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Schultz reviews: 'Unhinged,' 'The One and Only Ivan' and 'Army of Frankensteins'

Schultz reviews: 'Unhinged,' 'The One and Only Ivan' and 'Army of Frankensteins'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“Unhinged”   Distributed by Solstice Studios, 93 Minutes, Rated R, Released August 21, 2020:

A beefy, bearded, and bleary-eyed Russell Crowe channels his inner psycho in “Unhinged,” a new urban social horror picture more reminiscent of 1970s exploitation fare like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” than Crowe’s glory days in Academy Award-winning pictures such as 2000’s “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” in 2001.

In “Unhinged,” overwhelmed single professional mom Rachel Hunter while driving her 15-year-old son Kyle to school one morning is fighting rush hour Los Angeles traffic.  Frustrated at finding herself stuck in congestion at an intersection, Rachel blows her car’s horn at a pickup truck that fails to move when the traffic light changes from red to green.

Unfortunately, Rachel’s act of urban impatience infuriates the driver of a pickup, who’s already off to a terrible day...having earlier in the morning bludgeoned to death his ex-wife and her new family and burned their well-appointed suburban home to the ground.  The driver catches up to Rachel and Kyle at the next traffic snarl and demands an apology.  When Rachel refuses, she ignites a lethal case of road rage--the furious driver begins to stalk and terrorize her and Kyle in a campaign to exact revenge for her traffic gaffe by ruining her life...and worse.

Despite evocative and sympathetic performances from New Zealand-based actress Caren Pistorius (“Mortal Engines”) as Rachel and 15-year-old horror movie veteran Gabriel Bateman (“Annabelle,” “Child’s Play”) as Kyle, their characters are little more than cyphers in “Unhinged,” a plot device whose only real contribution to the film is to display the worst ways to respond when encountering a psychopathic and homicidal stalker.

Instead, in “Unhinged” Russell Crowe’s in the driver’s seat most of the way.  In a role identified in the closing credits only as “Man,” Crowe’s performance under other circumstances might’ve been called a tour de force, a demonstration of his abilities as a performer.  But although Crowe’s compulsively watchable as always, his role is ultimately so uncontrolled that it’s overbearing and repressive, almost a form of audience abuse.  From the amount of depth Crowe contributes to his characterization, he might as well have been wearing a gorilla suit...or Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask.  The character has no more nuance than the diesel truck in “Duel” or the shark in “Jaws.”

Directed by Derrick Borte from a screenplay by Carl Ellsworth, “Unhinged” was distributed July 16 in Germany, and throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America on July 31.  The picture was moved around the US release schedule several times before its eventual August 21 debut, and has the distinction of being the first new movie distributed to movie theaters in the US since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Translation:  ”Unhinged” is mostly being dumped into theaters to see if audiences are ready to go back to the movies, a way for Hollywood to stick its toe in the water.

You don’t want to break isolation for this one--it’s just not worth your time, let alone your health.  Gamy, unpleasant, disturbing, and more than a little creepy, “Unhinged” is rated R for graphic violence and some adult language.

“The One and Only Ivan”   Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 95 Minutes, Rated PG, Streaming on Disney+ August 21, 2020:

The animals are the real stars of “The One and Only Ivan,” the new movie from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures now playing on the Disney+ streaming service.  Featuring Bryan Cranston and voice characterizations from Angelina Jolie, Sam Rockwell and others, the movie blends elements of live action and fantasy to produce a tale of love, friendship, loyalty, and the wonderful feats we can accomplish when we work together and consider the needs of others.

Ivan the gorilla lives a complacent life, a sideshow attraction in a carnival at the financially troubled Big Top Mall along with his friends including the elephant Stella, a chicken named Henrietta, Snickers the poodle, and a stray dog named Bob.  But when an mistreated and neglected young elephant named Ruby is acquired by the mall’s owner and placed in their company, the animals band together to adopt her, and work together to turn around the fortunes of the failing mall.

Adapted by “Pitch Perfect 3” screenwriter Mike White from Katherine Alice Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel of the same name, “The One and Only Ivan” departs significantly from the darker and more emotionally complicated themes of the novel.  About 65% of Applegate’s plot--and its impact--survive intact in the screen version.  Unfortunately, the 35% of the book left offscreen contains the parts that might’ve turned the movie into a Disney Classic.

Still, under the guidance of theater director Thea Sharrock “The One and Only Ivan” captures some of the novel’s spirit of family and caring.  Nobody offers genuinely heartwarming family entertainment or makes this sort of movie as well as the Imagineers at the Walt Disney Studios, and an empathetic--and enthusiastic--cast of both live action and voice performers are on hand to remind us all one again of what large and loving hearts we find within ourselves when we dig deeply enough.

Featuring the voices of Sam Rockwell as Ivan, Angeline Jolie (also among the movie’s producers) as the elephant Stella, Danny DeVito as Bob the dog, Chaka Khan as the chicken Henrietta, Helen Mirren as Snickers the poodle,  and Brooklynn Prince as the baby elephant Ruby, “The One and Only Ivan” also features live action performances by Bryan Cranston as the circus’ owner, with Ariana Greenblatt and Ramon Rodriguez among his staff at the mall.

Filmed in 2018 at Lakeland, Florida’s Southgate Shopping Center and the nearby Resurrection Catholic Church, “The One and Only Ivan” was scheduled for a wide theatrical release on August 16 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, but was instead diverted by the Covid-19 pandemic to the Disney+ streaming service, where it debuted on August 21.

That’s the voice of Phillipa Soo, the actress who played Eliza Hamilton in the original cast of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” as Thelma the parrot.  Producer Allison Shearmur tragically died prior to the film’s release, a victim of lung cancer.  Theater director and novice filmmaker Thea Sharrock was also the director of the unexpectedly successful 2016 romantic drama “Me Before You.”  

“The One and Only Ivan” is rated PG for mild thematic elements.

“Army of Frankensteins”   Distributed by Transformer Pictures, 108 Minutes, Not Rated, Released August 02, 2014:

We’ve all seen them--the anthology collections of horror or science fiction movies, ten or so movies you’ve never heard of, all collected together in multi-disc sets and usually found in the discount bins at WalMart or dollar stores.  

Mostly the movies on horror anthologies are small independent pictures that were never purchased by major film distribution companies, and maybe released directly to a few theaters in major cities for a week or two before being sold straight to video.  And almost invariably they’re movies you might watch once on a sleepless night when there’s absolutely nothing else of interest on cable, and then forget instantly and never think of again.

Presently showing on Comet TV, the Sinclair Broadcasting-owned digital network specializing in obscure science fiction fare and re-broadcasts of defunct television series such as “Stargate SG-1” and “Babylon 5,” the 2014 movie “Army of Frankensteins” is a picture that might be right at home on a multi-disc set in a dollar store’s discount bin.  Combining elements of horror and science fiction with some unlikely quantum physics and a seasoning of self-aware humor, the picture contains performances by no professional actors and was reportedly produced on a shoestring budget of $65,000. 

But guess what?  The movie’s actually not half bad.

Set on more or less the present time, in “Army of Frankensteins” Alan Jones, a hapless grocery store employee just rejected by his unfaithful girlfriend and beaten up by a local street gang, seeks refuge in a laboratory occupied by obsessed scientist Tanner Finski and his child genius assistant Igor.  Jones quickly finds himself drafted into an unlikely experiment involving both time travel and a reanimated Frankenstein’s monster.

Naturally the experiment backfires, inadvertently importing multiple duplicates of the monster from parallel universes and sending Jones, Igor, and the Frankensteins through an interdimensional portal to 1865 Virginia.  Arriving in the past, the group of time-travelling misfits find that their assistance is needed in helping a runaway slave elude her captors...and bringing a conclusion to the American Civil War.  

To reveal more of the plot would ruin the sense of flat, jaw-dropping disbelief that’s a big part of the appeal of “Army of Frankensteins.”  Written and directed by low budget horror specialist Ryan Bellgardt, the filmmaker behind such later films as 2017’s “Gremlin” (singular--no relation to the 1984 box office hit), and 2018’s “The Jurassic Games,” “Army of Frankensteins” benefits from the conceit of introducing a character with contemporary sensibilities into one of the most politically (and morally) volatile eras in American history...and then uses the unlikely combination to gently satirize both the past and the present.

Wisely, filmmaker Bellgardt never allows the film’s narrative to be easily categorized, or identified with a specific genre--it’s neither fish nor fowl, or anything in between.  The movie’s broad comedy is mostly on a level of “Super Trooper 2” and the rudimentary special effects, combining time travel and some fairly gory makeup effects, are never quite persuasive enough to allow the viewer to forget he’s watching a cheap straight-to-video release.  But in it’s own dogged refusal to either take itself too seriously or, worse, violate the time/space continuum central to time travel pictures, “Army of Frankensteins” is silly, hip...and even weirdly inspiring.

“Army of Frankensteins” does rely on the viewer’s basic knowledge of  the historical timeline of the American Civil War era, particularly the events of its concluding days, but that’s mostly to ensure a better enjoyment of the narrative:  While tweaking some of the history of the War Between the States, Bellgardt’s clever script never quite alters the outcome, as Quentin Tarantino might have.  You can’t say you’ve everything until you witness a couple of dozen Frankensteins lurching out of the woods to do battle with the Confederate Army.  And the movie’s closing gag alone is worth the price of admission.

Filmed in and around Oklahoma City and featuring performances by local non-professional actors Jordan Ferris as Jones, Raychelle McDonald as an escaped slave with feminist values, John Ferguson (known to Oklahoma residents as Count Gregore, the host of TV’s “Nightmare Theater”) as Dr. Finski, Don Taylor as a blase, intellectual Abraham Lincoln, and Eric Gesecus as Frankenstein, “Army of Frankensteins” played at one or two genre-specific horror festivals and earned sporadic release in Japan in 2014 before being released on DVD and Blu-ray in the United States and Canada in September 2015.

“Army of Frankensteins” is not rated by the MPAA but contains some gory effects, brief nudity, and some adult situations.

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