You Can’t Run From the EVIL That Seeks Out the Competition. “Homewrecker” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)



Michelle is at the point in her life, struggling as a 30-something year old interior designer, where the urge to have children is strong.  When trying to conceive with her husband seems to be going downhill, she is befriended by an overly obsessive stranger, Linda, who has took an uncomfortably intense interest in her personal life.  An innocent enough invitation back to Linda’s house proves costly with Linda’s flickering infatuation for Michelle’s private business that turns quickly sour in a cat and mouse game of survival.  Trapped, Michelle must understand Linda’s madness in order to stay alive.

Ca-ra-zyyy!  That’s one of many ways to label Zach Gayne’s woman-on-woman scuffle in the comedy-horror “Homewrecker” that will surely turn many feminist heads at breakneck and contentious speeds with the better woman standing scenario.  Gayne’s freshman film tests the wills of two very different women and their counter mindsets while excavating a common core connection rooted subconsciously deep within them both.  A distinction that gives the 2020 riotous feature an edge is the two sole actresses, Alex Esso (“Starry Eyes,” “Doctor Sleep”) and Precious Chong (“Luba”), daughter of famed stoner comedian Tommy Chong, portraying Michelle and Linda are also “Homewreckers” cowriters alongside Gayne, equipping their characters with an authentic image by filling the roles themselves and getting out of the project exactly what’s desired.  The trio also produce the film in a coproduction with fellow producer Josh Mandel of Industry Standard Films and under the financials of Precious’s mother Shelby Chong, Chris Morsby, and Delaney Siren as executive producers.

Precious Chong, hands down, steals all the glory in “Homewrecker” with her wide-eyed, mentally unstable, zany, and stuck in the 80’s single white female that makes Glenn Close performance seem diminutive and more like an innocent and shy little crush in “Fatal Attraction.”  Linda epitomizes the very definition of crazy as a person unable to progress from an era of her peak youth being the most popular girl in school, judging by the VHS tapes, 80’s soundtrack, and outdated board games, I’d say Linda’s popular party girl inner nature hasn’t disembarked from the late 80’s to early 90’s train, and Chong delivers a singularity tweak of neurosis and delusion that frighteningly teeters from over exaggeration to real representation.  Unfortunately, Chong’s invasive, off-the-rocker performance overshadows Alex Esso’s more level-headed, amiable, and fight or flight Michelle and her unconventional responses and reactions to Linda’s incessant behavior in, perhaps, a more poorly written character.  Michelle is the too nice to the point where opportunities arise for escape or attack and she chooses the total opposite in trying to reason with an unreasonable person.  The motivation behind Michelle for even going to Linda’s house is rather slim so either something deep in her subconscious wills her to go (maybe Linda’s eagerness to lend an ear on a torrent of personal unloading) or she’s a just gullible to a fault.  Rounding out the cast is the man in the middle, Robert, played by Kris Siddiqi and the friendly neighbor Wilson, played by Tony Matthews (“The Craft: Legacy”), in a bit part that’s a clever homage to the Wilson character in Tim Allen sitcom, “Home Improvement,” as he peeps just over the fence to say hello as well as an contradictory play on the “Homewrecker” title.

Aforementioned, there is gray area in the character actions and rationales that thins much of the story’s harrowing affect and even seeps slightly into the more dark comedic moments.  Yelling (in my head) at the screen for Michelle to jump out the window (after lingering half out for clearly a minute) or taking advantage to overpower Linda (during a moment of long poignant embrace) was just a waste of my mental breath as the Michelle is frustratingly too timid, too nice, too afraid to cut the unseen bounds that holds her back from reinstalling balance in her upheaved life held in Linda’s unstable hands.  The pacing a bit of a drag as well by holding onto scenes, with various cuts, longer than necessary.  For a film slightly over an hour long, the conversing segments between the principle characters, Linda and Michelle, could last up to 20 minutes with more than most of the chat awry by Linda’s idiosyncrasies.   What works for “Homewrecker” is single day story set inside Linda’s home that really hones in and develops the snowballing turmoiled relationship between the two women. Being the film’s strong suit in unveiling the crux of the problem that’s not surface level crazy person versus sane person, the plot point revelation truly did blindside me and I was like, whoa.  Everything made sense without having to dig deeper into exposition to understand the minor details of what was happening exactly.  “Homewrecker” also has great brief climatic gore involving an emblematic sledgehammer and a pair of sharp scissors that, again, comes unexpectedly from a cat and mouse game that has been rather tame for most of the film.  Zach Gayne’s film pleasantly puts a blood red cherry on top of a deranged ice scream sundae dripping with fanaticism fudge in a scrumptious little fatal attraction.

Efficiently compact but just as aggressive as an overly jealous and overactive girlfriend plagued by psychosis, “Homewrecker” premiered it’s way digitally into UK homes by 101 Films back on May 24th.  The Toronto, Canada production is presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio with a lean runtime of 76 minutes.  Co-producer Delaney Siren serves as the cinematographer for “Homewrecker’s” regular split screen and multiple angle shots denoting a clear sense of where each character location is without the film feeling like a typical slasher while maintaining the focus on telling both women’s side.  “Homewrecker” marks Siren’s first feature film as a cinematography, but has multiple credits in the genre for macabre inspired music videos under the Toronto based music recording and film production company, “Reel Wolf Productions.”  For a film that has completely and satisfactory bookends, there are no bonus scenes during or after the credits.  Quirky and dark, “Homewrecker” is a read between the lines comedy-thriller about abduction, devotion questioning , delusional obsession, and honesty.

Obey EVIL’s Every Last Command! “Held” reviewed! (Magnolia Pictures / Digital Screener)

Emma and Henry Barrett celebrate their 9-year marriage anniversary by renting an isolated house complete with modern day automation bells and whistles. On the morning following their first night’s stay, they come to a horrifying realization someone was in the house and has displaced their clothing. As panic begins to set in and the couple try to flee, the house suddenly locks down, barring the windows and doors under the smart home controls, and a Voice commands them to obey every word in order to reveal devastating secrets and fix what’s broken in their splintered marriage by returning to antiquated ideas of a patriarchal system. Implanted with an electroshock device, Emma and Henry have no choice but to comply to every authoritative command, turning their romantic getaway into a house of wringing pawns.

Out of all of fight against misogynism and #MeToo inspired films that have been released in the last few years, Jill Awbrey’s scripted story is the most fascinating with an implausible overkill plot derived from, and this would be the scariest part, actual male frames of mind that were not systemically changed too long ago and are still ineradicably infesting a good chunk of male psyches today. The Fresno, California-shot film is entitled “Held,” a literally captivating suspense-thriller with whispers of James Wan’s “Saw” crisscrossed with, and I may get flak for this, Wes Craven’s “Scream.” “Held” is steered by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, directors of “The Gallows” and the subsequent “Act II”, with a follow up with edgy confines of a pintsize location embellished with hidden rooms and secret passageways bringing normalcy to the forefront of topsy-turvy inequity. Under Cluff and Lofing’s Tremendum Pictures banner, “Held” is also produced by the directors alongside Kyle Gentz and Cody Fletcher.

Jill Awbrey is not only the screenwriter of “Held” but also stars as the Emma Barrett, an internally traumatized woman weary of strange men asking none-of-their-business questions. Her feature film actress debut plays opposite of vet actor Bart Johnson. The television and “Simon Says” actor Johnson puts on his husband hat as Henry Barret frustrated and disheartened by Emma’s recent lack of intimate interest. All of the Henry’s resentment and Emma’s self-reproach fades away when the house comes down on top of them, literally, in a barrage of hidden spy cameras, an uncontrollable to them security system, and by an obscured voice coursing through various wall intercoms with ground rules and instructions. Before trouble finds them in the guise of a vacay rental, Awbrey and Johnson make a fairly convincing seasoned husband and wife with all the rapport familiarity trimmings; Awbrey instills a meekish quality that makes Emma reserved in not being assertive enough to help herself, a condition stemmed from a traumatic event in her past as the opening moment of “Held,” while Johnson follows Awbrey’s lead in an equally good job showing a nurturing and doting husband who wants nothing more than to take care of everything for his wife. When the panic sets in and the possibility of escape seems futile, Awbrey and Johnson have to use separate approaching methods and mindsets that become essential to “Held’s” time warp speeding male chauvinism undertones. The supporting cast is folded into “Held’s” firm two-lead narrative with precision story placement from Rez Kempton (“Stag Night of the Dead”) and Zack Gold (“Fear Lives Here”).

