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Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

The Other Side of Darkness (2022)

Adam Deierling is a native Ohioan who spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the L.A. film scene before relocating back to the Buckeye State in 2008. He has since focused on wedding videography and short films and spoken that his goal was to get a professional feature film off the ground locally, an admirable goal, and he wanted to create a family-friendly adventure film that could inspire others. That result is The Other Side of Darkness, written and directed by Deierling and filmed entirely in Ohio and West Virginia. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with its major plot elements and feels a bit too lost by its own creative indecision.

Taylor Jo (Maggie Callahan), a.k.a. TJ is turning sixteen soon and eager to leave her small Ohio town. She works in her foster father’s auto shop and hates it and the direction of her life. Then one day she gets a mysterious note in the mail with a key that leads to an old Jeep. Turns out, the Jeep belonged to her biological mother and the note is from her still-living grandfather, Jack (Scott C. Davis). She hops in her new car, her best friend Hannah (Olivia Billings) and her cute brother Patrick (Drake Tobias) come along for the ride, and they head out to meet gramps. However, he might not be all that he seems, and a looming threat emerges that might cause the power system to go down, and then who can these beleaguered teens trust in these troubled times?

The Other Side of Darkness is like several different scripts stitched together, none of them richly developed or integrated to the other, which makes for an unfulfilling and tedious experience. Each of the half hours feels like a different movie. The first 30 minutes establishes the small-town life for TJ and her desire to escape, especially her predator of a foster parent. Then the next 30 minutes is about TJ and her friends going on a road trip to West Virginia to meet her biological grandpa and for TJ to learn more about her departed mother. Then the next 30 minutes is a mystery of whether or not the grandparent is who he says he is and discovering the terrain. Then the final 30 minutes is an action thriller to thwart homegrown terrorists. Each of these sections goes on far longer than it needs to, each of them presents very little sustained character development, and each of them feels adrift when compared to the other section. In the barest sense, these sections have a tenuous cause-effect relationship; however, the difference is whether the narrative feels like it’s actually building from scene-to-scene or just biding its time. I don’t know why we need a full half-hour to establish how awful TJ’s life is, especially throwing in the topic of sexual molestation, a serious subject that feels shoddily mishandled. The hook of this movie is the idea of our power system falling. Even the tagline says, “Who will you become when the power fails?” Well fear not, dear reader, because, spoiler alert, you’ll never have to wonder because the power grid doesn’t go down at all. The marketing sure looks like it’s going to be about people surviving in a world without power, with society possibly breaking down, but in reality, it’s about stopping two yokels from blowing up their local power station. That’s right, it’s not some far-reaching conspiracy that would trigger the crumbling of America’s interconnected infrastructure like the downfall of the Death Star. Nope. So, even if they blew up this lone power station, the power company would just come out and restore power. For a movie literally called The Other Side of Darkness and playing up a powerless world of survival, the actual employment of these big plot elements is strangely myopic and half-hearted.

Perhaps the title is in reference to the personal journey of our protagonist and her self-discovery, and I’ll humor this charitable interpretation and explain why this still doesn’t work. TJ’s story feels like it should have the right material to be engaging and even inspiring. The first part of the movie establishes her attitude, her plight, and eventually her escape via mysterious family member. This sets us off on her to discover her birth family and perhaps a little more of herself. When she meets her grandfather, he has one teary-eyed monologue, and then the rest feels like everyone is just dithering around and waiting for instructions on what to do. Grandpa gives TJ taped recordings her mother made with the intention of her daughter to one day listen. I don’t understand why this plot element was not explored far more in depth. This is her direct line of communication with her mother, her ability to hear her voice, listen to her singing, and emotionally connect with a woman who has long since departed her life. I also don’t understand why TJ isn’t interrogating her grandfather non-stop about her mother and father, or even simply bonding with dear old grandad and he her. It feels like right after everyone establishes their identities, the characters are just aimlessly hanging around loitering. In one early scene, it looks like Hannah and her brother are asleep on the couch behind TJ as she talks to grandad for the first time. I was mistaken because Hannah then moves, so she’s not asleep but she looks transparently bored (I’m sorry this family reunion couldn’t be more exciting for you). The writing for the characters keeps their conversations very surface-level. Every person is flat-out telling each other what they feel, who they are, what their personal journeys constitute. It’s a clunky, inauthentic manner of speaking that shows the writer’s too obvious hand.

