Vampires vs. the Bronx

★★★★

I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty butthurt when I fired up “Vampires vs. the Bronx” on Netflix only to discover it’s PG-13. PG-13 horror?!!! Yeah, that’s gonna be a no from me, dawg. All that said I’m glad I stuck with it. The movie’s good enough that my dog ass tired wife who said she was gonna dip after a coupla minutes stayed up, stayed put and stayed engaged throughout the entire thing. This flick fits a lot of charm into its compact 85 minute package.

“Vampires” focuses primarily on three tween boys and the borough they call home. There’s Miguel Martinez AKA Lil Mayor (Jaden Michael), a community-minded kid who comes across like a Baby Barack Obama. There’s Bobby Carter (Gerald W. Jones III) who ran afoul of Father Jackson (Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith, yeah, Meth’s playing a priest … lulz) for fighting and got himself thrown out of school. He’s now trying to resist the pull of street life in the form of Henny (Jeremie Harris). There’s Luis Acosta (Gregory Diaz IV), who’s back in the old hood from Tampa, Fla. to visit his Tia Maria (Socorro Santiago). Luis is the nerd of the group. He’s cleverly introduced reading a copy of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and is referred to as “Puerto Rican Harry Potter” by a gangbanger. The rest of the neighborhood is comprised of familiar faces such as Zoe Saldaña and Chris Redd (“Saturday Night Live”).

Miguel’s current project is saving the bodega run by Tony (Joel ‘The Kid Mero’ Martinez of “Desus & Mero”). Tony opened his doors and heart to the boys giving them a safe space to do homework and play video games. Many businesses in the neighborhood have been bought up by the shadowy Murnau Properties (a cool nod to “Nosferatu” director, F.W. Murnau) fronted by the pompadoured Frank Polidori (prolific character actor Shea Whigham – a performer my wife and I are so fond of that whenever he pops up in something (which is often) we exclaim in unison, “Shea!!!,” or one of us simply mutters, “Goddamn, Shea Whigham.”). Polidori is a familiar, the human face of the vampire-owned Murnau, and they have their sights set on the bodega.

“Vampires” feels like a hodgepodge of “The Lost Boys,” “The Monster Squad” and “Attack the Block” and is much more comedic than horrific (it’s produced by “SNL” mastermind Lorne Michaels), but it also has a lot on its mind. The movie is undeniably a condemnation of gentrification and the white supremacy that’s inherent to such practices. These blonde, lily-white vampires figure they can buy up the Bronx, set up shop and feed on its residents because no one cares about them … they’re nobodies. It’s also telling that when the boys run into Vivian (Canadian actress Sarah Gadon of “Cosmopolis” and “Enemy”), a seemingly kind white lady who’s new to the neighborhood, and she assures them that she won’t call the cops they retort with, “That’s what someone who’s about to call the cops would say.”

It’s refreshing to see a flick fronted by three kids of color where they’re not only decent – they’re smart, funny, compassionate and civic-minded. Kudos to co-writer/director Oz Rodriguez (a segment director on “SNL”), his co-scripter Blaise Hemingway and these talented child actors for producing content that will empower and represent underserved youngsters out there. Kids between the ages of 8 and 14 will lap this up like a suckhead would Type O Positive … kids at heart will too. This is essentially the woke version of an ‘80s Amblin movie. “Vampires vs. the Bronx” may lack blood and guts, but much like the Wolfman, it’s got nards.

Scare Me

★★★★

“Scare Me” (now available for streaming on Shudder) isn’t the movie I was expecting it to be, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. Despite being on Shudder, the picture is not really a horror flick and hews far more towards humor. Truth be told, “Scare Me” could easily be a play and in many respects feels like an improv show.

Fred (Josh Ruben – a writer, director, producer and performer on “CollegeHumor Originals”) has left the city, gone upstate and rented a cabin in order to focus on his writing (a multigenerational werewolf action-horror saga) after a bad breakup. While out for a run he meets Fanny (Aya Cash of “You’re the Worst” and “The Boys”). She too is a writer … one of the successful variety … her zombie novel “Venus” has been hailed as the greatest piece of horror fiction ever written and sold a metric butt ton of copies. Fanny too is on a writing retreat and renting a nearby cabin … a bigger, nicer one.

Later that evening the power goes out. Fanny seeks solace in Fred’s smaller shack. They make a fire and talk craft. Fanny chastises Fred’s clichéd concept. Ultimately the gauntlet’s thrown down to, “Scare me!” The duo takes turns telling their best terrifying tales.

Normally, this is when the movie would turn into an anthology picture with different actors and locations being employed. Not here. Ruben and Cash employ various accents and facial expressions in acting their stories out soup to nuts. If their characters load or fire a gun sound effects are creatively overlaid to convey as much.

The duo becomes a trio when they order a pizza and it’s delivered by Carlo (“Saturday Night Live” vet Chris Redd). He’s a BIG fan of “Venus” and of Fanny herself. He too has tales to tell (something about, “baby scabies”). He puts off his next delivery – they eat, drink, do blow … hell, there’s even a musical number.

Ruben not only acts in “Scare Me” he also wrote, directed and produced it. The fingerprints of his sketch comedy background are all over it – thematically, structurally, performatively. He kills the accents, expressions and body language. (Humorously enough, Ruben’s real life next project is “Werewolves Within.” How’s that for meta?) Cash comes across well too. Her Fanny is smart, snarky and strong. As good as Ruben and Cash are (and they’re very, very good), the movie gets a real shot in the arm when Redd appears. Those who’ve seen “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” know if you put Redd in something it’ll automatically pop. I can simply look at his face and its exaggerated expressions and I’ll laugh. The dude’s just preternaturally funny AF. (He’s actually in another movie I’m reviewing this weekend. Stay tuned!)

“Scare Me” is a deconstruction of horror fiction and flicks that has a lot to say about gender politics, toxic masculinity and the Bechdel Test. Initially, I felt like I was sold a false bill of goods, but much like the Rolling Stones sing, “You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometime you find/You get what you need.”

2067

★★★

I’m not certain a post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick in which Earth grows increasingly less inhabitable, society’s crumbling and people can’t breathe is what we need right now, but “2067,” available in theaters and on VOD Friday, Oct. 2, is here regardless. And in spite of being of bit of a bummer, it’s a nifty albeit flawed genre exercise that makes the most of its meager budget.

Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Ethan Whyte (I kept thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy and his dessert whenever the character’s surname was shown or uttered). Ethan was orphaned as a child. He’s subsequently taken under the wing of Jude (Ryan Kwanten). The two now work underground doing maintenance on an unstable nuclear reactor in a world ravaged by climate change and deforestation. Oxygen is practically nonexistent with most everyone employing masks and breathing artificial air. Many folks grow sick from not having the real thing – one of them is Ethan’s wife, Xanthe (Sana’a Shaik).

Scientists led by Regina (Deborah Mailman) receive a transmission from 400 years in the future stating, “Send Ethan Whyte.” Apparently, Earth has become habitable again. Ethan must then weigh whether he’s willing to leave his wife behind in order to save her and the rest of the world. He reluctantly agrees and is slingshotted through the space-time continuum. Steampunk grunginess is replaced by lush jungle overgrowth. What initially feels like a sci-fi-tinged “Cast Away” gives way to something more strongly resembling “Hell in the Pacific” when someone else joins Ethan in the future.

I have conflicted feelings about Smit-McPhee as an actor. I think I dug him more as a child performer in films such as “The Road” and “Let Me In.” I may also prefer him in supporting roles as opposed to lead ones like in “Dolemite Is My Name” from last year. He brings a similar energy to “2067” that he brought to “Slow West” a handful of years back – that is being a waifish whiney wimp. In spite of this, he performs admirably enough.

It was nice to see Kwanten again after not having seen him in much of anything since “True Blood” concluded. He’s not as fun here as he was there, but he has some interesting notes to play with which he excels. It’s curious that this is an Australian film, Kwanten is an Australian actor, everyone else employs an Australian accent and Kwanten opts for an American accent.

Shaik and Mailman aren’t given nearly as much to do as their male counterparts. Shaik’s Xanthe serves more as motivation than as a fully fleshed out character. The thrust of Mailman’s performance is derived primarily through the silver wig she employs.

“2067” is the screenwriting and directorial debut of special effects artist Seth Larney. Its look is more impressive than its words, but it’s a promising start to what could be a fruitful career. I’m certainly interested in seeing whatever Larney does next. Dialogue and themes are somewhat circuitously repetitive rendering the whole enterprise draggy. The sets are well appointed; the effects impressive. With as visually striking as “2067” is, I’m somewhat surprised it didn’t resonate with me more deeply. Perhaps it’s too emo? Perhaps I’m struggling with time travel fatigue after having watched “Tenet” and all three of the “Bill & Ted” movies within the last month? Either way, “2067” is a trip worth taking – it may just behoove you to do so sometime in the future … hopefully a brighter one.

Death of Me

★★1/2

You’re gonna have to bear with me on this review. I watched “Death of Me,” available theatrically and on VOD beginning Friday, Oct. 2, almost a week ago and was kinda drunk while doing so. This may actually be appropriate for the picture, as it’s a trippy fever dream of a flick.

“Death of Me” stars everyone’s favorite Hemsworth brother (Luke!) and Maggie Q as vacationing couple Neil and Christine. He’s a travel writer and they’re winding down their trip to a Thai island. On their last night in country they’re out drinking and having a good time. Faster than you can say Roofie Coolada, the duo is drugged.

They wake up the following morning with no recollection of the previous evening, their passports are missing and there’s a video recording of Neil strangling Christine to death. Strange, as she’s very much alive, but probably wishes she weren’t due to a massive hangover.

The couple seek passage on a ferry, but are denied due to lack of passports. To make matters worse, the boat takes off with their luggage. It’s safe to say they’re up shit creek without a paddle and are stuck like a coupla Chuck’s. They’re left with no choice but to stay on the island and get to the bottom of what transpired the night before. The rest plays out in a manner that’s likely gonna give the Tourism Authority of Thailand fits.

Q and Hemsworth acquit themselves fairly well with their performances, but it’s her picture more than his. It’s mildly amusing to see Q in this so soon after “Fantasy Island.” It’s like the working vacation stage of her career has kicked into high gear. Who does this lady think she is? Adam Sandler or one of the multitude of buddies he keeps employed? Hemsworth has a somewhat strange screen presence. He looks a bit like his brothers. My wife thought he looked like Matt Damon. I thought he looked like Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year.” He’s simultaneously fit and flab. I get why he’s to the Hemsworth’s what Daniel is to the Baldwin’s (to further the analogy Chris is akin to Alec; Liam is like a hybrid of Stephen and William), but he’s good enough here that I’d be curious to see him in more stuff.

“Death of Me” is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and written by Ari Margolis, James Morley III (co-writer of the 1999 Ice-T/Erika Eleniak modern day pirate picture “Final Voyage”!) and David Tish. I’m not exceedingly familiar with Bousman’s filmography having only seen his 2010 remake of “Mother’s Day” (a movie I engaged with even if I felt gross for doing so) prior to this. I always meant to see “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” but never got around to it. I saw James Wan’s “Saw,” but didn’t dig it so I never checked out the Bousman-directed sequels “Saw II,” “Saw III” or “Saw IV.” Despite not liking “Saw,” I’m very much interested in seeing Bousman’s upcoming “Saw” spinoff, “Spiral,” but this has more to do with Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement than anything else. That said Bousman and his crew do a commendable job of capturing the island’s beauty as well as the grisliness that transpires.

The movie’s a bit of a mess, but is appropriately disturbing and/or disquieting when it wants to be. It’s often disorienting (that could be the booze and my memory talking), but I get the impression it’s meant to be. You likely know if a bouillabaisse of “The Wicker Man,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and any number of vacation horror flicks is up your alley or not. Just know this hews closer qualitatively to the Nic Cage “Wicker Man” as opposed to the Christopher Lee one.

Feels Good Man

A documentary about a grinning cartoon frog might be the most important movie about politics to come out in 2020.

“Feels Good Man” tells the story of Pepe the Frog, which first appeared in a comic strip called “Boy’s Club” in 2005. It grew to become a meme by 2008, mostly on the message boards of a site called 4Chan.

Creator Matt Furie was first just amused about how widespread his comic was on the Internet and he saw no harm in people making their own drawings or using the character to express emotions. Even Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj retweeted images using Pepe in 2014.

But in 2015, things changed. Donald Trump announced he was running for president and at the same time an undercurrent of angry Internet users began to use memes to spread their message. 4Chan became inundated with extremist that became known as the alt-right, a collection of Internet users that often said sexist, racist or xenophobic things and shunned normal society.

For some reason, Pepe became their symbol.

Furie wasn’t happy. His happy little comic turned into something used for hatred and it was eventually deemed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League

Documentary director Arthur Jones (in his feature debut) dissects this cultural phenomenon and explains how a cartoon becomes a meme and how a meme’s meaning can get changed by the others. Truly nobody owns anything on the Internet. And things take on a life of their own.

Expertly intercut with talking head interviews, TV news clips and animation of Pepe to portray the mood, Jones really takes you on a journey. It’s fast paced and chock-full of information, but it really gets at the heart of today’s political landscape and it does it in a way that’s mostly objective. The alt-right users get their (brief) say but they don’t overtake Furie’s central message of love and hope.

Everything in this documentary could easily be discovered by perusing Wikipedia and reading a few in depth articles. Trump retweeting Pepe. Hillary Clinton denouncing Pepe. Cryptocurrency. Trading “rare Pepes” and selling them for thousands. The lawsuit against Alex Jones. The political movement in Hong Kong. The documentary covers it all and even if you knew all of this stories it’s done with such style and emotion that it’s worth seeing it all distilled into 90 minutes.

I know colleges teach courses on Internet memes and symbology and this movie should be required viewing for all of those students (and probably marketing or political science majors too). It perfectly explains how a meme comes to life and what impact it can have on the world. At times the movie can be scary, but it ends of a beautifully hopeful note.

The one thing I really took from this documentary is that you can always flip the script. Maybe Pepe was once a symbol of white supremacy, but you can reclaim it and make it into a symbol of love too. If things that are meant for good can be turned into hatred, why can’t we work in the opposite direction? Maybe that’s possible too.