And Now For Something Completely Blood-Soaked: ‘Death Ranch’ Movie Review

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Death Ranch (CREDIT: Dark Temple Motion Pictures)

Starring: Deiondre Teagle, Faith Monique, Travis Cutner, Scot Scurlock, Brad Belemjian

Director: Charlie Steeds

Running Time: 78 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But Filled with Blood and Guts and All Sorts of Profanity

Release Date: April 20, 2021 (On Demand, DVD, and Blu-Ray)

Grindhouse, grindhouse, grindhouse!!! Do you want to see a bunch of racists get their guts ripped out? Well, if you’ve stumbled upon Death Ranch, then you’ve come to the right place. If you are who considers yourself a friend to all of humankind, then surely you believe that the Ku Klux Klan is one of the most distasteful organizations in modern society. Ergo, they’re an obvious choice for the villains in a tale of three Black siblings on the run through the woods of Tennessee in 1971. And in true grindhouse fashion, these Klansmen are just outrageously, disgustingly awful. If you can imagine the most depraved things possible, then chances are writer-director Charlie Steeds has thought to include it, from rape to cannibalism to an extreme close-up of body hair-ridden petroleum jelly. There’s a lot of real-life trauma baked in this den of horrors; it’s up to you the viewer to decide if this is the sort of thing you can stomach.

When I see a movie about Black people fighting back against their tormentors, I’m generally inclined to pontificate about where it fits within the tradition of African-American cinema and about how it resonates with real-world struggles. But there’s something telling me that that might not be the approach that this particular movie is asking for. Looking over the rest of Steeds’ filmography only confirms that suspicion. It’s filled with titles like Deadman Apocalypse, Vampire Virus, and The House of Violent Desire. And if Escape From Cannibal Farm is anything to go by, then people eating other people in rural settings is clearly a recurring theme for him.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t be reviewing a movie like this at all. Shouldn’t it be a secret that gets passed around in grimy basements and abandoned projection booths? It’s actually available on demand and on DVD and Blu-Ray for regular home viewing, but something tells me that the most appropriate way to watch Death Ranch is by setting up your own impromptu theater in an empty barn on a creepy country back road.

Death Ranch is Recommended If You Like: BlacKkKlansman but wish it had been a lot more like Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Pathetic White Men

Godzilla vs. Kong vs. My Internal Composure: A Movie Review

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Godzilla vs. Kong (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Godzilla, King Kong, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Mechagodzilla

Director: Adam Wingard

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: March 31, 2021

What if it were Godzilla vs. Kong vs. … jmunney? Does the latest no-holds cinematic brawl between these two iconic behemoths make me want to join the fight? Hey man, I’m a pacifist! But entering their domain in some capacity might be fun. They seem like good company.  Kong is certainly a clown. And sensitive, to boot! Godzilla’s harder to peg, but I’d be willing to put in the emotional groundwork to make the connection. What’s Mechagodzilla’s deal, though? He sure comes out of nowhere. Does he even have a soul?!

Grade: 5 Podcasts of 10 ASLs

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 4/16/21

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Big Shot (CREDIT: Disney Plus/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

TV
Big Shot Series Premiere (April 16 on Disney+) – John Stamos coaches girls basketball.
American Dad! Season 18 Premiere (April 19 on TBS)
Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World (April 22 on PBS)
-36th Independent Spirit Awards (April 22 on IFC) – Hosted by funny lady Melissa Villaseñor!

Music
-Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate
-The Offspring, Let the Bad Times Roll

The Comforting Confusion of ‘The Father’

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The Father (CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss

Director: Florian Zeller

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: February 26, 2021

Whenever I think about The Father, I can’t help but pronounce it the way that Mike Myers does when he encounters Marv Albert in the “Dieter’s Dream” SNL sketch (“Fah-thuh!”, although for some reason I add a “z” i.e., “Fah-zhuh”). Weirdly enough, that’s an apt comparison, as Florian Zeller’s film is pretty much equally surreal as the avant-garde German talk show host’s trip into the subconscious. Apparently, the way to make a movie about dementia exciting instead of a total bummer is to arrange it according to the whims of the dementia-addled mind. It’s rough to see Anthony (Hopkins) losing his sense of reality, but it’s fascinating to be bent back and forth by the facial mismatches and temporal-spatial distortions he’s experiencing. In the absence of a cure, maybe embracing the absurdity is the best way to handle something as disorienting as dementia. At the very least, it worked for this movie.

Grade: 4.0 out of Dec. 31 Missing Watches

‘In the Earth’ Follows Its Cinematic Brethren Into the Woods

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In the Earth (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Scenes of Grievous Bodily Harm

Release Date: April 16, 2021 (Theaters)

In the Earth combines elements of some of my favorite dread-filled horror and sci-fi flicks, which is good enough to grab my attention, but you can see the seams in the synthesis. A scary trip to the woods quickly leads to reality-altering vibes in the vein of Annihilation and The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s also the society-breaking-down milieu typical of any zombie flick. And I even catch a whiff of pod people-energy, as I worry that certain characters’ misplaced priorities could lead to some body snatching. It’s a hodgepodge, occasionally a visual feast, and ultimately more of an experiment than a landmark achievement.

My only previous exposure to writer-director Ben Wheatley was his overcaffeinated shoot ’em up Free Fire. In the Earth is equally non-squeamish (it does feature a guy getting his toes cut off, after all), but it’s also more reflective and meditative. Conceived and produced during the pandemic, it obviously required a more scaled-down and intimate approach. It’s ostensibly about the cure for a global virus, but it hardly resembles our current reality, at least not in any way I or anyone I know has been experiencing it. In practice, it’s just a spooky sylvan journey, making it just the latest in a long and dense cinematic tradition. Something weird is happening, a couple of characters are sent off on their own to figure it out, and then they encounter some other weird happenings. It happens!

During In the Earth‘s early going, I said to myself, “Is this just Annihilation but with a micro-budget?” That trip to Area X is one of my favorite movies of the past five years, so I quickly steeled myself for inevitable disappointment. But it’s always nice to be reminded of something that I love, so it wasn’t all bad. Then about halfway through, there was a sharp turn to a completely different movie. Well, perhaps not “completely” different. More like “tangential” and “different enough.” One major crisis had been dealt with (or at least escaped from), and then some other characters got some more screen time, and I felt myself thinking: well, it’s better to steal from a whole bunch of movies than it is to be the cheap knockoff of just one movie.

In the Earth is Recommended If You Like: Annihilation, Blair Witch, The Walking Dead, and whatever ever else Ben Wheatley watched during the pandemic, all tossed carelessly into a blender

Grade: 3 out of 5 Backpacks

A Day in the Farm Life: ‘Gunda’ Documentary Review

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Gunda (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Pigs, Chickens, Cows, Bulls

Director: Viktor Kossakovsky

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: G

Release Date: April 16, 2021 (Select Theaters)

I first stumbled upon Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky’s work a few years ago when I saw Aquarela, which was just an hour and a half of H2O doing what it does. Now his subject matter is fully alive (instead of life-sustaining), as he takes us to the farm in Gunda. Shot in stunning black-and-white cinematography, this is a meditative document of swine, poultry, and bovines going about their day. There’s no on-screen human presence in any capacity, but this isn’t strictly cinema verite. As straightforward as the presentation is, you can sense the pulse of mediation. Watching Gunda isn’t the same as visiting a farm. It may be simple and no-frills, but I don’t think anyone else quite has the capacity to make it the way that Kossakovsky did.

Fair warning: if you’re going to watch Gunda, you absolutely have to be comfortable with maximum levels of snorting. The biggest star of the show is a momma pig who spends a significant portion of the runtime suckling her piglets, and simply put, she makes the sounds that pigs make, and she’s not ashamed to do so. That’s the general vibe of this entire film. Farm animals typically aren’t ashamed to be themselves, but that seems especially true here. While watching, I felt like I was stumbling upon personal moments that I wouldn’t have otherwise have had access to. Or maybe I’m just noticing things that I’ve never noticed before because presenting it all in a feature format forces me to pay attention. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen cows and bulls whipping their tails against each other, for example, but that’s what they’re doing here.

Overall, there’s a bit of unexplainable magic at play in Gunda that makes it all so very compelling. I could do my best to break down how Kossakovsky managed to pull off such stunning cinematography, or take inventory in quotidian terms of everything that the animals get up to over the course of 93 minutes. But I don’t know why a pig walking around in the grass managed to transport me as much as it did. And yet somehow it did, and I’ve gotta respect her for that.

Gunda is Recommended If You Like: A day at the farm minus all the smells

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Snouts

‘Held’ Locks Up a Married Couple on the Edge for a Little Bit of Torture

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Held (CREDIT: Magnet Releasing)

Starring: Jill Awbrey, Bart Johnson

Directors: Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But This is R Territory for Bloody Bodies and Bloody Profanity

Release Date: April 9, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

The two main characters of Held are held captive, and I daresay this movie would like our attention to be held as well. So was my attention indeed held for an hour and a half? I’m going to have to be honest with everyone here… it was! It helps that everything starts out simply enough: husband and wife Henry and Emma (Bart Johnson and Jill Awbrey, the latter of whom also wrote the script) haven’t been feeling too romantic lately, so they decide to spend a few days away at a rental house. Now, this premise doesn’t necessarily have me jumping out of my seat, as it’s a little more angsty than I’m typically in the mood for. But I’m happy to be on board, if for no other reason than Awbrey’s striking resemblance to Liz Cackowski. That latter name may not mean a lot to too many people, but if you’re like me and you love shows such as Community and Speechless, you’ll find yourself going, “Hey, that lead character looks a lot like someone who’s guest-starred on some of my favorite sitcoms!”

Co-directors Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff wisely upend any sense of stability almost immediately, as we soon discover that some all-seeing mastermind with a voice modulator has hacked into the house’s smart devices and is keeping Emma and Henry all locked up until they complete a gauntlet of psychological manipulation. The unseen villain is so outrageously evil that it’s a little hard to believe that this couple could in any way be deserving of this torture. But that’s part of the fun of a nasty little genre piece like this one. The commitment to the bit (the bit here being “false imprisonment”) is so thorough that I just cannot help but be impressed by all the metaphorical mustache-twirling.

Eventually there is an explanation for why Emma and Henry are being targeted, and I won’t reveal that here, because the social contract of reviews of mysterious movies assures us that twists are to remain unspoken. But suffice it to say that the revelation gives way to some satisfyingly sizzling takes about what’s going in our world today and how married men and women have related to each other over the years. As a tease, let me just say that there’s nothing quite like a genre pic leaning hard into awful stereotypes. Weirdly enough, Held is kind of like the gender politics version of what Antebellum was trying to be, and that’s something to be excited about.

Held is Recommended If You Like: Funny Games, The Dharma Initiative tapes on Lost, Mad Men

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Commands

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 4/2/21

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Chad (CREDIT: TBS/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Godzilla vs. Kong (Theaters and Streaming on HBO Max)

TV
-27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (April 4 on TBS and TNT)
Chad (April 6 on TBS) – A “sneak peek” (i.e., a full episode) actually already aired about a week ago, though.
Home Economics Series Premiere (April 7 on ABC) – A new sitcom about three adult siblings.

Music
-tUnE-yArDs, sketchy – This came out last week and I had no idea how much it would be up my alley!
-Demi Lovato, Dancing with the Devil … the Art of Starting Over

Podcasts
Fantastic! With Dana Carvey – A very funny guy doing very funny voices. (Launched back in January)

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 3/26/21

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Pooch Perfect (CREDIT: Christopher Willard/ABC)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Bad Trip (Streaming on Netflix) – Eric Andre strings Lil Rel and Tiffany Haddish along for his shenanigans.

TV
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers Series Premiere (March 26 on Disney+) – Ducks never say die.
Solar Opposites Season 2 (March 26 on Hulu)
Pooch Perfect Series Premiere (March 30 on ABC) – Rebel Wilson hosts a dog grooming competish!

Music
-Evanescence, The Bitter Truth

Who Can Resist Taking a ‘Bad Trip’ with Eric Andre? Not I, Said This Reviewer

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Bad Trip (CREDIT: Dimitry Elyashkevich/Netflix)

Starring: Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, Michaela Conlin

Director: Kitao Sakurai

Running Time: 84 Minutes

Rating: R for Thoroughly Shameless Crudity, Nudity, and Psychoactive Drug Indulgence

Release Date: March 26, 2021 (Netflix)

I sure wish I had been able to experience Bad Trip in a packed theater, but at least my hearty laughs in my solo viewing experience were enough to fill my living room. This delightfully demented piece of guerilla filmmaking is basically a feature-length version of the man-on-the-street bits from Eric Andre’s anarchic eponymous Adult Swim talk show. Starring alongside Andre are a couple of famous funny people as well as dozens of unsuspecting members of the public. There’s a bit of a story (with the screenplay credited to Andre, Dan Curry, and director Kitao Sakurai), in which Florida Man Chris (Andre) has a chance meeting with his old school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin), who invites him to come check out her art gallery in New York City. He then invites his best pal Bud (Lil Rel Howery) on a road trip to the Big Apple, and they abscond in a car that belongs to Bud’s incarcerated sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), who busts out and tracks down the boys with deadly intentions. The narrative actually hangs together a lot more nicely than I would expect in a prank film, but ultimately it’s just an excuse for a bunch of outrageous shenanigans.

Practical jokes can be hilarious, but ethically speaking, if you’re going to be a professional hooligan, you ought to be careful about who you select as the butts of your jokes. I approve of Andre’s mischief because he is consistently the target of his own pranks. He renders himself into every possible version of a fool, while the unsuspecting public provides another layer of humor by serving as witnesses struggling to make sense of the chaos unfolding around them. In Bad Trip, that chaos includes fake blood splatter, fake projectile vomit splatter, and fake semen splatter. (Shame is a foreign concept to Eric Andre.) The crowd might get hit by some shrapnel, but Andre’s the only one who’s truly suffering for his art.

Bad Trip unsurprisingly holds up when considered on a scene-by-scene basis. But it’s tough to sustain a narrative when utilizing a sketch-comedy sensibility. But shocker of shockers, it turns out that the script delivers some satisfying emotional payoffs to all of its characters. It helps that everyone involved takes a decidedly askew approach to the tropes of buddy flicks. For example, there’s a runner about the notorious 2004 Wayans Brothers cross-dressing comedy White Chicks that improbably gets its own little mini-arc and cathartic conclusion. We all need a space for our ids to run free every once in a while, and I’m so glad that Eric Andre and his cohorts have put theirs on display for all the world to see.

Bad Trip is Recommended If You Like: The Eric Andre Show, Jackass, Borat

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stolen Cars

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