We are closer to seeing the results of opening theaters back up in America, but until that time, I still have a regular batch of reviews based around what’s out there on various streaming platforms (and some drive-ins). This week, I have assembled reviews on new films either currently available or coming soon, along with one retro pick for the week. There’s a screen-based thriller, a Russian monster flick, a macabre comedy, a few documentaries, and a callback to the days of Roald Dahl. The following features reviews for Spree, Sputnik, Come to Daddy, Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story, The Speed Cubers, Reel Redemption, and a retro look back at The Witches.
The Setup: Kurt (Joe Keery), username @KurtsWorld96, is a young man dreaming of becoming the leader of a social media empire. He’s had no luck so far, but he believes things may change after driving around for the rideshare company Spree on a day full of live stream mayhem. The passengers may not be surviving Kurt’s rides, but he’ll soon discover just how far he needs to take things in an age where just putting your face on the internet isn’t enough.
Review: There’s a good joke in this film focusing on Kurt’s on-going live stream murder-spree and the fact that he has almost no followers, let alone anyone who actually cares what he’s doing. Co-writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko doesn’t quite have a grasp on what else to do with that aspect of the story, but it provides enough fuel to keep Spree moving.
As a whole, Spree really feels like it’s trying to be American Psycho for the Generation Y age. That in mind, we’ve had so many films trying to tackle the pitfalls of social media, live streaming, and other related elements, that landing any sort of message needs to really be profound. Otherwise, the results are something that, at best, lands where Spree (or Nerve) ends up. It’s entertaining and slick but doesn’t offer a whole lot, outside of its high concept.
It’s a bit of a shame too, as Keery and Sasheer Zamata are putting in the work. Keery, in particular, skillfully finds a balance in displaying an energetic presence that is still not someone compelling to watch on a live feed. And yet, his banal approach to killing off people is appropriately matched with so many aspects of what people seem to like about those with an online presence. At the same time, Zamata plays a comedian with a big audience, and the film does what it needs to establish everything one needs to know about why she’s a success and Kurt isn’t.
The problem comes from knowing how to conclude such a wacky premise, and Spree can’t help but fit right into clichéd thriller territory. Even with the running commentary literally pasted on the screen by the viewers, the film does not avoid giving in to some weaker ideas, let alone doubling down on its clumsy messaging.
Still, as far as ‘screen vision’ films go, Spree justifies its visual format well, and Kotlyarenko and crew do the job in keeping up the pace of this 90ish minute movie. Finding ways to introduce other characters through their screens, developing subplots in the process, goes a long way to keep the film feeling refreshing enough. Plus, the carnage never becomes too much to handle, or viewers will at least be sensitized enough to it by now, which may speak more to culture than most of what Spree ends up offering. Regardless, it’s a fun ride. Kurt gets a three-star rating.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters and On Demand, August 14, 2020.
The Setup: A Russian doctor, Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), on the verge of losing her medical license, due to controversial methods, is recruited by the military to assess a special case. A cosmonaut has survived a mysterious space accident and has returned to Earth with a unique condition. Something is living inside of him, and it only shows itself at night. Will Tatyana be able to help, or will this thing cause havoc?
Review: There’s only one David Cronenberg, which is proved by Ego Abramenko’s well-crafted, if slight, sci-fi creature feature. There’s a good dose of body horror to be seen, but the conversations surrounding it do suggest a film with more on its mind. At the same time, impressive visual effects and atmosphere do allow the movie to engage on a horror level effectively.
Being a film that shot in Moscow, it’s interesting to see Sputnik as a look at government control and secrecy. I don’t know all the particulars in regards to filmmaking rules in Russia (I know China, on the other hand, is very strict about certain things), but given how much effort is put into rebelling against the system, there’s something to admire about a film like this getting away with so much.
Not hurting is the sense of intrigue that comes from the creature, the cosmonaut who serves as its vessel, and the relationship that develops between him and Tatyana. Learning the various rules about the creature, how it evolves, and more, allowed the film to take on some scenarios through sometimes cool and sometimes gross visualizations.
