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Youngstown (2021)

Pete Ohs is an Ohio-born filmmaker who has met some level of success in the Hollywood indie scene. He’s mounted movies that got limited releases, including one starring multiple Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Assistant). According to Ohs’ own admission, writing a script, finding the money, getting talent attached, and pitching to gatekeepers had somewhat drained the fun out of the creative process of being a filmmaker. He wanted to go back to the days of being kids, just rolling with an idea and chasing it wherever it may lead. So Ohs decided to turn a vacation into a possible movie. His childhood friend, producer Jesse Reed, begged him to come to Youngstown, Ohio and make a movie, so that’s what Ohs did. He would fly out with his two lead actors with no script, no crew, no permits, and film over the course of two weeks during the summer of 2019. For Ohs, it was an attempt to go back to something fun, the appeal of filmmaking before it got so complicated and pressure-packed, and even if things didn’t work out, they still got a two-week vacation. Youngstown is their finished result, a 75-minute trifle of a movie, light and meandering, and admittedly stretched thin.

The story revolves around “Sarah Jayne Reynolds” (Stephanie Hunt) who is in the witness protection program. She’s been relocated in Ohio but just can’t help herself and heads back to her hometown of Youngstown. Along the way, she meets a fast-talking grifter (Andy Faulkner) -literally credited as “Grifter”- who is happy to drive her to Youngstown and see the sights. She shows him her favorite restaurants and haunts, and he tries to teach her how to be a better liar for her own safety, while trying to keep his own low-level schemes going as well.

All criticisms for Youngstown need to be blunted somewhat because this movie had obvious disadvantages, a limited ambition, and was possibly never intended to even exist. It needs to be graded on a curve not because it’s low-budget (I’ve seen movies made for less), or because it’s an indie (Ohs has enough experience as a filmmaker to not deem him a novice), or even that it began life without a finished script (it sure feels like many movies, even big-budget studio tentpoles, sadly follow this route). It’s because the movie is essentially a glorified vacation video and improv experiment. The people behind it just wanted to have fun and highlight the local hot spots and town history for a dilapidated former steel city. The movie is their souvenir. Did Ohs and company, and by that I mean his two actors, pull it all off? Well, yes and no.

It’s impressive that with as many reasons going against it, Ohms is able to pull off a narrative that mostly works. The premise of a woman in witness protection returning to her hometown seems like the dumbest idea a person could do being in reported relocation. The very premise invites you not to take things too seriously, because the character of Sarah never feels like she’s in any real danger. In fact, the impression she gives is either one of blithe ignorance or perhaps limited mental acuity. Then again the government seems to have set her up with a new identity in a neighboring Ohio city. I don’t think moving a vulnerable person just across the county line is the same thing as keeping them safe. Regardless, the movie doesn’t hold Sarah to account for these rash and foolhardy actions, and she’s never placed in any real danger, so it’s the movie’s way of telling you to relax and just go with it. The core is about two odd people who are trying to learn from one another. He’s learning about her wholesome take on life. She’s learning to be more duplicitous or at least less naive. This dynamic actually works well enough to produce comedic sparks of potential, like when Sarah is learning how to lie better by faking being on crutches and her reason for needing them. It’s kind of adorable to watch a person who is really bad at lying being sweetly oblivious. More could have been wrought from this creative combination, but the fact that they never go into a romantic direction and keep things strictly platonic is admirable although perhaps not the best choice.

Another laudable aspect is that Ohs can even make up a movie on the spot without having to scout his locations. According to his account, they would find a space and come up with the scene in that space, with him studying the angles and already mentally putting together an edit in his head so he would know what angles were needed to tell the moment. The photography is crisp and the visual compositions are often well coordinated, with varied focus depth. For being made on the spot, it helps when you have somebody who knows how to shoot a movie, and considering he was the ENTIRE crew, that’s a lot riding on the talents of one man. Ohs has edited more movies than he’s directed (including 2019’s Olympic Dreams), so the editing is efficient and often smooth, evoking the same unhurried, gentle feeling of the story.

Where this movie could have been improved should be obvious to anyone who watches it, and that’s beefing up the story and scenarios to better effect. As the movie was improvised and created from scene-to-scene and day-to-day, it has a general loping quality to it; however, this feeling can become meandering quite often, and just about every conversation, even the comedic ones, feels creatively exhausted. Hunt (Friday Night Lights, The Get Together) and Faulkner (Spree) are agreeable performers, both are charismatic even in minimal, but they’re not gifted improvisers. Faulkner seems to fall back upon the “more is more” approach of Judd Apatow movies. He’ll riff on a bit for an extensive amount of time, conjuring dozens of details or phony names but not really transforming the moment. The best improvisers find new and unexpected avenues with what they’re given, making the transitions seamless. The overall effect of Youngstown is like slowly letting the air out of your patience. A scene will be established, and then it will just keep going, beating whatever joke was present into tiny particles of comedy dust.

Director/editor/co-writer Pete Ohs on location.

Take Sarah showing off her town’s main street and offering commentary about all the restaurants and different locales. Like many of the comedy bits, it starts amusing but then deteriorates. It becomes three minutes of Sarah saying something about every shop and eatery she sees, and few of these observations are even funny. It’s stuff like, “Best Chinese food in the city.” It starts to feel like you’re stuck with a passenger just narrating anything they see without much helpful commentary at all, and that’s precisely what is happening. Some scenes work, like Faulkner explaining how to be better at lying, but too many scenes follow the car narration formula: they keep going longer than the joke affords. It starts to remind me of those improv-heavy additional versions of comedies, like the Anchorman bonus DVD, and even those grow tiresome and they are professionals. The extension of these comedy bits is likely a result of trying to find enough useful material to reach 75 minutes for a feature running time. Otherwise, why include three minutes of a conversation best kept at 30 seconds? It’s a film necessity dragging subpar improv.

