“Crisis Hotline” (2019) Indie Film Review

Erotic thriller with a shocking twist. Mark Schwab’s Crisis Hotline is an indie film that is reminiscent of Psycho IV, yet is budding with originality. It’s not often that we see fresh or original interpretations of past premises, but this film provides audiences with a new lens through which to explore heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. The small cast and two primary locations allow audiences to focus on the conflict between the crisis hotline operator and the caller. But down the rabbit hole the audience goes as the caller elaborates on why he is making a decision to harm himself and others. Despite the excellent hook provided by the opening scenes that setup the intriguing premise, the tone of the film shifts back and forth from heavy drama to psychological thriller to an erotic love story. Thus, leaving the film searching for what it wants to be. The screenwriting suggests that the writer was experimenting with genre, but didn’t commit to any one to a signifiant level, so there are tropes of all the aforementioned. What sets this film a part from many others that possess some of the same characteristics is that it features a predominantly gay male cast. What I appreciate about the characters is that their sexuality isn’t the focus of the story; truthfully, you could replace this cast with a heteronormative cast, and the story could play out similarly. However, the choice to make the characters gay does allow Schwab to explore relationship dynamics not often seen in films. While the premise may be intriguing, the execution lacks precision brought on by the underdeveloped plot and mostly flat characters.

A race-against-time thriller that highlights the potentially darkest sides of the social media phenomenon. Jaded by the job of managing an LGBT crisis line, Simon (Corey Jackson) finds that most of his callers are using the service for reasons that would qualify as being certainly less than a crisis. That all changes when he gets a call from Danny (Christian Gabriel) who says he is in the process of killing himself. Instantly gripped by his first real case, Simon does his best to connect with Danny and find out why he has come to consider such a drastic action. As the tale of Danny’s journey is unraveled through the use of flashback sequences, we discover a young romance, a troubling network of individuals, and a dark secret. (IMDb)

Although the characters are mostly flat, that doesn’t mean that they lack relatability. In fact, the characters of Simon and Danny are highly relatable. We’ve all been jaded over something in our lives. Maybe it’s failed relationships or perhaps it’s work related. Whatever the case, we’ve all been there. Simon goes into this shift with the same feelings that some of us may have experienced in our own jobs. Those in the service industry can definitely relate to that. Maybe you’re a Danny; you know what it’s like to be the new guy in town without a system of established friends and trying to date. Or you’ve been betrayed by someone you loved after having gone a long time just going through the motions of dating to the point you can provide an analytical breakdown of the steps, rises, and pitfalls. When Danny calls Simon to explain why he is intending to do himself and others harm, we can place ourselves in Danny’s shoes because perhaps we have been extremely heartbroken over a terminated relationship. He is our conduit through which we experience the plot of the film. He is a de facto narrator, and as such, because he is expressing suicidal and homicidal ideas, he is established as an unreliable narrator. But we have no choice but to listen to him because he must provide “the context” for Simon to process the severity of the call. Simon must establish the legitimacy of the call before contacting the authorities because there have been many false crisis claims in the past. In many ways, we are like Simon, listening to every word and trying to piece together the puzzle. There is no dramatic irony in this film, so we learn as Simon learns. The scenes of Simon listening to Danny are the scenes that I feel work best because that is when tension is at its highest.

Without getting into spoiler territory, I want to touch on how the film explores heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. Heartbreak is evident from the onset because the caller speaks to his broken relationship with Kyle. But when Simon suggests that the caller is going to extremes over a bad breakup, the caller draws Simon in closer to reveal the sordid, disturbing context of the broken relationship. Though Simon listens to a soft spoken Danny on the phone, it is clear that he is experiencing immense psychological pain. The heartbreak is more than sadness over a relationship that is over, it goes much deeper because of the sadistic betrayal that is slowly revealed over the phone call exposition. In addition to the exhibited heartbreak, the caller hints at the guilt he feels for some of his decisions, but the full extent of the guilt is not realized until the end of the film. I appreciate the film exploring not only the heartbreak of relationship loss, but the guilt parties feel in the aftermath. Lastly, the film comments on gross abuse of power. Through the conversation on the phone, Simon learns that Kyle’s employment may not be on the up and up, despite Kyle explaining to Danny that his employers were not involved in anything illegal–just sleazy. But Danny slowly begins to understand the degree to which Kyle’s employers hold him a captive employee. While the focus is on Danny and Simon, the film provides context for the audience to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil, and can reduce people to zeros and ones. Evaluating persons as a commodity is a dangerous slope that can lead to one’s destruction.

