CAM (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Madeline Brewer, previously in the TV shows ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013), HEMLOCK GROVE (2014 2015), and more recently on Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE, plays Alice, a young woman who undresses in front of a camera for money (i.e., a camgirl). While many camgirls go so far as to perform sex acts onscreen, Alice has rules. She won’t do anything in public, she won’t get completely naked, and there’s a line to what she will (and won’t) do for her adoring audience, many of whom are regulars who tune in just to see her. Welcome to the world of CAM (2018).

Despite all the things she won’t do, Alice seems to be doing okay at it, making enough money to pay the bills. But she can’t break the Top 40 of most popular camgirls. She does get a boost when she tries something new and fakes an onscreen suicide (with lots of fake blood), but soon finds that her efforts are being thwarted by other camgirls who are actively trying to lower her score.

Meanwhile, when she’s not on camera, Alice is trying to live a normal life, including spending time with her hairdresser mother, Lynne (Melora Walters) and her teenage brother, Jordan (Devin Druid). Jordan’s friends have found out what she does for a living and endlessly tease Jordan about it, but Alice is hesitant to tell her mother about her job.

Soon, she’s not going to have a choice in the matter.

One day she looks online and sees that her camera account is active, and that she’s onscreen, doing things a bit wilder than normal. The problem is, she’s not doing it. Someone who looks exactly like her has hacked her account and is stealing her internet “fame.” The movie never really explains who this doppelganger is, or where she came from, but she makes Alice’s life increasingly nightmarish, stealing her livelihood and ruining a reputation she’s taken so long to establish.

This other Alice, using her onscreen name of Lola, doesn’t follow the same rules, and as a result, her score is going higher. But the real Alice can’t benefit. Her password won’t work, and the Help desk at the site that runs her feed is helpless to fix things. Alice even calls in the police, but they have no idea what to do, and one of the cops even hits on her.

We also get to see the people who are part of her “Lola” world, including fellow camgirls like her friends Baby (Imani Hakin) and Fox (Flora Diaz), and a rival named PrincessX (Samantha Robinson from THE LOVE WITCH, 2016); customers like Barney (Michael Dempsey), who enjoys the power and attention he gets by showering chosen camgirls with attention and money, and who would be an average schlub otherwise; and Tinker (Patch Darragh), a weird guy (who sweats a lot!) who tunes in regularly and appears to be a stalker, having followed Alice to her hometown.

CAM is the feature debut of filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber, who previously made some short films, and the screenplay is by Goldhaber and fellow newbie Isa Mazzei. It is currently streaming on Netflix and is a fun little flick, mostly due to its charismatic star (Brewer), who really deserves more lead roles.

I give CAM, three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives CAM ~ three knives.

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Have you gotten HARD yet?

The new edition of my third novel, HARD, is available now from Crossroads Press in both an ebook/Kindle version, and a paperback hard copy version. Either way, if you haven’t read it yet, why not pop on over and check it out?

It’s not horror, but it does have porn stars, torturers, a serial killer, peeping toms, murder, and a whole lot more. Kind of a neo-noir novel with lots of sex and violence. 

Check it out on Kindle here!

Check out the paperback edition here!

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THE PREDATOR (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I went in really wanting to like THE PREDATOR, the latest film in a franchise that began in 1987, but I was ultimately disappointed. The buzz beforehand was this would be the movie to reboot those dreadlock-wearing aliens who love to hunt humans and rip out their spines, and while some of it works, overall, I just wasn’t jazzed.

As mentioned, the first movie in the series, simply called PREDATOR, was an excuse for action star Arnold Schwarzenegger to go toe-to-toe with one of the predatory monsters of the title in the middle of jungle. Invisible for most of the film (these creatures love their cloaking devices), we didn’t get to really see the monster until the end when its invisibility device breaks, and Arnold has his final showdown. I didn’t think it was an amazing movie, but the monster was very cool, and it’s one of the better Schwarzenegger actioners of the time.

Clearly something about these creatures captured the movie-going public’s imagination, because those nasty Predators have been popping up in a lot of movies since, including sequels, and an “Alien vs. Predator” spinoff that was never all that good, despite combining two of the coolest aliens of the 80s.

