Back in the Day – Review

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Back in the  Day

Michael Rosenbaum is without question best known for his work on the hit TV show Smallville, and it has been a surprise ever since that his career hasn’t really taken off. A fine actor, and handsome both with and without hair, he should have shot to the top of many casting agents’ lists, yet here we find his most notable role since Smallville to come in the way of his own passion project, which in addition to starring in, he also wrote and directed.

In many ways a throwback to the goofy comedies of the 1980s, Back in the Day is undeniably and unapologetically made of familiar parts, as jobbing actor Jim Owens (Rosenbaum) returns to his hometown for a high school reunion, where he reconnects with both his old buddies and former flame Lori (Morena Baccarin), threatening to dismantle her impending wedding to not-quite-jerk Mark (Jay R. Ferguson) as he does so.

What’s clear throughout this film is that Rosenbaum is a fine director, though what’s more questionable are his skills as a writer. This is a fitfully amusing effort that nevertheless indulges a little too much in base potty humour and pop culture references that feel a tad forced (especially a skit spoofing Psycho), and we’re never in any doubt where the plot is going to end up, as Jim finds himself fighting for Lori’s affections against Mark.

Except that’s not quite what Rosenbaum has in store for us. He doesn’t make it easy to root for Jim, who by most accounts is a confused man-child who simply doesn’t know what he wants, and the ultimate summation is more mature than the film’s scatological and fart gags would have you otherwise expect. It may not be enough to compensate for the been-there-done-that feel of much of the preceding 90 minutes, but it leaves a nicer taste in the mouth than the forced romantic resolution that seemed to be on the cards.

Rosenbaum’s film benefits from boasting a number of vaguely familiar faces to elevate it above the stereotypes associated with VOD fare, particularly VOD fare dumped at the start of January, and it’s also interesting to consider how much of the film’s story might be autobiographical. Not a bad first directorial feature by any means, though Rosenbaum might best leave the scripting to someone else next time.

** 1/2

Back in the Day is available on VOD now and in US cinemas January 17th.

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Freezer – Review

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Freezer

Freezer is yet another in an increasingly long line of low-budget gimmick thrillers centered around the idea that most of its runtime takes place in a single location. At the best of times, the end result might be something like Phone Booth or Buried, and at the other end of the spectrum, we have films like ATM, and this, the latest film from cinematographer-turned-director Mikael Salomon.

A detective named Robert (Dylan McDermott) wakes up in a freezer, on his birthday no less, with little understanding of how he arrived there. Some unsavoury Russians believe that he has stolen their money, and unless he reveals the location, they’re going to leave him to freeze to death, which shouldn’t take more than 3 or 4 hours.

The question that so often taxes films like this is – how do you make the film work if the protagonist is the only character in the scene? The undeniably lame answer here is to have Robert talk to himself to stave off “awkward” silences and let the audience know what he’s thinking, at least until the requisite Russian goons show up to knock him into shape.

Still, there are plenty of other issues to be concerned about here, least of all the total lack of technical precision in selling the audience this premise; Robert doesn’t even have visible breath inside the freezer, and for most of the runtime doesn’t seem all that alarmed given how close he is to death. In addition to this, there’s plenty of awful wisecracks (Robert refers to one of his beautiful Russian captors as “cupcake”), an almost complete lack of tension, and endlessly dull exposition regarding an impending twist which viewers will surely anticipate.

The only major compelling thread throughout is considering what Robert actually knows about his capture. It leads to some laughable twists and turns however, as well as a multitude of stupid decisions, and a hilariously nonsensical ending that completely defies the tone of the previous 80 minutes.

On the brief plus side, McDermott does his best in a slumming role, and easy-on-the-eyes up and comer Yuliya Snigir (best known to audiences from last year’s A Good Day to Die Hard) certainly distracts from the awfulness. Still, the 82 minute runtime even feels excessive in this effortlessly constructed sort-of thriller.

* 1/2

Freezer is in US cinemas on January 17th, and on VOD and DVD on January 21st.

Jamesy Boy – Review

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Jamesy

The prison drama has been done to death over the years, yet newcomer filmmaker Trevor White manages to breathe scarcely fresh life into a tired story in Jamesy Boy, a familiar yet modestly successful character study of a young man, James (Spencer Lofranco), attempting to keep his head down as he serves out a stint in prison.

We meet James as he arrives in jail, having suffered an abusive upbringing and bounced around juvenile facilities as a child, before gang activity causes him to land in the clink, headed up by stern warden Lt. Falton (James Woods). In flashback form, we meet the forces in his life both good and bad – his protective mother (Mary-Louise Parker), and gang leader Roc (Michael Trotter) respectively – while in the present, he is taken under the wing of a notorious yet unworldly wise murderer (Ving Rhames) serving time in the jail, who reluctantly becomes his mentor.

Yes, we’ve seen much of this before, the prison gangs, the shower fights, and the crotchety old man with a heart of gold, but it’s the performances, bursting with conviction as they are, which help this one just about succeed. In addition to the aforementioned names, who all acquit themselves ably, Taissa Farmiga is convincing as a kindly store owner’s daughter who connects with James, and it’s nice to see Robert F. Chew (aka The Wire’s Proposition Joe) in his final screen role prior to his death last year.

Still, the highest plaudits should go to up-and-comers Rosa Salazar and lead Lofranco; her committed work as Crystal, the sexy, toxic, possessive presence in James’ pre-jail life, makes it easy to see why James fell for it. Lofranco, meanwhile, in only his second feature film role, is a born natural, wholly believable as both the vulnerable mass of burgeoning masculinity in the flashback scenes, and then as the more hardened, uneasily redeeming thug later on. His relaxed chemistry with Farmiga’s love interest character is particularly watchable.