Thematically, the film works very well. The premise feels fresh, and the character setups are interesting. The weakness in this film falls on the screenplay that lacks direction. Although the plot is initially interesting and starts out gripping, it was stretched too thin to fill a 90min run time. Thankfully, the twist at the end helps to justify having sat through the poorly paced scenes. Not that this needed to be a quickly paced film; on the contrary, this is a story that needed to be a slow burn. But a slow burn does not mean that scenes should be poorly paced or longer than they need to be. Alfred Hitchcock stated, “start your scene as close to the end as possible.” And to Crisis Hotline’s credit, some scenes are tight and effective. But there are many that feel like they could have moved the plot along more efficiently. While I may be coming down hard on this film for it’s weak plot and lack of character development (when there was such an opportunity to explore these characters further), it provides audiences with a some great atmospheric scenes, a believable love story, and some rather suspenseful moments. I appreciate the film for not including explicit sex scenes, because then it’s entirely possible that it may have felt too close to a porno with a loose storyline. It has a good story idea with relatable characters and an intriguing premise.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

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“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” Season 1 Review

You’re about to enter a dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind. That’s the signpost up ahead. Next stop, Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. Debuting on April 1st, the revival of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Sterling, hit CBS All Access. For many resisters to paying for a “broadcast” channel’s streaming app (whereas most apps are free or included with a cable/satellite subscription), CBS finally figured out how to force wallets. Between TZ and the new Star Trek featuring the highly anticipated return of Patrick Stewart as his most famous character of all time Captain Picard, CBS knows precisely how to get you to subscribe to its service. I’d love to see difference in subscribers before Peele’s Twilight Zone and after. Have you seen the new series?

Although TZ has been revived before, it never quite took off the way the original did, and still commands an audience. Regularly ranked as one of the best written shows of all time by the WGA, IMDb, and other respected organizations and sites, this show left an indelible mark on television. Furthermore, it has even influenced recent cinema and television as evident in shows/movies such as Black MirrorUsAre You Afraid of the DarkEx Machina, and more. Rod Sterling’s groundbreaking show creatively tackled complex issues such as conformity, the uncanny, human frailty, fear of the unknown, self-destruction, faith and lack thereof, paranormal/supernatural, and more. Specifically, it was a welcoming place for all kinds of people to explore these topics. No matter how the central character’s tragic flaw affected him/her, whether for the positive or negative, you could always count on the episode’s moral compass pointing north and a closing monologue from Sterling to tie everything up.

Right out the gate, I feel that the series premiere was on the weak side, but it made up for the sluggish start in episode 1 with episode 2 (released with E1), an adaptation of one of the most popular episodes in the original series Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I thought it would be fun to analyze and review each episode in the seasons of this show. The challenge of this new series is to deliver the same powerful, memorable stories as the original. Since this is an anthology series, and therefore each episode is a complete story in and of itself, it is not fair, at this early stage, to generalize a review of the show–not yet anyway. So, you’ll find reviews of each episode in this blog. For the sake of readability, I’ve limited each episode to one paragraph. Simply click an episode to jump to that part of this running review.

Season One Evaluation

In short, this premiere season fell flat until Episode 10. It’s thanks to that single episode that we have hope that Peele’s series can perhaps overcome the plethora of struggles it has demonstrated it has in the future seasons. Pacing is a big issue, not to mention largely missing that Twilight Zone magic in most of the episodes. With the exception of Episode 10, the rest of the episodes do not justify their “hour long” runtimes. The plots that we have witnessed are better suited for a half-hour runtime. Striving to not be so on-the-nose or polarizing is something else that I would like to see moving forward. Some of the episodes this season depict unfair representations of groups of people that do not help facilitate progressive and beneficial discussions. Instead of being concerned with perpetuating ill-informed or prejudicial representations of types of characters, this episodes need to place focus on the root cause not the symptoms. Moreover, the future episodes should place more value in allowing the audience to make up their minds on how they view a conflict, allegory, or situation more than the episode telling you how to think, feel, or behave. Episode 10 gives us reason to look forward to season 2.