The last time we saw these title baddies was in the 2010 “reboot” PREDATORS, which somehow continues to be overlooked, even though it was the best entry in the series. And yes, I’m including THE PREDATOR in that group. PREDATORS featured a bunch of human killers, including Adrien Brody, Danny Trejo, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins and Topher Grace, who find themselves transported to an alien planet where the Predators hunt them down. It was a cool concept of bring humans to them instead of their coming to Earth, and it was dark, and well-written, and very cool. And yet no one seems to mention it when they talk about the franchise, which just boggles my mind.

In the new movie, your typical clandestine government agency led by a ruthless dude named Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, currently on the show THIS IS US, and who was terrific as Christopher Darden in the first season of AMERICAN CRIME STORY, 2015-2016, about the O.J. Simpson trial), has been aware of the Predators since the late 80s and have been keeping an eye on their comings and goings. Each time they’ve shown up on Earth, they’ve upgrade themselves to be more formidable (as we all know, this is what Predators do). A scientist named Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn of IRON MAN 2, 2010 and MAGIC MIKE, 2012), who happens to be an expert in evolution, is “recruited” to join them after a crashed Predator ship is spotted in Mexico. There’s a big debate over why they’re called Predators (as Dr. Bracket points out, predators kill for survival, while these aliens kill for sport; shouldn’t they then be called Hunters? She’ll bring this up again in the movie.)

As for that crashed ship, it showed up just when our hero, sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, who was previously the villainous Pierce in LOGAN, 2017, as well as being in GONE GIRL, 2014), a mercenary working for another clandestine agency, is lining up a shot to take out some kidnappers who are part of a drug cartel. The ship messes everything up, and Quinn makes sure to grab some tech (mainly a helmet and an arm gauntlet/weapon) and mail them back home for safe keeping. The package shows up at his house, where his genius level son (who also suffers from autism), Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay of ROOM, 2015, and THE BOOK OF HENRY, 2017), opens the box and can’t resist playing on what’s inside. Since he’s a genius, he figures out to get them to work, thus alerting other Predators who are in pursuit of the crashed ship, and leading them right to Earth.

Meanwhile, Traeger’s men are doing their best to frame up Quinn for any casualties at the crash site, in their effort to cover it all up, since that’s what these government agencies do. Quinn is sent off to military prison, on a bus full of other wackos who seem to be both talented killers and, for the most part, total psychos. Nicknamed “The Loonies” by Quinn, they include leader Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes, from the movie MOONLIGHT, 2016), wise-cracking Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key of KEY AND PEELE and KEANU, 2016), Tourette’s sufferer Baxley (Thomas Jane of THE PUNISHER, 2004, and THE MIST, 2007), religious Nettles (Augusto Aguilera, of the upcoming series TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG, 2018) who keeps mentioning “The End Times,” and demolition guy Lynch (Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES).

It also turns out that Traeger has the body of the Predator who was recovered from the crash in his lab, which is why Dr. Bracket was drafted to help. But when that Predator wakes up from its heavy sedation and escapes, Dr. Bracket is yet another intended casualty to be eliminated for knowing too much. The doctor is rescued from mission-mandated death from Quinn and his Loonies, who are then on the run from the government, after they themselves escape from that prison bus. They high-tail it back to Quinn’s house, where his tough military wife, Emily (Yvonne Stahovski, of the shows CHUCK, 2007 -2012, DEXTER from 2012-2013, and, currently, THE HANDMAID’S TALE), lives with that genius kid, Rory.

Traeger and his guys are hot on the train of that escaped Predator, who is hunting for Rory, but who’s also being hunted by another, much bigger Predator, who even has Predator Dogs! This would be a cool new twist, if Predator Dogs didn’t already exist. They first popped up in that underrated movie PREDATORS from 2010, which I say again is still the best entry in the franchise.

THE PREDATOR is directed by Shane Black, who also directed some good movies (KISS KISS BANG BANG, 2005 and the underrated THE NICE GUYS, 2016) and some bad ones (IRON MAN 3, 2013), and he does a slick job with this one, although way too often it seems more like a generic action movie, with lots of car crashes and explosions, and people leaping from high-up stuff, than a cool sci-fi flick. The script by Black and Fred Dekker (based on characters created by Jim and John Thomas) is uneven at best, and thinks it is way cooler than it actually is.

