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Films I Neglected To Review: Save Us, Toejam & Earl. . . .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Buffaloed," "Camp Cold Brook," "Sonic the Hedgehog," "The Traitor" and "VFW."

Were you one of those people who watched "The Wolf of Wall Street" and was upset that Martin Scorsese did not conclude his epic study of greed and avarice with a conclusion in which the central character finally learned the error of his ways and elected to straighten up and fly right in a manner that supplied viewers with a tidy moral lesson so that they wouldn't feel at all troubled or conflicted by what they had just seen, even if it didn't at all match the tone of what preceded it? If so, you may get a kick out of "Buffaloed," though others are likely to find the whole thing fairly tiresome. Anti-heroine Peg (Zoey Deutch) is a working-class go-getter from Buffalo whose dreams of entrepreneurial glory are shattered when she goes to prison for selling counterfeit Bills tickets to finance her Ivy League tuition. After getting out, she despairs of what to do next when she stumbles into the world of debt collection, where shady outfits buy debt notices from banks and then apply quasi-legal pressures to get those owing money to pay up. Peg's hustling abilities prove to be advantageous in this industry and before long, she decides to leave her sleazy boss (Jai Courtney) and strike out on her own. Besides the inevitable blowback from her former boss, complications arise when her activities threaten the struggling businesses belonging to her mother (Judy Greer) and brother (Noah Reid) and the guy she is dating (Jermaine Fowler) is also building a legal case designed to help bring down the very industry of which she is now a part.

There is clearly a movie to be made about the world of debt collection and its excesses that could tap into the anger that they inspire in most people and there are even a couple of moments here and there that suggest the kind of quirky and oddball effort that such a film might have been in the right hands. Too often, though, writer Brian Sacca and director Tanya Wexler clearly attempt to emulate the amoral impudence of "The Wolf of Wall Street"--with the cheeky fourth-wall breaking of "The Big Short" and a shot of you-go-girl sassiness thrown into the mix--but simply do not have the nerve to go to the dark places that Scorsese went. That film dealt with an unapologetically despicable character but one drawn in such direct and unflinching terms that he proved to be as compelling as he was revolting. "Buffaloed," on the other hand, wants us to like Peg without reservations and therefore spends too much time dialing back on her alleged ruthlessness as a way of getting us to root for her--there is never a moment's doubt that she is going to wind up doing the Right Thing. This may make for a more sympathetic character but it also results in a much less interesting one as well and matters are not helped by Deutch's performance, which finds a single note of foul-mouthed spunkiness and bangs on it relentlessly for the entire running time. Not surprisingly for a film set in Buffalo, "Buffaloed" uses buffalo wings as a recurring joke (at one point, Peg's fate in court is sealed when her lawyer and the judge disagree on which place has the best wings) but if the film itself were a wing, it would be both excessively mild and fairly indigestible.

For moviegoers of a certain age and with impeccable taste in regards to genre filmmakers, the words "Joe Dante Presents" on a film sets up a pretty high bar--as someone who clearly knows his stuff along those lines, both as a historian and as the director of such classics as "The Howling," "Innerspace" and the "Gremlins" films, one might naturally assume that a project with such an endorsement would be of a similar quality and might also offer up a similar blend of pop culture celebration and sociopolitical commentary that made his works so distinctive. Alas, the only thing that "Camp Cold Brook" has that even vaguely suggests Dante's influence are a couple of mild in-jokes calling back to his filmography. Instead, what we have here is a so-so-supernatural thriller about the crew of a low-rent ghost-hunting reality show (Chad Michael Murray, Danielle Harris, Courtney Gains and Candice De Visser) who are trying to find a subject for a show big enough to stave off their seemingly inevitable cancellation. They set off for Oklahoma to the small town of Cold Brook to investigate a supposedly haunted campsite that was the scene of a gruesome crime thirty years earlier when a local witch allegedly poisoned and drowned 28 children before disappearing. Although warned off by the locals, they go in, set up their cameras and, shockingly enough, strange thing begin to happen.

From this point, the film basically devolves into a hybrid of "The Blair Witch Project" and all of those "Paranormal Activity" joints with things moving inexplicably at the sides of the frame and spectral images leaping out of nowhere in the hopes of inspiring some seat-jumping moments. To be fair, director Andy Palmer presents the material in a reasonably slick and stylish manner and, at 86 minutes, it has the good grace to not overstay its welcome. The problem with it is that the whole thing is just too generic for its own good. Palmer and screenwriter Alex Carl offer up all the expected scares in all the expected ways at all the expected times and never once deviate from the formula in ways that might have invigorated the material--even the allegedly shocking twist ending is telegraphed so early in the proceedings that when the big moment finally arrives, viewers are more likely to let out a collective "Finally" than a scream. I admit, there are worse horror movies out there but my guess is that if you are contemplating watching a film like "Camp Cold Brook"--especially if you are doing so based on the Dante presentation credit--it is very likely that you have seen enough movies similar to this one (not to mention better, in most cases) to make sitting through this one especially redundant.

Having never played the video game nor having no working knowledge of it other than that fact that it existed and was popular back in the day, I cannot say that I walked into the screening of "Sonic the Hedgehog" with any firm ideas of what I might logically expect from such an enterprises. And yet, even those supremely low expectations were dashed in just a few minutes with this film, a work so witless, joyless and annoying that it is the first movie that I have seen since the debacle that was "Cats" where a comparison between the two does not work in its favor. (Yes, it is worse than "Doolittle.") In it, the titular hero (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is an alien from a distant world who zips around at incredible speeds and possesses a bag of magical rings that allow him to travel to different worlds when the heat is on. Currently, he is holed up in a small Montana town but when his powers inadvertently cause a power surge, the government's attention is called and they send in Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a maniacal scientist in the private sector, to go in and investigate. Having lost his bag of rings atop the Transamerica building in San Francisco (don't ask), Sonic enlists ambitious local policeman Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) to drive him there--a development so inane and nonsensical (isn't Sonic's whole deal the fact that he can go places with incredible speed?) that the film does not even try to justify them - with Robotnik and his arsenal of high-tech gadgetry on his tail.

The film gained some notoriety last year when a trailer revealing Sonic's new look (including human-like teeth) was so reviled by the public that the release was delayed so that the filmmakers could go back and redesign him to look more like the standard version of the character. Unfortunately, while restoring the classic Sonic look may please some rabid fans, it proves to be little more than putting CGI lipstick on a pig of a movie. Actually, that isn't fair because pigs generally are not as annoying, strident and devoid of entertainment value as this film. The screenplay is about as generic as can be and centers around a character who is simply too irritating to inspire any degree of interest or sympathy (he comes across as what might have resulted if the people who created Poochie had been charged with making their own version of the Road Runner) and director Jeff Fowler presents it in a way that shows that he clearly had millions of dollars to spend to bring this saga to the screen but no clear idea of how to spend them in an interesting manner. As the human hero, Marsden looks as bored as can be, perhaps having flashbacks to the time when he played virtually the exact same role of sidekick to an annoying CGI creature in need of a road trip in "Hop." On the other end of the spectrum, Carrey tries entirely too hard as the manic villain but his efforts to revive the kind of anarchic energy that helped to make him a star in the first place more than a quarter-century ago are more embarrassing than amusing--after a while, I found myself cringing every time he entered a scene. "Sonic the Hedgehog" is 99 minutes of ear-splitting tedium that is terrible even by the less-than-impressive standards of most video games based on movies. Of course, the ending essentially serves as an announcement for a sequel--here is hoping that this proves to be just another piece of vaporware.