As an experiment, Youngstown deserves recognition for even mostly working and for its enjoyable actors and amiable spirit. As a movie, it even looks and sounds professional despite its limitations. Ohs is a real filmmaker who can be trusted to make his movies look like professional movies. As a story or as a comedy, Youngstown is too lacking. The improv seams show all too often and whatever comedy momentum gets diluted and lost. Your tolerance for middling improv will be a big indicator whether or not you find the movie to be charming. Congrats to Ohs and his two actors on being able to make a movie without any significant preparation. It’s a testament to all of their skills. Now only imagine what these folks could do with an actually honed script. As a fun distraction, it can pass the time agreeably but it’s little more than meandering filler. It makes me intrigued to follow Ohs and Hunt and Faulkner in other, more polished projects.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Female Hustler (2021)

The Female Hustler is one of the top movies on the streaming site Tubi, which is available for free with minimal ad breaks. Anyone can check it out, and congrats to this Columbus, Ohio-made indie thriller written and directed by Columbus native Dom Campbell (Bad Business). He’s getting his feature film projects out into the world and a wider audience and that is definitely something to celebrate. However, I think considering a larger audience will do Campbell better, as The Female Hustler feels too inert to be more than the sum of its already familiar and genre-soaked parts.

Princess (Courtney Godsey) is struggling to save her friend from a pimp and help her brother get a better life. She’s looking for work when her chatty Uber driver, Omar (Campbell too), invites her into his multi-million-dollar identity theft scam network. From there, she rises through his ranks and becomes a threat to Omar’s leadership. We jump forward in time and Princess has become “The Female Hustler” and leading her own top-notch outfit. Omar is looking to take out his one-time protégé and regain his empire, but he might not be the only threat facing Princess.

Made for $50,000 and filmed throughout Columbus, as well as stops in Los Angeles, The Female Hustler has more than a few artistic merits. It’s a gangster genre movie that knows its audience well, which is likely why there are several close-ups of butts within minutes. Campbell recognizes that this movie is going to be less a complicated, nuanced, inter-textual crime story akin to something like The Wire and more like a knockoff of a knockoff of a blaxploitation film. I think a filmmaker knowing their genre and what makes it work is essential to playing to its strengths. The Female Hustler feels like it can walk its walk. I’ve watched enough lower-budget Ohio indies to tell when the photography is a step above, and the FIVE credited cinematographers for this movie at least deliver quality with their quantity. The grimy color grade is solid atmosphere but the crispness of the images and the use of lighting can actually be quite artistic for a lower-budgeted crime flick. The sequences outdoors at night were really good looking. I’ve watched enough barely-lit outdoor scenes that struggled to convey key info. These outdoor scenes have levels of clarity and color and even reminded me of Michael Mann’s digital video thrillers like Collateral and Miami Vice. That doesn’t mean all of the visual compositions feel dynamic; too many shots come across like they were clumsily composed on the spot. It works, but the skill of the camera quality, post-production, and/or camera operators are elevating the many perfunctory camera setups. The movie is packed with modern rap and its bouncy beats give a better sense of pacing and energy, especially when what’s happening onscreen is mostly people fronting poses. A lot of the acting is enjoyable too. I’m not going to say anybody is a star in the making, but the actors can be amusing or charismatic or intimidating when called upon, and Godsey is a worthy lead to build upon.

Where The Female Hustler doesn’t quite work is as a story with enough connective tissue and a satisfying conclusion. I was shocked that there is no ending offered at the conclusion of its 82 minutes. The entire back half of the movie is setting up a climactic confrontation between Princess and her former mentor, Omar, and they each bring their crews together for a fateful summit, and then everyone scatters, a betrayal is revealed from a supporting character, and the movie then rolls credits. I suppose maybe Campbell is intending to make this into an ongoing franchise, a move I would deem dubious given what we’ve been given in this first and so far only entry. However, given everything that transpired in this dawdling movie, there is no excuse to cheat your audience out of any ending. It’s not just that The Female Hustler has a bad ending; it doesn’t even have an ending. None of the storylines have been resolved, nobody has altered their standing, and no wrongs have been righted. It’s confounding that the movie just seemingly ran out of time after doing so little for forty-something minutes of characters making threats and bragging about their successes. The decision on the ending really harms the entire movie, looking backwards. It clearly feels like Campbell had an idea for a movie and little realization how to better develop and see it through. The concept of a woman rising to power through a criminal organization, a dangerous “man’s world” of intrigue and violence, is a fine dramatic template. Watching an underdog take out their obstacles and people doubting them is an inherently satisfying and engaging narrative. That is not really what we get with The Female Hustler, a movie too content to be a longer version of a trailer when it comes to minimal characterization, plot development, and surprising twists and turns.

I can summarize the main plot as three data points: 1) Princess is learning the criminal lifestyle, 2) Princess has become successful under Omar, and 3) Princess is even more prosperous as her own boss. You would expect there to be connective tissue and sequences that served as getting us from one station to another, scenes where Princess learned harsh lessons, or rose to the occasion and surprised her boss or herself, something to note the character development from a novice to a hard-edged leader. There are few of these sequences if any. The second half of this movie almost feels like a resume bragging about Princess’ accomplishments. It’s scene after scene of characters simply relaying the state of things. Naturally, I assumed these exchanges were to ground the audience so we could then chart later changes as what had been gained is now in jeopardy. However, this doesn’t happen and the movie is awash in wheel-spinning exposition. It’s almost comical how scene after scene involves this new character and that new character just telling Princess how good a job she’s been doing. Then we’ll have scenes of Princess nodding along. In some ways it’s reminiscent of little kids in role play, less worried about how things got to be and more about establishment (more “I’m the king of the universe,” and less how it got to be). That’s why this plot feels so bare-bones as to be mistaken as simply a larger version of its trailer. It just feels like we’ve dropped into three stagnant scenarios and stuck with repetitious scenes restating the status quo while we wait for some upheaval or climax that never actually arrives.

I felt that maybe the whole back half was leading up to the final confrontation between Princess and Omar, and when she kills her mentor, it would at least feel like she has moved forward. That’s the basic setup of this kind of story, where the mentor brings in the protégé, then they conflict and then the mentor has to be put aside permanently to fully achieve a higher level of success on their own terms, no longer held back by the definitions of the past. I just watched this basic narrative recently in House of Gucci with Lady Gaga as our change agent. That’s why I’m flabbergasted that The Female Hustler doesn’t so much end as implicitly say, “To be continued?” It doesn’t need to, especially when the movie is only 83 minutes long, especially when the movie hasn’t really done as much with those 83 minutes. We could have watched Omar, in his desperation, strike back at Princess’ empire, chipping away at her power, capturing and killing her valuable team members, and Princess having to process how far she’s willing to go to take out her competition, establishing lines only to question crossing them. It’s like Campbell has assembled his key characters for a crime epic and then merely given them place-holder dramatic scenes and rote dialogue bravado (“You should have had a crash course on me… now you’re a crash test dummy”). It’s a movie with nowhere to go in its imagination.

Why introduce members of Princess’ crew, one-by-one with flashbacks showcasing their skills, if the movie isn’t going to feature these characters outside of this scene? What does it matter to the audience knowing so-and-so is good with money or good with computer hacking if they don’t even contribute to the story afterwards? Why introduce the FBI agents following the criminal goings-on if these guys will never factor in again either? It’s like teasing future conflict that doesn’t ever materialize because Princess never feels in danger. Imagine watching a heist movie that is nothing but recounting 100 members of the crew, their unique skill set, and how they came to be recruited, and then they were never seen or heard again and the movie just ended. What would the point be? What have we accomplished moving a larger storyline forward?

This brings me to my biggest complaint with many Ohio indies, and sadly The Female Hustler appears to have fallen victim too: they are too insular and inaccessible that they seem to have forgotten about playing to an audience, thus only really prove appealing to friends and family of the production. There isn’t a thrilling story, or engaging characters, or a gritty, compelling world here to keep your attention through the overly padded 83-minute run time. I’m happy for local professionals when they can pool their efforts and actually put a movie together, but unless they want it to feel like an inside joke or something only intended for the most limited of viewing spheres, they need to constantly be thinking outside themselves and ask, “Why would anyone care?” The Female Hustler has some technical plaudits that allow it to rise above some of its fledgling peers. I think Campbell is a better director than a screenwriter and would benefit from collaborators in that field. He and his production company Emperium Studios have a spinoff with the brainy kid hacker character in the works, a TV series called A Kid Named Bug, and judging from early pictures, it looks like an entirely different tone for Campbell. Good for him. Keep hustling, young man, and remember to think about movies being intended for an audience, otherwise it’s a very expensive hobby for you and your closest friends.

Nate’s Grade: C

DeRosa: Life & Art in Transition (2021)

Angelo Thomas is an impressive young filmmaker. At his college, the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, the man was able to make a $50,000 feature film, 2020’s The Incredible Jake Parker, the first undergraduate film in over 30 years. Now he’s right back with another feature, the documentary project DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition, illuminating the story of artist Felicia DeRosa, a CCAD grad and professor who lived most of her life as a man before accepting herself and coming out as trans at the age of 43. The 65-minute documentary is nicely polished and deeply empathetic and worth an hour of your time to learn more about DeRosa’s harrowing and inspirational life.

The biggest question any documentary must ask itself is whether there is a story here that can support a deeper dive. I suppose this same question should be given to fictional narratives, can it support a film, but documentaries are limited by the experiences of their subjects. Fortunately, with DeRosa, there is plenty to talk about and the hour running time feels more than enough time to sincerely cover one woman’s journey of self-discovery and an evolving love story where two people recognized they were better together no matter the changes. DeRosa is a natural gabber and quite capable of compellingly retelling her story with bittersweet personal insights and wisdom. She’s an easy person to sit in front of a camera and just say, “Go.” It also helps that the production has access to what must have been hours upon hours of DeRosa’s home recordings. She was prolific in documenting her feelings and anxieties at different points. It’s a wealth of resources for the documentary to be able to immediately supply DeRosa at different points of her life’s journey articulating her struggles and anxieties in the moment. It reminded me a bit of the documentary Val, extensively using Val Kilmer’s home movies enough so that it credited him with cinematography. DeRosa is all over the movie and to our benefit.

As expected, much of the movie examines individual and societal views on gender identity, a subject that is simultaneously becoming more normalized and scandalized. As more and more trans people discuss their personal journeys of discovery and acceptance, our media and arts are helping to build compassion and understanding. At the same time, as gay rights have become more acceptable across the political spectrum, the new focal point for conservative hysteria and political opportunism has shifted to trans rights. No longer is the thought of two gay people getting married the boogeyman for fundamentalist outrage; now it’s the entire idea of trans people using restrooms and playing sports and more or less existing in a public manner. DeRosa’s own experiences may be similar to many who grow up closeted in households and have to pretend to be someone they are not. There is a social good to hearing more stories of those marginalized from our society and finding their strength and advocacy to inspire others to keep pushing forward.

