Monday, January 16, 2017

RSVP Affirmatively


Karyn Kusama is a filmmaker I will always root for. The studio interference riddled Aeon Flux aisde, her filmography (the brilliant real and insightful Girlfight and the woefully mismarketed clever bite of Jennifer's Body) demonstrates that she has a fantastically smart cinematic voice that should be heard more. This is generally reinforced when you read interviews where she discusses both her work and the pretty crappy way the Hollywood has treated her in comparison to her male peers.


Hence, there was no question that I was not going to give her latest, the well-received thriller The Invitation, a go, especially when it landed on Netflix Instant. I had previously avoided reading anything about it because other viewers had led me to believe it was an easily spoiled twisty tale. While it's not quite the mind flip I wax expecting, please see that I'm proceeding cautiously in my review, giving only the basic roundup before delving into full spoiler territory. Those who haven't seen the film should feel safe reading until the warning.

Quick Plot: Will and his new girlfriend Kira are reluctantly attending a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden in her gorgeous, secluded LA home with her own new beau Daario N--


I mean, David. 


Eden and Will lost their young son to a terrible tragedy, and while Will is still constantly suffering from the memory, Eden seems to have dealt with it in a more zen (and obviously, creepy) manner. She and David explain this to Will, Kira, and a few other old friends by showing them a video introduction to their "support group", which Will (and the audience) immediately pinpoints as a cult. Is it the kind of murder-heavy/wallet-gouging cult we tend to think of when we hear the very word, or just a peaceful, open-minded way of living and learning to forgive yourself?


The Invitation is a tricky film to discuss, because part of its power comes from the audience not quite knowing what to expect, who to trust, or even what kind of movie you're actually watching. On that note, I'll give a hearty recommendation right here, and delve into the burning intensity of SPOILER territory below.


From the opening moment where Will hits a roving coyote with his car, there's a quiet sense of dread simmering underneath the surface of The Invitation. The beauty of the film lies, in part, in how Kusama makes us question whether it's something truly dangerous or just the awkward nerves that come standard with these kinds of social gatherings. 


It's an incredibly tense mood that helps to keep the audience on constant edge. The idea of Will being a possible unreliable narrator certainly doesn't hurt, and as much as I was mostly convinced that Eden and her crew were up to something sinister, I also felt myself let out a strained sigh when it truly seemed as if Will was just misinterpreting social cues. Naturally, this makes the actual reveal that much more effective.


I loved The Invitation, and not just because of my weird obsession with any cult-based horror. Kusama's staging could have satisfied me even if it turned out that Eden and David WERE just overly friendly hippie party hosts and that Will was reading far too much into everything. The tension Kusama creates is something very skilled and incredibly intense. Perhaps more importantly, there's subtext and depth underneath it. This isn't just a horror movie about trying to dodge your cyanide-and-knife-wielding-friends. It's also a meditation on dealing with grief and  fascinating probe into the nightmare of socializing.


It's a good one.

High Points
Much should be said for the screenplay (by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) and Kusama's decisions to not force introductions and explanations, bot of the characters' relationships to one another and the actual big picture reveal of sorts at the end. The audience is never fumbling to figure out who's who because the script and direction guides you well enough along that you can figure it out as if you were just another guest at the party


Low Points
Much like I said about American Mary, I could have taken another hour of this film (especially with its fairly brief 100 minute run time). If that doesn't speak highly about a movie, what does?

Lessons Learned
As any rule of horror cinema goes, the cooler the house, the bloodier the party


If your ex-wife's new boyfriend seems way too comfortable with you, you should indeed be suspicious and expecting him to attempt to murder you


Never be the first to toast. Ever.


Rent/Bury/Buy
While I enjoyed watching The Invitation, this was one of those films that improved in my estimation the more I thought about it after the fact. From the way the film plays with who to trust to the skillful way it establishes the setting's geography, this is an incredibly well-crafted movie well worth a lights-out phone-away watch. Dig it. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

You Know. The Usual


Generic title. Generic plot. Generic Instant Watch.

Let’s do this.

Quick Plot: Sarah is a happily married young woman nearing the birth of her first daughter with doctor husband Matt. The couple has just bought a lovely home located in one of those creepy horror movie towns where everybody is shifty and the only thing to do is ghost hunt at the local abandoned prison. 


Despite her imminent labor, Sarah and Matt invite pals (schizophrenic-and-dealing-with-it Brie and her boyfriend) and her lazy hipster twin brother and his girlfriend to spend a few days in their new home. Naturally, a visit to the haunted abandoned prison is in order and much hell breaks loose.


Bleed is not a very good movie, but it's filled with way better than it deserves performances from a likable and natural young cast. Lead actress Chelsey Crisp held my attention well, even when the film spun off into an absolute mess of, well, backwoods satanic supernatural occultists.


Now I know what you're thinking: backwoods satanic supernatural occultists sounds like a good time, or at least a fun category on match.com. But for all its barely 80 minute running time, Bleed just never seems to want to tell its actual story. There's a very loose connection established between Sarah and the town's history, but the central mystery is so clunkily parsed out that it's impossible to care. Weirdly enough, perhaps that helps the mean, unearned ending not actually hit as hard. So that’s something.


High Points
I really did find most of the young cast quite effective in their underwritten parts, so good on all six of those attractive thespians. May you move on to stories that actually let you do something interesting


Low Points
The idea of including a character actively dealing with schizophrenia in a horror movie that's going to involve some wild supernatural imagery is clever and rife with potential. Unfortunately, all that's done with it is forcing poor actress Brittany Ishibashi to chomp on antipsychotic medication as if it was M&Ms

Lessons Learned
Free-spirited millennials who don't bathe regularly have remarkable pedicures


Butterflies make excellent guard dogs when it comes to backwoods cults

If you happen to have a half moon tattoo, avoid mysterious towns with abandoned prisons and creepy law enforcement


Rent/Bury/Buy

Tripp Rhame's Bleed is a more competently shot independent horror movie than a lot of its Netflix Instant's competition, but its story is so poorly put together that it's pretty impossible to actually recommend. If you're killing time, it's more watchable than a lot of other low budget horror fare (mostly due to its strong cast) but man, the scares are messy, the story needed two more revisions, and the ending is the kind of face smack that just leaves you feeling bitter and betrayed. Skip it. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Code Green


Remember the 2003 power outage that took out all the lights on the U.S. eastern seaboard? If you were hanging out with your parents on break from college, playing Scrabble by candlelight and having some beer with your dogs, it was kind of fun. But had that outage continued for weeks, then months, then years, it would be, well, not LESS fun because if your best skill was Scrabble then you would probably be dead before anything got too intense, but you know...you see the point.

Quick Plot: Nelly, a brainy high school student, and Eva, a dancer, live with their widowed father in a secluded modern home surrounded by forestry. One night, without any warning, the power goes out...everywhere.



With limited gasoline, the family makes one trip into town to learn that supplies are quickly disappearing and some suspicious characters may be one toecutter away from a Mad Max -esque society (the first one; we're not quite in mohawk territory just yet). Thankfully, the house has a large supply of food and water, so things should work out just fine until the nation puts everything back in order.



Because THAT'S HOW THESE MOVIES END RIGHT?

A freak accident leaves Nelly and Eva alone, save for the occasional threats of marauders and dreamboats with the ability to split up the tight pair. Between boredom, fear, and possible starvation, can the gals make it?



Based on a novel of the same name, Into the Forest doesn't quite fit your typical picture of a post-apocalyptic survival tale. As written and directed by Patricia Rozema, this is a quiet almost coming-of-age story about two young women figuring out what life is now that their world has completely shattered. The once SAT obsessed Nelly refocuses her intelligence on flora and fauna, while Eva slowly puts away her Alvin Ailey dreams for more primal matters. More importantly, the women need to learn how to trust and challenge each other.



I wasn't expecting what I got with Into the Forest, but much like the similar in tone How I Live Now, I was thoroughly satisfied. Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood have always been exceptional actresses with mature taste in projects, and it's kind of amazing here how both can believably play teenagers while bringing a certain actorly wisdom to their craft. They joke like sisters, fight like sisters, and ultimately display that kind of familial bond that is as frustrating as it is strong.



Where the story may lose some viewers is in its pacing. Not much really happens in the conventional plot-sense of Into the Forest, and we never see the bigger picture of how the rest of the world is handling the disaster. For me, that was fine: Nelly and Eva are compelling enough on their own that I was thoroughly satisfied with the story being told to me, even if I went into it expecting more action. This is a slow, thoughtful tale, and if you enter it knowing that, I think you'll find a lot.



High Points
I don't know much about director Rozema, but I absolutely loved her approach to the material in all areas of filmmaking. At the risk of bringing up something unimportant in order to make a point about its importance, let's focus for a moment on how nudity is handled onscreen. Because of what the characters are going through, there are times when it makes sense for them to, well, not be fully clothed. In the hands of another director, this could have read as gratuitous or worse, falsely coy (see: my constant annoyance when female characters wear bras to bed to avoid an R-rating). In the case of Into the Forest, these moments read perfectly natural. It's fascinating how far that goes in putting the audience at absolute comfort and trust with the material. 

Low Points
While obvious decisions about timing had to made in a movie that stretches just around two years, some feel a little abrupt in terms of skipping over key periods of character/world development



Lessons Learned
The danger of nicknaming your children after vegetables becomes far more apparent during times of famine

Encyclopedias may seem like ancient relics on your bookshelves, but take away the internet and how else are you going to learn which berries won't kill you? 

Sisters exist primarily to help assist in childbirth



Rent/Bury/Buy

If, like me, you froth at the suggestion of anything set at the start of a new apocalypse, then you’ll probably want to check out Into the Forest on those merits alone. So long as you know you’re getting a quiet, sisterly survival tale and now an assless chap-filled action romp, then I think you’ll find the experience rather beautiful. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

All the Best

Whatever your holiday of choice is this season, I hope you have a grand one.


Back soon!


Monday, December 19, 2016

Mark Your Calendar


How has nobody ever thought of this before? A horror anthology composed of shorts set on the calendar’s major holidays. It’s a no-brainer.

And, much like Southbound, a pretty pleasant surprise.

Valentine’s Day
Written and directed by the team behind Starry Eyes, the first segment follows a teenage outcast named Maxine (unfortunately nicknamed Maxi Pad) as she nurses an intense crush on her gym teacher while her classmates brutally tease her. There's nothing overly revolutionary about the story or execution, but it's a well-told tale that's perfectly satisfying in its brief running time.



St Patrick's Day
Set in Ireland, this one follows a pleasant schoolteacher who tries to welcome a mysteriously moody new student into her class, only to have, well, a very unpleasant but somewhat welcomed surprise pregnancy via a Danny Zuko-esque snake worshipper. Directed by Gary Hore (Dracula Untold), this is a grotesquely funny and weirdly sweet horror comedy of sorts. Lead Ruth Bradley (wonderful in Grabbers) plays it perfectly, and the final reveal is one of the most adorably weird things I’ve seen in a while.


Easter
Easily my favorite, Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) spins a bizarre little yarn about how a curious young girl (the delightful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Ava Acres)’s questions about the specifics the Easter Bunny and Jesus’s resurrection leads to meeting a truly inspired and gross monster creation. The writing is on point here, as the little girl’s conversation with her exasperated mother is funny, smart, and wonderfully disturbing. That’s not even mentioning the odd background decision to decorate the home with an impressive collection of creepy clown art.


Mother’s Day
Kate has a problem: every time she has sex, no matter how many preventative measures she takes, she ends up pregnant. After two dozen abortions, she agrees to visit her gynecologist’s off-the-beaten-path spiritual retreat where a batch of infertile baby-hungry women see Kate as something very, very important. Directed by The Midnight Swim’s Sarah Adina Smith, this is probably the story that most felt like it should have been a full feature. There’s plenty of potential in exploring what it means for a woman to have or not want to have a baby, and while the ending has a nice kick, the story feels almost trapped in the short format. 


Father’s Day
A young woman named Carol (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) receives a cassette tape with a recording made by her presumed dead father with instructions on how she can see him again. Carol smacks on her headphones and follows his lead, walking through a beach as she listens to her dad’s intensifying guide recorded on the last day she ever saw him. Newcomer Anthony Scott Burns builds tension with incredible skill, making this, for me, the scariest of all the stories. It doesn’t quite make good on its promise, but it still manages to be a unique spin on the typical anthology tale.


Halloween
Kevin Smith--yes, that Kevin Smith--tells this revenge tale of a trio of webcam performers who finally take control over their gross and abusive boss. This will probably be the most polarizing of the bunch (as Kevin Smith fare tends to do to an audience) but I enjoyed it well enough. There’s a nice girl power vibe and a satisfying comeuppance, and perhaps most importantly, a short running time that doesn’t let anything out live its entertainment value. 


Christmas
Legion’s Scott Stewart directs Seth Green as Pete, a nice, but unexceptional dad trying to get the latest new technology toy for his son on Christmas Eve. When the customer who snagged the last one has a heart attack on an otherwise unoccupied street, Pete grabs the gadget and guiltily leaves the man to die alone. Naturally, this decision haunts him, especially when the gift in question (a pair of virtual reality goggles designed to show each wearer his or her own personal fantasies) keeps reminding him of his crime. This is a fun segment, aided a lot by Green’s take on a schlubby dad and some genuine surprises along the way. The ending is a bit abrupt, but again: this is an anthology. We don’t need codas.


New Year’s Eve
An awkward and dentally challenged killer meets women online, kidnaps them, and murders them when he loses patience with their inability to love him. On New Year’s Eve, he scores a date with an attractive younger lady with her own crappy dating history and, well, twists ensue. Made by Adam Egypt Mortimer, this is a fun tale and appropriate way to end the film, as the tone is somehow both lighthearted and appropriately violent. Mortimer also deserves credit for staging a wonderfully realistic, painfully uncomfortable first date.


Lessons Learned
Vets don't get things wrong

Jesus and ET do indeed have a lot in common


If a man doesn’t think you’re worth brand name candy, that is not a man for you

Rent/Bury/Buy

I had heard mixed reactions to Holidays, so my expectations were fairly low going in, but man...I kind of loved this movie. Some stories were certainly stronger than others, but none wore out their welcome (the kiss of death for many a short film). The fairly organic mix of offbeat comedy and genuine horror made for a refreshingly diverse mix of tone that kept me invested throughout. Like any good multi-filmmaker anthology, all the stories have their own identity but never seem to clash. Not to always bring up my favorite punching bag, but I’d take the weakest installment here (probably Halloween) over all of the first V/H/S, and most of the other segments in the more decent sequels. The film is streaming on Netflix and can make a satisfying watch for any season.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Not a Gentle Probe


If you had told me that someone basically made a feature length film adaptation of the final installment of V/H/S 2, the last thing I would probably say is “that sounds great!”

I can admit when I’m wrong.

Quick Plot: A family of five embarks upon an unassuming camping trip through rural North Carolina, an area apparently known for its mysterious Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon that some have suspected may be caused by something not of this world. When they take a wrong turn and come upon a pileup of abandoned vehicles, they realize that they just may have stumbled on some extraterrestrial hunting grounds.




Let's start by acknowledging that Alien Abduction makes one of the best decisions I've ever seen in justifying its found footage approach. Riley, the youngest child, is autistic and, as his sister explains to the first stranger they meet, relies on seeing things through his video camera. It's a brilliant choice that pre-answers the question we always ask in this genre.



Thankfully, that isn't the only good trick up director Matty Beckerman's sleeve. Initially, I was far from pleased to have a bland, somewhat bickering all-American family of unimpressive people as my leads, but the film manages to deepen most of them simply by how they react to the jarring experience of, well, running away from aliens. Oldest son Corey doesn't necessarily register in the film's first half as anyone of interest, but once he loses an important member of his family, his reaction to it is sad, admirable, and believable. 

Similarly, the introduction of an off-the-grid mountain man named Shawn first reads as a typical foray into modern horror's impressions of redneck America at its most obvious. Thankfully, that's not the case. Shawn may live in a cabin in the woods and carry a shotgun, but he quickly shows he's far smarter than the immediate impression given off by his accent and trucker hat. 



In barely 85 minutes, Beckerman managed to do quite a bit. Perhaps most importantly, Alien Abduction packs a few actual scares. The design of the creatures, filled with odd clicks and buzzes, isn’t the most revolutionary, but it’s effective and eerie. The filming style feels real and not TOO nausea-inducing, and the complete lack of information or explanation about what these things are or want adds to the terror our characters have of not knowing what to do. It’s exactly what a low budget found footage horror movie should be. 




High Points
As noted above, there are a lot of things that work about Alien Abduction, but I think what really sells the bulk of it is how the film realizes that lack of explanation is a scary, scary thing



Low Points
I've said it before and I will say IT LOUDER SO THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK CAN HEAR ME: DO NOT EVER INCLUDE A CLOSEUP OF A CATERPILLAR IN YOUR MOVIE.  



Lessons Learned
If the 2016 presidential election hadn’t already established this, I’ll just go ahead and say it: North Carolina may be the beginning of the end




Rent/Bury/Buy

My expectations were on the low end for Alien Abduction, so it’s certainly possible that I was just thrilled to get more than I anticipated. But hey, that doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely enjoy this. The film is streaming on Netflix and should effectively scratch any alien/horror/found footage itch you might need a solution for.