Month: October 2017

Jackals Has Potential, Little Execution

Horror movies are funny animals. The majority of them are either deliciously original and unique or monstrously and inescapably bad. There are a few are bland and fall flat as well. With Jackals, occasionally I felt as if I watching two different films. What starts of as more of a psychological thriller, quickly delved into a much more traditional blood-fest. Although both styles of film-making have their merits, I feel Jackals could have been more successful if it stuck to the former method for longer.

The plot sounds like it could be intriguing: A cult de-programmer is hired to return a teenage son to his family’s cabin – in the woods obviously – only for them to stalked and attacked by the cultists upon their return. The opening scene, while intriguing and filmed from the perspective of a killer, does not really fit in with the rest of the story and could be eliminated, though the film is an already brisk 78 minutes.

Like any good horror flick, the cast is filled with C-list stars and lower-tier celebrities who are competent actors, even if much of their screen time is devoted to melodramatic over acting. The standout among that group was the subtle and wise Johnathon Schaech, who played the often-stoic father. Plus, an appearance by the always-menacing Stephen Dorff as the cult de-programmer was a joy to watch. Additionally, the film is directed by the Saw Franchise’s Kevin Greutert, who is a capable director is nothing else.

Where the film didn’t do justice is with its two female characters. At several points throughout the film, they were actively prevented from helping in the same way as the men and were told to stay back. The character of Samantha – the girlfriend of the teenage cult victim, and mother to his child – had whiffs of being the heroine, but ended up a weeping willow towards the end. Her character’s fate was more due to luck than anything else. Jackals has its moments for sure, but could done so much more.

In addition to Dorff and Schaech, Jackals stars Deborah Kara Unger, Chelsea Ricketts, Ben Sullivan and Nick Roux. It was just released on DVD.

LUCKY: Harry Dean Stanton’s Spiritual, Existential Final Chapter

There were few men like Harry Dean Stanton. A legend whose career spanned 60+ years, with very few bad films. His first role came all he way back in 1954 on the horror anthology television series Inner Sanctum. He made his film debut a few years later in what else but a Western in 1957’s Tomahawk Trail. For the next six decades, he existed – with a few notable exceptions – as a man who always seemed to be on the periphery of our collective consciousness, an actor whom who always knew, but didn’t necessarily “know”.

Which brings us to Lucky, an existential and philosophical journey of a ninety year-old atheist from John Carroll Lynch, making his directorial debut after years performing in front of the camera. The plot is incredibly subtle to the point of non-existence, instead focusing on its nonagenarian hero who spends his days drinking coffee with way too much cream and sugar, sipping bloody marys, and phoning up friends whenever he has trouble with his crossword, which he does daily. The latter activity leads him to the discovery that “realism is a thing”, in one of the most starkly wriest bits of text I have come across in recent memory.

His quest for truth at the bar is interrupted by David Lynch who laments that President Roosevelt has gone missing. Yes, the David Lynch. In a hilariously expert bit of casting, the famed surrealist director is cast as Stanton’s best friend Howard, a man whose meeting with a lawyer -and subsequent drawing of a will, in which he leaves everything to his pet tortoise, the aforementioned Roosevelt – starts Lucky on his journey.


Stanton as Lucky/Films We Like

Lucky only runs 82 minutes, although its appropriate slow place makes it feel many minutes longer. In addition to Stanton and Lynch the film stars a veritable who’s-who of Old Hollywood – Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr, Beth Grant, and James Darren in a brilliant performance, as well as the always pleasant Ron Livingston. For me however, the real standout is the film’s composer Elvis Kuehn. Much of the film’s score is a breathtakingly rebellious harmonica played to its bluesy perfection during establishing shots and Stanton walking scenes. It gravitates to on-camera in its final appearance, as we see Lucky playing away to pass the time. That coupled with the blues and folk tunes expertly compiled by music supervisors by Mikki Itzigsohn and Lauren Mikus make it a hauntingly spiritual catharsis.

It is a beautiful tribute that one of Stanton’s last works should feature music so heavily; in addition to his harmonica playing, he himself contributes two songs to the soundtrack, including one in Spanish – the popular Volver, Volver – which he sings on camera towards the end of the film. It is a terrific send-off.

In the film Lucky comments that “memory is a funny thing” and how “nothing is permanent”. Sometimes the most powerful statements are the most subtle. Paulie, the character so beautifully portrayed by Darren explains to Lucky how “friendship is essential to the soul”. Whether or not one believes in the soul as an entity is subjective and somewhat irrelevant as for me friendship can be heartbreakingly healing, I would imagine more so towards the end of one’s life.

At its core, Lucky is wonderfully emotional film about coming to terms with our lives and who better to lead us on that journey than a man who certainly lived it to the fullest. Harry Dean Stanton, thank you. We salute you.

Alexz Johnson’s “A Stranger Time” A Subtle And Mature Evolution

One would be hard-pressed to find an artist as successfully independent as Alexz Johnson. If that name sounds familiar, you are not alone. Although Johnson got her TV with lead roles in “So Weird” and “Instant Star” and films such as “Final Destination 3”, music has always been first love; after seeing her show on Thursday night it’s easy to see why.

This was my second time seeing Johnson perform, the first was back in 2012 in Vancouver following the release of her EP “Skipping Stone”. While stylistically the albums are similar, Johnson has refined and updated both her sound and personal style and has turned down the pop overtones and increased the rock influences. Evidence of that fact lies in the very track “Breathe”. It would probably surprise folks to find out that that track was inspired by Prince; although isn’t nearly as outrageous as a tune from The Man In Purple, Johnson states that she was “delving into his work” explaining how “music is so personal” and that she likes to pull nuances from a lot of different artists. Let’s be real though, it is probably easier to find to find a group of artists that haven’t been influenced by Prince, versus those who have. His legend and reach was quite wide-ranging.

“Breathe” itself is a great lead-off track, an upbeat riff with poignant, accurate lyrics in which Johnson acknowledges that she has to “walk this path alone”, no doubt a nod to being fiercely independent and doing nearly everything herself. (Indeed, when I sent an email asking for an interview, I did not get a reply from a publicist or a label representative; I heard from Johnson herself).

If “Breathe” is an appropriate lead-off than “Say Goodbye” is equally a fantastic closer. The song also comes with an interesting, if sombre anecdote. Johnson and her crew were in the studio getting ready to record the song and when her sound engineer was just about to hit the red button to initiate recording, they received word that Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen had passed away. They subsequently did the song in one take. The song is not about Cohen per se, rather it is an ode to saying goodbye and how we all must and need to move on, however tough it may be.

Two other songs of note are “Right Now”, the fourth track which inspired the album’s title “A Stranger Time”. Although not a political person – Johnson flatly states that she “makes music” – she does admit and acknowledge that we are in strange times and “Right Now” is a literal music manifestation of the times today. As Johnson explained, she avoided specificity as everyone has their own version.

Even with all that taken into consideration, Johnson says her personal favourite track is the album’s third entitled “Aftermath”. In a way, it also touches on the overall theme of “A Stranger Time”, that of time. Johnson freely acknowledges that it is a bit of a darker song that touches on regret. It “doesn’t shine a big happy light” she says, and goes to lament how some artists, in fact people in general, are in ways afraid to write and talk about regret and the pain that we go through, even though that is what shapes us in many respects.

To sum up the album, well I’ll leave to Alexz herself “A Stranger Time is a live-off-the-floor experience, it’s not hyper-produced, hyper-electronic, it’s just very raw”. Amen to that. There is such beauty in simplicity.

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