Category Archives: Now Showing

SPREE

Producers: Matthew Budman, Sumaiya Kaveh, John Long and Eugene Kotlyarenko   Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko   Screenplay: Gene McHugh and Eugene Kotlyarenko   Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande, Lala Kent, Linas Phillips, John DeLuca, Sunny Kim, Caroline Hebert and Josh Ovalle   Distributor: RLJE Films

Grade:  B-

If you’re at all concerned about the baleful influence of social media on contemporary society and the mindless lust for on-line popularity that drives many of its users, Eugene Kotlyarenko’s violent satire will provide ample confirmation that your anxieties are not misplaced.  “Spree” aims to be a “Taxi Driver” for the modern age, and though it comes off as more an exploitative symptom of the disease than a cautionary commentary on it, you have to be impressed by its flamboyance even while deploring it.

Joe Keery, Steve Harrington of “Stranger Things,” gives a maniacal performance as Kurt Kunkle, a wannabe social influencer who’s been posting video blogs under the rubric “Kurt’s World” for a decade, never attracting more than a handful of followers.  To add insult to injury, one of his “followers” is Bobby (Josh Ovalle), a kid he used to babysit, who’s become an internet star and keeps track of Kurt’s stuff just to needle him.

Kurt’s depressed about his failure—and his home life, which he describes in some of his tedious postings—but one day has a brainstorm.  A driver with a ride-hail outfit called Spree for awhile, he outfits his car with cameras and plastic bottles of drugged water and sets off to attract viewers by killing his passengers.  He trumpets his aspirations by inviting people to join what he pompously calls “The Lesson.”

His initial targets—an unapologetic racist, a sexist pig, a coolly condescending dame—are so easy to dislike that Kurt’s exuberantly malevolent gabbing is creepily sympathetic by comparison.  But when he meets Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), a local stand-up comic who has achieved online celebrity herself, he begins to focus on her support as a means of enhancing his own value as a so-called influencer of taste. 

Kurt becomes, in fact, a stalker, though his pursuit of Jessie, which takes him to her gig at a local club, doesn’t stand in the way of plenty of other mayhem on the street.  More bodies drop—including those of revelers who make the mistake of standing up through the sun roof and that of a cop at a traffic stop—and there are interludes with Kurt’s divorced, druggie DJ dad (David Arquette).  Meanwhile the viewership increases, and comments pour into the increasingly frantic live-and-dying feed Kurt’s providing to the world.  Naturally his mental stability will crack completely as the night goes on, and his final encounters with Jessie and his father will ultimately bring him the notoriety he’s been seeking so desperately.

As a dark comedy, “Spree” lays claim to far greater outrageousness than it achieves.  Its target is much too easy, and the narrative too messily structured.  And the ending takes things into more conventional killer-on-the-loose and last-girl-standing territory 

Yet there are two elements that make the movie intriguing.  One is Keery’s flamboyant performance, which combines over-the-top enthusiasm and a pathetic need for attention in making the guy, for all the ghastliness he represents, credibly human: Kurt Kunkle becomes frightening precisely because Keery somehow manages to make him real.  Surrounding him with plenty of actual online “celebrities” like Josh Ovalle also situates Kurt’s obsession in the actual territory he aims to inhabit.

The other is the style, which depends on captured-feed format used in lots of recent slasher movies but doesn’t embrace the stationary laptop-screen perspective that’s made them so insufferably dull.  “Spree” is as stylistically frenetic as the title indicates, frequently using multiple-camera images simultaneously in split-screen while viewer comments scroll across the various feeds.  The result is chaotic, and frankly exhausting at times (as in the closing montages of the story’s aftermath), but Kotlyarenko, cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and editor Benjamin Moses Smith vary things sufficiently, using quieter episodes as palate cleansers, to keep you from just giving up.  (Those viewer comments, incidentally, are horrifyingly on target.)  Carlos Laszlo’s production design and Natasha Newman-Thomas’ costumes, meanwhile, accentuate Cohn’s garish color palette, and James Ferraro’s slam-bang music choices add to the frantically off-kilter mood.

One can argue whether “Spree” indicts social-media obsession or just cheerfully embraces it, but if hardly a totally fun ride it’s a fitfully fascinating one.    

MURDER IN THE WOODS

Producers: Luis Iga Garza and Yelyna De León   Director: Luis Iga Garza   Screenplay: Yelyna De León   Cast: José Julián, Jeanette Samano, Chelsea Rendon, Catherine Toribio, Kada Wise, Jordan Diambrini, Max Chavarria, Kurt Caceres, Yelyna De León, Soledad St. Hilaire, Rolando Molina and Danny Trejo   Distributor: Rezinate Pictures

Grade: D

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of teenagers go to an isolated house in the forest, where they proceed to get murdered one by one by a mad killer.  Does “Murder in the Woods”—not the most imaginative of titles—give any twist to the admittedly familiar premise?  Yes: the characters are all Latinex.  Is that enough to make it worth watching?  Unfortunately, no.  It’s too prosaic, and in the end ludicrous, a genre exercise for the ethnic emphasis to make much difference.

Yelyna De León’s script begins with a prologue in which an injured man (Kurt Carceres) staggers through the woods to a house where, in an upstairs window, a cute little boy (Max Chavarria) looks on afraid.  It then shifts, a conventional fashion, to introduce the young candidates for slaughter.  One is Fernanda (Jeanette Samano), a girl from Chicago visiting her cousin Chelsea (Chelsea Rendon), who’s going out with friends, including her handsome boyfriend Gabe (Jordan Diambrini), to celebrate her birthday big-time.  Joining them are pretty Celeste (Catherine Toribio) and jokester Jule (Kade West).  Finally there’s Jesse (José Julián), a quiet sort who, despite a stern warning from his grandmother (Soledad St. Hilaire), decides to tag along.

Along the way to the house where they plan to party, the car accidentally is damaged when they hit an animal, and they’re stopped by Sheriff Lorenzo (Danny Trejo), who sees them all as punks.  Once settled in for the night, they begin to get drunk and high, and friction occurs: a fight erupts over a boy, for instance, and a girl runs out into the forest, only to meet an unhappy fate.   But Fernanda, who left the area years ago, hits it off with Jesse,

Then, of course, the real trouble begins as some unknown person attacks the youngsters.  Lorenzo shows up to warn those still alive to evacuate the place because of an oncoming wildfire (which never shows up, probably due to budgetary restrictions), and it’s revealed why the killer should have chosen this moment to attack; an attempt to link the motive with the prologue italicizes the absurdity of the entire business—one must overlook a variety of logical and chronological lapses to follow the plot trajectory at all, and the effort simply isn’t worth it.

One can appreciate the desire of De León, a producer and actress as well as an actress, and Garza, who served on the crew of the 2013 Halle Berry vehicle “The Call” (here directing his first feature) to include aspects of Latino culture in the film, and to cast ethnically authentic actors in the lead roles.  But the effort goes unrewarded when the screenplay is, overall, so hackneyed and the acting so amateurish.  That even applies to Trejo, who seems to be winking at the audience as he goes through the motions of playing the crusty lawman. 

On the technical level the movie is obviously a low-budget affair, presumably based on a lot of volunteer work as the credits list no fewer than three cinematographers (Nicholas Albert, Anirudh Gattu and Steven Holleran), two editors (Ryan Libert and Garza) and two composers(Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia).  It looks rather dim and unfocused, but that’s about par for this slasher-type genre.

Throwbacks can sometimes be fun, but this return to 1980s formula proves that more often retreads are pretty bald affairs.