REVIEW: “V/H/S/94” (2021)

I admit to being a little hesitant about jumping into the horror anthology feature “V/H/S/94”. This new Shudder Original Film is actually the fourth movie in the “V/H/S” series. I had heard of the modestly budgeted horror franchise but have never actually sat down and watched one of the films. But good reviews can do wonders and Shudder’s announcement that “V/H/S/94” is the biggest movie premiere in the streaming platform’s six year history was enough for me to give it a go.

Called a reboot by those who know, “V/H/S/94” basically follows the same structure of its predecessors. It takes four distinct found-footage shorts films, each written and directed by different creatives, and sets them within a wraparound story that holds them all together. It’s a framing device that seemingly has worked in the past. But here the frame story (titled “Holy Hell” from Jennifer Reeder) turns out to be the film’s biggest weakness. It has an interesting enough premise, but it’s far too messy and confusing in its execution.

Image Courtesy of Shudder

The film opens with an Ohio SWAT team storming a gated warehouse. But instead of drug runners they find a labyrinthine network of hallways leading to an assortment of rooms decorated in the macabre and grotesque. In each room they find dead bodies with their eyes gouged out and a different VHS tape playing on a screen. And on those tapes are the four video nasties that make up the bulk of the anthology. They’re also what end up saving the movie. Of course some are better than others, but all four have their own twisted flavor.

The first short “Storm Drain” is by Chloe Okuno and follows an ambitious local TV news reporter (Anna Hopkins) and her cameraman (Christian Potenza) as they investigate rumors of a “Rat Man” living in the sewers. It’s the weakest of the four but it ends with a gruesome splash. The second is “The Empty Wake” by Simon Barrett, part haunted house and part zombie horror. It follows a young woman (Kyal Legend) sitting up during an evening wake at a small funeral home. Needless to say, it isn’t a quiet night.

From there the shorts get a little longer and crazier. The third is easily the most batty and unabashedly gory of the bunch. It’s titled “The Subject” and it comes from Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto. It’s a mad scientist story about a brilliant yet unquestionably unhinged doctor (Budi Ross) who kidnaps unwilling subjects for his gruesome experiments. Things get even bloodier when a military squad invades the lab and makes some grisly discoveries.

Image Courtesy of Shudder

The fourth and final short “Terror” comes from Ryan Prows. It’s a rough-around-the-edges yet entertaining swirl of creature horror and dark comedy that follows a radical militia group called the First Patriots Movement Militia. Set mostly within their remote compound on the outskirts of Detroit, the story sees the group planning to “redeem the soul of the USA” by bombing a federal building. Their weapon? – the blood of a vampire-like creature they keep caged in a barn. Things really get nuts in the final ten minutes as the dimwitted hicks blow their plan to oblivion.

On their own merits, each of the four shorts have things worth applauding. But unfortunately we come back to the framing story between each short and again at the end. Aside from some gnarly imagery, nothing in it comes close to the quality of the short films. It’s use of the found-footage style seems mostly contrived, the actors are abrasive and over-the-top, and the ending packs no punch whatsoever. So we’re left thinking back on the four individual tales and wishing there was something better to connect them all together. “V/H/S/94” is now streaming on Shudder.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Violet” (2021)

Us 1980s kids will always remember teen star Justine Bateman as Mallory Keaton on NBC’s hit sitcom “Family Ties”. Since then she’s done a lot of television and has starred in a handful of big screen movies. But her role as the snarky yet kind-hearted younger sister to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton is the one she’ll forever be affectionately attached to.

Now Bateman is making her feature film debut behind the camera with “Violet”, an audacious indie drama that she directs, writes, and produces. The film stars Olivia Munn, a talented and underrated actress who has been needing a role like this to sink her teeth into in order to open more eyes. Here she plays Violet, a film executive emotionally tormented by a cruel internal voice filling her with anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt. Bateman’s vision is a tricky one to pull off, but she manages it thanks to her uniquely clever approach.

Image Courtesy of Relativity Media

On the surface, Violet seems to have everything a thirty-something professional woman could want. She’s smart, talented and attractive. She’s a successful movie producer with a good reputation who makes a comfortable living working in an industry she loves. But any chance of happiness and self-fulfillment is stymied by the bullying voice in her head. It keeps her constantly second guessing herself. It keeps her from going through with a long-time passion project despite the encouragement of colleagues. It dissuades her from pursuing a deeper relationship with her childhood friend Red (Luke Bracey).

