Short, Sweet and Screamy: “Huluween” Reviews

There’s no denying short films have gotten short shrift on Thomas J. I’ve got a few stashed away here and there (and here, too) but the overwhelming majority of my total output has been focused on feature-length productions. And why not? It’s very difficult to review a short film and not spoil it!

I’ve been given an opportunity to try my hand at it (again), what with the recent advent of Hulu’s “Huluween” Film Fest. (Apparently they did this last year, so this isn’t exactly news.) In the spirit of ultimate customer satisfaction, the streaming platform has inundated us with over 800 Halloween-centric titles, movies and shows alike, and have also curated a collection of seven short spooky stories made by up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get viewers in the spirit of Halloween. What follows are some brief thoughts of those offerings. I’ve sorted the reviews in the order in which I viewed them. See what you think. Have you seen any of them yet? What were your experiences? Which was your favorite?


Undo · 7 mins 9 sec · Directed by Nicole Perlman · An interesting moral conundrum — if you could reverse the flow of time and prevent bad things from happening, would you? I’m off on the right foot with this tense, atmospheric piece about a physicist who is celebrating a major breakthrough with his experiments when suddenly fate comes a-knockin’. Set almost entirely in the confines of his swanky urban home the premise is intriguing, the main character is appropriately strange and a little off-kilter, but some shaky CGI and pretty iffy acting in the moments that matter most take this one down just a peg. (3.5/5)

Swiped to Death · 7 mins 28 sec · Directed by Elaine Mongeon · Here’s a film that provides a surprisingly engrossing build-up — especially for me, he who doesn’t do the whole Tinder thing (and now I really won’t!) — and a duo of convincing performers making nervous/awkward/dark jokes prior to their late-night meet-up IRL. The story twists and twists again, rendering you occasionally psychologically disoriented but annoyingly the execution of its denouement really left me flaccid. (3/5)

The Ripper · 5 mins 49 sec · Directed by Calvin Reeder · Unfortunately there isn’t much going for this clearly low-budget short from Calvin Reeder. The premise finds one of the guitarists in an amateur metal band pressed to perform a solo, something his bandmate demands as they’ve already got a rhythm guitarist. Things take a nutty turn, the band’s superfluous second rhythm guitarist proving he indeed has some hidden talents but none that are particularly useful. The acting is bad, the special effects are even worse. I can’t even really say the “otherworldly” ideas driving the story are worth your time either, and at five minutes that’s rather pitiful. (1.5/5) 

Ride · 6 mins 46 sec · Directed by Meredith Alloway · Spin classes take on a sinister quality in this intense, colorful and energetic short about a young girl who, in trying to make new friends in a strange city, unwittingly signs up for the ride of for her life. Among the more effective shorts in this year’s crop, Ride pummels you with its style, the blaring music engulfing the viewer in a heady trip into the cult-like obsession of one scarily committed group of fitness junkies. Hey, if you can’t keep up, all you’re doing is slowing us down. A dark parody that’s a pure adrenaline rush. (4/5) 

Hidden Mother · 5 mins 21 sec · Directed by Joshua Erkman · Subtlety is key in this highly effective and expertly crafted short film about a recently widowed mother receiving one of the creepiest gifts a sister could ever give you — a photo frame that apparently harbors the presence of a sinister spirit. If the conclusion is the measuring stick by which we judge a short film, Hidden Mother is indeed masterful. However practically every minute here is worth its weight in gold, the atmosphere and tension and the rhythmic, labored breathing making this easily the best of the bunch. (4.5/5)

Flagged · 7 mins 16 sec · Directed by Chelsea Lupkin · When a young woman takes a new position as a moderator for a major social media platform called FriendFollowers, she quickly realizes the job description may have left out some deadly details. Though professionally mounted — the effects here are certainly better than The Ripper — and the multiple locations give the impression the filmmakers are playing with a bit more money than their Huluween ’19 peers, ultimately the film collapses due to its muddled message. I think it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about blindly accepting jobs that seem “too good to be true,” particularly feeding on the insecurity of millennials desperate to secure that reliable 9-5 paycheck. But it could just as easily be a broad swipe at the internet and what it’s doing to us. I dunno. Next, please. (2/5)

