We Summon the Darkness – Review

Directed by Marc Meyers

USA/ 2019/ 91 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Satanists get a bit of a bad reputation, don’t they? Whether it’s John Carpenter’s hideously underappreciated Prince of Darkness, or the more recent The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the blurring of humanity and its association with the Devil is as ancient a narrative tool as possible. Then there were the slasher films of the late seventies through to the early nineties, a genre which gluttoned itself with zealous-religious killers. Marrying the two together made just about as much sense as it does now, as We Summon the Darkness begins with news reports of satanic cultists slaughtering innocents across eighties America, just as three young women embark on their road trip to the biggest ’80s metalhead gig around.

Unfortunately for our lead, Alexandra Daddario once more showcases her inscrutable taste in film choices. It’s by far the most cohesive performance in the film, principally for how out-there Daddario pushes the character, plunging headfirst into the eighties schlockfest of video nasties and cultist slasher flicks. Continuing this, Daddario’s co-stars Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth are giving tremendous energy to the film – Forsyth as a young runaway, who turns to the girls for support, brings an unexpected dynamic to the film. The imbalance between performances occurs with the men, where attempts are made at gender reversal and a comment on the ‘lamb to slaughter’ nature of women in preceding slasher films. The execution fails to convey this naturally, stemming from the meek direction, flimsy writing, and vacant performances. While the women can capitalise on their antagonism, the guys just aren’t bringing anything memorable to the table.

This gender reversal is almost well-constructed, exhibiting an otherwise unexpected depth. Placing the men as powerless, now-stripped pieces of gaze material to be massacred is a clever aspect to take, but the film doesn’t run with the concept for long. The revelation that a patriarchal cultist is manipulating these young women removes the agency they have, going against what has been set up.  While the notion of a female killer is far from original, the trio had potential as a unique force, particularly in the droning era of post-modern slashers where remakes from the golden ’80s era are cycling the motions. There’s a small, niche territory of genuine pieces which distort the conventions such as The Guest orIt Follows, and We Summon the Darkness had the promise to join these and reclaim the genre from television, which seems to have taken up the mantle. 

Giving Marc Meyers credit, We Summon the Darkness superficially achieves what it sets out to in capturing a distinctly cult/slasher flair. Ridiculous, and borrowing heavily from more engaging films, We Summon the Darkness drapes itself in attempted pastiche but fails to cover itself in much bloodshed. For a script that has glints of wickedness, it plays it remarkably safe. The threat posed to the trio is almost immediately doused by the inadequacies of the cultists, whose ineptitude and inexperience, while a plot point, serves little in the way of horror. An inexperienced killer should be terrifying, their motivations clouded, but instead, it strips any power from the points the film is attempting to make.

Beneath the slasher homages and incessant borrowing from the horror library, We Summon the Darkness wastes rich potential as it falls victim to its execution. Leaning on the angle of nostalgia, suffering from tedious performances, and a substantial lack of terror means any attempts at a neo-slasher going for the throat of misogyny is all but put to rest by Meyers’ inability to brandish these weapons effectively.

We Summon the Darkness is available on Video-On-Demand Now

Review originally published for The Wee Review:https://theweereview.com/review/we-summon-the-darkness/

Extraction – Netflix

Directed by Sam Hargrave

Screenplay by Joe Russo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hiring an unsavoury sort of chap to secure to the safety of a loved one has seemingly grown into its own genre these days, hasn’t it? From director and stunt-coordinator Sam Hargrave, Netflix is looking to secure viewership with the draw of high-stakes action, visuals and the mighty shoulders of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth stars as Tyler Rake, an air soldier-turned mercenary, tasked with securing the son of India’s largest drug-lord, who has been kidnapped by his competitor.

For the most part, banking on Hemsworth and Hargrave has served well for Netflix. What works in Extraction lies squarely on those concrete shoulders, a safe foundation. The audience is quick to side with Hemsworth’s role. It’s a magnetic performance, which draws us in both to the mystery of Rake’s previous actions and the ongoing mission, excessively bolstered by spectacular choreography and the attitude Hemsworth exudes, particularly through his interactions with old colleague Gaspar. 

These scenes are touching, character building and reinforce Netflix’s firm grip on their good luck charm David Harbour (who plays Gaspar), but they’re few and far between. They should be seen as anchors showing where Hemsworth’s character has grown across the film, but instead are moments of forced exposition to attribute ‘depth’ between body counts. It’s frustrating, as from a casting perspective, Hargrave and the Russo brothers lay superb foundations. Priyanshu Painyuli takes a turn as a sadistically narcissistic villain, while Golshifteh Farahani deserves a larger role as Rake’s mercenary partner who unequivocally steals the final moments of the film. Although it is young actor Suraj Rikame whose minimal screentime as Farhad makes a significant impact. A teen born into an internal drug war, Farhad is a harrowing reminder of the perversion of adolescence into soldiers.

At times, Hargrave mistakes excess for edginess, cluttering otherwise impressive one-take shots and stretching them beyond technical impressiveness into cartoonish violence. It’s staggeringly well-choreographed, as shots follows Hemsworth through buildings, switching points of view in seamless transitions over stairwells, through windows and flipping over shoulders. Fundamentally, the skill of this lies in stunt choreography, which is no shock, considering director Hargrave’s domination of stunt-coordination of mammoth Hollywood films.

This does raise questions regarding an infusion of choreography from a movement expert’s perspective, and from that of the cinematography. Despite managing to keep up with the pacing, this latter aspect isn’t framed particularly well throughout and tends to home in on Hemsworth’s mug, rather than the action at hand. Certainly dynamic in composition, but narratively successful? Dubious.

Any argument made of Extraction’s ‘awareness’ in its grotesquely unnecessary violence and quips is at fault. This springs from the unease of a director who seems unsure whether to push for a pastiche or to deploy a genuine bloodthirsty depiction of modern civilian warfare, landing somewhere in the middle and echoing an extended gaming cutscene. Occasionally, it works, showcasing the brutality of drug wars. The issue arises when Extraction steps beyond realism and makes obvious moves to intensify violence, which removes tension and strays into a fantasy level of conflict.

Extraction is already proving itself as a successful piece of Netflix’s arsenal, but when placing it on the table against similar in the genre, it’s vastly overcast by superior films. Hemsworth turns in a solid performance, but did Netflix necessarily intend to bank on another ‘white saviour’ narrative? Extraction isn’t bringing much to the table, but if this was all the film is guilty of, it’s safe to say Netflix is deploying all tactics and star power to stay above its growing competition – and for now, it’s working.

Extraction is available now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/extraction/

Uncorked – Netflix

Written & Directed by Prentice Penny

USA/2020/104 minutes

On the subject of wine, The United States not only seems intent on procuring a namesake for their product, but American cinema too has a steadily dripping reserve of films where vineyards sit as a central theme. For every Bottle Shock or Sideways, which take a predominately middle-class approach, there has been little in the blend of wine culture into black communities, so it’s time for a shake-up in the form of Prentice Penny’s feature debut Uncorked.

In a competent challenge of preconceptions surrounding a black man’s (Elijah) relationship with his father, primarily as their aspirations clash, Penny’s script subverts a traditionally bleak narrative where the context of race is present but underlying. Uncorked focuses on Elijah’s determination in becoming a sommelier, no small feat given the intricate examinations, costs and his father Louis’ disapproval. Disapproval which stems, not from ignorance or misunderstanding, but from a man who places his entire being into a staple of the community.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Elijah wouldn’t wish to disappoint Courtney Vance, who exudes charm throughout Uncorked as Elijah’s father Louis. Helping to balance the extreme expectations placed on his son, his position within the story reflects the importance of food culture, especially at the heart of communities. Vance carries weight to what could easily have been an antagonistic role, conveying Louis’ reasons for maintaining the restaurant and sacrificing his dreams, all with a degree of humour, calmness and excellent repartee with Niecy Nash as wife Sylvia. 

Now, on the whole, Uncorked is remarkably straight-forward, with little in the way of complex narrative techniques or cheap dramatic tricks. Carrying the film is Mamoudou Athie as Elijah, a young man who grinds against the groove of the men in his family and has little desire to run the Smokestack restaurant his father, and fathers before him have operated. Elijah has ambitions, but Athie maintains an earthiness in the role. He forges chemistry with each actor, and a relatability with the audience, regardless of their background or goals.

In a standout performance, driving a substantial portion of the films warmth, Niecy Nash captures the soul of Uncorked as Sylvia; a vivacious force who is criminally underused, particularly in the film’s latter third. A survivor of cancer, her remission forces Louis and Elijah’s reconciliation, and completes her story-arc as she strives to teach both of the men in her life one final, heartfelt lesson; reminding them that in the pursuit of ambition, never to forget to check on those we leave behind. 

Uncorked is as much a foodie film as it is a wine flick, with Elliot Davis’ cinematography agitating the tastebuds. As shots slow, Davis highlights the simplicity of life’s pleasures, with a steadfast focus on the smoking meats or colour contrasts of deep-bodied Merlots, against the pure, almost crystal clarity of a young Riesling. This is Uncorked’s strength, focusing on life, rather than politics. Much which can be read into Uncorked’s meta is from the audience’s mindset, with only minor pushes on commentary surrounding the elitism of wine, or the predominately white hiring of sommeliers. 

Penny’s Uncorked is precisely the change of pace many will welcome, refusing to inject false pretence or overt emotion. Uncorked, for lack of a less pun-fuelled description, requires savouring. It thrives on time, slowly allowing the story to breathe and bolster its cast who, able to inhabit their personas, give dimension to most roles, with only the occasional side-character feeling contrived. A palette cleanser, there are notes of tenderness, but for those expecting melodrama or lacerating commentary, a sour taste is left in the last mouthful.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/uncorked/

Uncorked is availabe for streaming on Netflix