“Held” is a fight in hell for women who feel that there is life bares no choice in the matter, when their voice is silenced by fear, when the prospect of death is as strong as a masculine build, and when an atrocious past experience hinders personal growth. The commanding-to-demanding obedience tale freefalls from worse case scenario to the absolute worst case scenario of a clear cut redeeming need for change and to once and for all extinguish the old-fashioned binary thought of men being stronger, faster, smarter, better, and more dominate then women. Speaking of old-fashioned, Cluff and Lofing incorporate 1950s era technology, such as a tube television set, rotary phone, and computers with nobs and dials, into the vacation rentals’ futuristic hardware as a symbolizing blend of the seemingly evolved present day man being motivated and driven by antiquated thoughts. The filmmakers also work in nicely Awbrey’s misinterpretation of a Biblical paradise by parochial views by warping the fabled beginnings of man and woman for their own selfish desires. The plot point twist was uncomplicatedly easy to predict but wasn’t necessarily unwelcomed either as the turning point layered a crazy subplot involving a radical marketed and hairbrained scheme with such audacity it’s felt unbelievable. And there were a handful of select scenes that did feel unbelievable by computing more a comical reaction than a petrifying one as perhaps intended. What’s probably more even more of a quirk in “Held” is the script’s subdued dialogue that garnished with not one single obscenity, but the action, which includes multiple graphic stabbings, a self-surgery extraction, and one particular scene where Emma is choked slammed through a wall, conveys extreme intensity in a superficial imbalance with the dialogue. Underneath the tender discourse, “Held” has a crupper of brutal violence that never slips.

Those following Ephesians 5:22-24, reading wives should “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the LORD,” will find “Held” as a blasphemous counterattack of disobedience against the strong arming of a behind-the-times complementarian marriage. “Held” will be released by Magnolia Pictures as a Magnet released film, presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a runtime of 94 minutes. The Frightfest 2020 film is a perfect union of imperfect times and feminism fight back and director of photography, Kyle Gentz (“The Gallows Act II,” “Zombies 2”) captures it all with a bright, nearly sterile, perspective full from closed circuit voyeurism, to aerial shots of isolation, and to shaky cam with flashing lights to produce ear splitting pain effect. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. The Garden of Eden has been man and woman’s place of paradise and destruction but for Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s “Held,” the battle of the sexes is more barbaric than it is biblical when Adam’s machoism stakes claim to Eve’s forbidden fruit.

EVIL’s All Inclusive Resort. “Paradise Z” reviewed! ((Yet) Another Distribution Company / Digital Screener)

Sylvia and Rose are living the life of harmonious luxury together on a beautiful and serene Thailand resort. There’s only one tiny problem with their first-class accommodations: the world surrounding them is overrun by a population of rabidly crazed zombies. After establishing a rigorous routine of perimeter checks and pool time, food and gas are running dangerous low to keep a secluded and safe survival lifestyle sustained, leaving them no choice but to venture out to nearby villages in search for fuel, but the smallest of sounds could invite the hungry dead to storm their idyllic retreat. No matter how careful scouring outside the gated walls of isolated tranquility, the zombies’ insidious ways infest as bad resorts guests that turn Sylvia and Rose’s make-due habitation to their prospective tomb when all routes of escape are foiled by flesh-feasting zombies. The couple must rely on each other for survival.

There’s trouble in paradise from Wych Kaosayananda’s melancholic-apocalypticism horror “Paradise Z” focusing on two young women, romantically brought together by undead circumstances, to outlive the encompassing fatalist outlook. Marketed in the United Kingdom as a “Lesbian Zombie Apocalypse Gore-fest” and having been through the wringer with title changes from the original title of “Two of Us” to “Dead Earth,” as called in the States, the uptrend to incorporate the Z in any zombie film has been a musky motif ever since Max Brooks introduced the epithet for his 2006 zombie apocalypse novel, “World War Z,” yet that doesn’t stop writers Kaosayananda and Steve Poirier in dishing out a sanguine trilogy with “Paradise Z” laying the ground work as the first installment and “The Driver,” the third installment, following suit shortly after wrapping production on “Paradise Z.” With the second film, “The Rider,” is still in pre-production and the shot films released out of sequential order, Kaosayananda’s unconventional trilogy methods caters to a seemingly budget and location ready-timeline to which characters from all three films will interconnect the dissociated titles under the filmmaker’s self-funded production company, Kaos Entertainment.

Throughout the entire 1-hour and 35-minute runtime, there are only five speaking roles with three of those roles rarely comprising of about four minutes of combined dialogue, assigning by default much of the chitchat the principle characters, Sylvia and Rose. For the first nine and half minutes, Milena Gorum and Alice Tantayanon don’t say a single word as the day’s routine of waking up, showering, topless swimming, poolside yoga, lunch, and other recreational activities dominate the setup of quietude. When Gorum (as Sylvia) and Tantayanon (Rose) do utter a few words, they’re muttered projection is nearly unintelligible with little effort into the purpose of speaking. Born in Los Angeles and now, predominately, a New York city fashion model, Gorum has come across my radar before with a bit Succubus role in the 2017, Cleopatra Films produced demonic thriller, “The Black Room,” opposite Lin Shaye, Lukas Hassel, and Natasha Henstridge and though “Paradise Z” provides Gorum with her first lead role that showcases her immense beauty but limited acting range. The same wooden expressive opinion can be said for the little known Alice Tantayanon whose pigeonholed herself into a Kaosayananda celluloid corner with her only credits being three of his films. Sylvia and Rose rarely separate from each other sides, being lovers noodled into a pot of thick zombie soup, in a rigid position of affixed dynamics difficult to gauge how either one of them is handling the situation. When a show of complexity is finally unveiled, such as when Sylvia murders in cold blood two other survivors and turns to Rose to say it’s better this way, those actions somewhere along the story from there on out should be dissected in explaining just why lacerating two men to death is a good thing. Of course, we can all assume the survival of the fittest and selfish obvious reason that two rugged men are looking for more than just a box of Twinkies and an unopened can of goulash substitute from two good-looking ladies outside the safety of their homemade stronghold; yet, doesn’t answer where the killer instincts root and Kaosayananda shelves that bit of human nature when the zombie caca spreads throughout the resort upon their return that also evaporates a steamy sex scene and inklings of frustration for their dwindling supplies and mundane routine symbolizing an inching wedge between them. “Ghost House’s” Michael S. New rounds out the cast the DJ, an on-air beacon of infected information.

An Elysian-fabricated getaway resort can be an ideal hunker down for an apocalypse of the zombie kind. Mega resorts have a large footprint that are usually gated and fenced, plenty of food and lodging to accommodate a small village, and an escape route from the beach to the open waters where we all know zombies can’t swim. That works here for “Paradise Z” and almost plays like a pillar character that embeds the women survivalists from going on walkabouts, creating a real sense of comfortable isolation and simmering paranoia of the outside world. Kaosayananda, who can’t quite get the bad taste that lingers from out his mouth with the panned Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu starring critically slammed and chaos-riddled film “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” left himself to his own devices in trying to rebuild his career shooting in Thailand, but “Paradise Z” crumbles as a stepping stone trilogy that lacks proper severe conflict of placing the heroines into a tight, perhaps inescapable, spot. What the couple have to escape from are the wild, warm flesh-craving leftovers of a plagued mankind, springing to a sprint at the first audible or visual morsel that tickles the eardrums, but the patchwork caked-face, grayscale zombies don’t render the likes from the bygone Golden Age of Horror, or even the current Golden Age of Modern Horror for that matter, in what looks and feels like cheap knockoffs of the genuine fictional man-eaters by rouge applying professionals. What Kaosayananda has made here is a two-tone, straight-forward, out-smart the dumb zombie breed of uninspired mirth, burdening the actresses to shoulder the story on looks alone rather than include emotional depth oppressed by the Z-factor.

Spend your vacation in a halcyon “Paradise Z” exclusively releasing on UK digital platforms come the new year on January 4th from the marginalized advocating distributor (Yet) Another Distribution Company. In regards to cinematography, presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Kaosayananda safely approaches most stories set in Thailand with a warm, yellowish glaze overtop the lush tropic vegetation, but, aside from a class I rapid stream the women decide to cool off in on a whim, without weapons and, basically, in their skivvies, outside the resort walls, there’s a limit to the Thai landscapes that doesn’t reach beyond the resort perimeter sufficing to just the surrounding allure rather than cutting in scenes of breath-taking grandeur. Kaosayananda occasionally reduces the frames per second to emphasize certain scenes with slow motion, such as with Gorum and Tatayanon’s topless make out session or when the two are back-to-back unloading an unlimited amount of ammo against a rushing horde with every shot being a fatal one; the silver lining here is the scene is at least aesthetically cool to watch. However, once again, Sylvia and Rose are given winning hands to play without as much showing their cards that work backwards their highly skilled background of arms fire. With the digital screener, there were no bonus material or bonus scenes included. No need to check the yelp reviews on holiday spot as “Paradise Z” is a four star resort with one star performances battling an underwhelming, minimum gory zombie contingent without dutifully jeopardizing survivors enough for the sake of gratefully being alive.

Money is the Root of All EVIL! “Beasts Clawing at Straws” reviewed! (Blu-ray / Artsploitation Films)

A middle-aged man working a meager job at a gentleman’s bathhouse finds a Louis Vuitton bag full of money when routinely checking the storage lockers at closing.  Unsure about what to do with the money, he stows the bag away in the backroom and continues a moral, yet pauper’s, life while dealing with financial and family troubles at home.  Meanwhile, a border customs agent finds himself in severe debt with an unstable loan shark after his girlfriend skates and disappears with a large borrowed sum.  With a week to come up with the money, plus interest, he calls upon his distant cousin to assist in scamming a scammer who illegally came into some money, but things go awry when an overly friendly and clingy cop begins to snoop around.  Lastly, a prostitute grinds tirelessly to work off a large debt her abusive husband continues to blame her for with night after night beatings.  She jumps into bed with a young, handsome foreigner and her eager to support female boss to off her husband and collect the insurance money.  Yet, these troubled souls find that sticking to their convictions doesn’t always bode well as the unexpected happens in a blink of an eye.

The Asian film machine has mastered the art of the crime thriller from a proven track record that began with Akira Kurosawa films, if not even before that, and has chronically grown stronger, and sometimes more peculiar, with choice stylistic elements, suggestive themes, and extreme violence that has garnered, to much disdain, Westerner attention over the last 20 years with films like Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Internal Affairs” being Americanized with a Hollywood remake.  With that being said in an upward trend of remakes spilling over the edge, there would be no eye-brow raising surprise if the introductory film, the tri-narrative crime drama idiomatically titled “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” from South Korean filmmaker, Kim Yong-hoon, will one day grace the English silver screens in a diluted variation of a Brad Pitt featured carbon copy.  Based of the Keisuke Sone neo-noir novel of the same name, Kim Yong-hoon’s pulpy impression of against-the-wall misdeeds is dog-eat-dog dark comedy gold.  “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is produced by Jang Won-seok (“The Gangster, The Cop, and The Devil”) and is a production of Megabox Plus M films (“Zombie for Sale”) and B.A. Entertainment.

The three prong, greed-catapulting narrative converge characters separately at first and then string them linearly together when the picture becomes clearly what exactly each one of them is chasing, but every story is magnetized to a single focal point, a person under immense pressure, stress, and the malice forces that thirst for their humility, kinetically embarking on the bad choice choo-choo steaming toward the station of vary bad things.  Bae Seong-woo stars as a downtrodden Joong-man, a middle-aged man stuck in the rut of poverty with a geriatric, browbeating mother, a fatigued wife, and busting his rump in a dead end job.  Seong-woo combats himself as a man tight rope walking the thin line of ethic principles when opportunity knocks at his door, but his ill-timed strike to grab life by the balls blows up in his face in a farce of instant karma leaves him less than what he had before.  Then there’s a Tae-young, a comfortably Governmental positioned customs agent facing a different kind of hardship when his ex-girlfriend, Yeon-hee, disappears with a borrowed lump sum of a gangster’s money and he’s left on the fence.  “Illang:  The Wolf Brigade’s” Jung Woo-sung plays into the desperate stench of the superstitious and ambitious customs agent.  Slightly cradling the severity of the situation, Jung amply positions Tae-young’s dilemma that resembles spearfishing in a barrel and he’s the fish.  The last story follows the abused wife Mi-ran, played reservedly by Shin Hyun-bin as a desperate woman looking to bank her soon-to-be dead’s insurance money.  When Mi-ran is abetted by motive-dueling pair of instigators, she finds that paying her debt can be more severe than ever imagined.  While sitting back and basking in the stir-craziness of the leads’ turmoiled chaos, the best characters of the film are the supporting roles of Kim Jun-han as an intestine devouring, fanny-pack wearing henchman, Park Ji-hwan as Tae-young’s bumbling, but begrudgingly loyal distant cousin, and Jung Man-sik as a breezy mobster with a cherry, yet malevolent disposition.  Youn Yuh-jung, Jin Kyung, Jung Ga-ram, Bae Jin-wong, and Heo Dong-won round out the cast.

Non-linear yet interconnected in story, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” hawks a Tarantino layered thriller with colorful deplorables from all walks of life and luxuries.  Kim Yong-hoon nourishes the unbridled, free-for-all nature of diving into the murky, shark-infested waters uncaged and tethered with cuts of raw steaks dangling from the pelvis area in this two wrongs don’t equal a right account of mistrusting desperation and misguided optimism.  Kim’s style echoes the likes of the popular “Pulp Fiction” filmmaker along the lines of shooting techniques and a frank view of violence to tell the frantic clutching of hanging onto what is left of tattered lives and borrowed time while disavowing pure, unadulterated nihilism by at least giving characters a grain of hope.  With any non-linear, multiple moving part films, individual aspects tend to become lost in order for pacing and “Beasts Clawing at Straws” doesn’t fall into the excluded category as factors that play into the main quandary are left hanging, such as in Yeon-hee’s circumstantial results of jetting off with a mobster’s money as the assumption is there, but nothing is fully concrete in her storyline.  The same indiscernible spousal battery stemmed from Mi-ran and her husband’s severe debt that leads to transgressions beyond marital misuse isn’t privy to the audience of how circumstances come about surrounding their predicament and we’re forced to speculate and shoulder an explanation that doesn’t quite feel justified.  However, neither of the slapdash developments hinder “Beast Clawing for Straws’” steamrolling posture to get that desirable bag full of problem-solving, filthy lucre. 

Artsploitation Films delivers a stylish and avaricious South Korea crime drama with “Beasts Clawing for Straws” into the U.S. Blu-ray home video market. The not rated BD25, high-definition 1080p release is presented in a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and nears the epitome of flawless. Aside from the picture slightly flickering, more noticeably on solid colored backdrops, the hue palette is absolutely gorgeous with the neon lights of South Korean cities, the breathtaking silhouettes of the natural mountains adjacent to a lifelessly still lake, and the variety of settings from an airy fish house to a modern, symmetrically designed bordello denote a keen eye by Kim Tao-sung. The South Korean language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound couldn’t be any better with a crystal clear aptitude for strong dialogue balanced in front of a robust soundtrack accompanied by deep range of ambience from fire crackling to the faint hint of rain drops audible from inside a restaurant, solidifying the depth package as well. English subtitles are available along with an English dub track in a dual channel Dolby stereo. What’s lacking with this release is bonus material as there is virtually nothing besides four Artsploitation trailers and the film’s own theatrical trailer. Parlous and deadpan funny, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” amazes as Kim Yong-hoon’s first time effort with the technical grace and the story construction that has been a paradigm for only a handful of notable directors able to execute an impeccable result.

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This Dinner Party Dishes the EVIL! “Happy Times” reviewed! (Artsploitation Films / Digital Screener)

A small, but affluent, Los Angeles Jewish community dine together at a Hollywood mansion in celebration of the Shabbat.  Mixed feelings about each other compounded with mixed drinks stir the emotions of heated topics, including business ventures, religious attitudes, social statuses, marital qualms, and hidden desires.  Lines are being drawn and sides are being taken when one thing leads to another and undisclosed secrets become evident in a clash of suburban violence that pits friend versus friend, colleague versus colleague, and husband versus wife to the death. 

Director Michael Mayer reminds us that you should never mix business with pleasure with a keep your friends close, but your enemies closer black comedy entitled “Happy Times.”  The brawl of survival centered around Israel immigrants living in the U.S. is the second written and directed film from Mayer, following polar oppositely against another Israel themed, 2012 picture, “Out in the Dark,” a gay drama in the backdrop of the two rival and patriarchal sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The only conflict in this 2019 thriller-com is of the gravely plentiful and concentrated kind inside a L.A. mansion turned battle arena that sees about as much confrontation as the war-torn Gaza strip.  Co-written with Guy Ayal, “Happy Times” is a collaboration produced by Erri De Luca and Paola Porrini Bisson of OH!PEN and, the Israeli born, Gabrielle and Tomer Almagor’s Urban Tales Productions in association with Michael Mayer’s own company, M7200 Productions.

The Israel-nationality cast can be an immersive experience and a sign of good faith casting from the filmmakers as well as a show of open diversity from the production studios that casting Hebrew speaking, Israel background actors implies a serious interest and respect embroidered into the project. Mayer, born in Haifa, Israel himself, is a breath of a fresh air of non-appropriation in a time where whitewashing can still be prevalent in the movie industry. Israel born actresses Shani Atias, Liraz Chamami, and Iris Bahr command the screen not only as Israeli women in lead roles, but as different personas that interact and keep lively the one night, single dinner party narrative. Chamani especially dazzles in the details as the dinner hosting socialite wife and mother, Sigal, who exacts an assertive Jewish woman with a cooped up attitude and a knack for handling her own while also worried about her social status, an extravagant exhibition of a screen trope that you might experience on shows like “The Marvelous Ms. Maisel” or movies like “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” enacted on point when she’s handing a frightened dinner guest, outside their Jewish circle and fleeing from the scene, tin foil wrapped leftovers with a wide menacingly unsure smile, while holding a medieval crossbow to go frag another party guest, in the plain view driveway. The wives’ counterparts are equally as Jewish and equally as prominent in the fold of the affair with Ido Mor as a unscrupulous businessman co-hosting the dinner, Guy Adler as a construction manager with money problems, and Alon Pdut as an unhappily married Ph.D engineer bothered by his fellow dinner guests’ lack of education and tact. In all, most of the characters are undilutedly snobbish with the exception of Sigal’s struggling actor cousin, Michael, played by Michael Aloni, whose magnified Hollywood liberalism deconstructs the Hebrew bible as racist and inaccurate among other colorful adjectives and becomes the catalyst that begins all hell breaking loose. Stéfi Celma, Mike Burstyn, Daniel Lavid, and Sophie Santi become the filament around the principle leads that strengthen the kill or be killed melee in “Happy Times.”

As if dinner parties weren’t already stressful enough, having to make trivial small talk, possibly acquaint or re-acquaint with unaccustomed faces, or pretend to enjoy the slop being served as food, “Happy Times” turns the internally exasperating dinner party debacle on its head with guests and hosts who are just too terribly comfortable with each other as volatile personalities explode like little active volcanos plumed to reach every corner of the house in a deadly playground for unstable, on-edge adults spewing their strident emotions and Mayer is able to maintain a layered pace with a narrative that’s snowballing quickly.  Where “Happy Times” struggles is the redline occurrences that trigger things to go very badly.  Though hardly trivial episodes between the guests, involving innocent infidelity affections or a slight practical joke stretched beyond devastating consequences, the harried moments afterwards diverge into a blown out result while more nefarious consequential revelations are held back, in after the fact chaos, and these differently graded spurs seem unbalanced, if not flip-flopped, in the story.  The characters themselves adequately course into being delightfully insane and as about as relatable as the internal frustration against our friendly-façade enemies, but there’s a part of me that personally wanted more development.  Military vet Avner, for example, exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the horror sounds of war play in his head when under stress.  As he stares into oblivion when the rage fills into his face, especially by a nagging, browbeating wife who doesn’t seem to be aware of his condition, the subconscious killing-machine overcomes the mild-manner tech engineer.  There’s also Yossi’s opaque tax evasion scheme, Michael’s thespian struggles, and Mati, the late arriving Rabbi, who pockets money on the side from Yossi and Sigal that factor into an erratic equation that’s a mind field surprise every step of the way.

“Happy Times” relishes in unpredictable violence as a round table of feast or famine hatred in this dog-eat-dog thriller coming to you from the Philadelphia based distributor, Artsploitation Films. Slated for a February 9th, 2021 release, the unrated film will be presented in a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, in a gorgeously rich color of a modest, natural color scheme. Kazakhstani cinematographer, Ziv Berkovich, distills a solid, yet uninspiring, photography of mostly still cam mixed with subtle steady cam, rooting firmly to particular rooms without capturing the flow of a big mansion, reducing much of the in clover luxuries of the hosts. The Hebrew, English and some Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mix offers well balanced layers of audio tracks with dialogue clarity and establishing good range with depth not really set up because of the close up or medium shot frames. Guy Aya;’s score offers a good blend of a violin-screeching from a murder mystery dinner theater with the inklings of traditional Israel folk sprinkled in to create an anxiety riddled brew of trouble. There were no bonus material included with the digital screener nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. The best of times and the worst of times doesn’t compare to the bloodletting of “Happy Times” in a wildly amusing dark comedy with every impulsive-driven and tension-wrought scene chockfull with bated breath.

Pre-order “Happy Times” on DVD or Blu-ray at Amazom.com (Click the poster)