In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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; www.movieinsider.com 

Glass

Release: Friday, January 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

All the pieces finally fall into place for M. Night Shyamalan and his long-gestating superhero trilogy with Glass, in part a direct sequel to 2017’s psychological thriller Split as well as a belated return to the awe-inspiring identity crisis established 19 years ago in Unbreakable. Glass is far from perfectly polished, but against all odds the third and final chapter not only justifies its own existence, it justifies everything leading up to it, notably the ending to the last installment.

For what it’s worth, Anya Taylor Joy wasn’t the only one being held captive that day. I was such a prisoner of the moment, convinced the writer/director had just written and directed himself into a corner he was at the same time being pressured into by modern industry trends. But this knee-jerk reaction failed to take into account that Shyamalan had wanted to expand upon ideas established in Unbreakable years ago but just couldn’t get a studio to bite on a Part 2. In fact Split‘s compellingly deranged anti-hero was extracted from a ditched subplot in Unbreakable and in (one of Shymalan’s favorite things) a twist of fate, that film, unlike its predecessor, was immediately embraced critically and commercially. And now here we are, at the end of the line — the culmination of what we should, I suppose, formally recognize as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Not a very sexy name, is it?

Glass technically begins three weeks after the conclusion of Split, reuniting us with David Dunn (Willis the Bruce) and his now-grown-but-still-believing son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), running a little Bruce Wayne-like operation in the back of David’s own private security firm, with Joseph keeping online tabs on the seedy activity taking place in the shadows of metro Philadelphia while his father “goes for walks,” physically immersing himself in those shadows, brushing up against — well, you know how it works. We first see The Overseer, as he’s now known amongst internet fanbases, taking down a punk with a mean-spirited YouTube channel, confronting him in his own house and overpowering him by some margin in a bit of gleeful fan service.

The story proper is set into motion when David and the notorious kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are escorted to a remote psychiatric facility after a skirmish that spills out into the streets. Even though David successfully frees a group of high school cheerleaders Kevin and his multiple personalities (a.k.a. “The Horde”) have chained up in a warehouse, not everyone views his vigilantism as being in the best interests of the public. Kevin’s behavior is much less defensible; why they are both punished equally here kind of defies reason, but then again airtight logic has never been one of Shyamalan’s superpowers as a writer. Regardless, the pair are going to be having a little chat with a Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a very specific kind of delusion. The “I believe I am a superhero” kind of specific.

This of course is the same facility housing David’s nemesis, Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who, despite his near-comatose appearance, is under the most severe scrutiny given his propensity for manipulation and deception. Dr. Staple’s job is to convince her patients that what they have been experiencing are merely complex coping mechanisms after having lived through trauma. Yet within the context of the entire saga, the character — less a human and more a plot device, granted — represents an evolution in perspective. Unbreakable posed the question of whether or not superheroes really walk among us and it did so by comparing the naivety of Joseph versus that of his father; the point of view was private, personal, highly contentious. In Glass that perspective is systematically denied. Instead this is about an institution that believes it has the ultimate perspective. As the woman in the white lab coat suggests, if superheroes are real why are there only three of them?

If you want dissenting opinions, you’ve come to the right place. I was really impressed with what Shyamalan was able to create on such a modest budget, funding the $20 million project himself. (I wonder what my life would be like if I had that amount to throw at one thing.) Budgetary constraints are on display everywhere: they explain why we are for a large portion of the film trapped more or less in a single room with a “field expert” who enjoys bludgeoning her patients (and us) with medical jargon and bureaucratese. They explain the incident in the parking lot, the pistol and the pothole — the latter representing a truly creative resolution for something we all saw coming. Yet I can’t say the low overhead necessarily enhances the experience, either; it’s never less than a nagging thought that the film might have gone a different direction with just a little more money behind it.

Whether that would have been a more satisfying direction is obviously speculative. Going out with a bigger bang might have been more visually gratifying, but it would also risk violating the code of understatement Shyamalan has remained faithful to. As it stands, there is a surprising amount of weight that accumulates at an emotional and psychological level, and it is still the performances that make the movie. In its closing moments the actors are reaching some pretty spectacular heights (Willis aside, I won’t dissent on that widely-held opinion). I maintain that Mr. Glass is up there with some of Jackson’s career-best work, he’s a tragic and complicated figure. Meanwhile, McAvoy somehow one-ups his previous effort in Split by embracing even more of The Horde. In the process he illuminates his internal pain and turmoil in ways we haven’t yet seen.

Despite several blemishes in the script (inept orderlies, anyone?) and the fact Shyamalan reaches for but never quite achieves profundity, Glass ultimately succeeds in bringing closure to a series and a unique set of characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this is either a swan song or a magnum opus. It’s simply a compelling film chockfull with geeky references to comic book lore and the culture surrounding it, and it is arguably his best effort in nearly two decades.

“Do it! Say osteogenesis imperfecta one more time . . .!”

Recommendation: Glass isn’t the event film most comic book adaptations are compelled to become and that alone feels refreshing. Getting to see all three characters share the screen is exciting, with James McAvoy being a true stand-out. The story is absolutely steeped in the language of comic books (becoming super-meta at the end with certain characters observing how reality is merging with events depicted in the comics — a nice touch even if a bit silly), and yet I think there is plenty here to recommend to viewers who aren’t hardcore about collecting and reading comics.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This was an origin story the whole time.”

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

Mock and Roll

Release: Friday, November 30, 2018 (watch now on Amazon Prime) 

→Vimeo 

Written by: Ben Bacharach-White; Mark Stewart

Directed by: Ben Bacharach-White

You don’t need to be a groupie to join in on the fun in Mock and Roll, a low-budget yet high-spirited independent film representing the Columbus, Ohio underground filmmaking scene and styled as a mockumentary that follows a broke, inexperienced but always optimistic parody cover band and their wacky attempts to secure the necessary funding and fanbase to earn a coveted spot at the South by Southwest Music Festival. At 84 minutes Mock and Roll is a breezy romp and features a creative use of limited locations and visual effects to give character to its small-town, big-dream ideas.

In an example of life imitating art, director Ben Bacharach-White has successfully steered his production into several film festivals nationwide, beginning with the Austin Revolution Film Festival where Mock and Roll was nominated in six categories including Best Comedy, Actor, Actress and Director. Along the circuit, which took the crew from Oklahoma to Florida to Michigan and back to their stomping grounds in Ohio, the film collected wins in Best Feature and Best Original Score.

Certainly, the more well-versed you are in the world of rock music the more primed you’re going to be for a geek out at the cameos made by British drummer Roger Earl (of Foghat), American singer/songwriter Michael Stanley, and the members of the Black Owls, a Cincinnati-based band once described as “David Byrne channeling Edgar Allen Poe fronting Steppenwolf,” and whose tunes these four friends are parodying.

The tricky part about the concept of a parody band is that their effectiveness tends to be predicated on having a working knowledge of lyrical content. If you know Cheap Trick, you’ll recognize their 1978 hit single ‘Surrender’ becoming ‘Bartender,’ but then it’s possible you might miss the references within those jokes — take for example ‘Tonight It’s You’ evolving into ‘Tonight It’s Who,’ a riff on a classic Abbott and Costello skit called ‘Who’s On First?’ And the comical rewrites of Black Owls lyrics are likely to go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t call Ohio home.

The band call themselves Liberty Mean, a pair of words lifted from a lyric from one of their idol’s songs that ends up taking on an amusing mystique when taken out of context. Liberty Mean are: Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), vocals/rhythm guitar; Rick (Chris Wolfe), lead guitar/backing vocals; Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), bass guitar and Bun (Andrew Yackel) on drums. The band’s antics and misadventures are captured by a documentarian, Sully (William Scarborough), while Comedy Central’s Alex Ortiz briefly appears as a whack-a-doodle doctor whose medical credentials may or may not be entirely legit. Additional supporting parts go to home-grown talent: KateLynn E. Newberry as Jan, Rick’s girlfriend/the band’s promoter; Melissa O’Brien as Bun’s scheming aunt Duckie and Michael Compton and Brian Bowman as two potential roadblocks to the band’s success, as “art collectors” Ray and Dante respectively.

The main cast form a lively bunch of well-meaning but utterly unprepared dreamers who first bomb out on a Kickstarter-like campaign when they ask for too much money. They visit a “friendly doctor” who promises cash rewards for their participation and things just get weird. Then it gets dangerous as they dip their toes into the world of shady art dealings at the behest of Bun and his aunt — a role originally drawn up to be played by a male but that which O’Brien successfully lobbied to have changed for a female, thus Aunt Duckie. Their lives and careers now in jeopardy, they must decide what they are willing and not willing to do to make the dream work.

Each of the performers brings a distinct personality to their parts, but I found two in particular really stood out. Between Yackel’s philosophizing and Wolfe’s brash confidence (culminating in a really awkward meet-and-greet with their heroes), these two are a lot of fun to watch. But Bhanja is also very likable as the unifying force and lead singer, while Jarernpone brings a cooler, more level-headed bass line to proceedings. The screenplay, a collaboration between Bacharach-White and Mark Stewart, isn’t without its own surprises, either. They find a clever way of reconciling the dream with reality, providing a denouement that is not only fitting of the circumstances but entertaining in its own right.

Mock and Roll is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: Fans of rock music and independent filmmaking need to add to their playlist Mock and Roll, an inventive production that wears its passions on its sleeve. While I often found myself out of the loop in terms of the lyrics that were being parodied, there is plenty here to latch on to narratively and character-wise. But if you have indeed heard of the Black Owls, then surely this film will be a special treat. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Privilege is EARNED!!!”

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Mark Stewart 

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.”

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

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

Hell-Bent

'Hell-Bent' movie poster

Release: Monday, May 23, 2016 (YouTube)

[YouTube]

Written by: Shayne Kamat; Lorenzo Cabello

Directed by: Foster Vernon


The following piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. Thank you James for giving me the chance to talk about this new film student production.


Hell-Bent is clearly the product of film student passion and represents something of an experimental comedy, one that unfortunately becomes too silly for its own good and struggles to justify the half-hour runtime.

The premise is nothing if not inventive. It involves a writer named Michael (Justin Andrew Davis) working at a fictional magazine called Brimstone and who is struggling to find confidence in himself. When the editor makes available an assistant editor position Michael finds himself in a cutthroat competition with his fellow writers, namely the overconfident and unnecessarily bitchy Beth (Ashley Kelly) to get a pay raise. Goodness knows it’d make paying the rent easier for Michael.

He does a little poking around for any local stories of interest and quickly finds one. Turns out, the older lady who works with them has a pretty interesting private life. When he goes over to her house one day he discovers a pentagram drawn on her basement floor. Agatha (Leslie Lynn Meeker) casually explains this is where she summons up a demon whenever she needs some company. She demonstrates, speaking gibberish until actor Steven Trolinger, painted head-to-toe in red paint, pops up out of nowhere. He’s Ricky, and he’s evil. We know this because he has a really foul mouth and likes being a nuisance.

At first Michael is terrified but soon realizes he has the perfect idea for his next article. He’ll write about the “good in evil” that he’s found, and will go into detail about how one of Brimstone Magazine’s own has made a pact to be homies with the Darkness. Meanwhile, Beth is on an office tear and making fun of everyone else’s attempts to come up with their best story. It’s a matter of time before she publicly decries Michael’s story as garbage, too.

That she’s supremely confident the promotion is already hers leaves one wondering whether the overacting is an indictment of people in the industry or that it’s showing certain people just seem like they were born to go to hell (also see: Timothy J. Cox as the douche-mitten of an editor Mr. Bowers). The script may not exactly be subtle but it’s still not really clear which it is. Oh well, let’s just agree that everyone at work seems to suck; that Michael’s only real friends seem to be a woman who is friends with some of Satan’s crew and that the paint splattered on Ricky is pretty sloppy. (We can see it’s in his hair.)

Hell-Bent is written, edited and lensed by Fairleigh Dickinson University film student Shayne Kamat. Direction is provided by newcomer Foster Vernon. The whole enterprise has a loose comedic dynamic to it that helps us overlook the amateurish execution of plot and some cringe-inducing acting. It’s the kind of fun you have to take lightly and not think twice about, because the second thought will invariably draw attention to the limitations that a virtually nonexistent budget, one largely generated by the filmmakers’ IndieGogo fundraising campaign, ensures.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 8.07.13 PM

Recommendation: Hell-Bent is a strange experiment designed to parody genre features centered around the occult but it’s not very successful. It’s a short film that doesn’t have much of an identity but given the lack of experience both in front of and behind the camera, I can forgive it a little easier. Motivational and inspiring enough for students who are figuring out just what it is they want to with their careers but not much else.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 26 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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

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

New Cops

'New Cops' movie poster

Release: Monday, February 15, 2016 (online)

[YouTube]

Directed by: Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton’s New Cops has a cozy home-made feel to it and while the low overhead is certainly noticeable it doesn’t stop us from having a little bit of fun with these guys.

Morton’s latest, a project six years in the making, premiered on February 15 on NoBudge.com, a screening venue for independent film where a new short or feature film is added every Tuesday. The brainchild of independent actor and filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has been running the show since 2011, NoBudge has become testament to what can be accomplished on practically zero-dollar budgets (hence the site title).

New Cops finds Morton playing a man in a funk, someone sleepwalking through his every day existence while experiencing bizarre yet fulfilling dreams every time he goes to sleep, where he enjoys the power and prestige that comes with being the President (of what exactly, I was never sure. Of the nation? Of a company? Does it matter?) One afternoon his friend Chet (Jimmy Kustes) shows up asking for a couch to crash on for a couple of days while a storm blows over at his house.

Soon enough Chet proves to be quite the nuisance as he tries to rope Tim into various schemes such as passing off neighborhood junk as usable on Craig’s List, and scamming fast food joints with expired coupons. If that wasn’t enough, it’s been several days since Tim has seen his girlfriend and he has not a clue as to her whereabouts, though he suspects she’s with another man. As his real world problems start to seep into his idealized existence, Tim is forced to take action in the only way he knows how: hire a private detective (David Maloney) to do the President’s dirty work.

New Cops, a title derived from a TV show Tim likes to watch, struggles to make a lot of sense. Given that its protagonist seems to spend more time in a dreamlike trance than out of one, I can let the lapses in logic and unexplained (or poorly conceived) developments slide. There is a lot of charm to the awkwardness and dialogue is largely improvised, giving conversations a natural flow, even if that flow is interrupted regularly by some jumpy editing.

Morton’s latest is a fun, creative slice of mumblecore cinema that explores the frustration of a man desperate to overcome self-esteem issues and it often does so to comic effect. It’s a strange adventure that interrogates the very nature and significance of our dreams.

Recommendation: While there are many issues I have with the film on a technical level, overall I think this is a fairly successful experiment that I have no trouble recommending to others who appreciate and actively support micro-budget independent cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 52 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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

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