That goes a long way for a small film such as this. Enough is going on to make it a worthwhile viewing experience, especially thanks to a tough-as-nails performance from Akinshina, who seems to be drawing on the days of Alien’s Ellen Ripley. Not hurting is the effort put into the film’s quieter moments, before pushing into splatter territory. Perhaps not chest-burstingly amazing, but solid.
Where To Watch: Available in select Theaters, Digital, and On Demand, August 14, 2020.
The Setup: Elijah Wood is Norval Greenwood, a hipster man-child, who has arrived at a remote coastal cabin to see his estranged father (Stephen McHattie). Norval has not seen this man in 30 years, but quickly discovers it was for a good reason. The father is not only disapproving but a shady individual with demons that will manifest themselves in the most unlikely of ways.
Review: It’s always nice to be caught off guard by a movie. I am rarely taken aback by how good (or bad) films are, some having Come to Daddy swing in and be a wildly entertaining flick was certainly a sight to behold. Given his endless riches from The Lord of the Rings, if Elijah Wood wants to only star or produce random movies like this for the rest of his life, I’m all for it.
I don’t even want to delve too far into what the plot is. There are a lot of surprises featured in Come to Daddy, making it a fairly unpredictable film. Part of that is the point, and I imagine the shock value doesn’t make the rewatch value as high, but caught in the moment, the film knows how to push from being an awkward father-son story into a dark comedy working as a grimier version of something the Coens would cook up.
It should be clear that an escalation of tension is a big part of what makes this film work, but director Ant Timpson and writer Toby Harvard have a clear foot in the realm of macabre humor. As a result, so much of the violence is effectively undercut by the film’s tone and oddball sense of humor. Small character actor performances shine, and Wood manages to carry much of the movie based on his exaggerated expressions (even while sporting that terrible haircut).
I didn’t know what I was getting into with Come to Daddy but was happy to be surprised with something so violently looney, funny, and exciting.
Where To Watch: Available on Amazon Prime.
The Setup: The 1999 video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater became the start of a gaming and skateboarding phenomenon. Featuring interviews with Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Chad Muska, Eric Koston, and more, this documentary takes audiences through the rise of this gaming series, and the response that came with it.
Review: I can’t deny the healthy dose of nostalgia I received from merely hearing about this documentary. Combined with the announcement of a remastered re-release of the first two Tony Hawk games, it’s been fun looking back at games that took up a lot of my time, let alone hearing from the people behind them.
There’s enough to appreciate with what director Ludvig Gur has put together. An evident love for the game and what it did for the culture is on display, with plenty of admiration for Tony Hawk as well. I only wish it found a way to explore the later events of the gaming series, and the people it impacted outside of the skaters.
At 73 minutes, there’s only so much time to spend on things. The opening segment gets into the history of skateboarding and how it lowered in popularity during the 80s. But this isn’t Dogtown and Z Boys, so the film doesn’t dwell too much on that history. Instead, we hear a lot about Hawk’s career and what he was trying to do. Part of the doc’s narrative attempts to tie in Hawk’s attempts to land a 900-degree spin, which provides some interesting juxtaposition.
Hearing about the game history, of course, is quite fascinating, with a good chunk of the film focused on developing the first game. Understanding the perspectives of the different skaters (including my fav, Bob Burnquist) was neat as well, given their different takes on the prospect of being in a game they didn’t know would be a success (or possibly fail).
The rest of the doc isn’t quite as focused. There are details concerning the successful first few sequels, as well as what didn’t work about the later batch of games, but there could have been so much more to dig into. At the same time, eventually hearing from young skaters, particularly female and POC voices, allowed for some additional perspective, yet the film doesn’t allow much more than a few sentences worth of depth.
None of this is to say the documentary is not worth checking out. It’s good enough to have me wishing I could spend more time with all involved. I mean, when you have the lead singers of Goldfinger and Primus talking about how having their songs on the game’s soundtrack led to further success, I know there’s still plenty more to get into.
Still, especially for those who had a fondness for these original games, there’s plenty here to enjoy, and the game music is still very fun to listen to.
Where To Watch: Available on Digital and On Demand, August 18, 2020.
