Tag Archives: Brandon Thomas

Remember, Remember…

Back to the Wharf

by Brandon Thomas

Many of your favorite neo-noirs play with the idea of past transgressions coming back to haunt our hero(s). Whether it’s murder born of passionate jealousy or a botched robbery that places the lead on the run, the past hangs on this genre like a cheap suit. In director Xiaofeng Li’s Back to the Wharf, one tragic mistake has a ripple effect across an entire family and community.

Song Hao (Yu Zhang) has returned to his hometown after 15 years following the death of his mother. Once a promising student with university in his future, Song fled after mistakenly entering a neighbor’s home and stabbing him. What Song didn’t know at the time is that his father finished off the mortally wounded man to save his son – and that one of Song’s classmates, Li Tang (Hong-chi Lee) witnessed the crime and has been using it to blackmail his father ever since.

Back to the Wharf – unlike many modern neo-noirs – isn’t concerned with the tropes of the genre. The cool factor is toned down in favor of a more quiet character study. The bursts of violence that do happen are born out of believable character development, not a need to clumsily move the plot along. 

Zhang as Song Hao delivers a quiet, but enthralling performance. It’s easy to see Song is a powder keg, but the delicateness of Zhang’s performance has us as viewers begging for that eventual explosion not to happen. This is especially true once Pan (Song Jia), a former classmate of Song’s, enters his life again. Their meet-cute is made all the more adorable because of Pan’s quirky demeanor – one that has made her an isolated outsider in the community, just like Song. Jia’s jovial outward performance is a fantastic juxtaposition to Zhang’s stoic and guilt-ridden Song.

The film’s eventual conclusion is an unsubtle comment on how violence festers into more violence. There’s no crescendo of righteous vengeance from Song or his father against Li Tang as he squeezes the two for political favors. The cycle of greed and emotional reckoning remains unbroken even as Song tries to build a life of stability with Pan.
While straddling the line between typical neo-noir and quiet character drama, Back to the Wharf manages to satisfy fans of both genres.

Born to Be Wild

Wildcat

by Brandon Thomas

Much has been made of how animals impact the lives of their humans. For a lot of people, many of the fondest memories they have are of a dog or cat that brought an enormous amount of joy to their lives. Of course, these stories usually revolve around domesticated pets and not wild animals. Wildcat deviates from your standard nature documentary and instead focuses on the deep bond between an emotionally fragile man and the wildcat that relies on him for survival.

Harry Turner is a twenty-something Englishman who deployed to Afghanistan when he was 18 years old. As Harry’s time in the armed forces comes to an end, he’s left with scars both physical and emotional. Looking for a fresh start, Harry travels to the remote Peruvian portion of the Amazon and links up with a Ph.D. student and her animal sanctuary. As Harry continues to struggle with the effects of debilitating depression and PTSD, fate drops an orphaned ocelot (ironically named Keanu) into his care and into his life.

There’s a breeziness to Wildcat that helps it feel more personal than most nature docs. A huge swath of footage is shot by Harry himself and helps the audience understand his state of mind much more quickly than a series of talking heads might have. When Harry’s doing well, there’s a tight focus to the footage of Keanu and of his testimonials. As his mental health deteriorates, so does the shooting style of the film. Entire scenes take place with participants off-screen or in the background – at times leaving us just as disoriented as Harry.

So much of the film begins to feel voyeuristic as Harry spirals. Not in a gratuitous or exploitative way, but in that Harry’s deep emotional connection to Keanu’s well-being feels like an exposed nerve. Seeing this vulnerable wildcat rely on an equally vulnerable human being is a beautiful juxtaposition that forms the core of the film. 

Wildcat isn’t the kind of film that gives one a better understanding of nature and its fragility. Instead, this is a film that seeks to better understand the delicate connection that can exist between humanity and the animals that co-exist with us.

Double Trouble

NR. 10

by Brandon Thomas

We all wonder why we are the way we are. As teens we blame our parents. In early adulthood we blame society. Then as we reach middle-age we blame our parents again. It’s a vicious cycle that most of us never grow out of nor get a satisfactory answer to. In Nr. 10, filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam (Borgman) suggests the ultimate nature vs. nurture question set against the absurdity of local theater. What’s the question you might ask? Well, that would be giving away far too much.