Another factor that keeps me emotionally distant from the movie is how little it makes use of its near two-hour running time. There are long stretches that resemble a glorified car commercial. TJ, Hannah, and her brother go riding along and the music rises in celebratory volume and then things just keep going from there. With the drone shots of the car passing along a dusty trail, the interior shots of the characters laughing and smiling maniacally, and the attached camera angles to show the wheels flying across the muddy roads, all you’d need is to slap “Life is a Highway” and some ad copy at the bottom and it would be indistinguishable from any glossy car commercial. Why does this bother me? It’s because the movie is unmistakably filling time, dragging out its plot with extended sequences of transportation. There are numerous sequences of people walking from Point A to Point B, especially trouncing through the woods, and rather than see one sequence of a character walking to establish distance, we get four or five. This is all at the expense of storytelling and character, and that’s what I chafe at. Let’s take as another example the best friend character Hannah. In the first 30 minutes, the film establishes her as TJ’s only friend and a supportive outlet, enough so that she agrees to come along when TJ wants to track her out-of-state grandfather. Hannah and her brother spend what appears to be days away from home and I kept wondering what their parents would be doing, whether they would be calling the police, especially since Hannah cannot get cell service. This plot point bothered me for two reasons: 1) why can’t Hannah just travel in the car to reach an area where she has service, and 2) why does Hannah even need to be here at all? At least her brother becomes an underdeveloped romantic interest for TJ. Hannah’s role is inconsequential. And, again, all of these dawdling decisions are at the expense of the dramatic potential of the plot, of a granddaughter learning about her mother and bonding with her grandfather for the first time. Once the movie reunites its characters, it feels so shiftless and waiting for delayed instruction.

From a technical standpoint, The Other Side of Darkness is low-budget but has a nice sheen of professionalism for a $15,000 budget. I have seen movies with ten to twenty times that budget that don’t look as good as this. The cinematography by co-producer Vinny Sisson is crisp and with satisfying visual compositions. The acting is generally competent. Nobody will astound but nobody took me out of the movie with a bad performance. I thought Davis (Chosen, Between the Walls) has a warm and weathered presence that improved the role. Callahan reminded me of Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, I Still Believe). Billings reminded me of Sarah Yarkin (2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I can only imagine what these people could have done with a superior screenplay that allowed them the material and space to really dive into their character dilemmas with nuance and emotional authenticity. The one technical aspect that needed some curtailing is the overzealous musical score by Niklas Wempe. The score is everywhere and never subtle; it is loud, in your face, and trumpeting what is happening onscreen, pushing moments into unintended levels of farce, like people walking through the woods now feel like they must be running for their lives when the reality of the circumstances is nowhere near as urgent. The musical score is so intrusive and old fashioned that it reminded me of 1940s moviemaking.

At almost two hours long, The Other Side of Darkness is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s not the movie it advertises itself as delivering. Just looking at that poster, you might surmise a post-social breakdown thriller like The Trigger Effect, or maybe even a nostalgic 80s adventure like The Goonies. You would be let down by either genre expectation. Sadly, the movie cannot live up to its own dramatic premise of a family reunion between grandfather and granddaughter sharing their common link, a deceased loved one they can relive with the other. It’s bizarre to watch a movie with such potent storytelling elements and seeming so indifferent to them or confused what should be done. This feels like a first draft of a screenplay, where characters are just expositing their direct feelings and desires, unencumbered by subtext. Too often the movie just has its characters milling about, and at two hours in length this is inexcusable. The power outage thriller concept feels almost entirely tacked on to provide more of a marketable angle. It’s shockingly underdeveloped and relatively unimportant in the film’s grand scheme of human drama. Often with first-time filmmakers also dabbling in their screenwriting, I find the stories that would have sufficed as short films expanded into feature-length but not given the attention for the adaptation to succeed. The Other Side of Darkness proves that Deierling has the technical chops to make the most with a micro-budget. I just hope his next feature takes more time to really establish what it wants to be and how best to develop and achieve these goals. The Other Side of Darkness is a little too much in the dark.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Straitjacket (2021)

I genuinely forgot that I had supported Straitjacket, a new Ohio-made indie thriller filmed in the Dayton area several years hence. I know some people involved in the production and remember seeing a teaser trailer years ago asking for further editing donations. I could not remember if I had actually donated to its post-production costs and sure enough, in the end credits, there is my name under the thanks section for financial assistance. We’ll see if writer/director/co-star/editor Phillip Wiedenheft feels like listing my name was a mistake after this review. Straitjacket is a moderately successful thriller that entertains as long as it keeps things unbalanced.