Let’s see. The pluses here are Boyd Holbrook as our hero, Quinn. He is more than capable as the action star this time around, and could clearly have a future as a leading man in these kinds of things. The dude has the charisma necessary to be a star. The Loonies can be fun at times, and Olivia Munn is good as the scientist in peril.  Sterling K. Brown is really good as the bad guy here, but he’s not given a lot of depth, and could have used a little more humanizing. The Predators, as usual, are cool as hell, and the main reason these movies exist, even if the human storylines have too many ups and downs.

The negatives include those “downs” I just mentioned, the times when the script seems too much like a by-the-numbers action movie (too often), and some big lapses of logic, including a bunch of guys surfing on top of a giant alien spacecraft that’s trying to zoom away. Not only do they somehow stay on top of it, but they also find a way to bring it down (this is not really a spoiler, is it? Unless you’ve never seen an action movie before), and it’s just hokey as hell. There are a few moments like this, and none of them make the movie better.

And, of course, the ending blatantly sets thing up for a sequel. Which will probably happen.

Yet another big budget movie that got a lot of buzz before its release and then turned out to be mediocre at best, I give THE PREDATOR two and a half knives. Not horrible, but you’d be much better off seeking out 2010’s PREDATORS instead.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE PREDATOR – two and a half knives.

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HELL FEST (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Since I’m a fan of 80s slasher films, I’m always curious to check out any new films in the genre, even if they’re almost always disappointing. Bad slasher films have been the norm over the past 18 years, and it hasn’t done much to help the genre at all. The latest example is HELL FEST (2018), directed by Gregory Plotkin, who also gave us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION (2015).

One of this movie’s pluses is the location. It takes place over one night at a Halloween-themed festival, made up of scary mazes where people in costume jump out at you. The killer is a guy in a zombie mask and a hoodie, whose face we never see, who kills a girl and strings her up from the ceiling in the opening scene. Jump two years ahead to our current story, where a bunch of kids show up at the titular HELL FEST for some scares. The kids feature a few more sympathetic members, especially Amy Forsyth (also currently in the movie BEAUTIFUL BOY, and on such shows as RISE, 2018, and CHANNEL ZERO, 2017) as Natalie, who is pretty much the lead here. Sweet, shy, and very likable, Natalie is having a rough time with classes in college when she comes back home for a little R&R, namely hanging out with her BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards, of the TV shows MACGYVER, 2017-2018, and SNOWFALL, 2017-2018).

Natalie is a little bummed to see that Brooke now lives with roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus, who was terrific as “Bullet” on the third season of the AMC series THE KILLING IN 2013, but isn’t given much to work with here), a punky girl who they both went to school with, and who Natalie is sure doesn’t like her (Taylor frequently calls Natalie the nickname “Grade School”). But any discomfort is sidetracked by the fact that Gavin, a boy Natalie likes, has gotten them all tickets to the annual HELL FEST of the title. While Natalie clearly isn’t a big fan of being scared, the idea of spending some time with Gavin (Roby Attal), who actually asked about her while she was gone, clearly makes the visit home a little better. Like Natalie, Gavin is awkward but sweet, and they clearly seem to be hitting it off once everyone gathers at the festival to be scared. Also along for the ride are Taylor’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Brooke’s boyfriend, Quinn (Christian James), who are also friends of Gavin, and regularly tease him for being so nerdy. Asher and Quinn, however, are easily the least interesting of our college-aged protagonists.

Our killer from that first scene/flashback, who then wore a devil mask, comes to the same festival Natalie and her friends are at, this time with a rather generic zombie mask, and the hood of his hoodie pulled up. He fixates on Natalie pretty early on after killing another girl in front of her (the kids think it’s part of the show, but Natalie thinks something is wrong, since it seems to “real”), and starts following her around the park.

The park and horror mazes themselves are interesting enough, providing lots of spooky tableaus where we wonder if the threats are real or not. Lots of jump scares where costumed creeps pop out of hidden doors, and of course, our homicidal bad guy mixed in for good measure. Who will die and when? Well, our killer takes his sweet time being a creepy stalker before he actually commences with the slaughter. In the meantime, at least we get a  cameo by Tony “Candyman” Todd as a master of ceremonies during an on-stage guillotine bit, but his appearance is “cut” much too short. 

Natalie is creeped out to keep seeing the zombie-mask guy always nearby and watching her, but everyone else laughs it off. They only take her worries less seriously when they reach a part of the maze/park where numerous people are dressed exactly like the killer (thus making it hard to figure out which one is really dangerous). When he finally gets tired of watching and starts killing, however, the murders come pretty close together.

Aside from park where it’s set (which actually gets to be fun at times) and some of the acting (specifically Forsyth and Edwards, who are likable and sympathetic throughout), there’s not much new here to reinvigorate the genre. Slasher movies gotta slash, and this one is no exception. As I mentioned, I found the killer’s mask particularly bland in this one, and there’s not much to distinguish him from lots of similar killers in lots of other movies. Although a semi-clever ending clearly sets things up for a sequel that may or may not ever happen (I don’t think this did very well at the box office).

HELL FEST is directed well enough by Plotkin, with a scrift by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper, based on a story by William Penick and Christopher Sey (that’s a lot of people involved for a script that’s so forgettable). But in the end, it’s a pretty mediocre movie, and an unremarkable slasher entry.

I give it two knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HELL FEST – two knives.

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DUDES (1987)

Review by LL Soares

In 1981, director Penelope Spheeris got some attention for her documentary THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, chronicling the hardcore punk scene in Los Angeles at the time, a louder, more angry-sounding version of the music that made the Sex Pistols such a big deal in the 1970s. With performances by bands such as X, The Germs, Black Flag, and Fear, DECLINE has become a classic for fans of music documentaries. Between this film and the movie that made Spheeris a Hollywood player, the megahit WAYNE’S WORLD (1992), she made several movies, both fictional and documentaries, that might not be as widely known, such as SUBURBIA (1983), THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985) and a sequel to DECLINE, called THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS (1988), which are also worth checking out.

Spheeris made DUDES in 1987, and while it has some elements that are cheesy (a staple of a lot of 1980s movies for some reason), it has a decent story and characters, and is worth checking out.

It begins with three punk rockers named Grant (Jon Cryer), Milo (Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck). They hang out in New York City, where they go to concerts, mosh, stage dive, and basically just live from day to day, working dead-end jobs. One day, Milo says that he inherited some money from an insurance policy and plans to go across the country to California. He talks his two buddies into going along with him. Since they don’t have much else to do, they pile into a Volkswagen Bug and head out for sunny Los Angeles.

In Utah, while camping for the night, they’re attacked by some rednecks led by a guy called Missoula (punk rocker and actor Lee Ving). Just so he doesn’t forget his name (I guess) he’s got it tattooed on one of his forearms. From what these guys say to each other, it sounds like they make a habit of attacking campers in the vicinity, usually Mexican immigrants trying to cross the border, and stealing their stuff.

Things get violent, and Milo is killed. The next day, Grant and Biscuit go to the local police, who don’t seem to be very interested in tracking down Milo’s killers. So, Grant becomes determined to track them down himself. Despite being the biggest of the three guys (and sporting a huge Mohawk hairdo), Biscuit doesn’t want anything to do with it, and wants to keep going to L.A., but Grant eventually wins him over. With just the name Missoula to go on, they head toward Montana, stopping at various landmarks along the way, asking questions and making progress.

Early on, they help out a singer and rodeo performer named Daredelvis (Pete Willcox) whose trailer is stuck on the road. He’ll show up again later to help the boys out later at a rodeo.

Along the way, they also meet up with a mechanic named Jessie (Catherine Mary Stewart, also in THE APPLE, 1980, NIGHT OF THE COMET, 1984, and WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, 1989) who takes a liking to Grant. After their car is forced off the road, Jessie takes the boys in and teaches Jessie how to shoot. Biscuit, who has suffered a concussion, wakes up believing he’s a real Mohawk Indian (in the movie’s most cringe-worthy plotline). Jessie lets them borrow a car with big bull horns on the hood, and gives them guns and ammo. Eventually, they track down the bad guys and there’s a final showdown.

I actually liked Cryer a lot here. For anyone who just knows him from his role as Alan on the sitcom TWO AND A HALF MEN (2003 – 2015), you might be surprised to know he actually had a movie career in films like this and PRETTY IN PINK (1986), SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), HIDING OUT (1987), and HOT SHOTS! (1991). Daniel Roebuck had previously been in CAVEGIRL (1985) and the acclaimed movie RIVER’S EDGE (1986), and went on to have a long career in movies and television, mostly recently on the Amazon series THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. Flea has had a long career in one of the most popular bands of the past few decades, but still occasionally acts, most recently as a criminal in BABY DRIVER (2017). Lee Ving, my favorite of the bunch, has also done a lot of acting, outside of his gig as lead singer of the band Fear, having appeared (mostly as bad guys) in such films as FLASHDANCE (1983), STREETS OF FIRE (1984), CLUE (1985), THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS (1991) and FAST SOFA (2001). I wish he’d do more acting, and more music as well.

After DUDES, Penelope Spheeris went on to direct such movies as WAYNE’S WORLD, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1993), THE LITTLE RASCALS (1994), and BALLS TO THE WALL (2011). The script for DUDES is by Randall Jahnson, who also co-wrote THE DOORS (1991) with Oliver Stone, and was one of the writers of THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998), starring Antonio Banderas.

DUDES is a quirky 80s buddy movie, with a good soundtrack of punk and metal songs (by bands like The Vandals, Keel, W.A.S.P., Jane’s Addiction, and Megadeth), that has a definite “midnight movie” appeal to it. Check it out if you have the chance.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

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“Transmission to Earth”
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REVENGE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

The first scene in the movie REVENGE shows an expanse of desert, and what looks like, from a distance, a man kneeling down in a position that makes you think he’s about to be beheaded. Except, he’s alone. A helicopter flies overhead, and we never see the figure again.

That helicopter carries Richard (Kevin Janssens, who looks a little bit like American actor Aaron Eckhart), a man who’s obviously quite rich, and a younger girl named Jen (Matilda Lutz, who looks a tiny bit like Jessica Alba), who’s listening to ear buds and sucking on a lolipop. The pilot shows interest, and Richard obviously laps this up, since he knows he’s got a hot girlfriend, and that other men are always salivating over her. This kind of thing no doubt makes Richard feel more like a man.

They enter a fancy, colorful house in the middle of the desert. There’s a deep swimming pool, and lavish décor. As I mentioned, Richard is most certainly a man of means, and this confirms it. He calls his wife and they discuss their children. Richard is here in this house, on the pretense that he is meeting two buddies of his to go hunting. In the desert? I’m not really sure what they plan to hunt, but there are a few strange things like this in REVENGE, so let’s just go along for the ride, shall we?

As soon as they get to that pretty house in the middle of nowhere, Richard and Jen go to the bedroom. These two people are obviously into each other. Richard has come to this place early, before his hunting friends, so he can have a little fun time alone with his mistress.

But while she’s there, his buddies arrive early as well. They are Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede). Richard wasn’t planning on having his friends meet his mistress, but these things happen. They spend the night drinking and taking drugs and at one point Jen dances with Stan, in a style that recalls dirty dancing more than a waltz. Richard puts up with it, until he doesn’t, and whisks Jen away to the bedroom again. Watching them dance got him all worked up!

The next morning, Richard has gone to resolve an issue with his friends’ passports, leaving them alone with his girlfriend. Stan is still horny from the night before, but it’s clear Jen didn’t think anything of it. When Stan starts to get aggressive, she tries to reject him nicely, but he’s not having it. Things escalate to rape. Dimitri, who is fat and eats a lot, turns up the television so he doesn’t have to hear the screams.

When Richard comes back and finds out what’s happened while he was away, you’d expect him get angry, and he seems to at first, but it’s clear he’s going to side with his friends on this one, and tries to pay for her silence. When she gets upset and makes a threat to call his wife, things get really ugly.

Jen ends up dead. Or, she should be. But somehow, it doesn’t take.

She then goes about getting the titular revenge on the men who have abused her.

The title is kind of bland. There are other movies that have been called REVENGE. There was even a TV show on ABC starring Emily VanCamp. But this isn’t a network TV show. One giveaway is there’s an awful lot of blood.

Remember my saying that not everything makes sense? The most obvious example is how Jen avoids death. It’s not very logical, and yet, it happens, and the movie continues. Jen has to deal with a very ugly wound, and pretty much saves herself with a lighter, a beer can, and some peyote. Her survival doesn’t take the movie in a dark fantasy direction, but it’s not exactly realistic either. And she sure is active for someone who has had such a horrible accident.

Then she starts killing off the men who are pursuring her (once they realize her body has been moved).  It’s satisfying to see the ways she gets revenge. So, the title isn’t pointless, but it could have been more creatively named.

REVENGE was directed by French filmmaker Carolie Fargeat, and it’s her feature film debut. Previously, she made a couple of short films and directed a TV miniseries. As a first feature, it’s impressive, and Ms. Fargeat clearly has a bright future ahead of her. Despite those issues where it’s a little hard to suspend disbelief, the movie still works. You can overlook the flaws in the moment, because it’s so well made. Fargeat also wrote the screenplay, by the way.

I’ve been a fan of French horror films for awhile now, after seeing such excellent movies as HIGH TENSION (2003), INSIDE (2007), and MARTYRS (2008). REVENGE continues this “new wave” of French horror. Actually, it’s more like a thriller, but there’s all that blood I mentioned.

Jen kills her tormentors off one by one, until it’s a showdown in that fancy house between her and the last man standing. At this point, the walls and floors are pretty much painted red. I’m impressed at how these new French directors aren’t squeamish about using lots of fake blood.

There are other reasons to recommend it. The cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaert is exceptional, having a good time with the movie’s flare for bright colors. There’s a green apple early on that stands out, the striking décor of the desert house, the gold and green of ants shown often in close-up. And all that blood. Hayvaert uses the colors like paints from a palette and makes it all quite beautiful. The music, mostly by “Rob” (and Robin Coudert) is also very effective. Especially the scenes where the menacing synth music plays as a ballet of death unfolds onscreen for our entertainment.

The cast is perfect. Matilda Lutz is steamy and seductive at first, and then believably pissed off and vengeful. She has been wronged and it will not stand. I love movies like that, where women strike back at violent men. Ms. Lutz was previously in some French films and TV shows, but she’s already appeared in some American films, including the horror film RINGS (2017), the recent reboot of that franchise that also starred Johnny Galecki. I’m sure there will be more American films in her future.

The men, for their part, are equally strong in their roles. They do a good job making us hate them.

While REVENGE got a limited theatrical release, it didn’t play anywhere near me, so I had to get it off iTunes. I believe it will also be showing soon on the Shudder channel, for those of you who subscribe. It’s worth seeing, especially if you dig these kind of bloody revenge flicks. Of which, I have to admit, I’m a fan.

I give it three knives. It has a nice momentum, and despite its flaws, it kept me entertained thoroughly throughout. I would have given it a higher score if it had tried to make a tiny bit more sense, though.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

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(Note: although REVENGE was first shown in 2017 in film festivals, I’m using the U.S. release date of May 2018).

BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

Review by LL Soares

Every once in a while, you come across a little movie that surprises you. That’s how I felt watching BRISBY BEAR (2017) recently. The movie got a very limited theatrical release last year (I’m wondering if it even expanded beyond a brief run in major cities) and was one of those movies I was meaning to see, and then missed, when it disappeared from theaters.

Starring Kyle Mooney from Saturday Night Live, BRIGSBY is a bittersweet film about traumatic change, loss, and obsession. When we first meet his character, James, he’s living inside of a strange, bomb shelter-type house in the middle of nowhere. Even though he’s a grown man, he’s treated like a kid by his parents, Ted Mitchum (Mark Hamill) and his wife April (Jane Adams, also in HAPPINESS, 1998, and POLTERGEIST, 2015). During the day, James goes through his “lessons,” getting homeschooled by his mom, while Dad goes off to work. Looking out of the window, James sees his dad don a gas mask every morning as he gets into his car, reinforcing the story that some horrible event happened that contaminated the earth.

James’s only joy is the weekly arrival of videotapes (old school VHS tapes) featuring new episodes of a show called BRIGSBY BEAR. In them, a big, costumed talking bear travels the galaxy to do heroic deeds and teach valuable life lessons. James idolizes Brigsby, and it seems that he’s not allowed to see any real television (the earth is contaminated, remember?) so Brigsby is all he has. His entire life revolves around this goofy kids’ show. And he is only allowed to go on the internet to post on Brigsby-related message boards, where he interacts with other “fans” he can never meet.

One night, while sneaking outside in his gas mask to look at the stars, James sees sirens in the distance and rushes back inside to warn his parents. But it’s too late. Police officers break in and arrest Ted and April, and whisk James away.

We find out several things at this point. First, the earth is not contaminated. Second, Ted and April aren’t James’ real parents (they kidnapped him when he was a baby). Third, James is in no way prepared for exposure to the real world, so it’s going to take him a while to adapt.

