But that’s exactly what Director and Screenwriter Eugene Kotlyarenko (along with Co-Screenwriter Gene McHugh) manage to pull off in a film that is as provocative as it is shockingly comedic. If the test of a dark comedy is the extent to which you feel slightly ashamed and a little bit guilty at what you just found funny, then Spree is definitely on the right track.
Joe Keery (you’ll probably recognise him as Steve, Nancy Wheeler’s baseball bat wielding boyfriend from Stranger Things) is Kurt Kunkle, a loser who’s terminally envious of Bobby (Josh Ovalle) the kid he used to babysit, who now is ‘killing it’ in the popularity stakes on social media. Kurt comes up with a plan to go viral by livestreaming his #thelesson about how to get followers on the internet. Unfortunately, Kurt’s idea of ‘killing it’ is a little more literal that Bobby’s. Kurt decks out his ‘Spree’ vehicle with multiple cameras and sets off on the killing spree that gives the film’s title its pun. As he picks up ridesharers and dispatches them faster than Sweeny Todd, he becomes frustrated at the lack of response and the tendency of his few followers to doubt the authenticity of the murders they are witnessing. Then Kurt sees an opportunity - one of his passengers is streaming sensation Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata) but she totally snubs his attempts to ingratiate himself into her online world.
It’s moments like this and others along the way, that continually remind us of Kunkle’s total lack of cool, especially in the scenes that involve his slightly creepy and equally no-hoper, DJ dad Kris Kunkle (David Arquette) who takes Kurt along to a club where his son’s desperation for fame prompts him to do almost anything for just one selfie with influencer uNo (Sunny Kim). But it’s here that things start to go seriously wrong (not that they were ever really right) and before long we’ve circled back to Jessie Adams and the film’s most interesting moment as she reflects on the emptiness and futility of her online persona, vowing to walk away from it all only to find that Kurt, inadvertently presents her with a horrifying opportunity that proves too good to refuse. Like any addict, her resolve to quit is no match for the promise of the endorphin rush that comes from the likes and emojis on those little blue screens. Whilst its observations and commentary on the dangers of extreme behaviours and experiences on the internet may not go much deeper than the surface, it still manages to make a point without its ‘message’ being a buzzkill.
Spree is not the first movie to delve into the lure of manufactured mass popularity and its power over susceptible personalities that allow their jealousy of the faux adoration achieved by others to drive them past the bounds of acceptability. Before the internet, it was the kind of media coverage afforded a character like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). More recently, we’ve seen similar ideas tackled in films like Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost’s Nerve (2016) or Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017) or even Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019). The difference here is Kotlyarenko’s reworking of the found-footage genre to deliver the bulk of his story in imagery from the online environment. It makes for a busy screen with multiple images and constant alerts and messaging that gives the eye-brain connection a bit of a workout. But it’s worth the effort and owes a lot to great work by Cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and Editor Benjamin Moses Smith.
On the downside, though, the engagement with the storytelling eventually suffers (as is often the case in found- footage films) from the limitations of the dominant camera-point-of-view and the sameness of visual information, albeit rapid and loud and colourful, that eventually creates a kind of weariness in the viewer (at least it does for me). There are also limitations of another kind, in the performance by Keery which is spot on in his capturing of the loser but falls a little short of the mark in achieving the manic edge of desperation needed to do what Kurt does with no remorse. (it’s the kind of terrifying, grinning energy that Joaquin Phoenix brings to Joker that Keery doesn’t quite reach).
What it gets really right, though (as I’m informed by my teenage son) is the live streaming, social media, meme- obsessed culture. Allowing for the fact that the content of this world goes out of style far quicker than you can make a feature film (meaning that some of the online and social media references are already out-of-date before the movie’s even released) it authentically captures that screen world and the inanity of the relentless, mindless communication that goes along with it.
So, some minor misgivings aside, (and if you’ll excuse the pun) this film is a ride that’s well worth taking. Just be warned, if your Uber has GoPro’s trained on you from every angle, then don’t drink the free water.