I expected DeRosa’s mother to be disapproving. Upon discovering her young son playing dress up in feminine clothing, DeRosa’s mother went into a frenzy and kept beating her child. As tragic as this setback is, it’s not uncommon. However, DeRosa’s experiences with her mother become even more gut-wrenching when she reveals how, at the age of 13, her mother raped her while remarking how similar they looked like their father. I had to walk out of the room after this awful revelation and pause the movie. It’s heavy and head-spinning and would send anyone into a depressive spiral. I completely understand the reluctance to dig further without seeming to exploit DeRosa’s sexual trauma for inflated drama. That’s the challenge for any documentary filmmaker. How far do you push your subjects and when do you cross a moral line? DeRosa shares therapeutic letters she has written directed to her mother, and years later it’s still a tangle of complicated emotions to process. DeRosa’s mother is left behind as a topic, fittingly, as DeRosa ventures into independence. She gets news that her mother is on death’s door, and DeRosa is the one who must decide whether to pull the plug and end her mother’s life. That’s all kinds of messed up.

Another aspect of the documentary that stands out is how much compassion and empathy it builds from the complicated relationship with DeRosa’s wife. Gwen comes from a conservative Christian upbringing and her early relationship with her husband is supportive; they’re clearly each other’s person as they’ve only been apart for twenty minutes in the past eighteen years. Hearing from Gwen’s side is more than simply checking in on how the dutiful wife is dealing with her husband’s identity. I recall 2015’s The Danish Girl that seemed to elevate the grieving perspective of the “poor yet supportive wife” over the turmoil of the one actually going through the gender reassignment surgery for the first time in modern history (and lead to Oscar victory for Alicia Vikander). It was intended to be a considerate and compassionate ploy, but the counterbalance also made it so this perspective was the dominant one, a cis gendered heterosexual spouse who couldn’t quite understand but stood by her man as he chose to outwardly transition to a woman. With this documentary, the inclusion of Gwen enlarges the story and she’s by far the best secondary voice to provide insight for DeRosa. She also knows her story is supplemental but also important. She’s supportive of her wife and acknowledges her own questions and processing, but through this journey it’s allowed her to personally reflect upon her own queer identity. Felicia and Gwen, while not filmed together in interviews, are eminently loving of one another, and to watch them speak about one another is a reflection of grace.

As far as documentaries go, this one is professionally packaged for only having a meager budget of $8,000. It’s sharply edited and with a multi-camera setup for its interviews that allows more dynamic visuals and coverage opportunities. The music is sparse but appropriate, and the editing is smooth as it incorporates personal photos and extensive home video recordings to better give voice to the idea or feeling in that moment. This is assembled like a professional documentary and the interview subjects, while only limited to two people, have plenty to say and are engagingly laid back. I wish the movie was a little longer, but as a documentary, an hour’s length of content seems more fitting in our age of endless streaming docus-series. I’m impressed with Thomas’ finesse at going from fictional narrative filmmaking to documentary filmmaking. He proves a natural for the material. DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition is a confirmation that Thomas can adapt his talents to his subjects and aims with skill and compassion. DeRosa is an agreeable hour of your time and proves another sign than Thomas is artistically thriving.

Nate’s Grade: B

Double Walker (2021)

After watching so many nominal Ohio-made indies, it’s a welcomed surprise to come across one that falls into the category of an “almost” movie, and by that I mean one with clear ambition and talent that almost fully works as a legit movie without any lingering qualifiers. Double Walker, filmed partially in Columbus and now given a national digital release, comes so tantalizingly close to being a full recommendation without hesitation. I can see what it’s going for, and with a little more careful development and clarity I think it would have achieved all of its genre-busting goals.

Sylvie Mix plays Ghost, a young woman who appears in a white nightgown in the woods. Who is she? What does she want? She is escorted by a young man into his home, disrobes, and then murders him. We come to learn that this adult woman is the ghost of a deceased child, and she’s chosen to walk the Earth as a spirit to seek vengeance. She’s only able to be seen by believers and sinners, though technically every person is a sinner unless there is an unspecified threshold to pass. The Ghost makes a friend, visits with her grieving parents, and reevaluates what it means to be human.

The first thing to know about this movie is that it is only 65 minutes long, short of the 80 minutes typically seen as the minimum expectation for a theatrical release. It’s not that far from meeting that goal, though the airy nature of the movie also makes it feel already stretched out. The other thing you should know about the movie is that you could describe it as Promising Young Woman meets The Crow, an avenging angel targeting the bad men responsible for her death, except tonally it’s not really a hard-hitting revenge thriller. It has those elements where our Ghost is stalking her very bad men, luring them into positions of vulnerability, and striking back for justice, but the movie seems more aligned in tone with something more ponderous and poetic like 2017’s A Ghost Story (though absent ten minutes of Rooney Mara eating a pie – thus fulfilling my obligation to mention this dumbfounding cinematic moment whenever I have the opportunity, you’re welcome).

