Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Munger Road (2011)

Overall, I thought Munger Road was rather entertaining, if amateur.  Sure, it's pretty much a retread of two types of movie: teenagers horseplaying and falling prey; and a cop chasing a long-time nemesis--but it still managed to hook me for a pleasant evening of independent horror film.  So go out there and support independent film   

The plot is pretty standard, with some interesting variations.  A group of teens (two couples) decide to take their chances by visiting the notorious, haunted Munger Road on  the outskirts of their city, in the middle of the night.  At the same time, we follow a police story about an equally notorious killer who has just escaped.  I couldn't help but think of Halloween with this killer-on-the-loose as Michael, and the cop as Dr. Loomis.  In any case, the oscillation between the two intervening plots helps keep the pacing up and the story interesting.

At first I thought the perspective was going to stay predominantly through the teens' handheld camera, but, luckily, we stay in the omnipresent third-person camera most of the time.  The handheld camera is used a couple of times for some nice little horror-film antics, though. 

The acting was above average for an indie horror flick.  I enjoyed the genuine fun everyone on set seemed to be having with their roles and interactions.

So, again, it's a retread of movies we've seen before.  But, with above-average acting and some nice thrills, it is worth a watch.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Tall Man (2012)

I wonder if I would've enjoyed The Tall Man more if I hadn't thought it had something to do with Phantasm.  Perhaps the is the first case where eschewing trailers, synopses, etc. backfired, because I kept waiting for something supernatural: for the crazy spiked orb to appear; for the funeral director; for grave-robbing; for something that either signaled to me that this was a remake or the fifth installment of the quadrilogy.  In the end, I realized that this didn't really have anything to do with Phantasm other than the fact that there was a character named The Tall Man.

Aside from my own self-imposed confusions and preconceptions, the plot takes three distinct turns, all of which are welcome individually and collectively.  It begins as a straightforward suspense-thriller about a small ex-mining town, called Cold Rock, in Washington state, where children are disappearing.  The town suspects a figure known as The Tall Man.  Then the film turns into a psychological thriller; and finally into a dramatic moral-dilemma piece.  I won't give anything away by expanding on any of these genres, but I will say that Pascal Laugier (notorious writer-director of Martyrs) did a great job showcasing his talents as a storyteller.

Most notable, visually, is the locale used for the film.  One really feels the gloom and inescapable despair of the deteriorated small-town, U. S. A.  I've seen plenty of films with this setting, but Laugier gives us a beautiful depiction, using all sorts of details: children playing card games atop torn-out vehicle bench seats, for one example.  And there's domestic drama just as we see on episodes of Cops!  Transition shots of natural Washington state are not only breathtaking but also effective at imbibing a sense of isolation on the audience.

I am not a Jessica Biel fan--never have been, not even in the Texas Chainsaw remake; not even in Seventh Heaven.  But Biel shines brightly in The Tall Man.  I was blown away by her acting.  And her looks weren't used at all (as in Texas Chainsaw) to make up for bland acting.  In fact, she's pale and ratty and dressed in unflattering clothing pretty much the entire time.  All other characters were mere flora and fauna, dismissible--well--solely there to support Biel's role.

Though this film has horror elements, you could watch it with anyone who loves suspense-thrillers, as it never really strays too far into mystical horror elements.  But it's still welcome for horror fans as a highly entertaining piece of cinema.  Here's to Pascal Laugier and Jessica Biel for delivering something of worth to the plethora of films out there.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, October 1, 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Beyond the Black Rainbow arrived just in time to be added as the second movie in a Friday Night Double Feature, following The Tall Man.  As usual, I knew nothing about this movie, save for the facts that it was sci-fi, an 80s throwback, and mind-bending--tags added by Netflix.  Thus I expected something trippy and oldschool, but I didn't expect an above-average arthouse-style mind-explosion!

What I took away in terms of the story was that there's a girl who has been held captive in a 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque facility her entire life, and there's her psychiatrist who has been doing some really far-out stuff with her.  That's all one needs to know for the plot, and I think the Netflix envelope says as much.  All of the plot's complexities and subplots and twists will steadily make their appearances, enveloped within a panoply of cerebral, dreamlike effects.  It's safe to say this is a movie most will agree that one must be in the right frame of mind to watch.

The visual elements of this movie are incredible.  Absolutely incredible!  Rich colors à la early Argento--Suspiria, for example.  During sequences of artistic mastery, the pacing is slowed way down, and we are subjected to stunning, stupor-inducing visuals.  At times, you will mutter what the...? but your bafflement, your questioning will trail off because you will be sitting on the edge of the couch, wide-eyed, unblinking, taken hostage by the meticulously edited effects.  There are even a few righteous scenes of bloodspraying that aptly pay that 80s homage.  Even if there wasn't a plot, I would've loved this movie just for the experience it delivers.

The acting is phenomenal.  The cast is minimal: really just the psychiatrist (Michael Rogers) and the patient/captive (Eva Allan).  From start to finish, Rogers shines, albeit blackly, as an obsessive maniac with a violent bent, and Allan shines as the tender, beautiful innocence upon which the former character is subjecting his demented plans (wait till you see the sketches!).  The initial counseling session is properly paced to establish the tense emotions of the two characters that will soon burst forth and send the movie spiraling into a myriad directions.

Overall, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a great movie.  Very well put together; and a great experience for the viewer.  It is, however, one of those movies one must be in the mood for.  I can see it being relegated to boring, confusing, or even pretentious by those not in the right mood--and I don't (necessarily) mean dropping acid.  When you have time and you're not sleepy (because some of the sequences are drawn out in the manner of a Ti West film) and you're in the mood for an artistic, psychological, visually-stunning cinematic experience, just pop this little treat in and enjoy!

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Victim (2011)

Unless you're like me and you have undertaken a responsibility to watch any and every horror movie that hits the shelves, you can probably skip The Victim and be perfectly fine with your life.  It's not that it's a bad film; it just doesn't deliver anything worth watching.  There were several times when I contemplated turning it off and doing something more useful, but I had awaited the BluRay from Netflix long enough to warrant sticking it out and hoping for the best.  And though there was never really any payoff, there were plenty of little moments of charm (even if they weren't intended the way I took them) that keep me going to the end.

The plot is fairly simple, as is the cast and setting.  Two cops are engaging in illicit activities with a couple of strippers out in the middle of wooded nowhere.  When things take a wrong turn, one of the strippers, wearing heeled boots, is able to outrun two in-shape cops and make it to a little cabin where a man seeking solitude, and (as we find out) reformation from his old ways, is there to take her in and help with the situation.  So, yeah, pretty simple setup.  And, again, sort of like a simple Troma plot (e.g. Mother's Day, where a group of criminals barge in on a group of friends), the setup and action takes place quickly, leaving the remainder of the film to be creative with sparse materials.  So, we get the usual format of twisted cop versus civilian, and the tables turn a couple times, etc.  Unfortunately the space for creativity is filled in with plenty of runtime padding, especially the opening credits.  Oh, and by the way, this is apparently based on a true story.

As I said, the plot is as simple as the cast and the setting.  It's a very small cast--and, in fact, the end credits spend a lot of time saluting the crew more so than the cast, which was pretty cool.  Each crew member, down to the gaffer, is presented in full-screen with his or her name and role, one at a time.  I think this was a nice token of appreciation on part of, I'm assuming, writer-director-actor Michael Biehn.  And I can't fault the film for its setting either, as some of my favorite movies take place entirely in the woods and at a cabin (Evil Dead!).  But, again with the padding: the sequences of driving around!  Yes, we get that they are in the middle of nowhere!  And why were the SUV's headlights off most of the time, in the woods, in the middle of the night?

The acting was mostly atrocious, especially between Michael Biehn and real-life spouse Jennifer Blanc.  For people who are actually married, their on-screen interaction was rigid, forced, unnatural.  Perhaps being married was the problem?  But I've seen better interaction (Courtney Cox and David Arquette, even after all their personal, media-ridiculed shenanigans) between married couples on-screen.  In any case, the dialogue between these two was painful to watch.  Which eventually led me back to thinking that this was deliberate.  That the film really was supposed to be a cheesy throwback.  What would've helped is if there had been more of the fan-favorite Danielle Harris, who only really appears in flashbacks.  Overall, it seemed to me that Ryan Honey was having the most fun with his role.

Despite its flaws--the padding, the poor dialogue, the overly simple and reused setup--The Victim does deliver some amusing elements.  Michael Biehn's macho-coolguy demeanor was entertaining.  There's a moment when he starts yelling at Jennifer Blanc to "stop yelling at me" when she wasn't really yelling at all.  It was kind of amusing in that I felt I got a glimpse at what arguments and other forms of domestic bickering are like for the two.  In the end, though, the most irritating part of my experience was my constant wondering about what this film was trying to be.  At times it felt like an homage to the old Troma films; at other times it felt like it was blatantly cheesy; but still, at other times I could tell it was taking itself way too seriously.  There was some gratuitous use of Blanc and Harris that will probably, unfortunately, be the only reason most people watch the movie (sort of like The Brown Bunny).

Rating: 2/5

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Loved Ones (2009)

Typically I patiently await my Netflix rentals, no matter if they actually ship on time or if they go into the limbo of short-wait, long-wait, unavailable, or otherwise unknown release/ship date.  But when it comes to movies from the Outback (or from France) I can't wait.  They have simply been too good for me to pass up.  So, as soon as I saw that The Loved Ones indeed did not ship the day before its projected release, I promptly removed it from my queue altogether and secured a rental at the local grocery through Redbox.  Again, something I rarely feel compelled to do, especially when I know the genre is in the torture vein--something I don't care that much for, no matter how well done.  All this to say, my expectations were high, and by the time I got the movie started I silently demanded it to deliver.

And boy did it deliver!  From Lake Mungo to The Clinic to The Loved Ones, these Aussies know how to make a movie!  Everything is evenly balanced: pacing, lighting, thrills, character chemistry, backstory, and so on.  Going into it, I knew the basic plot: an obsessed woman kidnaps her prom date and tortures him like crazy.  And, well, this is mostly true, though if you want to quibble in semantics it's not technically what happens.  Which is nice, because as soon as the action begins (and it begins fairly early) there's a nice little twist on the presumed plot.  But then I saw the running time was pretty early in the film, and I worried that it would degrade into trashy, mindless torture for the duration.  And while it pretty much does deliver a lot of trashy torture, the movie swings back and forth from setting to setting, all in linear time, to show how his (the captive's) mother and girlfriend are coping with the disappearance; his hilariously awkward buddy and his goth prom date; and a police officer who is put on the case to find him.  All of the performances are strong enough to keep the film alive and entertaining.

Speaking of his hilariously awkward buddy and his goth prom date, this film dishes out black humor from start to finish.  The first glimpse of the tone this film would take while delivering its vicious torture sequences was when the captor stops by a chicken place to pickup dinner!  I figured this would be a one-off little gag, but it is the first of a series of hilarious moments of black humor that I want to watch again and again, making this not only a great film to watch alone; but also a great film to watch with a group.

Now, let's talk about our antagonist, Lola (played by Robin McLeavy).  Wow.  What a performance.  She is twisted, evil, relentless--yet brilliant, perfect, and mesmerizing.  I always welcome a gender twist on this genre, and I believe this might be the best performance I've seen to date.  McLeavy's first couple appearances on-screen are nothing if not cliché, so again I worried that this film would fall into the pit of dross with countless other films.  On the contrary, Lola shines as many different personalities.  At first, you think she's a little girl trapped in a woman's body, depending on her daddy to make her dreams come true--so, a sort of shy innocence that will endure throughout the film.  But you quickly find that she has a commanding, aggressive, violent bent, in addition to some illicit father-daughter propensities.  To sum it up, this is one evil femme fatale who stands apart from all others I've seen (on-screen and in real life).

So, as if it weren't enough for me to hear two clips of Parkway Drive's music a couple times, The Loved Ones pays strong homages to a classic of modern horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  In the end, I was thoroughly entertained and walked away with a great cinematic experience.  If you even remotely enjoy the torture genre (and no, this is not torture-porn), you're going to welcome The Loved Ones with open arms.  If you like horror movies in general and you're interested to see what these Aussie's have done with a genre that is running out of gas, you're going to be thrilled with this film.  And if you're worried that this is another take on remaking Prom Night, put it out of your mind--only about 3 minutes of the film take place within the venue of the prom (the goings on just outside, however, are utilized aplenty and are more than welcome).  Here's to yet another treat from the land down under!

Rating: 4/5

Friday, September 14, 2012

Entrance (2012)

Entrance is a film I can honestly say I watched 100% cold.  I knew nothing about this movie.  I think I added it to my queue because I saw the title pop up in my Bloody Disgusting feed or something.  In any case, I knew so little about the film that I didn't know whether to take the title, entrance, as a verb or a noun.  Was this a film about entrancing people, as in hypnosis?  Or did it have to do with entering something--or someone?  Well, as it turns out, the title can be taken either and both ways.  And it wasn't bad at all, to boot!

Now, after 15 minutes, I wasn't really digging the film, and I almost turned it off.  Could have been due to a long day, a hard workout, an evening of playing with the baby, a preceding hour of reading, and so on, because, man, I was tired!  But, despite the odds (in terms of me, the viewer) being stacked against the film, it captured my interest.  I was compelled to stick it out.  It was tough to stick with for the first 30-40 minutes, due to its pacing and its redundant character study of Suziey and her monotonous, humdrum, super banal existence in LA.  I mean, I get that they want to pull us into the redundant misery of such a boring life, but this is tough to do in film without losing your audience's interest.  Unfortunately I have no constructive advice; and at the same time, I was engaged enough to stick with it, despite being tired; so maybe my complaints are moot after all.

Suziey Block, who apparently made her film debut in The Island, is a great lead and yet another of my recent string of new faces in horror (including the superb performance of Gretchen Lodge in Lovely Molly).  And it's a good thing, too, because this was yet another demanding role of yet another strong female lead.  (I'm reminded, too, of Elizabeth Olsen's performance in Silent House.)  All of these names I've mentioned have had roles that call for them to carry the film's success on their shoulders.  As many reviewers have pointed out, these leads have been in nearly every shot of their respective films.  And in Block's case, the role calls for her to execute the balancing act of being likeable while portraying a bland personality due to the blunting that her daily life has effected on her.  Luckily, Block transcends the script's redundancy and pulls us into her life.

After sloughing through that first half of this fairly short film, the horror/thriller elements come into play.  Entrance continues the strain of subtle horror movies; it eschews jump-scares and stinging scores in exchange for the more realistic and cringe-inducing silence and limited-frame camera perspectives.  I wasn't as scared or on-edge as much as the other films I've mentioned in the previous paragraph, but I was engrossed in the film's chill in  a way I can only recall with Michael Haneke and David Lynch films.  It was that what is going on here? where is this film taking me? sort of experience.  So, yeah, more of a mystery type of movie, but without all the overt red herrings.  Suziey is heckled by some guys on the street (since she has to walk to and from work each day);  her dog goes missing; someone in a tinted-windowed car messes with her at night, as she walks home alone; and then some thrills from within her house.  All of these moments are deftly executed in terms of pacing and intensification, meaning that they are well spread out and steadily increase in creepiness.

In the end, we're rewarded with a very impressively done piece of work from an independent film of this nature.  The final scenes are well composed, keeping with our lead's perspective of course, and unexpectedly violent.  "Unexpectedly" because the film stays immersed in such normalcy, such reality for so long that the violence shocks us the way it would in real life.  Plus, by this point, we're smitten with Suziey and it's gut-wrenching to see anything malicious happen to her.  And although we do have a reused format of a killer in the house with various sharp weapons, these scenes aren't drawn out--killer and Suziey do not chase and hide, chase and hide, chase and hide, trip, break ankle, drag body, etc.  It's very straightforward, and, at the final moment, a very unexpected ending for a slasher, in which (as we've learned from Leslie Vernon) we expect to see our Final Girl. having that last moment of domination over the killer's phallus.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Juan of the Dead (2011)

Now here's a true hit classic!  And the first horror film from Cuba in the last 60 years, or something like that (so now I can add "Cuban" to my labels).  I watched this with a group and it is a confirmed crowd-pleaser that begs regular screenings.  In fact, I'm going to save a detailed review for my second experience.  Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this gem!

Rating: 4/5

Detention (2011)

I just can't get on board with this one.  It could have been a lot of fun, but the pacing was so fast I grew tried of the structure within a half hour.  Then it seemed monotonous to the point of drudgery: it became a chore to finish it.  On a positive note, though, it is a fairly unique blend of genres (is anything missed?), including coming-of-age drama, history, slasher, comedy, satire, thriller, sci-fi, time travel, and more.  Its commentary on horror culture isn't on par with the Scream series (especially Scream 4) but it does do a great job making me extremely sad to witness the vacuity of the current teen population.  In any case, this is not skippable, in my opinion, as I think it will work for some; it's definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 3/5

Apartment 143 (2011)

The cover art proclaims, "Paranormal Activity in just about every way, but with more action" (quote source illegible).  Well, nothing could be further from the truth, so I'll leave it at that.  Unfortunately, as the quote implies, this is an attempt to capitalize on PA's success by trying to win over those of us who complained that not enough actually happened in PA.  (I was in this camp until about my fourth viewing of PA.  As of then I've been smitten by its subtle charm.)  And thus I can't recommend Apartment 143 as a must-watch, but if you're addicted to flavors of the paranormal-thriller like a lot of people are addicted to zombie flicks, however redundant, then by all means watch this one.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lovely Molly (2011)

The Blair Witch Project, Altered, and now Lovely Molly--Eduardo Sanchez's movies really appeal to me.  Blair Witch scared my fifteen-year-old self nearly out of the rickety cinema in which I chanced to watch it with a couple buddies; and Altered was a ton of fun on a night when my twenty-six-year-old self chanced to watch a seemingly randomly picked offering from the slim catalogue that is Netflix Instant.  It wasn't until yesterday--the day of my planned viewing of Molly--that I even realized this was written, directed, and edited by Sanchez.  In fact, it wasn't until I looked up his filmography that I realized he also did Altered.  So, for better or worse, my expectations were as piqued as my interest.  Luckily, it delivered!

The first thing of note is atmosphere.  This movie has remarkable atmosphere, from lighting to sound engineering to POV transitions to overall compositions.  Speaking of POV transitions, this movie is a very interesting experience.  There are something like 4 different perspectives that the movie oscillates between, producing a very enjoyable and plot-thickening effect.  Thumbs way up there, Mr. Sanchez.  The use of sound has to be my close second favorite element of atmosphere.  The score is phenomenal: understated, swelling at just the right moments.  The digital squeal coming from the camcorder is not a new effect, but welcome all the same.  And that ghastly baritone that's still stuck in my head: "Molly, lovely Molly."

I contemplated leaving out any commentary regarding the visual aspects of the movie since I believe it will be unanimously apparent to all who watch, but I can't resist.  This is such a well-shot, well-edited movie.  Composition after composition, I kept thinking how perfect this house was for such a movie.  That claustrophobic stairwell thoroughly creeped me out every time it was in the frame.  That austere bedroom with two old single beds, covered with old blankets I know I, too, slept under as a kid.  The wicker wreaths on the doors.  The iron  lock slipped into the eye-hole and held by an old piece of twill.  And those horses!  Why are horses so terrifying to me?  They don't even do anything.  (And what did the whole horse thing have to do with anything, anyway?)  Why does the whole concept of horses in The Ring get under my skin?  Anyway, I really felt as though I were actually in this secluded old Virginia farmhome (I'm from Virginia, so if the movie doesn't specify, I always imagine it being set there).

Now that generalizations about the movie are out of the way, let me talk about a couple of specifics.  The opening scene executes as soon as you hit the play button, so be ready.  I thought I had a few seconds to settle myself onto the couch and all, but, no!--I hit play on the DVD menu and Molly appears on the screen, talking to me.  Then there began a quick moment that reminded me of the opening scene in Mirrors, and I rolled my eyes, thinking, oh great this is going to be crap.  Luckily, we're spared such a cheap opener and we move onto a found-footage-style wedding scene.  Since I watch movies without reading anything about them, I thought, oh it's going to be in this style the whole time.  But, as I've mentioned, it wasn't.  Instead the movie was quite crafty with its perspectives.

Spoiler Paragraph Alert.  As the mystery unfolded, and you catch on quite quickly--at least to some aspects of what happened--I found myself thinking of Silent House.  There are a lot of similarities to Silent House, but, thankfully, when Molly's epiphany (epiphanies) hit the audience, they're not forced on us as a big GOTCHA!  The similarities have more to do with underlying plot and psychological breakdown.  Like the rest of the film, they're subtly revealed without overexplanation or this strange groping for an actual ending.  Instead, Molly has an ending that left me ambivalent in the same way that The Last Exorcism's ending left me ambivalent.  (In truth, I kept waiting for a Blair Witch ending of Molly standing in the corner of the cellar!)  The end might work for some, but for me it's a little too much given the nature of the entire preceding film--again, like The Last Exorcism.

I found more than enough to love about Lovely Molly to overlook its inevitable weak points.  Any self-respecting horror fan will appreciate this film, and any lover of mystery and suspense will enjoy their experience.  From start to finish, I remained engaged, thrilled with the pacing and reveling in the freedom from being subjected to cheap thrills.  I haven't read any other reviews, but I can imagine that some might have been put off by the movie's understated approach, or by some of the loose ends.  But I've got enough questions cycling through my head today to warrant a re-watch as soon as possible.  So, I'll throw even more points at the film for eliciting enough interest to secure subsequent viewings.  A panoply of all the things I love in horror movies and devoid of all cheap gimmicks, Lovely Molly just made my Chris's Picks page.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kill List (2011)

Here's one of those nice little films that divides a community into 2 schools: the lovers and the haters.  Of course, there's always the gray space between the two schools; and in my usual must-be-accepted-by-everyone way, I currently exist in this gray space.  Chalk it up to being a victim of the hype machine, but I believe there's more to it than that.  Perhaps I'll like it better the second time around--but, then again, I'm not so sure, being that my major reasons for not loving this movie stem from the "effects" (not to be confused with FX) that are supposed to make the movie great on a first viewing, especially a cold viewing.

Let's get the elements that folks generally agree on out of the way.  First: yes, the film is beautifully shot.  Not as in breathtaking scenery and colors; but as in composition and tone.  The photography is perfect for this type of morose, gritty film.  At times claustrophobic and never flinching from a situation, there's a lot to love in the visual aesthetics of Kill List.  Second: the actors, too, bring their A game, especially the stunning MyAnna Buring, a Swedish actress whom I kept thinking was Kelly Rippa and whom I totally forgot about being in The Descent.  The tension between the two couples in the beginning section of the film is genuine and highly laudable.  And, finally, third: said beginning portion of the film centers around a dinner scene between two couples, which was confusing to the point of securing my attention but not losing me.  I've read some reviewers who were put off by the thick accents and the general confusion of the opening, but I maintain that this works in the film's favor.

Sadly, the end of the opening dinner party scene is exactly, for me, where the film stopped being interesting and became an audience-exercise in oversight and grace.  The main character's friend's girlfriend goes into the bathroom and leaves a marking on the wall.  The same marking that's on the cover art, the BluRay menu, and just about all the other marketing for the film.  I hate this with a passion!  It's why I avoid trailers and posters as much as possible.  The disc menus are probably the worst at giving away major points of any movie.  Because by this point we understand that this is some sort of cult or religious film.  If you don't and I just "ruined" the movie for you, I sincerely apologize.  But I feel fairly confident that by the end of the movie, after the "big reveal" I will not have spoiled anything.  Anyway, back to the scene in question.  This little sequence with the writing on the bathroom wall was the first of many times that I asked, what is the point?

At that point, the plot is established that the main character and his partner will team up to carry out some more hits on a list of individuals.  As an aside I will say that I am a sucker for the poetic setup of dividing the movie's parts with titles--I really like this.  What happens during the course of their hits, however, is a constant recurrence of the targets saying thank-you to the main character.  Like the sign on the bathroom wall, this seemed like forced suspense.  As in, let's just throw this in to add some suspense for the audience.  The effect, in practice, however, was lame.  Now, it could have worked had they not given us the bathroom signing scene in which the main character is not present.  Because all of these thank-yous could've been chalked up to the main character's mental breakdown.  Why not just have the main character find the marking?  Thus again I harken back to the argument about the fact that we already get this being a whole conspiracy/cult setup.  With the very first thank-you it is pretty clear that, oh, okay, they're all in on this.  Each time this happened I found myself asking, what is the point?

And then the ending.  Ah, this graceful ending to a film we've already figured out.  (I'll have to talk around this a bit so as not to spoil anything, so forgive the vagueness.)  So, as suspected Kill List takes a departure from a violent mystery/thriller setup.  And there's a harrowing moment at the very end, entitled "The Hunchback," that I will admit is quite disturbing and shocking.  In fact, I can't help but feel that the filmmakers agreed that the film didn't yield much of an effect due to letting on too early and too overtly about the true story, so they decided to throw in one last shock.  But, wait!  Is this even really a shock?  I mean, perhaps the actual depiction of the event-in-question is; but anyone who reads into an early, seemingly misplaced scene, will not be completely shocked as the film alludes to, let's say, the results of the event.  Plus, as you might have guessed, this is the biggest moment in which I asked myself, what is the point?

Thus my final assessment is that the film does too much with the story.  It's an enjoyable (I use this word in the context of a horror blog, mind you) movie to watch, but it's irritating to think about at all.  So don't analyse it, you say.  Well, that's a bit difficult when the film establishes itself as a mystery from the start.  Hopefully it will hold up on a subsequent watch.  There's a section thrown in during a moment I've already referenced, in which some character (MyAnna Buring, I assume) speaks in Swedish for a bit.  Perhaps I need to go back and turn on subs or use an iPhone app to translate it for me.  Maybe, just maybe, this little nugget is the key, encrypted in Swedish, that will unlock the film's true pleasures.  If not, I'm afraid I'll be in the same boat, rocking back and forth in the gray space between love and hate.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Silent House (2011)

By now you probably know this is a remake of the Uruguayan film La Casa Muda.  Without hesitation I can affirm that the original is by far one of the best horror movies I've seen.  Minimalistic, technically impressive, subtle, confusing in the manner of a Lovecraft tale, and just plain creepy.  By the time the credits rolled, which are in themselves a sort of epilogue, I was thoroughly bothered in that way all horror fiends crave.  So when I heard there was an English-language remake, I was thrilled; and due to my awareness of its subtle nature, I made the appropriate decision to wait for the BluRay instead of going to a crowded cinema.

Unfortunately, by the time the credits rolled on Silent House, I wasn't nearly as impressed.  In fact, I was quite disappointment with almost all of this version's departures from the original.  At the same time, however, I don't know that it needed to be a repeat of what Michael Haneke did with Funny Games--a shot-for-shot remake of the original--because I like to experience reimaginings.  Silent House, for me, was three different films in one: the first third being extremely satisfying; the second third being an eyeroller; and the final third being a complete let-down.  But let's focus on the positive first.

The film sticks with the original's one-take setup, which still impressed me the second time around, especially since the action takes off nearly right away.  This is no easy feat with a film that has such a simple plot, setting, and cast.  Unless you went to film school, are an amateur filmmaker, or just a cinematography nut, you don't tend to realize all the little things that stitch a move together into a cohesive story.  Things such as scene/shot transitions, point-of-view, segue stock footage (trees, streams, highways, planes landing, etc.) are heavily used and easily overlooked, but they all go together to give a sense of elapsed time within the actual runtime of the film.  So, yes, when it comes to a one-continuous-take movie that is 90 minutes long, and that stays in the POV of a single character, it's no easy feat indeed.