Episodes

  1. The Comedian
  2. Nightmare at 30,000 Feet
  3. Replay
  4. A Traveler
  5. The Wunderkind
  6. Six Degrees of Freedom
  7. Not All Men
  8. Point of Origin
  9. The Blue Scorpion
  10. Blurryman

The Comedian

If you haven’t watched either E1 or E2 yet, I recommend starting with E2 because this first episode drags as it searches for its dimension. At its core, this episode is about the perils of fame, treating people as disposable commodities, and be careful what you wish for. Solid themes around which to build a show. Despite Peele having a shared writing credit on this first episode, the Sterling-esque monologue/narration and plot do not appear to have a singular unifying voice. Much like his recent Us struggles to tell a singular, coherent story. It’s an ambitious interpretation of Faust, but the episode isn’t capable of following up the ambition with effective delivery. If you recall, the majority of the original TZ episodes were half-hour shows. The original series wasn’t produced simply to entertain, but was written to tackle socio-political, religious, and psycho-social topics. This was accomplished through thought-provoking stories with am emphasis on the writing more so than the visual design. Now that I have the negative out of the way, I would be remiss to not highlight what it did well. The performances by lead Kumail Nanjiani and supporting cast Diarra Kilpatrick, and Tracy Morgan were fantastic! Additionally, the cinematography and editing were on point. One of the key differences between the original series and Peele’s new one is the production quality. Even though I have no issues with the production value and design of the OG, I do greatly appreciate this new one for the cinematic quality to the story. Had The Comedian been a 30min episode, I think that it would have been better executed.

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Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

Parks and Rec‘s Adam Scott figuratively steps into the shoes and sits in the airline seat of William Shatner in an adaptation of one of the most popular, recognizable and oft parodied episodes of the original Twilight Zone. Completely grounded in the premise of the original, but writers find a way to provide us with a new interpretation that brings the iconic plot into the 21st century. If you’re wondering if it’s an unnecessary, pretentious remake in the vein of Psycho (1998) or The Lion King (2019), then you can exercise relief as this episode will have you on the edge of your airline seat. Without going into spoilers, you’ll likely not think of podcasts or aircrafts in the same way next time you travel. Unlike the previous episode, this one is much stronger. I wish the series had launched with this as the premiere instead of The Comedian. When you think of the bizarre, uncanny nature of many of the original series episodes, you think of that intersection of shadow and substance a which these stories occur. And this reimagination of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet holds moderately strong to the pacing, tone, and structure of the original. Although the writing of episode 2 is tighter than episode 1, it still falls a little shy of the exemplary writing of the source material. For example, the original at 22mins delivers a more powerful punch with all the character and plot development therein than this new one does in nearly 1hr. That’s not to say that episode 2 is not effective and enjoyable–it is. But just not AS effective or memorable as the original. At the core, this story is about the worldview of having people think you’re crazy is almost worse than actually being crazy; furthermore, it also touches on the fear of terrorism. The windup is a little slow, but then as soon as he sits in his seat, you are in for the flight of your life. That is, until the final scene and closing words from Peele confuse instead of clarify (much like Us).

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Replay

After the fantastic second episode in Jordan Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone, the third episode gets bogged down in politics instead of focussing on the moral or thought-provoking message. The science-fiction element of the now-retro camcorder that rewinds time gets overshadowed by the message of remembering one’s roots, but that theme gets lost when the plot chooses to divert attention to the relationship between white law enforcement and the black community. Taking its inspiration from another classic original episode, this one perpetuates and reinforces a real division that exists in some areas of the country between two groups of people. Although this episode could have been used as an allegory that could be applied to many different issues of prejudice and unfair treatment, it chooses to focus on one particular socio-political issue that runs the risk of further alienating audiences than unifying them. At its core, it is not about any particular theme but instead highlights the issue of white law enforcement brutality against black individuals. Replay could have been a powerful episode that inspires productive, positive change; but in lieu of a call-to-action, it reinforces the idea that most white law enforcement officers treat black individuals grossly unfairly. Statistically speaking, that is simply not true. But due to media attention and high profile cases that do show mistreatment that needs to be condemned, there is a growing idea that this is the state of affairs in general. Yes, this is a real issue that has been highlighted in the news for years now, but I am afraid an episode like this seeks to divide instead of mend or evoke constructive change. In terms of the plot, the episode executes its setup quite well, but feels stretched to fill the “hour” much like the previous two episodes. Our lead characters are developed effectively and we even get a backstory that is strategically revealed as we work our way through the story. Like with the first two episodes, we also witness excellent performances by the three lead characters in this episode. I appreciate Peele’s desire and ambition to approach this series like Sterling did; but it needs to deliver episodes that can be applied more generally to present-day audiences that can stand the test of time instead of focussing on message delivery that makes it a time capsule.