For those people looking for sundry exploitation thrills, seized by the striking central image of its poster, you may be left checking your watch, but I found this middle ground between thriller and art film to be an interesting space for Double Walker to inhabit. The screenplay drops you into its bizarre scenario and unfolds slowly, which I think worked to the film’s potent atmosphere. You don’t really know what’s going on or what the character relationships are like. At first you see a grieving family, and next we cut to a man discovering a pale woman who seems lost in the woods. She comes across ethereal and mysterious. Then there is a murder, and from there we’re trying to identify the character connections and back-story, which comes across at a gentle yet assured pace that trusts the audience to put the different pieces together to form a whole. This works well except for an ending that comes across as too confusing, muddling an already convoluted system of supernatural rules that the movie seems to be undercutting, unless the whole thing is presented as a hopeful but passing dream, and if that’s the ending then I’m going to be quite disappointed. Still, this is a movie at its core more interested with the question over being human, being remembered, and personal identity than as a blood-soaked revenge thriller.

Again, it has its moments of blood, but there’s a somber tone poem quality to the movie that elevates its ambitions and also ties down its ultimate execution. Director and co-screenwriter Colin West is using the structure of an exploitation film to do more than deliver sleazy thrills. He devotes much more time to watching our Ghost character adjust to life as a spirit. The Ghost is the same spirit as the little girl we saw being eulogized in the opening. This presents some awkwardness for the character and the viewer. For the character, she’s gone from the mind of a child to being in the body of an adult, and it’s not determined whether this adult body is what she would have eventually grown into being or whether it’s just a default model. This allows for an even more curious performance as a character that feels alien in their own skin but also fascinated by that change in perspective, like Scarlet Johansson in Under the Skin. I understand the Ghost studying her adult body with curiosity. However, for the viewer, the numerous nude scenes can make you uncomfortable with the understanding that this is a little girl transported into the body of an adult and she is using her sexuality to lure men to their perverted doom. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to this connotation, and “using her sexuality” seems like an overstatement as she’s simply a woman being present with predatory men. I will say the nude scenes are tastefully portrayed where the camera doesn’t feel like it’s going to painful lengths to feature flesh. I was about to accuse the movie of possibly being skeevy with its plurality of nude scenes (does the Ghost need to run out into the woods in the buff?) when I noticed that Mix is also the producer and co-screenwriter. I assume she approved of her depiction.

Because of her newfound identity, and separation from most living beings, Double Walker presents a main character who is trying to form connections but cannot. The Ghost tries to console her grieving mother but is unable to be seen or felt by her. She does meet a kind man (Jacob Rice) at a movie theater who helps her out and who is not looking to take advantage of her. He shares his family’s home movies, which is a slightly strange thing to do so soon with a nearly mute stranger, and compares the images captured on film like ghosts, crystalized memories of people no longer with us. I have thought of this comparison myself and will morbidly watch background extras in old movies and think, “Here they are, alive once more, but likely gone for some time.” The direct connection of ghosts and memory allows the movie another layer to provide additional meaning. However, Double Walker feels more like a stretched out short film than a fleshed-out feature. With a few extra wrinkles and plot development, this could have readily afforded a larger story. Later on, the Ghost makes a rash decision and an innocent is harmed in her path to vengeance. I think that’s an interesting direction and questions the righteousness of her cause, while at the same time the script finds a personal way to make that mistake even more grueling. Again, the script really could have gone into this consequence and pushed the character into more inner turmoil, to question the cost of her mission, and to question her perception of human life. There are areas where the movie could have gone into further deliberation, but they feel short-changed. Double Walker is settled being the extra long version of the movie it presents in its first act.

This is a very professional looking and sounding movie and probably has the best photography of any Ohio-made indie I’ve watched yet. West also served as his director of photography, and his eye for visuals is crisp and pleasing. The use of light, shadow, foreground and background, composition, movement, it was very deliberate as well as being artistic in a way that didn’t feel like it was overly self-indulgent. West achieves an artistry without making it flashy, and that’s even harder to accomplish. The score and sound design are also polished as well. When the Ghost is luring a victim, the eerie sound is reminiscent of metallic scraping to elicit unease. The costuming keeps our Ghost in white outfits, noting her innocence but also visually connecting you to the associated color of traditional spirits (an also, maybe, A Ghost Story). It makes her standout on the screen. Speaking of that, Mix (Poser) is a natural actor. She has a presence to her and ably communicates the curiosity and otherworldly nature of her character’s dilemma. She doesn’t talk much, nobody really does in this movie, but there’s a melancholy to her that feels more pained than forced. The other actors do well with their minor roles, including other Ohio actors I’ve covered before like Justin Rose (False Flag) and Ralph Scott (Constraint) playing bad men who become ghostly prey.

By the end of Double Walker, I was left feeling almost satisfied, one of those film experiences where you can see the better movie just on the peripheral, the one that was so close. As it stands, it’s an arty and contemplative movie that uses the exploitation formula as a vehicle to explore more existential questions. I wish the movie had developed the story more from the potential on display, and what potential is on display. The filmmakers here feel like they are headed for great things. West has already filmed another movie he wrote, Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan and Tony Shalhoub about a science teacher who always wanted to be an astronaut and builds his own rocket ship in his garage. That sounds amazing and it has big names to fill out the cast. I’m rooting for West. This guy has the talent and ability to be a rising indie director and can do Ohio proud. Double Walker could end up being the flawed but promising start to a burgeoning film career. It’s worth watching but be warned that it might not be the movie you anticipate at first glance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Escape from Death Block 13 (2021)

Gary Jones is no stranger to schlock. The writer and director’s feature debut was 1994’s Mosquito about killer mosquitos that have fed on the blood of dying aliens. His filmography also includes such amusing titles as Crocodile 2: Death Swamp, Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cove, Planet Raptor, and 2013’s Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan, which was filmed in Ohio and featured several actors that have appeared in other Ohio indies I’ve reviewed, like Dan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Kristina Kopf (The Street Where We Live), and Thomas Downey (Evil Takes Root). Jones knows his schlock. Escape from Death Block 13 is the man’s ode to the prison escape thrillers of the 1970s, and it even stars a lead actor who looks remarkably like Charles Bronson. I hoped that Death Block 13 was going to be the good kind of low-budget indie, the one that swerves into its schlocky genre trappings and limitations. However, too many of its creative limitations felt more notable, from limited actors, the limited location shoot, and especially the limited plot development for payoffs and action goodness.