The Dunes · 6 mins 21 sec · Directed by Jennifer Reeder · Gorgeously shot and cast with Hot Actors, The Dunes I can only pray to Pennywise was pitched as a comedy because that’s the net effect of this silly little romp. A young couple’s beach date gets interrupted by a disturbing presence, something pulled from The Conjuring universe but sans the creepy veil of shadows and darkness. In that way, the film does a decent job of creating and sustaining a sense of dread in the golden light of evening, but really there’s not much to see (or be scared by) here. (2.5/5)


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Photo credits: http://www.bloodydisgusting.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.syfy.com

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Werwie

Directed by: Joe Berlinger

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.

Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.

The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.

Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.

It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)

Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).

Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.

Recommendation: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.

Rated: R

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Under the Shadow

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

For the better part of the 1980s tension between Iran and Iraq had been escalating into large-scale armed conflict, an eight-year period of violence recognized today as the Iran-Iraq War. Then-president Saddam Hussein, hoping to pounce on Iran in post-Islamic Revolution turmoil, invaded without warning in September of 1980. Cut to four years in: Iraqi forces, at best at a stalemate on the ground and increasingly on the defensive, began strategically targeting Iranian cities and civilians in a series of concentrated air strikes, but not without opposition.

This ensuing chaos, dubbed ‘The War of the Cities,’ serves as the backdrop against which Babak Anvari sets his directorial debut Under the Shadow, a quietly disturbing horror film that tells of a mother and her daughter defending themselves against malicious spirits in their apartment as the outside world crumbles around them. The film takes place in war-torn Tehran, the Iranian capital and one of the heaviest-hit areas during the conflict. This nightmarish reality meshes with aspects of ancient Arabian mythology to form a uniquely chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being denied an opportunity to resume her medical studies given her pre-war affiliation with politically active students. This is devastating news for her, especially since her recently deceased mother had been so supportive and had given her books to study. She returns home to an unsympathetic husband (Bobby Naderi) who bluntly tells her to get over it. Being a doctor himself, he is soon called away by the military, and advises Shideh to leave the city with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) for his parents’ house in a safer part of the country.

Embittered by her husband’s reaction, Shideh of course doesn’t take the advice. She’d prefer to weather the storm in the comfort of their home, often taking to the building’s makeshift bomb shelter along with several other terrified tenants. After a particularly close encounter with an undetonated missile that lodges itself in the upper part of the building, the exodus begins in earnest. But Shideh and her daughter are still hanging back when young Dorsa’s favorite doll, the thing that is supposed to keep her feeling safe, goes missing.

Once Anvari guts the film of its extraneous parts he allows the true horror to settle in. A sudden ghost town turns into a breeding ground for the menacing “djinn” — supernatural creatures of Islamic theology believed to have the same capacity for good and evil as man, though in this context it’s plain to see what kind we are dealing with. Especially as their presence begins to have adverse effects on both mother and child. Nightmares, visions, inexplicable behavior — many of the hallmarks of the classic American supernatural thriller Poltergeist are on display here.

All throughout Anvari’s approach treads a fine line between being economic and becoming tedious. Under the Shadow is an understated horror that will likely frustrate viewers who demand more stimuli. Regrettably, Anvari seems unwilling to, maybe even incapable of committing to his high-concept vision all the way through, resorting to the Rule Book far more often in the waning moments. It’s not enough to completely undo what the rest of the film manages to accomplish, and yet it’s enough to make Under the Shadow just that much more forgettable.

Recommendation: A lot of buildup for minimal payoff makes Under the Shadow a little underwhelming. That said, the combination of social/political commentary with supernatural elements compels me to suggest this to anyone looking for a horror film that’s just a little different. (The version available on Netflix is an English-language overdub, which I need to mention because the incongruity of the character’s mouths with the words being spoken also considerably impacted my experience.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 84 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

They Look Like People

tllp-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 26, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Perry Blackshear

Directed by: Perry Blackshear

They Look Like People is the debut feature from Perry Blackshear, a quietly unassuming hybrid of horror and psychological thriller elements built on a shoestring budget. The film, which revolves around a young man who has visions of an impending apocalyptic event, premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize.*

Paranoia-induced tension is channeled through the film’s impressive use of limited, urban environments and largely unaffected craftsmanship. Absent are a great many genre tropes in favor of a more natural approach, an approach that slowly brings humanity to the fore rather than special effects and other forms of trickery. Jump-scares and caterwauling violins have no place here.

In his second feature Macleod Andrews plays mentally disturbed Wyatt, who manages to track down an old friend in Christian (Evan Dumouchel) while passing through New York City. When Christian offers for Wyatt to stay with him for a few days he bears witness to his friend’s increasingly strange behavior resulting from a steadfast belief that everyone around him is being infected by a sinister, possibly alien entity.

Christian spends his time engaging in more mundane activities, like working up the courage to ask out his boss (Margaret Ying Drake), motivating himself by listening to self-help tapes on his morning commute, and working on his physique. The dude-stuff is apparently him turning over a new leaf. This is a new Christian, he tells Wyatt over a game of hoops. In response Wyatt asks if “anything scary has happened to him,” as if evaluating how much change he’s willing to accept in his longtime friend before starting to worry about, well . . .

They Look Like People isn’t a consistently compelling package and obvious limited funding has an adverse effect on the film’s ability to convince us it knows what it’s doing at all times, but the leads are really quite likable and their rapport is authentic and enjoyable. While the ending leaves something to be desired, Blackshear’s vision proves a satisfactory treatise on the nature of friendship and how that fundamental bond cannot be broken in spite of changes, both subtle and significant, perceived or real.

* The film went on to receive limited distribution in America in February 2016, thereby making it eligible for review on this blog, wherE ANYTHING RELEASED within a year to the date is fair game.

macleod-andrews-in-they-look-like-people

3-0Recommendation: Quiet, subtly disturbing indie horror/thriller boasts some spooky scenes and a great atmosphere. For fans expecting a lot of ‘stuff’ to happen though, They Look Like People may prove disappointing. But there’s enough here for me to say I’m excited to see what Perry Blackshear does next. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “You are a mountain. You are a hundred miles high. You are invincible. You are forever.”

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.nownetflix.com; http://www.theylooklikepeople.com 

Clown

'Clown' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 17, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Watts; Christopher D. Ford

Directed by: Jon Watts

Jon Watts’ body horror film, a production slotted directly between his much-acclaimed debut thriller Cop Car and his shot at making Spider-Man cool again (again) is simple and direct. Unfortunately Clown is so stripped down it pretty much fails to register at all, wasting a perfectly good transformation and concept in the process.

Icky but emotionally inert story features a loving father, Kent (Andy Powers), rescuing his son’s birthday party by putting on a clown costume he finds in storage when the paid entertainment fails to show. Kent begins exhibiting strange behavior after several failed attempts at removing the suit hours after the party reveal that it might not be a suit at all. As the story progresses we watch as Kent becomes subjected to a horrific physical transformation that his wife Meg (Laura Allen) is helpless to do anything about. Son Jack (Christian Distefano) is left wondering if this is all his fault. Eh, . . . it . . . kind of is . . . but hey, the poor kid had no idea daddy had just found demon skin in the garage.

While gritty effects work make Kent’s ordeal a little difficult to watch at the best of times, the overall concept fails to scare or really entertain. More problematic than anything else is that the effectiveness of said horror is predicated upon how strongly the actors deliver the goods. The concept is so simple that it all but demands heavy doses of humanity to get us to a place where we feel saddened by the radical changes. Instead we get cardboard cut-outs of characters who give estimates with their emotional responses. It doesn’t help that Allen’s role as a freaked out housewife boils down to ‘well, do I want my husband back or do I euthanize him?’