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A Traveler

It’s Christmastime in the Twilight Zone. More so than any of the previous three episodes of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, this episode sets up its characters and plot more effectively than any other. The beginning truly feels like a Sterling-inspired episode. Whereas the previous stories in this new anthology series struggle to find their respective places within the library of Twilight Zone episodes, this one starts out as close to the pacing, tone, and feel of the original series as we have seen so far. The setup is so effective, that we don’t even need the opening commentary by Peele in his brilliant Sterling-fashion. Although this episode, like all previous ones, feels stretched for time, it attempts to follow the “joke” structure of the original series closely. I don’t mean joke as in funny-haha, I mean joke in that the OG episodes quite regularly setup the plot/characters in Act I, reinforced the plot/characters in Act II, then disrupts that pattern with a twist in Act III. If this were a typical joke, then that twist would be the punchline (“I’ll have 3 chili dogs, salt & vinegar french fries, and a diet soda”). In the case of A Traveler, Acts I and II are outstanding, but then the twist in Act III is a let down. The payoff does not equal the windup. Instead of adapting or reimagining any single classic episode for the new series, this episode channels several classic episodes in order to repackage into a new story. Like with the previous three episodes, this one takes a classic approach and attempts to comment on ethnocentrism, appropriation of property, and forcing a native people out of its land if it doesn’t conform to the “superior” group, but this analogy never quite solidifies. Without spoiling the twist, it is a twist that would have worked very well during the run of the original series, but doesn’t work as well in 2019. I appreciate the reason for the mysterious traveler’s sudden appearance, but just doesn’t do it for me. One of the best parts of the original series is that the end often prompts the audience to vicariously interact with the story by deciding what they would do. But that power is withheld by the audience by allowing a character to voice what should come from the audience. Moving forward, I hope to see future episodes that stick close to the pacing and tone of the original, but still provide the audience with the ability to interact with the story.

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The Wunderkind

Aside from episode two which was a direct adaptation from the OG, this is the episode that feels more like Sterling’s Twilight Zone than any of the others in terms of tone and substance. Parts of the plot of this episode feel like they are inspired by the famous It’s a Good Life episode about the boy whom wishes you out into the cornfield or kills you in front of him if you disagree with anything he says or feels. It’s his way or the highway. Clearly, this episode is a commentary on a child-like spoiled president, so it doesn’t take a political analyst to pinpoint the inspiration for the character of Oliver. Although many, if not most, of the most memorable TZ episodes contain a strong science-fiction or supernatural element, this one is a political satire. Unfortunately, that means that it may not sit as well with many TZ fans; however, I am a lifelong fan of the OG (the jury is still out on this one) and I enjoyed it. Albeit foreshadowed, the twist at the end is still very Twilight Zoney. Where this episode shows weakness is in the writing (again). I know that I mention the writing often, but it does seem to be this iteration’s Achilles heal. Like with previous episodes in Peele’s TZ, this one is also stretched to fill the nearly hour run time. Had this been a half-hour episode, then I feel that it would have exhibited better pacing. It starts out quite well, but get’s incredibly sluggish in the middle, then finishes strong enough. What I find particularly interesting about this episode is the commentary, not only on the president, but on the American public that despite knowing presidential politicians are manipulative, still readily believe whomever the newest or perhaps most unique candidate is. The takeaway from this episode is to be ever vigilant of the nature of those whom seek your vote or approval because it is likely that there is a significant self-serving angle to serving the public.

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Six Degrees of Freedom

Heavily inspired by classic Twilight Zone stories, this episode never truly leaves the launchpad. Six Degrees of Freedom features a six-man spacecraft crew on a mission to lay the groundwork for a colonization of Mars since Earth is nearly destroyed. After a reported impending nuclear attack, the crew decides to launch instead of a more conventional evacuation. With Mars nearly 300 days away and a presumed destroyed Earth behind them, they embark on the mission. The crew has a lot of time to ponder the tragic events they narrowly escaped and the overwhelming responsibility of what to do on Mars. The setup in this episode is classic Sterling, and works incredibly well. In fact, I was excited that this episode was going to feel like a 21st century interpretation of previous plot–the soul of the plot remaining in tact, but with an updated setting and more diverse characters. Abort. This episode does not deliver what it promises in the opening. We may have a more diverse cast, but all of the characters are flat, lacking in any substantive dimension. Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, this crew comes off as lacking in training and preparation for this mission. I get that the pressure of a doomed mission, lengthy periods in space, and the trauma of the alleged destroyed Earth are brilliant plot tools to wear down the rational, disciplined mindsets of the crew; and the breakdown, manifest itself in an undesirable human trait that contributes to the psycho-social breakdown of the crew, but these crew don’t seem like they are qualified for their respective jobs to begin with. Perhaps the goal of the teleplay was to showcase this crew of six (interestingly, six is the Biblical number of man) as a microcosm for out present society, but that analogy is lost in the vapid dialogue and lack of context for the interpersonal conflict. This launch never truly reaches the orbit of Sterling’s Twilight Zone.

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Not All Men

Loosely based on the classic Twilight Zone episode A Good Man is Hard to Find, this episode of Peele’s show is built around the idea of personal choice. Unfortunately, it lacks the power it could have had by only focussing on the idea of toxic masculinity. Whereas the show could have packed a more powerful punch by showing both men and women grappling with a refusal to give in to primal behaviors and violence, it just shows one group effected by the meteor. I know why; toxic masculinity is constantly in the news and on social media; but the truth is that both men and women can exhibit toxic behaviors that have a negative impact upon society. The twist of the meteor acting as a kind of placebo was a nice TZ touch that I appreciated immensely, but wish the episode truly drove home the point that we ALL have toxic behaviors and thoughts that could significantly impact our outward actions unless we make the intentional choice not to act upon them. Case and point: revenge. Revenge can become an all-consuming monster unless it’s checked. We have to weigh our selfish or self-centered tendencies against the greater good of society and more personal relationships. I love the idea of the plot of this episode, but wish the execution had been more effective. As has been the pattern established so far, this episode boasts excellent acting, cinematography, and direction.

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Point of Origin

An apt title for an episode that truly feels grounded in the original Sterling series. Instead of feeling like a sermon, the original series often depicted a story that didn’t answer some posited philosophical or sociological question but ended just before a directed action was requested of the audience. The main idea of most of the episodes (much in the same way Black Mirror does) was to confront the audience with a thought-provoking question and leave it at that. Allow the audience to decide what they are going to do with the story and commentary therein. Although this episode is clearly on immigration, it moves the conversation from the familiar to the unfamiliar–to another dimension altogether. Although the character of eve is completely unlikable (problematic in my mind), she is the vessel though which we experience what it would be like if you were accused of being an illegal immigrant, brought here as a child with no memory of life before. While we are never given a full explanation WHY the interdimensional beings fled their home to make a new life in ours, it is ultimately unimportant. The stark contrast from the life Eve built for herself to the soul crushing surroundings she finds herself in, works well to depict what it must feel like to be forcibly extracted from all you’ve ever truly known and thrown into a frightening situation. Elements of this episode are incredibly terrifying.