At the end of the day, Jamesy Boy does what it sets out to do, inciting a sufficient amount of anger in the viewer regarding a system that so often helps to merely perpetuate more violence. The soulful array of music, though occasionally cloying, mostly helps sell the emotion.

***

Jamesy Boy is available on VOD from today, and is in US cinemas on January 17th.

Voodoo Possession – Review

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Voodoo

From its generic title on up, Voodoo Possession delivers on most of our expectations of a straight-to-video horror title. While marginally more imaginative than its non-theatrical dumping might suggest, this tale about a man travelling to Haiti to find his brother, a doctor who has become caught up in experiments involving voodoo and mental illness, fails to escape the shadow of the vastly superior films it so eagerly apes.

Though the gnarly opening kill involving a ladder and a knife promises plenty, soon enough writer-director Walter Boholst defers to a laundry list of horror tropes, wrapped in a staid melodrama about a sibling estrangement it’s difficult to care much about. Then there’s the cringe-inducing dialogue; just because your script illustrates how lame the word “amazeballs” is, that doesn’t mean we want to hear it come out of anyone’s mouth. Exposition throughout is largely risible, and the whole enterprise appears sorely in need of an (intentional) sense of humour. It’s far too somber, and the occasional wise-cracks from the hipster cameraman only make things worse.

Resting on shopworn shocks as it does, Voodoo Possession fails to raise the blood pressure even once. Though one might admire the dedication to trying to craft a meaningful narrative, the ludicrously clunky supernatural mechanics, following convergent memory paths, quickly crumble under further scrutiny. There’s an Inception-like level of exposition, and an Insidious-like level of wackiness, minus most of the intrigue of either. The final boss, meanwhile, is an unconvincing man-in-suit, though to its credit the ending is surprisingly melancholy.

The eagle-eyed will note that Danny “Machete” Trejo is given top billing here, but don’t be fooled. Trejo, who plays a hosptial administrator caught up in the paranormal ruckus, has screen time totalling a mere 8 minutes, a clear indication of how desperate the filmmakers are to get their movie noticed. Perhaps next time they should think more about the script than which cult film icon they can rope in for a few thousand bucks.

Perhaps not aggressively awful and it certainly has more on its mind than the typical straight-to-video horror, Voodoo Possession is nevertheless thoroughly daft, and not in a good way.

**

Voodoo Possession is available on DVD on January 14th.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones – Review

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PA The Marked Ones

It’s fair to say that even the most ardent fans of the Paranormal Activity franchise will admit that, since the very first sequel, the series has been dragging its feet with regard to its central plot points, both the possession of series antagonist Katie (Katie Featherston) and her subsequent abduction of her nephew Hunter, who she appeared to finally reclaim at the climax of Paranormal Activity 4.

It’s a joy to report, then, that free from the constraints of painstakingly nudging the series mythology forward, seemingly dubious spin-off The Marked Ones – dumped as it is in the so-called “graveyard period” of the post-awards season movie calendar – is the most fun the series has been since its very first entry.

Taking place sometime during the events of the series to date – and to say anymore is to ruin a major plot conceit – The Marked Ones finds two hispanic Californian teenagers investigating the titular activity after a woman living in their apartment complex dies under mysterious circumstances. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) soon enough finds himself “marked” by a familiar demonic entity, and must find a way to free himself from a curse plaguing him since the cradle.

The Marked Ones is no miracle of a horror movie, but it gets a lot right that the Paranormal Activity franchise hasn’t in a while; firstly, it does away with most of the preambles and dives almost straight into its investigative premise, a benefit of having  a mere 84-minutes to play with. Also, the young protagonists are easily the most likable and personable of the series so far; their jovial banter keeps the scare-free sections nevertheless entertaining enough, and their humble apartment abode feels in stark contrast to the absurdly luxurious homes of the series’ prior victims.

What’s most important, though, is that the long-tired franchise formula has been mostly abandoned; gone are the blue-drenched shots of curtains dancing and creaking stairways, but instead Jesse and co. are constantly on the move with their camera. Granted, this does result in a few sloppy moments where characters’ faces aren’t totally visible during conversation, and the age-old problem of the characters carrying the camera past the point of plausibility rears its ugly head, especially when the kids carry their $300 camera into gangland and seemingly don’t expect to be accosted for it.

Still, this along with the relatively routine premise are all the easier to swallow down because The Marked Ones also happens to be the most amusing and knowing film of the bunch. From the chitchat of the central characters to the visage of gangbangers tooling up to take on their paranormal rivals, to a number of pleasantly over-the-top stunts as Jesse toys with his paranormal “powers”, this takes a step back from the self-regarding solmenity that Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman bathed the prior two films in.

If Paranormal Activity 4.5 is essentially a rest-stop entry in the series, it smartly lowers our expectations from the outset, such that the unexpected wallop of a twist in the third act serves as a genuine, pleasant surprise for those who’ve stuck with the franchise through thick and thin. If most of the film’s references to the series feel a tad perfunctory and hollow – particularly a near-pointless cameo from Molly Ephraim, who played Ali Rey, the sole survivor of Paranormal Activity 2 – the revelatory final moments are a welcome nod to events past, even if it can’t help but end on a more generic note.

While it doesn’t exactly renew hope that part five will be anything more than yet another distended tease for a finale that Paramount is trying to hold at arm’s length forever more, it is a rare spin-off worthy of the original, certainly more so than the three “legit” sequels that preceded it.

***