REVIEW: “There’s Someone Inside Your House” (2021)

The title for the new Netflix horror movie “There’s Someone Inside Your House” has a straightforward old-school ring to it. Too bad it doesn’t come close to the numerous movies it draws from. This drab and forgettable slasher lacks all of the energy, fun, and frights the bloody sub-genre is known for.

And about that title, I’m sure there’s some reason behind it that I don’t know, but “There’s Someone Inside Your House” seems like a generic name slapped on for the heck of it. It certainly doesn’t fit with anything in the movie. Well, there is that one kid who is killed in a house. I guess that’s supposed to be enough?

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Directed by Patrick Brice (“Creep”, “Creep 2”) and written by Henry Gayden (“Shazam!”), the film is an adaptation of a 2017 novel of the same name by Stephanie Perkins. Most surprising are the names listed among the producers – Shawn Levy and James Wan. I’m not sure how the two became attached to the project, but you’ll have a hard time finding any of their influences on the finished product.

The movie begins as many of these things do, with an unsuspecting teen being brutally murdered (ala “Scream”). Here it’s an Osborne High School football player who (like everyone else in the movie) has an ugly secret that the killer takes pleasure in exposing. His or her reasons, we learn later, are unbelievably shallow. It’s one of many things you’ll be asked to go with during the film’s mercifully short running time.

After the opening, it’s slasher formula 101 – introduce the killer’s fodder (most often a group of insufferable teens) and then slice them, carve them, chop them, and impale them one by one. That’s this movie in a nutshell. They do throw in a few lightweight personal stories, but none of them amount to much and none move things forward in any meaningful way.

Rather than concentrating on storytelling, the film’s only dedicated interest is in showing how progressive it is. Not through any keen insight or smartly conceived characters. Instead we get it in bad on-the-nose dialogue and laughably shallow characterizations of progressives and conservatives. Thankfully not many from the left or right go to slasher flicks hoping for profound and invigorating political commentary. For those who do…I have some bad news.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there the movie plods along on repeat with the killer targeting another kid and then releasing their darkest secret, usually through a massive group text (good thing the killer has the entire community’s phone numbers). Then of course they’re killed in one of several (mostly) uninspired ways. And when it finally reaches its end, the mystery of who’s behind the mask lands with a thud and offers no meaningful payoff.

Netflix has a wild yet interesting track record when it comes to horror films and they’ve had several stinkers lately. And with the aftertaste of the disappointing brain-mush that was the “Fear Street” trilogy lingering, I was hoping “There’s Someone Inside Your House” would be a nice palate cleanser. Not so. It’s a slushy, forgettable, scare-free movie that’s content with riding the coattails of better movies. “There’s Someone Inside Your House” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Together” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“Together” shouldn’t be tossed out as just another pandemic movie. It’s true that it takes place during the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown, but at its heart, “Together” is about a marriage on the rocks. It’s about a warring couple reassessing their relationship while confined inside of their London townhouse. It’s combative, toxic and often unpleasant. But the real challenge for audiences won’t be the film’s nastiness. It will be the aggressive style of storytelling that forces the viewer to play a part in every scene.

The story literally begins on March 24th, 2020, “the first day of national lockdown“, and ends approximately one year later. We’re introduced to a well-off London couple in their 40’s who we only know as He and She (James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan – both brilliant). It only takes a few seconds to see that their relationship is strained and has been since well before the virus hit. In fact, their opening salvo of insults makes their disgust with each other pretty clear.

But not everything is so caustic. There’s just as much needling and petty bickering as the two characters find all sorts of ways to unload years of resentment. Ultimately He can’t stand the sight of her. She hates being in the same room with him. They’ve stuck together this long for their 10-year-old son Arthur (Samuel Logan).

Image Courtesy of Bleecker Street

While the quarrelsome couple have their heated one-on-ones, the vast majority of their conversations are with us, the viewer. Kelly’s script makes us quite literally the third adult in the room, and over half of the movie sees McAvoy and Horgan breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera. At different times throughout the film’s 90 minutes we’re asked to be the couple’s silent mediator, therapist and confidant. It adds an unexpected intimacy, but it also puts us right in the middle of some pretty fiery exchanges.

All of that may sound unbearable, but over time the hateful sparring takes a different tone. Instead of constantly being at each other’s throats, we begin to see cracks in the couple’s hardened exteriors as the lockdown affects them both in different ways. Their mutual contempt begins softening, only to be replaced by feelings of fear, isolation and despondency. It doesn’t necessarily make the movie easier to watch, but it brings new dimensions to the characters and adds some much-needed layers of humanity.

