Off the Menu

Sophia asking Joel an awkward question for the 2,437th time.

Adding financial issues to an emotional family disagreement is asking for trouble, which is why family businesses can be such tricky things sometimes. Just ask siblings Joel (Santino Fontana) and Stacey (Kristen Dalton, Jack Reacher) in Off the Menu, whose family business is the popular fast-food chain Tortilla Hut.
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Movie poster. Nothing like this is in the movie, however.

Like a lot of people, I kind of hope there are aliens out there somewhere that we might meet someday. Of course, considering how the movies usually portray meetings with aliens I might be ridiculously naive for wishing that, since all aliens on film are incredibly strong, determined to invade Earth, and possessed of highly advanced technology that makes it easy for them to wipe us out, or at least come very close before we unleash the common cold and they all die. In Battalion, though, it looks like the common cold isn’t any help this time.

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The family that's forced to use one small bathroom together, stays together.

Herbert Schumacher (Nick Nerangis) hasn’t had an easy time of things these last few months. He’s been in the hospital in his small town, dying of a fast-growing brain tumor, while his son Lonnie (Darren Barzegar) and wife Evelyn (Connie Lamothe) wait anxiously for the worst to happen. The anxiety perhaps isn’t for the reason you think — Herbert is a notorious miser who’s always forced his family to live as cheaply as possible, so they’re not entirely upset at the prospect of life without him.

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Theo wakes screaming. Those nightmares about having missed class are the worst.

Long ago, in the wake of a deadly duel, a family was cursed through the generations. Though innocent of any wrongdoing, it was daughter Theodosia (Kristin Mitchem) who faced the worst of the curse, struggling to protect her young son. She finally consults a mysterious seer (Emily Lapisardi) who says that the curse cannot be broken, but perhaps it can also become a blessing. Casting a spell upon Theodora’s locket, she says that it is now an object of great power and returns it to Theodora, also advising her to change her son’s name and hide him away.

In the present, descendant and lookalike Theo Burton faces more ordinary problems. Her father has recently passed away, and though they were divorced her mother (Sherri Knapp) isn’t taking it well. Theo also has one more year of college to complete, and while Professor Daniels (Jeff Little) is happy to give her extra credit she isn’t too thrilled with the idea since it involves letting him sexually harass her. Theo’s friends Blythe (Mandi Bolyard) and Winter (Philip Morris) are supportive of her in this unpleasant situation, while Kelley (Toni Marie Perry) suggests blackmail. This, we will see, is typical of how Kelley’s mind works.

But other things are going wrong as well, like the strange dreams that Theo is having which seem to mimic real life. Also, her neighbor Missy (Maria Olsen) is convinced that Theo is a witch from a family of witches and isn’t afraid to say so very loudly. Beginning to wonder if there might be some truth to Missy’s accusation, Theo consults her cousin Angus (Zeilo Vogta, who also wrote the script), who hints at old family stories regarding curses and the locket. And it does seem as though the Burton men in particular tend to die young. Only Uncle Jason (Bob Butler) is still around to give Theo some family keepsakes, among them the locket.

While Theo doesn’t quite know what to make of any of this, frenemy Kelley has plenty of ideas and isn’t afraid to break all the rules in order to further her own schemes. When she tries to tap into the power of the curse, she risks all hell breaking loose — perhaps literally — but all she cares about is getting what she wants, from supernatural abilities to worldly riches, and a little thing like a curse doesn’t scare her. But power isn’t always easy to control, and when the dust settles lives will have changed — or even ended.

The historical scenes felt off to me — though granted I’m fussy about historical settings — and also a bit rushed, but the film hits its stride once the background is set up and the action enters the modern day. The mystery unravels gradually and convincingly, and Theo’s frustration over all the people (read: men) trying to protect her by hiding the facts from her is particularly realistic. Yes, everyone needs help sometimes, but “help” generally shouldn’t involve lying or concealment of useful information.

Maria Olsen naturally steals all her scenes and gives unexpected depth to a relatively minor character, though many of the other lesser roles are unfortunately neglected. It’s still worth four out of five, however — it’s an ambitious undertaking for an indie film but it largely succeeds, offering some interesting ideas and and more cohesive internal logic than many horror movies. Theo’s character is also given a wonderful arc, showing her journey from an uncertain, often lost student to a capable young woman ready to live the life she wants, even if she has to fight all the curses in the world — with a little help from her loyal friends.

Released from Love

The latest delectable dish. Makes you hungry, doesn't it?

There’s an old saying about how some people eat to live, while others live to eat. And it’s true that some people will never be foodies — for me, food is really just the necessary fuel to keep me going so I can write more movie reviews. Yes, it’s nice to have a particularly well-prepared meal sometimes or indulge in a luscious piece of cheesecake, but that’s hardly a requirement. For others, though, truly good food is far more necessary, and the act of sitting down with a loved one to share a meal is a vital ritual.

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Paura Tutto

Future victim. He's blissfully unaware that his tape player is about to break.

It’s so common for horror films to be set in high schools — featuring teenagers, or at least 20-somethings we can reasonably pretend are teens — that we hardly even think about it anymore, but the fact is that once we’re out of it, we tend to associate our school days with nostalgic innocence and the slow process of growing up. Of course, once you throw in a serial slasher the growing up has to happen immediately, as in the short film Paura Tutto, where one group of 1980s high school kids discovers that they may not have much chance to grow up otherwise.

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Hectic Knife

Hectic Knife in a rare moment of quiet before his next killing spree.

In a nameless, crime-ridden big city, one vigilante struggles to keep the peace by killing nearly everyone he meets. I suppose fewer people equals less crime, even if not necessarily per capita, but it still doesn’t seem very efficient, especially since he’s killing everyone with knives. But since said vigilante’s name is Hectic Knife (Peter Litvin) — and it really is, that’s what he was christened — it might seem awkward if he used a gun. you may have already guessed, but Hectic Knife is the latest from Troma Entertainment, creators of the cult classic Toxic Avenger.
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Created Equal

Tommy being yelled at by his boss, wishing he was anywhere but there.

These days it’s a lot more plausible for little girls to dream big when they’re thinking of their careers. Of course they won’t all get to be astronauts or Olympic gold medalists, but it’s all right for them to think big and hopefully not take too much teasing for it. These days you can even find female movie reviewers like me. But there are still a few career paths out there that aren’t open to women no matter what, and the film Created Equal tackles one such path: becoming a Catholic priest.

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Because Reasons

Tiffany and Buddy Boo, living on the edge.

Living in a small town or out in the country can be dull for a lot of people. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and all my friends and I talked about was getting a car and a driver’s license so we could actually get places without parental intervention. I didn’t mind it, I liked the peace and quiet, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Take Tiffany (Krista West), for example, in the short Because Reasons. She’s so bored out of her mind that a killing spree doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

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Whatever It Takes

Robert and Alicia have lunch. Better enjoy the quiet moments while you can.

There are plenty of stories about ‘paying your dues’ to succeed in Hollywood — they’re as old as the movies themselves — and while some are genuinely funny or just odd, all too many of them are really stories of the casting couch and what women have to do to succeed. Whatever It Takes follows the journey Alicia (Robbie Barnes, Beyond Repair) takes through the City of Angels — in this case a misnomer if ever there was one — as she struggles for the fame she’s always craved.

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