The first thing we know about Wolf (Wiedenheft) is that he’s getting wasted in the woods. He awakens the next morning and loads a rifle and shoots at glass bottles. Except his shot goes beyond the bottle. He hears screaming and discovers his shot hit an old man walking through the woods. The man’s granddaughter, Lola (KateLynn Newberry), chases after Wolf, who hops into his car and drives away. Wolf is desperate to escape but he doesn’t have enough money for a plane ticket. He also might have left behind more than a few incriminating items in the woods after he quickly ran off. Wolf tries to take refuge with his dealer, the few family and friends who may still speak to him, while Lola languishes in despair and wonders if she can find the killer.

Straitjacket owes a creative debt to the films of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Hold the Dark), the man who worked nervy tension to a breaking point in his elegantly constructed indie thrillers (I immediately re-watched Green Room following this movie too). The tone and visual palate of this movie reminds me plenty of 2013’s Blue Ruin, a superb movie that follows a bearded vagrant on the run after an act of vengeance places a target on his head. It’s a revenge story stripped to the bone and free from the bombastic spectacle of bigger movies exploiting the same territory. The hero in that film, a drifter, wasn’t particularly skilled at killing, or defending himself, and was clumsy and all-too human as he brought a maelstrom of pain onto his life. It’s easy to make these same connections with Straitjacket, where it almost literally begins with a literal bang, a very easy to follow starting point stripped of exposition. Before the five-minute mark, our main character has killed someone in an accident and is now on the run. There’s a pleasingly frantic nature to the plotting, going from one desperate gamble to another, trying to figure out a possible escape as well as covering up his culpability. Wolf, just like the protagonist of Blue Ruin, is not particularly excelled when it comes to crime. He screws up. He has to correct his mistakes. He gets into debt to people who hold leverage over him. He has to scrounge up money in order to secure the things he needs to flee. The screenplay connects the dots in a way that doesn’t feel overly contrived even when the final act involves the ironic crossing of paths of all the necessary characters. That is a common occurrence in tragedy, the nature of inescapable fate and so we allow it, and Straitjacket is a tragedy disguised as a runaway thriller. If anything, it’s about people trying to escape from their mental and physical pain.

At the half-hour mark, the narrative switches perspectives, and we now see things from the victim’s point of view. In the hours before the fatal accident, we see Lola and her grandfather going about their day before he is taken permanently from this Earth. They discuss her process of recovering from addiction and share a small but heartfelt moment planting a tree mingled with the ashes of loved ones, Lola’s mother and grandmother (I think?). The old man says Lola is the only family he has left and he doesn’t want to come out here and plant another tree. Just with that line, with that moment, the filmmakers have managed to say everything they need to say in a meaningful and character-centric fashion. From there, much of the next half hour is Lola trying to make sense of her sudden loss. I thought perhaps the narrative had flipped and we were going to follow Lola as she tracked down Wolf and enact her own vengeance, but the movie doesn’t really do that either. She stumbles upon him again just because he returns to the scene of the crime and she recognizes his car, but her agency stops at calling for help from an ex. That’s disappointing because she could have been the right participant for the audience to root for.

And therein lies one of the issues holding back Straitjacket from real gut-churning dramatic greatness, the fact that you don’t really root for any character to achieve his or her goal. While streamlining the narrative has made the plot relatively tight and quick to start, we also don’t really get much in the way of fleshing out Wolf as a person. We know he’s self-destructive, we know he’s struggling, and a caravan of interactions with minor supporting players fill us in on the myriad ways he is disappointing others (he has a son he never sees, he’s stolen from family before, he’s gotten into trouble with his dealer, etc.). He’s just sort of a screw-up but we aren’t given redeeming qualities, we aren’t given moments that allow a personality to shine through, where we can see his hopes, maybe a glimmer of his time and who he was before his addictions. He’s less a character and more a walking Tragic Symbol with antsy legs. The same with Lola. She’s suffering, she’s hurting, she wants to find her grandfather’s killer and bring them to justice. But does she do anything to actively achieve this? Not really. She lucks into attending the same drug house that Wolf does, and this sets up a finale that tries to have it both ways, ultimately ending on redemption and closure but not quite managing the catharsis of either. That’s because the limited characterization made the later emotional investment limited as well.

Take a look at Blue Ruin for comparison on how it could have been done effectively. It’s established why the main character’s life has been in shambles, he finds the person responsible for murdering his parents, takes his clumsy vengeance, and the rest of the movie is him outrunning the mounting and bloody repercussions. That movie works because the act of violence that kicks off the scramble is eventually revealed to be justifiable from the character’s perspective (his own sister, whom he initially hides with, congratulates him). He’s also the underdog as the forces coming after him are armed, dangerous, and larger, so then the movie becomes how this one man can use his few resources and lead time to outsmart his eventual attackers. It becomes naturally engaging because the odds are stacked against him and every time he surprises or beats them back is another victory and satisfying to watch. Straitjacket doesn’t afford similar satisfaction for a viewer. That’s the difference between a thriller and a tragedy, not that Blue Ruin was absent its own stark sense of tragedy as revenge was deemed ultimately as self-harm. There isn’t that push with Straitjacket. Lola isn’t actively looking for her culprit, and her path toward vengeance isn’t taking a toll. Sure, you could argue it’s what causes her to consider relapsing back to addictions but even that struggle is kept very generalized.

When the movie attempts to connect to larger social and political issues, it feels more grasping than edifying. Both of the main characters are struggling with drug addictions, and there’s even passing reference to the opioid crisis happening nationwide, but the drug problems are more scant characterization than anything thematic. I suppose one could be generous and talk about people being haunted by their past mistakes, enthralled to addiction, and working to become better people in control of their own lives, but that’s a generic plot foundation that any nominal drug addiction movie traffics within. Likewise, the Army vet who is coping with his PTSD through drug addiction seems like it has the potential to make larger statements, but even this aspect of the movie is curiously underplayed. I thought the filmmakers would tie more trauma together with the past and present for Wolf, even indulging in certain triggering sounds or images. I suppose Straitjacket’s title is meant to reference the bind that these characters find themselves in due to drugs and other socioeconomic circumstances (no one literally wears a straitjacket). I just thought the movie would have more to say than drug addiction is rough.

I also think it was a mistake for Wiedenheft to have played Wolf. I don’t know if this decision was born out of necessity of keeping the crew small and moving, not having to contort around another actor’s schedule when the writer/director could just step in, or if this was a part that Wiedenheft really wanted to portray. I assume it’s more the former than the latter. In that case, this might be why Wiedenheft the writer kept things minimal on Wiedenheft the actor. There are a few challenging scenes to play, like drug highs and the lows of desperation, but the performance is much more reactive and kept at a distance. Maybe he’s meant to be more a cypher, a stand-in for countless others struggling with the cost of addiction, but if this was the case I figure more attention and specifics would have been placed thematically.

The acting shortcomings of Wiedenheft are more noticeable when compared to his co-lead. Newberry is a familiar face in the realm of Ohio-made indies (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet, Dark Iris, The Wager) and gets the big emotional moments. Newberry sells the grief and shock with ease. A notable standout is JoAnna Lloyd (Brimstone Saint) as a park ranger. She’s only in the movie for two brief scenes but she leaves a favorable impression as a woman struggling to even compute the tragic events that she is now meant to serve as an authority for. Her loss of words, awkward articulation, and sense of bewilderment trying to comfort another is deftly played.

From a technical standpoint, Straitjacket is marvelous and impressive, and the level of its professional presentation in no way betrays the fact that the movie’s budget was only $15,000. The cinematography is extremely polished and moody, again reminding me of how Sauliner uses his sleek images and compositions to make even unnerving anxiety appear oddly beautiful. There’s a clear and clean visual talent here. I can see how a thriller would be appealing for this artist. When things are on edge and in movement, that’s when Wiedenheft is at his best as a director. It’s when things slow down that we start to see faults with the limited characterization and themes. Still, this is one Ohio-made indie that doesn’t feel like it’s stretching to a breaking point simply to get to a feature-length running time. There feels like even more could have been explored, maybe a third character perspective to open things up even more and examine the long ripples one devastating mistake can have on many lives. It’s tragedy served up as chase movie, but when things slow down that’s when you’ll notice how Straitjacket could have used more knots to tie itself into an even more tantalizing and emotionally grueling film experience.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Entropy (2022)

I was unaware of the horror movie Entropy until the production sought me out to review their movie. It was filmed in Ohio for a minimal budget over the course of six days and nights during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. I think it’s admirable that, as things were shutting down and lives were thrown out of balance, that this small group of filmmakers banded together and made something creative with that unexpected down time. The final ten minutes of credits includes behind the scenes video of the special effects process and it looks like everyone was enjoying themselves with this project to keep their minds off the pandemic. As a finished film, however, Entropy leaves a lot to be desired even as a low-budget, lowered expectations chiller thriller.

Abby (Miranda Nieman) hates her girlfriend Miranda’s (Hayley Sunshine, and what a fabulous name) friends. She used to be part of a self-improvement group that some have labeled a cult. Miranda pressures Abby to come to dinner and meet these people and understand they’re not so bad. Also at this friendly dinner is Scott (Scott Hale), their former leader, who has come back from his time overseas with stories of horror. Is he to be believed? Is he dangerous? And how far out of the pull of this group is Miranda and should Abby begin planning her escape?

While the movie is labeled as that feature-film-qualifying metric of 80 minutes, in reality it’s 70 minutes, and even within that minimal running time there is plenty of padding and dead air. I have found this fault with many of the Ohio indies I’ve seen, and it’s essentially a case of not having enough material to fulfill the demands of a feature length running time. Director/co-writer Kameron Hale and his fellow co-writer, producer, and brother Scott Hale, have made several horror short films, and it’s easy to see how Entropy likely started as a short script that the brothers thought could expand into a larger story. There just isn’t enough material here as presented although it had the potential for further exploration. The idea of finding out your lover is formerly in a cult has some nice juicy character reverberations, which would make anyone second-guess things. The premise of a cult leader returning from his mystical and mysterious sojourn is also rife with potential for a horror movie. From a strict psychological thriller level, over the course of one very disconcerting dinner, he could be re-consolidating power, and Abby could slowly understand the dawning threat that her girlfriend is succumbing to, like an addict plunging once more into the self-destructive behaviors of their past. From a body horror standpoint, you can use the returned guru as the bringer of otherworldly terror. Something supernatural could have hitched a ride and taken over him, and now it wants more flesh. There are ideas that, with careful plotting and characterization, could sustain a feature film. Entropy doesn’t quite do that, so that’s why we get situations like three minutes of sustained driving or three minutes walking through the woods that’s meant to be moody but is really just padding.

The movie’s small budget becomes a handicap at parts but what really harms the movie is the sloppy, clunky manner in how the story establishes its needed points. Characters will often speak in a “Hey, you remember when…?”-style of artificial conversation for the benefit of informing the audience of things they would naturally likely already know. Every movie needs exposition to better orient an audience, but the trick of the writer is to mask it as much as possible. It’s stuff like, “Don’t you guys hate Scott? Wasn’t he in a cult?” and, “I thought you were wrapped up in the medical scene like the rest of them. Cody said he’s seen you at the hospital a lot.” With each of those lines, you can tell where the screenplay wants to go for info, but it’s so clunky and lacking the opportunity to shed light about the character doing the speaking. Writing for characters is not something that automatically improves with a higher budget, so one way a low-budget indie can make its mark is through its writing of people, making them intriguing, memorable, and drawing us in. With a cult of people in pain, there should be potential there. Unfortunately, the characters are kept as walking-talking expository devices. I didn’t even realize Abby had cancer and I think the movie was expecting me to know upfront (the cancer diagnosis is in the plot description supplied by the production). Early on she’s in her bathroom crying, and she refers to “whatever’s growing inside me,” and I thought she was pregnant, which brings its own follow-up questions for a lesbian relationship. It is not until 26 minutes into the movie when the word “cancer” is actually spoken via text: “I have ovarian cancer. I need to go home.” She then texts, “My vagina is literally killing me” twice, and I chuckled (also, a possible misuse of “literally”). Other lines of dialogue I found to be tin-eared yet memorable include, “I’ll go to the party but I won’t go to a pity party,” and, in reference to Abby’s ovarian cancer, “If anyone’s gonna understand what’s going on inside you, it’s gonna be them, and me, if you’d let me,” and, “I was drugging the drinks but not like you think. The drinks were already drugged, and I was drugging them to counteract the drugs,” and my favorite toward the very end, “I don’t know where the fuck this basement came from but I guess it’s part of the house now.”

You can see the better version of this movie, one that strips away much of the exposition-heavy and dawdling first half hour. Rather than being told upfront that Abby is sick, or at least being told with a lack of clarity, let’s let this be a much later revelation. The same with Miranda’s relationship to being in a cult. It would have been more interesting and creepier for Miranda to have withheld this vital background and for Abby to realize over the course of one long awkward dinner. Likewise, the dinner setting could have been a great showcase for Scott to demonstrate his manipulative Svengali tendencies. The dinner could be a reunion of friends Miranda hadn’t seen since college rather than her best friends; best friends, I might add, that have not been told anything about the girl she has been dating for over three months. The fear of thinking you really know someone but they’ve been hiding key parts of themselves, and who they may actually be under the surface, is a universal plight. That way the truth comes out piece by piece and we are placed in Abby’s shoes, the outsider to this gathering and trying to understand. It’s a dynamic that would have played to a low-budget production and put emphasis on the character writing and performances as the night descends into Rosemary’s Baby “who are these people?” territory.

When Entropy does go all-in on its Lovecraftian body horror in the final twenty minutes, it’s certainly a leap ahead in entertainment. The lighting favors lots of indigo and purple, which reminded me of 2020’s Color Out of Space, a surefire artistic influence here. The body horror is gross and slimy and the practical effects, while limited, are designed to be more impressionable and shape-defining, triggering our innate sense that something is very wrong. It’s during this wild stretch that the movie tries to do too much with its remaining time (while still padding things out, of course) and by then it’s too late. The lack of clarity in the writing with the characters at the beginning resurfaces and now we have a lack of clarity about what is happening. While Lovecraftian horror often features imperceptible qualities of terror, the story feels more purposely vague out of convenience than a grand design of the unknowable.

At only 70 minutes of movie length, I can’t say that Entropy is an easy watch. My patience was grinding down with all the tedium and padding. Fans of micro-budget horror movies and especially with a taste for the lurid and wild machinations of body horror could be entertained, though it’s a long wait to get to the gory goods. That protracted setup should establish the characters, their dilemma, and most importantly, our interest in what is happening so that when everything goes crazy that we care about what happens next. The characterization, plotting, and dialogue are disappointing and stilted. The acting is pretty limited all around, and that may be another reason why the script didn’t become a tense chamber piece. I found Hale as the cult leader to be the best actor of the bunch. I credit the filmmakers with striving to make something, working together during such fraught times, and succeeding in getting a level of distribution through the prolific Gravitas Ventures. However, next time, and I hope for the Hale brothers there is a next time, that they work just as hard on creating the core elements that will make people care about what dastardly thing happens next to the people in their story, and maybe get an outside set of eyes to read their script for clarity.

Nate’s Grade: D+

They/Them/Us (2022)

Jon Sherman has been a film professor at Kenyon College in Ohio since 2010. He has sought to build up the Columbus, Ohio film community and has often guest lectured at various film screenings held in central Ohio. Sherman has some personal experience with Hollywood, writing and directing his 1996 breakout indie rom-com Breathing Room (starring Dan Futterman!), and then given an even bigger stage with the 2002 rom-com I’m with Lucy (with Monica Potter!). He may be an academic but that filmmaking itch never really goes away, and so that brings us to another Sherman rom-com, 2022’s They/Them/Us, which is available to be viewed nationally through digital release. It’s a charming, offbeat romance with a sweet sensibility and an unexpected kink.

Charlie (Joey Slotnick) is a middle-aged man starting his life over. He’s re-entered the dating scene after a recent divorce, he splits custody of his two teenage children with their mother, and the only job he could find as a film professor is at a conservative Christian university. Lisa (Amy Hargreaves) is a woman in her forties, a successful artist with full custody of her two children, one of whom has recently identified as non-binary (preferring “they/them” pronouns, hence the title). They meet online, have their first date, and are immediately smitten, enough so that Lisa bends her rules about not getting too attached too soon. Charlie and Lisa decide to combine their clans into one modern blended family, and the reunification is a messy and awkward process.

Given Sherman’s background as a film professor, you would hope that if anyone, when given the opportunity to make a feature film, could rise to the occasion, it should be somebody whose career rests upon the analysis of what makes movies work best. They/Them/Us succeeds as a relatively light-hearted rom-com and family drama with several nice moments. It’s hard to quantify, but you know better writing when you witness it, how characters interact and how witty the exchanges are and how much characterization they impart. Typically, a lesser writer will overstay their welcome or begin a scene before the importance. This can also be done to add unique character details, but often it’s a writer not knowing when to start and when to leave, a trait I’ve experienced so many times with Ohio-made indies. With Sherman’s scene writing, everything is to the point and moving, imparting the most important info or character detail, then chugging along. Early on, we establish Charlie as a man struggling to parent two surly teenagers and find someone special online. The fact that in the opening seconds he seems to be messaging two women who have BDSM kinks in their profile should be telling. After Charlie admonishes Danny for smoking pot in his house, he snatches the kid’s bong and runs upstairs, pacing and unsure of what to do next as his breathing calms and he focuses his attention to the bong in hand. Cut to Charlie smoking the bong to relax. It’s a quick, smart detail that demonstrates Charlie’s uncertainty on how to be the stable authority figure with his own dismissive children.

They/Them/Us is also a charming and sex positive romance between two middle-aged divorcees, a subject that rarely gets such big screen attention. The movie touches upon the challenges of modern dating when you’re not just dating a single individual but a person with attachments, about starting over later and finding a new life that will make appropriate space for you. Selecting a common dinner option can be its own minefield. It’s a perspective worthy of more attention by Hollywood. Beyond that angle, the movie is also surprisingly kinky for a “family comedy.” While unrated, They/Them/Us still exists in a more PG-13-friendly universe so it’s rather gentle when it explores the BDSM urges of Lisa. The movie is refreshingly free of judgements though has more than a few grand jokes drawn from Charlie’s squeamishness. He tries to throw himself into a more aggressive role, and Lisa asks him to pull her hair harder, and he says, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m a feminist.” I laughed out loud at that one. Another time, Charlie is attempting to spank Lisa and he keeps hesitating, finally admitting that it keeps bringing up unwanted and uncomfortable memories of spanking his unruly son as a child, something he still feels guilty over. In time, Charlie seeks out advice and instruction on how to be a better BDSM participant, and his educational process is a bit obvious, with more than a few easy gags (no pun intended), but it’s still one borne from a desire to better understand and fulfill his partner. It’s a sweet romance.

Slotnick (Twister, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) has been a staple of TV and movies for decades, a reliable “that guy” with overly neurotic tendencies. He’s a terrific put-upon dad and his age has only added more authenticity to Charlie’s harried struggle. He’s got a warmth to him that is easily conveyed during his brighter, kinder moments, and he’s also got a wellspring of awkward, cringe-inducing comedy as a middle-aged dad trying too hard to connect with a brood of teenagers and often flailing. When he’s genuinely happy, Slotnick genuinely wins you over. I think the vague details about Charlie’s dismissal from his previous professor job are a mistake. We’re told by his ex-wife, who inexplicably is still trying to get him back for the sake of the children, that a coed sent Charlie inappropriate texts. That topic is way too big not to clarify, and it’s also strange that Sherman and co-writer and partner Melissa Vogley Woods never come back to this as a conflict with his new relationship. It also seems like a natural point of conflict for keeping his new position at the Christian college and yet it’s glossed over (the resolution over that is laughably too tidy and convenient but keeping with the low stakes).

Hargreaves (13 Reasons Why, Homeland) is very enjoyable as the more experienced and confident half of this blended relationship. Lisa knows what she likes and is not ashamed, and she’s patient with Charlie as he attempts to reach her on her level. Hargreaves has a fun spirit to her that doesn’t veer into exploitation. It would be easy for Sherman to just write her as a fetish object for Charlie, but Lisa comes across as a real woman with her own desires and doubts and questions. There’s a scene where Lisa and Charlie are talking after their less-than-stellar first date with the combined family unit, and Lisa’s children are impatiently waiting by the locked car. “Come one, mom,” they whine. “You have the keys.” In mid-sentence, Hargreaves just hurls the car keys to her children and then continues her conversation with Charlie without missing a beat. It’s a defiant, petulant, lovely moment that keys the audience into her devotion to Charlie and her own character. I adored it.

Lexie Bean, as Maddie, and Jack Steiner as Danny, are both acting breakthroughs. Both of the actors are so natural and with a great poise and presence. Steiner has minimal acting experience but could easily headline a movie with the sly charisma and comic timing he displays. He even finds a way to enliven one of the least funny segments in comedies, the drug trip. Bean has notable, obvious talent that I regret that They/Them/Us doesn’t draw more upon.

There is one significant critique I do have with They/Them/Us and that’s that this all feels like a far better fit for a television series than as a single film. Rare do I come across a story engine that seems like it has the output to keep going, but that’s what we have here. There are three significant storylines that all would have benefited with far more time and development that a wider field of narrative writing would afford: 1) at its core, this is a story about a blended family and all the troubles and revelations and connections that come from two established families suddenly sharing spaces and lives, 2) Charlie working at a conservative Christian university and having to awkwardly pose as devout while hiding his true feelings, and 3) it’s a BDSM rom-com.

Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how those storylines could form the backbone of a series-long narrative. Charlie’s facade at work could get more and more complex to carry on, and as his secret gets discovered, more desperate. He could also experiment more with wanting to become sexually adventurous for his partner. There could even be the question over whether he was having an affair when he was really just getting one-on-one instruction with a helpful dominatrix to educate himself. That might sound like a generic sitcom contrivance, but the script makes plenty of these kinds of conflicts and too-easy resolutions. When Maddie refuses to eat, Charlie sits with them, and within literal seconds Maddie is confessing a teacher is deliberately misgendering them and it hurts. Charlie’s solution is to get donuts, and it’s during his exchange with the drive-thru intercom that he makes a heartfelt stand about Maddie being non-binary and preferred pronouns, and then it’s like we’ve wrapped up that conflict in a bow. It’s so absurdly quick, and these characters have not had a conversation together before this, that we’ve seen, so its resolution feels so abrupt as to be arbitrary. That’s where a TV series would allow these characters and their inter-family drama to really take shape. An entire episode could be devoted to Charlie trying, and awkwardly failing, to bond with Maddie, finding a small triumph at the end that would feel better earned. This goes especially in the last twenty minutes when Danny’s drug problems get way too serious for the film’s tone. For most of its running time, They/Them/Her has such a low-stakes sense about all of its family drama, keeping things light and loose. It can’t quite make that leap to melodrama that encapsulates the end of the movie, a transition that doesn’t feel properly established.

When you’re dealing with human relationships, and with the battleground that a blended family would present, then squeezing everything into a measly 90 minutes feels like a disservice. At one point, Charlie and Lisa ask if they’re rushing things, going too fast, and they agree to move in together at the twenty-minute mark, but it’s almost like an admission to the audience about the movie. Everything is moving just too fast. We need the time to slow down, to really luxuriate in the awkwardness and unexpected connections, and the kind of narrative berths where each character can feel more fleshed out and less defined by a single note of distinction (the Non-Binary child, the Drug Problem child, the Sarcastic child, the Blame Shifter, etc.). I still enjoyed these characters and their interactions, but I would have enjoyed them even more with a larger scope to appreciate the depth and eccentricities of each person.

They/Them/Us is a rather wholesome movie that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to its audience, judging its characters punitively, or overly sugar-coating their personal dilemmas. It’s not a particularly challenging movie but Sherman and his cohorts know what kind of movie they want to make. It’s technically proficient, assuredly low-budget but still professional in presentation. I often enjoyed the musical score by David Carbonara (Mad Men – what a get this guy was). While some subplots and conflicts are so swiftly and conveniently handled, the core of this charming movie remains its fractious, funny, and all too human relationships. When my biggest complaint stems from wanting more, more of these people, more of their adjustments and misunderstandings and triumphs, and more comic possibilities from a larger time frame of stories, then you’ve done something right with your 90 minutes of movie and clearly not everyone can accomplish even that.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

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