While Kelly’s script begins by using the lockdown to introduce his two characters, the film’s second half sees him turning the tables and using his characters to comment more openly on the pandemic. Nothing captures the film’s fury quite like She’s experience with her ailing mother who is put in a nursing home just as the pandemic starts, but later catches the virus after the government decides to move COVID-positive patients into elderly care facilities. That’s the kind of maddening hard-to-swallow truth that will make “Together” resonate with some while alienating others.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Tailgate” (2021)

A hotheaded dad loses his cool on the interstate and ends up tailgating the wrong fellow. That’s what kickstarts the fittingly titled “Tailgate”, a new horror thriller from the Netherlands that begins similar to the 2020 Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged”. But road-rage is about all the two films have in common. “Tailgate” spirals into a perplexing stew with more logic-defying moments than actual thrills.

The story revolves around a family of four who are unfortunately led by their inane patriarch Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger). We first meet them as the short-tempered grump is chewing out his wife Diana (Anniek Pheifer) and their two daughters for being late. They’re supposed to be going to his parents house for dinner but his oldest daughter won’t get off her pogo stick and Diana forgot her sunglasses – just normal family stuff. But not for the irritable Hans.

When they finally get on the road Hans drives like a maniac while still fussing at his family (what a guy). As he weaves through interstate traffic he gets stuck behind a white van poking along in the passing lane. Unable to get around, the incensed Hans lays on his horn and starts riding the van driver’s bumper. He finally gets by and speeds down the highway only to notice the van following him. Behind the wheel is a tall older man (Willem de Wolf) who wants an apology and will do anything to get it including terrorizing this family for the next 80 minutes.

While “Tailgate” builds itself around an unsettling premise, all-in-all it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. There is a little nuance to its psycho – an everyday man in his early sixties armed with toxic herbicide rather than a gun or a knife. There are also some clever visual touches and snappy pacing which keeps things moving forward. But the story doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from countless other thrillers and the head-scratching choices it makes defies any hint of logic.

Which gets back to Hans who is not only one of the most unlikable people, but he’s quite possibly the dumbest single character I’ve seen in a movie. I wish I could say that’s just hyperbole, but I genuinely mean it. The things this guy does throughout the film goes beyond simply bad decision-making. It’s aggressively stupid and often throws common sense out the window. With that guy calling the shots it’s no wonder the family is in constant danger.

To make matters worse, the version I watched was dubbed with truly awful voiceovers rather than the original language which became somewhat of an endurance test. But even looking past the horrid voice work, “Tailgate” is a movie that latches onto some pretty familiar material but does nothing new with it. It’s made worse by chaining us to an asinine lead character who is as witless as he is insufferable. “Tailgate” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Tomorrow War” (2021)

When it comes to the new film “The Tomorrow War” you could waste a lot of time pointing out its flaws or picking apart the science. But that would be far more boring than the actual movie itself. Following some fairly mediocre promotion, I didn’t have high hopes for this sci-fi action blockbuster. But to my surprise “The Tomorrow War” is pure popcorn entertainment that delivers. It’s fun, energetic, and a visual feast that left me wishing I could have seen it on the big screen.

Originally slated as Paramount Pictures’ big budget 2020 Christmas Day release, “The Tomorrow War” was delayed due to COVID-19 and then shuffled around on their release schedule before eventually being sold to Amazon Studios. In a way the film highlights both the strengths and frustrations with the potential “streaming future”. By dropping it on Prime streaming, Amazon saved it from oblivion and gave their subscribers quick and easy access to it. At the same time this is a movie clearly made for the big screen and not having that option robbed viewers of that experience.

“The Tomorrow War” is the first live-action feature for director Chris McKay whose previous film credit was helming “The LEGO Batman Movie”. Here he’s working from a screenplay by Zach Dean that borrows from countless other sci-fi movie concepts and puts them all together in a filling, check-your-brain-at-the-door stew. The ever likable Chris Pratt puts on his best regular-guy charm and earnestness to play a cardigan-wearing high school biology teacher named Dan Forester. He has a loving wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and a 9-year-old sweetheart of a daughter daughter Muri (Ryan Keira Armstrong). But since leaving the military where he ran combat missions during his two tours in Iraq, the seemingly happy Dan has struggled to find his purpose.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Quite literally everything changes when a misty, crackling portal opens up on the field of a globally televised soccer match. Out of it walks a handful of super-serious soldiers from 28 years in the future who plead with the present day world to help them fight a war that humanity is losing. Their arrival sends the globe scrambling to help stave off human extinction. In the future war humanity is on its heels and has taken catastrophic losses. In an act of desperation, scientists from 2051 develop a shaky time travel tech in hopes of recruiting and bringing back soldiers and researchers from the past to help defeat the alien invaders.

Obviously a lot of questions pop up with the introduction of time travel into the story. Most notably, why not just travel to the time the aliens arrive and meet them head-on? For the most part McKay and Dean answer them all by stressing the technology’s unreliability and limitations. The scientists are able to jump people back-and-forth from these two set points on the timeline but not without some potentially deadly risks. Still have questions? Don’t worry, things happen later in the movie that plug a few more holes. It doesn’t all fit together seamlessly, but easily enough to get by.

Before long a world-wide draft is instituted and civilians including Dan are called to duty. It doesn’t sound bad at first with the news that deployments only last seven days. But the mood changes a bit when they’re informed the survival rate is less than 20%. Dan hits it off with a fellow draftee named Charlie, a chatty scientist full of nervous energy. He’s played by a terrific Sam Richardson who provides some perfectly modulated comic relief. With practically no training the ragtag group of ‘soldiers’ are sent to war-ravaged Miami Beach in 2051. But a fatal malfunction in the time jump forces Dan to lead what’s left of his unit. He’s contacted by a hardened Colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) who begins walking him through their mission. But Dan and his team quickly learn that it won’t be easy, especially after getting their first look at the alien threat.

The creatures are designed by Ken Barthelmey and have small resemblances to the Xenomorphs in “Aliens”, the Arachnids in “Starship Troopers”, and even the alien monsters in “A Quiet Place”. But Barthelmey’s creatures are distinctly his own. They’re labeled White Spikes because of their milky colored exterior and the piercing bone-like spikes they shoot from their flailing tentacles. They’re ferocious, terrifying, and sometimes attack in overwhelming packs (think the zombies in “World War Z”). They bring an palpable level of tension the film really needs.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

While the story builds itself around a cool and interesting concept, it’s the sheer action spectacle that stays with you. This movie really is a sight to behold from its pulsating man-versus-alien combat to some truly exhilarating set pieces. I was also caught off guard by its sprawling epic scale. McKay, cinematographer Larry Fong, and the busy digital effects team put together one visually impressive scene after another and you can see the bulk of the film’s hefty budget on the screen.

The story has its moments too in large part thanks to the performances. Pratt is just naturally down-to-earth and amusing which is very much his character here. He also has some good and crafty chemistry with both Armstrong and Strahovski. We even get the always welcomed J.K. Simmons playing Dan’s father, an off-the-radar Vietnam vet with a intense distrust of the federal government. There are some pretty deep daddy issues there that don’t get the full attention they deserve, but Simmons is terrific as always.

Still the storytelling isn’t without flaws. There are some cool revelations in the final act, but the entire setup to it is just too far-fetched even for a movie about humans traveling to the future to fight a war with aliens. And while fun, the movie is unquestionably familiar, especially in its ultimate execution. You can guess how things are going to turn out almost to the detail. But put those knocks aside. I had a blast with “The Tomorrow War” and it was just the kind of movie I needed right now. And in a tender way it has a moving message for us fathers – spend your time on what’s most important. Because your greatest purpose in life may be those sweet little eyes adoringly looking up at their daddy. “The Tomorrow War” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Till Death” (2021)

After being thrust into the public eye in 2007 with Michael Bay’s “Transformers”, Megan Fox quickly found herself known more for her sudden sex-symbol status than the movies she was making. After two abysmal “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films, the Tennessee-born actress took a few years off, doing a little television but nothing on the big screen. She returned in 2019 and has since appeared in a wild variety of mostly straight-to-VOD movies. She also has several interesting projects on the way.

Fox’s latest “Till Death” is a genre mashup that can best be described as a psychological action survival horror thriller. It’s directed by S.K. Dale from a script penned by Jamie Cairney. They hand Fox a character who requires a two-sided performance, one that’s full of quiet brittle emotion and the other which is much grittier and physically demanding. The movie starts as an ugly marriage drama but ends in a far more violent and blood-splattered place.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Fox plays Emma, the wife of prominent New York City attorney Mark Webster (Eoin Macken). We first meet her as she’s ending an extramarital affair with one of her husband’s colleagues. We learn that her relationship with Mark has soured in large part due to his controlling and emotionally abusive behavior. There isn’t much nuance to Mark. He’s a slug from the start, frequently pointing out how she doesn’t meet his expectations and constantly reminding her of how she “used to be”. When she shows up at his office in a black dress rather than his favorite red one, he takes her back home to change before going out to dinner.

After a rather uncomfortable meal, Mark surprises Emma with a getaway to a remote lake house to celebrate their 11-year anniversary. He goes all out – candles, rose petals, and a pledge to be a better husband. Following an evening of champagne and romance, Emma wakes up to an alarming discovery. She finds herself in bed handcuffed to Mark’s blood-soaked corpse. I won’t go into the how and why, but from there a good chunk of the movie is Emma dragging her dead husband‘s body around the house trying to break free from him (the metaphor is pretty obvious). This whole part is a little grisly, at times unexpectedly clever, even darkly funny on occasion.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

But then we get another twist when two brothers, one violently linked to Emma’s past, show up at the lake house anxious to get their hands on a bag of diamonds stashed inside. Up to this point the movie had been on shaky yet entertaining ground. But here is where it falls apart, not in an unbearably bad way. But any hint of plausibility pretty much vanishes as the violent grudge-bearing Bobby Ray (Callen Mulvey) and his timid younger brother (Jack Roth) search for Emma in and around the snowy property. It plays out as a series of near-miss encounters, some just too silly and convenient to buy.

It all leads to a predictable action showdown that’s no more easier to believe. Through it all Fox’s performance rarely gets above room temperature. It’s not that she’s bad. In fact the grit she brings to certain scenes is what makes them work. But there are scenes where her character needs more than the small range of emotion she brings. It all equals a flawed movie that still manages to be well-paced, digestible, hit-and-run entertainment. But you can also see hints of a better thriller that we unfortunately didn’t get. “Till Death” opens July 2nd.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Tina” (2021)

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Younger generations may not realize how big Tina Turner really was. Not just in her early days in the 1960’s as the lead singer of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. But also during her massive comeback years later culminating with her 1984 multi-platinum solo album “Private Dancer”. That record would go on to sell 20 million copies and launch a global tour featuring 230 shows in 18 months including a concert in Rio in front of 186,000 fans. The next year she was starring in a “Mad Max” movie and authoring a New York Times best selling autobiography.

Now 81 years-old, Turner has mostly stepped away from the limelight yet people are still fascinated with her life’s journey – one full of amazing triumphs and devastating hardships. In HBO Max’s new documentary “Tina” from directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, Turner tells her heartbreaking yet inspirational story for what she hopes is the last time while also paying her final farewell to a fan base that spans the entire globe.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

One of the documentary’s biggest strengths is that so much of what we see is in Turner’s own words. Lindsay and Martin pull large chunks from a 2019 interview with Turner from her home in Zurich, Switzerland and from her much publicized 1981 interview with People Magazine which marked the first time she spoke publicly about the abusive relationship and bitter breakup with Ike Turner, her husband and long-time music collaborator. Tina and Ike had been together for sixteen years, and though divorced from him, prying interviews made certain Tina could never fully escape his shadow.

Tina Turner was a natural performer full of energy, arms and legs flailing wildly, hair thrashing to the rhythms, and full-bodied notes pouring out of her soul. Yet we learn it was never her dream to become a superstar. Instead it was a fateful evening in 1957 when Tina went to hear Ike and his band play at a St. Louis nightclub. She was wow’d by Ike’s talent and asked if she could join him on stage. He didn’t buy that she could sing and turned her down. But she kept going back night after night until Ike gave in. Her voice blew him away and soon the 17-year-old Turner was playing weekend gigs which began her rocky road to stardom.

Lindsay and Martin ease us through Tina’s years with Ike using her voice, a wealth of great archival footage, and some revealing interviews with friends and former bandmates. The film takes a very candid yet compassionate look at the duo’s creative highs and their marital lows which were mostly a byproduct of Ike’s mental and physical abuse. It paints a vivid portrait of their 16 years together including one of the film’s most sobering moments as Turner gives her account of the evening of July 3rd, 1976 in Dallas, Texas – the night she determined enough was enough.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

In many ways “Tina” is also a movie about overcoming, reclaiming your life, and making your name your own. We see it as Turner, essentially cast aside by the industry, sets out to reinvent herself. She started by doing Las Vegas cabaret gigs, TV specials, and game show appearances just to get by. But soon she not only hits it big but becomes a global mega-star, selling out massive arenas and doing it all on her terms.

“Tina” is in many ways a fairly traditional music documentary which is just fine when you have a fascinating subject and you tell the story with clarity and honesty. That’s what we get here in large part because Lindsay and Martin let Turner do a lot of the talking. And while we get a clear picture of the savage effects of domestic abuse, we also see one of the first women to stand up to her abuser publicly which would inspire others to do the same. At the same time she was never able to get away from the very abuse that caused her so much pain. Even after becoming the biggest female pop star in the world the media and the public made sure Ike Turner’s influence was always present. With this documentary maybe she can finally put that painful part to rest. “Tina” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars