Tag Archives: D

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.   

THE TAX COLLECTOR

Producers: Chris Long, David Ayer, Tyler Thompson and Matt Antoun   Director: David Ayer   Screenplay: David Ayer   Cast: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, George Lopez, Shia LaBeouf, Elpidia Carrillo, Lana Parrilla, David Castañeda, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Cle Sloan, Noemi Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Cantu, Chelsea Rendon and Rene Moran   Distributor: RLJE Films

Grade:  D

Though he has been involved in a variety of movies as writer and/or director—“The Fast and the Furious,” “Fury,” “Suicide Squad”—David Ayer has constantly be drawn back to what seems his favorite motif, which finds two guys driving around the streets of Los Angeles talking (usually in a very animated way) and getting into violent action.  The two are usually cops, though often troubled or corrupt ones; that was the case in his first big hit, “Training Day (2000), and it recurred in “Street Kings” (2008) and “End of Watch” (2012), as well as his big-budget Netflix bomb, “Bright” (2017), in which, just for variety’s sake, one of the partners was an orc. 

In “The Tax Collector” Ayer returns to the LA streets once again, but this time the two guys are actual crooks rather than cops, crooked or not: they’re bag men who collect protection payments from street gangs for a mysterious crime lord called The Wizard.  (He’s played by a well-known actor whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end, and since it’s meant to come as a surprise, his name won’t be revealed here.)

The two are very dissimilar, of course; that’s the Ayer paradigm.  David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, adequate but hardly charismatic) is the cool, reserved guy, whose thuggish work—inherited from his imprisoned father, and also involving his uncle Julius (comedian George Lopez, playing against type), who’s his immediate superior in the organization—contrasts with his idyllic home life with wife Alexis (Cinthya Carmona) and their kids.  He’s also prone to compassionate gestures on the job, as when he makes up the difference for a guy who comes up short in his payments after he discovers the man needed the cash for a family medical emergency.

David is paired on the street with Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), a simmering human time-bomb who favors three-piece suits, sunglasses and nihilistic rants about life.  LaBeouf clearly relishes sinking his teeth into this colorful part and chewing for all it’s worth: it’s a fascinating sight, but not a pretty one.  

This unlikely duo’s routine is upset when a maniacal interloper called Conejo (played with brooding menace by rapper Jose Conejo Martin, or Conejo) moves in to take over the business.  He’s a really bad dude, engaging in Satanic rituals and human sacrifice to ensure his success and resorting to brutal violence at the drop of a hat.  He also has a hilariously overdrawn moll in sultry Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez), whose aptitude in meting out pain is matched only by the incongruity of her tight-fitting outfits and high heels.

When David rejects Conejo’s efforts to switch sides, he’s inviting trouble, and gets it.  Not only do he and Creeper become targets of the newcomer’s wrath, but so do Uncle Julius,  Alexis and the kids.  The assault on his family—to which he gives his ultimate loyalty—drives David to extreme action in which he’s aided by Bone (Cle Sloan), head of one of the street gangs The Wizard has been shaking down.  Bone’s a man of honor too, you see, and respects David too much to reject his plea for help.  The final twenty minutes of “The Tax Collector” turn into an orgy of gunfire, fisticuffs, blood and gore, ending—as you might expect—with Conejo’s gruesome demise.  And in a coda, the clichéd family motif is reemphasized. 

Visually “The Tax Collector” looks grubby, but that’s the goal of Andrew Menses’ production design and Salvatore Torino’s cinematography, and so their work must be accounted as successful.  Geoffrey O’Brien’s editing, which juxtaposes plodding encomia to family values with Creeper’s tirades and bursts of murkily-choreographed mayhem, duly follows the lead of Ayer’s hackneyed script and uninspired direction, which simply mimics the moves of his earlier, more inventive work.  And Michael Yezerski’s pulsating score tries to breathe some life into the predictable narrative, without success.

This is a thoroughly unpleasant movie that suggests it’s time for Ayer to leave the streets of Los Angeles permanently.  “Fury” proved that his talents can be employed with good results in other venues, and it would be wise for him to leave his old haunts behind him and move on.