 He finds himself reunited with his real family, which he technically never met, since he was only a baby when they last saw him. They include his real dad, Greg Pope (Matt Walsh, who you might recognize from VEEP and COMEDY BANG! BANG!), his mother Louise (Michaela Watkins, from the TV shows TRANSPARENT and CASUAL) and his sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins, also in the movies REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, A SINGLE MAN, 2009, and who was a child actor in the crazy cult show WONDER SHOWZEN, 2005 2006!). Right away, they try their best to make James feel wanted and comfortable. His parents have even made up lists of things to do as a family, since James has experienced nothing of the outside world.

In order to help him start his new life, his parents want to get rid of anything that will remind him of his “fake” family, but he won’t let go of those Brigsby Bear tapes. He saved a bunch of them from his old home. While James lost his previous life, he refuses to lose Brigsby and continues to watch the tapes.

His parents try to discourage him, even during their sessions with a family therapist named Emily (Claire Danes). James is awkward, but basically a good kid, so they don’t want to traumatize him too much.

Aubrey takes him to a party where he meets some of her friends. The entire experience is world-expanding for James, since he’s never interacted with other kids before. Right away he gravitates toward Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., also in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017), who becomes his buddy. James also has a sexual encounter (sort of) with Aubrey’s friend Meredith (Alexa Demie), which scares him. Since it’s a party, he also has his first experience with alcohol and drugs. He ends up telling some of the other kids crazy stories from the Brigsby Bear episodes, which immediately captures their imaginations. It’s not long before James is letting Spencer borrow some of the videotapes, and some episodes “end up” on Youtube, where they start building a fervent audience in the outside world.

The thing is, until this point, James is the only real fan the show has, since his fake dad made the show for him, and him alone. No one else has ever seen these shows before. And, while James is obsessed with it, it doesn’t take long for other kids to share in his obsession. Not long after that, James makes the decision that, more than anything, he wants to make a movie. A movie about Brigsby Bear. Taking the story from where the last tape leaves off and giving the series a genuine ending. And he’ll have his friends act in it. Except for one thing. How will he recreate the costumes and props?

Enter Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear, who first got popular hosting the E! channel’s TALK SOUP, and then went on to movie fame in films like AS GOOD AS IT GETS, 1997, and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, 2006), who had a long talk/interrogation with James when he was first removed from the Mitchum household. When James finds out that the police have all of the props and sets from the show locked up as evidence, he begs the kind-hearted detective to let him use the props to make his movie. Vogel, a frustrated actor who never got a chance to really fulfill his dreams, eventually gives in, surprising James with such items as the big, actual Brigsby bear head! It works kind of like a giant Teddy Ruxpin, with a slot for cassettes, which makes the big mouth move as if it’s talking!

So, there’s a tug of war between his parents, who want him to avoid his tragic past, and James who won’t let go of Brigsby. What will happen? Will James ever complete his movie? Will Brigsby become a real-life sensation? Will James’s family ever accept him for who he truly is? Well, you have to see BRIGSBY BEAR yourself for the answers to those questions. But along the way, James will go on a weird and wonderful camping trip with his friends and spend some time in a mental hospital.

The cast is pretty terrific, especially star Mooney, who plays James as a loveable kid who is just trying to find his purpose in a world he didn’t even know existed. Despite being primarily a comedian, Mooney plays it straight, making the movie a bittersweet drama. You really care about this guy. The rest of the cast gives him strong support. It’s a lot of fun to see Mark Hamill in one of his non-Skywalker roles here (I always wondered why he didn’t have a bigger acting career, because he’s great in everything I see him in), as well as recognizable stars like Kinnear and Danes. Simpkins is good as Aubrey, the sister who slowly bonds more and more with her strange brother. Also a joy is Kate Lyn Shiel as a waitress (and occasional actress) named Whitney, who worked on the original Brigsby show, playing magical twins Arielle and Nina Smiles, who help the bear in his adventures. The scene where James actually meets “Arielle” for the first time in person is very touching. SNL regular Beck Bennett also has a small role as one of Vogel’s colleagues, and Andy Samberg (who was also one of the producers) shows up in a scene.

Another favorite character of mine is Suncatcher, the (uncredited) villain from the Brigsby Bear episodes who looks sun with an evil face on it. He also pops up a few times in the movie when James least expects it.

Director Dave McCary previously worked on short films and segments for Saturday Night Live. This was his first feature film. The script is by star Mooney along with Kevin Costello.

BRIGSBY BEAR is an offbeat gem of a film that deserves a much wider audience. I really liked this one a lot and totally recommend it. I give it four knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares