Review: ‘Phobias’ (2021), starring Leonardo Nam, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Lauren Miller Rogen, Macy Gray and Ross Partridge

June 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Leonardo Nam and Martina García in “Phobias” (Photo by Vertical Entertainment)

“Phobias” (2021)

Directed by Camilla Belle, Maritte Lee Go, Chris von Hoffmann, Joe Sill and Jess Varley

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the horror anthology movie “Phobias” features a predominantly white cast characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Five people with five different phobias are held captive by a mad scientist who does experiments on them, with the goal to create an invention that will make their phobias come to life.

Culture Audience: “Phobias” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching low-budget horror flicks that are plagued by substandard screenwriting, mediocre-to-bad acting and very derivative scare gimmicks.

Lauren Miller Rogen and Mackenzie Brooke Smith in “Phobias” (Photo by Vertical

The ambitious concept of the horror flick “Phobias” is so terribly mishandled that the end result is a movie that relies on boring and over-used clichés. The movie’s tone and acting are uneven. The screenwriting is sloppy. “Phobias” has an anthology format, with five different stories by five different directors, all clumsily tied together with a common theme: Five different people with five different phobias are kidnapped by a mad scientist who experiments on his victims so that he can create an invention that will manifest their phobias. The anthology is told in six chapters: “Robophobia,” “Outpost 37,” “Vehophobia,” “Ephebiaphobia,” “Hoplophobia” and “Atelophobia.”

“Robophobia” (written and directed Joe Sill) is the first story in the anthology, and it’s the one that’s filmed the best—although that’s not saying much because nothing in this movie rises above the level of predictable and mediocre. Robophobia is the fear of robots, drones, artificial intelligence and any robot-like machine. Set in Los Angeles, “Robophobia” focuses on a lonely bachelor named Johnny (played by Leonardo Nam), who lives in a small, cluttered dingy apartment with his wheelchair-bound, widowed father Jung-Soo (played by Steve Park), who wears an oxygen tube for his breathing problems.

The movie doesn’t go into details about what Johnny does for a living, but he’s a computer nerd and he’s financially struggling. Johnny doesn’t have a social life either, since there’s no indication that he has any friends. One night, after buying some computer supplies that he can barely pay for at an independently owned electronics store, Johnny (who is minding his own business) is bullied by about three or four random thugs on the street.

The leader of this group is a racist scumbag named Dirk (played by Micah Hauptman), who threatens Johnny by saying, “Look at me again at me the way you did inside of there [the store], and I’ll knock your fucking lights out, China boy.” Johnny replies, “I’m Korean.” Dirk snarls back, “Same fucking thing to me.” Johnny avoids getting into a fight by quickly riding off on his bike, but Dirk and his goons catch up to Johnny and beat him up.

At home, Johnny doesn’t tell his father how he’s gotten the injuries, and he refuses to get medical treatment or file a police report. Not long after getting assaulted, Johnny starts getting mysterious text messages on his computer from a someone or something that seems to know everything about Johnny’s life, including what he’s doing at that exact moment. The mystery messenger knows facts, such as Johnny has a sick father, what Johnny is currently wearing, and how much money is in Johnny’s bank account.

The mystery messenger asks if Johnny wants a friend. Johnny is intrigued but also paranoid. It isn’t long before the mystery messenger starts speaking to Johnny in an eerie computer voice on Johnny computer and on his phone. The voice says to Johnny about Johnny’s unhappy life: “I can help, but I need your help.” Johnny asks, “To do what?” The voice replies, “To stop bad things. I want to be part of your world, the real world, to see what you see.”

Johnny soon finds out what this mysterious force behind the voice is capable of doing. A neighbor named Mr. Romero (played by Gerardo de Pablos), who lives on the same floor, has been very abusive to his wife. Johnny has witnessed some of this abuse. And then one night, Johnny hears a major ruckus and screaming coming from the Romeros’ apartment. Johnny sees that Mr. Romero has been burned to death, with his terrified wife (played by Katia Gomez) wailing over his charred body. It’s implied that Mr. Romero was set on fire, but not by his wife.

Viewers can easily predict what happens next. One night, while out on the street, Johnny is cornered again by Dirk and his gang of bullies. This time, Johnny is emboldened by his “friend” with the computer voice, which has told Johnny that Dirk’s father abused Dirk when Dirk was a child. Johnny figures out that this past abuse is the reason why Dirk has become a violent bully, and Johnny says that to Dirk’s face.

Dirk’s reaction confirms that what Johnny said is true. At first, Dirk is shocked that Johnny knows this personal information, and then Dirk gets very angry. Just as he’s about to beat up Johnny, something bizarre happens: An electrical entity seems to appear, and Dirk bursts into flames. Dirk’s fellow thugs run away in fear. Johnny (and this movie’s viewers) know that what caused this spontaneous combustion is the same force that’s uses the computer voice to talk to Johnny.

Although this mystery force has killed the “bad people” in Johnny’s orbit, the camaraderie between Johnny and this mystery force doesn’t last long. The mystery force tells Johnny that Johnny is torturing his sick father by letting him live instead of letting him die. Johnny vehemently disagrees and gets alarmed when the mystery force says that it wants to take the father.

What follows is a somewhat ludicrous chase scene in the apartment, where Johnny and his father try to get away from the mystery force, which has now manifested itself as a giant, shapeless electrical energy. After Johnny begs for mercy, the mystery forces says that it will let Johnny and his father live if Johnny follows this order: “Find me another.”

The movie abruptly shifts to the next chapter titled “Outpost 37” (written and directed by Jess Varley), which shows that Johnny and four other people have been kidnapped and are being held captive by a crazy scientist named Dr. Wright (played by Ross Partridge), who has made Johnny his most recent victim. Dr. Wright calls this prison Outpost 37, and the five people are in a section called Block 10, which looks like a combination of a dungeon, a psychiatric ward and a scientific lab.

Dr. Wright tells a terrified Johnny why and he the other “patients” have been kidnapped: Dr. Wright wants to target receptors in the brain to create a homemade cocktail that would allow Dr. Wright to extract fear into an easily controlled gas. The doctor wants to sell this gas as a neurological weapon to make him very rich.

Dr. Wright then introduces Johnny to the other four patients in the room, who are all women: defiant Sami, meek Emma, confused Alma and wacky Renee, who each has a different phobia. All of the woman are taken separately into a room where they are strapped to a chair and forced to wear an electrode headset to relive their phobias. And in case anyone has thoughts of escaping, Dr. Wright isn’t afraid to use his cane that can electrocute. The rest of the movie is a story about each of the four women’s phobias and how they got these fears.

“Vehophobia” (directed by Maritte Lee Go and written by Go and Broderick Engelhard) focuses on Sami’s fear of vehicles. Before she was kidnapped by Dr. Wright, Sami (played Hana Mae Lee) was a musician in a rock band, with her boyfriend Harry (played by Ash Stymest) as one of her band mates. A flashback shows that Harry broke up with Sami over something that happened that was Sami’s fault. It’s enough to say that someone died as a result of what Sami did.

Sami didn’t want the breakup to happen. Harry is so angry with her that he yells at her as he walks away, “You fucking used me!” He calls her “twisted” and a “crazy fucking bitch.” The heinous thing that Sami did is shown in the movie. And she is literally haunted by her decision. It’s not a very imaginative story and the scares are minimal.

“Ephebiphobia” (written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann) shows Emma’s fear of teenagers and other young people. Before she was kidnapped, Emma (played by Lauren Miller Rogen) was a seemingly mild-mannered, married teacher of high school students. But one night, three students from her high school commit a home invasion and torture her, for a reason that’s revealed in the movie.

The home invaders are all siblings: Blaire (played by Mackenzie Brooke Smith) is the ringleader, the eldest and most sadistic of the three; Grady (played by Joey Luthman) is a willing accomplice; and Isaac (played by Benjamin Stockham) is a reluctant accomplice and seems the most horrified by the mayhem that ensues. Unfortunately, “Ephebiphobia” is essentially a short film in serious need of more background information on the characters, in order for viewers to understand these characters more. As it stands, it’s just an empty story that shows a violent home invasion with a fairly implausible conclusion.

“Hopiophobia” (written and directed by Camilla Belle) is about Alma’s fear of guns and other firearms the story. Out of all the stories in the movie, this one is the least terrifying and the most predictable. Alma (played by Martina García) is a cop who accidentally commits an act that would be a cop’s worse nightmare. It’s easy to predict what that act is when it’s revelaed by the story’s title that this cop is now afraid of guns. “Hopiophobia” seems more like it belongs in a crime drama, not a horror movie.

“Atelophobia” (written and directed by Varley) depicts Renee’s fear of imperfection and not being good enough. It’s by far the most off-the-wall (and off-putting) of the movie’s six chapters. Renee (played by Macy Gray) works for her father’s architect firm and interviews a job candidate named Bill McNerney (played by Rushi Kota), who exaggerates his credentials.

Renee is a very strange person who wears black gloves. She also makes off-the-cuff remarks that are supposed to be goofy, but don’t fit the tone of the rest of the movie. And she invites Bill and two employees named Lia (played by Alexis Knapp) and Rose (played by Charlotte McKinney) to a dinner party that turns out to be deadly.

Gray, who has an image of being an eccentric artist in real life, is very miscast in the role of Renee, because Gray is not believable as an artichect executive. She’s very awkward in her scenes. In addition to miscasting the role of Renee, the biggest flaw of “Atelophobia” is its muddled message of why Renee now has this fear of imperfection.

“Phobias” makes the same mistake that a lot of other badly made horror movies make: It tries to make viewers think that gory violence is automatically scary. There’s more to terrifying an audience than just showing gruesome deaths. Otherwise, war movies with combat death scenes would be classified as horror movies. A good horror movie gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters and build suspense, rather than showing shallow snippets of the characters’ lives.

None of the acting is outstanding, although Nam and Miller Rogen make attempts to bring realistic depth to their characters. It’s a futile effort because all of the kidnapped characters in this movie have hollow personalities that are overshadowed by the horror that happens to them. Meanwhile, Partridge’s way of depicting Dr. Wright is almost like a parody of a mad scientist.

The concept of “Phobias” was promising, but the execution of that concept was poorly done. The movie somehwat rips off “Saw,” because all of the kidnapped characters were chosen so that they would be punished for the “sins” that they committed, with each punishment related in some way to each sin. The conclusion of “Phobias” is so ho-hum predictable that it makes “Phobias” the type of forgettable horror flick that will leave horror fans underwhelmed.

Vertical Entertainment released “Phobias” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 19, 2021.

Review: ‘The Argument,’ starring Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Fogler and Emma Bell in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Argument”

Directed by Robert Schwartzman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy “The Argument” features a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A playwright and his actress girlfriend, with the help of some of their friends and random strangers, recreate an argument that the couple had to determine who was correct in the argument.

Culture Audience: “The Argument” will primarily appeal to people who like over-the-top, fast-paced comedies with many unrealistic moments but enough wacky sensibilities to keep people watching to see how it all ends.

Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The absurdist romantic comedy “The Argument” will test the patience of many viewers who are looking for a more conventional way that love and relationships are depicted in the story’s plot. The movie suffers when the “repeat loop” part of the story is focused only on the six main characters. But “The Argument” is at its best during “casting session/script reading” scenes in the last third of the movie, when random strangers are introduced to the main characters and turn the movie into many laugh-out-loud moments that are sly commentaries about ego posturing and stereotypes in relationships.

Directed with a madcap pace by Robert Schwartzman and written by Zac Stanford, “The Argument” (which takes place in Los Angeles) centers on an artistic couple named Jack (played by Dan Fogler) and Lisa (played by Emma Bell), who live together in a modest Hollywood home. Jack is a playwright/screenwriter, and Lisa is an actress. They’ve been dating each other for three years.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Jack and Lisa met through a fairly obscure horror movie that Jack wrote called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Lisa had a small background role as a zombie in the movie. Jack’s most recent project is an independent play called “Wolfgang,” which has Lisa as the leading female role of Constanze, the wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play has a modern comedic tone to it, and it’s recently ended its run at a small theater. Based on the number of people in the audience for the last show, the play’s attendance was fairly good, but not great.

The biggest problem that Jack had with the play is how Lisa and the vain actor who was cast as Mozart seemed just a little too flirtatious with each on stage and off stage. The actor’s name is Paul (played by Tyler Christopher Williams), and Jack is jealous because Paul is younger and better-looking than Jack is. Jack’s suspicion that Lisa and Paul are sexually attracted to each other is a nagging thought that he’s kept to himself, but it later explodes in messy and uncomfortable ways in other parts of the story.

Now that the play is over, Jack thinks he and Lisa won’t have to deal with Paul anymore. After the last night of “Wolfgang,” Jack plans to have a small cocktail party at his and Lisa’s home. Jack has invited his and Lisa’s two closest friends—married couple Brett and Sarah—to celebrate.

Brett (played by Danny Pudi) is Jack’s eager-to-please literary agent. Sarah (played by Maggie Q) is an entertainment lawyer with an icy demeanor and a photographic memory. Jack has another intention for the party, which is pretty obvious in the message that he sends to Brett and Sarah: Jack is going to propose to Lisa.

When Sarah and Brett show up for the party, Brett is happy to be there, but Sarah seems very uninterested. She explains that she has to get up early in the morning because she has an important contract negotiation meeting the next day. Sarah was the attorney who negotiated the overseas rights to “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night,” but she’s frustrated that Jack hasn’t been a lucrative client for Brett.

Sarah blames Jack and Brett for Jack not being able to get much work as a writer. None of Jack’s screenplays has sold since “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Sarah thinks that Jack isn’t very talented and that Brett isn’t a great agent. By contrast, Brett is in awe of Jack and isn’t ready to give up on him so easily. At one point during the party, Brett gushes in Jack’s presence that Jack “isn’t just a great writer … he’s a genius.”

The party is interrupted by two guests whom Jack did not expect: Paul and his ditzy Australian girlfriend Trina (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who soon finds out that she’s not the only one who’s suspected that there’s been sexual tension between Paul and Lisa. Jack is very surprised to see Paul and Trina at his door, but he lets them in because he doesn’t want to be rude and because he finds out that Lisa invited them.

Jack takes Lisa aside for a private conversation in their dining room, and they briefly argue about Paul being at the party. (Observant viewers might notice that the dining room walls in the movie have posters of Schwartzman’s first two movies that he directed: 2016’s “Dreamland” and 2018’s “The Unicorn.”) Lisa insists that she told Jack in advance that Paul would be there. Jack is equally insistent that Lisa never told him, because if she had, he would’ve remembered. They reach a stalemate but agree that Paul might as well stay at the party.

As the party goes on, Jack gets more and more irritated because Lisa and Paul keep re-enacting flirtatious and sexually suggestive scenes from the play in front of everyone. Lisa and Paul think it’s hilarious, but Jack obviously doesn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah looks very bored, Brett tries to keep things friendly with everyone, and Trina starts drinking enough alcohol to get tipsy and overly talkative. Trina mentions that she and Paul (who has a day job as a fitness instructor) got together as a couple because she signed up for one of his fitness classes, in the hopes that he would notice her and want to date her.

It turns out that Trina is a big fan of “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night” and she actually remembers Lisa’s role in the film. Trina gushes like a fangirl about the movie, which endears her to Jack and Lisa. However, Paul continues to get on Jack’s nerves. When Jack serves a charcuterie board at the party, Paul says he can’t eat almost anything that’s served at the party because he’s a vegan and he’s on a strict diet for a fitness commercial that he’s about to film. Jack is also baking an apple pie, which he plans to serve as dessert.

As the night wears on, Paul and Trina grow more uncomfortable with Lisa and Paul’s flirtatious shenanigans in front of everyone. Jack starts rambling about Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival who was famously jealous of Mozart’s talent, fame and accolades. Lisa makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jack “isn’t really comfortable with the word ‘genius.'”

Jack interprets the comment to mean that Lisa doesn’t think that Jack isn’t very smart, so he shouts at her, “That’s not funny!” The argument between Jack and Lisa escalates to the point when Jack ends up taking the apple pie out of the oven and throws it on the ground. And the party abruptly ends.

The next morning, Jack and Lisa are in bed and they continue to argue about what happened the previous night. “I wish I could redo the whole night so you could see how wrong you are!” Lisa shouts. Jack says the same thing to her. And then they have an “aha” moment and decide to recreate the party and have the guests decide if Jack or Lisa was the one was in the wrong.

The middle section of “The Argument” is a little hard to take because of the shrill and annoying ways that the party is recreated. Because the movie makes it clear from the beginning that it’s an absurdist comedy, viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jack and Lisa’s party guests have nothing better to do with their time than go through with these ridiculous re-enactments. Trina shows up hung over, and she reluctantly agrees to get drunk again for every re-enactment. Jack even goes as far as preparing the same food over and over again every time they do a re-enactment.

Of course, the re-enactments don’t go smoothly because no one (except for Sarah, who has a photographic memory) can remember exactly how they acted and what they said the first time the party happened. Because everyone goes “off-script” at one point or another, it leads to more tension and arguments.

Sarah’s jaded attitude becomes even more apparent when Trina says being an entertainment lawyer must be glamorous, and Sarah’s deadpan response is, “It’s just a job. I don’t even like movies.” Eventually, Sarah gets fed up with the re-enactments and leaves.

“The Argument” finally starts to improve in the last third of the movie, when the party guests find out that Jack has put an ad on Craiglist to get actors (whose character names are not revealed in the movie) to come to his and Lisa’s home and to portray the party guests during these re-enactments, with the original party guests (except for Sarah) in attendance. Jack has even written a script, which is heavily skewed with his biased perspective.

The actors who answered the Craigslist ad have been told that it’s supposed to be an audition/read-through, with Jack being the one to decide who will play which role. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jack casts the best-looking “hunky” guy of the auditionees to portray Jack, who’s written as the hero of the story. (The role of Actor Jack is played by Mark Ryder.)

Actor Trina is an ultra-liberal, ultra-politically correct African American activist (played by Marielle Scott), who over-exaggerates and bungles the real Trina’s Australian accent, which offends Trina. Actor Lisa (played by Charlotte McKinney) is a big-breasted blonde who has her bikini photos on hand, while Lisa is offended that Jack wants a “bimbo” to portray her.

Actor Brett (played by Karan Brar) pretty much agrees with everyone, while the real Brett is offended that he’s being portrayed as a pushover without a mind of his own. Meanwhile, since Sarah isn’t there, Jack decides that Actor Brett can use a sock puppet to portray Sarah. Actor Paul (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a loudmouth wannabe rapper (who wears gold chains), which offends the real Paul, who’s nothing like this walking racial stereotype, but Actor Paul ends up upstaging everyone in the room.

What Jack has written in the script is read aloud by the auditionees to hilarious results, because it reveals Jack’s perceptions and opinions of everyone at the party. If this “script reading” part of the plot had been put earlier in the movie, the quality of “The Argument” would have been much higher.

Fogler and Coleman handle the slapstick scenes fairly well, while Williams makes great use of facial expressions. All of the actors playing the “auditionees” are very good and bring much-needed spark to the movie. Stewart-Jarrett is the movie’s biggest scene stealer, since he’s easily the funniest part of this movie, whose comedic scenes are hit and miss.

Fogler, Bell, Pudi, Q, Williams and Coleman are talented, but the way the characters are written tend to become one-note caricatures by the middle of the film. Having other actors come into the story to portray those characters is a clever send-up that works well. The discomfort that the real Jack, Lisa, Brett, Paul and Trina feel at seeing how other people portray them is actually funny, whereas the original argument between Lisa and Jack wasn’t that funny. There’s an almost British sensibility to this “script within a script” parody.

Because director Schwartzman moves the pace of “The Argument” along fairly quickly, it’s easier to take the cringeworthy aspects of the movie. For example, some of the people in “The Argument” over-act—and not in a good way that was intended by the screenplay. And there’s some physical comedy that could have been choreographed better.

The Jack character can be very grating with his “control freak” insecurities and insistence on always being right. Lisa is also irritating with her tendency to be self-absorbed and not very empathetic to other people’s feelings. Some viewers might find it hard to root for this couple.

“The Argument” can best be appreciated when the main characters (and their flaws) are put up to a proverbial mirror and they see how complete strangers (who are wannabe actors) perceive and act out their personalities. Sarah eventually finds out that Jack cast her as a sock puppet, and so her reaction (which isn’t as funny as it could’ve been) is also part of the movie’s plot. If people are willing to keep watching “The Argument” until the “script reading” scenes, it will be worth the wait, because those scenes redeem what could have been a completely annoying movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Argument” on digital and VOD on September 4, 2020.