Tag Archives: Tori Hanes

Writer’s Horror

Blank

by Tori Hanes

Blank, the freshman feature from director Natalie Kennedy, follows successful author Claire Rivers (Rachel Shelley) as she struggles through a nearly debilitating spout of writer’s block. More desperate to appease her publishers than unlock her unwritten story, Claire enrolls in an AI-controlled retreat.

Here, Claire’s every concern that is not creatively driven is managed by her two AI helpers, Henry (Wayne Brady) and Rita (Heida Reed). After a system failure leaves her assistants less than primed to assist, Claire’s writer’s block turns from a professional detriment to a nearly fatal flaw. 

The film is immediately and consistently enthralling from a visual perspective. Kennedy and cinematographer James Oldham are determined to not fall into the dull, gray color pallets plaguing the 2010s/2020’s horror and thriller genre. While their palettes reflect the somber and intensive mood, they stay original and fresh – never allowing the eye to grow weary with dreaded slate monotony. 

Even when the script begins to fail the visuals remain interesting, sometimes dragging the narrative by the arm to keep up with audience expectations. This tactic succeeds. Even if you rack your brains post-film to recall the midsection of the narrative, the mood created by these stunning visuals sticks out. 

The story has a tendency to stumble over its ambition. Starting off with a solid swing, Blank engrosses with its interesting and eerie world right off the bat.

However, the meat of Stephen Herman’s script relies less on story than on thriller tropes: repetition, unsettling visuals, eerie background narrative. That is not to say Blank ceases to enthrall. Instead, the interest shifts to a confused unease, only to be resolved at the dramatic and anxiety-inducing climax.

Kennedy gets hung up on some clunky metaphors. Rita, Claire’s personal AI assistant, takes on a traditional 1950s housewife style. Her compliance and eventual resolution mirror obvious calls for morality in human-created intelligence. While it makes sense for Kennedy to approach this ethical dilemma, the lack of subtlety tarnishes the message. 

As most writers can attest, a bad case of writer’s block can leave you begging for an escape. Blank creatively and (most important) intriguingly shows why reopening your laptop and continuing your story may be the best choice.

Less Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys

Gigi & Nate

by Tori Hanes

Gigi & Nate follows the story of an unlikely bond between recent quadriplegic Nate (Charlie Rowe) and his service monkey.

Director Nick Hamm’s film tracks the pair’s difficulties due to Nate’s disability and society’s stigmas around their pairing. Running at a generous 1 hour and 54 minutes, the bond between man and primate is thoroughly, though not particularly well, examined. 

Gigi and Nate seems to miss the backbone of what makes this unique story interesting. Threaded by a plot riddled with holes, a strong emotional ethos has no channel through which to flow. Instead, Hamm and writer David Hudgins string together uneven attempts to create a compelling narrative. These attempts hit the beats of any PG, feel-good, family-friendly story, while remaining seemingly uninterested in exploring any nuance.

The story initially paces along logically. It takes a devastating blow, however, when concentration on the human-animal connection is severed and focus turns to a bizarre examination of society’s skepticism toward the human/primate pairing. With this, whatever fuel burning the emotional fire behind the story runs dry. 

Performances, including Rowe’s, struggle to rise above surface level. Nate’s lack of metamorphosis is staggering. We see the glimmer of change directly following his accident, but are ultimately disappointed in Nate’s quick return to a sunny-despite-the-circumstances disposition. The filmmakers never allow the audience inside the full depths of Nate’s psyche, so no catharsis can be earned. 

This lack of depth creates real problems. Narrative solutions feel unearned. Outlandish antagonists are clumsily formed, their stories undeservingly resolved. A potentially intriguing tale from an underrepresented perspective is lost to a cop-out of a resolution.

Gigi & Nate is especially disappointing because the film —though it takes significant creative freedom— is inspired by the true story of quadriplegic Ned Sullivan. While the filmmakers’ hearts were undoubtedly in the right place, their sincerity doesn’t justify a film that does little work to amplify the voices of the people it’s portraying. 

If you’re just looking for your cuteness dosage, Gigi (played by Capuchin, Allie) certainly has her moments, but you’re better off skipping this film and picking up Marley and Me.

Slow Drawl

The Legend of Molly Johnson

by Tori Hanes

With a story almost as rugged and unforgiving as its terrain, The Legend of Molly Johnson unflinchingly saddles up to the hardship of the Australian bush. Following weathered mother and wife Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell, who also directs) awaiting the return of her Drover husband, the film examines the uncomfortable concoction of bush people with budding British laws in the foreground of generational racism and misogyny. The examination of these subjects is almost as unflinching as Molly Johnson’s resolve.

Pacing plagues the film immediately. While a story taking time to ignite isn’t inherently uninteresting, the lack of compelling character work or world-building in its absence is. Once the plot begins to move, the strained and semi-distant relationship to the characters makes the tragedies that unfold harder to embody. Eventually, the intensity of the plot connects audience and character, making the climax an emotionally engulfing moment. But the overarching lack of cohesion creates a massive, immediate block between the audience and the film.

As a filmmaker, Purcell stares down the barrel of racism, misogyny, and abuse, keenly interested in dissecting the interweaving of the three. The film flips the examination of the hardships, primarily concentrating on the view from Molly’s perspective, but also showcasing runaway Aboriginal prisoner Yadaka (Rob Collins) and the colonizing officer Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) to create a full scope of range. The creation is graphic, gritty, raw, and feels authentically human.

The breathtaking visuals contribute to an intensive mood. Cinematographer Mark Wareham emphasizes the grit and is sly to reveal the beauty of the surroundings. When the beauty is shown, Purcell and Wareham are careful about letting it take control. While nature is stunning, the people inhabiting it often taint its grace – an aspect that is never forgotten.

Once The Legend of Molly Johnson finds its footing, a gut-wrenching creation is born. The question is whether audiences will comply with the self-indulgent start long enough to get there. 

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House Call

The Summoned

by Tori Hanes

A tale as old as time: boy meets girl, girl convinces boy to accompany her on a couple’s retreat, couples retreat turns satanic. If we see this setup anymore, we’ll have to consider the trope its own genre.

Director Mark Meir’s The Summoned follows average mechanic and hopeful musician Elijiah (J. Quinton Johnson), as he accompanies his pop star girlfriend Joplyn (Emma Fitzpatrick) on a secluded (and exclusive) self-help retreat. Joined by a millionaire author (Salvador Chacon) and prissy movie star (Angela Gulner), the vacation quickly goes from life-changing to life-threatening.

Unfortunately, when drawing up appropriate criticisms or praises for The Summoned, the metaphorical canvas remains blank. That is to say: this film drives at a safe speed and steadily down the dead-center of the road. Never veering into terrible road bumps like uneven performances, loose script, or uninspired narrative. This also means it never hits the high speeds of stellar performances, transformative writing, or intriguing ideas. 

The Summoned is competently made in almost every aspect. It looks pleasant, the cast is strong and is obvious in their chemistry, and the direction is solid. But you keep waiting for the twist of the knife, the moment where this film becomes a breathing piece. Unfortunately, that final push never comes, and the result is ultimately adept but magicless.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this film was the willingness to lean into camp. The performances offered by Gulner and Frederick Stuart as the flamboyant Dr. Frost gave even the most grisly moments appropriate levity. This levity is the ultimate grace the film needs to distance itself from gloom-obsessed horrors of the past (think Insidious, The Conjuring, etc.). It hits more closely to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, often pulling surprisingly snappy dialogue. 

If you’re looking for an easy fright, check this film out. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking scare, you may wish you hadn’t been summoned.

Star Girl

Maika: The Girl from Another Galaxy

by Tori Hanes

Mourning the recent loss of his mother, young Hang (Truong Phu) is tasked with helping the recently crash-landed alien Maika (Chu Diep Anh) in her search for her lost extraterrestrial comrade. Director Ham Tran drives the classic setup through otherworldly twists while still steering delicately toward a grounded yet humor-filled reality. 

Maika has one thing pulsing through its veins that bleeds into every aspect: heart. A big, family-friendly, overly sentimental, beating heart.

The film finds beauty in its earnestness but the sincerity can become suffocating, specifically within the first thirty minutes. Hung’s mother has passed away, his best friend is forced to move, his father’s business is failing, his neighborhood is being poached by gentrifiers… you may feel beaten over the head with a lead pipe of ethos.

So, when Maika is introduced and the E.T.-esque romp of intergalactic friendship begins, the audience is relieved. We have suffered sufficiently. 

Once the film is able to find its balance, a fun-loving tale ensues. Billionaire bad guys, sleazy goons, alien technology – it seems obvious that Tran was inspired by the glory days of 80s children’s adventures. 

With this, a unique aspect of what immortalized the Goonies/Gremlins/E.T. generation reveals itself – a willingness to explore with a young audience. This interest in pressing uncomfortable, interesting, and sometimes frightening topics gives children the permission to safely authenticate these emotions and ideas. That is where Maika succeeds. 

Unfortunately, much like its 80s counterparts, Maika meanders. At an hour and 47-minute runtime, the plot drags before picking up breakneck momentum, only to rein itself back to a turtle’s pace. It’s hard to not feel some form of whiplash. Still, the story ultimately succeeds in retaining and respecting the audience’s attention.

At surface level, Maika aims to please. And ultimately, it does just that. But it also wants to feel, to hurt, to explore, and to breathe… and the invitation it extends to the audience to participate is what sets Maika apart.

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Influencer Pay

Follower

by Tori Hanes

It’s a classic setup: three girls, an annual camping trip, a sadistic killer. Reminiscent of an 80’s horror flick, the antagonistic stalker is set on making girls pay for the crime of being female. With the added stomach-turning twist of the dark web community, director James Rich’s Follower establishes itself within the modern-day horror genre. 

Early in the film, the promise of an interactive experience is teased. Subsequently, within the first scenes, the audience is prompted to follow “Heather’s” real Instagram page. While a fun moment, it can only be defined as that- a moment. 