Mick (Robert Bronzi) is a recent immigrant trying to set right his brother’s fate. He visits his dead brother’s boss, Renda (Nicholas Turturro), and demands the money cheated from his brother. Renda’s goons rough up Mick, and in the scuffle, Mick shoots a gun in defense and he’s the one arrested and charged with attempted murder. Inside the deadly prison, life is rough that the guards will let the prisoners fight to grievous harm because they have bets on who will win. Mick becomes a favorite of Warden Jack (Debbie Scaletta) who pressures him to go along and assist with her lucrative smuggling business of guns and drugs. Mick refuses and makes himself a target. He’ll need to adjust to life behind bars, stand up to the bullies, and plot his escape with the secret tunnels located under the grounds of the prison.

The question arises how far a Charles Bronson lookalike can get you as far as entertainment value, and that’s going to be a question for the soul of every viewer. The movie feels like it was a Cannon production, where the poster and title were the selling point and the rest, well we’ll get to that when we need to. The central image of a man that looks like Charles Bronson, holding a gun, looking grimaced, with a title about a prison break, it all feels meant to target a certain audience’s favorable memories of Bronson and his own popular action filmography. Low-budget exploitation genre movies have been made for less, so it’s not a damnable sin, but it sure means that the movie’s transparent intention to rest on its familiar elements needs to be overcome with story, characters, and most importantly, memorable action and ridiculous moments to satiate an audience’s genre appetites. Escape from Death Block 13 mostly gets there when the escape part happens, but beforehand, it’s a sloppy action movie that can test your patience because there are too many reminders of its own scaled-down shortcomings.

Chief among them is casting Bronzi as the lead. It feels like the mere casting of this Hungarian acrobat, stuntman, and Judo player, as per his bio, was the starting and ending point for his character. He’s an immigrant looking to avenge his brother and immediately gets thrown into the middle of a conflict as everyone seems to be incorrectly judging him (subtle commentary on the audience expectations?) based on his appearance. The gang thinks he’s up to no good, the other prisoners and the warden think he’s a troublemaker, and the law thinks he could be their missing piece and assist to bring down the corrupt warden. It could almost be self-parody the way every new batch of characters project an identity onto this blank hulk of a man. I think even Bronzi is leaning into this helpful projection and association with Charles Bronson. His real name is Charles Kovacs, but Bronzi sure sounds closer to Bronson. He also starred in Once Upon a Time in Deadwood, working to associate Bronson’s Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as the HBO Western series, and Death Kiss, working to associate Bronson’s Death Wish. Again, congrats to Bronzi for finding himself a career as a Charles Bronson stand-in. I look forward to the man’s continued career of kind of reminding people of the departed Bronson.

However, Bronzi is not a terribly good actor. His line readings are resolutely stiff, and his accent is thick, so it can be hard to understand what he’s saying with his flat affect. There’s one joke where he makes fun of another prisoner for not understanding his accent, but I didn’t quite understand the joke because I was having trouble with his vocal articulation. To the man’s credit he definitely has a presence and can convincingly strike an intimidating pose. He’s comfortable with the fight choreography though it’s nothing too complex to be strenuous. His emotional acting range and vocal delivery is another matter. I think the limited nature of Bronzi’s ability forced the filmmakers to minimize the number of lines and dramatic scenes for his character, thus making him even less distinct and relying more on his passing impression.

I legitimately think the movie could have been improved had everyone been dubbed. Bronzi is not the only actor of limited range in the movie, he’s just the one with the most screen time. There are many supporting actors who were clearly hired for their physical prowess rather than thespian abilities. These actors would say lines and it would make me giggle at points. There are other actors who take one note, like the police officer in an interrogation scene trying to go full intense exasperation mode, and then deliver every line in this narrow acting space. It’s moments like this where the movie feels destined to willfully drift into unintentional self-parody. I think having a purposely dubbed audio track would provide two benefits: 1) it would allow better vocal actors to lift some of the lackluster performances, and 2) it would further cement the movie’s silly schlock factor and give the audience permission to laugh along with. The best actor in the entire movie is the prison doctor and just for the one scene where he dies. After being injected with a deadly dosage, he goes into cardiac arrest and the actor is so dedicated, so over-the-top, and so prolonged in his death throes that I had to celebrate the man’s gumption. Here was a guy who took what was handed to him and found a way to make it delightful. I wish every actor was on this same tonal wavelength of good-bad rather than just dull-bad.

Once the titular escape happens, the movie jolts to a new life, enough so that I wish we could have gotten things moving faster. The last twenty minutes of the movie is replete with chaotic violence and over-the-top blood shots. The action is adequately choreographed and fast-paced enough to offer several different set pieces and cross-action to keep your attention. It’s all over the place, it’s more whole-heartedly schlocky, and the frantic pacing is a definite bonus. The problem is that as a prison break movie there wasn’t really any definite reasons why the characters had to wait until this late moment to stage their escape. Usually, these kinds of movies introduce the system of the prison so we understand the routines so that they can then be exploited, like a con or a heist job. We need to know the particular steps for the payoff to feel rewarding. Otherwise, like in Death Block 13, it just feels arbitrary. The evil warden doesn’t come across as too formidable. The guards are not too formidable. These people are not the smartest criminals in the world of smuggling. And the inmates could have banded together at any point and easily overthrown this weak power dynamic. Even the heavy-duty Gatling gun attached to the lookout tower isn’t too hard to overcome. The obstacles are vague or weak, thus making it feel like the big escape could have happened as soon as Mick was thrown into this pokey.

The movie was filmed in the Mansfield Reformatory, the same famously depicted in 1994’s Shawshank Redemption, but at points it sure doesn’t feel that way. I don’t know the exact budget-conscious decisions of the production or the shortcuts they had to work through, but there are several sequences inside and outside the prison that are obviously green screen. It made me start to meticulously examine the visuals and see if it was indeed the famous penitentiary or some other set meant to be stitched together through the power of editing. It’s possible the movie had a very limited availability to shoot inside the prison, so they took extensive pictures to recreate as a more convenient green screen background. I’m uncertain. The green screen work isn’t bad by any means but pretty obvious to the eye and limits the potential visual arrangements for staging the action, which can often resort to shot-reverse shot redundancy.

If the rest of the movie was like its concluding act, I would be recommending Escape from Death Block 13 to fans of low-budget schlocky action and fans of Charles Bronson. It’s strange to think part of the major appeal of this movie is that it stars a guy who strongly resembles another guy that was in movies decades ago that people mostly remember liking. The general association of other, better movies seems to be much of the creative backbone of this movie. The story isn’t packed with careful setups and payoffs, built upon a foundation of obstacles and mini-goals that need to be accomplished before the big escape finish. It relies too heavily on cliched genre moments, like multiple prison yard fights, and the riot ends in a hostage negotiation that could have been its own movie itself rather than a pat conclusion. The movie is weighed down by the acting limitations of its lead who looks the part but fails to do much more on screen. It’s an action movie that, even with caveats and understanding of its limits, manages to disappoint. I wish this had been crazier, or better plotted, or filled with more colorful and arresting characters, or bigger villains, or anything really. It’s an action movie that feels like the ghosts of other, better action movies starring a man who might as well be the living ghost of Charles Bronson.

Nate’s Grade: C

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.

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

The Turn Out (2018)

Indie drama The Turn Out frustrated me because I got excited by its premise and thought, “Here might be the first truly great Ohio indie I’ve watched for review,” and alas it let me down. It’s not a bad movie but it has such promising storytelling elements and to see them misused feels like a bigger regret than if the movie had never even had those important building blocks.

Jeff (James J. Gagne Jr.), a.k.a. “Crowbar,” is a hard-living truck driver also addicted to crack. He’s got a teen daughter, Amanda (Katie Stotllemire), and an exasperated wife, Kelly (Heather Caldwell), back home in southern Ohio. Crowbar is no stranger to the prostitutes that call truck stops their corner, but one young lady makes him reconsider his assumptions. He learns that Neveah (Regina Westerviller) is still in high school as well as in his own daughter’s class, and this revelation makes him contemplate whether he should get involved and help her.  

Let’s take the central story of Crowbar and his relationship to the teenage prostitute, Neveah. If I were to tell you the movie was about a truck driver addicted to drugs who wrestles with what to do when he stumbles upon the reality of sex trafficking connected to truck stops, your mind already starts putting that movie together with clear arcs. It becomes something like a modern-day Western, where Crowbar is a man of the road, a contemporary high-plains drifter, and he makes the decision to reject his isolation in order to help this one girl. I asked my girlfriend, after describing the basic premise, what kind of relationship that Crowbar would have with his own teenaged daughter. “Oh, it’s got to be bad or non-existent, right?” she commented. You would think that but nope. He actually has a great relationship with his daughter, who is constantly trying to call and talk with dear old dad. See, if his relationship was poor and perhaps he had even elected to a life on the road rather than being a present father, this would force the character to confront his own life choices and legacies and see Neveah as a surrogate daughter he can save. You could argue it’s cliché and been portrayed in other neo-Westerns, but it works. The same confusion applies to Crowbar’s relationship with his wife. Our introduction to her is with the local police imposing a restraining order, which nobody throughout the movie takes seriously. The daughter frequently breaks it. The uncle who admonishes Crowbar about the restraining order will then enable Crowbar to break it to see his daughter at choir practice. He even meets up with his wife in a bar to reminisce about their relationship, which means even she is breaking her own restraining order. If everyone is going to be this flippant then why even bother with including it? A strained relationship between husband and wife can be communicated through other means. These are the kind of things that pecked away at the consistency, coherency, and natural dramatic potential.

As it stands, I don’t really know what the motivation is for Crowbar throughout The Turn Out. What is his motivation for getting better? He already has a positive relationship with his daughter and apparently a workable relationship with her mother, and that’s while he’s smoking crack. He is already in a good place with the people that he cares about, so now what? You could say his motivation is to save this girl he comes into contact with through chance, but this is hard to argue as well considering the amount of time he takes to take fledgling steps to intervene. For a solid hour of the 74-minute movie (pre-end credits), Crowbar meets with Neveah and even visits her home but her situation isn’t any different from the start. It should be obvious that her family knows about her and is supporting her prostitution or forcing her to turn tricks. Even that description is a disservice because it’s not like Neveah has much of a choice in these matters. She’s a victim too, and the fact that our protagonist just kind of hangs around until the very end when the bad people get even more obvious about being bad, it questions his thinking. Why does he take so long to call the police? Is it because of his own personal fear of getting caught as a drug user? Well, that could be avoided with an anonymous tip. When he eventually elects to kick his drug habit, your guess is as good as mine why this is the moment for him. It feels too arbitrary, like any of these events could have happened earlier as they lack direct cause-effect connectivity.

