Film Review: Sunset (dir by Jamison M. LoCascio)

What do you get when you mix sanctimonious liberalism with the type of production values that one would normally associate with an evangelical-produced film about the rapture?

The 2018 film, Sunset, opens with a birthday party and it’s all downhill from there.  Elderly Henry (Liam Mitchell) may have just wanted to celebrate the fact that his wife Patricia (Barbara Bleier) had managed to survive another year despite being in poor health and almost constant pain but he made the mistake of inviting Julian (Austin Pendleton,  who always seems to get cast in roles like this) to the party and all Julian wants to do is talk politics.

Julian is concerned that the United States has been carpet-bombing the Middle East.  Henry thinks that the Middle East is getting what they deserve because a group of terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles and apparently destroyed the West Coast.  Julian isn’t so sure that the destruction of Los Angeles justified the destruction of the rest of the world.  (Take that, City of Angels.)  Fortunately, before things can get too intense, Chris (David Johnson) says, “Let’s get this party started!” and all of the political talk is abandoned.

However, the next morning, everyone wakes up to discover that missiles will soon be hitting the East Coast!  (This movie made me happy to live in the middle of the country.)  Everyone is making plans to evacuate the coasts and move to the red states, where they’ll presumably demand a state income tax and a Wawa on every street corner.  (To quote the Texas waitress in Hell or High Water, “Some asshole from New York ordered a trout.  We ain’t got no goddamned trout.”)  However, Patricia refuses to leave her house because she’s old and in constant pain and she wants to end her life on her own terms.  Of course, since Patricia refuses to leave, that means that Henry is now obligated to stay there with her and die as well, despite the fact that he has a sister in Missouri who would probably take him in.  Way to go, Patricia.

While Patricia is getting ready to kill her husband, the other people who were at her party are making plans as well.  Chris uploads a YouTube video where he talks about how scared he is about the end of the world.  Ayden (Juri Henley-Cohn) and Breyanna (Suzette Gunn) do a Google search on the effects of nuclear war and they decide that they don’t want any part of that.  (I wouldn’t want any part of it either.  Nuclear war sounds gross.)  Smarmy little Julian pops up occasionally and basically spouts the type of boomer political blather that makes Stephen King’s twitter feed so tedious.  Every few minutes, someone turns on a radio or television and we hear a reporter talking about how the world is about to end.   This is a low-budget film so we don’t actually see any of those reporters, we just hear their voices.

Usually, this is where I would point out that the film at least has good intentions regardless of its aesthetic shortcomings but …. eh.  Good intentions can only go so far and the aesthetic short comings here are dramatic.  This is one of those films where people are dealing with a huge, emotional event but everyone seems to spend their time speaking as if they were a Wikipedia article come to life.  Add to that the fact that Patricia’s desire to die in her house seems more selfish than noble and you’ve got a film that really doesn’t work.

That said, I did like the final five minutes of the film and not just because they indicated that the film was almost over.  Those final five minutes do give the film a much-needed sense of grace.  One gets the feeling that the entire film was made so that the director could have those final five minutes and, regardless of how bad the rest of the movie may be, the ending does have an isolated impact.  If you just saw those five minutes (and not the 80 minutes that came before them), you would be sincerely moved.

Anyway, as far as films about the end of the world go, Sunset didn’t end it quickly enough for me.

Here’s The Trailer For The Saved By The Bell Reboot!

Good God, this looks awful.  When is Mario Lopez going to start aging?  I swear, the man has to have a Dorian Gray-type painting up in his attic or something.

Oh well.  As bad as it looks, I’ll probably watch a few episodes.

Here’s The Trailer For Blackbird!

I had totally forgotten that this film was coming out so I’m glad that this trailer dropped today and reminded me.  This film has got an amazing cast and a story that, if told correctly, should generate a lot of tears.

Here’s the trailer for Blackbird, which is due to be released on September 18th.

Here’s The Trailer For The Secrets We Keep!

Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and the only who really matters), stars in this upcoming film about a woman living in 1950s suburbia who abducts a man who she believes is a fugitive war criminal.

