The first article comes with a host of films that I’ve watched in the past few weeks. Some are from Fantasia Festival—an annual horror festival from August 20-September 2 that showcases some of the scariest films of the year. Others are new releases since then. This first batch of capsule reviews will be a long one, so get ready kids.
Remnants of Fantasia Fest
I had full access to the festival and all its horrific glory. Unfortunately, my viewing was limited to three films that still turned out to be pretty awesome.
Random Acts of Violence
Jesse Williams and Jay Baruchel lead this horror story that tests the thin boundary between artistry and the criminally insane. Williams is Todd, a comic writer who has a huge following in his sole claim to fame—a comic featuring a serial killer. The books are based on the real deal, a real killer who used to hunt along a certain highway. He would leave his victims in grotesque statue poses that were arguably more traumatizing than the murders themselves. Todd is at a loss for his final book, so he takes his girlfriend and research partner Kathy (Jordana Brewster), his friend and publisher Ezra (Baruchel), an assistant to everyone, Aurora (Niamh Wilson) on a road trip, along that same highway, were the murders happened. Traveling that road opens wounds for Todd that are real, and not imaginary. His tie to these murders is a lot more real than he thought, and they are about to go live.
Random Acts of Violence is a horrifying film that has all the elements of a good scare and more. The added childhood trauma element makes the story much more intense but maybe was released a bit too early. The audience may be left expecting a stronger, more familial bond between the killer and the writer than is actually there. Williams is more gorgeous than your average horror comic writer, but he does a good job of easing us into the narrative. It’s very entertaining after a sluggish start. A film that works well and will keep the audience engaged.
You can stream Random Acts of Violence on Shudder now.
4 of 5
Embargoed until September 21
The Paper Tigers
I was surprised to find this little film as a part of Fantasia Fest. It’s not the least horrifying but is an adorable adult coming of age film. The Paper Tigers opens with a video of three friends as boys living their lives and learning kung fu. The glory days feel of it all prepare you for the letdown that comes after the opening credits. Fast forward about 30 years and you see that Danny (Alain Uy) and his friends did not reach the kung fu destiny they trained for. Danny himself is an unreliable divorced dad who constantly disappoints his son and lies to his ex. His buddies are not much better. They come together after their old kung fu teacher died to find out that they were not his only pupils. The men all come together to go back through their teacher’s life and their own. Along the way, they find the fire and drive they left in adolescence. Is it enough to help them stage a return to the practice of kung fu and take back their teacher’s good name from the criminal phenom he last trained?
The Paper Tigers begins like one of those “making up for lost time” films but you quickly find it turning into a very, very tardy coming of age story. Dany and the guys never did transition fully into adulthood—as seen when they visit their old friend Carter (Matthew Page). He’s a middle-aged white guy who never did leave those kung fu dreams and boyhood grievances behind. The film does get a little absurd at times, but even that ends up being a comedy. Danny and his friends are annoying, but if you can stick with them, you may just like this film.
3 of 5 stars.
Bill and Ted Face the Music
I had to watch the two previous versions of this film to remember the plotting because I could only recall the basics. After watching two films of bros trying to skip out on their work by using expensive and highly volatile technology, I was ready for Bill and Ted Face the Music. Or, I thought I was. The story revisits everyone you remember from the originals (who is still alive), even Missy (Amy Stoch), who is looking for her own fresh start…again. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are older and not a whole lot wiser, with daughters from their medieval wives. The guys are harkened to the future to create a song that will bring the world into harmony (yep it’s that simple and cheesy). It becomes a means for escaping their failing marriages and daughters who are about the adults themselves. The girls are geniuses who help out, taking us on a musical tour of history that I was happy to see acknowledged the Black contributions to the field.
There is a strong undertone of middle-age crisis and regret that is important to the story. However, fans may find that it dampens Bill and Ted’s goofy charm a bit. It also gives the film an air of desperation that is tough to escape and may sour the experience for a lot of people. The nostalgia of the Bill and Ted series may save Bill and Ted Face the Music. I wouldn’t count on it, though.
Stream Bill and Ted Face the Music on most On Demand services now.
2.5 of 5 stars.
Arkansas is a dark southern comedy that offers a tale of a drug dealer who gets himself caught up in a dangerously impossible situation with a drug kingpin named Frog played by Vince Vaughn. Liam Hemsworth stars as Kyle, a drug dealer who is sent to the state of Arkansas to help with an operation. He is the cold, calculating professional who also lives by the rules of his boss, Frog (played by Vince Vaughn). Kyle has never seen Frog but he has complete faith in the man. Frog has kept the dealer employed as a wholesaler (and sometimes assassin) and safe. Kyle narrates the opening scenes which offer a breakdown of the southern drug trade. Pay attention, because he offers us a reason why these people end up making progressively worse decisions when things go wrong. They start when Kyle is sent to work the arm of the business handled by Swin (Clark Duke, who also wrote and directs the film) and Bright, played by John Malkovich. Like most dark comedies in the same vein as Fargo, it all starts with one body and goes downhill until Frog himself has to step in to deal with things. And, no one wants that.
Arkansas seemed out of the way, eccentric, and just the kind of quirky film I fall for. It is an oddball sort of comedic tale that takes you into a picture we don’t often see–of the drug trade run and operated by white southern criminals. This is a reprieve from the unending stereotypical narratives featuring Black men. Look for a surprise cameo by Vivica Fox as a self-made lady in the midst of the trade and Michael Kenneth Williams has a part in Frog’s making. Both play fresh roles that are interesting takes on black people in the drug trade.
Arkansas is available now on Amazon Prime.
4 of 5 stars