"The Traitor," the latest film from celebrated Italian director Marco Bellocchio, is an epic-length true-life crime drama about Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a onetime Sicilian mob boss who is persuaded to work with the government to rat out his former associates. After testifying at a chaotic trial with multiple defendants, Tommaso and his family relocate to America and join the Witness Relocation program before returning to Italy to testify in additional trials. Although I admit that I could have probably gone a long time without watching another extended look at the inner workings of organized crime, particularly in the wake of the magisterial "The Irishman," I confess that the first 90 minutes or so did keep me interested--instead of going for the usual mob movie histrionic, Bellocchio plays the material almost like absurdist comedy at times, from the incredible ease with which Tommaso is convinced to sell out his former associates to the so-called "Maxi Trial," one of the wildest sequences in recent film history set in a courtroom that did not also include the presence of at least two Marx brothers. Unfortunately, once that bravura sequence ends, the film still has roughly an hour left to go and not much else to say, making it a bit of a drag after a while. I dunno--maybe if I had seen it six months ago, I might have been a little more impressed with the good and interesting stuff that Bellocchio has presented here and a little more forgiving of the less interesting material. As it is, "The Traitor" is a flawed work that has some moments of genuine inspiration--just not quite enough of them to make it worth watching.

Right from the start, "VFW" makes no bones about its intentions. It clearly wants to be a meat-and-potatoes (with an emphasis on the meat) exploitation that evokes the likes of such revered genre filmmakers as John Carpenter and Larry Cohen and while it may not quite live up to the greatest accomplishments of those masters, it is nevertheless a reasonably entertaining and cheerfully gruesome pastiche that gets the job done. In the not-too-distant future, a new drug named Hype is all the rage and pushers like Boz (Travis Hammer) are making huge amounts of money turning people into virtual slaves. After the death of her sister at Boz's hands, Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals Boz's stash and runs off with his goons in hot pursuit. She ducks into the dilapidated VFW Post #2494 where a group of friends and Vietnam vets--including bar owner Fred (Stephen Lang), Walter (William Sadler), Lou (Martin Kove), Abe (Fred Williamson), Thomas (George Wendt) and Doug (David Patrick Kelly)--are hanging out for another evening of old stories and lukewarm beer. When a few of Boz's goons storm the place to grab Lizard, the guys, with the aid of recent Afghanistan returnee Shawn (Tom Williamson), messily dispatch them. This sets the scene for a long night in which Boz and his never-ending stream of Hypers lay siege to the place while the guys use everything at their disposal to fight them off in the messiest ways imaginable.

"VFW" does not exactly have lofty ambitions to speak of--it wants to pay homage to Carpenter and his economical style of cinematic storytelling (even the synth-heavy score is reminiscent of the ones Carpenter has composed for his own movies), it wants to bring together a number of recognizable B-movie stalwarts to put them their action paces in the manner of "The Expendables" or Cohen's blaxploitation classic "Original Gangstas" and to present a litany of gory scenes in which people are shot, stabbed and splattered, to name only three of the myriad manners of death depicted here. The results may not be especially elevated, to use that annoying term, but they do make for a fairly successful slab of grindhouse sleaze. The screenplay by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle gets the job done with no narrative fat to speak of (though there times when it seems poised to offer something in the way of legitimate social commentary, only to retreat at the last second) and director Joe Begos keeps things moving along at a brisk and stylish clip. Gorehounds will certainly be entertained by the amount of bloodshed on display and it is presented in a slightly tongue-in-cheek (among other body parts) manner that keeps the brutality from being too much to bear. The best part--and perhaps the key selling point for a certain portion of the potential demographic--is that it gives viewers to see its appropriately grizzled cast of veteran actors a chance to show off both their acting chops and their ability to convincingly raise hell to a new generation of moviegoers. Sure, "VFW" is gross, silly and ultimately inessential but as gross, silly and ultimately inessential movies go, I responded much more to its cheerfully grubby charms that those of far more ostensibly respectable films of recent vintage.

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originally posted: 02/14/20 10:11:31
last updated: 02/15/20 01:47:19
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