To convey the struggle in Violet’s head Bateman uses a handful of stylish flourishes. The Voice (who she refers to as “the committee”) is…well…voiced by Justin Theroux. He’s mercilessly demeaning, calling her an idiot, a pig, and a baby. He tells her she’s inferior, unworthy, and a disappointment. Even worse, he suppresses any ambition or sense of accomplishment and urges her to accept the abuse both from her jealous boss Tom (Dennis Boutsikaris) and with her estranged family. The Voice tells her that she’ll never be a success if she follows her dreams and passions.

As a counter to the voice, Bateman also shows us Violet’s true feelings through handwritten thoughts that appear across the screen as she’s thinking them. Sometimes they’re questions like “Why can’t I just be happy?” Other times it’s a painful longing – “I want to be free.” There are several other visual touches Bateman uses to capture Violet’s mindset. They don’t always work and they sometimes inadvertently draw too much attention away from Violet. But once you get in sync with what Bateman is going for, it makes the occasional overreaches easier to look past.

Back to Munn, she truly is the most essential piece of the film. She brings the perfect measure of restraint to her character and relays so much through her sensitive expressions and body language. It’s a well-calibrated performance that deftly captures the various sides of Violet in a way that makes her feel genuine and relatable. And when Violet begins to question the Voice in her head, Munn gives us a good sense of the tension and conflict that comes with it.

Image Courtesy of Relativity Media

One of my favorite scenes involves a poignant moment where Violet is reflecting back on her childhood. Her younger self is riding her bike on a idyllic afternoon. The wind is blowing through her hair, the warm sun beaming down on her face. “You’ll never find your way back to that kind of freedom,” the crippling Voice chides. It’s a picture of the bitter back-and-forths Bateman creates and Munn realizes.

To go along with those moments Bateman sprinkles in scenes that touch on the producing process – meeting with directors, sorting out casting, scheduling film festivals, etc. (I’m a sucker for that stuff). It all makes for an assured feature film debut that tackles its subject matter from a unique and fresh perspective. It doesn’t always come together as intended, but I love that Bateman took chances and “Violet” should open some exciting doors for both her and Olivia Munn. “Violet” gets a limited theater release October 29th before coming out on VOD November 9th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (2021)

It wasn’t much of a surprise to see 2018’s “Venom” rake in over $850 million at the box office. The carnivorous amorphous antihero has been a popular Marvel character since his proper inception into the comic book world back in 1988. And while not considered a part of the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe, Venom’s connections to Marvel (and more specifically Spider-Man) certainly didn’t hurt the movie’s chances of success.

Equally to no one’s surprise was the inevitability of a sequel. In today’s Hollywood you don’t make $850 million against a $100 million budget and not have a sequel, especially in the superhero genre. So after a one-year delay thanks to COVID-19, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is finally here.

“Venom” was an entertaining but flawed movie that stayed afloat in large part thanks to its star Tom Hardy. The shaky origin story, the dull villain, the hit-or-miss digital effects all contributed to the movie’s issues. But Hardy made for a solid Eddie Brock, an independent investigative reporter who finds himself the host of a super-powered alien symbiote. Hardy did a good job melding terror with humor and he clearly has a deep affection for the character.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

While the first movie didn’t exactly leave me hungry for a sequel, my appetite changed dramatically thanks to one single word – Carnage. As many comic fans know, the Carnage symbiote is a terrifying villain especially when attached to the sociopathic sadist Cletus Kasady, a serial killer with tendencies towards extreme violence. Bringing Carnage to the big screen is an idea ripe with potential. The question became, would Sony and director Andy Serkis give Carnage the dark and savage treatment the character deserves or would they mimic the MCU blueprint and give us something too lighthearted for such a gruesome villain? All the pieces are there for something memorable, but would the absolute need for a hit movie leave us with a more conventional superhero flick?

Well, it has been several hours since I watched the film, and I’m still not sure how to define what I saw. I don’t think I can put it any more succinctly than this – “Venom 2” is a disappointing mess. It doesn’t do enough to feel fresh, and it skips past too much to be called formulaic. It ends up being this surprisingly bland and shockingly shallow exercise that never seems sure of its story or of how to tell it.

You have to feel for Tom Hardy. Once again he gives 110% and he is easily among the best things about the movie. Unfortunately he’s hitched to a truly bad script (penned by returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel) that plays like a barebones outline for a story that never had the details filled in. It’s astonishing how little it does with its characters and how many questions go unanswered in the paper-thin plotting.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Storywise, Hardy’s Eddie lands an exclusive interview with imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (played by a satisfyingly deranged Woody Harrelson). Eddie needs the scoop to jumpstart his lagging career. A local police detective (Stephen Graham) wants Eddie to use his meetings with Kasady to discover where the killer hid the bodies of his completely nameless victims. Why Kasady wanted the interview is still a mystery to me (there is one weird line at the end that might explain it but who knows).

In an early scene, Eddie and Venom discover the location of the bodies (in the most absurd way imaginable) which upsets Kasady. During their last interview Cletus bites Eddie’s hand, contracting (is that how it works) the alien symbiote. Soon after he morphs into the feral and vicious Carnage. From there Kasady/Carnage breaks out of San Quintin and goes looking for his mutant-powered old flame Shriek (Naomi Harris) so the two can get married in a creepy old cathedral. Seriously. That’s the gist of Carnage’s story.

Ok, so maybe there’s a little more to it. The prison break is easily the film’s best scene with Carnage unleashing a barrage of eye-popping PG-13 violence. There’s also a pretty good action scene at an abandoned orphanage and (of course) there’s the final showdown at the cathedral which the movie rushes towards at a breakneck pace. It too looks really good in spots, but there are parts of the battle that Serkis cuts to pieces and (once again) he’s clearly handcuffed by the rating. And that’s really it for Carnage’s angle. No wrecking havoc across the city. No terrorizing the citizens. Just a psychopath with an alien parasite wanting to marry his girl. I admit, I was hoping for more.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

So if the movie isn’t spending its time building its villain and unleashing him as a real threat, what is it doing with its time? Well, a lot it is spent on the Odd Couple relationship between Eddie and Venom. The pair’s banter is lightly amusing at first but grows exhausting over time. So much so that I was happy when the two actually separated following a particularly numbing spat. Unfortunately that sets up a mind-boggling nightclub scene that defies everything both movies have told us about Venom. It’s weird, out of tune, and an instance of silliness not only clashing with the film’s darker elements but undermining them as well. It’s one of several miscalculations where the movie’s desire to be funny comes at the wrong time or is presented the wrong way.

I could go on, but the more I think about what this movie could have been the more frustrated I get. Hardy makes it watchable with an all-out effort; doing what he can with what he’s given. The rest of the cast has a harder time. Harrelson gets a meaty character but no meaty material. Meanwhile Michelle Williams is wasted and seems understandably bored out of her mind.

Some may be able to coast through the 93 minutes ignoring the movie’s glaring flaws. I wish I could. Instead I kept seeing glimpses of the movie I wish this had been. Admittedly, the CGI Carnage looks amazing and the anticipated bursts of violence upped my heart rate a bit. Just not enough for me to get onboard with this head-scratching misfire. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is out today in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Vacation Friends” (2021)

“Vacation Friends” is yet another movie that was originally planned for theaters, ended up delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then eventually moved to streaming. Ideas for the film sprang up as far back as 2014 and over the years there have been several big names attached including Chris Pratt and Ice Cube. It’s set to premiere this weekend on Hulu and suffice it to say tossing it to streaming was definitely the right move.

In this COVID-19 world of quarantines and lockdowns, this is the kind of movie that may attract those of us who have postponed trips or canceled reservations. But don’t let its title fool you. While the idea of a ‘vacation movie’ may sound strangely cathartic, in reality this proudly raunchy and glaringly unfunny endurance test makes the idea of staying at home and skipping vacation a lot more appealing.

Produced by 20th Century Studios, “Vacation Friends” comes from first-time feature film director Clay Tarver (perhaps best known for his work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) who also co-writes with a team of four other screenwriters. Their unapologetically simple story opens with Marcus and Emily (Lil Rel Howery and Yvonne Orji) arriving in Mexico for a romantic week-long getaway. But this is more than just a vacation. The uptight and antsy Marcus has meticulously planned-out the perfect marriage proposal. What could possibly go wrong?

A series of rather unfortunate events leads to Marcus and Emily crossing paths with the aggressively free-spirited Ron (John Cena) and his flighty girlfriend Kyla (Meredith Hagner). Soon the two couples are jaunting around Puerto Rico (posing as Mexico) engaging in all kinds of mind-numbing debauchery. Cocaine-laced margaritas, trippy hallucinogens, tons of booze and one extremely wild and hazy final night together.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

This is all stuff we’ve seen before – dull yet seemingly normal characters losing any sense of sound judgement or common sense and going wild for reasons that only make sense in movies like this. And it’s nothing new seeing a strait-laced stiff paired on screen with a rambunctious hedonist. Here it just happens to be a couples movie rather than a buddy feature.

Mercifully the grating vacation horseplay only lasts around thirty minutes and soon Marcus and Emily are on a plane heading home, eager to erase the rowdy week with Ron and Kyla from their memory. But as the press notes so eloquently put it, what happens on vacation doesn’t always stay on vacation, and leaving behind their new hard-partying chums turns out to be easier said than done.

Six months pass and Marcus and Emily are ready to formally tie the knot in an extravagant ceremony put on by her snooty upper-crust parents. But in keeping with the movie’s unwavering predictably, the oblivious Ron and Kyla pop back up and crash the wedding, bringing along their clueless chaos and turning the starchy festivities into their own personal party.

And just like that we’re thrust right back into the maddening mayhem of the earlier scenes. It’s toned down some, but barely enough to notice. As for the rest of the story, it’s nothing more that one wacky mishap after another; scene after scene of Ron and Kyla driving Marcus and Emily (and the audience) crazy. Of course most of it could be avoided with a few words of dialogue or some common everyday discernment. But most movies like this require a certain level of idiocy from all of its characters.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

If you look close, underneath the lowbrow humor and relentless silliness, you’ll find a handful of lightly breaded themes. The most obvious is the idea of living in the moment, although the example Ron and Kyla set is hardly worth following. There’s also the issue of classism which is used in a couple of interesting ways. Marcus and Emily see Ron and Kyla as beneath them, much like Emily’s haughty father (a really good Robert Wisdom) sees Marcus.

As for the performances, Howery finds himself stuck in one of those roles as old as cinema itself. He’s the movie’s straight man who for 95 minutes is tortured by the irritating antics of others. We do get a few scenes of him doing his Lil Rel “thing”, but for the most part he’s the film’s punching bag. Orji is a good match for him, but her character doesn’t get much to do other than react to the craziness.

As for Cena, he’s certainly committed. But there are scenes where he’s working so hard to sell himself as the lovable buffoon. Sometimes he’s believable, other times he’s almost mechanical. Hagner is amusing early on, but her ditzy act gets old well before the halfway mark. Together the two share a playful chemistry, but they’re so over-the-top, and the film’s attempt at humanizing them in the final 10 minutes falls flat.

Movies like “Vacation Friends” are a dime a dozen, but they often manage to find an audience. If you’re a fan of this kind of stock quality comedy then chances are you’ll like this one. But it does nothing to separate itself from countless similar movies that came before it. Sure, it has a fairly unique premise. But having a a fresh idea and then doing the same old tired thing isn’t much to get excited about. “Vacation Friends” premieres this weekend on Hulu.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Val” (2021)

There was a time when Val Kilmer was one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood. In the 1980’s and through much of the 90’s Kilmer was everywhere and a long and prosperous career seemed all but a certainty. He played high-profile characters like Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, even Batman. But in recent years his life has taken dramatically different form. A two-year battle with throat cancer left the star of such films as “Top Gun”, “Tombstone”, and “Heat” barely able to speak and on a feeding tube.

The new documentary “Val” recently premiered at the Cannes film Festival just ahead of its streaming release on Amazon Prime. It’s a intensely personal film with a deep sense of longing, not so much for a career that once was, but for a chance to finally tell his life story in his own words. Over the years Kilmer has shot and collected thousands of hours of video tapes and film reels. They include 16mm home movies, audition tapes, and behind the scenes video which co-directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo use to paint a unique and bittersweet portrait.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The narration was written by Kilmer himself and is presented from his perspective. It’s recited by Val’s 26-year-old son Jack whose voice carries an uncanny resemblance to his father’s. Full of old footage and peppered with the actor’s unique artistry, “Val” begins its first-person journey with a look into his life growing up with two brothers in the San Fernando Valley. His industrialist father and his horse-loving mother gave them a comfortable life even buying Roy Rogers’ old ranch when it went up for sale. The creative siblings turned the ranch into their own movie studio and nurtured there love for movie-making.

Our trek through Kilmer’s youth show there were also devastating heartaches. His parents would divorce when Val was 8-years-old due to his father’s many affairs. But nothing could prepare his family for the tragic death of his 15-year-old brother Wesley. From Kilmer’s own words “there were no more home videos, no more make-shift plays“. In a painful admission “Our family was never the same again.” He had lost not only his closest sibling but his best friend. It’s a loss he carries with him to this day.

One of the most compelling parts of “Val” is the intimate and eye-opening perspective it gives into Kilmer’s incredible yet complicated acting career. Kilmer and his handheld camera walk us across his professional timeline, beginning with his early days as the youngest person accepted into the Juilliard School in New York. We see his initiation into Hollywood with the hilarious “Top Secret!”. And of course his first taste of stardom that came with “Top Gun” and grew with films like “The Doors” and “Batman Forever”. And the film doesn’t shy away from his later struggles and his effort to reinvent himself through one-man stage show titled “Cinema Twain”.

Along the way Kilmer shares his own personal behind-the-scenes footage taken from numerous movie sets and featuring co-stars like Kurt Russell, Marlon Brando, Mira Sorvino, Tom Cruise, David Thewlis, and Tom Sizemore. Some of the most insightful bits include hearing him express his excitement and then utter disappointment in playing Batman. And his video from the troubled set of 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” that includes a spat with the film’s director John Frankenheimer.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The documentary also touches on the long-held perception that Kilmer was “difficult” to work with. But the Val we see is more of a perfectionist than a trouble-maker. He certainly had his run-ins and you sense there are things he regrets. But Kilmer was always about the art and finding the soul in every role. He brought a seriousness and an intensity to his work which led to some viewing him as “difficult”. Media outlets quickly picked up on it and ran. But there are just as many who worked with Kilmer that pushed back. We see clips from Oliver Stone, Mira Sorvino, Robert Downey, Jr. and others who outright refute the claims.

In Oliver Stone’s clip he called Val Kilmer “a puzzle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma”. The man we see in “Val” fits that description but not in some overly eccentric way. He is a man who once found fame but was never comfortable with it. He was never driven by fame. Instead he set out to find roles that would “transform” him. “Val” shows us that professional side, but also the private side that few outside of his family ever got to see. The movie sometimes gets lost in the artist’s self-reflection, but it’s hard to knock something this personal and cathartic. “Val” opens in select theaters Friday (July 23rd) and streaming on Amazon Prime August 6th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Vanquish” (2021)

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A cool idea can go a long way in making a good movie. But rarely is a movie good solely because of a cool idea. That speaks to the biggest problem with “Vanquish”, the new crime thriller directed and co-written by George Gallo. The movie’s snappy premise is action movie junk food, the perfect scenario for wild car chases, shoot-outs, and all sorts of cinematic mayhem. It’s the pieces around it that ends up dragging the whole thing down.

Although he’s been working pretty steady for over three decades, George Gallo is probably still known best as the screenwriter for “Midnight Run” and the first “Bad Boys” movie. With “Vanquish” he takes budding action star Ruby Rose and teams her with screen veteran Morgan Freeman. Both prove to be more than capable of pulling their weight and selling their roles. It’s the unconvincing supporting characters around them and the wafer-thin story that squashes any potential. It ends up being a movie all about the action beats and not much else.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

A lengthy opening credits scene introduces us to Freeman’s character. He plays Damon Hickey, a highly decorated former police detective who later became known as “America’s Police Commissioner”. But then he was gunned down on the front steps of his home by a drug cartel seeking retribution. He survived the attempted hit but was left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Now he lives in a posh ultra-modern home where he’s visited daily by his caregiver, a young single mom named Vicky (Rose).

It doesn’t take long for us to learn that “America’s Police Commissioner” has a dark side. It turns out he runs a shady crew of dirty cops and they have their hands in some ugly underworld business. But good luck making much sense of it. Unfortunately it’s all pretty muddled and woefully underwritten. Basically you have dirty cops and dirtier cops, a crooked federal agent and an angry German drug-runner with a vendetta. More importantly, Damon has five bags of money at different locations around the city and he needs someone he can trust to make the pickups. So he asks Vicky to dust off some lethal skills from her past that she has tried to bury and retrieve his cash. And just to make sure she falls in line, Damon has Vicky’s daughter kidnapped until all five pickups are complete.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

For the sake of her daughter, Vicky reluctantly agrees. The movie then becomes a series of five action-laced encounters as she picks up a bag of money, has it out with some double-crossing baddies, and takes the cash back to Damon who then gives her the address for the next pickup. In between we get snippets of a broader story about police corruption but it’s so insubstantial you won’t even care. You’ll want more of Ruby Rose cutting through thugs with her pistols as Freeman keeps tabs through her body-cam. The two have a good chemistry and do what they can to keep the film afloat.

But ultimately “Vanquish” needs more than a fun action loop and two well-tuned stars. Gallo tries to spruce things up with the few stylish flourishes, such as bathing several scenes in fluorescent greens and blues, or by occasionally shifting to first-person view when Vicky is zipping through the night on her motorcycle. But the bland band of supporting players and the even more forgettable story (complete with a preposterous ending) are liabilities too big to overcome. “Vanquish” opens April 16th on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars