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Films I Neglected To Review: Ghosts Of Oppressed Populaces Past
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine," "CRSHD," "La Llorona," "The Lake Michigan Monster," "Paydirt," "Red Penguins," "The Silencing," "Star Light," "The Tax Collector," "A Thousand Cuts" and "Work It."

If "Rolling Stone" was the "Playboy" of rock magazines, the one that took what was once considered to be forbidden and borderline obscene by the establishment and made it mainstream, then "Creem" was the "Penthouse," the one that reveled in a raunchier approach that its fans embraced as being more authentic than its slicker competitor. The history of "Rolling Stone" has been laid out in any number of television specials, documentaries, coffee table books and anniversary issues and now with the new documentary, "Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine," one of its most significant competitors gets its due. Not surprisingly, Scott Crawford's film is a lot less reverential in tone as it tells the magazine's story from its birth as a regional publication created amidst the strife of Detroit circa 1969 to its heyday as a magazine that tried to be as subversive as the musical acts that it was covering, thanks in no small part to such iconoclastic writers as Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs, to it losing its way due to changing times and the untimely deaths of such key personnel as Bangs and co-founder Barry Kramer before its finally ceased publication in 1989. The saga is regaled with current talking-head interviews with surviving staff members and fans/article subjects as Wayne Kramer, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett (who recounts publishing a letter threading to beat up a critic who wrote an especially condescending review of the first Runaways album), Suzi Quatro and Alice Cooper as well as archival material that includes footage shot in the magazine's offices back in the day. The film is fascinating, especially when the staff members look back with no small amount of regret of the amount of sexism they allowed, especially given their theoretically progressive leanings, but the key problem is that there just isn't enough of it--the film has barely crossed the 70-minute mark by the time the end credits have begun to roll. The end result is a film that, although undeniably entertaining and clearly of value for anyone interested in music and/or journalism from that period, is little more than a sketch of a subject begging for a fuller examination at some future point.

As "CRSHD" opens, it is the end of freshman year for sweet-but-awkward college student Izzy (Isabelle Barbier) and she is determined that she will not be leaving campus a virgin. She figures that the best way to go about this is to make her way into a so-called Crush Party--you submit the name of your secret crush and they receive an invite and hopefully so do you--and score with the boy of her dreams. With the aid of best friends Fiona (Sadie Scott) and Anuka (Deeksha Kelkar), she goes through any number of misadventures to get to the party and fulfill her destiny, learning any number of important life lessons along the way. Coming on the heels of such similar recent films as "Blockers," "Booksmart" and the current delight "Yes God Yes," this effort from debuting writer-director Emily Cohn may not seem especially unique or original on the surface and a running gag in which the various social communications of the various characters are acted out instead of being presented simply as text is one that is kind of awkward the first time around and never improves on that. There are also too many digressions from the main narrative thrust, which is curious since the film itself barely breaks the 80-minute barrier. And yet, while it may never quite hit the highs of the earlier movies that I have cited, it still makes for a breezily entertaining good time, buoyed in no small part by the wit and charm demonstrated by the three leads--Barbier has the kind of offbeat charisma of the early Winona Ryder and Ketkar and Scott score a number of laughs as well. If nothing else, I am cheerfully willing to recommend "CRSHD" for no other reason than for the fact that it busts out an arcane reference to david&david, my favorite one-hit-wonder duo of the 80s--any movie with the wit and intelligence to do that is definitely worthy of a look in my book.

"The Lake Michigan Monster" is a deliberately absurdist spoof/homage to cheapo Fifties-era monster movies that starts off in an interesting manner and features an amusing and visually stylish climactic sequence but meanders badly during all the stuff in between. As the story opens, Captain Seafield (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, who also wrote and directed) has just seen the dreaded titular creature kill and drag away the body of his father and is assembling a crack team--weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy (Erick West), sonar operator Medge Pepsi (Beulah Peters) and Dick Flynn (Daniel Long), a former officer with the Nautical Athletes Adventure Yunit--to help him find it and kill it. Considering the fact that this alleged sea captain seems completely befuddled by the term "fathom," the mission does not go particularly smoothly. Neither does the movie, for that matter, as viewers will quickly figure out. Tews's film tries to combine the peculiar visual style of the films of offbeat Canadian auteur Guy Maddin (who is thanked in the end credits) with the kind of cheerfully abrasive humor that Chris Elliott used to personify during his years on "Late Night with David Letterman" and for the first few minutes, the blend of the surreal and the silly is amusing but after about 15 minutes or so, the film starts repeating itself with rapidly decreasing returns, like the efforts of an improv troupe on a night when genuine inspiration is just not with them. Strangely enough, the film does manage to pull itself together for its big finale, an extended undersea battle sequence that looks like a live-action version of a Max Fleischer cartoon and has a comedic focus and sharpness that is lacking elsewhere. I cannot quite find my way to recommend "The Lake Michigan Monster" to you but at the same time, I have a certain amount of respect and admiration for all involved for getting such a bizarre project made and released in the first place--especially on what must have been a minuscule budget--and I hope that the next time around, Tews and company are able to come up with a concept as strong as their ambitions.

Although it is appearing on Shudder, a streaming site primarily dedicated to genre fare, and it has its basis in the same Hispanic American legend that inspired the recent and eminently forgettable "Conjuring" spinoff "The Curse of La Llorona," Jayro Bustamente's "La Llorana" may not be a full-on horror film in the traditional sense, this story of a genuine monster being haunted by the ghosts of his past is as grim and gripping as one could hope. Set in Guatemala 30 years after the genocide of the indigenous Mayan population, the once-powerful General Enrique Montaverde (Julio Diaz) is standing trial for his own brutal actions. Although found guilty in the wake of heartbreaking testimony from Mayans about what happened back then, he is set loose on a technicality and returned home to his mansion home, where he holes up with his in-denial wife (Margarita Kenefic), his adult daughter (Sabrina De la Hoz), his teen granddaughter(Ayla-Elea Hurtado), whose father has mysteriously disappeared, and loyal housemaid Valeriana (Maria Telon) while protestors maintain a constant vigil outside the gates. As most of the house staff has fled, new help is needed and arrives one day in the form of Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a indigenous woman who takes the job as the new live-in servant. Before long, Montaverde is haunted by cries in the night and bizarre visions that his family is convinced is the onset of Alzheimer's brought on by the stress of the trial. It doesnít take long to figure out that Alma is a version of La Llorana who is determined to make Enrique come to terms with his past misdeeds and will go to great lengths to accomplish this.

The problem with most horror films that try to combine the usual genre trappings with real-life atrocities is that the made-up stuff almost always comes across as puny and borderline exploitative when compared to the stuff taken from reality. Wisely, Bustamente recognizes this and has elected to tell his story in a manner that minimizes the overtly supernatural elements to the point where they barely exist in order to put the focus squarely on the equally horrifying reality represented not just by Enrique (a character inspired by the real-life General Efrain Rios Montt, who was also convicted of genocide and whose case was immediately overturned) and his use of violence to achieve power (and, it is suggested, sexual gratification) but by the excuses and accommodations made by his family members (save for the truly innocent granddaughter) who continue to stand by him despite being fully aware of the things that he has done. In the end, he is more concerned with providing the Mayan victims who were denied justice with a form of artistic catharsis that recognizes their pain and give them a voice. That he is able to not only do this but is able to accomplish it all while providing a more-than-satisfying wrap-up for his spook story narrative makes his accomplishments all the more impressive and "La Llorona" one of the most striking films of any type, not just horror, that you are likely to see this year.

"Paydirt" is a painfully pointless and redundant attempt at a crime thriller that could not be further removed from the great examples of that particular genre if it tried and believe me, "trying" is one thing that is clearly not on its mind at any point. After spending five years in prison as the result of a DEA bust gone sideways, allegedly charming criminal Damien Brooks (Luke Goss) is out on parole and reunites with the members of his old gang in order to track down over $30 million in drug money that went missing during the bust and which was supposedly buried in the desert. Turns out that they are not the only ones interested in the money and they soon find themselves caught between the drug kingpin whose money it was in the first place and the former Sheriff (Val Kilmer) who lost his job as a result of the botched bust and who wants to bust Damien all over again. Seemingly inspired by the lesser works of Joe Carnahan and Guy Ritchie, writer-director Christian Sesma offers up the kind of clumsy plotting in which every narrative twist can be predicted well in advance, action scenes devoid of anything resembling genuine thrills or suspense and stabs at ironic humor that continually fall flat. The whole thing is the kind of flatly listless affair that makes one long for the comparatively taught and expertly staged thrills of "Money Plane" but even if you try to look at it simply as empty-headed VOD fodder--the kind of film that multiple Oscar winner Nick Vallelonga (who turns up as a casino weasel) deserves to turn up in--the whole thing curdles into something uglier and more distasteful every time Kilmer comes on. I know that he has been battling health problems in recent years and I don't want to begrudge a guy for making a living--especially an actor as gifted as he has shown himself to be throughout his career--but the unfortunate truth is that he looks awful and he has had all of his lines dubbed in such a clumsy and obvious manner that the film derails whenever his character turns up. Because of this, "Paydirt" veers from a failed genre exercise into borderline cruel exploitation and the only really good thing to say about it is that few people outside of Kilmer's most devoted fans will ever bother to watch it.

In his 2014 documentary "Red Army," filmmaker Gabe Polsky offered up an incisive look at the Soviet Union's legendary national ice hockey team and how they dominated the sport internationally during the Cold War years--aside from a certain defeat at the hands of the United States at the 1980 Olympics--before eventually falling into disarray as many top players, chafing at the harsh training and lack of freedom, began moving on to play in the NHL. His latest film, "Red Penguins," picks up that thread to tell a story that is even wilder, woolier and more intriguing, all the more so because it is one that has not really been reported at much length until now. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Viktor Tikhonov and Valery Gushin, the coach and general manager of the now-decimated Red Army team, hit upon the idea revitalizing the team via a partnership with a successful NHL franchise. They strike a deal with the co-owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a consortium of investors (including Michael J. Fox) to purchase a half-interest in the team. To help attract interest in a population now on the verge of financial collapse, brash sports marketer Steven Warshaw is sent over to do his thing and his over-the-top gambits (utilizing everything from free beer giveaways to skating bears to an intriguing use of the strippers from the club located in the arena's basement) end up working. It is tempting to call what happens from that point a real-life "Slap Shot," though the misadventures in that film did not involve the machinations of such terrifying entities as the Russian mob or the Disney corporation. Combing present-day interviews with eye-popping archival footage, the film paints a story so bizarre that it would almost certainly be rejected if someone tried to transform it into a conventional screenplay.

As "The Silencing" opens, it has been five years since the beloved 14-year-old daughter of alcoholic hunter Rayburn Swanson (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) was kidnapped out of his car while he made a stop at the liquor store for another bottle. Now dividing his time between running a wildlife preserve in the woods he once hunted, keeping the search for his daughter alive and boozing up a storm, When news gets out that a mysterious serial killer may be hunting and murdering young women in those same wood, he becomes convinced that they may be responsible for his daughter's disappearance as well and begins to investigate with some surprising results. Meanwhile, the recently elected sheriff Alice Gustafson (Annabele Wallis) is looking into the case as well and is forced to deal with opposition from the mistrustful populace and the horrifying suspicion that her own emotionally disturbed brother (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) may have a connection to the killings. For most of its running time, the film is as mediocre as can be--the screenplay by Micah Ranum is the usual assortment of tired serial killer movie cliches and the direction by Robin Pront does precious little to enliven them in any noticeable way--but there are two points where it shifts from the blah to the actively annoying. There is one reasonably surprising moment at roughly the halfway point that briefly suggests a number of intriguing directions it could go off to but it quickly moves right back to the more obvious and familiar path. The other comes at the end when the killer is finally unmasked and it turns out that both their motivation and victim preference makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, If this had been a decently crafted thriller up until this point, such a finale might have come across as an incredibly annoying betrayal of the audience that deserved better than such a lame payoff. Luckily, I suppose, the rest of "The Silencing" is so lamely nondescript that it is impossible to imagine anyone who actually makes it to that point to even have the energy to get that upset over it.

b]"Star Light" is pretty terrible as well, though to give it a smidgen of credit, my guess is that the few people who will actually see it will complain that they have seen this particular combination of elements too many times before. On the eve of his high school graduation, troubled-but-adorable Dylan (Cameron Johnson) seems to have little interest in anything outside of hanging out with his friends, playing video games at the local mini-mart and lusting after pop princess Bebe A. Love (Scout Taylor-Compton) until he is skateboarding away from a party one night and crashes into a young woman bearing a remarkable resemblance to his beloved Bebe. He takes the now-unconscious woman back to the house where the party was held so that he and the other stragglers can try to figure out what to do next. As it turns out, the woman really is Bebe but when her weirdo handler Anton (Bret Roberts) turns up and demands that they turn her over, Dylan refuses. Then things get really weird as it soon transpires that there is more to both Bebe and Anton than meets the eye as Anton begins to lay siege on Dylan and his friends in order to get Bebe back and Bebe demonstrates some heretofore unexpected gifts of her own is a series of increasingly bloody confrontations. Although you certainly have to give the screenplay by Mitchell Altieri, Jamal Jennings and Adam Weis some degree of credit for the film's crackpot conceit, it never quite manage to live up (or down) to it thanks to the comparatively listless execution by Altieri and co-director Lee Cummings--the whole thing has the kind of lazy and formally dull pace, tone and style that makes it feel as if the whole thing was dashed off by a bunch of people who were attending a horror convention in a mid-sized city and somehow convinced the comparatively familiar likes of Taylor-Compton and genre regular Tiffany Shepis to appear when they weren't doing panels or signing autographs. Even stranger, despite having a premise as overtly odd as the one displayed here, the film tries to play things relatively straight, which only further drags down the proceedings. For most of you, "Star Light" can be skipped over easily enough and those who are still curious are advised to wait until it inevitably begins turning up on the SyFy Channel. However, if you do elect to watch it and you are from the Chicago area, be sure to stick it out until the very end in order to get a load of a sequence that purportedly takes place during a concert at the famed Chicago Theatre, which seems to have packed on an additional 10,000 seats for its appearance here.

Following the bloated monstrosities that were "Suicide Squad" and "Bright," writer-director David Ayer has returned to the mean streets of Los Angeles where he first made a name for himself with the screenplay for "Training Day" and such subsequent efforts as "Harsh Times" and "End of Watch" but his latest slab of brutal bully-boy bullshit, "The Tax Collector," is just further proof that you really canít go home again. In this tired crime saga, David (Bobby Soto) is a so-called "tax collector" for a L.A. drug kingpin (a role filled by a celebrity cameo that is not quite as surprising as the film thinks) who extracts payments from the local gangs for the privilege of working the streets and, with the aid of right-hand (and fist) man Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) doles out brutal punishment to those who fail to pay up on time. When David isn't on the streets, he is a loyal and loving family man who has gone to great and lavish lengths to isolate his loving wife Alexis (Cinthya Carmona) and their young kids from the violence that is part of his everyday life. (This is what passes for character complexity here.) Things get complicated and extremely messy when a new drug lord named Conejo (rap star Conejo) turns up with ambitions to take over the streets and an army of soldiers to get rid of anyone in his way, putting David and his family in imminent danger.

"The Tax Collector" has a slick surface sheen thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Salvatore Totino and there is certainly enough mindless action and grisly imagery (including Conejo performing an actual human sacrifice ritual at one point) to satisfy the least demanding fans of this particular genre. Those looking for anything else, on the other hand, are going to come away from it feeling mighty disappointed. Ayer's screenplay is little more that a collection of boilerplate dialogue, foul-mouthed macho exhortations and pseudo-philosophical musings that struggle to demonstrate that the paper-thin characters have some degree of depth to them. Soto has a solid screen presence but still cannot do much with the cliches he is working with and too often finds himself being upstaged, and not in a good way, by the bewildering supporting turn by LaBeouf, whose character, a white guy who has fully absorbed and appropriated the milieu of the streets, may not be as 100% racist as some have suggested but is a distractingly weird performance in a role too nondescript to support it. "The Tax Collector" may have grand ambitions but it is little more than 90 minutes of familiar situations that have been hollowly executed before ending on a note blatantly setting up a sequel that few will find themselves looking forward to seeing.

"A Thousand Cuts" is an alternately fascinating, inspiring and terrifying documentary that is focused on Maria Ressa, a Philippines-based journalist who is the co-founder of Rappler, a news website that became famous for being the most overt debunker of the lies and propaganda doled out by Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte during his rise to power that culminated with him being elected leader in 2016. Despite the obvious dangers that Duterte and his officials pose to Ressa, not to mention her employees, that go far beyond the cruel and often shockingly misogynistic insults that they regularly receive--they have been responsible for the murders of hundreds of people over the years that were committed in the name of a specious "war on drugs"--she continues to broadcast his lies and news of his atrocities to the world, making her a champion of the free press outside of the Philippines (with even Amal and George Clooney singing her praises and offering assistance) and a marked woman at home. Ramona S. Diaz expertly weaves together Ressa's story with additional threads that give a broader view of the madness currently engulfing the Philippines--Duterte publicly targeting fellow Rappler reporter Pia Ranada, the political campaigns of a couple of Duterte-backed candidates, his fearsome lieutenant Ronald "Bato" deja Rosa and pop star/blogger "Mocha" Uson, who has been nicknamed "The Queen of Fake News"--to show just how easily social media can be exploited in the name of propaganda and how it can spread to influence elections in other countries--hint, hint. At the same time, it also serves as a reminder of the importance of a free press to help us navigate through troubled times and to shine a light on those who seek to sow chaos and violence to further their own ends. As we see her doggedly pursuing the truth, Ressa becomes the ideal manifestation of those ideals and even though "A Thousand Cuts" ends on an ostensibly down note, the commitment demonstrated by her and her fellow Rappler staff members throughout is enough to offer viewers a glimmer of hope that things might one day get better after all.

Having already struck gold with such hits as "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" and the ever-expanding "The Kissing Booth" franchise, Netflix is making its latest bid to capture the teen audience with "Work It," a film that assiduously stresses the importance of breaking out of one's self-imposed boxes and doing things outside of their comfort zone but never quite gets around to following its own advice. Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter) is a straight-A high school senior who has dedicated her entire life to getting into Duke. (Yeah, this is a strike agains her but she has her reasons.) Alas, her admissions interview goes sideways when the interviewer tells her that she needs to stand out and be passionate over something, which leads Quinn to suggest that she is a member of the school's award-winning dance team. The interviewer promises to attend an upcoming dance contest before deciding on her application--a minor problem because not only is Quinn not on the team (though she did run the light board until being booted over an accident), she cannot dance at all. Determined to get into Duke at all costs, she decides to form her own school dance team, anchored by her best pal (Liza Koshy) and consisting of misfit students with special skills and choreography from an alumni (Jordan Fisher) whose own career was scuttled after a knee injury.

Needless to say, there will be no prizes for guessing how all of this works out because originality is not exactly this film's strong point. From "Fame" to "High School Musical" and beyond, I cannot immediately think of a major film involving high schoolers following the terpsichorean muse that has not been raided by screenwriter Alison Peck and even the most devoted fans of the genre may get a little restless by its lack of anything truly new or exciting. That said, even though there is hardly a fresh moment to be had, director Laura Terruso at least manages to keep the proceedings humming along in a smooth and efficient manner and every once in a while, a line of genuinely smart and funny dialogue will come in out of nowhere to score an unexpected laugh. The best thing about the film, though, is the performance by Carpenter, the former Disney Channel star who made an impressive appearance earlier this year as the lead in the indie drama "The Short History of the Long Road.," a film that you should really try to see before even considering this one. By comparison, her role here is infinitely less challenging but she tackles it with enough energy and good cheer to help prevent the proceedings from completely bogging down into cliches. Obviously, I am nowhere near the target audience for "Work it" and I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone who has already passed through their own high schools years. However, if you are still within that demographic, it makes for a reasonably painless and diverting way of passing 90-odd minutes during the dog days of August.

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originally posted: 08/06/20 21:22:10
last updated: 08/08/20 17:24:13
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