Tag Archives: Brandon Thomas

In the Mood for Macabre

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

by Brandon Thomas

After inheriting a large castle, Dieter (Frederik von Lüttichau) and Margot (Luisa Taraz) head into the European countryside to assess the property’s worth. As the couple explores the empty castle, they begin to experience visions of ghostly figures. After an unplanned overnight, Dieter and Margot find their relationship succumbing to the influence of the old structure.

The above description comprises no more than the first 30 minutes of Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes. Going any further with story specifics would ruin the twists and turns the remaining 40 minutes will offer. Suffice to say, this isn’t your typical “Couple Explores Creepy Property They Unexpectedly Inherited” movie. 

Austrian filmmaker Kevin Kopacka jumps headfirst into 60s/70s Euro-horror that’s heavy on mood and style and purposefully light on narrative throughlines. The gorgeous colors that dance through the castle sets are reminiscent of the stylings of Mario Bava and Argento’s work in Suspiria. The early emphasis on style never threatens to turn the movie into a substance-lacking nostalgia piece. Kopacka and co-writer Lili Villanyi have far too much on their minds for that to happen.

Even at a scant 75 minutes, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes manages to switch gears three or four times. What begins as a focused homage to Euro-horror ends as an examination of the creative process and delicate male egos. The themes aren’t subtle but through smart writing and beautiful visuals, they land with ease. 

For a film that’s so heavy on ideas and atmosphere, it was quite shocking to see one particularly graphic moment. The overall lack of carnage in Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes makes this moment even more impactful as it shocks the audience out of the certain level the filmmakers have developed. The guys in the audience will find themselves squirming an extraordinary amount.

With a clever script and some top-notch visuals, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes earns a spot as one of the more intriguing horror films of the year so far.

Shooting Blanks

Blowback

by Brandon Thomas

Rideshare driver Nick (Cam Gigandet of Twilight and The Magnificent Seven) needs fast money to help care for his hospitalized daughter. Thankfully in the world of Blowback, there’s a seedy criminal underbelly that rideshare drivers know about.

Nick gets hooked up with a crew that includes an ex of his (Michelle Plaia) and her new squeeze, Jack (Randy Couture of The Expendables). Like clockwork, Nick is quickly double-crossed after the heist and left for dead. What follows is a meandering, undercooked tale of revenge. 

First thing’s first: Blowback was a chore to sit through. It’s a movie completely devoid of clever plotting or surprises. Instead, the entirety of the film is built upon genre cliches that have been done better hundreds of times before. Cliches and tropes can be fun and entertaining, but it helps to have good writing, directing, and acting to support them.

Gigandet and Couture are the big “names” in Blowback, and I’m having a hard time thinking of two other leads more boring than them. Gigandet has turned in some okay work in bigger fare over the years, but he’s not the kind of actor that can take weak material and beef it up through his performance. Couture, on the other hand, has never turned in a performance I would call good. The majority of his line readings feel like they’re coming from cue cards.

Director Tibor Takacs has been steadily working as a director since the mid-80s. He’s responsible for two cult horror favorites in The Gate and I, Madman. While these two films aren’t bonafide classics, they did show that Takacs knew how to approach genre with some style. This is not the case with Blowback.

The film is competently made, but only from a point-and-shoot standard. Takacs’s vanilla directing style here does nothing to help the already cheap feel of the entire production.

Blowback offers 93 minutes of nothing new in the realm of revenge cinema. Save yourself the time and put on Point Blank again. Or maybe one of the John Wick movies. Maybe Kill Bill would scratch that itch as well. In fact, any other movie would work out better than Blowback.

Evil Strange

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

by Brandon Thomas

Welcome back, Sam Raimi. 

The madcap director of the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, makes a triumphant return to the big screen with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has battled other sorcerers, alien threats and even villains from alternate realities. All of them pale in comparison to the dark entity chasing young America Chavez (Xochil Gomez) across dimensions. As Strange fights to protect the young girl, he finds that the line between good and evil can easily be blurred – and sometimes even compromised by the best of intentions. 

The jump in quality between the first Doctor Strange film and Multiverse of Madness is more of a leap than a step. The first film sets it up well enough, but like many of the Marvel origin stories, it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Raimi’s film has no such issues. Cumberbatch is more comfortable in the role now, having appeared in two Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite having a packed to the gills story, there’s still a lot of meaty character work for Cumberbatch to latch onto. 

Speaking of the story, yes this is another Marvel film with lots of tie-in to movies that came before and movies that will come after. Like the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors, Multiverse of Madness delicately threads the needle and never feels too chaotic or unfocused. Raimi fought that battle and lost once before with Spider-Man 3.

There are plenty of surprises in the film. The marketing team behind the trailers should be commended for spoiling next to nothing – not even the main villain. Surprises are a big selling point for these MCU movies, and Multiverse has plenty of them up its sleeve.

Multiverse of Madness is Raimi firing on all cylinders. The movie absolutely crackles with the filmmaker’s energy and signature style. I nearly jumped out of my seat in delight when a couple shots of doors slamming in dutch angles appeared on screen. Few directors attack action sequences with the inventiveness and fun that Raimi does. You can feel the director’s personal flourishes coming through in those scenes instead of pre-visualized dreck from VFX artists in Vancouver.  

The film also leans into horror. Like his skill with action, horror carnage is a specialty of Raimi’s. Witches, demons and undead sorcerers pop up, and Raimi delights in tossing them at Cumberbatch’s Strange. I doubt the director tortured Cumberbatch like his friend Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films but it is fun to speculate. 

By embracing the character’s more horror-centric roots, and letting director Sam Raimi cut loose, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness offers up one of the most exciting – and different – films in the MCU so far. 

Screening Room: The Northman, Massive Talent, The Bad Guys & More

Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

by Brandon Thomas

It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker creating something exciting and fresh inside of the found footage subgenre in the year 2022. Since The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene over 20 years ago, found footage has touched on haunted houses, monster invasions and even alien abductions. Honestly, if you name it, there’s probably been a found footage movie made about it. In We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, director Jane Schoenbrun dials back the visual trickery, and instead crafts something much more intimate, yet equally terrifying.

Anna Cobb is Casey, an isolated teen who has become obsessed with an online role-playing horror game. Dividing her time between her attic bedroom, the detached garage on her property, and the nearby woods, Casey begins to document what she thinks are changes to her body and mind due to the game. 

Schoenbrun allows many scenes to play out in long, uninterrupted takes. Whether it’s Casey talking to the camera, or a static shot of her sleeping, this approach wrings the tension out of even the most mundane. We’re always waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. The not-knowing is the worst.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair also cleverly plays with form. Schoenbrun isn’t afraid to leave found footage behind and take a more traditional narrative approach. The filmmaker still expertly keeps the movie tapped into the immense isolation Casey and her online friend JLB (Michael J. Rogers) feel. Outside of other online testimonials, Casey and JLB are the only two characters we clearly see in the entire film.

There’s always the question of whether what’s happening to Casey is real or just a byproduct of internet obsession. It’s easy to point to this young character and say, “See! Teens are soooo addicted to the internet,” yet, the film wisely juxtaposes Casey with JLB and his equally monotonous existence. The film leaves so many tantalizing questions dangling, but any answers offered up would never satisfy the ones in our head.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair plays with theme and character much more than it does with on-screen carnage. However, it doesn’t take shadows dancing in the corner of the frame to create chills and thrills.

Alone in the Dark

See for Me

by Brandon Thomas

There’s nothing better than a thriller with a great hook. Sometimes it’s as simple as a private investigator with a fear of heights being used as a pawn in a murder, such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sometimes the hook is much more elaborate like the narrative and truth-bending nature of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In director Randall Okita’s See for Me, the hook falls somewhere in the middle as a blind housesitter is pitted against three thieves. 

After a skiing accident leaves her visually impaired, Sophie (Skyler Davenport) is hired to house sit for a wealthy client. After the sun sets, Sophie is surprised by three intruders looking for a massive cash score from the home’s safe. While able to call 911, Sophie needs immediate help and uses an app called “See for Me” to connect with a technician who can relay what they’re seeing through Sophie’s phone. Luckily for Sophie, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former combat vet. As the intruders become aware of Sophie’s presence, Jessica uses her expertise to direct the at-risk Sophie out of harm’s way.

Great hook or not, See for Me is a fairly simplistic movie in execution. Okita never tries to jazz the picture up with crazy camera work or elaborate set pieces. Panic Room this movie is not (and more so for budget reasons, one would think). Okita uses the frame wisely as the suspense of Sophie’s predicament slowly plays out. The house is one of the stars of the movie with its large rooms, high ceilings, and exposure through floor-to-ceiling windows. Okita makes sure we’re allowed to see so much of what’s happening within the house while Sophie cannot, a strategic move that naturally increases the tension.

Davenport commands every second of her screen time. A visually impaired person in real life, Davenport’s approach to Sophie is one of complexity. There’s a stubbornness to the character as she refuses to be seen as anything less than capable in the eyes of those around her. Sometimes that comes out as hostility toward family, friends and even clients. This stubbornness becomes an important asset as Sophie barters with her would-be captors, and uses Kelly’s guidance to fight back. 

The use of the “See for Me” app threatens to strain believability at times, mostly in how Sophie is turned into an expert marksman with little to no guidance. For a film so grounded for most of its running time, these bits in the movie’s back half tend to stick out and betray its smarter elements. 

Through a clever hook and a great lead performance, See For Me becomes one of 2022’s first stand-out thrillers. 

Wrestling with Family

Brighton 4th

by Brandon Thomas

Georgian filmmaker Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th is a charming drama that surprises with some subtle comedic flourishes. It’s a film that never gets lost in a self-serious tale of immigrants “roughing it” – instead staying firmly grounded in interesting and likable characters.

Kakhi (Levan Tedaishvili), a former Olympic wrestler, travels from the central Asian country of Georgia to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn to visit his son. He finds him living in a shabby boarding house and learns that his son owes serious debts to a local mob boss. Hoping to get his son out of this jam, Kakhi begins looking for ways to raise the money to pay off his son’s debt and return home to Georgia. 

Tedaishvili wows with a beautifully stoic performance. Kakhi is a character that happily takes on the burdens of those he loves. From committing a “minor” case of kidnapping to help two women get the pay they’re owed, to letting that same man free out of a sense of respect, Kakhi is a man with a strong – but quiet – moral code. Tedaishvili’s performance is all the more amazing as this is only his second film. His debut was all the way back in 1987’s Khareba da Gogia.

Brighton 4th wonderfully blends drama and comedy. There’s a grounded absurdity to the comedy that makes it entirely relatable. Whether it’s the chaos from the kidnapping plot, or Kakhi’s family members continually losing money over minor annoyances, the laughs are good-natured and always centered in character. 

The most striking part of Brighton 4th is the spotlight it puts on basic decency. It would be easy to focus on the ugly parts of life when depicting the struggles of immigrants. That part is apparent in the film for sure, but Koguashvili’s interest is in how people treat one another when times get hard. Kakhi continually puts the hardships of his friends and family on his own shoulders and does so without complaint. One scene in particular – when the newly kidnapped man helps soothe a woman with epilepsy while she’s having a seizure – showcases the film’s core belief: that when things are hard, people will rise up to lend a helping hand.

While not being an overly complicated tale about the strife of new immigrants, Brighton 4th does offer a sweet, uplifting tale of a family doing what they can with what they have to help each other.

Lacks a Punch

Panama

by Brandon Thomas

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Geezer Teaser” subgenre. What’s a Geezer Teaser you might ask? Well, it’s typically a cheaply made action movie or thriller that has a semi-recognizable young lead (usually Scott Eastwood or Devon Sawa), and a much more famous older actor that shows up for a solid 10 to 15 minutes tops. A lot of action movie heavy-hitters have done these. Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, John Travola, and Mel Gibson have all done their fair share.

I guess the big question is “Are these movies any good?”

The answer? 

No, not really, and Panama, Gibson’s latest in this subgenre, is particularly sleep-inducing. 

Ex-marine James Becker (Cole Hauser of 2 Fast 2 Furious) is recruited by Stark (Mel Gibson) to negotiate an arms deal in the country of Panama. As the American invasion of Panama looms over the country, Becker becomes more embroiled with the corrupt government and a shadowy local (Kiara Liz).

From the get-go, Panama is a chore to sit through. Director Mark Neveldine (Game Over, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) tries hard to craft a sexy, tropics-based thriller, but nearly every beat is a re-heated moment from infinitely better movies. It’s not a matter of budget, as Daniel Adams’s and William Barber’s script fails on even an entertainment level. The twists lack surprise and a coherent story or character motivation seems to have been an afterthought.

That Panama is so inert is a shame as Neveldine and former directing partner Brian Taylor made two of the wildest action movies with their Crank series. Panama – while not trying to be anything that zany – lacks even a tenth of Crank’s macabre sense of humor or electric visual style.

Cast wise, the bulk of the heavy lifting is put on the shoulders of Hauser. Hauser has rarely been a leading man, and his work in Panama does nothing to show that this should change. Supporting turns in Dazed & Confused, Good Will Hunting and Pitch Black allowed the actor to play second, third or even eighth banana in some really good films. For a character that’s supposed to be charismatic and suave, Hauser brings nothing to the role. His constant stoic and dry delivery conveys the opposite every single time.

