mind. Much of what drives these characters is the harshness of their current economic reality, and the unfair hand they have been dealt simply by not being born rich. That the film is set in the first year of the Trump presidency is a deliberate attempt to invoke the ambient anger towards the hoarding of society’s wealth and resources, and it goes a long way in setting the tone of every scene.
To that end, the film adopts a naturalistic look and feel. Tight close-ups and subtle handhelds abound, giving the audience the same claustrophobic perspective as the characters as the night wears on. Cold, harsh florescent lights and extensive shadows stave off any comfort. When the tension ramps up, there is a clear understanding of how to maintain momentum and propulsive energy. For all the narrative failings, it’s clear that Brown has a handle of how to tell a story visually.
Chamber pieces can live and die on their cast, and this boasts plenty of solid performances. Every actor lends their character personality that goes far beyond what is written, from Mousa Hussein’s weary, weathered store owner to Elliot Knight’s sensitive and doting musician. The only person who seems ill-at-ease is Angus Cloud, unable to sell any of the emotional beats or weighty dialogue he’s tasked with. The clear standout, however, is Jessica Garza, turning in an intense and commanding performance that if there is any justice in the world, will be her breakout.
Yet as much as Your Lucky Day has going for it, it is all horribly undercut by the script. That this is a story of economic inequality, that these characters are fighting between their sense of morality and the immortality of the capitalist world, is glaringly obvious. The film opens with the title card “Based on the American Dream” — yet the dialogue constantly reiterates these themes and ideas. What should feel like a natural outgrowth of these characters’ lived experiences ends up feeling like a screenwriter on a crusade to speak to the issues, so the illusion of grounded realism is broken.
Even the dialogue that doesn’t directly comment on what the movie is about has a clumsiness that clashes with the film’s aesthetic. When they aren’t laying bare the core themes, characters give monologues neatly establishing backstory, calmly decide on their next course of action, even engage in lightly-comic banter. None of this is inherently bad, but it feels wildly incongruous with the naturalistic style, compounded further by how circular and repetitive the conversations are. It creates the impression that these people are just saying anything they can to fill time.
The need to pad things out is evident in how the story develops. About halfway through, there is a narrative turn that introduces new complications into the characters' plans, to decidedly mixed results. On the one hand, it allows for more tension-driven sequences that lean on the film’s strengths. On the other hand, it also introduces a new batch of ideas to grapple with that muddle the clarity of directorial vision. By the time the credits roll, it’s unclear what the film is actually trying to say, not because of a cultivated air of ambiguity, but because the narrative has gone into so many directions that it lost its sense of focus.
Ultimately, while Your Lucky Day serves as a decent calling card for a first-time director, it is an unremarkable showing for a first-time screenwriter. Consistently shooting itself in the foot with didactic messaging, clunky dialogue, and unrefined storytelling, it is all the more frustrating because of how strong all the other elements are.
Your Lucky Day is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs Septemeber 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
Review by Daniel Lima
It seems that the longer a film franchise goes on, the more likely it will renege on its mantra — the core idea that gave the original its heart. The Rambo series devolved from sobering psychological drama about the cost of war to right-wing fantasy. Jurassic Park asked whether having the technology to do something justifies doing it, to which the CG slop of the long-gap sequels said, “Yes.” Pet Sematary is a cautionary tale about clinging to something after its time has come and gone, so it’s only natural that Pet Sematary: Bloodlines attempts to revive an IP which should have been laid to rest.
In the 2019 reboot of Pet Sematary, John Lithgow plays Jud Crandall, a kindly old man who tries to help his new neighbors adjust to life in the town of Ludlow. Bloodlines winds back the clock fifty years, as the young Crandall prepares to leave home for the Peace Corps, only to be drawn back into town by the sudden return of an estranged friend. His return brings with it an ancient evil that forces Crandall to confront not only his friend, but also the history of his town and his own family.
That this is a prequel to the remake, and not the original film, is important because Fred Gwynne’s Crandall in the latter has a scene where he explains exactly what happened in the town decades ago when someone began meddling with the curtain between life and death. On the one hand, this means this story has never even been hinted at within the narrative of this particular interpretation of the Pet Sematary cosmos. On the other hand, this series is powered by residual goodwill towards that first film, so it can be assumed the audience will be familiar with this film’s point of origin. Add that these monkey’s paw tales — character’s dreams coming true only for them to regret it — only have one place to go, and the film ends up feeling wholly inessential.
Horror films have long used a boilerplate narrative as the foundation for an exercise in style, but this fails to cultivate any atmosphere or mood. Where a Sam Raimi film possesses a manic energy reflected in the dynamic camerawork, or a Lucio Fulci film creates a surreal dreamscape through hazy, lurid imagery, Bloodlines looks like any number of straight-to-streaming cast-offs. The film adopts a muted color palette that makes the days seem dreary and the nights impregnably dark, and the compositions never rise above workmanlike.
There is a world where the characters elevate the material, and the ensemble fleshes the world out in a way that makes the audience invested in their plight. For some unfathomable reason, however, the film spends more time on the mystery of the town — a mystery anyone watching will already know — than establishing who these people are.
The moments where the film gestures towards emotional bonds between the characters are laughable, as there is no work done to establish the nature of who they are and the relationships they have outside of quick flashbacks. That every single performance feels phoned in does nothing to help, though it's always nice to see Pam Grier and Henry Thomas getting work. As for star Jackson White... he's no John Lithgow.
The lack of purpose, aesthetic, or engaging characters means that when the film actually does take a stab at horror set pieces, it falls flat. These moments are horribly telegraphed, there’s never any tension as the scene develops, what actually happens is wildly unimaginative, and there’s no reason to care about anyone in the movie anyways. The best that can be said about the horror is that there’s some solid makeup and practical effects, and even those are obscured from view in the darkness of some of these scenes.
In the face of this obvious lack of creative ambition and inspiration, it’s hard not to ask, “Why does this movie exist?” The answer is simple: the reboot made over five times its budget. The only thing animating this is the desire to keep the brand alive and within the popular consciousness, and keeping something alive beyond its natural end, in defiance of the laws of God and nature, carries with it a terrible price. For the small town of Ludlow, it was a miasma of malevolent energy that spoke to a rot at the core of the community. As someone who just watched Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, I’d say they were lucky.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
Review by Daniel Lima
Something I used to do before the age of streaming and theater subscription plans was read the plot summaries of movies I thought I’d never get the chance to see on Wikipedia. It’s a peculiar way to experience a story meant to be told through the language of cinema — reducing an art form that relies on imagery and sound to build characters, generate mood, and emotionally move its audience, to just a series of events that happens. I never imagined I’d watch an actual film that reminded me of sitting in front of the family computer, scrolling through a synopsis and wondering what it must be like to see this actually play out. Now, I don’t have to imagine, because I have Dark Asset.
The film opens with action veteran Byron Mann under guard in an interrogation room, with a team of scientists in an observation room, separated by only a one-way mirror. The lab-coated technicians run a battery of tests on him, helpfully explaining that he now has a microchip in his brain that will make him the perfect soldier. Suddenly, he breaks free of his restraints, escapes the room, and goes on a tear through the barren facility holding him.
The exposition is clunky and trite, but playful, with the actors speaking with an utter conviction that only makes their technobabble more ridiculous. The borderline camp feel turns the cheap-looking sets and humdrum visual aesthetic into boons, lending the film a texture reminiscent of classic law budget science fiction B-movies. The action isn’t anything to write home about, mostly boiling down to Mann walking down a white hallway shooting people who randomly pop out. That being said, it’s arguably better choreographed and edited than most full-scale blockbusters. Even Mann himself, silent though he is, exudes the intense screen presence that always makes him a welcome addition to any cast.
For those first twenty minutes, Dark Asset is a surprisingly decent DTV action-thriller. That is not indicative of the rest of the film.
Instead, the entire rest of the runtime is spent with Mann narrating the story of how he got to that lab to a woman in a bar, played by Helena Mattsson. Wanting to give her a comprehensive perspective, he tells her every solitary detail of the conspiracy: the previous test subjects, how they got into the program, what their life was like beforehand, the missions they went on, how they met their end, and only then does he talk about himself, flirting with the woman between these entire disconnected vignettes. And so the film lurches forward, unfocused and scattershot, to its inevitably weak conclusion.
It shouldn’t need to be said that a character, telling the story of other characters, that neither the character’s audience nor the audience experiencing the retelling have any emotional connection with, is completely impenetrable. There is no through line for the audience to become invested in. The story involves people who are introduced with a couple lines, often get only a handful themselves, and most crucially, are established as already being out of the picture. Even in a world where this vague, confusing conspiracy narrative was compelling (it isn’t), it is made clear they aren’t going to have anything to do with it going forward.
Being forced to sit in one space as it slowly becomes clear that yes, this is what the entire rest of the movie will be like, whittles away the charms the film has going for it. Mann and Mattsson actually have good screen chemistry, and their dialogue has genuine heat. Unfortunately, their conversation is undercut by the fact that this is clearly a device to pad out the runtime, and it’s clear from the moment they start talking to one another where the conversation is going. By the end, it’s hard not to resent every second spent with the two of them in this lifeless, plastic facsimile of a bar.
It’s impossible to say for certain that the filmmakers behind Dark Asset had an idea for a script, realized they could get Mann for only a couple of days, then recalibrated the story to facilitate that. The finished product certainly gives that impression. To their credit, those opening minutes where he is actually driving a bona fide narrative forward is pretty good, and had the film carried that momentum forward it could have been an entertaining ride. Sadly, this was one of the most baffling, tedious films of the year.
Dark Asset releases in theaters and VOD September 22.
Review by Daniel Lima
The Expendables series began with an unrealized promise: to relive the glory days of Hollywood action movies, by bringing together some of the biggest names in action cinema. Through three films, franchise shepherd and star Sylvester Stallone has consistently tried and failed to recapture the polished, high-octane bombast of '80s and '90s blockbusters. Almost a full decade after the last entry, Expend4bles attempts to make good on the original conceit of the franchise, but falls prey to the same flaws that have dogged it since the first.
The film follows the exploits of the eponymous elite mercenary team, in pursuit of a dangerous terrorist leader that threatens the world. That one sentence covers every Expendables film since day one, barring the occasional telegraphed twist, but this distinguishes itself as a passing of the torch. Stallone takes a backseat to series stalwart Jason Statham, as he attempts to cement himself as the new lead going forward.
From the opening scene, it is abundantly clear that the action filmmaking will not be a radical departure from previous entries. That is to say, this is another over-edited, CG-filled, spatially ambiguous mess. The large-scale set pieces and the rare bits of clever choreography are horrendously undercut by editing that ruins the momentum being built, obvious green screen that keeps the characters untethered from the environment they’re in, and long sequences that boil down to anonymous henchmen popping out from around a corner only to immediately get shot. There’s no attempt to tell a story within the action, or to wring drama out of the squad needing to adapt to changing circumstances on the fly, so all the gunfire and explosions quickly become tedious.
Nowhere is this more frustrating than the fights. Much of the combat takes place within close quarters, and with martial arts legends like Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais joining the cast, one would expect at least one decent hand-to-hand bout. Director Scott Waugh, however, seems the most out of his element here, shooting every fight in tight close-ups that obscure the breadth of the movement. Actors rarely share the same frame, and even vets like Uwais and Statham rely heavily on doubling. There’s a lack of continuity in their choreography, making it clear the shots were assembled in post rather than meticulously planned out on set. It’s an improvement on the absolute worst of the franchise, but still a waste of the on-screen talent.
Aside from Uwais and Jaa, this is an ensemble devoid of the star power that the previous entries have boasted. Gone are the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, and Mel Gibson, luminaries with numerous classics within the action cinema canon. Instead, we get the likes of Andy Garcia, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Megan Fox, and the guy from Bad Boys for Life. Suffice it to say, none are able to lend the same legitimacy to the franchise that their predecessors did, and all are incredibly uncomfortable in their roles. The kindest thing that could be said is that this cast, excusing Stallone himself, is far and away the least problematic yet.
More impressive than any mercenary team these films have assembled is the murderer’s row of Hollywood hacks behind the scenes, scripting some of the worst dialogue and unlikable characters of the last decade. The biggest name on this three-person writing team is the infamous Kurt Wimmer, proving his critics right with painfully bro-tastic quips and japes, material that felt stale ten years ago. Spending time with these people out of combat is agonizing, not just because of what they say, but because there’s so little to them. No one has any personality or character trait beyond “professional killer," so every scene of dialogue is a bunch of interchangeable figurines going through the motions. The closing moments make these nominal heroes look like heinous, evil psychopaths, and it’s only then that they gain any texture. Unpleasant as that final note is, the movie would have been much stronger if that was evident throughout.
This gets to the grand failure of Expend4bles — and the entire Expendables project as a whole. The big set pieces, the weathered cast of veteran actors, the attempts at macho humor; these films are intended to be a loving ode to action cinema, a hearkening back to a proud tradition including the likes of Commando, Die Hard, Rambo, and The Raid. The problem is, this series has never seemed to understand the core tenets of action filmmaking that gave its inspirations such staying power: building the characters so the audience is emotionally invested when things pop off, planning the choreography, knowing exactly what the audience is going to see, and creating tension and rhythm within the set pieces.
Beyond that core, these are movies that feel like worlds unto themselves, each possessing a clear vision that gives them all a unique identity. Die Hard and The Raid might both take place in high rises, but no one would confuse the sleek Nakatomi Plaza of the former with the run-down tenement building of the latter, or the muscular compositions and gliding camera of McTiernan with the ultraviolence and frenetic chaos of Evans. Yet both films, and all the others the Expendables series gestures towards, provide something indelible, that cannot be gained anywhere else.
None of that can be said of Expend4bles. This feels every bit as bland, anonymous, and shoddily constructed as any modern studio action film, sharing more in common with a modern Netflix release than the hallowed classics that preceded it. Had it even sought to simply mimic the contours of those movies, even lacking their craft, it could have at least coasted on a sense of borrowed nostalgia. Instead, it feels like an AI-generated attempt to artificially extend the lifespan of one of the worst series in action cinema. We can only hope that it fails.
Expend4bles hits theaters September 22.
Review by Daniel Lima
In 1974, Brazilian music stars Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim recorded a collaborative album that became one of the most celebrated bossa nova albums of all time. Those recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio were captured on 16mm film. Nearly fifty years later, the documentary Elis & Tom combines that footage and interviews with the people who knew the two artists in an attempt to give a comprehensive view of the making of a seminal work of art. In spite of all the effort that went into restoring that footage and gathering those testimonials, however, the film fails to establish a reason for the exercise.
The talking heads range from the musicians who worked on the album, to business managers, to the children of Regina and Jobim. They go over not only what actually happened during the weeks of recording, but the pair’s personal histories, the differences between their musical styles, and where Brazilian culture was at the time. These segments are slickly produced, and sometimes do help to contextualize the footage of the actual recording sessions.
That said, they more often than not only serve to reiterate what is seen playing out in the studio. A musician will go on for some time about creative tensions at the start of the sessions that made Elis uncomfortable, only for us to actually see her biting her nails while Jobim debates whether to change some lyrics. Did the footage not make how she felt clear enough? That so many figures attempt to paint a picture of highly contentious behind-the-scenes drama that the candid recordings seem to immediately refute also points to filmmakers attempting to weave in a narrative to give structure to the material they have, rather than let that material speak for itself.
The interviews are most helpful in providing historical context, and here they still come up short. Perhaps a home-grown Brazilian audience is more intimately familiar with granular details like the differences between bossa nova and MPB, or the political situation in Brazil at the time, but less time spent reiterating what’s happening in the restored film and more time spent on that background would have been welcome. One scene in particular underscores with, with Jobim and Regina openly wondering if a certain seemingly innocuous lyric might face censorship. If only the talking head that immediately cut in had talked a bit more about what the lyric meant, and not more on how the two ended up working well together.
If this movie has one thing going for it, it’s that the 16mm elements are beautiful. Watching the creative process play out in real time, with people making decisions on how the mix should sound and what instruments to use, is always compelling, but so are the more relaxed moments. Jobim waxing poetic on his influences, Regina dancing and singing exuberantly to her own favorites, watching the two musical giants simply inhabit the space does far more to humanize them than the recollections of other people decades after the fact. Even the B-roll of L.A. at the time, with huge billboards advertising the likes of Johnny Winter and The Exorcist, goes a long way in grounding these sessions in a specific time and place. One can’t help but wonder if the movie would be stronger if it were entirely composed of this restored film.
Perhaps there simply wasn’t enough of it to make a feature-length documentary, which begs the obvious question: why make Elis & Tom in the first place? If you approach this as an informative text, it fails. If you approach is as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of two artists in their prime, it fails. It’s hard not to come away with the sense that it exists simply because these film reels were collecting dust, and someone felt something should be done with them. Unfortunately, that's not enough to justify the final product.
Elis & Tom hits theaters September 15.
OUTLAW JOHNNY BLACK -- BLACK DYNAMITE Spiritual Successor Is Heinous Crime Against Cinema and Comedy
Review by Daniel Lima
Following up a cult classic like Black Dynamite is a tall order, particularly when the spiritual successor has virtually none of the production team returning. Still, with Michael Jai White taking the reins, and much of the cast of that first film back again, it’s reasonable to assume that Outlaw Johnny Black might recapture some of the charm. Who could have expected that it would not only fail, but would become one of the most pathetic attempts at a comedy film in years?
White produces, writes, directs, and stars as the titular outlaw in the Old West, who seeks vengeance against the man who killed his father years ago. A chance encounter with a traveling preacher sets him on path of Hope Springs, a small Black community under the thumb of a powerful land baron. Forced to play the role of preacher himself, he soon finds himself embroiled in the town’s problems, and for a cruel and interminable two hours, twelve minutes and twenty-two seconds we are forced to endure his journey from criminal to defender.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that this film lacks the vision of its predecessor. Black Dynamite was an absurdist parody of the black cinema of the 1970’s, doing the best to stretch its meager budget and mimic the idiosyncrasies of the films of that era. That a crowd-funded indie in 2023 cannot go to the same lengths in tackling the western is defensible. The money isn’t there to shoot on 16mm film, have lavish sets and costumes, or even have a great score. That is perfectly understandable.
The problem is, the western genre has long been the playground of filmmakers who sought to make the most of the little they had. Since the B-movies of the 1930’s, directors have utilized beautiful natural landscapes for free production value; Italian directors employed dramatic camerawork and dreamlike editing to make their films stand out; colorful and unique characters often populated these films, the kind of oddballs that might feel out-of-place today but seem at home in a dingy frontier barroom. These stylistic flourishes require nothing more than someone with ambition driving things forward.
That someone was sorely missed on the production of Outlaw Johnny Black. Michael Jai White directs with the disinterest of a parent taking a video of a grade school play, with no greater ambition than capturing every second of a scene within a frame. Conversations take place with actors rooted and unmoving in position; scenes go by with machine-like sluggishness; the film is flatly lit and bland in the way any bargain bin DTV western is. It’s easy to imagine a world where this film throws in a POV shot, or a surreal dissolve, or frenetic handheld action, anything to lend the cheap looking sets a sense of verve or atmosphere. White has never been a sterling director - or a good one for that matter - but considering the years he spent bringing this project to fruition, it’s depressing to see his artistic horizons so limited.
Unlike the previous film, this tells a grounded and earnest story, with characters that change and events that are supposed to feel meaningful. Unfortunately, it takes its sweet time doing so, only getting around to the core conceit of an outlaw masquerading as a preacher after forty agonizing minutes. The next hour and a half is a meandering mess, constantly mugging for laughs yet never establishing tangible stakes. Combined with lackluster editing that drags out dull conversations where characters repeat poisonously unfunny lines to each other ad nauseum, it becomes impossible to become emotionally invested in these characters’ journey.
The cast is filled with many actors from Black Dynamite, as well as newcomers who have done plenty of other work, and they all do the best with the material they are handed. These roles are universally thankless, given nothing more to do than spit lame lines, utterly lacking the sharp characterization and dynamism of the colorful figures of that film: Chicago Wind, Cream Corn, Gloria and Chocolate Giddy-Up. Nothing about any of these characters feels distinct.
All of this could be forgiven if Outlaw Johnny Black was a hundredth of a percent as funny as its predecessor. Of course, that isn’t the case. This film is filled with the hackiest of hack material, the kind of jokes that would be at home in a straight-to-video family movie in 1995, or a Disney Channel Original Movie, or a latter-day Three Stooges film, the ones where they’re all washed up. A two-minute comic set piece hinges on Johnny Black convincing a man he wasn’t trying to escape out a window, but airing out his feet; an indigenous American sees his prisoner has escaped, and he sheds a single tear (a reference to an old ad that trafficked in indigenous stereotypes); a man delivers an impassioned speech that’s utter nonsense, then says he has to pee. This is the level that the film operates on.
Any possible laughs that could be wrung out this dire material are smothered by the lack of craft. There’s a reason comedies tend to run short: timing is paramount, and keeping the gags tight and rapid keeps an audience on its toes, never knowing when the next joke may come. The glacial pace, the unimaginative visuals, the stiff blacking, the weak characters, every weakness of the film blunts the impact of these jokes, limp and toothless as they are. The film never goes for the low-hanging fruit when there is decaying, rotting waste on the ground, and no scene better encapsulates the depths this film goes to than the scenes with the native American tribe.
Early on, the preacher that Johnny Black meets on the road is attacked and captured by a band of indigenous Americans. When he wakes, he is at their camp, with the chief forcing him into marriage. The indigenous people are played by a variety of ethnicity - the chief by the South Asian Russell Peters - their costumes look stereotypical costumes bought at Party City, they speak in gibberish that sounds vaguely English (“You, huh, him, huh”), and the person the preacher is married off to is played by a large man, because in the cosmology of this world that would be super gross.
If this scene showed up in an S. Craig Zahler movie, or a Coen Brothers movie, it would rightly be called insensitive at best, racist at worst. The excuse that it’s a joke about how Native Americans are depicted in Hollywood westerns feels inadequate, because unlike Black Dynamite this film makes no attempt to imitate those works. Even if it did, it’s a joke that was made fifty years ago in Blazing Saddles, which would make it just another joke stolen from that movie. No matter how you cut it, it’s a horribly unpleasant portrayal of indigenous people. The only thing keeping it from being truly hateful and repugnant is that it’s genuinely embarrassing to think of an grown adult writing this and finding it funny.
It might seem unfair to constantly compare this film to a 2009 indie that clearly had more to work with, but the contrast is illuminating. Whatever resources Black Dynamite was afforded, at the end of the day it was clearly a labor of love and passion, for both the filmmaking process and the films that came before it. The jokes ere constant and varied, working both as surface-level silly gags and deep-cut references to cult classics. They dynamic camerawork, the choppy editing, the careful attention to blocking and how people move through a scene, every individual element of the film would capture the feel of blaxploitation cinema even if it was shot on DSLR. More than anything, that is what has allowed the film to hold the stature that it does.
Outlaw Johnny Black has none of that. It is lazy, shoddy, asinine, and childish. I respect any filmmaker willing to shoulder the burden of self-producing their work, but it is clear that Michael Jai White is not up to the task here. A laughless, grating, arduous experience, this is an affront to both comedy and cinema, and I lament every second of my life lost watching it.
Outlaw Johnny Black hits theaters September 15.
Review by Daniel Lima
Director Kenneth Branagh’s first Hercule Poirot mystery, 2017's Murder on the Orient Express, was an excuse to play dress-up with famous people; the second, a turgid exploration of love and passion. From the first few frames of A Haunting in Venice, it is clear that Branagh is attempting a vastly different approach to this material. As exciting as it is to see an artist adopt a new style, it quickly becomes clear that his ambitions began and ended there.
Branagh again stars as the great detective, now living in retirement in Venice. Coaxed into attending a seance at a derelict manor by the promise of exposing a fraud, the gathering quickly turns into a crime scene, seemingly the work of vengeful spirits. Poirot goes through the usual motions, but as he attempts to hunt down the culprit, even he finds himself at a loss to explain the strange and impossible happenings around him.
True to its title, A Haunting in Venice adopts the macabre veneer of a horror film, or at least a ghostly mystery. The film is cast in subdued hues, and the dilapidated mansion with a dark past that it takes place in is a far cry from a luxury train car or a riverboat cruise. To that end, Branagh does not attempt to capture it in the same stodgy way the previous entries were shot. Here, he utilizes extreme Dutch angles, wide angle anamorphic lenses, and close-ups with vast negative space. All of these attempt to get across the feeling that there is something off, unnatural, wrong.
It’s a commendable effort, particularly from a director in his late-period who is not known as a visual stylist. Unfortunately, while the intent is clear, the effect is ruined by both the execution and the editing. Where a film like The Third Man would utilize angular compositions to present an askance view of the world, there would still be something in the frame to draw the eye and to actively focus on. For much of Branagh's film, the imagery seems pointedly unmotivated: flat and drab lighting that gives the setting an incongruous plastic sheen, objects of focus strewn randomly across the frame or completely nonexistent. At best, it looks as if Branagh knows the techniques that ought to be used but is still beholden to the bland and workmanlike vision he’s displayed in his recent work. At worst, it looks like an amateur production.
Perhaps if the camera lingered on these images and actually allowed the audience to search the screen for some meaning only to come up short, they would cultivate a surreal, nightmarish atmosphere. The problem is this movie is edited like a studio project in 2023, with a flurry of cuts that constantly keep the narrative moving forward. It is as if there’s a fear the audience will get too bored if the mystery movie gets bogged down by attempting to be mysterious. The narrative hinges on the feeling that there might be some supernatural evil at work, but the compromised aesthetic sandblasts away any texture the film could have had.
This means that A Haunting in Venice is left to stand as the previous entries have: as a star-studded locked room mystery. Here, it comes up woefully short. The characters lack complexity, given the barest level of definition, which in turn means the actors have nothing to build their performances off of. None of the ensemble is able to leave an impression (with the exception of a horribly miscast Tina Fey). The actual mystery plays out the way any boilerplate ghost story would, with a conclusion that anyone passingly familiar with this kind of detective story can see coming a mile away. Even Poirot himself feels rudderless, lacking any personal investment in the unfolding narrative or even the small fun character moments that have made Branagh’s portrayal enjoyable. When the mystery is resolved and the characters part ways, it’s hard to see what was the point of it all.
That is the crucial failure of A Haunting in Venice. Beyond changing the cinematography, there is no animating idea behind it, no theme that underscores every frame. One might argue that the story explores the ghosts of the past and belief in something greater than the material world, but the former could be said of the last two entries, and the latter is undermined by the ugly visuals. With nothing to lend the procedural any emotional heft, it can only ever be an stylistic exercise. Sadly, Kenneth Branagh was not up to the task.
A Haunting in Venice hits theaters September 15.
Review by Daniel Lima
The pop culture landscape of today can be frustratingly recursive and self-referential, constantly in conversation with itself with no grander ambition than being recursive and self-referential. To the credit of Soda Jerk, the art collective behind the experimental Hello Dankness, they at least are attempting to weaponize that trend. The film repurposes the images and sounds that have become so familiar to directly comment on the state of America through the Trump years. It’s an technically impressive undertaking, but one that reveals the limitations of its conceit almost immediately.
The film is a video collage, taking footage from hundreds of films and TV shows and editing them together to tell the story of a typical American suburb. We follow this suburb from the early days of 2016, through the election and presidency of Donald Trump, all the way to Inauguration Day 2021. Shots are cut to make it seem like Tom Hanks from The ‘Burbs lives in the same neighborhood as Ice Cube from Next Friday and Wayne from Wayne’s World. Extensive rotoscoping work inserts characters from one work into another; characters put up signs and get tattoos announcing their support of one candidate over another. Apocalyptic scenes from This is the End are set on Election Night 2016 to depict the liberal sense of the world ending, and the Ninja Turtles sit in the sewers explaining Pizzagate to each other. On top of all that, there’s a bunch of musical numbers, too.
The amount of work it takes to mash all these elements together into something even vaguely coherent in astounding. Collecting and culling all this material, finding what is complementary and what makes the perfect juxtaposition, and all to satirize a section of American history ripe for this kind of post-ironic ribbing. If nothing else, Soda Jerk should be applauded for their effort.
Outside of that, what does Hello Dankness have to say? Unfortunately, not much.
As interesting as the form of its commentary is, it can’t make up for the fact that it has little to say about the Trump years that have not been repeated ad nauseum. Liberals lacked foresight, they offered little tangible resistance to threat of right-wing populism, and Trump was unprepared for the calamity of 2020. One would hope that having these ideas explored through pop culture icons would offer at least some novelty, but there’s only so much you can do with images that already exist. The same power they hold through being entrenched in popular consciousness paradoxically restricts how much you can distort them before they are robbed of that power.
This leads to an obvious issue with the project that can’t be avoided: it requires some amount of knowledge of the works being repurposed for it to have any effect. By the filmmakers’ own admission, much of the source material has a certain baggage, a cultural shorthand that is meant to make their remixing here feel charged and pointed. Without that familiarity, many of these recontextualized images lack the emotional attachment that would make them impactful, if they’re even recognized as recontextualized images in the first place. Perhaps there’s something to be said about these touchstones being so thoroughly removed from their original purpose that they could be taken entirely at face value, but it’s not enough to sustain even the scant seventy-minute runtime.
Not every moment is attempting to engage in metacommentary about its own use; some are just funny gags. These are undoubtedly the strongest parts of the movie, with the condensing of the entire first three years of Trump’s presidency being condensed into a Garfield meme being perhaps the funniest moment. The film opens with the infamous Kylie Jenner Pepsi ad, shown unedited in its entirety. That the ad is more surreal, incisive, and revealing than anything that follows does call into question whether this effort ever could have offered something that hasn’t already been said.
Even so, the sheer scale Hello Dankness, the amount of painstaking work to bring this vision to life, makes it impossible to be written off entirely. It offers little insight on the Trump years, and how much one gets out of it might have a ceiling based on how many references are recognized. In an era where preexisting properties are constantly regurgitated to the point they lose any meaning, however, at least this film attempts to do so with a purpose.
Hello Dankness hits theaters September 8.