This particular clown comes complete with its own shaky, unconvincing mythology, the bulk of which is delivered by Peter Stormare‘s tacked-on supporting role as Herbert Karlsson, brother to Dr. Martin Karlsson, a cancer treatment specialist who designed the suit to entertain his young patients. Where the mythology falls apart is in trying to piece together how a Patch Adams get-up suddenly becomes the skin and hair of a child-eating demon. (There’s some nonsense about a malevolent spirit called the ‘Cloyne,’ or something.) This is the kind of logical gap that tends to cripple horror films, and that certainly is true of Clown as the story limps toward a thoroughly predictable and uninspired climax. A climax that merely proves whether that fucking suit will come off or not.

Clown never reaches the heights of what its admittedly twisted visuals hint toward. It never really comes close. Even when the true horror is revealed everything feels low-budget and in the worst way possible. Tonally Clown is unsure of itself, with comedic moments arising quite unintentionally — I highly doubt the whole episode with ripping off the red shiny nose was designed for yucks, unlike an earlier scene in which we see Kent, who is a realtor, stumbling onto another work site dressed still as a clown. No, at the moment of nose- and hair-rippage we’ve left the comedy well behind. Again, in theory.

I look at Jon Watts’ direction in the same way I do the simplicity of Tom Petty songs. That’s not necessarily good for Watts. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have operated for years with one simple motto that has helped their success endure: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Watts takes this philosophy to heart, sacrificing relationship-building for a quick, easy payoff. It doesn’t work.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 2.18.49 PM

Recommendation: Body horror film fails to creep audiences out in any significant way. Despite the premise revolving around one of the creepiest things imaginable — clowns — the mythology behind this one clown suit is laughably poor and uninteresting. Not a film to flock to for performances. Nor memorable storylines. It has some good, bloody effects but that’s about all I can recommend about Jon Watts’ Clown

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Jack, you have to kill your daddy.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Hush

'Hush' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Mike Flanagan; Kate Siegel

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

What you don’t hear definitely can hurt you in Hush, Mike Flanagan’s second consecutive exploration of the human sensory system and how much we depend on it, especially in stressful situations.

In 2013 Flanagan emphasized, even obsessed over visual stimuli, how one’s mind has the ability to play tricks on the eye when it comes to seeing things that may or may not be there. The title Oculus should ring a bell, even if its vaguely silly plot about a rogue antique mirror that kills people, does not. Flanagan now seems poised to be taken a little more seriously, cutting a nifty slice of indie horror based around auditory senses, or the lack thereof.

Hush pits a young mute woman named Maddie (Kate Siegel) against a psychotic stalker (John Gallagher, Jr.) that appears at her back door late one evening. We find ourselves in an unnamed and unidentified location, some thickly wooded area better off not named. Here Maddie’s been living a quiet life in isolation, one that she claims she didn’t choose but rather was forced upon her since complications from a surgery many years ago rendered her permanently deaf. She seems to be getting along well despite being completely on her own, and despite her struggles to complete a second horror novel. (She’s already published one.)

Flanagan wastes preciously little time propping up the pieces that will hold the conflict in place. In hindsight, introductions could have been a little less mechanical — we see Maddie chat with a neighbor briefly about that book — although there’s really no reason to dilly-dally since the premise is so pure and uncomplicated. But during this fleeting calm we get to know and care about our protagonist. Siegel’s committed performance, including some emphatic signing, reveals much about her personality, Maddie’s intelligence and passion for writing evident above all but we can tell she’s still trying to recover from something emotionally. She seems vulnerable and distant. That vulnerability takes on an entirely new meaning when we first see her tormentor, a chilling shot that demonstrates why her lack of hearing is a potentially fatal disadvantage.

Let’s talk about the home invader, shall we, because he’s something of a nightmare. Armed with a compound bow and a facemask, Gallagher (credited simply as ‘The Man’) feels like he just sauntered over to the next house after the events of You’re Next (I guess he’d need an animal mask if he was really wanting to fit in). The change of pace seems to be a good thing for the up-and-comer, even if his iciness is a trait that takes some time getting used to (maybe it’s the lack of a beard and a shaven head that does it). Even if his character’s backstory is nonexistent — where is he coming from? why is he doing this? just who is this guy? — his psychosis isn’t to be questioned. Here is a man whose depravity knows no bounds.

Plus, that aura of mystery that first seemed like lazy writing comes back to haunt us later. We want to go digging for answers, any lame justification as to why this man might want to make Maddie suffer, but that’s a fruitless effort. Some people are just no good. That there doesn’t appear to be any kind of personal vendetta means there’s little reasoning with the guy and without reason there can be no comfort. To Maddie’s credit, she does try.

To Siegel’s credit, who also co-wrote the script with Flanagan, her resilient performance is destined to hush the skeptics, those who write off contemporary horror as lazy cash grabs utterly disinterested in offering up intriguing characters (to be fair and as a skeptic myself, they have a valid point with a great many releases). Hush works primarily because of its characters; it’s certainly less ambitious in other aspects. Too often there comes a pause where you think ‘what the hell is the guy doing right now? Why doesn’t he come in and end this now?’ Indeed, the mind is going to wander where it shouldn’t, and that’s an unfortunate result of the story focusing so intensely on how Maddie reacts to a situation that goes from bad to worse. If we’re assuming events are unfolding in real-time, there’s a lot of downtime and that fact becomes quite the distraction.

But this game of cat-and-mouse is too compelling, too tightly-wound to worry about nitpicks like that. You could poke enough holes in the script to make it look like swiss cheese before writing it off as something you’d rather not watch. Hush is so impressive in the way it integrates an atypical character into a more familiar narrative. Not once do you feel bad for Maddie simply because she can’t hear — you fear for her life when that fact actually becomes a threat to her safety, but never do you pity her. She’s a strong and independent woman willing to do what it takes to overcome her terrible situation, willing to do anything other than lay down and die.

What kind of an ending is Maddie going to be able to write for herself? The answer can be found if you’re willing to sit through some seriously uncomfortable silence.

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Recommendation: Hush offers the jaded/casual fan of modern horror another reason to give the genre another go; it’s a character-driven piece with some crucial sound design and editing that rewards more often than not and while there could have been some more substantial development early on, the great performances and unique circumstances are enough to overcome a few shortcomings. If you liked Oculus, you should definitely Flanagan’s latest a shot. Exclusively on Netflix.

Rated: R

Running Time: 87 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Creep

Release: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Patrick Brice; Mark Duplass

Directed by: Patrick Brice

Creep is Brice’s directorial debut, pairing the writer-director with master of strange Mark Duplass of mostly independent film fame. As with his sophomore effort The Overnight the less I mumble on, the higher Creep‘s potential to surprise becomes. And if I’m not just going crazy, Brice seems to like it creepy. Both features thus far feature a substantial amount of pure, unbridled . . . weirdness. (Though The Overnight might eclipse this clearly more modestly budgeted production in that regard.)

But where The Overnight disconcerted viewers by forcing them to bear witness to a pair of thirtysomethings slowly embracing and then taking social improprieties to a whole new level, Creep has very little, if any, basis upon which one could judge socially acceptable behavior. It has this kind of detachment that sets the film distinctly away from normality. The film starts off in a car with a videographer named Aaron (Brice) headed for the rolling hills of Nowheresville, USA to interview someone for . . . something. He’s hoping his subject is a woman, since the only description of the job given is that “discretion would be appreciated.”

Using his handheld camera as the only means of connecting with us, Aaron soon seems like a saint compared to his subject, a lonely man named Josef (Duplass) who comes across as unstable from the get-go. Creep follows Aaron as he gets to know his subject over the course of a single day, and while the usual nitpicks against found footage are on display — I advise against eating while watching because the shaky cam could have an adverse effect — the device is incredibly effective. In places it’s downright chilling.

Brice may be wielding it more often than not but aside from Duplass his recording device is the real star of the film. It’s a unique conduit of information, and not simply for the obvious. The visuals put in front of us are as important as the things we cannot see — a reaction on Aaron’s part; a physical change in perspective. These help build upon Creep‘s steadily ominous and even darkly comic atmosphere. I’m more comfortable placing a stronger emphasis on the former though.

There are a few moments that reveal the inherent flaw of shooting found footage style of course, like when the camera continues rolling when the user ought to just be . . . well . . . . Let’s just say he’s got higher priorities than guiding us through a particular room at a certain point. But this is an issue easily covered up by the strong work turned in by the epitome of a tight-knit cast. It’s just Brice and Duplass in this one. Suffice it to say, Duplass will be difficult to look at the same way again after watching him take this dark turn.

So there I was at the end of the film, standing in the back of this hypothetical screening, applauding emphatically. Maybe that was me making up for my previous indiscretion for trying to leave early. But thank goodness for Brice, for showing not only his ability to make wise decisions with the style but for realizing opportunities to avoid its many pitfalls. Creep may not last long but it is enough.

Recommendation: Living up to its title spectacularly, Creep is light on runtime but dark in tone and refreshingly original. The found footage genre still has life left in it yet! Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for something chilling, and for a great performance from Mark Duplass. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “Tubby time.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Maggie

Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[iTunes]

Written by: John Scott III

Directed by: Henry Hobson

In defense of a very deliberately paced, melancholic film misleadingly billed as a thriller, Maggie serves as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest hour (and a half).

Of course, describing Arnie’s role here as the best thing he’s ever done may seem a relative compliment. There has been no shortage of instances in the past where he has invited parodical criticism without trying. Admittedly memorable, if not slightly comic phrases — most lasting no more than five words or so — have come to define the hulking Austrian and his career as an actor.

It’s just as understandable that many would automatically dismiss as fruitless any attempt he might make to go another direction; to not use his accent as a term of endearment or his muscular bulk, now slipping a bit in his older age, as a force to be reckoned with. When it comes to Henry Hobson’s directorial debut all that remains of the familiar Arnie is his larger-than-life physicality, but even that is somewhat tempered by Claire Breaux‘s suitably understated wardrobe selection.

Rather than obliging himself as some sort of perceived menace or spectacle he’s simply Wade Vogel, a father who must sit and watch as his only daughter succumbs to a deadly virus that converts the living into flesh-craving zombies. Broad shoulders slump; a tough face wrought with wrinkles brought on by wariness. A spirit broken by the knowledge that the ugliness of this apocalyptic event has hit home since Maggie was somewhere she should not have been.

Triumphing over the ubiquitousness of a zombie apocalypse is the love Wade has for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). The relationship is front-and-center, making the film steadily more challenging to endure. Maggie takes its time in tracking the virus as it takes hold of her, though the slow burn isn’t done any favors by the ‘thriller’ classification. There are as many thrills in Maggie as there are desperate pleas from Arnie for his family to get to a chopper. Still, where there isn’t much in the way of action and excitement there also isn’t really a place for it in this deeply personal examination of a family in crisis.

It almost goes without saying that Arnie’s young co-star delivers a heartrending performance as well. This isn’t quite as memorable a lead as her beauty pageant hopeful in Little Miss Sunshine, yet Maggie is a role she can be truly proud of. Breslin embraces a thoroughly challenging character arc, effecting a personality that’s easy to empathize with. Of course, she is a teenaged girl and this is the apocalypse, so who knows what she’d be like under different circumstances. That’s beside the point, though. Together, Breslin and Schwarzenegger make for a fantastic duo that instantly gives this story heft.

There is something to be said for Maggie‘s relentlessly bleak outlook. This isn’t a happy movie. A conclusion seen a mile away, there isn’t a great deal anyone (least of all Wade) can do except hope to be as prepared as possible when the illness takes over completely. A hauntingly beautiful score permeates deep, draped over many a scene like a dense fog, arguably contributing further to the sense of futility in fighting the inevitable.

Though the scene is a zombie outbreak, the allegory isn’t exactly hiding. Maggie’s torturous transition from human into something less than so — more accurately, Wade’s refusal to turn her over to the authorities, preferring to care for her as long as he can — undoubtedly reflects the strength of families afflicted by cancer and similarly devastating diseases. In that context especially, Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem to be the go-to guy. But he’s brilliant. He carries the burden of this tragedy so well it’s difficult to believe this was at one point (and soon to be again, apparently) the Terminator.

Recommendation: An emotionally devastating piece that doubles as a fascinating spin on the ever-popular zombie genre, Maggie isn’t for the casual watcher. This one takes a little determination, but the reward is watching Arnie transition from a physical to a true actor, and witnessing the chemistry he and the young and talented Abigail Breslin have together. That’s how I’d recommend the film: for great characters. I’d also recommend a couple tissues, they might come in handy. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

It Follows

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Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: David Robert Mitchell

Directed by: David Robert Mitchell

Subtly unsettling and certainly spooky the unseen, inexplicable threat at the heart of It Follows is not likely to strike you right away, but if you let it that paranoid feeling will eventually find you.

David Robert Mitchell has come up with a new way to move unsuspecting audiences. By allowing us to conjure in our own minds the worst things possible before exposing us to that which we haven’t quite thought of yet, his sophomore — not sophomoric — effort becomes one of the more inventive horror films in recent years. It may not top the list of films that purport to “scare” — a goal that seems to be becoming increasingly unrealistic — this heady mixture of atmosphere and suspense is far more concerned with making filmgoers uncomfortable. Perhaps the scariest thing about this film is how effective it is in doing just that.

The term ‘safe sex’ may never be thought of the same way again. Maika Monroe makes a more aggressive effort to be recognized by a wider (eyed) audience as 19-year-old Jay Height, a role that follows on the heels of her eminently watchable Anna Peterson from last year’s The Guest. After she and her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) share an intimate moment in the back of her car what has heretofore been a pleasant date night spirals into a harrowing and surreal nightmare that defies explanation. She is drugged by Hugh and later wakes up bound to a chair in a decrepit facility where he proceeds to try and offer some clarification as to what is going on.

Something is after Hugh and he tells her that now she’s had intercourse with him, whatever that something is — I’m not being intentionally vague, the film never allows us to know precisely what this terror actually is — will now be after her. She must sleep with someone else in order to rid herself of this apparent plague, a passing of a most disturbing baton.

It Follows manages to plumb anxiety and fear from deep within over the course of a slow burning, eerie 100 minutes. It helps that the source of this . . . yeah, we’ll just go with ‘plague’ for now, stems from a very personal yet universal experience. Coupled with the fact that every character featured is likable on some level, the indescribable nature of the events — the victim can see the pursuer but no one else can — starts to manifest as something truly horrific. We want Jay et al to overcome this, to escape her slow slide into psychosis and yet the way Mitchell constructs his story we have little choice but to accept that perhaps things just aren’t that simple.

Similarly to Adam Wingard’s adrenaline-spiking throwback to the 80’s, It Follows builds tension and carries momentum on the back of a mesmerizing soundtrack. If it’s not some of the more striking visual imagery that pops out arguably too infrequently throughout, then it’ll be the haunting presence of Disasterpeace’s slinking, sauntering electronica. There are a number of destined-to-be-classic tracks featured here. Fortunately the performances from a relatively unknown cast don’t let the music to do all the talking. And the carefully chosen settings, while nothing that screams big budget, set the tone early for creating a sense of inescapability and hopelessness. We get quaint suburbs, grotesque beach scenes, and an unforgettable stake-out in an aquatic center to name a few.

It Follows doesn’t need in-depth analysis. What it really needs is a wide audience, which it does seem to be receiving now. It needs to be seen, it needs to be felt. Is it too early to call this a future cult classic? Perhaps, but it won’t be a stretch to imagine that happening. Creativity runs amok in this highly effective slice of modern horror, a film where the term ‘thriller’ might be too liberally applied. I’d much prefer to label this one a chiller.

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4-0Recommendation: David Robert Mitchell cranks up the tension from the opening shot. Patience might be tested for some as there isn’t a great deal of fast, frenetic action, and there’s certainly an absence of those “classic” jump scare tactics. That’s chiefly why It Follows has this ability to follow you out of the theater. It’s disturbing in a realistic way. For anyone wanting a refreshing change-up within the genre, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Only Lovers Left Alive

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Release: Friday, April 11, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Vampires have never seemed as hipster as they do in Jim Jarmusch’s beautifully framed and deliberately paced tale of two long-time lovers reuniting in Detroit — but in an incredible twist of fate script they have also never seemed so appealing.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are in a romance so convincing their performances transcend faking attachment at the hip. Hiddleston’s unkempt Adam and Swinton’s fragile but unbroken Eve — don’t worry, the names are tongue-in-cheek — coalesce on a spiritual level we can’t help but believe wholeheartedly. If you can quash the temptation to label them as the most anti-social couple of all time (or at least since the 16th Century) you’ve won half the battle that is the challenge to the perception of the vampiric legend that is Only Lovers Left Alive.

The second half of the battle is accessing the conclusion of the film, a galvanizing reflection on the “gift” of mortality. Being mortal may suck, but probably not as much as sucking blood for to stick around longer to see what, if anything, about eternity might change, sucks. For this is a slow-burn, a candle-wax dripping kind of slow that will have some feeling as though they are macraméing themselves to their couch. Hipster me loves the pacing, the tedium of old souls scourging the Earth for something new to invigorate their old-fashioned sensibilities while they reap the benefits of humans (a.k.a. ‘zombies’) making short work of destroying themselves through selfishness, bitterness and open hostility. It’s a challenge to be sure, but the reward gained from enduring is a vampiric cinematic experience unlike anything else.

Only Lovers is not as static as it sounds. Jim Jarmusch, both writer and director of this offbeat little gem, throws a kink in the perpetually unaddressed ‘vampiric’ lifestyle in the form of Mia Wasikowska’s much younger and more reckless Ava, sister of Eve. When she randomly shows up in Adam’s secret hideaway — a cramped space more akin to a hoarder’s cavern — she threatens to expose the pair’s identity to the world at large. For presumably decades, perhaps centuries, Adam’s been impressively fending off any curious passersby who have dared approach his stoop and now, this relative adolescent is about to be his and his beloved’s downfall? He’ll be fanged if it happens on his watch.

(In)accessibility is part of Only Lovers‘ hipster appeal, and because it is, I ought to embellish on my introductory statements, lest I be mistaken for one myself. If you don’t “get” this film, then you’re just not cool enough . . .

No, but seriously. I’ve taken off my thick wire-framed glasses and am prepared to give this film a proper look. It’s a sluggish, stubborn film, even for someone who enjoys the slow burn. And Only Lovers lacks the crackling power at the end of the fuse and if you so much as yawn during any given moment you’re likely to miss something that adds to this collage of atmospheric production and refined performance. I guess what I’m saying is that for every reason Jarmusch’s commitment to the offbeat is effective it is also polarizing. That’s a shame when this movie is this well-acted and cast. It also finds profundity in the decrepitude of a Detroit reeling in the economic collapse of 2008/2009. A former car manufacturing plant is converted into a gothic cathedral wherein our leads find solace and serves as one of the film’s more impressive set pieces.

Perhaps what is most admirable about this non-conformer is its odd sense of humor. Without this Only Lovers would be labeled an obtuse, pretentious bit of film, unable or even unwilling to harness its true potential. But because vampires refer to us mere mortals as the weird ones; because Anton Yelchin’s Ian, guitar enthusiast and friend of Adam, is too ignorant for his own good, there is a thread of commonality that unites vampire and zombie. The weirdness is most certainly accessible to the open-minded. Jim Jarmusch is inviting those who are curious inside his unique little world with fantastic performances and beautifully realized settings alike.

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3-5Recommendation: Only Lovers Left Alive is a film not just for the fang-toothed. I just checked in the mirror; I am sadly (fortunately?) without any. It needs to be said I’m not really faithful to vampire films. In fact, I have a great distaste for them. I find the genre more cliched than romance and action films combined, yet I now find a soft spot for this one. As The National’s very own Matt Berninger sings, I’m on a blood buzz. Yes I am. I’m on a blood buzz. Don’t worry, that’s not supposed to mean anything. I just wanted an excuse to include those awesome lyrics.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Please, feel free to piss in my garden.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com