At this point, Gibson is just doing his traditional thing. He shows up, kicks a little ass, delivers a few cool lines and heads off into the sunset. It’s the kind of role Gibson could do in his sleep, but doesn’t offer anything we will remember even five minutes after the credits begin to roll.
As far as Geezer Teasers go, Panama is hardly the worst. Still, with weak action, a “been there, done that” story, and a phoned-in cast, it’s still one to skip.

Is This Thing On?

Heckle

by Brandon Thomas

You’ve only had to pay half attention to the entertainment world during the past few years to know that a lot of high-profile comedians have been outed as scumbags. It’s probably the worst kept secret in the industry. From Louis C.K. to Bill Cosby, a lot of comedy titans came under fire for their bad – or even criminal – behavior. 

This landscape seems ripe for a darkly comedic horror flick. Unfortunately, Heckle lacks the laughs or the scares to do this topic justice. 

Stand-up comedian Joe Johnson (Guy Combes) is riding a wave of success. His tours are popular and he’s about to star in a major film playing tragically murdered comedy icon, Ray Kelly (a supremely foul-mouthed Steve Guttenberg of Police Academy and Cocoon fame). All of that starts to crash as a particularly nasty heckler worms his way into Joe’s psyche. As his mental state begins deteriorating, Joe starts to believe that his physical well-being is also in danger from the obsessive heckler. 

Heckle spends a lot of time easing the audience into Joe’s world and his inner circle. Joe’s supposed to be this “big deal” comedian, yet the character is never really shown to be funny. The same process is used for Guttenberg’s character. The abrasiveness of the characters becomes the focal point to the detriment of everything else. It’s hard to buy this grand world of comedy legends if none of them are actually that funny.

The horror aspect suffers in the same regard. Nothing much happens for the first two-thirds of the film. There are some weak attempts to show Joe’s psychological decline, but none of it is particularly scary or thrilling. Mostly, these scenes come across as wheel-spinning to pad out an already short running time. By the time the actual carnage begins in the last act, it’s too little, too late. 

Heckle is full of starts and stops. The movie never quite knows if it wants to be a full-on horror film, a biting satire of the stand-up world or a comedy. Unfortunately for the audience, Heckle never truly succeeds at doing any of the three. 

Mean Boys

Mother Schmuckers

by Brandon Thomas

My relationship with gross-out humor is hit-or-miss. Like millions of other people around the world, I laughed uproariously as Cameron Diaz used the wrong “hair gel” in There’s Something About Mary. For 20 years, I’ve enjoyed the increasingly dumb antics of the crew from the Jackass films. On the other hand, Tom Green’s weirdo pet project Freddy Got Fingered remains one of the few movies I almost walked out of. Even revered cult classic Pink Flamingos has never been much more than a cinematic endurance test in my eyes.

Unfortunately for me, Belgian import Mother Schmuckers is less Mary and more Freddy with its unfunny bits and horrifically unlikable characters.

Brothers Zebulon and Issachar live a life of debauchery and chaos. When the two lose their mother’s beloved dog, they have 24 hours to find it or risk being thrown out on the street. Along the way, the two run afoul of a grocery store security guard, kill birds with a handgun, and parade a dead body around.

Mother Schmucker’s approach to comedy is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Directors Harpo and Lenny Guit definitely aren’t afraid to try anything and everything, even if it means the vast majority of the gags (pun fully intended) fall flat. Everything from force-feeding feces to animal kink shows up at one point or another. This “anything goes” attitude might work for a prank or other kind of reality show, but as a narrative feature it just comes across as unfocused and lazy.

There’s a chaotic energy to Mother Schmuckers that’s undeniable. The movie’s visual aesthetic feels closer to a mid-90s skateboarding video than it does a traditional comedy. The camera moves around almost as fast as the brothers as they scurry from one catastrophe to the next. While it doesn’t necessarily make the movie any better, it does keep it from becoming a complete bore.

I don’t want to sound too puritanical, but brothers Issachar and Zebulon are two of the worst degenerates to ever grace the big screen. I doubt the Guits intended for audiences to embrace these moronic characters, but the lengths to which they go to make us actively hate them is almost impressive. I don’t for a second believe that movie characters need to be likable to be relatable, but these two live on a completely different plane of obnoxiousness and cruelty.

Mother Schmuckers is a pointlessly mean-spirited endeavor. Gross cinema can be good – heck, it can even be great! What it should never be, though, is cruel.