It takes far too long for Crowbar to actually assert himself and try and make a difference but we’re absent the inner turmoil to justify the delay. I think there was a character arc here where Crowbar had to reconcile with his own contribution to a culture that has allowed truck stop prostitution to flourish. He’s partaken with these woman (all adults, mind you, but did they start as adults?) and he even argues, “They make good money.” His own guilt could be a worthy exploration but it takes a vision of his daughter in a predator’s van and the entreaty of child prostitution to finally shake him from his doldrums, and then the movie is pretty much over (again, only 74 minutes total). Otherwise, it feels like we spend a lot of redundant time watching the man drift through his life, smoking plenty of crack, and occasionally running into Neveah and conversing with her. There are points that prove he’s changing, like brandishing his fellow drivers over the CB radio for their gross demeaning chatter, and he even gets that Big Movie Moment of Symbolic Torment, sitting in a shower. The problem with The Turn Out is that these momentary glimpses don’t feel consistent enough to matter. As a character, Crowbar is too dependent on his substance abuse as a defining characteristic, and yet it feels less like a burden or addiction to the man and more like a hobby to pass the time. It doesn’t feel consequential.

Again, the storytelling possibility was right there within reach, with his decision to save this young woman as the Act One break and not the climax of a relatively short movie. Then Act Two would have been them bonding and finding parallels and a genuine surrogate father-daughter affection over the course of a long road trip as Crowbar attempts to return her to the last vestige of her family that she left. Then, upon leaving her with this family in Act Three, Crowbar learns it’s just not as easy as that and that Neveah’s family might not be icky sex traffickers but they’re not helpful, and so he helps her set up an independent life and realizes he must now return home to mend his own relationship with the daughter he has left behind. Amanda should want nothing to do with her father rather than try and call him every chance she gets. Crowbar has nothing really to repair on this front, and the daughter is portrayed as a fawning fan who only jogs, tries to call dad, and sings in the choir. The same shrift characterization is given to every supporting player. Neveah wants to be an artist. She goes out looking for johns as a means of protecting her younger sister. That’s all we get as far as her inner life. It seems like a disservice to make this character so blank. I don’t understand Crowbar’s wife at all. I don’t understand why Amanda jealously cyber bullies Neveah because she sees her in a diner one time with her father, especially when dad hasn’t been playing favorites. I don’t understand why Crowbar seems to only be at the same local truck stop despite the nature of his job taking him all over.

The acting is a highlight of the movie and Gagne Jr. (When Skies Are Gray) delivers a convincing, lived-in performance. The very look of his hangdog face is enough to communicate what the screenplay doesn’t, the past years weighing on him, the accumulation of good times coming due. He’s also simply just got a great face for the part. He has some moments that test his resolve and I wish he had even more to push his acting prowess further. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls) has plenty of talent which is why I wish her character had some actual anguish to her relationship with her father. Caldwell (After) likewise gives a solidly conflicted performance that made me wish she factored more into Crowbar’s interaction and turmoil. My favorite actors ended up the one-scene characters that provided a dose of vibrant local color, the tweakers and addicts and vagabonds, the diner owners, the other truckers, the people that feel genuinely authentic and well chosen. Unfortunately, I was not as big a fan of Westerviller in her debut film role. I can’t tell if her performance is very monotone and inexpressive because of the actress’ limited range or as a directing note from director Pearl Gluck (Divan) to convey the numbness that Neveah felt. Either way, it presents a dilemma as her relationship is the most essential.

Director Pearl Gluck on set.

From a technical standpoint, The Turn Out is a very professional looking and sounding movie. The usual sound design headaches I find with local low-budget indies are nowhere to be found here, and the frequent introspective, country-styled songs by Chris Rattie add a really nice impression that makes the whole enterprise feels accomplished. The reported $200,000 budget might be the highest of all the Ohio indies I’ve reviewed. There are some beautiful shots from the cinematography of Stephen Balhut, Jon Coy, and Daniel Garee, especially at sunset and twilight. The look of the movie is rich with details, like the run-down stores, and the dilapidated Rust Belt small towns providing a broader sense of economic desperation. I was expecting the movie to tap into its own Hillbilly Elegy-style social commentary on the decline of the American worker through the reality of this truck stop and the women who work it. Gluck handles her directorial duties with sensitivity but without flinching from harsh truths either.

It may sound like I’m more negative than intended with The Turn Out, and this is merely because I’m disappointed by the squandered potential. A truck driver deciding to do right and help a young girl, the victim of sex trafficking, has so much dramatic potential it hurts. Even if you wanted to avoid a more traditional thriller route, this could have been a powerful character study of two lonely, hurt souls finding a comfort with one another over a long journey and being able to start a healing process to pick up the pieces of their lives. It would be the kind of character examination that thrives in indie film, and from a topic I cannot recall other movies touching, namely the rings of prostitution trapping women along truck stops. I’m sure everyone involved was coming from a good place and wanting to highlight and not exploit the reality of sex trafficking. Gluck even based her script on her extensive research with trafficking survivors. Alas, the storytelling miscues and dawdling pacing make the movie feel like an overextended news article. This is still a decent movie with authentic details, good intentions, and solid acting with some exceptions. However, it’s the screenwriting shortcomings that drag down The Turn Out from its real potential and turn it into a message in search of a stronger narrative.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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