Gunter (Tom Dewispelaere) is a member of a local Dutch acting troupe. On the surface, Gunter has what looks to be a good life. He’s a respected member of the troupe, he has a close –  albeit complicated – relationship with his daughter, and he’s in a passionate relationship with a woman who just so happens to be the theater director’s wife. Things quickly begin to change for Gunter when a stranger approaches him and whispers a single word into his ear.

Nr. 10 is a difficult movie to discuss because getting too far into the weeds would potentially ruin any and all surprises the movie has. The surprises within the movie don’t necessarily make or break it, but they do constitute such a seismic shift that spoiling them might make future viewers feel cheated. 

I do feel comfortable saying that Nr. 10 comes across as almost two separate movies. The first half is a deeply funny portrait of local theater and its idiosyncratic nature. The shallowness and vanity of actors are on full display as Gunter and a colleague squabble over the meaning of their characters and whether they would stick up for themselves when challenged. The antics of the theater and its culture never become the full focus – just a jumping-off point for Gunter and the other fabulous set of characters.

As the focus on the theater begins to wear off, the strangeness of what’s going on around Gunter begins to take hold. Well-dressed older men watch Gunter’s home and his day-to-day activities and report back to several high-ranking Catholic clergymen. Part of me didn’t want the eventual explanation of what was happening. The peculiarity of these scenes was just askew enough of reality to feel right at home in a David Lynch movie.

The eventual narrative shift toward the end of the film is a bit awkwardly handled but still leads to a satisfying back-half. The absurdity of the stage and its inhabitants is traded for an almost equally mind-boggling reveal of Gunter’s early life. The inclusion of a completely different genre shouldn’t work, but Warmerdam’s commitment to keeping the tone in check allows the film to barrel forward and not lose the audience in its wake.

Dewispelaere does a terrific job anchoring the film with his central performance. As Gunter’s early confidence withers away, Dewispelaere dances back and forth between helplessness and bewilderment at what is unfolding before him. It’s a performance that could’ve gone too big, and Dewispelaere wisely keeps things subdued even as the story gets wilder and more unbelievable. 

Nr. 10 stumbles in trying to fasten together two separate narratives, yet the emphasis on dark comedy and character keeps the premise feeling fresh and fun the entire time.

Sister, Sister

Shadows

by Brandon Thomas

Growing up is tough, especially once adolescence rears its ugly head. Your body gets weird, emotions are all over the map, and you don’t know shit despite thinking you do. Now imagine growing up amidst a global catastrophe with an overbearing mother and not being able to step foot into the daylight. In Shadows, this scenario ends up being a recipe for disaster.

Alma (Mia Threapleton) and her sister Alex (Lola Petticrew) live in total isolation with their mother (Saskia Reeves). The girls remember nothing of their lives before a catastrophic event drove the family deep into the woods. By day, the family stays indoors hiding from mysterious entities known as “Shadows” – beings that live in the daylight and fully inhabit the land beyond the river. As the sisters’ rebellious curiosity takes hold, they begin to wonder about the world beyond the river, especially as their mother’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous. 

Director Carlo Lavagna makes the close bond between Alma and Alex the focal point of Shadows. The mother almost exists on the periphery of their lives – appearing to reprimand them or scare them back into obedience. Even though they are teens, there’s a stunted immaturity to the sisters that’s hard to ignore and makes their situation all the sadder. Threapleton, daughter of actress Kate Winslett, walks a tightrope between inner strength and debilitating reliance on her emotionally distant mother. Many times Threapleton does both within the same scene.

The depiction of Mother is another bright spot. Mother appears sparingly – keeping the audience at arm’s length just as she does with Alma and Alex. Her coldness is rivaled only by her calculated survival instincts and desire to keep the sisters confined and “safe.” The mysterious nature of Mother helps keep us in the same shoes as the constantly confused and fearful sisters. 

For a film that spends so much time in the same location, the cinematography is a standout. Cinematographer James Mather (Frank, Extra Ordinary) has an incredible eye for space and makes the world the family lives in feel spacious, yet closed in and emotionally walled off. The daytime threat of the Shadows themselves is visualized through a harshness in the few daylight scenes that is contrasted perfectly by beautiful nighttime photography.

Where Shadows stumbles is on its way to the finish line. Most viewers will see the “surprise” ending telegraphed a mile away and feel a bit underwhelmed at its perceived cleverness. The climax – while not wholly original – doesn’t retroactively make the rest of the film feel lesser. 
Shadows doesn’t break any new ground on a narrative level, but it does feature three captivating performances by an entirely female cast.

Pez Mania

The Pez Outlaw

by Brandon Thomas

The world of collectors is an odd and varied one. From baseball cards to ceramic figurines, lunch boxes and even sneakers, virtually every product seems to have someone who collects it. However, the real interest lay not with the items themselves, but with the eccentric people who spend vast fortunes and tailor their lives around collecting. Sometimes, those eccentricities lead to actions that are lawfully “questionable.”

Steve Glew was just a mild-mannered guy from rural Michigan in the early 1990s. Glew was always a collector of odd-ball items, with his pride and joy being an assortment of cereal boxes from around the world. As his collector tendencies increased, so did Glew’s awareness that collecting could be lucrative. With his college-age son, he set off to Europe to snatch up as many hard-to-find and Europe-centric Pez dispensers as he could, and sell them to salivating collectors in the U.S. Along the way, he made hundreds of thousands of dollars and drew the ire of the Pez corporation itself.

A movie like The Pez Outlaw lives or dies by its titular character and boy, does Steve Glew not disappoint. Glew’s meekness is overshadowed only by his desire to commit fully to his interests. Glew didn’t just get into collecting and selling Pez dispensers – the hobby, and eventual business, finally gave his life purpose. Glew’s joy in driving America’s arm of the Pez Company crazy is evident and is a badge of honor for the self-proclaimed Pez Outlaw.

The reenactments of Glew’s ‘90s escapades are where The Pez Outlaw truly shines. Glew gets to show off his (quite good) acting chops by playing his younger self in the reenactments set primarily in Eastern Europe. Everything is told in a tongue-in-cheek manner that perfectly matches Glew’s boyish personality. The cherry on top is how these reenactments play with Glew’s idea of the truth. One is never quite sure if Glew is embellishing, misremembering or flat-out lying. 

Pez collecting is cast in a fascinating light. Glew comes to feel like only one small piece of a world that includes Pez lovers who will spend over $10,000 for a single Pez dispenser or a collector who won’t show off the bulk of his collection at all for fear it will become devalued. From the outside looking in, this Pez obsession can seem weird, but for hardcore collectors, the real end goal is participating in something that makes them happy.

And who can argue with that?

Chaos Reigns

Thrust!

Brandon Thomas

It’s impressive when a film is able to tap into genuine chaos. Director Victor Bonacore’s Thrust! is a punk-rock, spit-soaked, guffaw-inducing ode to don’t give-a-shit cinema. Thrust! isn’t the kind of film concerned with narrative cohesion or deeper themes. No, this movie simply wants to take the audience on the kind of ride you’d only get if your brakes failed.

Thrust! follows lovers Aloe (Erin Brown) and Vera (Allison Egan) as they cross a female-ruled dystopian world to confront and kill the vile Dirtbag Mike (Michael Shershenovich). In their quest to vanquish the elusive Dirtbag, Aloe and Vera encounter various girl-gangs that feature the likes of Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons) and Ellie Church (Headless, Space Babes From Outer Space).

Thrust! is the kind of movie you want to see in a packed theater with some close friends and probably a beer or two. The risque nature of the movie feels very reminiscent of early John Waters with equal amounts of Mad Max and Switchblade Sisters thrown in for flavor. While the gross-out gags are inventive and plentiful, they never become repetitious or lose their ability to shock or make you cover your mouth with your fist.

Bonacore infuses the entire movie with an energy other features might have in a scene or two. From a rousing rock & roll opening to blood-spattered fights and gratuitous sex scenes, Thrust! produces one cackle-inducing scene after another. This impressive level of chaotic momentum should make an audience feel over-stimulated, but Thrust! throws just enough twists and surprises to keep the movie from feeling monotonous. 

The cast is more than game for the mayhem. As the audience’s entry point to this world of debauchery, Brown and Egan do a good job with two of the less flashy roles. Shershenovich makes a mean impression as the vicious Dirtbag Mike – a role where scenery chewing was probably encouraged on a daily basis. 

Thrust! certainly isn’t for the squeamish, and it might even test the limits of exploitation cinema veterans. Vulgarity aside though, Thrust! is one heck of a fun time at the movies.

Thrust! screens Sunday, October 23rd as part of the Nightmares Film Festival at Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta65XA-04dY

Stick ’em Up

Bandit

by Brandon Thomas

Career criminal Gilbert Galvan, Jr. (Josh Duhamel of Transformers) escapes from a Michigan prison and makes his way across the border onto the friendlier ground of Canada.

