A Day Spent With Killers, Lovers, and a Grim True Story From the World of Porn (Cinepocalypse)

Cinepocalypse 2019 celebrated its opening night with the world premiere of Glenn Danzig’s Verotika, and while the response has been — let’s go with special — that’s part of the charm of genre film festivals. You’re seeing movies the general populace never will, and while they may not all be winners the odds favor hidden gems, early access to brilliance, and lots of unexpected fun.

The first full day of the festival saw five new films play in addition to a repertory screening of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners (1990) and GWAR band members roasting 1987’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. I didn’t catch the Polish period adventure The Mute, but here’s my review of the fantastically dark Belzebuth, and keep reading for looks at Punta Muerto (aka Dead End), Villains, and Mope.

A writers conference for successful authors and those hoping to break into the mystery field becomes a home to murder when novelist Luis Penafiel (Osmar Núñez) discovers a slaughtered corpse in his hotel bathtub. The trip had already been a bumpy one as his latest thriller — a “locked room” mystery involving a body found in a room with the door and windows locked from the inside and no other means of escape — is still without an ending. He meets a younger writer (Rodrigo Guirao Díaz) who happens to have a killer ending in need of a story, and they’re brought together by a literary critic (Luciano Cáceres) prone to tearing into genre fare with abandon. The corpse is in Luis’ locked room, the details match the ones from his own story, and he has no recollection of committing murder, but if he didn’t do it… who did?

Writer/director Daniel de la Vega delivers a love letter of sorts to mystery films of the 40s with the attractively photographed, black & white Punta Muerto about creative sorts trying to solve a mystery of their own design. The answer eluded them on the page, but with a real body before them and a murderer on the loose the pressure seems motive enough to find an explanation. Performances are somewhat heightened to match the film’s stylized presentation, and the result is a showy little exercise that can’t quite rise to the level of feature entertainment.

As mentioned, the cinematography (by Alejandro Giuliani) is appealing and brings the old-fashioned production design and presentation to appealing life, and the score by Luciano Onetti gives the proceedings a slightly bigger feel than it probably deserves. The film runs a mere 77-minutes, but rather than fly by the duration and content come to feel like a short film that’s been stretched for artificial purposes.

The core of the tale, both for the characters and viewers, is the mystery of the locked room killing, and the emphasis places an extraordinary amount of weight on the details of the outcome. Unfortunately, though, the script isn’t quite smart enough to pay off the setup. It reaches its conclusion, in part, by neglecting to provide certain information, and while it’s hardly a cheat the end result still feels like something of a letdown because of it. A mystery that can’t possibly be solved by viewers is one lacking in fun and fairness. The film also sees some theories come to life via imagined dramatizations involving Luis’ creation, The Wraith, but the sequences feel more like play-acting than scenes designed to excite and thrill.

Punta Muerta is ultimately an exercise in style that may appeal to some but seems destined to leave most viewers unmoved. Fans of the period mysteries should give it a chance.

Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are young, in love, and none too bright when it comes to planning for their future. They expect to head a profitable Florida business selling seashells by the seashore, but getting there is proving a bit difficult. They leave a convenient store robbery with cash money in hand, but when their car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere they’re forced to break into the nearest house in search of other options. The return of the homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgewick) complicates matters, as does the discovery of a little girl chained up in the basement.

Villains is a black comedy that leans a bit heavier toward the latter half of that equation while delivering some laughs and ridiculously grim situations. Writers/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen pair two couple against each other, each with their own foibles and eccentricities, and the result is a goofy back and forth that sees the foursome trading quips and blows in equal measure. It’s almost like dropping True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama into Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs?

Berk and Olsen offer up some energetic directorial beats that help keep the film visually alive and stimulating without being over the top, but their script is a bit more of a mixed bag. Our main couple, the lightly villainous Mickey and Jules, are crooks with hearts of gold making them eminently likable even as they rob stores and break into houses, but they’re written like criminals straight out of Fargo meaning they’re far from the brightest bulbs in the drawer. That’s good for the laughs, but it makes for less affecting protagonists as they’re just a bit too stupid to really care about.

That said, Skarsgård and Monroe are good enough here to almost eliminate that concern. Both are playful and lively and reveling in their devotion to each other, and they make for a compulsively charming couple far from suited for lives of crime. Skarsgård delivers many of the film’s laughs, and Monroe gives an active and vibrant turn as a young woman who values love and loyalty. Donovan and Sedgewick are less lovable but equally delightful with the former offering a display a restrained menace and the latter playing batshit crazy.

Villains is a fast, fun, and occasionally twisted watch, and while it won’t necessarily stick with you it’ll keep you entertained in the short term which is still more than a lot of movies can claim.

Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) meet on the set of a bukkake shoot — both are participants with a dozen other men in showering a nude woman with their sticky business — and quickly bond over shared interests in specific porn films, video games, and a particular ambition. Both men want to be porn stars, and while they recognize the uphill battle in front of them it’s a mountain they’re determined to climb (and fuck) their way up. They take a job as “mopes” with a no-name porn label and start working the gigs other male performers don’t want including being kicked in the balls, being urinated on, and worse, but as the degrading days tick by their dream seems to move further and further away. It’s a realization that leads to tragedy.

Mope is based on a true story, and co-writer/director Lucas Heyne pulls a bit of a fast one in the tone of his telling. The film starts as something of a goofy buddy comedy as these two silly dreamers come together and make grand plans for an impossible future, but the laughs fade as two things become abundantly clear to viewers — these guys will never find success, and for one of them the drive masquerading as ambition and purpose is being fueled by mental illness. It’s a depressing realization that only grows more bleak as the film moves forward towards its inevitable end.

The film’s biggest strength is Stewart-Jarrett as he delivers a compelling performance that’s as sad as it is disturbing. Steve is a man in crisis, and while no one recognizes it the people around him are unknowingly working to encourage and poke the sickness. Stewart-Jarrett makes Steve a tragic figure, but while we fear for his impending collapse we’re equally fearful of the man himself. He becomes a clear threat, and it leads to some unnerving and tense sequences and uncomfortable viewing. There’s power on the page, but it’s most intense in his eyes and expressions. The cast is good, including an over the top David Arquette as a porn director, but it’s great seeing a strong turn by 80s stalwart Clayton Rohner (Just One of the Guys, 1985; I, Madman, 1989) as Steve’s distressed and disheartened father.

As devastating as Steve’s situation and Stewart-Jarrett’s performance are, though, the film surrounding them can’t live up to their level. It seems more content reveling in “comedic” confrontations and situations instead of exploring the struggles and pressures of an industry built on selling explicit sex to the lowest bidders. Similarly, while a critique of the dangers of toxic masculinity is within easy reach the film once again ignores the topic in favor of earning oohs and ahs from explicit imagery and chatter. It’s a frequently disgusting movie, and while it’s sometimes designed that way for cheap effect it also lets the atmosphere sit there without comment. There’s a lot to explore in the working side of porn in general and in the specifics of this real case, but the film rarely feels confident enough to tackle much of it.

Mope is a bleak, depressing, and ugly tale of unchecked madness, but while it’s headlined by a powerful lead performance the film itself can’t match its intensity or power.

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" Rob Hunter : @FakeRobHunter "Rob is great. He likes movies. He writes about them. And he's a good person."."