Documentary Review: Circus of Books (2019)

Release Date: April 26th, 2019 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Directed by: Rachel Mason
Written by: Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson
Cast: Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Rachel Mason, various

Netflix, 92 Minutes

Review:

I saw this pop up on Netflix, so I figured I’d check it out, as I generally enjoy the documentaries they distribute through their streaming service.

I wasn’t disappointed, as this is a really interesting story about a religious Jewish family who opened up a gay porn store, which also became a gay porn film studio and distributor. The store rose to prominence within the Los Angeles gay scene in the ’80s and would also reach far beyond its home city.

This kind of hit close to home, as I’ve been around gay culture since my teen years. The scene in southern Florida is big and even though I’m straight, I’ve always had gay friends and also lived with a pretty legit drag queen for a bit. The era that the bulk of this story took place in just brought a lot of those great memories back.

Beyond the nostalgia, this is an intriguing story about really interesting, good people. It’s hard not to love the family that started this store and it’s just as much a love letter to them, as it is the store itself.

I especially liked how interesting the father was with his backstory and the road that life took him on, leading up to becoming a straight, religious, family man that owned a gay book store.

This also examines the impact that owning the store had on the family as a whole in an age when it was considered really taboo. I liked meeting the kids, getting their take on all of it and how they grew up with this “moral” cloud over their religious upbringing.

It was also really cool seeing people from the L.A. gay community talking about the store and what it meant to them during really difficult times in their lives.

This really hits you in the feels and it’s unfortunate that the store, during the filming of this documentary, was falling on real hard times due to the world evolving away from the old mediums of pornography thanks to the Internet.

While this documentary was made by someone within the family, it’s not in any way inauthentic or dishonest because of that. In fact, it made the experience more intimate and meaningful.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about LGBTQ cultural history, porn and small business.

Documentary Review: Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons (2019)

Release Date: May 14th, 2019
Directed by: Kevin Slagle, Brian Stillman
Music by: Seth Polansky, Noah Potter

Cavegirl Productions, X-Ray Films, 91 Minutes

Review:

I recently read and reviewed a great book about the art of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. I had no idea there was also a documentary about the subject, which came out last year.

Coming across this recently on Prime Video, I immediately added it to my queue and moved it to the top of my list.

Overall, this is a damn good film on not just on the art of Dungeons & Dragons but also the history of the game, the company behind it, the key people involved, as well as the players and still growing fandom.

This well well produced, well edited and featured so many wonderful talking head interviews from just about all the key players, that it made this a really enriching experience.

Mostly, this just made me appreciate the hard work, creativity and craftsmanship that went into developing the game and its numerous expansions and spinoffs.

If you love fantasy art and/or the D&D brand, this is most certainly worth your time.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about pop culture art, unique fandoms and gaming.

Film Review: Haunt (2019)

Also known as: Halloween Haunt (Austria, Germany)
Release Date: August 7th, 2019 (Popcorn Frights Film Festival)
Directed by: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Written by: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Music by: Tomandandy
Cast: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn McClain

Beck Woods, Broken Road Productions, Nickel City Pictures, Momentum Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

Featured on a recent episode of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, I didn’t expect much from this modern horror film. The recent Shudder originals and exclusives that I’ve encountered have been a mixed bag but mostly bad-to-mediocre.

This one surprised me, though, and it was a pretty fun experience that immediately made me think of Tobe Hooper’s great 1981 film, Funhouse. I found out after I had that thought, that this was actually inspired by it, as the film’s directors were fans of that picture.

Also, going into this, I didn’t realize that these directors were the same guys that produced and wrote John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. A film I mostly liked and also thought was much better than most modern horror offerings.

This film sees a group of teens go to a mysterious haunted house that appears to be some next level shit, as they have to give up their cellphones and sign a release form, which includes some worrisome rules like “Don’t touch the haunted house performers.” Maybe they should’ve asked for a safe word upfront.

Anyway, this goes exactly how you’d expect. The haunted house is actually a trap where the teens get murdered in horrifying ways making this picture one-part Saw and one-part slasher with the Funhouse aesthetic. It’s a really good mix and once you throw in some other weird surprises, this is just a good, fun, mindless horror film.

My only big complaint with the film was in regards to the editing. It was a bit quick and felt kind of disjointed. It made it hard to understand the layout of the haunted house. Maybe that was intentional, to make the viewer also feel lost within it but it’s not like it was an actual maze or anything, it was just a series of rooms and sections broke out into two different paths that eventually intersect again.

Other than that, the film looked good, I liked the antagonists and it definitely registered pretty high on the creep meter.

This is one of those things that could probably be spun into a moderately successful, low budget, horror franchise but unlike everything else these days, they should leave it alone and let it stand on its own merits, unaffected by increasingly shitty sequels and formula fatigue.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other more modern horror films but this is much better than most.

Documentary Review: In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic ’80s Horror (2019)

Release Date: October 6th, 2019 (Beyond Fest premiere)
Directed by: David A. Weiner
Written by: David A. Weiner
Music by: Weary Pines
Cast: Tom Atkins, Doug Bradley, Joe Bob Briggs, Diana Prince, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Sean S. Cunningham, Joe Dante, Keith David, Stuart Gordon, Kane Hodder, Tom Holland, Lloyd Kaufman, Heather Langenkamp, Kelli Maroney, Bill Moseley, Greg Nicotero, Cassandra Peterson, Caroline Williams, Alex Winter, Brian Yuzna, various

CreatorVC, 264 Minutes

Review:

I was anticipating this documentary for a long time. So once it ended up on Shudder, I had to check it out. But holy shit!… I wasn’t expecting this thing to be four and a half f’n hours! Not that I’m complaining but I had to make an entire night out of this thing.

Realistically, this probably would’ve worked better as a documentary television series with an episode focused on each year in the decade. They could’ve expanded even further in that format but then this was crowdfunded and not a traditional production.

Still, this was a cool documentary and while it does jump from film-to-film too fast, it covers a lot of ground. Obviously, it can’t feature every horror film from the ’80s, as there were hundreds (if not thousands) but it does hit on most of the important ones.

This goes through the films in order of their release but it also has a few breaks between each year that focuses on other aspects of ’80s horror.

This is mostly talking head interviews with a few dozen different people, spliced together with footage from all the films they’re talking about. It kind of plays like one of those VH1 I Love the ’80s shows but it is a lot less smarmy. Well, for the most part. There is one guy that kept popping up that I wanted to punch because he was oozing with failed comedian smarm.

Overall, though, this was worth the wait. As I’ve said, I wish it could’ve given more on each film but even four and a half hours isn’t enough time to do more than just scratch the surface with the rich history of ’80s horror.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about ’80s horror and horror franchises.

Film Review: Shaft (2019)

Also known as: Son of Shaft (Germany)
Release Date: June 14th, 2019
Directed by: Tim Story
Written by: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow
Based on: Shaft by Ernest Tidyman
Music by: Christopher Lennertz
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Lauren Velez

Davis Entertainment, Khalabo Ink Society, Netflix, 111 Minutes

Review:

“You’re the one being misogynistic, I never even mentioned her gender! I’m an equal-opportunity ass-whooper!” – John Shaft II

I put this off for awhile, especially after revisiting the 2000 Shaft film, as I found that one to be really lackluster and not as good as my memories of it were.

However, this one was definitely better than the 2000 film and I think that had a lot to do with this installment being more comedic and lighthearted, even though it dealt with some serious stuff.

Overall, this plays more like a Bad Boys film where the buddy cop formula is played out by a father-son duo. The grandfather, the original John Shaft, joins them for the climax.

Sam Jackson is back on his A-game for this one but I’m sure it’ll rub sensitive, cancel culture Millennials the wrong way because he puts them on blast, repeatedly.

In fact, I give the filmmakers and the studio immense props for not taking the bitch route and making this an overly “woke” movie and instead, allowed it to be critical of this generation’s young adults, as seen through the eyes of the older generation.

Weirdly, though, this Shaft film seems to be a lot less obsessed with race and social politics. While I like that these issues have been at the forefront of the other four films in the franchise, it was actually kind of refreshing to see these characters just be badass and not just fighting for some sort of racial injustice.

With that, though, it sort of loses the long-lasting blaxploitation vibe that the name Shaft has carried since 1971. But maybe this was trying to convey that we were starting to enter a post-racial era before 2020 happened and fucked everything up again.

For the most part, I liked everyone in this film. Jessie T. Usher’s John Shaft Jr. was annoying but his character was supposed to be, as part of the story dealt with him being kind of a pussy and overly concerned with how society sees him. He’s a “woke” Millennial that has a grudge against his uber-masculine father, who wasn’t around when he grew up.

These character traits allowed for some great criticism of his generation, though, and Sam Jackson delivers his punches without remorse or worry that his snowflake son wants to hear it or not. In a lot of ways, it felt like the writers and Tim Story, the film’s directors, were trying to send a message to the kids of today that think they’ve got the world figured out.

It also felt that it was trying to convey the importance of fathers, which Hollywood seems to hate.

Honestly, this Shaft film felt like it was really trying to be anti-“woke”.

As far as the crime story goes, it’s a bit weak but in films like this, that stuff doesn’t matter too much. This is more of a film about three generations of men coming together, in spite of their personal issues, in an effort to force justice down the throats of some shitty scumbags.

In the end, this was a better movie than I thought it could be. I don’t think it necessarily needs a sequel but I’d be much more willing to check one out if the same creative team stayed on.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: 2000’s Shaft, as well as the original ’70s Shaft trilogy.

Film Review: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Also known as: Jumanji 3 (alternative title)
Release Date: December 4th, 2019 (Finland, France, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan)
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Written by: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Based on: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Music by: Henry Jackman
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Marin Hinkle

Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, The Detective Agency, 123 Minutes

Review:

“Getting old is a gift. I forget that sometimes, but it is. What more could a guy possibly want?” – Eddie

To start, this wasn’t as good of a movie as the one before it but it was still an entertaining, lighthearted and fun picture that allowed for real escapism, which seems to be a lost art these days.

I also like that there are minor jabs at modern political correctness. Or it’s possible that the filmmakers just haven’t gotten the memos that the rest of Hollywood has gotten over the last few years.

This film focuses on the same core characters from the previous movie but it also adds in Danny DeVito and Danny Glover and this time, when they all enter the video game world, most of the characters find themselves in different avatars. This is kind of the big gag of this film but it runs out of gas fairly quickly.

It was initially funny seeing The Rock a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson trying to act like Danny DeVito but the joke wore thin pretty fast. Now that’s not a knock against The Rock, it’s a knock against the writers pushing it so hard for too long in the film.

But this was also offset by Kevin Hart playing old man Danny Glover. Hart was actually great at this and he was my favorite character in this chapter of the franchise because he did it so well.

We also get a few new avatars added to the cast, as there are now seven players in the game instead of just the five from the first movie.

The problem with this movie, is that it feels completely unnecessary and it’s just more of the same. Simply switching personalities around in the avatars isn’t going to carry or even justify the story. Like I said, it’s a gag that worked but flattened out quickly.

If you liked the first movie, you’ll still probably like this one. While it just rehashes the whole concept just because it can, a lot of the sequences at least feel creative. I liked the part with the moving bridges and thought that the new mountain setting for the finale was cool.

Still, I didn’t need this movie and I don’t really feel like another film is necessary but we’re probably going to get it anyway because if something makes money, Hollywood will just recycle it with as little effort as possible.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: the other Jumanji films, as well as Zathura.

Documentary Review: In Search of the Last Action Heroes (2019)

Release Date: September, 2019
Directed by: Oliver Harper
Written by: Oliver Harper, Timon Singh
Music by: Peter Bruce
Cast: Scott Adkins, Shane Black, Ronny Cox, Steven E. de Souza, Bill Duke, Sam Firstenberg, Jenette Goldstein, Matthias Hues, Al Leong, Mark L. Lester, Sheldon Lettich, Zak Penn, Phillip Rhee, Eric Roberts, Cynthia Rothrock, Paul Verhoeven, Vernon Wells, Michael Jai White, Alex Winter, Graham Yost, various

140 Minutes

Review:

When this popped up on Prime Video, I got pretty excited. Especially, because I had just watched Henchman: The Al Leong Story and felt that ’80s action flicks needed more documentary love.

Overall, this was enjoyable and it covered a lot of ground but it also had a beefy running time. However, I felt like they jumped from movie-to-movie too quickly and nothing was really discussed in depth.

Still, this gives the viewer a good idea of how broad, vast and popular the action genre was through the ’80s and into the first half of the ’90s.

I guess the thing that I liked best was that this interviewed a lot of people that were involved in the making of these iconic films. You had actors, directors, writers and stuntmen all taking about their craft and their love for a genre that hasn’t been the same since its peak, a few decades ago.

Now this was a crowdfunded project and with that, you can only do so much. But I wish that some distributor or streaming service saw this and decided to make it much broader like a television series where episodes can focus on specific films or at the very least, spend more time on each era or topic.

Maybe someone will see this, take the bull by the horns and actually do that at some point. But this could be a solid pop culture documentary series like Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us.

For those who love the action flicks of this era, this is certainly worth checking out. Had I known about it when it was raising funds, I would’ve backed it.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other recent historical filmmaking documentaries, most notably Henchman: The Al Leong Story and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Documentary Review: Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (2019)

Release Date: February 8th, 2019 (Santa Barbara International Film Festival)
Directed by: William Conlin
Written by: Thomas R. Burman, William Conlin
Music by: Shawn Patterson
Cast: Thomas R. Burman, Rick Baker, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, Richard Donner, Dana Gould, John Landis, Leonard Maltin, Greg Nicotero, various

Gravitas Ventures, The Burman Studio Inc., Hellcat Productions LLC,  86 Minutes

Review:

This recently popped up on Prime Video, so I added it to my queue. I didn’t want to watch it, however, until I was done revisiting the original run of Planet of the Apes movies.

This was a great thing to watch following the five original films, though. And it’s especially cool for those who love practical special effects, movie makeup and/or the film franchise.

From the start, this documentary gets right into the development of the first Planet of the Apes movie and how everything from the effects side of the film came to be. It also gets into the sequels and talks about the advances in technology and how they changed the way the future Apes movies were made.

The thing I liked best about this, other than learning about the makeup process, was getting to know the creatives behind it all and how their craft changed filmmaking forever. It was also interesting seeing how their relationships evolved with one another and in a few instances, dissolved.

This really is a great piece on special effects filmmaking but it is made even better by telling a really human story about people that should be regarded as legends.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other recent documentaries on filmmaking.

Film Review: Scare Package (2019)

Release Date: October 4th, 2019 (Spain – Sitges Film Festival)
Directed by: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan, Baron Vaughn
Written by: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan, Baron Vaughn, Cameron Burns, Ben Fee, Frank Garcia-Hejl, John Karsko
Music by: Alex Cuervo
Cast: Jeremy King, Noah Segan, Toni Trucks, Chase Williamson, Baron Vaughn, Zoe Graham, Byron Brown, Chelsey Grant, Luxy Banner, Josephine McAdam, Aaron D. Alexander, Allan McLeod, Jocelyn DeBoer, Melanie Minichino, Jonathan Fernandez, Dustin Rhodes, Haley Alea Erickson, Jon Michael Simpson, Mac Blake, Hawn Tran, Frank Garcia-Hejl, Justin Maina, Gabrielle Maiden

Paper Street Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

Well, the poster is cool.

However, it also says that this film has seven directors when, in fact, it has eight.

Maybe that’s the problem with it.

This is basically a movie made by a committee and when that happens, you’re rarely, if ever, given a motion picture that has any sort of cohesion or heart.

Also, this is an anthology but unlike most horror anthologies, this isn’t made up of three or four stories, it’s made up of seven. Yes, seven! There are more than a half dozen stories crammed into just 103 minutes.

The weird thing, is even though they average out to a scant running time, most of them feel too long. That could be due to the fact that this is a rather boring movie in spite of it having so much in it.

Apart from all that, though, the film has a self-aware snarkiness about it that’s fairly off putting and lame. It’s like this film is constantly winking at the camera to make sure that you’re aware that none of it should be taken seriously and that it’s just taking the piss out of itself by using material and concepts that have been used a dozen times over and more competently.

The acting is about on par with the rest of the film’s quality and no one is all that believable. I think that’s the fault of this film’s eight directors and twelve writers, though. There just isn’t enough time to care about the plot, the characters or the total package.

Now all of these stories come together in the end but the movie is nowhere near as clever as it believes itself to be.

This is the Twitter of anthology horror movies, as each segment is about the length of a tweet and the whole movie plays like a Twitter thread where it is hard to communicate depth, tone, proper context and nuance. But those that spend too much time on social media will probably dig this because of that.

I was bored watching this and frankly, I’m bored writing about it.

In the end, just skip this. You probably have some chore you’ve been putting off that would bring you more enjoyment.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: other shitty and “clever” modern horror flicks.

Documentary Review: Scream, Queen!: My Nightmare On Elm Street (2019)

Release Date: April 5th, 2019 (Cleveland International Film Festival)
Directed by: Roman Chimienti, Tyler Jensen
Written by: Michael Beard, Clint Catalyst, Leo Herrera, Justin Lockwood
Music by: Alexander Taylor
Cast: Mark Patton, Robert Englund, Jack Sholder, David Chaskin, Robert Rusler, Marshall Bell, Kim Myers, Clu Gulager, JoAnn Willette, Linnea Quigley

The End Productions, 99 Minutes

Review:

I was pretty excited to check this out when I first saw the trailer pop up. I’m a big fan of the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise and I was probably one of the few that actually liked the second movie, before everyone else figured out how “gay” it was.

Granted, I kind of saw the film’s gay subtext for myself and despite this documentary claiming that the gay innuendo was widely known when this came out, I don’t recall many people talking about it until the late ’90s or so. Then again, I was also a young kid and didn’t reach my teen years until the ’90s, so maybe my peers were a bit behind in picking up on the cues.

Anyway, I actually thought that this was just sort of meh. I wouldn’t call this documentary a disappointment but it just didn’t live up to the hype around it and to my own excitement after first hearing about it.

I guess the thing I liked most about it was that I finally got to see what became of Mark Patton, who sort of fell off the face of the Earth for a long time because of what he perceived as backlash from this picture and because he felt that it somewhat exposed him as being gay in a time when there was still a lot of misinformation and fear of AIDS, as well as a lot of homophobia in mainstream Hollywood.

Most importantly, this really goes into Patton’s personal life, showing the viewer what hardships he went through during and after this film. I don’t want to give too much away, as this is worth watching for those who also love the Elm Street movies.

It was also cool seeing the cast of the second Elm Street movie finally reunite after all these years. It’s obvious that Patton’s cast mates cared for him and had missed him during his self-imposed exile from the business.

Overall, this was a decent piece on the man and his life but I wish it would’ve gotten more into the movie itself and actually tried to show it more as a somewhat beloved film by a small minority of Elm Street fans. It was the most bizarre and weird of the Elm Street pictures and that’s without looking at the subliminal homophobia that was written into the script.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other recent horror movie documentaries.