Monday, May 23, 2016

Let's Call This One "Football Fan"

I like Domino’s cheesy bread because it tastes good, not because it makes me a better person. 

Similarly, I enjoy crappy horror movies like Homecoming because I’m only an okay person.

Quick Plot: Mikey was the golden boy quarterback of his small Pennsylvania home town. Now a freshman with a full ride but bench duty at Northwestern, he returns home for the titular weekend where his jersey number will be retired in a glamorous school ceremony.

Naturally, Mikey brings his new-but-pretty-serious girlfriend Elizabeth to meet his family and loyal subjects. The only complication waiting for him is that Shelby, his high school sweetheart, never quite accepted the fact that their relationship ended when he went off to college and she stayed home to nurse her dying mother and run the family bowling alley.

As played by wide-eyed mannequin Mischa Barton, Shelby isn't quite right. She's run into deep financial problems but has been spending far more energy convincing herself that Mikey is still madly in love with her. Naturally, she's not thrilled to meet Elizabeth. Even more naturally, she's quite thrilled when she accidentally runs her new rival down on the side of an empty road, dragging the young woman back to her isolated house and "nursing" her back to health with all the medical skills of Annie Wilkes.

Guys, Homecoming isn't good, but by no means does that imply it's not enjoyable. Barton is way out of her league in playing a damaged obsessive. On one hand, it's clear that she's trying. On the other, there's just not enough there to have that effort produce anything. That in itself is weirdly entertaining.

Matching her skills is Mikey and everyone around him's complete idiocy. This is the kind of movie where a character realizes something terrible has happened, and rather than run into a packed room filled with everyone in town to say, "hey guys, can someone call the cops and someone else give me a ride because my girlfriend has been kidnapped by a madwoman," runs away from said room without a word and trudges several miles to the lair of a violent potential murderer with no neighbors or any other form of help. It's a thing of beauty it is.

Other such highlights:

-the fact that it takes two able-bodied people (one a star athlete) to defeat an ever wilting Mischa Barton

-the glorious way the camera turns a giant undercooked ham into some sort of magical power source, perhaps explaining the aforementioned point

-that the town's only police officer is played by Final Destination 2's police officer as if during the many near-death experiences, he also suffered multiple counts of brain damage

-that Shelby would hide her tokens of (maybe) murdering her sick mom in the toilet (which as Burlesque taught us, is the first place anyone should look when searching a home) and that said tokens include a page printed from the Internet with the title "Poisonous Plants" and that just in case you didn't see it, the words "Poisonous Plants" are circled

Yes folks, it's that kind of movie. And sometimes, that's a great thing.

High Points
Um. The ham sandwich?

Low Points
Aside from this just not being that good a movie, the treatment of time (as in, you're an 18 year old who's been in college for no more than three months, but seem to have met the girl you're going to marry) is a tad questionable

Lessons Learned
In small towns with no cell service, cops use their police cars for social activities like fishing

Getting your intended's parents to like you is a key element in the courting ritual

Women hate making bad impressions


Homecoming is streaming on Amazon Prime, which is probably the only way you should watch it. This isn't, you know, "good," but it's fun if you, like me, sometimes find yourself in a very particular mood for a crappy but not boring modern thriller. Don't give it money, but it just might be worth 90 minutes of time (especially if that time is co-opted on other matters like folding laundry or trimming your cat's claws).

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kids Today & Their Darned Hashbrowns

When a movie scrolls through Instant Watch with a title like #Horror, my expectations are not high. While many of the recent social media-themed genre flicks have proven to be quite good, this one...well, this one is titled #Horror.

Never judge a movie by its titular characters.

Quick Plot: A gaggle of 12 year old girls are having a slumber party hosted by the richest and blondest of the bunch, Sofia. Sofia's father is a modern art dealer who has furnished his unique mansion with an assortment of odd pieces, including gloriously flaky wife Chloe Sevigny.

Permission to be cool has been granted.

The house itself is also a piece of modern art history, having hosted a murder spree by a Andy Warhol protogee in the '60s. Naturally, it seems to be repeating its past as a mysterious killer starts taking out some of the wealthy visitors, constantly posting crime scene photos on some kind of Candy Crush-hued social media site.

That description probably makes #Horror sound like just about 85% of the movies currently streaming on Netflix Instant right now, but boy is it not. More Heathers than Hell Night, #Horror's interests lie in the dynamics of preteen female frenemyship, not a masked killer making his mark. Writer/director Tara Subkoff clearly remembers what it was like to be 12, that dangerous age where the desire to be cool could easily slaughter one’s sense of right and wrong.

This is also where many a typical horror fan may well despise #Horror. Subkoff spends more time watching the chaotic, catty interactions of its young cast trying on clothes and taking selfies than being slaughtered. A fair warning to those viewers who only watch these kinds of films for the bloodshed: you’ll probably be disappointed. For the rest of us, this is a neat, neat little flick.

Granted, I’m someone who has always been fascinated by that terrible period of teenage girldom. It’s why I was such a fan of the underrated The Sisterhood of Night, and why I’m generally always more open to any story that puts middle school females at its center. For those who were never there, being a 12 year old girl, well, pretty much sucks. Your body is changing and you can’t decide if it’s happening too fast or too slow. Boys become an entire school subject on their own. Worst of all, your friends can go from the people you trust most to the spies willing to sell you out for a better seat at the cafeteria.

Guys, don’t worry: I’m now 34 years old and happily over the horrors of the seventh grade. Then again, my generation of Tomagochi raising Generation Y-ers was still using shaky dial-up internet connections. Facebook was far, far away. Thank goodness.

In 2016, the life of a tween is different. #Horror tosses in a great deal of class wars for added measure, and while it could be alienating for many an audience member, the poor little rich girl trick works here (and not just because it gives us tons of interior design porn). There’s a genuinely real moment when the girls put away their cell phones and have what might be their first human conversation with each other, discussing their various demons (neglectful parents, eating disorders, etc.) in an honest, realistic way. Again, I doubt many a casual Netflix scroller wants that out of something sold as a slasher, but if you’re open to it, it’s well-written, well-acted, and much-needed.

High Points
Not to sound like a broken record about the value of seeing more female directors in the horror industry, but Subkoff more than supports that cry. This is a film so clearly made by a very distinct voice, and while not all of it works, it's genuinely refreshing to feel Subkoff's energy onscreen

Low Points
One character is teased to have quite a complex history, and in part because that history involves Natasha Lyonne, it's a minor quibble that we don't get more of it

Lessons Learned
A joke is only mean if the audience doesn’t laugh

Fat people exist to be funny

Eating a lot of chicken may bring on early menstruation

#Horror is almost more pop art than straightforward genre, and I for one have no problem with that. Most viewers will probably know within the first 10 minutes whether this is right for them. If you find it insufferable early on, bail out and pull up something else. There are hundreds of standard And Then There Were None-style gorefests made for the typical horror audience. For the random minority like me who always want to see a story told from a different angle, this is a treat.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Ever After (not that one)

I love the ridiculousness of so-called film lovers who whine about the lack of things to watch on Netflix. Are they just afraid to scroll through suggestions and take a chance on something without name actors? Over the last few years of the world’s most popular streaming service, I’ve seen dozens of good to great unknown movies that have proven to be more more interesting and enjoyable than most of what comes to theaters. 

It’s not a science. Just scroll around,  look past what’s usually terrible cover art and read a few synopses (yes, I had to Google how to pluralize that word). I guarantee you’ll find something that sounds interesting and more often than not, makes good on it.

Quick Plot: Ana (Karolina Wydra) is a somewhat grumpy young nurse returning to her small home town by bus after a solo vacation. The only other passenger is a friendly wannabe comic book artist named Freddy (Steven Strait) who, Ana discovers, has lived just a few houses down from her for most of their lives. Before you can ask how they never bumped into each other en route to the town's lone coffee shop, the bus crashes.

When Ana wakes up, the telltale signs of armpit hair growth suggest something is not quite right. It's confirmed when she heads to work and realizes it's either an incredibly quiet day at the hospital or the entire town has been abandoned. Naturally, the only other soul that seems to be occupying Pearl is the equally confused Freddy.

The pair tries to get the heck out of Dodge, but each exit point is covered in an ominous black fog that is slowly makings its way to the center of town. Adding to the mystery are a few flashback moments where both Ana and Freddy witness their young selves living out key moments from their childhood. If that's not enough, there's also a monster.

Written and directed by Ryan Smith, After is probably being mismarketed by Netflix (and possibly others) as a horror film rather than something closer to a supernatural drama. Less Population 436 and more Ink, this is a film that lures you in with a creepy last-man-on-earth setup but is far more interested in exploring broader concepts like guilt, forgiveness, and I suppose, love.

It's a good and bad thing. 

After is a very smartly made movie in many of its decisions. Fairly early on, the characters address the obvious question that every audience member who spent seven years watching Lost asked every week: do you think we’re dead? (They’re not.) The film sets up its mystery well but doesn’t drag out the reveal. Our characters learn just as we’ve pretty much figured out the exact situation, leaving the second half or so to watching them smarten up and find their way home, all the while eluding a pretty uniquely designed creature.

For me, I was more interested in the current mystery than After’s “everything is connected” flashbacks, but it’s a matter of personal preference. The whole package didn’t quite come together in a way that fully won me over, but this movie had me on its side from the beginning and I definitely stayed there. It’s different, but still filled with a nice kind of heart. I dig that.

High Points
There’s something very “nice” about After in terms of its characters and their pasts. Many films that flirt with bullying could have given their characters a different kind of tragic backstory with an easy villain, but After takes a kinder, more human approach than you might expect

Low Points
While the instrumental score of After isn’t bad per say, it’s so BIG that it sometimes overwhelms the more intimate story being told

End Credits Alert
Stick around for a brief but very pleasant little moment saved for the very end

Lessons Learned
Seatbelts should always be worn, even when you’re the only ones in town other than a single monster and lots of fog

Candles are great props for home theater, but safety rules about keeping them away from curtains should still apply

Always scout for a good indoor sprinkler system. You never know how it might come in handy

I liked, but didn’t quite love After and I can’t fully figure out why. For a low budget straight-to-streaming thriller, it’s so much smarter and more interesting than anyone would probably expect. The lead (and almost, only) actors are likable and interesting, the creature effects are neat, and the story has just enough freshness about it to keep the film feeling fresh. It’s a strong little movie, so long as you don’t go into it expecting a bloodfest, give it a try. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bromance Or Bust

I think it’s safe to say now that it’s 2016, we can finally stop arguing over the merits of found footage horror movies. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. The same can be said about zombie flicks, slashers, and every other subgenre. 

So with that said, clear out a mere 77 minutes of your life for today’s found footage feature.

Quick Plot: Aaron is a young filmmaker who eagerly accepts a mysterious but financially savvy one-day job. His mission: drive to a secluded cabin and film a man named Josef's My Life-esque video message to his unborn child. Josef has a fatal brain tumor and doesn't expect to see his baby grow up, hence his fairly emotional state.

Still, isn't Josef just a little TOO friendly? The laid-back Aaron tries to take it in stride, but it doesn't take the full day to realize something just isn't quite right.

At just 77 minutes long, it's hard to say any more about Creep without giving a whole lot away. Directed by Patrick Brice (who also plays Aaron) and heavily improvised by indie king Mark Duplass, Creep is a minimalist two-man drama that doesn't wear out its brief welcome (at least for me). Duplass has such a strong confidence in talking directly to a camera that it's darn near impossible not to hang on his every word. To see him play so against type--or rather, like a long-lost and socially confused cousin of his quirky Mindy Project gynecologist character--is fascinating to behold.

That being said, Brice's Aaron isn't the most interesting of cameraholders, although in a subgenre that includes obnoxious messes like V/H/S and Crowsnest, he's certainly far from the worst. Still, for all its disciplined brevity, it's kind of frustrating to get so little out of our protagonist. For example, we gather that an independent filmmaker taking a mystery gig could probably use some cash, yet the brief glimpse of his home life seems to suggest he's living pretty decently. Similarly, we don't necessarily need to see him call his friends for advice, but considering how strange the situation gets, there's simply a missing link on our end to not see Aaron make any kind of effort for help (one quick police report aside). Would any sane adult agree to meet their stalker without dragging along at least one pal that owes a favor?

Creep doesn’t address these questions, probably because it’s just so much more interesting to put its energy into Duplass’s Josef. It makes perfect sense, but it also renders something about the film a little empty. Yes, I’d rather watch Josef over Aaron, but because we’re not ever fully put into Aaron’s shoes in a way that seems to fit, it’s hard to have the wollop hit as it should. 

That being said, Creep is...neat. Duplass is just too good for it not to work, even if it doesn’t quite connect the way I was hoping. Still, it's more than worth a watch, particularly if you've always dreamed of watching Mark Duplass dress like a werewolf and dance.

High Points
As much as I do have issues with how Aaron's character is handled, I will say that it's oddly refreshing to see this kind of tale focused on two male characters. The film doesn't hammer away at its gender flip, but it's definitely a clear and deliberate choice that puts a familiar story in just enough different context to make you look at things with fresh eyes

Low Points
Aforementioned frustrations with one half of the characters

Lessons Learned
As someone who lives on the 4th floor (plus an even bigger 1st floor stoop, so really, 5th floor) walkup, I can indeed back up Josef's claim that you just never get used to stairs

Turn around. Always, turn around

Every town has a diner known for its pancakes


Far from a masterpiece, Creep is still an enjoyable way to kill 80 minutes. The film plays with its familiar setup and style to deliver something much fresher than most of its brethren, and Duplass is just one of those artists who's always weirdly fascinating to watch. It’s something different grounded in the familiar. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Guys, You Know They Invented DVDs, Right?

Horror anthologies in the 21st century have, for the most part, been a strange and mean disappointment. With a few key exceptions--well, Trick 'r Treat--it just seems like whenever (usually) young filmmakers of this age tackle the short story format, we as an audience end up with something far from scary and entertaining and close to mean and for whatever reason, oddly misogynist.

I pretty much hated V/H/S, though I hated V/H/S 2 a little bit less. When I learned about the third entry, I was planning to finally cut the cord of grumble watching in a way I've only ever succeeded at with American Horror Story (that's right: I slogged through Sons of Anarchy and I'm a little less of a person because of it). Then I learned that some of the directors involved had made films that I genuinely liked (Deadgirl, Dance of the Dead, Resolution, Spring) and realized, damnit, I have to just get on that elliptical machine and watch this movie while burning some calories.

I am nothing if not a multitasker.

Quick Plot(s): Story by story, here we go:

Our wraparound, Vicious Circles, is helmed by Deadgirl co-director Marcel Sarmiento. It follows a slacker named Kevin who, hold onto your butts, REALLY LIKES VIDEOTAPING STUFF. Most of that “stuff” includes his girlfriend Iris. One night, a high-speed police chase involving a wayward ice cream truck flashes by his own window, prompting Kevin to grab his camera and get in on the action. Iris is somehow abducted by the speeding truck, but she manages to send Kevin video phone messages helping him track her. Meanwhile, other bystanders who witness the chase circling them seem to fall into fits of violent madness.

I’ll say this about Vicious Circles: it’s gallons better than any of the wraparounds in the other two V/H/S films. Unfortunately, that’s kind of like saying having your cavity filled is gallons better than experiencing a root canal, or that the characters on The Walking Dead are more consistent than Fear the Walking Dead. For whatever reason, the framing segments in this series just can’t seem to click into place in a way that works. As a huge fan of the underrated Deadgirl, Vicious Circle is a letdown but could have been worse.

The first full segment is Dante the Great, written and directed by Gregg Bishop of the surprisingly delightful zombie comedy Dance of the Dead. Dante is a wildly successful magician whose tricks baffle and excite the world. His success, however, is actually due to the possession of a powerful and evil cloak that craves fresh bodies.

Dante the Great is kind of the perfect story for this kind of anthology. It’s a simple setup that probably wouldn’t warrant a 90 minute feature, but it’s a fun and unique concept that also gives you something new in its brief running time. It’s also refreshing that the story is told more documentary-style than handheld found footage. I can’t say that I’ll think of Dante the Great ever again, but it entertained me just fine while I watched it.

Up next is Nacho Timecrimes Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters, which follows an amateur scientist who creates a portal into a side universe where his own double has seemingly done the same thing. As our lead explores his counterpart’s home, he discovers some key differences that just might involve genital monsters.

I’ve yet to see the well-received Timecrimes, in part because I’m still trying to get to the point where I don’t remember the details of what’s known to be the very similar in nature and details Triangle. Like the first segment, Parallel Monsters is good, if not great. I enjoyed how it never had to come out and explain its alternate devil (or something) worshiping religion. It drops enough clues to know something is very, very wrong, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a solid short story, which is what I like to see in anthologies.

The final segment is titled Bonestorm and is directed by the promising team behind Resolution and Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead. In the typical V/H/S tradition, Bonestorm is about a group of awful teenage boys. Thankfully, it’s much better than most of the previous shaky cam dudefests found in the other films.

The youths in this case are a group of skateboarding brats who head across the Mexican border to get some video footage of extreme moves. As they flip around an abandoned skate park with some ominous ritual symbols, one of them sheds some blood and accidentally summons a cult of undead skeleton zombie killer things. Shot primarily via Go Pro cameras, it certainly has the expected “what am I actually seeing?” effect, but the chaos is handled well enough that the almost video game-esque feel keeps the material watchable.

Due to their format, anthologies are rarely the most exciting type of film to write (and I assume, read) about. Oddly enough, I could never manage to put together my thoughts on the first V/H/S film because every time I tried, I felt like I was writing from a soapbox stuffed with estrogen. It felt mean and misogynist, and I just couldn't vocalize it in a way that satisfied where I stood. I covered the sequel on my podcast, The Feminine Critique  (Episode 43), because, well, sometimes it's just easier to stumble through spoken words than written ones.

I don't particularly want to see more V/H/S entries, but if considering they're on a (rather slow) upward track, I guess I won't complain. It's encouraging to see newer genre filmmakers taking some chances. Let's just hope they stay somewhat interesting.

Lessons Learned
Sigh. The usual. If you have boobs, a V/H/S camera will ogle them. If you have a vagina, you won't be allowed to do anything behind the camera. If you have motion sickness, a V/H/S camera will jam its fingers down your throat and vomit you. You get it.

Stray Observations
V/H/S: Viral might be the odd case of a film that works better when viewed on a cell phone than a larger television screen, where the shaky cam effect can be overwhelming

My expectations were pretty darn low for V/H/S: Viral, so a mild endorsement might be worthy of video box art. That being said, I found this one more...tolerable than the first two. The stories all bring something mildly new to the format, and none overstay their welcome in terms of length. It's on Instant Watch and at just 80 minutes, it won't hurt your brain to watch. It won't do much to improve it, but things could be worse.