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The Blue Scorpion

Probably the least enjoyable of all the Season 1 episodes. The Blue Scorpion wants so much to comment on gun control–and not in a subtextual way. It is way too obvious. When providing social commentary, Rod Sterling’s original Twilight Zone was seldom on the nose. From the opening scene, this episode is up front and center with its topic. All that’s missing is a Powerpoint presentation to accompany this episode. Not to mention it struggles with the same pacing problems that all the episodes have–taking what might work well in 30mins, and stretching it to fill the “hour long” runtime. Had the episode taken a more creative approach to the obsession with and lack of legislation regarding firearm access and use in the United States, then perhaps this episode would have played out much stronger. As it is, the sledgehammer approach is not only polarizing but shows a lack of understanding of why the original series worked so well. While it is common knowledge–also demonstrably evident in this series itself–that Peele displays a great admiration for the legendary show, he seems to have missed the whole point of why it worked and still works so well. Thankfully there are comedic elements in the episode in order for it not to be entirely depressing.

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Blurryman

While most of the season has been lackluster and continues to provide evidence that Netflix’ Black Mirror is the more thoughtful “new” Twilight Zone, episode 10 of Peele’s series is the most Twilight Zone of the first season; furthermore, this single episode provides hope for the otherwise forgettable series. Until Ep10, if I was to attribute an over all title to Season 1, I would have called it “Twilight Zone: Failure to Launch,” but thanks to this single episode, the series leaves us with a glimmer of hope for the subsequent seasons. If you select just one episode of this series to watch, make sure it is this one. Not only does it provide excellent technical elements and a fantastic cast, the writing is exemplary. Even though from an editing perspective the final scene is wonky, a bit clunky if you will, this teleplay is the best of the season. It nearly overcomes the pacing problem as well. More than any other episode, this one almost justifies its “hour long” runtime. Of all the twists that we have encountered this season, Blurryman has the best one. With meta horror and meta science-fiction being popular storytelling methods nowadays, I was waiting for this season to deliver a meta episode. And sure enough, this is it! All the way down to Jordan Peele playing himself and the writer of some of the episodes visiting the sets of her episodes (i.e. the bar from The Comedian). Zazie Beetz plays a teleplay writer for The Twilight Zone and she begins to see and get stalked by a blurryman on the set of the show. The episode follows her on her descent into madness as the entity, primarily visible to her except at the very beginning, pushes her to question her reality. Unlike the previous episodes, wherein there is no need to worry about talking about spoiler content, this is one that needs to be experienced without any knowledge of the twists and turns after the first act. The only negative critique I really have of the episode is failing to achieve what the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was able to accomplish when the iconic attraction opened in 1994. Once you watch this episode, you will know precisely what I am talking about.

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You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Velvet Buzzsaw” One Movie Punch Review

The lowdown on high art.

The highly anticipated Netflix original satirical thriller Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming. Go beyond the frame into the vicious word of the art business. Much like the hype surrounding Bird Box, this movie was also proceeded by a prolific number of memes on social media. Although this movie opened to mixed reviews from critics and audiences, I found it to be immensely enjoyable. Not to the point that it’s a great movie, but a solid thriller. A plot and setting that could have so easily been boring were intense and seductive. Who would have thought being a critic would be so alluring and perilous. Furthermore, this movie provides audiences with thought-provoking commentary on art and business. You witness all the players in the art business game: the creators, critics, clients, and curators. Essentially, the theme of this sexy, sinister, satire is the more we attribute a monetary value to art, that is inspired by a creator’s incredibly dark place, the more we run the risk of suffering, even vicariously, a deadly consequence for our selfish actions…

For the full review, visit the One Movie Punch website for the audio review and transcript! And if you don’t do so, follow One Movie Punch on Twitter and subscribe with your podcast service.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Widows” full review

Intelligent, emotional, thrilling. Steve McQueen’s Widows is more than a thriller about a heist, it’s a stylish cinematic exercise full of social commentary on racial and social injustice within a city built upon political and business corruption. In a world that is completely exhausted from injustice, McQueen’s masterful direction brings Gillian Flynn’s multi-dimensional screenplay to life. Widows is brilliant in part because the film works on multiple levels simultaneously whilst delivering an edge-of-your-seat drama full of conflict. Not your typical action-packed film, the focus is truly on the central characters and the worlds from which they each come–worlds that collide after a robbery goes terribly wrong. It’s a brutal story with the highest of stakes. Witness a genre that is often not thought of as much more than a good popcorn movie, mature, grow, and exceed what society dictates this genre should be. While the characters themselves break through that glass ceiling, this film parallels the narrative by shattering expectations to create a thought-provoking work of cinema. Whereas a film in this genre seldom tackles such tough topics; and in general, many films that do seek to provoke discussions on race, social injustice, and gender roles come off as preachy, Widows never crosses that line from motion picture to sermon. The visually impactful story hooks you from the opening scene, and delivers command performances that force you to empathize and ask whether or not you would go to such lengths to forge a working relationship with people completely different from you in order save your very lives. What would you do when you are thrust into a situation in which you are way over your head and unprepared? Widows is as entertaining as it is thoughtful.

A heist goes terribly wrong. Very, very wrong. The result leaves four women widows. Four women that have no idea who one another are, or even the extent of their respective husbands dealings within the world of organized crime. These women are left with a debt owed to some powerful people who have a total disregard for human life, and only value money and influence. When Veronica (Viola Davis) is approached by a crooked politician for the $2mil her husband owes, she must devise a plan to deliver the money because her very life is in immediate danger. In order to get the money that she needs, Veronica blindly contacts the other widows in order to pull off the next heist her husband was planning. “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it.” With little time to train, Veronica and her newly forged partners work tirelessly to plan and pull off the heist with a booty of $5mil.

After listening to the recent Mike Mike and Oscar (MMO) review of this movie, I am determined now more than ever to persuade them to my side of the argument that this is a great movie, and one worthy of the critical and general audience acclaim. There are so many layers to this story that it is difficult to know precisely where to begin my analysis. Before tackling the plot itself, the area where MMO and I agree is the cinematography and editing. McQueens stylistic direction is witnessed clearly in the phenomenal movement of the camera and editing. There are times that the camera feels like a character in and of itself. Without giving any spoilers away, there is one particular scene that was so brilliantly blocked and choreographed that I was legitimately wowed by the cinematography. And that is the gripping opening scene. The camera never misses a beat, and the editing is razor sharp. There are moments that the camera moves so exceptionally that I truly feel like a fly on the wall of the getaway van. Beyond the stellar cinematography and editing in the opening scene explosive action, the camera often lingers on reactions or reveals subtext in other scenes. While the characters may be talking about something innocuous or delivering a expositional dump, the camera is focussed on something entirely different.

The story of Widows is less about the heist as it is a character study on three incredibly interesting women who are forced to work together to achieve a common goal. An external goal of the theft of $5mil because of a mess left by their respective late husbands paired with the internal need to survive. And it in these characters and the conflict experienced by each that the film truly shines as taking this action genre to substantive levels. Much like a screenplay itself is build upon the three act structure, and individual scenes also embrace the idea of a “mini 3-act movie” within each act, the film provides three fascinating characters upon which the conflict and drama are build. Whether short or feature, films contain three acts, each with a specific diegetic purpose. Paralleling this concept of 3s is the central ensemble cast of Veronica, Linda, and Alice. Amanda is also left a widow by the police shootout, but does not play as active a role. Veronica is a character who lives on the wealth of her husband, but turns a blind eye to what he does. She is grieved and frightened of how she is going to cope with life, especially after having buried a teenage son. Linda is an entrepreneurial spirit who trusts that her husband is taking care of the logistics of opening a store but does not make sure bills are getting paid. She is unaware of his habitual gambling and penchant for unethical business ventures. Alice is a timid, shy person as a result of being abused as a child and by her husband. She demonstrates an unspoken relief that her abusive husband is gone, but reluctant to become an escort even though her mother trained her that she only has her looks and nothing else. We don’t learn as much about Amanda except the fact she is a new mother and doesn’t want to be involved in anything. All three of these woman are thrust into a situation in which they are over their heads and rise to the occasion to overcome the fear of impending death to take control of fate to forge their own futures. It requires them to drop walls, cooperate, and use each of their talents to combine together to create a formidable team. Alone, each of them did not have what was necessary to pull off the job, but together they become a solid team.

The stark differences between the three women are important because it allows the story to explore the socio-political and inter-personal affects the conflict has upon them. On the surface level, Widows is a heist movie; but ultimately, the heist itself is irrelevant, little more than a glorified plot device. Steve McQueen took a high concept film and made it low concept, gave it substance and meaning. Crafting this meaningful film out of a popcorn concept demonstrates McQueen’s ability to create something that is incredibly entertaining but never sacrifices character, the cinematic experience, or the important themes and subtext found therein. This is very much a #MeToo era film. It provides a platform for strong female characters to turn the tables on their oppressors, those who take advantage of them, and take back their dignity, self-respect, ambition, and independence. Thematically, the film is incredibly rich. Each of the central women are saddled with burdens of various kinds and to varying degrees however, the common denominator is dictation of place in society. This dictation is accomplished differently for each women, but the result is the same. They are all controlled by the men in their personal and vocational lives. Veronica must shed her codependence on her late husband and even her dog (a metaphor for her dependence on the external in order to function) and successfully cope with and overcome grief. Alice must realize that she is intelligent, has intrinsic value, does not need to rely on her body to generate income, and does require a man in order to survive. Linda is challenged with rising above having her passion business ripped out from underneath her because of a mess her husband left, and provide her children with a quality life while never forgetting her own needs and desires. All of these women are the victims of messes created by men, and leaving the women in their lives to clean up.

McQueen’s Widows gives a voice to the oppressed and downtrodden. Although the central characters are our three women, there are other characters in the film representing different kinds of real people out there who are selfishly creating messes and keeping those who aren’t wealthily, white, privileged on the bottom of the ladder and dependent upon the upper class. This is where different depictions of corruption enter the story. We have political corruption, business corruption, and even corrupted leaders of religious congregations. So much to talk about! It’s in these subplots that the film spends time highlighting and commenting on racism and gender roles. McQueen delivers a white ethnocentric political family who stops at nothing to keep minorities out of city government in order to hold all the control in the longstanding dynasties. Gender roles are analyzed by the manner in which the various women are treated by their male counterparts. Although much of these subplots are conveyed through exposition, there are some brilliant shots with the camera. One particularly powerful scene in which Jack Milligan (Colin Farrell) is driving home from his campaign stop in a predominantly black, poverty-stricken neighborhood to his whitewashed wealthy neighborhood. The distance is a matter of a few blocks, but the stark contrast between the neighborhoods is astounding. Whereas the conversation between Mulligan and his assistant could have been a boring expositional dump, it was dramatized by the setting and the reactions of the black chauffeur. This scene calls out the great divide that we see in our country. A few in power keep others oppressed and in their dictated places. Powerful material.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is tight, focussed, and deep. It wastes no moment to advance the plot and develop the central characters who all have well-defined external goals supported by well-defined internal needs. The big event of the heist gone wrong has a wide ripple effect that puts the very lives of the innocent in harm’s way, harm they may even mean eventual death. And it’s not a film that paints the “white male” as the only unscrupulous, unethical, power-hungry entity, it also takes the opportunity to show a black male politician who is just as unethical, power-hungry, and unscrupulous, even to committing murders. The lesson here is just how corrupt business and politics is. Even down to strong arming the religious community. Of course, this also shows that the leader of a religious congregation is not immune to picking up a racket and joining the game. Without ever feeling too preachy, Flynn’s screenplay uses visual juxtaposition to truly drive these points home. While the pacing of her screenplay may be slow compared to an action-driven plot, it is perfectly paced for this character-driven story. To be honest, I do not feel that this screenplay is as brilliant as Gone Girl, it’s still a powerful screenplay that balances the action components against the character ones in order to successfully experiment with the heist genre. For all its cleverness and excitement, of the three acts, the first two are definitely the strongest with a weaker third act closing out the film. Will the third act be what keeps this film from receiving a best adapted screenplay nomination? We will just have to wait and see.

There is so much to like about McQueen’s Widows! Make sure to go in with the right expectations though. If you go into the film seeking the next great heist movie, then you my be disappointed (as was the case with Movie Drone Podcast). Mike Mike and Oscar certainly stick by their impression that it’s just an okay movie all the way around and not the Oscar contender than many Tweeps and Podcasters are saying. After watching it for myself, listening and reading to reviews on both ends of the spectrum, I still feel strongly that this movie is fantastic! It’s a timely movie that gives voices and platforms to those who are often sidelined. From writing to directing and performances, you are in for a thrilling time with Widows.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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