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 

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.

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 

Dallas Buyers Club

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Release: Friday, November 1, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

AIDS sucks. Rednecks’ treatment of animals sucks. The government sucks. For everything else that doesn’t suck, there’s Dallas Buyers Club.

Ron Woodruff would probably approve of my spin on the Mastercard jingle. Well, all except the part about the treatment of animals, as he’s a cowboy himself and couldn’t care less about a raging bull’s balls.

To go off on a little tangent here (because rodeos really make me upset since I think the sport epitomizes the term ‘pointless’) bullriders are mysterious creatures to me. Well, sad really. They sit atop an animal more than five times their size, an animal they’re about to make feel half the size of human beings because the whole point is to dominate the animal for eight seconds; an animal that’s recently and intentionally been enraged by getting its genitalia vice-gripped by some retard rodeo clown. Riders ironically then have this look of terror on their face as soon as the ride begins. When they either succeed or fail at maintaining that short period of time professionally molesting the animal, they run away (or get trampled). Game over. They get points and recognition out of this somehow.

Though the redneck quota may be sky-high, thankfully this film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t focus too terribly much on this grim aspect of certain cultures. Interestingly enough, it errs on the side of the inhumanity towards other humans. In the mid-1980s the height of the fear and misunderstanding surrounding the HIV/AIDS virus had reached its pinnacle. Those who had it were the quote-unquote undesirable types — homosexuals, intravenous drug users, losers, etcetera. This was a disease generally viewed as one that people ‘deserved.’

So when rowdy old Ron (McConaughey) collapses in his trailer home one day and finds himself in the hospital when he next wakes up, the news that he has HIV and hence why he’s so weak lately comes as a great shock. His level of ignorance and intolerance at first matches that of the nation’s in this decade. He can’t stand the idea that he could possibly get a disease like this: “There ain’t nothin’ that can take Ron Woodruff down in 30 days.” While his T-cell count may be down to nine, his brain cell count has to be even lower. However, he’s not so stupid as to avoid researching his situation. And sure as hellfire he discovers that indeed, having drunken and unprotected sex in the filth and squalor of a trailer park with ghastly-looking whores, well shucks. . . that’d sure do it.

That I started off not having high opinions of this character of McConaughey’s speaks to the quality of his performance. After seeing him earlier this year in Mud, it seemed the standard had been set then and there for Best Male Lead Performance, and since then there’s only been maybe a handful of others who might give the titular character a run for his money. But I have a feeling come the Oscars the conversation will oddly not include that role; instead it will focus on his skinny-jeans Ron Woodruff. You will start out hating this man and all of his ridiculous insecurities and phobias, yet come the end of the film you may or may not be weeping for him. Depends on how sturdy you are as a filmgoer, I suppose.

That we end up feeling anything for Woodruff at all, though, is credited to Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and their superb writing — writing that brings rough-around-the-edges characters front-and-center and making them compelling to watch. Woodruff may be a bit of a misanthrope (aren’t all rednecks?) but his motivation for staying alive makes who and what he is that much more complex. While he almost can’t stand being around gay people or transexuals or what-have-you, everything he does in Dallas Buyers Club post-doctor visit is for the betterment of not only himself, but for those who he deems worthy of a fighting chance of survival (anyone who can afford to be in his Buyers Club, that is).

Inspired by events he’s heard about happening in other parts of the country, he starts up a highly illegal Buyers Club of his own in a hotel in Dallas, with the sole purpose being to serve as an alternative treatment center for those with the disease. His experiences with hospitals and advanced medical care — stuff that hasn’t been working at all — has led him to this point. Enlisting the help of a vivacious transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), Woodruff’s rusty exterior slowly starts to peel away, revealing a softer man who is far more altruistic than his environment might otherwise suggest.

Speaking of Leto, it’s good to see that his band 30 Seconds to Mars allowed him to take some much-needed time off, so he could starve himself down to 114 pounds for this role. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club might actually top a career-defining one from his co-star. At the very least, what Leto had to do to get into character here was a bit more complicated. On one level, he’s playing a man who seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, and on another, he’s a man stricken with this horrible disease that is wasting his body away. Some of the more powerful imagery in this film stem from scenes in which Leto’s present. Coupled with an infectious attitude that his Rayon has, Leto might well be more memorable than McConaughey here, though that’s not to say one truly outweighs the other. Combined, the two put on a most transformative show and are fully convincing, in every sense of the word. They keep this rather sad affair afloat.

Jennifer Garner is also quite spectacular, playing the conflicted Dr. Eve Saks, who is one of the first to tell Woodroof he has a mere 30 days left to live. The doc’s role is a particularly tricky one, what with having to tow the line between policies and procedures set forth by her institution, as well as showing that she truly cares about her patients with a terminal illness. Deftly balancing her character’s professionalism with some strong emotional moments, Garner, while never being an actress I’ve kept an eye on, suits the scene just fine here and in many cases she bears too much of the burden herself. In some ways she is as tragic as the people who are physically suffering.

The sum total of Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t end up arriving at the most profound conclusions that the dedication of its lead actors here more often than not suggests. The story arc, unpredictable as it is, is sort of a one-way street, which in some ways makes the concept feel limited. But it’s within the performances where this movie really lies. Its cast is dedicated to providing physically accurate renderings of this brutal illness, which is enough of a basis to recommend this film on alone. Getting into the personalities behind the Dallas Buyers Club, however. . .well that’s another story entirely.

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4-5Recommendation: This is a performance-driven piece, so if you are into that sort of thing, Dallas Buyers Club should have you covered. More specifically. . . McConaughey seems to have hit his stride as a dramatic actor. Between this and his fugitive from this spring, he has this year alone turned in some of the more compelling anti-heros that I personally can recall in years. But I would like to again emphasize this isn’t just the McSkinny-hey show. Leto gives it his all here as well, humanizing a kind of person many typically turn a blind eye to. After a four-year hiatus, it is good to see him also returning in fine form. . .even if his physique here betrays the concept of ‘fine form.’

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club.”

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