The Secrets We Keep is scheduled to get a limited release in September, followed by VOD release in October.  (Oh, you want exact dates?  Okay — September 16th and October 16th.)  I have no idea whether the film is going to live up to its potential.  Watching the trailer, I kind of feel like it could go either way.  But Noomi Rapace is a fantastic performer who deserves to be better known and I hope this movie will be a good vehicle for her talents.

Here’s the trailer:

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Private Wars (dir by John Weidner)

The 1993 action film, Private Wars, tells the story of a neighborhood, a big evil businessman, and one drunk private investigator who likes to shoot things.

The big evil businessman is Alexander Winters (played by Stuart Whitman).  Winters is so evil that he probably spends at least three hours every night practicing his smirk.  He’s the type who will plot someone’s death and then laugh about it just to make sure that it’s understood that he’s totally evil.  Winters wants to build a new business complex but there’s a neighborhood sitting on the land that he wants to use and no one’s willing to move.

However, Winters has a plan to bring about change.  If the people in the neighborhood won’t move voluntarily, he’ll just make them flee for their lives.  Winters pays off some local gangs to create trouble in the neighborhood.  Soon, stores are exploding and windows are getting broken and obscene graffiti is showing up on walls.  Everyone in the neighborhood keeps going to the community center and debating what to do.  You have to wonder why the gangs are wasting their time vandalizing storefronts when they could have just blown up the community center and taken out every who was in their way.

Eventually, the community decides to hire someone to teach them how to defend themselves.  After auditioning a series of ninjas and other wannabe soldiers of fortune, the community hires Jack Manning (Steve Railsback).  Why do they hire Jack Manning?  Well, he’s a friend of one of the community leaders.  He’s also an alcoholic who shoots his car whenever the engine starts giving him trouble.  How exactly anyone could look at Jack — who is not only almost always drunk but also a bit on the short and scrawny side — and think that he could protect the neighborhood is an interesting question that the film doesn’t really explore.

Anyway, the community is soon fighting back, which turns out to be a lot easier than anyone imagined.  Eventually, Jack ends up in jail as a result of Winters’s corruption but fortunately, it’s while in jail that Jack meets a few guys who all have mullets and who all come back to the neighborhood to help Jack out when a bunch of ninjas try to take over the streets.  Winters may have ninjas but Jack has a bunch of petty criminals who look they’re all heading to a hockey game in Toronto.  It’s a fair fight.

To be honest, the main thing that I will always remember about Private Wars was just how unnecessary Jack eventually turned out to be.  For all the money that he was apparently being paid, he really doesn’t do much.  I guess he does teach people in the neighborhood the techniques of self-defense but the film is so haphazardly edited that it’s hard to be sure of that.  It’s entirely possible that everyone already knew how to fight but they were just hoping Jack would do it for them.  Watching the film, it’s easy to get the feeling that the folks in the community center took one look at Jack and said, “Well, shit …. I guess we gotta do this ourselves.”  Even the final confrontation between Jack and Winters is resolved by a third character.  Imagine Roadhouse if Patrick Swayze spent the whole movie sitting at the bar and you have an idea what Private Wars is like.

Private Wars is really silly but, possibly for that very reason, it’s also occasionally fun in its own stupid way.  If nothing else, Stuart Whitman and Steve Railsback appeared to be enjoying themselves.  The movie’s on YouTube.  I watched it last Monday as a part of the #MondayActionMovie live tweet and I enjoyed myself.

Film Review: Shelter (dir by Wrion Bowling and Adam C. Caudill)

The 2012 film, Shelter, opens in an ominous and sterile-looking room.  There are bunk beds.  There are shelves that appear to be full of supplies.  There’s a table where people could possibly sit down and talk or play cards.  There’s a shower stall, with a shower curtain providing a little bit of privacy.

There are also several people in the room.  One woman is asking what they’re going to do.  In the shower, another woman is crying.  We can tell by looking at the inhabitants of the room that they’ve been in the room for a while and that they’re all losing whatever grip they once had on sanity.

And really, even though we don’t know what’s going on, we can all relate.  We can probably relate better in 2020 than audiences could in 2012.  Most of us have, in one way or another, been sheltered in place since at least March and — surprise!  — it turns out that all of those “We’re all in this together” commercials didn’t make anyone feel any better about the idea of not even being able to go outside without having to first put on a mask.  It’s not just the feeling of claustrophobia or humanity’s natural inclination to resent being ordered around.  It’s also that it’s hard to be happy when you don’t have the freedom to live your own life.  When someone is continually told that what they want isn’t important and that their fate is in the hands of some unseen regulator, who can blame them for going a little crazy?  That certainly would appear to be the situation in which the characters in Shelter have found themselves.

The film flashes back to the day that five strangers first found themselves locked away in the shelter.  They entered the room because an alarm went off.  None of them knew what the room was but, shortly after entering, they heard an explosion and felt the ground shake.  On a monitor, they saw a bright flash of light apparently vaporize the city above them.  They also found a note that explained that the room was designed to provide safety from a nuclear attack.  According to the note, they had enough food to last for several years.  Of course, the note also stated that the shelter was built and stocked with two inhabitants in mind, as opposed to five.

We follow the five survivors as they get to know each other and as they adjust to life in the shelter.  It doesn’t take long for them to settle into their new routine.  There’s really nothing else for them to do but accept the situation.  The room is locked and the doors are not going to open until a computerized system determines that it’s safe for the inhabitants to leave.  They’re stuck together so they might as well play cards and just wait it out.

Of course, things don’t work that smoothly.  The hours turn into days and the days turn into months and soon, petty annoyances become major disagreements.  Some of the survivors seem to be content with the idea of staying in the shelter forever while others think about escape.  Some start to wonder if there’s even actually been a war….

Shelter is a good thriller about human nature and just how much isolation and claustrophobia someone can take before they snap.  The characters are all well-defined and well-acted and the film made good use of its low-budget, with that sterile bunker ultimately becoming as much of a character as the people trapped inside of it.  The film ends with a twist that, while not completely unexpected, was still satisfying nonetheless.

Shelter‘s on Prime so watch it the next time you’re feeling trapped.

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977, directed by David Greene and Gordon Davidson)

What if, instead of being shot by Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald had survived and been put on trial for the murder of President John F. Kennedy?

That’s the question asked by this television film.  John Pleshette plays Lee Harvey Oswald while Lorne Greene plays his attorney, Matt Weldon and Ben Gazzara plays the prosecutor, Kip Roberts.  The film imagines that the trial would have been moved to a small Texas town because Oswald presumably wouldn’t have been able to get a fair trial in Dallas.  While Roberts is forced to deal with his own doubts as to whether or not Oswald actually killed the President, Weldon is frustrated by Oswald’s paranoid and self-destructive behavior.  Oswald insists that he’s a patsy and that he was framed by “them” but he refuses to tell Weldon who they are.

With a running time of four hours, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a courtroom drama that tries to be fair to both sides and which ends with a frustrating cop-out.  While Weldon presents all of the evidence that real-life conspiracy theorists frequently cite in their attempts to prove Oswald’s innocence, Roberts makes the case that was presented in the Warren Commission.  Unfortunately, the film ends up trying too hard to avoid coming down on one side or the other and just proves that it’s impossible to be even-handed when it comes to conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination.  It’s either buy into the idea that it was all a huge conspiracy involving mobsters and intelligence agents or accept that it was just Oswald doing the shooting as a lone assassin.  Trying to come down in the middle, as this film does, just doesn’t work.

John Pleshette does a good job as Oswald and bears a passing resemblance to him.  Because the movie refuses to take a firm stand on whether or not Oswald’s guilty, the character is written as being a cipher who claims to be innocent but who, at the same time, also refuses to take part in his defense.  Pleshette plays up Oswald’s creepy arrogance, suggesting that Oswald was capable of trying to kill someone even if he didn’t actually assassinate JFK.  Both Greene and Gazzara are convincing as the two opposing attorneys, even if neither one of them really does much more than offer up a surface characterization.

The majority of the movie takes place in the courtroom, with a few flashbacks to Oswald’s past included to keep things from getting too stagnant.  When the film was made, people were still learning about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald might have had something new to tell them.  Seen today, the majority of the film’s evidence seems like old news.  The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald never escapes the shadow of later films, like Oliver Stone’s JFK.

It’s hard not to regret that The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t willing to come definitively down on one side or the other.  Instead, it ends by telling us that we’re the jury and that the only verdict that matters is that one that we come up with.  They could have just told us that at the start of the movie and saved us all four hours.