Reviews by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

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Black Pond

Directors: Tom Kingsley, Will Sharpe
Stars: Chris Langham, Simon Amstell, Amanda Hadingue, Colin Hurley, Will Sharpe, Anna O'Grady, Helen Cripps

With a title like Black Pond, and a story that explores the events that led British media to dub the Thompson clan the “Family of Killers," you might expect something bloody and grotesque. What you get in first-time feature filmmakers Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley’s black comedy, which received a nomination for Outstanding Debut at this year's BAFTAs (awards presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts), is something far more subtle and rewarding.

The Thompson family is on the verge of collapse, thanks to resentment lingering between mother Sophie (Amanda Hadingue), father Tom (Chris Langham), and their two daughters (Anna O'Grady and Helen Cripps), when an eccentric but genial stranger, Blake (Colin Hurley), wanders into their lives. He's oddly morbid at times, but he also puts smiles on the faces of Sophie, an unfulfilled poet, and Tom, a businessman who does soul-crushing work so he can enjoy a pool and tennis court for a little while each year.

Then the family's charming, three-legged dog, named “Boy” because he responded when Tom called him that once, mysteriously drowns in front of Blake in what is described as either a fit of hysterical flailing for survival or an ecstatic dance to celebrate departure from a depressing existence. When the daughters and their friend Tim (Sharpe, who also wrote both the screenplay and the film’s poetry) come home for the beloved pet’s burial, things get even stranger, and eventually the group finds itself burying Blake as well.

Full of wonderfully dry British humor (Tim's sadistic, belittling psychotherapist, played by British comedian Simon Amstell, is particularly hilarious), poignancy found in the mundane, and beautiful surreal visuals that defy the film's £25,000 budget (roughly $40,000), Black Pond is a near-death experience that makes you want to celebrate life and the meaningful moments that sneak up on you.

Grade: A

Sun Don't Shine

Director: Amy Seimetz
Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, AJ Bowen, Kit Gwinn, Mark Reeb

Everybody’s got baggage. Some folks just have the kind that can get you the death penalty in Florida. In the unconventional road trip movie Sun Don’t Shine, Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her boyfriend Leo (Kentucker Audley) drive tensely from Jacksonville to Tampa trying to keep a trunk full of trouble secret so they can lighten their load, literally if not mentally, in the Everglades.

Carried by Sheil and Audley's stellar performances, which are believably trashy, self-defeating, and hopeless, Sun Don’t Shine feels like a crime documentary following two people who, as criminals, are fish out of water (a theme that is paralleled charmingly in scenes at a real-life roadside mermaid attraction, about which filmmaker Amy Seimetz made the 2008 documentary short We Saw Such Things). As Crystal’s dim-witted inability to recognize the stakes, and her jealousy of a woman Leo seeks help from, threaten to ruin them both, their bond and the fantasy of happily ever after begins to melt under the stifling sun.

A native Floridian, Seimetz does a magnificent job capturing the flavor of central Florida. Watching her film, you can practically feel the dirt caking on your face, then streaking down muddily as you sweat in the kind of oppressive heat that causes blood to boil and leads people to do very bad things. 

Grade: A


Director: Nir Paniry
Stars: Sasha Roiz, Dominic Bogart, Jenny Mollen, Nick Jameson, Brad Culver

In this clever and cost effective sci-fi tale, scientist Thomas Jacobs (Sasha Roiz) invents a machine that allows him to enter their mind and watch their memories. He intends to use the technology to help people work through past trauma but accepts a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to go inside the mind of a heroin addict (Dominic Bogart) and convicted killer to confirm his guilt. During the exhibition, a system malfunction leaves his consciousness trapped inside the criminal's mind, where he remains for four years until he figures out that he can communicate with the man whose head he inhabits and perhaps free himself.

With a much smaller budget than Inception or The Cell, two films that the little mind-bender is already compared to, Extracted is impressive for the thought that goes into the concept of its mind-traveling paradox (brainwashing and drug abuse are bad for the brain's storage facility; computer-generated placeholders fill in blanks wherever the mind had gaps). Like those films, holes can be found in the reality construct, but part of the joy of films like these is over-analyzing and debating minutiae with your friends. For instance, how can you step into and observe someone's memory without somehow changing the stored date? How could the host break from their own memories? And, most importantly, how will our own memories of this flick be affected by watching it with a tin of special brownies? Guess we'll just have to practice the Scientific Method and find out.

Grade: B+

The Aggression Scale

Director: Steven C. Miller
Stars: Fabianne Therese, Ryan Hartwig, Dana Ashbrook, Derek Mears, Jacob Reynolds, Joseph McKelheer, Boyd Kestner, Lisa Rotondi, Ray Wise

Of the many gunshots in Steven C. Miller’s new exploitation action flick, The Aggression Scale, the one that most perfectly sums the flick up is when you inevitably mime blowing your shit loose. The first minute of the film is auspicious, as contract killer Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook) makes a suburban lady jogger levitate with a shotgun blast and then coolly takes a Polaroid of her. Promise remains when it’s revealed that a mob boss (Ray Wise) has given the gunman and his three-man team of rubout artists (Jacob Reynolds, Joseph McKelheer, and the darkly humorous Derek Mears) 48 hours to murder a list of people who were involved in the theft of $500,000, he'd set aside to flee from a murder case.

The job gets complicated when the thugs pay a visit to Bill (Boyd Kestner), who has just relocated to a gigantic country home with his new wife, Maggie (Lisa Rotondi), her unhappy daughter, Lauren (Fabianne Therese), and his socially awkward mute son, Owen (Ryan Hartwig). As chance would have it, Lauren is a self-mutilator who keeps a box-cutter on her person and Owen is a formerly institutionalized sadist who studies small arms combat and enjoys blow-darting spiders to death when he doesn’t have bullies to brutalize (the titular scale is a measure of this kind of aggressive behavior, and lil' homie scores perfectly for a psycho). What develops is like a mash-up of MacGuyver, Toy Soldiers, and Home Alone, with razors, tree limbs, trip wires, and sharpened jacks used to toy with the bad guys.

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the decreasing badassness of the villains, relative to the kids, and the central importance of the irritatingly silent Owen and often shrieking Lauren (which makes little sense when they're trying to hide), only serve to annoy. And if you're the type to flip out with the quickness, it will probably boost your score on the Aggression Scale.

Grade: C+