A Fighting Season (2017): Surviving With Clayne Crawford (Review)

A008_C005_1204U7Written and directed by Oden Few Roberts  A Fighting Season stars Clayne Crawford (Lethal Weapon, Rectify) and Lew Temple (The Walking Dead, Wicked City) as Army recruiters post 9/11. The film is a harsh indictment on the system of an all volunteer military and surviving an unending war on terrorism and truth.

Roberts’ take on the system of recruitment after the hysteria of the 9/11 attacks, which saw all time high numbers of volunteers for all branches of the service, is one that is tinged with cynicism and includes a world weary warrior. Sgt. Mason (Crawford) is classified as a war hero. Wounded in action, the soldier has injuries that are much deeper than anyone knows. He is struggling to survive life outside the war zone.

The man tagged to work in a local recruiting office by Sgt. First Class Harris is suffering, apparently, from PTSD,  flashbacks of murdering an enemy in the field and some personal image problems. He dislikes the term hero and Harris, a strutting bible quoting wannabe, desperately tries to keep his numbers up while bullying everyone within his reach.

A Fighting Season looks harshly at the whole system of Army recruitment and paints a pretty unflattering picture of the men who prey on America’s youth to fill their numbers.  The pencil pushers in the office all participate in drunken pistol practice and respond to Harris’ bullying tactics and delusions of grandeur.

Crawford’s character, although flawed, is the most honorable man in this mix of soldiers whose only casualties are the naïve youth they target. While the rest focus on fear of the enemy and ignorance, Mason takes a different road. He is ultimately put in charge but the promotion is an empty one and his victory is, in the end, hollow.

A Fighting Season is less about the youngsters that the Army woo in an effort to fill boots on the ground and more about the people actually in military service who have served their country. Harris is a desk jockey who dreams of leaving “no man behind” while Mason has scars from his actual combat experience.

Harris is a straw soldier who has no real substance, a perfect example of the modern volunteer career military member. At one point in the movie, he bemoans the possible loss of his pension, medical benefits and GI Bill. Mason, who has taken and lost blood for his country never mentions any of these “vital” components of the “new” Army.

Roberts’ message shows that whatever the reason the Army promotes bonding as a family, not too dissimilar to the gang culture of picking one’s brothers and sisters. The Army also utilizes whatever technique works, whether it be bullying, sexual intimidation or lying to achieve their  recruitment numbers.

There are things in the film that jar. As a veteran, the sloppiness of the recruiters’ uniforms was annoying. (As was the propensity of every character in BDUs to call their sergeant “sir.” This simply does not happen, NCO’s are addressed by their rank.  “I work for a living” being the angry response from any sergeant called “sir.”)

These, and other, gaffes are forgivable however. Roberts shows, overall, how the Army struggled to fill positions after the initial furor of America’s first attack on the home front in 2001. It shows the anger, the uncertainty and the confusion faced by soldiers and the prospective entrants they court daily.

A Fighting Season is a 4 star film. It is available on VOD and is worth watching just for Crawford and Temple.  The message is clear and while it may leave the viewer with a slightly sour taste after viewing, the film does attempt to show the cynical  mechanizations behind those recruiting posters.

 

Undatement Center (2017): Dating Game (Review)

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Written and directed by Chris Esper (The Deja Vuers, Still Life), Undatement Center is a humorous look at the capricious world of modern dating.  It is almost an indictment against the millennial age of computer reliance and the awkwardness of real-life interaction with people we find attractive.

Jack (Trevor Duke) finally decides, after a 12 year break, to get back into the dating game. As befits the modern day man, he opts to join a dating company “Undatement” which is a combination of real world Tinder and speed dating. The poor chap soon realizes that getting back into the dating game requires intensive paperwork, a resume and a draw on his pocket book. 

A spin on the old maxim of kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince, Jack endures a lot of rejection. After some specious and confusing let downs for no apparent reason, he finally decides to take control; at a price. He soon finds that things are not any easier in the driver’s seat and Jack discovers that the early rejection’s came about for a reason.

Esper’s take on the modern world of dating and all the issues surrounding the search for a mate is funny, acerbic and surprising relevant.  Jack’s struggle is amusing and we feel his frustration and underlying fear.

Like most of the prospective candidates in Undatement Center, Jack is afraid of being hurt (again) and yet he continues to look for a special someone to be with. Esper gives us the dating world sans sex, this is not a journey to find a sexual partner but is, instead, a man wanting to find a woman to share things with.

This slightly “old fashioned” take on the dating game is refreshing and it plays well against the frustration of our hero. Jack goes through several stages in his search, after forking out some long green to take charge of his dating quest and at one point he comically dishes out some payback to an earlier “contestant.”

The director’s final message is a simple one and cuts to the heart of the matter. “New and different, is not better.” Jack finds that underneath the surface artifice and “structure” of the Undatement Center’s  controlled dating scenario, it is the human touch that matters most.

We do not doubt that Jack has learned a valuable lesson from his interaction with the business-like candidates he interacts with and Esper ends his tale on a uplifting note. There is some doubt as to how the whole thing will turn out but, like the film’s  humanistic message, we feel that things will move forward at their own pace and not be driven by some superficial agenda set by a company or society.

Trevor Duke gives a fine restrained performance as the man who reluctantly re-enters the dating game. His controlled frustration and confusion fits his character perfectly.

J.D. Achille as Lindsey is also spot on. Apart from being a delight to look at,  her character has an inner confidence and conviction that Achille brings to the fore with a truth that leaves no room for doubt. 

The entire cast bring something to the table in this story of urine samples, multi-page resumes (CV’s) and baffling rejection.

Undatement Center is a 5 star effort that entertains and makes a valid and pertinent social comment on the state of looking for love in this day and age of dating apps and swiping to the left or right. Esper has proven, with his latest effort, that his earlier successes are no fluke and that he can consistently deliver the goods.

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Green Room (2016): Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots Nailing It (Review)

Anton Yelchin as Pat

Written and directed by “Murder Party” and “Blue Ruin” auteur Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room has the sad distinction of being the last film released starring Anton Yelchin before his untimely death on June 19, 2016. The film follows the misfortune of a struggling punk band who stumble onto a murder while playing at a skinhead roadhouse.

Saulnier, whose debut feature length film was the brilliant low/no-budget offering “Murder Party,” has a knack for making American film that have a distinctly English feel to them.  Taking a note  from such talented Brit filmmakers like “Dog Soldiers” (Neil Marshall, who wrote and directed the werewolf picture, specialized in violent and terse thrillers like Doomsday and the gloriously scary, and all female, The Descent before moving onto mainstream television.)

Yelchin plays the meekest member of a punk band who later teams up with Poots as they fight against a group of white supremacists tasked with killing them.  Patrick Stewart plays wonderfully against type as the club owner who calmly arranges for all the witnesses of the murder to be disposed of.

Green Room, for the most part, takes place in a claustrophobic setting. The band members plus one, Poots’ character Amber, are trapped in a club (roadhouse) in the dressing room, aka green room as Darcy (Stewart) and his Aryan lackeys work out how to kill them all.

The band, which consists of three young men and a female guitarist, and Amber work together and the film is really all about survival. Everyone does a great job in their respective roles but Poots and Yelchin almost effortlessly nail their performances from word one.

Poots boasts a sort of “bowl” band cut and pigtails that makes her looks like a demented Pippy Longstocking’s wannabe while Yelchin appears to be almost emaciated. At one point early in the film Pat (Yelchin) takes Sam (Alia Shawkat) on the back of a folding bicycle and he looks so rail thin that one wonders how he pedals the thing with her balanced on the back. 

All  the band look thin and somewhat wasted, as behooves a young musical group struggling to find gigs, food and petrol. Wisely, the film spends little time on white supremacy themes and opts instead to have Darcy remind his club members to “remember, it’s a movement, not a party,” as the only reference to their leanings.

There are pit bulls, the usual “pet dressing” of these members of society, and they are used against the young band members throughout the film. Saulnier, who has already proven that he can do comedy horror on a budget, with “Murder Party” and a quirky, bloody, crime thriller (Blue Ruin) has now shown what he can do with a horror/thriller.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire film is Darcy’s unflappable calm as he plots the demise of so many people. He even instructs, via a seemingly throwaway remark, how to kill the people responsible for the whole “cluster-f***” in the first place.

The soldiers who willingly go after the targets are also unsettling but as they are really quite two dimensional they serve more as bogeymen cohorts rather than the real deal, like Stewart’s character.

Green Room looks top notch with its grimy sets and gritty decor. Black walls with graffiti scrawled everywhere and a dressing room that looks too disgusting to walk through add to the grungy feel of the bar where the band play.

Once again, the late Yelchin proved just how versatile an actor he really was by playing a more unconventional lead character. Saulnier even allows his lead to be somewhat horrifically injured, a move that causes the audience to wonder of the actor’s character will make it past the first reel.

The band comes across as a real group of musicians who are working hard to make it happen. Kudos to all the actors for finding the truth of characters that could have been flat two dimensional people without a perfect marriage of script and actor.

Green Room is a solid 4 star film. It entertains and keeps the audience close to the edge of their seat as the characters are hunted down through the film. The movie can be seen on Amazon.com, as part of the “Prime” stream and if you have not already done so, head on over to watch this one.

Rainy Season (2017): Stephen King Short and Oh So Sweet (Review)

Rainy Season poster

It is all too seldom that one finds a short, or any length, film based upon a Stephen King story that immediately grabs the viewer and says, “Yes!” King wrote Rainy Season back in 1993. It worked, as lore would have it, as a cure to the author’s writing block and it is a sharp and concise homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but set in King’s beloved Maine.

Vanessa Ionta Wright, who wrote the screenplay, gives us a film that does justice to the King short story and looks, quite simply, stunning. Everything about the film screams big budget, the sound, the colors and the sets all feel about as mainstream as you can get without the big price tag. 

The storyline follows King’s; a young couple head to the town of Willow, Maine to stay in an old boarding house. The husband is writing a book and the couple may be young but they have a disturbing past together that is only hinted at.

Anyone who has read King’s short story will remember the climax and the very “Shirley Jackson” feel of the somewhat random unfairness of it all. Wright’s intimate cast of four let us in on that theme and they all fit perfectly.

For example, the barefoot old man (Kermit Rolisonrolling his bugle cigarette sounds like he is reading from a script; because he is. The young couple do not heed the muddled warnings from the older couple (Rolison and Jan Nelsonbecause they are distracted by their recent past and their discomfort at being outsiders.

Brian Ashton Smith is John Graham and Anne-Marie Kennedy is his wife Elise. They have an uneasy chemistry.  Holding hands like a full grown Hansel and Gretel entering the scary woods, the pair clearly love one another but there is something dark underneath their affection.

Both actors show the pain beneath the surface very well and this also helps to sell the final moments of the film.

Above all else, though, Wright spoils us with an almost perfect cinematic version of the short story. The greens are vibrant, the sounds of the countryside are alive and, almost, overbearing and the house is a perfect fit for the tale that is told.

The film’s effects are all, from the look of it, practical and they work brilliantly.  Between cinematographer Mark Simon’s skillful avoidance of catching the creatures full on and the sounds being made by them,  we can identify the things immediately.

Rainy Season is low key horror that builds steadily and the director uses sound masterfully to provide an almost perfect payoff at the end. Just as the country noises punctuate the film’s events, they also work to make this low budget “Dollar” production practically sing.

This is easily one of the best adaptations of any Stephen King story on offer. Wright, who wrote and directed the film as part of the author’s “Dollar Baby” program, obviously “gets it.” She is clearly a fan of King’s work. Take the start of the film as an example.  The camera zooms in on the radio as John Graham fiddles with the knob.

The car’s make is in  big cursive letters on the front of the radio, “BUICK.” This has to be a huge nod and wink to King’s “From a Buick 8.” It could be said that this reference is a connection, of sorts, to the things found in Rainy Season

Buick

Rainy Season is hitting the festival circuit at the moment (2017/2018) and it is our prediction that this will be a massive award winner. Wright, who was the Graphic Designer on the superb 2016 short The Price of Bones, is definitely one to keep an eye out for.

This film is a full 5 star offering. It is a visual treat as well as a splendidly paced and plotted dramatic horror film. We would be willing to bet that Stephen King must love this adaptation.

Have a look at the trailer and see what you think.

Official 2017 Rainy Season Trailer from Vanessa Ionta Wright on Vimeo.

The Purge: Election Year (2016) Republican Paradise (Review)

The Purge

Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge: Election Year sees the return of Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) and the end to a short, successful franchise.  In this last visit to a country that takes a note from an old Star Trek episode “Return of the Archons” – where Landru lets its people legally murder, maim and rape for a few hours – things appear to wrap up nicely. 

Senator Charlie Roan (played by the brilliant Elizabeth Mitchell who was so wasted in her role on the Freeform horror snooze-fest “Dead of Summer“) is against the whole purge night scenario. Mainly because she watched her entire family die at the hands of a purge participant as a teen. 

Roan is getting quite a following from people who also want to see The Purge disbanded. The opposing party, the NFFA (New Founding Father’s of America,  want the senator silenced and the film follows her escape from the opposition party as well as the group of people who struggle to keep the senator alive.

DeMonaco takes this last in the trilogy towards a new direction. He focusses on the “bigger picture” this time around and while we do follow a group of disparate strangers struggling to survive the night it is more about the politics behind The Purge.

Linking the NFFA party to the current Republican party, whose values do seem disturbingly similar to the film’s politico’s way of thinking, was a masterful touch. In a year where America’s “King George” (Donald Trump) was elected president it feels particularly apt.

The Purge franchise has always been about killing off the lower classes. In each film, it is the moneyed classes who do the most killing. While the focus is on the ethnic minorities being allowed to murder their fellow citizens, this time around the process has been given a religious connotation.

Leo Barnes, who was so pro-purge in the second film, is back and he is the Senator’s head of security.  He is also a bono-fide tough guy whose mission, throughout the film, is to protect Roan. Barnes is also against The Purge this time around.

DeMonaco moved to end the franchise with this film but with the current political climate in America it seems almost a certainty that there could well be a fourth installment in this cynical and entertaining horror tale.

Looking at the reasoning behind The Purge program which is about saving money on health care programs, food stamps and low income housing (only to apparently spend a fortune on rebuilding structures damaged by the widespread mayhem) it matches the Republican party’s mission statement and intent perfectly.

So why not have The Purge 4? It could be titled “The Trump Years” and feature the players from the current POTUS’ cabinet who are trying so hard to punish the poor for their lack of status. (While greasing the palms of those who lavishly gave donations to the Republican party.)

Armchair politics aside, The Purge: Election Year is a solid 4 star film. It loses a star for basically taking us back to the same story yet again, and for that botched practical stunt in front of the deli.

*The two schoolgirls who return to kill the owner and take a candy bar are struck down by Laney (Betty Gabriel) and her van. The “bride” and her mate are both run over and the vehicle drags them both underneath its carriage. However…The bride is then shown being knocked onto the windscreen of a parked car, which would only happen with a glancing blow.*

There are other things wrong with the film in terms of plot holes and so on but the film is worth watching and does entertain. It features a lot of violence, some cursing and absolutely no nudity.