Although momentarily free from American authorities, Gilbert’s legitimate job prospects are not looking great as the recession of the 1980s comes into full swing. After falling for a local woman (Elisha Cuthbert of House of Wax, and TV’s 24), Gilbert panics about his lack of career opportunity and turns to robbing the inadequately guarded banks around Canada. 

Bandit director Allan Ungar is best known for a 2018 Uncharted fan film starring Nathan Fillion. The film itself was small in scale and certainly catered to no one but video game fans, but it did showcase what Ungar can pull off with a charming and talented lead actor. That same fun, playful tone runs through the entirety of Bandit, a film that owes much more to Soderbergh’s light-hearted Ocean movies than say the ultra-violent Bonnie & Clyde.

Ungar doesn’t get too caught up in moral finger-wagging. We all know robbing banks is bad, but the audience sympathizes with the thief’s panicked plight. Like Galvan himself, the film isn’t overly concerned with the eventual conclusion. Galvan is only interested in providing for his family and having fun in the moment. So is Bandit.

Duhamel isn’t an actor I’m normally excited to see. In Bandit, however, he steps up to the plate and delivers a confident and charming performance. There is a series of bank robbery montages that let the actor cut loose while wearing some purposefully bad disguises. This lighter side of Duhamel wasn’t something I was familiar with before, but will certainly welcome in the future.

The supporting cast does well enough, with Cuthbert unfortunately relegated to the “wife” character who spends much of the movie asking questions of the evasive Duhamel. The always dependable Nestor Carbonell (TV’s Lost, The Dark Knight) pops up as a Canadian cop trying to bust the costumed robber. One of the bigger surprises is the addition of Mel Gibson, who has spent roughly the last decade playing minor roles in cheapie action movies. While Bandit might be on the cheaper side, the light tone allows Gibson to dig into his comedic past. Gibson’s performance is a welcome breath of fresh air for the controversial actor. 

While not reinventing the bank robber subgenre, Bandit is a light-hearted heist flick that doesn’t get bogged down in bloody violence or moral grandstanding. You know, the kind you can show mom. 

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Delia’s Gone

by Brandon Thomas

Louis (Stephan James of If Beale Street Could Talk and Race) lives a fairly idyllic existence with his sister, Delia (Genelle Williams), in rural Ohio. Despite having suffered a traumatic brain injury earlier in his life, Louis is mostly self-sufficient – even holding down a full-time job at the local hardware store. Things unravel quickly when Delia tells Louis she’s moving away for work, and the angry Louis wakes up the next morning to find a dead Delia in the kitchen and blood all over his hands. 

The plot of Delia’s Gone moves quickly and in surprising directions. What begins as a standard drama quickly morphs into a revenge thriller. By centering around a somewhat volatile protagonist, Delia’s Gone positions itself as one of the more thought-provoking thrillers in quite some time.

So many of these movies are outlets for violent vengeance. Delia’s Gone has its fair share of violent scenes, but they land heavy and with earned emotion. The violence here isn’t gratuitous nor meant to be exploitative. No, Louis’s actions throughout the latter half of the film are in search of something greater: truth.  

Director Robert Budreau (Born to be Blue, Stockholm) wisely lets his film lean on an extraordinary cast to propel it forward instead of the “by the numbers” story. Whatever twists Delia’s Gone has are revealed early and without much fanfare. The real surprises come from the characters’ decisions and how they impact one another.

As of late, it’s become quite a welcome sight to see Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya, Richard Jewell) show up in any movie. As one of the primary police characters in the film, Hauser plays the role a bit too comedic at times, but the humanity that exudes from the performance is too much to ignore. Hauser brings enough vulnerability to the role for the comedic tics to feel like a by-product of a man reaching for validation. 

It’s been nice seeing Marisa Tomei propelled back into the spotlight the last few years due to her involvement with the new Spider-Man movies. Tomei flexes her dramatic chops here, reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner. It’s a role that could have easily been played as stereotypical “hard-nosed cop,” but Tomei injects so much pathos into the performance that it’s hard not to come at her scenes with a heavy dose of empathy.

The real winner is James. He wowed us in 2018 in If Beale Street Could Talk, and his work here is equally impressive. This role could have gone wrong in so many ways. To say that playing a person with a traumatic brain injury is a minefield in 2022 is an understatement, but James approaches the role with sensitivity and nuance. There’s always a sense of the “old Louis” behind James’s eyes – especially in the scenes where Louis is filled with frustration. It’s heartbreaking and riveting at the same time. 

