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By Vernor Rodgers
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"THE DAWN"
I am a grizzled old movie fan who recalls the way low-budget films -- often affectionately known as B movies -- were marketed. The prevailing strategy was to book these movies into theaters as the second of a double feature, teamed up with a better financed movie to give it some exposure before farming it out to the badlands of late-night television. In the final days of the drive-in theaters, sometimes three B movies would be offered on a bill as a nice cheap evening of a triple feature for one low price.

As the home video market took off, there was a new fate for these movies, the good old straight-to-video racket. Finance the movie but just have it mass produced as a home-market product with the other cash flow coming from sale to the pay-TV realm.

In those days, the low-budget movie looked very cheap indeed with inappropriate shooting locations, bad cinematography, bad scripts and cast with a seemingly endless supply of the much-maligned but underappreciated struggling actors and actresses.

As I have noted before, thanks to technology and the continued creativity and resourcefulness of many people, low-budget movies these days look great. And there are many of us aficionados of film who applaud these indie efforts that are bucking the trend of the mainstream film industry and putting out cutting-edge movies that may not garner mass appeal but do draw appreciative audiences.

The past couple of months I have taken a look at two indie projects that are worthy of a look -- Jason Lee's Western "Badland," which drew a respected cast of Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern, Amanda Wyss, Jeff Fahey and Tony Todd; and the remake of David Cronenberg's "Rabid," directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska ("American Mary").

Brandon Slagle is an indie director who doesn't seem to slow down. His acting credits date back to 2005 (he appeared on an episode of Sesame Street) and he also has been directing shorts and feature-length movies since that time.

His movies have explored notorious crimes ("The Black Dahlia Haunting," "House of Manson"), delved into action thrillers ("Escape from Ensenada") and science fiction ("Crossbreed," which recently was nominated by Film Threat as Best Indie SciFi)

In recent weeks his horror film, "The Dawn," got a limited release in theaters throughout the country in conjunction with an availability of various VOD platforms.

Slagle also writes the screenplays to his movies, and with "The Dawn" he collaborated with Elliot Diviney on the script.

"The Dawn" is the story of Rose, who as a teen (played by Teilor Grubbs) is the only survivor of a horrifying tragedy perpetrated by her father William (Jonathan Bennett), a World War I vet and obviously a very disturbed individual. Young Rose is sent to a convent, as she has nowhere else to go.

A decade passes and Rose (now played by Devanny Pinn) is still at the convent but hesitating in taking the final steps to become a nun. She is plagued with bad dreams, or are they? It seems the same inner demons that haunted her father have tagged along with her.

Even the convent, a massive and intimidating structure, exudes an ambience of dread.

A fellow sister, Sister Ella (Stacy Dash) is one who voices concerns about Rose, who can appear docile but seems on the edge of going crazy.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah (Ryan Kiser, who played Charles Manson in "House of Manson") is an enigmatic fellow who seems to hold some unnamed position at the convent but comes off as the creepy janitor or maintenance worker who appears to have some sinister agenda.

Pinn, who was chilling as Susan Atkins in "House of Manson," delivers Rose in a wrenching way, young and haunted, her faith being challenged as she is stalked by some real or imagined terror even as she should have sanctuary with the walls of such a sacred place as a convent.

The "dawn" referred to in the title is brought forth at the end with a tie-in that I thought was really cool.

"The Dawn" is a moody film and for the most part is more atmospheric as it explores the good vs. evil aspect of life on Earth and in the spiritual world.

As is the case in indie films, sometimes people involved in the movie have to wear two hats. Both Kiser and Pinn served as producers for "The Dawn." And Slagle does appreciate talent and gives it a chance to develop. Julie Rose, who worked with Slagle in "House of Manson," playing Leslie Van Houten, has a small but tragic role as Rose's mother Frances, desperately trying to embrace faith and keep her family together even as she helplessly sees her husband falling to pieces.

The cinematography by David M. Brewer and Lance Rand is superb. For a holy place, this convent was cold and that was captured well as part of the film's dark and foreboding mood.

Some reviews in IMBD have blasted "The Dawn," claiming bad acting. Say what? That is an assessment that is easily made by people who never have tried acting. What was demanded of Pinn in her role was not easy and had to be exhausting. The acting in this movie was fine (and yes, I have seen some wooden acting in indie films, but not here).

"The Dawn" will be released on DVD Feb. 25.

"THE DAWN" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/HcjnDIhBWFI

 

"THE GENTLEMEN"
Coming off his box-office hit "Aladdin," after the flop of "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," director-writer Guy Ritchie returns to the crime drama/comedy genre -- he helmed "Snatch" and Rocknrolla" -- with "The Gentlemen," and it is a delight.

Although Matthew McConaughey is top-billed in this movie, he really does not get as much screen time as co-stars Charlie Hunnam and Hugh Grant.

The movie flows along mostly in flashbacks when Grant as unscrupulous private detective Fletcher pays a visit to the home of Hunnam's Ray, who is McConaughey's character Michael Pearson's right-hand man.

Pearson is a man who rose in the drug world and now is one of England's top producers-distributors of marijuana. Pearson can be vicious but takes pride in noting that his product does not lead to deaths that can occur with heroin. With marijuana about to become legal and with Pearson wanting to have time to spend with his wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), he is on the verge of finalizing a sale of his business to the wealthy Matthew (Jeremy Strong).

But Fletcher has been nosing around and his visit to Ray is strictly to extort a couple of million pounds or else he will deliver some damaging goods to Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) the publisher of a big tabloid.

So Fletcher reveals what he has uncovered with all the expected twists and turns and double-crosses and perils that go with the territory in crime. There are colorful characters like Dry Eye (Henry Golding), Lord George (Tom Wu), Phuc (Jason Wong) -- the way his name is mangled by others in this movie is hilarious -- and Coach (Colin Farrell).

McConaughey is cool and collected as Pearson, and when Ray doesn't seem to get perturbed as Fletcher reveals what he knows, it is easy to suspect Ray and Pearson have some cards up their sleeves.

"The Gentlemen" challenges the viewer to pay attention and then lets you in on the little things you should have noted. The humor is dark and the plot rolls along piling on bit by bit the ingredients for a great crime caper. At least the viewer, unlike the characters in the movie, doesn't have to pay exorbitant life insurance premiums because of the high mortality factor in this risky law-breaking business.

"THE GENTLMEN" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/2B0RpUGss2c

 

"UNDERWATER"
Light on character development but heavy on suspense and terror, "Underwater" fits into the horror genre of horror that suggests if humans go to places where they probably shouldn't, the results can be understandably devastating.

Kristen Stewart as Nora heads a small cast of a half-dozen people in a deep-water research facility that is rocked by what feels like an earthquake. Their means of a quick evacuation decimated, these people, led by Captain (Vincent Cassel), must leave the protection of the now compromised facility and trek along the ocean floor that is some 6 miles beneath the surface to another structure where some escape pods are located. Dealing with limited oxygen supply, claustrophobic conditions, murky and mysterious water and God knows what else, the crew encounters the usual problems and then realize to their horror that lurking in these deep waters can be some truly horrifying and deadly forces.

"Underwater" is basically a body-count horror movie, as the audience tries to guess who will make it and who won't and who will be the heroes when the clinch time comes.

The production crew, under the direction of William Eubank, deserves kudos for the sets and creating a stunning experience of menacing deep-water challenges.

"UNDERWATER" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/jCFWEzIVILc

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