The Bonded Vault heist is among the largest in US history, with $30 million USD worth of valuables (equivalent to over $140 million today) stolen from safe deposit boxes used by the Rhode Island mafia. As previously mentioned, VAULT is a loose retelling of the background and aftermath of the heist, centred on the friendship between Deuce (Theo Rossi) and Chucky (Clive Standen), two childhood friends turned small-time criminals suddenly out of their depth.
Rossi is the film’s true lead, which I was pleasantly surprised to see given his film roles haven’t yet provided as strong a showcase as his TV work. Look no further than Ghosts of War, a film I just reviewed but can barely remember him being in. Deuce isn’t a very good character name and hearing it constantly got on my nerves, but Rossi’s affected swagger and charm throughout the first and second acts are nevertheless a huge part of why VAULT worked for me. There’s a reason the heist begins with him walking in alone, calmly and confidently making his demands: it exemplifies the film’s ethos of avoiding a gritty look at the crime and just doing what looks cool.
Similarly, from what I’ve read it appears that the script greatly expands on the relationship between Deuce and Karyn (Samira Wiley), a victim of one of the former’s earlier robberies. It doesn’t really make sense that Karyn would agree to a date with him afterwards, but Wiley is so good at cutting through Deuce’s posturing that it’s once again simply fun to see more of the character. In addition, when the third act undergoes a significant tonal shift from 70s indulgence to claustrophobic drama, the newfound tension greatly benefits from Wiley’s presence. While Rossi aptly portrays Deuce’s paranoid mindset as his savings dwindle and drug use increases, this wouldn’t be as interesting without Karyn telling him to get his shit together.
Building up the Deuce and Karyn relationship is overall a solid choice by the writers, though I’d also blame it for the lack of development in other characters. The biggest casualty is Gerry Ouimette (Don Johnson, also an executive producer), who has three scenes but is suggested to be a bigger player than depicted due to Chucky constantly name-dropping him. Gerry was in fact a high-ranking member of the Rhode Island mafia; VAULT speculates that a lack of respect from his boss led him to contract Chucky and Deuce for the heist. However, too much of this is left off-screen, including the specifics of Gerry’s initial pitch for the heist and agreement with Chucky, who subsequently enlists Deuce. This leaves Chucky with little to no apparent motivation, making it hard for me to be invested in him, and frustrated when his plan affects the characters I actually care about.
Where VAULT succeeds, it does so by recognising that heist films should be fun and committing to that tone. The 70s aesthetic does wonders for this, with some excellent costumes, hairstyling and set design ensuring there’s always a reminder of the era on-screen. I wish that the script had taken more time to flesh out its take on an interesting true story, but what it does provide was enough to keep me hooked.
Alien was a masterwork, no doubt, but it has been so emulated and parodied that the edge I found so terrifying that first time around felt dulled and its pace seemed much more plodding than it was in my memory. Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I popped my corn and took a seat on my lockdown-couch to watch a new Russian Sci-Fi-Horror flick that seemed like it could so easily be yet another Alien wannabe. Shame on me for being a Doubting-Thomas. Despite sharing some common ground with its forbear, SPUTNIK (which roughly translates as ‘traveling companion’) is a highly original, tensely compelling and surprisingly intelligent addition to the genre and is all the more remarkable an achievement for being the first time out for feature director Egor Abramenko.
The screenplay, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotare, is set in 1983 towards the end of the Cold War era (the Cold War hadn’t quite cooled down yet as was evidenced a year after this film is set when American President Ronald Reagan made his infamous gaff during a microphone check for a radio interview. He accidentally sent the following message around the world - “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”) It’s against this political landscape that the Russian space agency (or is it the Russian military – it’s hard to tell the difference) attempt to conceal an incident in space that has resulted in the crash landing of the capsule, the death of one Cosmonaut and the quarantining of the mission’s Commander, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) at a secret base in the middle of nowhere. The base is under the command of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) a seemingly urbane and reasonable officer who just wants to get to the truth about what happened out there. To help him achieve this he travels to Moscow to enlist the services of Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) a neurophysiologist who’s in the process of being chewed out for her unconventional clinical practices. But, of course, these are exactly the skills that Semiradov needs.
When Tatyana arrives at the base, Semiradov is charming and welcoming in the way he gives her free reign of, as he puts it, ‘90% of the facility’. Are warning bells sounding? What’s the deal with that other 10%?
While the public media campaign is praising Konstantin as a national hero who will soon be paraded before the adoring crowds, the story back at the base is quite different. True to the title of the film, Konstantin has brought back a ‘traveling companion’ – a sleek, lithe deceptively cute looking creature that has taken up residence in the Cosmonaut’s oesophagus. Unlike Ridley Scott’s Chestburster, this creature has developed a symbiotic relationship with its host, able to come and go from its host’s body as it pleases. It’s this relationship that Tatyana wants to get to the bottom of and, in the process, starts to develop her own relationship with Konstantin. Is it real, or is it a strategy to get what she wants?
I’ve seen this film promoted as ‘gory and nailbiting’ and as ‘one of the most suspenseful science fiction films in years’. Yes, it may be all those things – it has moments of horror that are well crafted and it creates them without resorting to an abundance of hokey old ‘scare tactics’, and its heartpounding score by Oleg Karpachev enhances the narrative in often chilling ways - but in the end SPUTNIK is much more than the sum of its horror-movie parts.. For me it succeeds much more as a psychological thriller. In many ways, it’s a three hander, exploring the tension between Tatyana, Konstantin and Semiradov. Each character is well drawn, complex and beautifully performed and the dynamic between the buttoned-up, duplicitous colonel, the loose-cannon, empathetic doctor and the arrogant but naïve cosmonaut is a volatile emotional cocktail.
But let’s not forget the creature. It may look cute from certain aspects, but its motivations are anything but. It’s much more than just a monster; a remarkable visual achievement designed by both the director and the team at the Russian visual effects studio, Main Road Post.
But the creature is not the only visual triumph. Mariya Slavina’s cold war production design perfectly sets the tone and Maxim Zhukov’s cinematography captures the mood and tantalises us with glimpses and hints of the creature in the early stages of the film but resists the temptation of going all ‘Godzilla’ on us when this alien visitor gets its moment in the frame. In fact, this kind of restraint through the film is what allows the characters and their psychology to be as much, if not more of our focus than the more traditional scary elements. But it’s not a film without its weaknesses. There’s a mysterious intercut story about an orphan child (Vitalya Korniyenko) that provides a counterpoint to Tatyana’s insistence on probing Konstantin’s emotional guilt about the boy he’s left behind while he pursues his heroic deeds. Obviously, these cutaways serve as a bit of a circuit breaker to the tension at the base, and the child’s story is compelling in tis own right, but it carries us to a kind of twist at the end that is unnecessarily ambiguous and doesn’t quite hit the note that it should. Nevertheless, this is an exciting debut for Abramenko made with skill and confidence and a clear vision for the telling of its story. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
2018 | DIR: ANDREW HECKLER | STARRING: GARRETT HEDLUND, ANDREA RISEBOROUGH, FOREST WHITAKER, TOM WILKINSON, TESS HARPER, USHER RAYMOND, CRYSTAL FOX, DEXTER DARDEN, TAYLOR GREGORY | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Spearheading this white supremacist enterprise is local KKK leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) who also happens to be the adopted father of up-and-coming KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) and the one, we come to understand, who Tom sees as his likely successor. Outrage and opposition to the Redneck Store comes, unsurprisingly, from the local black community headed up by the Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) who, despite having had an uncle lynched by the Klan, espouses the Martin Luther King doctrine of non-violent protest and the idea that love will conquer all. When Mike meets and falls for local single mother, Judy and her son Franklin (Andrea Riseborough and Taylor Gregory) he soon finds that he has to choose between his ‘Klan’ family and the new family he’s creating with Judy and her son. Faced with this choice, Mike turns his back on Tom, his fellow Klansmen and the Redneck Store and when they seek revenge on him, he finds unexpected refuge in the home of Reverend Kennedy, despite the tensions it causes with Kennedy’s wife Janice (Crystal Fox) and especially his son Kelvin (Dexter Darden).
You could choose to tell this story as a clash of beliefs and ideals as embodied in the characters of Griffin and Kennedy played by Wilkinson and Whittaker, two very fine character actors. Head to head, they’d promise some mighty scenes of conflict and outstanding acting. But this version of the story doesn’t go that way. In fact, these two powerhouse actors hardly have more than a couple of lacklustre scenes with each other.
You could choose to tell this story through the lens of the generational conflict between a father and a son, as David and Kelvin grapple with two opposing views of how to tackle racism and terrorism – the Reverend believing in pacifist love, and his son believing in more direct and forceful action. Those elements are there, but not at the heart of this telling.
You could choose to tell this story through the internal conflict of Mike Burden whose almost forgotten childhood friendship with Judy’s African-American friend Clarence Brooks (Usher Raymond) is now reflected through the friendship between Franklin and Brook’s son and could so easily have caused Burden to rethink the white doctrine that his adopted father has taught him. But, despite Mike Burden being the centre of the telling of this version of the story, it’s not a revelation about racism that makes him question and repudiate his allegiance to the Klan; it’s the fact that Judy makes him choose. In other words, there is no revelation that what the KKK stands for and what he’s supported all his life does not provide a path to equality and a better humanity. He leaves the Klan for the love of a white woman.
In some regards, this is a very timely story given the world wide focus on Black Lives Matter that has coincided with its release (although it was first seen at Sundance a couple of years ago, it’s only now seeing the more general-public light of day). But the timeliness of the story is undermined by its telling being focused through the lens of a young white man whose spurious denial of his racist roots somehow saves the black community from the indignity of the KKK’s intent. The dominance of white culture overwhelms what could so easily have been a ‘black lives matter’ story.
And things aren’t helped by the highly mannered and mostly hollow performance of Hedlund. He’s all loose limbs, attitude and muttered dialogue that seems more concerned with his accent work than with connecting his lines to either his body or the story. The screenplay, by first-time writer/director Andrew Heckler, tries to add some depth to the character of Mike Burden through the childhood memory of a hunting trip with his real father and the tired old trope of the ‘first kill making a man of the boy’. It doesn’t do much to help the character other than make the story even more about him, and the revisiting of this motif at the end of the film seems awkward and contrived.
By contrast, Riseborough is terrific as Judy as are Fox and Darden as Kennedy’s wife and son. But the standout (for me. At least) is Usher who turns in a warm and compelling performance that has all the depth and subtlety that’s lacking in Hedlund’s role. This, together with the underused talents of Whitaker and Wilkinson and the level to which Tess Harper (as Griffin’s wife Hazel) is almost entirely ignored, compounds the seemingly wasted opportunity that arises from the choices Heckler has made in how he’s written the screenplay. Instead of inspiring me with hope for how the black and white communities might come together for a better world, it leaves me frustrated at being able to see the movie that could have been through the disappointment of the movie that is.
In 1843 the Fourth Street Methodist Church and the Brookes Street Methodist Church in Louisville Kentucky, each donated seven and a half acres of land to establish the Methodist Burial Grounds which, by 1854, had become the Eastern Cemetery Company. Over the years, the Eastern Cemetery acquired two ‘sister’ cemeteries; Greenwood (which had been a cemetery devoted to the internment of African Americans) and Shardein. From as early as the late 1800’s, the Eastern Cemetery regularly made use of graves for more than one (often several) burials with no regard for the owners or the occupants of the sites or their families. This practice continued until 1989 when a whistle-blower brought the practice to the attention of the Kentucky Attorney General. The subsequent investigation by FBI undercover agent Jim Caldwell resulted in a court case and a liability for the cemetery of millions of dollars. Unable to pay, the trustees walked away. The abandoned cemetery sat in disrepair until Andy Harpole brought together a volunteer group now known as the Friends of Eastern Cemetery to try and repair and restore some of the damage, if not the reputation.
This amazing story is ghoulish and gruesome and, at times, unbelievable. And yet, all these bizarre things are true and are revealed in Tommy Baker’s documentary by numerous talking heads (many from the Friends of Eastern Cemetery) but predominantly by four key figures who provide expert and fascinating perspectives.
Andy Harpole is the founder of the Friends of Eastern Cemetery and has spearheaded the task to restore the grounds. Phil DiBlasi was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Louisville (now retired) and was asked by the courts to conduct an audit on the graves. In a cemetery comprising 29.6 acres where the industry standard was to bury between a thousand and eleven hundred bodies per acre, DiBlasi discovered in excess of 138,000 burials. Bob Allen was a gravedigger at the site and continued working there right up until the end of operations in 1989. Beth Caldwell worked in administration and saw firsthand the impact of these shoddy business practices. Between the four of them (and the others) they (literally) dig up the dirt on what has been described as the most over-buried cemetery in America. The dire state of Eastern Cemetery is vividly brought home in a terrific aerial image of shabby disgrace of the Eastern Cemetery compared to the beautifully cared for Cave Hill Veteran’s Cemetery which shares a boundary and is separated by a long red brick wall.
In addition to the talking heads, factual, historical information is delivered by narrator Francis Whitaker. There’s a LOT of information here and many misdemeanours to be revealed. At times, the abundance of names and dates and goings on is so much that the story becomes overwhelming in its detail. What is never unclear, though, is that the scale of the disservice the cemetery did to its clients is staggering in its enormity.
As astounding as the story is, though, the quality of the documentary varies remarkably throughout. Much of the trial footage that provides an insight into the court case that considered the sixty charges laid against the trustees is rapidly degrading old videotape with difficult to read subtitles. The ‘talking head’ interviews provide compelling information but are shot in a haphazard and unengaging style with no consistency from interview to interview and little or no thought to the setting in which the individuals speak. Overall, the quality of the sound, lighting and camerawork is poor but, despite the doco being overlong and a bit repetitive, the information is undeniably fascinating and the final sequence that focuses on the Friends of Eastern Cemetery ensures that the film avoids becoming overtaken by the bleak stain its own dark and dismal history.
This can be a hard doco to watch, partly on a technical level but mostly due to its sad and at times horrifying content. But, in the end, that fact that it’s not from some warped screenwriter’s mind but from some very dark pages of history makes this well researched and informative tale hard not to watch.
Prior to viewing the film, I felt that the premise was intriguing and full of potential, which is most fully achieved when the war and horror elements work in unison. For instance, Bress heightens the sense of paranoia and tension during initial scenes in the mansion by establishing the simultaneous threats of unseen enemy soldiers outside, and the supernatural forces within. There’s plenty of nervous glances, sudden loud noises, and shots revealing dangers just outside of the characters’ view; tropes - which in my opinion - feel equally at home in both the war and horror genres.
This sense of dread crescendoes in an impressive sequence during which the NAZIS storm the mansion, while the ghosts of the murdered former residents choose the same moment to reveal themselves. I won’t spoil how the latter is depicted, except to say that it’s just as mesmerising and disturbing as good horror should be. GHOSTS OF WAR does offer up too much explanation, but following this scene you’re left wondering what the hell just happened, and it is immensely satisfying.
Unfortunately, the film’s focus on atmosphere results the entire ensemble being underdeveloped; the five soldiers aren’t so much characters as they are blank canvases for scary stuff to happen around. This problem is exacerbated by incongruous casting choices, particularly Brenton Thwaites. Thwaites plays Chris, ostensibly the leader of the troop, yet he is the youngest and most baby-faced of the actors. Although he is perhaps capable of providing a commanding screen presence elsewhere; I wasn’t even sure of Chris’ rank until the third act. Similarly, I’ve seen Skylar Astin in too many musicals and rom-coms to fully suspend my disbelief when watching him here (but that's on me).
Bress’ script also runs out of steam in the third act, as the soldiers begin to confront the ghosts directly. Evidently faced with nowhere else to go, GHOSTS OF WAR attempts a twist ending that is absurd, convoluted, and takes a full twenty minutes to establish. Being so trop-filled the film feels is a little insulting, which ultimately dampened my impression of the film.
With the conclusion aside, conversely, GHOSTS OF WAR’s simple scope and well-executed thrills make it an easy recommendation for horror fans. After such a long hiatus, it’s reassuring to see that Eric Bress still has a solid understanding of the genre which brought him initial success.