The interactive portion is forgotten until midway through, when the audience is encouraged to follow the killer’s page. With that, the interactive portion is complete. Ultimately, there was a heightened expectation for interactivity to be a prevalent part of the narrative fabric. The inclusion of the Instagrams with no correlation to the plot, though interesting in theory, was a disappointment in practice.

In a genre plagued by inauthentic and uneven performances, this indie horror shows shimmers of talent- specifically in leading ladies Revell Carpenter and Molly Leach. While it did take the characters a moment to ground themselves, once they achieved steadiness a natural buoyancy emerged. 

Even with these breakthrough examples, many performances left something to be desired.  It’s not uncommon to see actors derailed by the unevenness of their co-stars. Carpenter and Leach never fell victim to this – just the opposite. Whether subconscious or intended, they heightened their performances in response.

The film prides itself on women taking back the narrative from patriarchal horror films of the past. Whenever watching films that put the onus on the victims to reclaim their power, there is always the underlying hope that vengeance will somehow be inflicted tenfold. 

This is not only to claim revenge for the protagonists but justice for every bikini-clad teen who wasn’t given a chance in your favorite slasher flick. Follower fell short in this regard, not quite able to break the skin of what makes female vengeance so unique and deserved. 

Though set with a postmodern twist, Follower feels like a relic of horror movies past. 

Twisted Game

Agent Game

by Tori Hanes


In his third feature film, director Grant S. Johnson dives into the unrewarding cinematic web of United States bureaucracy. Agent Game centers around a group of expendable CIA officers scapegoated in a coverup and forced to fight the government for their lives.

While not entirely pro-United States, Agent Game makes the assumption that the audience shares a universal respect for their government. While this approach might have worked until the 2000s, it’s unrealistic in today’s age of information and dissent.

Governments’ relationships with their societies change, and a film that doesn’t reflect that shift puts itself at a disadvantage. Ultimately, Agent Game never climbs out of the ideological valley it begins in. 

The acting is, at best, uninspired. At its worst, it’s incompetent. This does not entirely seem to be the actors’ fault. Though perhaps verging on hyperbole, it looks like the actors were only given single takes. It’s hard to conjure another logical explanation for why, at points, it seems that they’re performing the lines for the first time. 

The only performances that manage to break into a believable space come from Jason Isaacs and Dermot Mulroney, who play two uncommonly moral CIA agents. While bouncing off of each other, they’re able to find the grit and realism Agent Game overwhelmingly lacks.

Though certainly not intended, Mel Gibson’s character ironically breaks up the monotony of the dull narrative. Supposedly the mastermind behind a twisted government operation, Gibson plays more like a parody of himself than a commanding force. The strangely elongated pauses and conviction behind cheesy quips make for moments of unintended comedy gold.

The story revolves around two separate but connected missions, confusingly paced and set non-chronologically. It seems the director and writers started with a fairly simple concept and decided the plot was too easily understood, so they created unnecessary and underdeveloped roadblocks in the narrative.

Ultimately, if there was even a hint of self-awareness, this film could be an enjoyable ride. Instead, it spends its energy trying excessively hard to distract you from its faults. 

Bill (Jason Isaacs) laments about his place in government morality, and his line perfectly encapsulates the takeaway of the film: 

“Looks like we’re not the good guys anymore.”

Were we ever, Agent Game?

Flipped Perspectives

Guantanamo Diary Revisited

by Tori Hanes

“Forgiveness is an act of revenge”.

This line- spoken by director John Goetz- echoes through every action taken by his film’s subject, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

The center of a well-documented stain on United States history, Slahi was detained at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years without any charges officially brought against him.

In his book Guantanamo Diary (written in 2005, declassified for release in 2012, and the basis for the 2021 film The Mauritanian), Slahi accuses the United States government of extreme torture tactics, which to this day have been denied by special forces connected to his case. In what he considers to be the ultimate act of revenge, Slahi uses Goetz’s documentary to achieve his lofty goal: peacefully reconnect with the men and women involved with his torture in the name of forgiveness.

The documentary gets off to a rocky start. Goetz does not seem dedicated to the backstory that consumes the first half of the piece. Heavy-handed voiceovers spoon-feed us the questions Goetz wants us to be asking, as the film dutifully trudges through Slahi’s complicated past. Ironic, really, since Slahi is clear from his first moments on screen. His intention is exclusively to look toward the future.

Goetz competently introduces the key players: former special forces members connected to Slahi’s case, ranging in importance from a low-level guard to head of the operation. Goetz pushes uncomfortable recounts from each person, eventually finding the meat of his story.

The film becomes a power struggle over control of the narrative. Obviously disturbed by Slahi’s presence in the media, the individuals involved are desperate to clear either their name or their conscience. The story takes a turn from Slahi’s already well-publicized narrative and tackles the mental aftermath inflicted on his torturers.

In a case of trauma begetting trauma, a murky view of these people emerges. Questions surrounding complicity in immoral government sanctions, personal responsibility, and humanity in extremity are posed. Simmering on the backburner of the film, Slahi waits for his ultimate act of revenge.

Once Goetz cracks into the heart of his story, a gritty, complicated spectacle is born. In a narrative that is so seemingly black and white, the gradience of humanity is found.