By side-stepping many of the trappings of the genre, Delia’s Gone manages to come out on the other side as a thoughtful examination of searching for truth and forgiving one’s self.

Gone Fishing

I Love My Dad

by Brandon Thomas

We live in an era where cringe-comedy reigns supreme. From HBO’s Eastbound and Down to the American remake of The Office (so many cringe-inducing episodes), modern comedy seems hellbent on making us uncomfortable. While these two examples and many others only tend to dabble in discomfort, the new film I Love My Dad uses it to full effect while going places many movies could only dream of.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt of Ratatouille and Young Adult) has a terrible relationship with his son, Franklin (I Love My Dad writer/director James Morosini). Chuck was an absentee father who missed birthdays, made empty promises, and disappointed his son every chance he could. After Franklin blocks his dad on social media and won’t take his calls, Chuck decides to “borrow” the online identity of Becca, a waitress at a local diner, to catfish his way back into his son’s life. 

The premise of I Love My Dad is enough to make most people go, “Wait, what?” 

The execution though? 

Well, that’s something even more anxiety-riddled. 

Morosini knows exactly what he’s doing with this subject matter and carries it out through the entire running time. I Love My Dad is like a cinematic car accident you can’t help looking at as you drive by. However, in this case, the car accident is a very well-made movie.

Morosini cleverly brings to life the text conversations between Franklin and “Becca” by using the real actress (Claudia Sulewski) to act them out alongside him. It’s an impressive way to show how connected Franklin feels toward Becca and only helps ratchet up the tension. By the time the inevitable truth is revealed, even the audience feels invested in this fraudulent relationship that Chuck has conjured between him and his son.

So much of the success of I Love My Dad hinges on the casting of Chuck. Make no mistake, Chuck is a scumbag of the highest order, but having someone as likable as Patton Oswalt play him sets up certain expectations. Even as Chuck digs himself deeper and deeper, it’s difficult to completely root against him. Oswalt’s naturally affable demeanor is hard to get past even when the character he’s playing is so deplorable. It’s perfect casting that makes you think, “Well if HE’S the bad guy, what else can happen?”

The supporting cast is peppered with some fun faces. Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) shows up as Chuck’s work friend who gives him the catfishing idea. And the always-on-fire Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) nearly walks away with the entire movie as Chuck’s very horny girlfriend. 

I Love My Dad explores some dark and taboo territory but still manages to wring out a lot of laughs along the way. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.

Rideshare Terror

Endangered (aka Fox Hunt Drive)

by Brandon Thomas

Expectations are a hard thing to contend with when watching movies. Whether it’s the actors present or the filmmaker’s previous work, one can’t help but think something along the lines of, “Oh, well I know where this is going.” Many movies don’t subvert those expectations, but thankfully there are enough of them out there that do throw exciting curveballs at the audience. While not a new cinematic classic, Endangered offers up a compelling twist on the hostage thriller.

Alison (Natalie Zerebko) is making ends meet as a rideshare driver on the roads of Orlando, Florida. Most of her passengers are the standard fare of obnoxious young people, talkative oversharers, and silent couples. Alison’s monotony is doused one evening after picking up a secretive passenger (Michael Olavson). The passenger looks nothing like his account picture, and his stand-offish demeanor instantly puts Alison on the defensive. As the night wears on, these early red flags will only mark the beginning of a chaotic night.

From the start, it was hard not to think of Michael Mann’s Collateral while watching the first half of Endangered. There aren’t very many thrillers that predominantly take place in a car, but out of those that do, Collateral stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Thankfully, the setting is where the similarities cease and Endangered is able to carve out an identity all its own.

Circling back to expectations, director Drew Walkup wisely shakes things up early. We’ve all seen hostage thrillers like this before, and some well-placed surprises rocked me back on my heels just a little bit. These twists – if you will – never cheapen the narrative momentum and feel lock-step with where Walkup was driving the story from the beginning.

The chemistry between Zerebko and Olavson is the glue that holds the film together. Without their tandem captivating performances, the film simply wouldn’t work. Both are able to draw empathy and fear at different times. To say more would potentially spoil the back half of the film.

While maybe not the most technically polished thriller of the year, Endangered makes an impression through clever plotting and two strong leads.