The Setup: A feature-length video essay about the contentious relationship between the Christian-themed cinema and Hollywood.
Review: Late in Reel Redemption, after presenting so many examples and commentary concerning the role faith-based films play in society, writer/director Tyler Smith proposes the idea of Christian films being their own genre. I found that to be pretty interesting and a way to reexamine the way they are placed within the current film culture.
Leading up to this is a thorough examination of cinema through the lens of religion. Smith provides insightful narration clarifying the history of faith-based movies have had in the Hollywood system, from the early days of film, to the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s, to areas fraught with controversy, to a present time where faith-based films have become an event for niche audiences, making them into moderate box office successes.
The key to the success of this presentation is acknowledging the complicated journey and a lack of dismissal on Smith’s part. It comes as little surprise that more recent efforts have not inspired the most praise from the critical establishment. Wisely, Smith keys in on what the shortcomings have been, as well as how certain films found deserved success thanks to having effort placed in the right areas.
Perhaps most interesting are the segments focused on the controversial features The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ, both of which received reactions landing all over the spectrum. Hearing an examination as to why both films proved to be the subject of praise, as well as criticism, Smith does a fine job in both further showing what the movies were after, along with how times have evolved, and what types of individuals were most aghast (meanwhile, critic Roger Ebert championed both films).
Like any video essay, even one expanded to feature-length, such as this one, value comes out of interest. I think the complicated journey of any genre, as far as the placement it has in culture, can be a valuable area to explore as a way to come to a certain understanding. Fortunately, this is not a film looking to pass judgment. Instead, it’s enlightening and quite entertaining.
Where To Watch: Available on Faithlife TV.
The Setup: Set within the quirky, competitive world of speedcubing, this is the story of the rivalry/friendship between the two best Rubik’s Cubers around the globe — 17-year-old Max Park and 23-year old Feliks Zemdegs.
Review: As this is merely a 40-minute documentary, I’m not going to delve too far into The Speed Cubers, beyond saying it is well worth watching. In addition to providing insight into a sport I did not even know existed, director Sue Kim delivers an uplifting story concerning friendship and a challenge to those who tell others what they can’t do. As a result, here’s a short doc that is simple, fun, and surprisingly tender. All that said, I solved my Rubik’s Cube once, and I still don’t want to go through all of that again.
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix.
The Setup: Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, A little boy (Jasen Fisher) and his kindly grandmother (Mai Zetterling) attempt to thwart the efforts of a coven of witches, led by Miss Ernst (Angelica Huston) to rid Britain of children by turning them into mice.
Review: Inspired by a leaked poster image for Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming remake and the fact that I had not seen this film since before Matilda was released, it was time to go back into the world of The Witches. I have to say – this movie is pretty terrific. But does that come as much of a shock? Looking at Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, and The BFG, Dahl adaptations have proven to be a good venture for filmmakers.
This apparently even applies to Nicolas Roeg, quite the quirky pick. The filmmaker behind Don’t Look Now and Walkabout is certainly not without skill, but saying he’s the one to make an adaptation of a children’s novel is certainly a choice. That said, Dahl’s sense of humor and adventure in his children’s books has always come with a sense of spookiness and macabre humor, so perhaps people knew what they were doing when selecting him.
Regardless, The Witches is still a delight. Part of that comes from keeping that darker element intact. This was a time when every kids’ movie didn’t need to be sanitized to prevent their poor eyes from seeing things to give them nightmares. Without those limits, the work done by Jim Henson Productions to create the Grand Witch design is as frightening as it is ugly. The menacing done to the kids involved adds to this as well.
As the Grand Witch, Huston was an ideal casting choice. She exudes a certain kind of threat that takes over the screen whenever possible. This all plays into the oddness of the film in general, with so much of it revolving around the adventures the young boy, Luke, has at a hotel, attempting to prove what he knows is true.
There’s a lot of charm all throughout this film, as the practically-achieved visual effects and makeup go a long way in making everything feel tinged with something extra special. As a result, this feature does not feel too separated from Dahl’s work or the other adaptations, even if it does twist some outcomes around. Better than a simple round of hocus pocus, The Witches casts the right kind of spell.
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix.