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Pig (2021)

Whatever you may think Pig will be, chances are that you will be wrong. On the surface, it appears like it’s going to be another John Wick clone, with criminals stealing the beloved animal of a loner who happens to be a dangerous man who unleashes a path of vengeance. There is no real action in the movie at all. The missing pig is the catalyst to bring Rob (Nicolas Cage) back from the outskirts of Oregon and to retrace the old haunts of his old life, but the pig is more a symbol of companionship and traces back to his time with his deceased wife (another John Wick nod?). Pig is really more a meditative and reflective character study to unpack slowly. There are deeper themes and messages here, and the fact that they’re attached to a movie starring Nicolas Cage where he must find his stolen pig is all the more bizarre and exciting. This is unlike any Cage movie and, in its own way, feeds on the culmination of his own career of movies great and far from great.

This movie feels deeply personal for Cage. There is an elegiac tenderness that permeates the whole experience. It’s about loss but ultimately it’s a movie about chasing your dreams. There’s a reason the tagline for the film is, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” If you’re expecting a gonzo Cage irony fest, this sincere summation will seem completely mismatched. But this movie isn’t a gonzo Cage irony fest. It’s very much about different people dealing with pain and sorting through heartbreak, disappointment, disconnection, and taking stock of one’s delayed pursuit of happiness. There is no irony to be found here, folks. This movie, called Pig, is bracingly sincere. There’s a standout scene where Rob and Amir are dining at a fancy restaurant and Rob asks to meet the chef. It takes a moment but the chef recognizes Rob and is starstruck and asks if Rob remembers him working in Rob’s own restaurant. He does, and Rob asks this man about his old dream, which was to open a pub-style restaurant, and why he capitulated. The man is initially defensive, citing the local market, but then he has to sit and think it over. It was his dream. It still is, and the fact that this man not only remembers him but also remembers his exact dream and calls him out, it’s like having an intervention from someone who you never knew cared as much as they did. Maybe this man will proceed with his dream of opening a pub. Maybe he won’t, but Rob reminds him and us how little time we have and to really spend it on the passions that positively consume us.

To that end, you can see the parallels with the main character and Cage’s own career. Nicolas Cage has long been an actor defined by excess to the point that he has a catalogue of outsized performances with ironic air quotes attached to them. The man owned his own island and named his son after Superman’s birth name. He has been starring in more and more direct-to-DVD low-budget thrillers, as have John Travolta and Bruce Willis, who both rarely seem to attach themselves to theatrical releases at this stage of their careers. Some might term this the decline of his career, that he is slumming it, but to Cage it’s just another gig. Unlike Willis, famous for shooting his part in a weekend while his stand-in works the rest, Cage is still putting forth quality effort. This might be a little psychological projection on my part, but Cage strikes me as a professional who enjoys his craft even if he makes some unorthodox choices. He has a passion for movies and he’s going to seek that out because it’s what defines him. We might not appreciate the projects he selects, we might not understand them, and they might even be bad, but Cage is taking the roles offered because making movies and acting is the thing he really cares about. His performance here is somber, touching, and suffused with ache. It’s one of, if not the, most restrained performances of Cage’s career and a reminder that the man can be a world-class actor.

Structurally, Pig seems to reinvent itself with every scene, providing new answers and insights as we unravel Rob’s past. It allows you to consistently re-evaluate the movie and characters and makes for a genuinely engrossing viewing because you know there will be something worth paying attention to with every scene change. There are people in the city who revere Rob, who despise him, who seem to be jealous of him, and we’re discovering more and more what that life was like and what drove Rob to being a recluse. The movie rides a line of nuance and ambiguity where not every character detail and connection is spelled out; it’s up to the individual to process meaning. Is this character grateful to Rob because his wife, who battled depression for years, had one significant happy moment she would reminisce over, Rob’s delicious dinner? Is he jealous that a meal could make her happy when he seemingly couldn’t? What emotional response does this man have? It’s up to the viewer to determine the human response to passion and the evaluation of what passions are prioritized. The character writing finds that artistic middle ground of being nuanced but also being accessible. For a movie about a man searching for his missing pig, it’s much more concerned with the man and his demons and dreams.

It’s a beguiling realization that a movie where Nicolas Cage searches for his prized pig might be one of the better films of 2021 and one of the actor’s finest performances. The movie appears like it will be dark, scuzzy, and depressing but it’s actually quite compassionate, humane, and encouraging. It’s not a story about a man cracking skulls and crossing names off a list to retrieve his stolen pet. It’s a movie about a man who left his suffering and who comes back and re-examines his life’s choices and the choices of others. He may look like a bleeding hobo for the majority of the movie, but Rob is a force for good, reminding others of their passions, the urgency of time to chase them, and the importance of spending time with the people, and pets, that matter to them, our own selective families. Pig is an absorbing, poetic, and eminently kind movie and one that doesn’t feel like it could have worked the same without Cage’s professional legacy to build from. It’s a small movie that will surprise many and reaffirms that Cage is always an actor worth watching.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Werewolves Within (2021)

Surprisingly based upon a PlayStation VR video game by Ubisoft, Werewolves Within is a fun horror comedy that plays out like a demented Agatha Christie drawing room mystery. Sam Richardson (The Tomorrow War) is a new park ranger assigned to a small snowy town that may or may not be threatened by a werewolf hiding among the townspeople. A series of bloody murders and mangled gas generators points toward some monstrous beast, and over the course of one long night, characters will accuse one another of being the hidden werewolf, and tensions and paranoia mount as the body count rises. Part of the fun comes from the wild whodunit speculation that the filmmakers are aware of. Early on, I started accumulating my band of suspects, and then my red herring suspects, and the movie seems to be fully knowledgeable of this as well, so there’s plenty of little details spilled that, in an ordinary movie would prove conclusive to the detail-oriented viewer; however, Werewolves Within is full of motivations and clever fleeting details to throw you off. Richardson is wonderfully nonplussed as the supremely nice and easy-going ranger who finds himself frantically trying to be the voice of calm and security as the town breaks down. The supporting characters are rather one-note nutjobs but each has a different personality to sprinkle into the chaotic mix. The eventual reveal of the culprit involves a lot of explaining to cover hidden character deception that could have used more setup to feel less forced. I also wished the humor and the horror was a bit crazier. I knew the horror wasn’t going to be pronounced, as most horror-comedies typically favor one more than the other, but I wished the comedy had escalated as the characters further gave in to the insanity of the ridiculous situation. It’s a movie that’s easy going in charm and finely punctuated with some sharp one-liners and silly visual gags. It’s agreeable to its core and a lighthearted yet gory way to spend 90 minutes. By default, it’s also one of the best video game adaptations made into a movie. That’s primarily because it’s a recognizable murder mystery structure just with a genre kick. I wish everything had been given an extra dose of elevation and hijinks, comedy and horror, but that might detract from the overall droll charm, lead by Richardson. Werewolves Within makes me wish for an anthology franchise just transplanting its premise across new settings. Imagine The Hangover but having to also figure out which of your recovering blackout drunk friends was a werewolf. It just works.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Mamba (2019)

William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.

Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.

I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.

There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.

Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.

The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.

Can you tell there are three people in this scene?

Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.

The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.

I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?

I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.

I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.

This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.

Nate’s Grade: F

Holler (2021)

In the time I have spent making a concerted effort at reviewing Ohio-made indie movies, I have yet to watch one that amazed me and earned an A-grade. There are several that are enjoyable, others admirable for their technical professionalism, and many that have glaring factors beyond limited budgets that hold back whatever the intended artistic intent was. I was excited with genuine hope for Holler, a small movie shot entirely in Jackson, Ohio and following the lives of a struggling band of small-town metal scrappers looking to survive. It’s the debut feature from writer/director Nicole Riegel (based upon her 2016 short film of the same name) and has recognizable TV actors involved like Jessica Barden (End of the F***ing World), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Austen Amelio (Dwight from The Walking Dead) and Becky Ann Baker (Girls, Freaks and Geeks). It’s even getting a wide release nationwide through IFC Films, who graciously provided me a screener link. If any movie felt like it was going to breakthrough and become the first truly outstanding Ohio indie, this seemed like a major possibility. Unfortunately, Holler doesn’t merit hollering.

Ruth (Barden) is a high school senior in a small southern Ohio town wracked by poverty, factory closures, and the aftereffects of the opioid epidemic. Her mother (Adlon) is serving time in prison for her drug offenses when she should be in a treatment center. Her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) is resigned that he’ll work himself to nothing, but he wants a better life for his bright sister and submitted her college application. Ruth and her brother join Hank (Amelio), a local scrapper who offers extra work for side projects stripping the parts from closed buildings.

While watching Holler, I noticed my heart was sinking because, even with all this professionalism and authenticity on board, I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in, and then I noticed an hour had passed and I realized, “Oh, this is the movie.” I have seen this artistic calculation with indie movies before and articulated it succinctly with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: “sacrificing story to the altar of realism.” This feels like a very authentic movie as far as its hardscrabble details about how impoverished people in small towns eke out a life on the peripheral of society. I know people have been pushed to the brink because of desperation, whether economic or psychotropic or beyond, and that scrapping can be a dangerous and competitive landscape to make a few bucks. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s all about what can lighten that struggle. If stripping the copper wire out of an abandoned building is more profitable, and less time-consuming, than bagging aluminum cans all over town, then it seems like a natural attraction to those with limited options. However, Holler feels less like a movie with a story needing to be told than a stark setting with an impression to leave.

The characters are too interchangeable and one-dimensional here to really invest in beyond general well-wishing. These small-town Ohioans have been hit hard by circumstances and as I was watching I wanted them to find some degree of happiness or improvement by the end, but that was because they were simply people in need and I am an empathetic creature and not because of their personal stories or characterization. It would be the same as if I had watched 90 minutes of a lost puppy trying to find shelter and then, at long last, that puppy got to sleep inside a coffee shop. I’m happy, and relieved on a general level, but am I personally invested in this specific animal and this specific story? Could it have been any living being at all?

The characters of Holler are far too generalized where they keep repeating that same nub of characterization they’ve been given. The entire dynamic seems to be a universe of characters who exist to try and convince Ruth that she is better than everyone and deserves to leave. In an early scene, we watch Ruth sit down and write an essay for a friend to use as her own homework. It’s an early indication that Ruth is smart and not fulfilling her potential. It’s not her homework she’s completing but a friend’s and for money, money she initially refuses from pride. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to continue moments like this to provide further insights. Ruth is too often a walking cipher, taking in her dilapidated surroundings with alternating pensive and glum stares. She is more a symbol than a character, meant to serve as a face of those held back by economic anxieties and limited opportunities. Her mother is a symbol of the wreckage of the opioid crisis and how it has decimated rural communities. Her brother is a symbol of generational sacrifice. These characters don’t have complicated internal drama or intriguing contradictions or anything beyond the surface description because they’re designed to be specific voices meant to convey a Greek chorus of opinion. They’re sides of conversations made flesh rather than interesting or complex people. I wanted to become attached to Ruth’s plight especially as she embarks on performing more dangerous tasks for money with her scrap crew, but you never feel any real added danger or for that matter any real change. When Ruth is out scrapping in the middle of the night, the movie treats it no differently. When Ruth finally makes her decision about her life, it doesn’t feel like the culmination of her emotional journey and more so the character finally accepting the pleas of others over the course of 85 minutes.

The obvious artistic comparison point for Holler is 2010’s Winter’s Bone, another movie that explored in unflinching detail the degenerative disease of systemic poverty. Once again, we follow a young woman trying to provide for her broken family in the wake of a parental drug addiction and trying to stay one step ahead of debt collectors and eviction. Another artistic influence seems to be 1970’s Wanda, an indie featuring a housewife walking away from the malaise of her life in small-town coal country Pennsylvania. The difference with both chief artistic influences is that they had, quite simply, movies to tell with their big screen canvas. With Winter’s Bone, there’s an urgency where the protagonist has to find her absent father in short order to save her family home but also because he has made some very scary meth dealers very angry, so the way to save her family is literally to turn over the man who abandoned them to ruin. There’s a strong sense of personal stakes, there’s a ticking clock, and the themes tie into the emotional journey of our main character. With Wanda, the main character is the one abandoning her husband and children and she takes refuge with a bank robber on the run. With each of those descriptions, you can see the movie there, the reason why this story deserves your time.

With Holler, I kept waiting for some turn or escalation or something to draw out the movie. The movie feels stuck in an expository gear I would associate with Act One territory and then it ends. I really thought more would be made of the illegal scrapping-for-money angle and whether this would present our lead character with increasingly fraught choices over her well-being. I thought maybe her descent into the criminal side of desperation would force more confrontations or consequences. Maybe there would be another crew that didn’t take too kindly to an entrepreneur muscling in on their hard-won turf. Maybe she would have to hide her injuries as she got more reckless. Maybe she’d even risk getting caught by the law and serving time in prison. Anything to offer insight into this less known world of scrapping. I regret to say that the angle that gives this low-budget indie its very hook could have been replaced with any other arbitrary plot element. Ruth could have been finding lost dogs or stealing cars or selling her bath water to perverts on the Internet. The circumstances of her personal choices are so generalized and don’t produce enough direct cause-effect relationships. The events fail to feel meaningful. The solution to Ruth’s dilemma also seems as generalized – go to college. What is she going to study? Does she have a career in mind? Does she even have personal interests? She rejects one teacher’s recommendation to avoid a crushing load of student debt and to learn a skill and work up, so then what is she going to do with tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to her name? I understand that education is aspirational and one of the few things in life that, once gained, cannot be taken away, and I champion education as a person working within that sphere. However, “get out of economic desperation by just going to college” seems naively simplistic.

Holler is admirable for its grit and empathetic with the struggles of its people. It’s professionally made with a strong score by Gene Beck (Cowboys), all mournful strings applied to lived-in details that feel authentic to the region and these inhabitants. Even the angle of scrapping-for-money seems ripe for exploration to separate this little movie from the pack of poverty pictures. It’s the storytelling that cannot live up to the good intentions of those involved. The characters are too one-note, symbolic, and disposable, and the story elements are likewise too interchangeable and lacking in meaningful connections. It’s a small-town girl who must decide to leave home to take on massive student debt (happy ending?). Anything that happens in the prior 85 minutes feels like variations on the same point being made repeatedly and without nuance or complication or contrast. It feels less like a movie and more like an expanded short absent the substance to justify its expansion. I think Riegel has promise as a filmmaker and I hope more attention goes to her characters and plot for future projects. I must continue to wait once again for that elusive Ohio-made amazing indie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Immortal Combat: The Code (2020)

In many ways, the Cleveland-made indie Immortal Combat feels like a bigger version of what a bunch of little kids might accomplish with a camera, a backyard, a bunch of pretend weapons, and a lively imagination fed from martial arts epics and actions movies of old. There is a certain charm to it, escaping into the pure play of childhood, including wrist devices that are merely tapping your bare wrist, but as an actual movie, it might have some problems. Look, this is a martial arts action movie. You watch a martial arts action movie to be entertained with the feats of action, and that’s what you should be looking for with any movie with “combat” in the title (albeit in a misguided font that looks like a child’s chalk). On that front, Immortal Combat is flawed but still passable entertainment, though it feels like a project that was never intended to entertain more than its own select cast and crew.

Neil (Ben Zgorecki) is a member of the villainous Four 11 gang. He’s tasked with infiltrating the rival Five Elements gang but he turns against his former gang. The Five Elements have come into possession of a code that will save humanity from environmental disasters. The world is running low on breathable air and implantable medical devices are malfunctioning. The gangs are going to war to control this code and thus control the trajectory for mankind’s future.

The performers have physical skills they have honed over years, and director Johnny K. Wu (Innserself) emphasizes angles and cuts to fully appreciate those skills. There are extended shots where you can admire how much the performers practiced and memorized their routines. However, that deference also comes at the expense of the vitality of the action as depicted on screen. Because we’re at a medium range or farther distance, because there are longer takes, we’re watching the actors perform and realizing just how slow everyone is with their pacing. Without quicker cuts, the energy level of these fights comes across as too often lackluster, with many of the fighters just kind of hanging around and treating these battles as less life and death and more like a grocery aisle they cannot commit to. I can appreciate someone doing a fancy spin kick from a technical standpoint, but it feels less impressive when everyone else around them seems gassed or drugged in response. There is a lot of fighting in Immortal Combat but the editing and staging choices make it feel less believable, exciting, and potent. That’s why it feels like a bunch of grown-up kids running around, falling over, and continuing their pretend fighting rather than something, say, along the lines of a John Wick, an action franchise that is built around the appeal of expertly executed fight choreography.

The plot of Immortal Combat, written by Wu, Andras Zoid, and Linda Robertson, ignores the first rule of hidden conspiracies and alternate fantasies, which is to shepherd your audience gradually and not to make assumptions. I see this plenty of times with fantasy films that incorrectly assume an audience has as much understanding as the filmmakers do about the histories of their world, the intricacies, the rules and challenges, etc. A new world, or a conspiracy, needs to be unraveled slowly and in pieces to be accessible, to not overwhelm the audience. We need the right components as if they were building blocks, creating a sturdy foundation to attach new information and new rules and lessons. If you have a mysterious Chosen One, you don’t vomit up every last bit of expositional know-how right away, you have to draw things out at a natural, inclined pace. With Immortal Combat, we have an entry point into this new world through the rather non-intimidating character Neil (a.k.a. “Cloud”). He’s our learning curve. The problem is that Neil just runs with any information at once and this presents a confusing overload. The world of Immortal Combat resembles ours except there are martial arts gangs, some of them with elemental powers, or at least names, and a vast corporate conspiracy with implanted medical devices and environmental disaster, but the communication of these elements is so muddled that I kept having to rewind the movie to try and follow. Take the opening narration as an example:

“IN OUR future, one simple breath could mean life or death. As we search for a solution, pollution engulfs our world. If we don’t find an answer fast, all living things shall perish. We are the Five Elements, we strive to protect humanity… Years ago, many warriors came to us seeking change, joined our way of life. Right after, A Code was discovered that could save the world and was injected into one of us. We even lost one of our clan’s mate. Now we must fight for our lives to bring the code – to the world…or die trying. With the MediCan Research Corporation and The FOUR 11 gang on our tails….We must protect the code….AT ALL COSTS.”

I guess the pollution is killing everyone, yet we don’t really get a sense of this impending and immediate danger because life seems pretty normal; people are hanging out at bars, strolling around, not rationing what might be their final breath. Because of this pollution, a corporation is looking for a solution for its implantable medical devices, yet why is this even introduced except to provide another batch of shadowy bad guys with a plot crowded with shadowy villains? The corporation wants a solution, a code, which is what the heroes have, and the heroes want to get the code out to save humanity, so why aren’t they actively working together? Why introduce two sides who have the same goal if they are never going to meaningfully interact? I suppose the evil corporation would exploit the code for profit, but why not express this through actions? Also, why is this world-saving code only injected into one person rather than, say, uploaded to the Internet? Why risk your only vessel containing the world-saving magic code getting hit by a bus? If the goal is proliferation, there seems to be more safety in diversifying the code-carriers. The rival evil gang, the Four 11s, are a criminal syndicate but their leader has a sick child. Wouldn’t this code also help cure this child? Why are all these organizations working against one another? The world building of this universe feels cluttered and confusing and lacking narrative purpose. It resembles a little kid making up the rules as they go for a game you didn’t recognize.

As Neil is introduced into the Five Elements gang, we’re inundated with names but not so identifying personalities and things to better cement the deluge of characters. We have Cloud, Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Gold, and if you forced me to identify who was who I would not even under penalty of law. There are so many characters in this movie and very few, if any, leave a favorable impression at all. They are repositories of kicks and punches and the occasional grunt. Water (the exquisitely named Crystle Paynther Collins) keeps bringing up her dead sister to the point that I waited for her to reference it every time she was onscreen, and she did not disappoint. Naming your main character Neil, and sticking him in khakis to perform martial arts, made me laugh. It’s not that his code name “Cloud” is that much more intimidating. When you introduce characters in movies, it’s a good idea to give them a moment to set them apart, and through action, which will better convey who they are and through visual storytelling. This is one of those movies where a character says, “You need to see Earth and Gold or else Wood and Fire will combust,” and you just shake your head and try and determine who these people are and what are their connections. It’s clumsy writing and there are too many characters to keep track of without stronger involvement. After watching 80 minutes, everyone just blurred together into People Who Kick (except for Neil and his mighty fighting khakis).

The problem with Immortal Combat is the same I’ve seen with other low-budget indies, namely that these movie projects were not made for a mass audience. They play like an insular group project for friends and family of the production, people who are already in the know and on board, and the writing and development are tailored for this narrow band rather than a broader outside audience. To make a movie for others, you’d have to carefully explain your plot in a way that would be engaging, clear, and escalating, with characters distinguishable by personality, goals, and choices, and you’d want to integrate them in meaningful ways that also push our protagonist or heroes to victory. You’d have to put the work in to make it an actual movie. Immortal Combat feels like it was made strictly for its friends and family, like finding excuses to squeeze in extras for gang group shots despite the fact that the very presence of “non-threatening-looking” members calls into question the hiring practices and determination of this vicious martial arts gang. When people who look like your ordinary neighbors are in a martial arts gang, do you fear them? This also extends to our invisible special forces team. Some of these guys have a noticeable deficit in their effort or duty to their job. There’s nothing wrong with creating art with a small intended audience. I’m sure corporate offices make little videos all the time only intended to play to their employees. If you’re thinking beyond your immediate circle, however, then you must put more thought into your storytelling choices and make the plot and characters matter rather than finding room for everyone to fit onscreen.

Immortal Combat plays like an overextended martial arts demo reel and a plot was strung together to justify more and more exercises, resulting in a calamitous collection of confusing characters that are nearly interchangeable and often extraneous and expendable. The impact and excitement of all that martial arts choreography is blunted somewhat by the choices how to present the fighting and revealing the lackluster energy levels of some of the performers. I know in reality that fight sequences are often at a slower speed when filmed, same with car chases that typically only go at speeds of 30 miles per hour, but you make choices to obscure those nagging parts of reality to maintain the illusion that these kicks are furious and these cars go fast. It’s the same thinking when it comes to casting and crafting a story that naturally widens rather than simply polluting it with more names and faces that will only leave a dent for making dents. It looks like the actors and people behind Immortal Combat had fun making a movie, and to that end I have no qualms with any of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the elements to reach beyond its circle.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Side note: the poster for this movie is wildly inaccurate. Like amazingly inaccurate. There are no characters in the movie resembling those on the poster, which definitely seems designed to be the Asylum version of Mortal Kombat.

A Father’s Fight (2021)

Even though it doesn’t quite count as an Ohio indie, filmed primarily in southern Indiana, I was requested to write a review for the low-budget, faith-based film, A Father’s Fight, which is currently enjoying a small theatrical run in West Virginia and in its Hoosier home state. This was a passion project years in the making for director Tyler Sansom (Restore). Its $30,000 budget was fully financed by a local church and many of the cast and crew worked as volunteers, aiding the production which was filmed during COVID. In many ways, the movie is already a success story, a lot of people worked together to see an artistic vision to completion and during some of the most dire and restrictive circumstances of modern times. A Father’s Fight is a rare Christian indie that has more in mind than preaching to the choir. It wants to entertain too as it uplifts.

Bo Lawson (Travis Hancock) is a drunk. He’s also a lousy husband, yelling at his wife, Kacie (Sarah Cleveland), and ignoring her threats to leave with their two kids. Then she does it, and Bo doesn’t know how he can get his life back together. Enter Sal Burton (John French), his old boxing trainer, with an offer of a lifetime. It seems the reigning boxing champ wants to come back to his home town to stage a charity bout for the community, and the champ has personally requested to fight his old rival, Bo. This is his chance to make a statement, to shape up, and to win back his wife and perhaps find a new strength through Christianity.

For a faith-based film, I am happy to report that A Father’s Fight is refreshingly more concerned with its characters than purporting a big message. This has been my bias for Christian movies time and again, and it’s usually reinforced by slapdash storytelling that spells out a pragmatic assessment of, “Well they’re coming for the message and not the intricacies of plot and multi-dimensional characters.” Any viewer, no matter their personal belief, deserves a story worthy of their attention and characters that have depth and care. With this movie, it’s far more a domestic drama than a sports film. It has more to do with Marriage Story than Rocky. The boxing doesn’t even come until the final five minutes, which in hindsight also feels like too little boxing. I was impressed that the screenplay by Hannah Mowery does not get pushy with its spiritual message. The first real reference to the power of faith doesn’t even occur until 45 minutes or so into the film, and Bo doesn’t attend church until after an hour into the movie. In the realm of Christian indies, this is remarkable restraint. By no means are the filmmakers soft-pedaling their affirmative message. They just realize that it will be more powerful, and accessible to a wider audience, if you’re sincerely invested in the characters, their humanity, and their redemption. The power of their story will be better translated if they feel like characters rather than bland figures.

It’s here where A Father’s Fight shines brightest, with its depiction of alcoholism and abuse. He’s spiraling, angry all the time, drinking whenever he can, projecting much of his disdain into outbursts against his wife trying to control his behavior, judging him and his failures, and we recognize it as the Drunk Abusive Husband in your standard made-for-TV melodrama. Granted, this is a faith-based film in a PG realm, so the danger of abusive behavior will only go so far, but this movie pushes it. This does a few things for the narrative. It establishes a clear baseline of bad behavior, the Before, that we can judge the protagonist’s progress against, the After period, the triumph. It also makes it more challenging to connect with Bo. He has to earn our respect just like his wife. What’s even more appreciated is how the screenplay really treats Kacie as her own character worthy of consideration, heartache, and struggle. She gets a lot of screen time here, almost equal to Bo during those first 40 minutes, and I thought it was terrific. It’s shockingly rare for the other half of an abusive relationship to be given legitimate consideration and voice. Too often movies will place the wife as a prize needing to be won through penitence or the symbol of How Far the Man Has Fallen, the chief victim that represents the toll of his decline and misery. With A Father’s Fight, my favorite moments where when the script just gives Kacie time to share her complicated feelings, and they are refreshingly complex. She’s torn over what to do, she’s upset with herself that she still worries over this man, she sees her kids and sees her husband in them, and she recognizes her value and that she deserves to be treated better. The brief monologues where Kacie pours out her heart, her frustrations, with Bo, with herself, are the highlights of the film. The characterization is nuanced and empathetic.

The other main characters stand tall. Bo is following a pretty familiar redemption arc, and the vehicle of boxing seems tailor-made for a redemption story, a man voluntarily inflicted with pain to atone or prove a larger point of sacrifice. Adding a spiritual element to that redemption story seems pretty natural and familiar for a formula. The character of Bo isn’t quite as nuanced or clear as Kacie but there’s enough there to qualify as a heartfelt if not entirely satisfying character arc. His apologies and personal growth by the end feel genuine, and his acknowledgement that he has hurt those he loved and doesn’t deserve their forgiveness sets a nice balance for a Christian message about mankind not deserving its own sinful forgiveness. It works, it just could have worked better (more on that later). Bo is strapped into the reliable redemption track but there are points that confused me. At one point, he is backing out of a parking space, almost hits a pedestrian, and the angry pedestrian provokes Bo to almost fight him. This passing incident, with a guy we’ve never seen before, is curiously the thing that almost pushes Bo off the wagon and back to drinking. Why? Why would this one incident have that drastic effect? It’s not like he did get into a fight with the guy. The early Bo is never really clarified why he’s in such a stupor. He’s angry, but angry at what and why? Does he just feel stuck? Emasculated? Unable to provide? A little more time setting up how he fell into drinking and his life before would have smoothed this out. Also, this upcoming fight is with the literal champion of boxing but we don’t ever get a strong sense of what it means for Bo. This is a big deal, something that would attract national media attention, and yet it is never treated like a big deal (Bo is only making a laughably paltry $5,000 for his participation – IN A FIGHT WITH THE CHAMPION). What does this fight, the very title of the movie, represent for him? He’s told he needs to fight for what he believes in, which will ostensibly be the lessons of family, self, faith, etc., but why boxing? Why this guy? Why a champion? Does he want to become a boxer again? Is this his failed dream? It feels just like another odd job for our blue-collar protagonist.

There are two primary areas that detract from the mighty goals of A Father’s Fight: the second act squeeze and the strange editing. There seems to be a switch about 50 minutes into the movie where Act Two and all the personal growth we’re waiting to experience gets severely truncated. It’s hard to explain but the patience and nuance that was exhibited in the first 45 minutes starts to wave and the movie gets sloppy with its storytelling shortcuts. There’s one extending grocery shopping scene that seems to be the changing point. It’s Bo explaining all the changes in his life through one methodical trip down a grocery aisle, chatting to local busybody, Tammy Lynn (Lindsay Rawert). He’s explaining all the changes he’s undergone that we haven’t witnessed. He explains the guy he greeted was his AA sponsor, shows her his chip for being sober for a month, talks about how much he enjoys his time with his kids. All of this is important information and would certainly push Bo along on his predetermined redemption arc, but why are we being told it like we’re catching up with a long-lost friend who only has a few minutes to cover the basics? Why haven’t we been seeing these moments? Why didn’t we see Bo go to an AA meeting, feel uncomfortable and out of place, and then eventually open up, talk about his own history with alcohol and the wreckage it has caused him? It would be a dramatic breakthrough. The same with his interaction with his children. Let’s witness these moments, so that we can see their attitudes changing about their father that once scared and upset them in Act One. Movies are meant to be a visual medium and the screenwriting edict is “show, don’t tell.” The first half of A Father’s Fight was following this model. The second half seems to be rushed to tell us what it feels we need to know to fulfill our redemption obligations and get to the big finish.

The work by three credited editors, including the director, is also a frequent concern. There are several weird editing choices that took me out of the movie or undercut the intended drama. First off, many conversation scenes will awkwardly jump around an assortment of angles, and the pacing feels jumbled, especially when the 180-degree rule is frequently being broken and disorienting the viewer. I’m not a stickler that the 180-degree rule in film should be ironclad but flagrant violation throughout a scene creates unconscious disconnection. That can be put to good use if you’re going for something like loopy David Lynch territory. With a faith-based film, it’s distracting. There are drone shots wedged into montages that don’t need them because the production had drone shots and by golly they were going to be utilized regardless. The inclusion of certain shots and sequences also feels baffling. In the first act, Bo is picked up from the police station by his wife, and during the drive home we get flashbacks of Bo as a child watching his drunken father berate his mother. Minutes later, Bo returns home, immediately starts drinking again, and Kacie confronts him. He berates his wife and his two kids appear, horrified and afraid of how their father is behaving. Wouldn’t it make more thematic sense to include that flashback scene here, to make the connection that he is following in his father’s footsteps, and wouldn’t the scene simply have more dramatic impact here? Likewise, at the end of the movie, when Bo is fighting in the boxing ring, the movie’s big question is not whether Bo will beat the champion but whether Kacie will be present in support (so yes, it’s basically entirely Rocky). Bo gets knocked to the mat. He looks over. He sees his wife. He smiles. He has a reason to get back up, to continue fighting, renewed and stronger. Except that’s not what happens. He gets up, and the ref is checking with him, and he looks over and there she is. This is truly baffling to me. The obvious movie moment is, when he’s at his lowest, after taking the hit, he looks over and there she is. We don’t need to see her enter. It should be a surprise for the audience too and including it at its most dramatic point. We feel Bo’s elation. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t have a plethora of these moments but enough that add up and make me wish there had been a fourth editor to help.

The acting is much more subtle and controlled than what I was expecting from a faith-based indie where big theatrical acting can make the proceedings feel overly staged and phony. The three central performers deliver. Cleveland (End of the Road) is very emotionally affecting as Kacie, and she deftly handles the multiple conflicting emotions of a woman at the end of her patience. She’s the most nuanced character in the movie and Cleveland digs deep. She is not a cliche. Hancock (A Soldier’s Secret) has the more traditional role and leans into that familiarity but carries himself well physically and emotionally. His outbursts can be wince-inducing but his pleas for forgiveness can also ring true, aided by the character’s reflection and personal growth. French (The Right to Remain) has a really strong monologue where he reflects on his own war experiences and what motivated him to keep fighting. It relates to the larger theme of the movie, allows the versatile actor to slow things down, to open up, and become very vulnerable, and it’s a welcomed humanizing aside for a character that could have just been a standard coach cheering on our hero’s conditioning from the sidelines. I must admit this monologue is hampered by poor editing choices with quick camera pans and push-ins that feel entirely wrong. You want to slow things down and let the character have the moment, not ramp things up and distract. There is one major acting curiosity I need to cite and this belongs to Rawert and her thick accent. She sounds like she’s auditioning to be on Fargo (“Oh yay, yer’ goin’ inta tha boxin’ ring, doncha know”), and it’s a pronounced lilt that’s missing from every other actor in the movie. I don’t know if maybe this was her idea of a typical “Midwest voice” or a misplaced character choice.

As a faith-based drama, A Father’s Fight has a lot going for it and a lot I wish more Christian indies would prioritize. It puts its characters and story above its feel-good message, at least for half of the movie. The second half does feel rushed and sloppy, and while it does take away from the conclusion feeling fully earned, it cannot detract from the early good feelings. It’s a strange assessment that a movie has a first act, a third act, and a smushed second act, the one meant to bridge the problems to solutions, but there you have it. It’s quite possible there was more intended for the movie and the reality of budget and filming during COVID caused unfortunate shortcuts and the like. It definitely feels like the promise of the first 45 minutes was unable to be fulfilled for the second half. At 90 minutes, the movie could have even stood an additional 20-30 minutes of material to provide room for that character development and some time to breathe. Still, this is a professional looking production for its budget and the song selections are great finds, even if they quite often literalize the inner emotional state of characters onscreen. There’s much more right than wrong with this polished production, and I’m impressed with the consideration given to the characters, especially from the wife’s perspective. Most Christian indies feel more like elaborate sermons than genuine stories (sometimes they’re just Kirk Cameron lecturing you in a driveway). I think this film will play well with its target audience and even earn some fans from outside the flock, people who recognize the humanity of the people onscreen. Even with its limitations and weird edits, A Father’s Fight knows what it’s fighting for – your entertainment value.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Slaxx (2020)

You would imagine a movie about a possessed pair of pants would be outrageously entertaining, and yet the Canadian horror comedy Slaxx is too stretched out and made from conflicting material. This movie needed to be more… something; more ridiculous, more exploitative, more gory and over-the-top, more satirical. It feels like a lost Tales From the Crypt episode that is over-extended and repeating the same points and carnage over and over. The haunted pants are unleashing a trail of vengeance against a department store’s employees one long night before a social media star makes an special live appearance. The kills are bloody without being very memorable or clever given the unique circumstances of the monster. Much of the gore is done off-screen as well, denying one more potential point of appeal for a movie that is supposed to be crazy. I found the movie and its social commentary to be rather tame and limited, which meant I was watching the same annoying, one-note joke supporting characters repeat the same abrasive activities and points. It got so redundant, and without really outrageous kills, that I just became bored as the movie dithered. The jeans are haunted by the victims of overseas child labor, and the serious points about labor exploitation are undercut by the goofy asides, like the pants dancing a Bollywood jig from unseen puppeteers (the highlight of the movie). By the time it concludes at the 70-minute mark, Slaxx feels like it’s been creatively gasping for some time. It’s not scary. It’s not really funny. It’s not gross. It’s not crazy enough. It’s just a killer jeans movie that could have been condensed down into an entertaining short film of fifteen minutes max. As a feature, Slaxx is slack.

Nate’s Grade: C

Ride or Die (2021)

As I’ve been tackling more Ohio-made indies recently, I’ve gotten to know local filmmakers and started having films suggested for me by people within he local film industry, and as I’ve watched more and more that do not work, I’ve begun to dread writing these reviews. Nobody wants to be the killjoy after so many people have sacrificed time and money to bring a movie to life. It’s hard work. Ride or Die is a low-budget indie written and directed and edited by Aly Hardt (Lilith) and filmed in Cincinnati. It’s currently available on Amazon streaming but I wouldn’t advise a casual viewing. It’s confused and meandering and hard to process what is happening frequently without attachment to compelling characters.

Ashley (Vanessa Allen) is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her bestie, Mandy (Hannah Brooks). When a boyfriend mistreats Mandy, that’s when Ashley takes matters into her own hands. She kills an abusive (ex?)boyfriend (Raavian Rehman) and the witness, a girl he was dating called Lemonade (Celeste Blandon) too. Ashley hides the bodies and learns shocking secrets from Mandy that make her reconsider everything she knew about her BFF.

Ride or Die could support a hasty drinking game because scene-to-scene you have no idea what to expect. That can be a bonus if your tone allows for it like a mystery that keeps you upended or a wacky comedy, and for a short period of time I thought that this indie was headed in a black comedy direction. After our protagonist has killed two people within ten minutes, she’s beset by another interloper, a woman who works at a café delivering food (without a car?) and needing a ride. Ashley, who has just stashed bodies in her trunk, reluctantly agrees to help, and as this new woman is yammering away about any topic that enters her brain, I started to wonder if this was what the rest of the movie would be like, a series of outrageous pile-ups that result from the opening murder, becoming harder and harder to cover-up. Nope. After this scene, and the “comedy” of mistaking the blood on Ashley’s fingertips as a sign of her menstruation (“It must be a bad period. I just finished mine.”), we will never see this self-involved whipped cream-loving woman again, and we will never really cover the tone of intentional comedy again short of a no-nonsense Uber driver. Ride or Die wobbles severely from tone to tone, never settling down, and feeling inauthentic whatever the current tonal footing featured. As things were getting serious, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something ridiculous would happen to ruin it. As things were crazy, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something self-serious and disjointed would happen to ruin it. If you’re expecting constant tonal self-sabotage, then you won’t be disappointed with the results of this wildly messy 76-minute experiment. Tone switches can work, even serious to darkly funny as demonstrated so skillfully in Promising Young Woman. This movie just can’t manage the abrupt shifts.

The worst part for me was how these tonal shifts and creative decision-making harmed the thematic implications around domestic violence. There are serious subjects at play with Ride or Die and I don’t want to say that humor cannot be found in even the most uncomfortable of topics. It just requires a deft touch, a touch sorely lacking from this movie. In the first TEN MINUTES alone, we endure watching Mandy get assaulted by her bad boyfriend, Ashley gets assaulted by her bad father or step-father (Chris Dettone, Confiend), and then Ashley murders two people, one of whom admits to being a victim of rape from high school before inexplicably falling head-over-heels for Ashley. The first three women introduced onscreen are all victims of sexual abuse. It’s a lot to handle, and I was worried this path was going to continue and every female character introduced would have their own story, not because this would be unlikely from a statistical standpoint of unreported assaults but because it would possibly approach self-parody through blunt overuse.

However, the good intentions of highlighting the struggle to reclaim your identity after sexual abuse is seriously compromised by a late revelation (spoilers to follow, you are warned). After getting drunk, Mandy reveals that she really appreciated the ferocity of protection from her bestie, so she would lie about past abuse from past boyfriends so that Ashley would “take care of her.” She even admits to giving herself the black eye she sports for most of the movie. In a post-Me Too era where victims are fighting to be heard, it’s morally queasy to have a main character falsify numerous assaults for attention. Any good feelings I had for this movie vanished after that point. I don’t know if Mandy fully understood what Ashley would do in response but she had to pick up some disconcerting theory considering all these people went mysteriously absent after Mandy’s accusations. Either her selfish ignorance has led to all these supposedly innocent people being harmed and/or killed or she knew what the consequences would be and set them up for deadly retribution. Whatever the scenario, Mandy is an irredeemably bad person and I couldn’t care about her whatsoever, not that the prior development meaningfully rounded her out. This happens at the halfway mark and the movie cannot sustain itself with 40 minutes after to spend. For a movie that features so many victims of sexual abuse dealing with the long-term effects, it seems very irresponsible to go this route while also trying to treat the topic with reverence.

Another ongoing problem that really tears apart Ride or Die is that there are so many moments that well and truly make no sense. The entire character of Lemonade is getting her own paragraph of confusion. Why does Lemonade respond at all like she does? Ashley has a gun against her head and threatening her if she doesn’t forget her face, providing an out, and Lemonade chooses this moment to come onto her attacker (“What if I don’t want to forget your face?” she coos). I accepted her confessing her own abuse as a means of eliciting sympathy from her attacker, but to get a horny case of Stockholm syndrome instantaneously is beyond bizarre. The kiss triggers Ashley to think about her father (or stepfather) and she kills Lemonade. This scene made me scream “what?” to my TV screen for several prolonged utterances. The entire Lemonade character makes no sense to me. Ashley is haunted by Lemonade’s pale ghost because, we’re told much later, she was her first innocent she killed. However, this confession is occurring directly after she learns about Mandy’s secret, meaning this is entirely false. Maybe beforehand she thought she was an innocent, fine, but why does this woman who spent exactly two minutes on camera before being killed merit such attention? Lemonade then becomes a personification of Ashley’s guilt or self-destruction, or maybe she is a ghost and looking for payback, either would be credible here. I laughed when ghost Lemonade brings it to Ashley’s attention that driving around in the stolen car of the person she may have just killed might not be the best decision. In this moment, the literal ghost trying to murder Ashley is also trying to be the voice of reason, because inexplicably Ashley needs to go dancing and find herself a companion at this exact moment. “I need this for me,” she says, trying to guilt the ghost whose job it is to guilt her. What is going on?

I kept expecting there to be, you know, consequences for the trail of bodies, but apparently the police in this universe can’t be bothered to investigate crimes with scads of physical evidence. I guess no detective has bothered to put together the coincidental nature of all of the men who Mandy goes on dates with or forms relationships with winding up missing. No worried family member? No nosy neighbor? If Ashley were like a professional at murder and body disposal, maybe I’d give her more leeway because she’s demonstrated that she knows what she’s doing after a wealth of experience. This is not the case. She chooses to store the dead bodies in her home, and not buried in the yard but in an accessible space where it’s only a matter of time before the smell spreads. The conflict of covering up the dead bodies feels resolved far too easily and without necessary tension. Because of this, the girl time spent between Mandy and Ashley can become insufferable and filled with awkward dialogue exchanges like, “Why don’t you ever talk about why your parents left you behind?” and, “Maybe this question’s more for me because I don’t know how to deal with losing my mom, and I know it’s not the same thing, but when my mom died, I was just crushed. I mean, your parents might as well be dead with what happened.” Characters explain things they obviously would already know with their years of BFF-ing, like asking to talk about your happiest childhood memory, which happens to be when they first met. The inauthentic, overly expositional dialogue is often a bad sign that a screenplay needs a few more drafts of work.

So much of this movie is built upon a friendship we’re repeatedly told is super close, but they interact less like friends who have known one another since the fourth grade and more like sorority sisters who have shared the same floor for a couple of weeks. The writing just isn’t there to sustain anything character-centric with Ride or Die, which is why the characters seem to flip flop at random in frustrating and annoying ways, when they too aren’t being frustrating and annoying. It’s a clear case of being told relationship importance and bonds rather than witnessing them. There are no real supporting characters. The off-screen grandmother is always heard and never seen and a one-joke character where the joke was never even funny. There are propagators of trauma, like the bad men of the past, and there are victims, like the all-purpose ghost, but it’s the story of these two women and they are so boring together even with repeated murder and cover-ups.

Ride or Die is unlikely to win over any fans who aren’t already personally connected with the indie production. There are definite technical limitations given the budget was only $16,000. The sets never seem to feel lived in. The dialogue often sounds like it was dubbed over. The music drones on and on and at a volume that needs to be dialed back. The acting is flat across the board, with Allen (Girl/Girl Scene) sounding overwhelmingly monotone no matter the intensity of the scene. Scrolling through the end credits, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. Most everyone on this crew worked four or five jobs to see Ride or Die get made. That’s commendable, but I have to ask what about this story deserved all their hard work and dedication? It’s the script that sinks this movie. We get stuff like a ten-second “in media res” opening when we simply get caught up within eight minutes. That’s not how that should work. Likewise, why even bother with a three months earlier/three months later timeline that only muddles things? Was it Ashley’s stepfather or father who committed her abuse? The movie needs clarity but it really needs a driving plot to tie things together. The confusing fantasies, the wildly fluctuating characters and tone, the meandering plot, the overwrought dramatic elements, it all starts to coalesce into a sporadically baffling example of modern camp. I hope everyone involved enjoyed working on this. I don’t think many others will find much to enjoy on the merits of its storytelling and execution. Unfortunately, it’s best left in the rear view.

Nate’s Grade: D

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

I wanted to love Willy’s Wonderland. It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. I’ll credit the creature designs of the many killer animatronic animals inhabited by the spirits of a dead Satanic cult demanding sacrifice. They’re chintzy and creepy and effective in their Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s reference points. However, the movie clearly appears to be out of ideas pretty early. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. For those looking for the splendidly crazy moments that can define Nicolas Cage performances, I think you’ll be slightly disappointed. The character has a few quirks, like his surprisingly ironclad work ethic, but the character is just as underwritten, absent personality, and replaceable as any of the killer robots. For a movie where Cage fights a bunch of bloodthirsty robots, it starts to get a little boring because of the narrative redundancy. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. There are a slew of highly annoying teenagers that stumble in so there are more victims to be terrorized. In one moment, these teens will denounce doing stupid acts and the unreasonable risk, and then the next minute they’re splitting up to go have sex in the scary birthday room or murder and not keeping their distance from the murder robots they know are alive and murderous. If the movie was more satirical, I might even give the filmmakers credit for the dumb teenagers reverting to form regardless of obvious circumstances. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.

Nate’s Grade: C

Psycho Goreman (2021)

The Canadian quintet Astron-6 is a production company that specializes in practical horror effects to delight the eyes and churn the stomachs. In 2011, they decided to make their own films and released Manborg, a hilarious if sketchy and stretched-out horror-comedy replete with loving references to 1980s culture and movies. Their crazy, low-budget schlocky efforts have developed a following, and they earned extra credibility when they played things gravely serious and terrifying in 2016’s The Void. Now writer/director Steven Kostanski (one-fifth of Astron-6) has delivered Psycho Goreman, and this is what happens when gonzo, genre filmmakers are working at the top of their chintzy, delightfully deranged capability. The results are highly entertaining with equal parts great, good, and bad-good, and lovers of silly, schlock cinema will be in high heaven.

Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a little girl used to bullying her big brother Luke (Owen Myre) and generally getting her way. She and her brother discover a gem hidden in their backyard and it just so happens to connect to a powerful and murderous alien monster, the self-described “Archduke of Nightmares,” named by Mimi as Psycho Goreman (Matthew Ninaber), or PG for short. The creature was imprisoned by a galactic council who feared that unleashed he might conquer the universe in fire and blood. Unfortunately for PG, he’s at the mercy of Mimi, who can command him thanks to her ownership of that magic gem. For her, PG is her greatest new friend and play partner and woe unto thee anyone who tries to take PG away from her.

The movie feels like a cleverly constructed episode of Rick and Morty where a crazy idea is given unusual consideration and development and layers of humor and ridiculousness are uncovered so that the whole enterprise impresses. The basic premise is what if a brat had the power to control a monster, and while the movie pretends like life lessons will be learned or earned (“humans are the real monsters” is so trite that it’s an obvious put-upon), the movie also never downplays how much of a terror the little girl can be. It might be an easy joke but it’s still a good one, the fact that the universe shouldn’t fear this hideous monster but really this mean little girl is a fact that many parents will nod along with. The movie does some effort to redeem her, if that’s really important to you, but it also doesn’t soften her rough edges and her impudence. She is a brat, and she will inflict pain on others, and the fact that she has awesome power makes her a scary being the entire universe should really be quaking over.

The enjoyable fish-out-of-water dynamic elevates the comedy and payoffs of Psycho Goreman. This powerful monster is beholden to the childish whims and forced to do the bidding of a child, and he hates being out of control and every moment he is forced to play with her. The begrudging acclimation makes for several fun scenarios where he learns from her and also learns how far she’s willing to go. I enjoyed PG trying to make sense of Mimi’s made-up game and its nonsensical rules, and I enjoyed the levels of bizarre family domestic drama as PG integrates himself with this terrified clan. Having a normal dinner between humans and a blood-thirsty alien marauder is rife with comedic potential, and that’s even before the additional side story of the strife between the put-upon mother and the father who is just a gigantic loser. Their ongoing relationship troubles relate to some hilarious motivational turnarounds, like the father (Adam Brooks, another Astron-6 member) resenting the mother for thinking he’s a loser, so he’ll prove her wrong by being a supportive parent, which just happens to include helping his daughter’s involvement with a killer alien. He has an inspirational speech to his daughter late in the movie that had me cackling. The movie is more than its crazy, schlocky moments of gore and rubber costumes. It’s a fun but cleverly constructed comedy that understands the tenets of what makes crazy so genuinely funny.

But along the lines of gore and rubber costumes, Psycho Goreman is like a gloriously inappropriate Power Rangers episode for adults. The elaborate care and design of these monster and alien costumes is outstanding, especially for a relatively low-budget movie. It might look cheap from time to time, though I would argue this is also part of its unassailable charm, but the filmmakers show their real priorities with their monster designs. They are so varied and weird and good looking and have levels of detail to them as well. There’s one design that is simply a living cauldron of corpses (I think voiced by Rich Evans from Red Letter Media). Every new character is a new joy to behold, and when the clashes begin, as they inevitably do, you discover the extra care put into the creature designs with how they viciously come apart. There is a simple pleasure watching the great production design of the costumes and outfits as well as the outrageous gore. I loved that a kid is turned into a giant living brain monster and nobody seems to really care and it becomes a running joke of how callously everyone has viewed this child, including his own indifferent parents. If you’re a fan of goofy monster costumes and extravagant gore, this film is a twisted treat.

Mimi is going to be a love-her-or-hate-her character because she is exactly what Angela Pickles (Rugrats) would be like if given ultimate, unchecked authority over human life. She wields her power flippantly and will joke about siccing PG on her brother to kill him. She also hoots and hollers for PG’s violence against innocents because to her it’s all a big show of amusement. I found the high level of energy of Hanna’s performance to be the difference maker for me. Her character is an unrepentant brat but she’s so entertaining to watch because she holds to this very specific vision. Hanna is downright brilliant in her smarty-pants, mean girl articulation and has great physical expression. Watching her dance in discombobulated movements like the queen of the world made me laugh every time. I thought Hanna was terrific and her comedic timing was so well-honed for being so young. I understand many will find Mimi grating or overbearing or simply too much to handle. I get it, and I don’t think Psycho Goreman will be nearly as enjoyable for anyone who dislikes Mimi. You’re not meant to approve of her actions and warpath of destruction, but you can still enjoy the mayhem all the same.

If you’re a fan of low-rent, cheesy midnight movies, the deranged and demented, and giant silly costumes and bloody excess, Psycho Goreman will be everything you hope it to be. I will admit it peters out a little right before its big showdown, but otherwise the movie is consistently entertaining, consistently strange, and consistently funny. The comedy is better than you think as the filmmakers refuse to rest on the appeal of easy jokes and easy sentiment. They know why you’re watching and deliver, but the work under the surface is impressive and admirable. The filmmakers know they have a very specific, tailored audience that will celebrate their unique retro pastiche sensibilities, and if you happen to live on that same wavelength as I do, then you too will find Psycho Goreman to be an insane near masterpiece of low-budget, high-concept schlock. Give your 2021 a boost by checking out this Canadian splatter comedy and give in to the madness.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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