Elizabeth Olsen, whom I've never seen before, nailed her role.  I mean, nailed it!  I would watch any horror movie with this actress.  And, as I've mentioned, this is a demanding role being that the whole film rests on her shoulders à la Ryan Reynolds in Buried (which is a good thing because the father and uncle characters are terrible).  I can't say I've ever seen a horror actress exhibit a sense of fear and dread quite this intense before.  There were many times I realized I was mimicking her actions: holding my breath being my most frequent response.  And that's a definite token to how great her performance was.  She was able to bring me into the film, into the silent house, if you will.

And now the negative stuff, which will inevitably include "spoilers" (deliberate quotes).  This version chooses to go with a visual entity (entity is my word for antagonist/monster/killer/stalker/etc.; not necessarily a metaphysical entity); and not only this but the entity is shown on-screen right away.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine, even with creature features.  We, the audience, stop fearing that which we've seen.  It would have been better if the film had chosen to ride it out a bit longer, instead of choosing to do this lame attempt at recreating the magic of the first in-house reveal in The Strangers.  Because, man, until this point in Silent House, I was so literally creeped out, wondering what was going on that my wife nearly scared me to death when she decided to come downstairs and ask me to turn the subwoofer down.

The other negatives revolve around the scares and the wrap-up.  A lot of scares employ the something's-there-then-a-character-blocks-the-frame-for-a-moment-then-it's-gone method, or vice-versa.  This is uncalled for in a movie of this type--of any type really.  It's insulting to the audience.  Although I can say that there were a few times the scares were setup to be predictable and then drew out past the moment of predictability, effectively raising the audience's pulse.  One of the best scares in the movie occurs at the beginning, when Olson is under a table and a glass bottle rolls across the floor.  (What occurs next is the actual good scare I'm referring to.)  If the film had maintained this type of form, I'd have been sold.

Then there's the wrap-up.  Oh! after all that disappointing middle layer, we're given no icing and no cherry on top.  Instead we're given this bizarre genre mix that is out-of-place and too far of a stretch to wow or emphiphanize (I think I made that word up) the audience.  The film is going, going, going, then it just turns and rapidly spits out what seems to be several different attempts at an ending.  Then, finally, one official turn and The End.  Then credits--but not cool credits like the original.  And I'm sitting there lamenting over what could have been a great film.  So, my final assessment is tough because it's really 3 dips into different genres: it begins as subtle psychological thriller, then haunted house, then home invasion, then killer, then survival, then mystery, then supernatural, then back to psychological.  And if you're into that, so much the better.  For me, I'd be delighted to re-watch only the first 20 minutes of this one.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

ATM (2012)

I just bought a new TV--my largest yet, at 60 inches--so, naturally, I was excited to watch the first movie.  Unfortunately ATM didn't release in BluRay, but whatever.  I've been watching DVDs for years, and I honestly don't think a clearer picture would've saved this movie from its persistent mediocrity.  Now, that's not to say it isn't worth watching.  It's just mediocre from start to finish, with some glaring flaws I couldn't look beyond.

The first cringe-inducing element of the movie was the forced chemistry of the two male leads, Corey and David.  Their first interaction occurs at their adjacent cubicles in their workplace (a financial institution which I thought was a setup for some social commentary on all of the economic crises).  I've seen plenty of bad acting and terrible on-screen chemistry, but this is the worst since the first Saw installment.  The dialogue between Corey and David is written in the manner of a Judd Apatow movie, but these two cannot execute the comedy like Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, et al.  I could tell I was supposed to laugh, but it was so forced and flimsy and, well, awkward, that I could only feel sorry for the actors watching themselves in hindsight (surely they can tell how bad and unnatural it is).

The second is the implausibility factors of the plot.  When it comes to a survival flick, especially if it's a single-setting setup, it is understandably difficult to find ways to ensure continuity and suspense.  I'll just point out two things I couldn't get past.  The first is the unnatural and forced way in which our triad ends up in the ATM booth.  From Corey's insistence that David give him a ride home to the fact that he needs food to the fact that he needs to stop at an ATM--it all seems poorly thought out.  I can feel that the film is groping at straws to get these three to an obscure ATM booth.  But whatever.  I tried to excuse all the things by telling myself the film would pick up once they were inside and the killers shenanigans commenced.  And the second and most glaring flaw occurs when the antagonist pulls David's car up to the door (so as to trap them in) and uses a nearby hose to flood the booth.  As soon as David notices the car at the door, he is able to open the door about 5-6 inches.  So, once the water begins to fill the booth, why doesn't someone open the door--maybe even prop it open with the flimsy aluminum trash can?  Why doesn't the water push it open?  And as far as I can tell our characters aren't suffering any mental breakdowns that would limit this strategy.  

The third is the insulting of the audience's intelligence with what is made out to be the epiphany of the film.  Throughout the movie, we constantly get the perspective of the ATM camera and we see that the antagonist is very meticulous as to how close to the booth he gets.  The leads constantly question why he won't come near them.  But we, the audience, know that it's because he doesn't want to appear on camera.  And almost every camera-perspective shot shows David doing something destructive or violent.  So, yeah, we get that it is going to look as if David is the culprit.  But the film decides to go back and show all the clips we've just seen and really amp up the fact that it all looks as if David is actually the killer.  Yes, we got that.  Thanks.

The fourth and final is the antagonist's motive.  Or lack thereof.  Perhaps I missed something, but this seems to be one of the stock of movies in which the killer is an obsessive-compulsive with no apparent motive.  It's worked for some movies, but with the chips already stacked against ATM, it seemed like another shortcut.  I have to question whether or not the filmmakers went back and watched the final product and thought, yes, this is a good film that people will like.  Because, for me, this is mediocre and does nothing for the survival-thriller genre.  Yet, at the same time, I was compelled to stick it out for the wrap-up; and despite the finish being anticlimactic, I can say that I still had a decent time.  So here's to a good try and a chance to learn from our mistakes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Guy Who Kills People (2011)

If you're like me, the title of this film won you over immediately.  How could I not indulge in a movie called Some Guy Who Kills People?  Speaking in terms of film title only, a film like this catches us off guard in the way that I imagine a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre affected audiences in its time.  A film titled like TCM, at that time, was so over-the-top that it automatically generated interest (whether positive or negative).  Now, in the twenty-first century, we are used to such overtly bonkers titles that it takes an overtly obvious title like Some Guy Who Kills People to spark attention via title alone.  And boy am I glad it piqued my interest!

It is indeed about some guy who kills people, but the plot it much more developed than the oversimplified title implies.  That is to say, there is much more substance to the story of the film than the supposed generic slasher or meta-film usually carries with it.  In some ways it is a dual character study of the lead guy and lead gal, whose life experiences come to mirror each other.  From the opening shots we are pulled into the psychology of the central character, Ken (Kevin Corrigan), who manages to be interesting despite the demands of his role.  Because we've seen the misunderstood, bullied, loner character a million times.  But Kevin Corrigan breathes new life into the archetype; and in addition, Amy (Ariel Glade) absolutely lights up the screen with a dazzling contrast-character that compliments Ken with optimism and spot-on humor.

In terms of aesthetics, the film is well shot--crisp, clean compositions--and the transitions are quick, nearly abrupt, which works to keep the plot driving and the viewer more and more engaged.  I can say that gore hounds looking for graphic kills and interesting violent effects should abandon their expectations, though I, myself, found it easy to trade expectations of effects and violent intensity for the main purposes of the film--these purposes being more in-line with the psychological thriller subgenre.  Again, thinking of the film's title, the film is a satire, and satire's main purpose is keep the user moving with the speed of the story, as quickly as possible, without lingering on anything too long.  Thus, whether something dark and despairing happens or something light and jokey happens, they are both treated equally, both taken just as (un)seriously as the other.  In  poetry, for example, there are certain metres that work better for satire for this very reason: the rhythm makes the reading quicker.  Or think of Voltaire's Candide, which is full of terrible events, but the events are narrated without any emotion, which works to make it absurdly humorous.  Such is the foundation of the satire.

And speaking of satire, the black humor in this flick is perfectly executed, especially with the two cop characters.  These two kept me laughing almost every time they were on the screen.  These stock characters also appear, at first, to be just that: stock characters; but they end up being fresh, just like the lead character, Ken.  The elder officer at first appears to be the typical unprofessional, small-town officer who overlooks the obvious, but then we're constantly witnessing that he in fact is quite brainy and sharp. The way in which this is executed on-screen caused me to really laugh--as in a deep belly laugh that caused me to have to rewind a little bit so as not to miss any subsequent dialogue.  For anyone who's seen the movie, how funny is this part concerning the elder officer's description of the killer's tableau: "Surrealism.  Dada."?

So, to sum up, this is certainly a movie worth seeing.  And it should reach out and be effective with audiences who aren't into horror movies (e.g. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), though, of course, experience with the conventions of slasher movies will enhance the experience.  Then again, the movie I watched before this one was Baby Blues (review forthcoming), so perhaps SGWKP really worked on me because I needed some comic relief from the darker Baby Blues.  In any case, if you want a film that is a balanced mix of humor, plot, and character development, packaged as a satiric psychothriller, then you will do well to procure Some Guy Who Kills People and give it a watch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mother's Day (2010)

In classic Netflix fashion, Mother's Day sat in my Saved queue for over a year--but the the wait was well worth it.  Knowing little else about the movie save for it being loosely based on an old Troma B-movie, I fully expected it to be one of those "filler" movies, as in a movie that fills in the gaps between releases that are really worth watching.  Well, Mother's Day set me straight on that account.  The experience was like being slugged in the jaw.  Never again will I doubt the potential strength of a (falsely categorized) "'filler" movie.

It is one of those horror movies you have to be in the mood for.  Some say, of course, that one has to be in the proper mood for any horror movie; but as this is a blog for horror movie fans, I'm not speaking to the lay moviewatcher.  Still, this is the type of horror movie that I believe even genre fans need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy.  Because, otherwise, I could see some of the movie's antics becoming increasingly annoying.  Don't get me wrong, though, it isn't like an exploitation film or an all-out bananas massacre like Cannibal Holocaust.  It's a well-executed, intense home-invasion, survival genre flick that has all the staging of a stock, cliché movie we've become desensitized to, yet has managed to be fresh and exciting.

Exciting is probably the best word to describe the movie.  My ADD threshold is capped at the standard horror-movie 90-minute mark, and when I saw that this was 112 minutes I was concerned.  Then, by the end, I realized that I was so enthralled I completely ignored my internal ADD alarm.  The movie's plot and pacing are such that the movie never sags.  The mood, tone, etc. intensify throughout each of the three acts.  There's no overwhelming exposition, and the violence increases in a balanced manner so as to not go overboard too easily (thereby peaking the audience's attention too early in the film).  In terms of the violent bits, the audience is constantly put into a cringe-inducing state of oh-man-no-way-this-can't-happen, which is offset by sudden blasts of visual stimulation that will catch you off-guard in the best possible way.  

As an added bonus, almost every character is interesting and fresh despite being a stock character.  So again with the pattern of what should be a lame movie actually being fresh.  It feels contradictory to me to be saying this, seeing as how I'm constantly berating movies for "not giving us anything new."  But somehow this movie works without giving us anything new.  Anyway, back to the characters.  The antagonists come complete with the hot-headed, unstable psychopath; the even-tempered, controlled character who can equalize the former; the shy, outcast who is psychologically brainwashed; and the tyrannical leader of the pack.  In this case, the tyrannical leader is played by Rebecca De Mornay, who plays "Mother" and is a perfect fit for the role.  As for the protagonists, no one really stands out from the group except Briana Evigan (they're more just nice, glossy characters to look at) and yet they all do exactly what they're supposed to do.  No one underacts or attempts to overact.  The composite of the captives' personalities creates an enjoyable on-screen chemistry.

I guess it's clear that I'm giving Mother's Day my stamp of approval.  It's definitely a surprising little gem of entertainment that proves the home-invasion thriller (mixed with elements of splatter film, I might add) isn't dead yet.  And like the recently reviewed Kidnapped (where we also meet some of these same stock characters), it remains intense and interesting for the entire duration of the film, which is a big plus when there's nothing about the film (i.e. no buzz) compelling you to watch it.  I mean, look, what other proof do you need?  I've basically wasted five paragraphs saying the same thing, without really telling you anything about the movie.  Watch it now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rabies (2010)

As with my last review (Sauna), Rabies is the production of a country from which I've never seen any cinema, let alone horror.  And, interestingly, they both take place entirely within a forest, despite the Finnish film being set in the 16th century and this one being set in, presumably, modern day.  Luckily this film is completely different from Sauna, and, in fact, this film--the first ever horror movie out of Israel--gave me an immediate respect for the filmmakers.  Their thorough understanding of the genre is apparent, and with this knowledge of horror conventions, the filmmakers deliver what I saw to be the film's biggest strength: its bending of the rules.

Splitting the movie into thirds (acts if you prefer), my interest peaked during the first act, drifted during the second, and then sparked again in the third.  (Picture a parabola effect on a chart where the x-axis represents movie duration and the y-axis represents interest.)  The movie had a strong opening, but the middle portion seemed aimless and chaotic (in terms of plot).  In the end, though, I realized what this film was about.  And perhaps this experience is the result of my rule of not reading anything about the movie, including the terse synopses on the Netflix envelopes.  Because it says right there on the slip, "But what happens next is hardly the familiar horror formula you might expect."  Had I read this, I probably wouldn't have begun to write the film off as clunky, halfway through.  Then again, having not read this I don't think I would've enjoyed the closing act as much.  For it was in the end that all my questions (chief among which was what is the purpose of this film?) were answered and I was satisfied with my experience.

The movie is really well shot, aside from a few ultra shaky moments that made my head swim--I don't care what the favorable argument is, the shaky cam distracts me from the intended tension-building, because I'm trying to keep my eyes straight and not throw up!  Speaking of tension, the Israelis definitely know how to build cringe-inducing moments, even if they do, in my opinion, cut away too quickly.  For example, the bear trap.  We've all seen moments like this before: the character mustn't make a false move or something terrible will happen; or the character must choose between one form of pain or another (the Saw franchise).  This tactic is always effective for me, and it got me here, too--but I didn't like that the result of the predicament took place off-camera.  Another example is the revelation that there are land mines, setting the characters on edge, painstakingly watching their steps, and leaving me, the viewer, on edge, waiting for the inevitable.  Thankfully, the inevitable bang is delivered with perfectly timed execution (no pun intended).

Spoiler Alert!  Back to the film's biggest strength.  I will not overlook the fact that there are what can be considered major plot holes.  But whether the loose ends are a problem or not depends on how you look at the film as a composite of characters, scenes, and genre conventions.  In the end, the loose ends don't really matter; the largest of which--the plot concerning the killer--is comically (in a good way) intentional.  The big secret between the brother and sister: laughable; again, in a good way.  And what I believe to be the film's biggest genre convention breaker concerns the Final Character.  I was initially put off by all the sexual banter between the four friends, but by the end I realized that the point was to establish who was really the virgin, and thus who lived (unless I missed something).

Equal parts nihilism, absurdism, parody, and black humor, Rabies exceeded my expectations, leaving me impressed with this first horror offering from Israel and eager for more.  Full of stock horror plots and characters that are sent spiraling in seemingly aimless directions, the film's antics are sure to please any genre fan.  Why it's called Rabies, I couldn't tell you.  There is a dog in it, but no one--if memory serves--is ever bitten by the dog; and it isn't clear how the dog would've gotten rabies anyway.  What I can say is that this is a film made for a group viewing.  Though I watched it by myself and still enjoyed it, I can see having a blast with friends.  Plus, it's one of those rare movies that has a great beginning and and a great ending.  Definitely worth a watch.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sauna (2008)

Thanks to some articles I read the other day, written by none other than BC of Horror Movie a Day, I have the pleasure of experiencing horror from two countries I've never seen any movies out of, let alone horror: Finland--in the case of Sauna--and Israel (Rabies), which I look forward to next week.  My knowledge of Scandinavian horror films is quite limited (Frostbitten, Let the Right One In, Troll Hunter, Hidden, and Dead Snow), so Sauna was more than welcome.  As a bonus, the film was more than good; it was great.  I've said repeatedly on this blog that my favorite horror movie is the psychological slow-burn with careful attention to mood and tone.  Well, direct from Finland comes the perfect psychological slow-burn with careful attention to mood and tone!

The atmosphere and pacing remind me of an H. P. Lovecraft story.  Even in the case of his shorter pieces, such as "From Beyond," each sentence is meticulously crafted with attention to building extreme feelings of mystery, ambiguity, and uncanny.  ("From Beyond," by the way, was adapted by Stuart Gordon for the 1986 movie of the same name.)  Consider also "The Festival," wherein Lovecraft is able to effect a single simile that reinforces the atmosphere of dread: " gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse" (now that's just superb imagery).  All of these little devices culminate, in most of his pieces, in a quick, cutting ending, an ending that seems almost truncated, leaving the reader unsettled and the horror fiend within the reader satisfied, yearning to come back again and again to the murky, shadowy dreamworld of Lovecraft.  Such is the format of Sauna, with its creeping sensation that patiently unravels until the visually stunning ending that left me dying for the chance to watch the film again.

Now, don't confuse my description of the movie's patience and atmosphere with the trademarks of Ti West.  The two are in a similar category, but what I'm getting at is something of a different flavor.  At its core, the effect of the film is somewhat ineffable, but you'll know it when you see it.  It would, however, be interesting to watch The House of the Devil and Sauna back-to-back and note the differences and similarities (not in terms of story, obviously).  For example: the period settings of the 1980s and the 16th century, respectively.  When it comes to suspense-building and atmosphere, nothing ruins it, for me, worse than modern technology.  This is the reason why so many horror novels are devoid of periods during which the home computer or cell phone was proliferated.  Because without these familiar objects there is immediately a literal and, concomitantly, psychological disconnectedness.  Some writers, if settings a story in the present day, take pains to remove these familiar fear-limiting obstacles (obstacles not only due to familiarity, but also because they place help a few clicks away).  This is why cars break down, gas tanks are purged, and cell phone can't get reception.  In Stephen King's Bag of Bones, the main character begins inexplicably fainting and throwing up, and otherwise reacting violently, to his computer.  Thus, he cannot use it; and thus we are stripped of the objects of comfort that keep us from the stillness, the abyss that we so fear.

Unlike a babysitter stuck in a beautiful Victorian house far from town, with a mysterious unseen character somewhere upstairs, and without a cell phone or computer (though there is a standard phone mounted on the wall with a coiled cord that brought back memories of unraveling those wretched things!), Sauna gives us the northern forests of sixteenth-century Scandinavia/Russia.  This monotonous setting used to bother me, but filmmakers have stepped it up a lot and have even found ways of making a movie that takes place entirely inside a coffin intense and entertaining.  The cinematography and composition of Sauna keep the viewer unaware of the monotony of the locale.  The proverbial sauna, situated in the water, in the middle of the woods is beautifully captured.  There are a few key shots of the sauna that would've been much more visually sensational had I been able to forgo subtitles.  But it's not that bad, and don't even think of switching from the original audio track--it would be ridiculous with dubbing.  Anyway, the water slowly lapping against the bizarre structure and the black abyss of the only opening in the building are just a few examples of the film's pleasing aesthetics.

On top of all this, we get a perfectly matched score and chilling horror sequences, especially the finale.  Interestingly, some of the horror bits (the apparition following Knut) tended to remind me of the myriad Japanese revenge films (The Eye, The Ring, etc.) both in story and execution, and I kept waiting for the movie to allow some goofy jump-scare or such nonsense to ruin the mood.  Luckily, the movie measured out the scares commensurately to the collective film.  And aside from all the elements that went into making the movie enjoyable for nearly any film fan, Sauna boasts the proper story for any film with a cerebral/psychological bent.  It's not one of those films that appears to purposely derail its viewers and obscure details (Skew), but it's not a film with an in-your-face twist either (High Tension).  Sauna, simply put, is a well rounded movie ready to invigorate any serious horror fan.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Devil Inside (2012)

For me, one of the most memorable episodes of How I Met Your Mother features Barney's video resume.  Throughout the television series, Barney makes references to his blog and his web site, and in this particular episode he has his friends pull up his video resume online.  To my memory no address is given, but at this point, after reading his blog online and his printed book The Bro Code (also referenced throughout the series), I knew a quick Google search would take me directly to the video featured on the show.  Tactics like these--pulling the viewer into the world of the show via external sources--works well with How I Met Your Mother.  In the case of The Devil Inside, however, such devices have left me unmoved and slightly annoyed.

But before jumping to the matter external to the movie (matter I didn't even discover until the end of the movie), let's focus on the movie itself, which opens in the documentary style.  I wondered if it were going to remain like this throughout--which would've been more than welcome in my opinion--but, sadly, it does not.  Sadly?  Yes, sadly.  I say this because, after having seen the film, I can say that it would've been fresher had it remained a collage of newspaper clippings, interviews, etc., as the opening sequences gripped me much more than the switch-over to a mockumentary/found-footage form.  I thought perhaps I'm just too immune to this stuff now.  Sticking strictly to documentary made Lake Mungo and Cropsey great because it was so different (to be fair, people have pointed out that I wouldn't feel this way if I watched Unsolved Mysteries more often!).  But that's not to say found-footage still doesn't have life in it--all it takes is a good story with some change-ups to keep it fresh (The Last Exorcism, for example).

Coincidentally, I fell asleep shortly after the film switched from documentary to found-footage.  (I do realize that the film was intended to be "turned into a documentary"; I'm just referring to the form that we actually get as the audience).  The film kept jolting me awake to the raucous sounds of exorcisms, and I would rewind and try to get into it again, only to return to my slumber moments later.  Finally, as I awoke to the credits lethargically moving up the screen, I decided to go to bed.  Thus I had to give the move a proper watch the next day.  This time, I realized why I kept falling asleep.  The movie is barely 80 minutes long, but it is congested with politico-religious banter, none of which is anything new: the Church doesn't do what's right; the Church won't condone our attempts at finding out what's wrong; I need to do what I believe is right; they just keep her drugged up and won't properly evaluate her; the institution versus the individual; and so on ad infinitum.  I get that the film has to establish each character's conflict to justify their actions, but can I please get a fresh story?

But for all my negativity, the movie isn't a flop.  There are some pleasing elements, such as the overhead camera perspective during the exorcisms, which provided some nice angles and effects.  (The car-mounted cameras, on the other hand, are a strange and useless choice.)  And the exorcisms themselves (well, at least the first one) are pretty intense.  The verbal intensity isn't quite on the level of the film that spearheaded the exorcism genre 40 years ago, but it definitely pays its mandatory homage.  Audio design is well done, and there is more than one blood spattering, which threw me a curve-ball in light of the fact that this was a wide theatrical release.  In fact, I'm really surprised this dark indie horror was picked up and distributed on such a wide scale.  I'm used to films like this being packaged as unforgivingly horrific masterpieces, but actually being glossy PG-13 thrillers designed to reach the widest demographic scope possible (read: make the most money possible).  So, the film, within it's scant 80-minute runtime, does offer some pleasing effects--especially the contortionist effects, which always stir me (The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose).

Another saving grace of the film is Fernanda Andrade, whom I had never seen before.  Aside from the obvious placement of a beautiful girl at the forefront of the film, she is a superb choice for the role.  And there are times when the movie seems to be aware of itself, though not in quite the meta-film way of, say, the Scream franchise.  For example, the dog-jumping-against-the-fence stock scare; and the I'm-just-the-annoying-camera-guy bit.  In the end, the film's subtle self-awareness and the fresh face of Fernanda Andrade weren't enough to bring me back (unless you count the fact that I fell asleep the first time and had to re-watch it the next day).  And when the film ended and I promptly visited the supplemental web site, as directed, I found myself annoyed at the marketing of external resources to generate forced controversy and buzz around the film.  But they've sure done a great job.  Don't believe me?  Just check out the lengthy discussion on said supplemental web site, which prompts you to "be a part of the ongoing investigation."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kidnapped (2010)

"A new genre classic."  Not exactly, but it is a solid home-invasion flick that made me jump several times (no easy feat after years and years of horror movies) and kept me on edge until the end credits reminded me to breathe.  I admit up-front that there isn't a genre out there that startles me more than home-invasion.  Films in this vein really provoke me, and I can't help but think about what I would do in such a situation.  By the end of a film like this I stay up half the night coming up with ways I could've stopped all the devastation before it started--which inevitably leads down the path of paranoia.  Kidnapped is definitely a film that sticks with you, even if it isn't "a new genre classic."

If you're planning to give this film a proper viewing, I suggest omitting the convenience of Netflix Instant and procuring the DVD with the original audio.  for whatever reason, you can't change the audio option on Instant (ten minutes into the film, I attempted to change the audio on iPad, Wii, and Firefox on PC; but it would only let me choose English).  This makes for a jarring experience, as, with a movie like this, English-speaking voice actors sitting in a recording booth cannot come close to achieving the level of drama needed to compliment the situation on the screen.  When a character is supposed to sound frightened it comes out like cheesy stage-acting.  Normally I would abandon the movie until I could watch it with the original audio, but I was already hooked.  I needed to watch it.  Plus, I like to think of myself as a mature enough viewer to look past dubbing, which proved true.

There is nothing new in the film.  Usually, when something is heralded as a classic, that means that it offers something pioneering that will endure.  It's too early to know whether it will endure, but as for being pioneering, or offering something new to the home-invasion genre, the only observation I can offer is that it made use of the split-screen technique, which reminded me of Brian De Palma's choice in Carrie.  Unlike Carrie, however, the split-screen, at times, gives us a view of the father, who has been separated from the familial triad, and the goings on back at the home--that is, we get a split-screen of two different settings and tones.  This I liked, not only for the nice juxtaposition of perspectives (the father has no clue of the calamity taking place at home); but also for the time it was able to shave off of the film's duration.  What can I say?  Eighty to ninety minutes, after years of watching horror movies, has become a sort of immutable threshold.  When the split-screen is used within the same setting--even if separate rooms--I didn't care for it as much.  In fact, I thought it would've been better to have left it in the perspective of the captives (what you can't see is always more frightening).

Then the movie just becomes cruel, unforgiving, and ultimately, nihilistic.   As usual, one of the captors is unstable and violent and one is the nice, friendly criminal (the misanthrope and the humanist).  These two begin to clash, and thus begins a microcosm of good versus evil within the film's larger plots, themselves a mix of class conflict and good-versus-evil.  The film offers flickers of hope, the most dramatic of which occurs when an extended sequence of split-screen literally joins characters together.  But then the film becomes cold, pernicious, sharply unsettling.  You know something is going to happen.  The fate of one of the captors is uncertain, leaving the viewer on edge.  And, sure enough, the captor returns for the final scene.  This is where the film becomes absurd, a path I expected from time to time throughout the movie, but not in this way.  And it's apparent that the film is setup to shock audiences into remembering its violent bent toward chaos.  Again, though, this final statement is not something new, even if the deaths of all those involved do follow the guidelines.

I recommend Kidnapped only for those who genuinely enjoy and understand horror movies; not the laywatcher who is roused by the popularity and taboo of horror culture.  If you simply crave violence in your movies I'd try taking a hit of something more potent--like, say, Dream Home.  Regardless of your tastes, though, I do think it's the type of movie you have to be in the right mood to "enjoy."  Don't judge by the reviews (one should never read reviews before watching the movie without pretenses), and don't watch with the English dubbing if you can help it.  If you enjoy films like Funny Games, The Strangers, Eden Lake, and Them (Ils), you'll find something to love here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Final Destination 5 (2011)

Typically when a franchise reaches a certain point the movies become more and more painful to watch.  And especially after forcing my way through the second, third, and fourth installments of the Final Destination franchise, I approached this latest offering apathetically.  It was just a time-filler, a duty as a horror blogger.  I even made a French press of the darkest, strongest coffee available to me, so as to stay awake for the whole thing.  But, lo, in the wake of its infinitely lame predecessor (title The Final Destination, as if the definite article "the" would really lead us to believe they wouldn't try to squeeze more money out of the series), this was the best of the lot since the first film!

But it didn't seem to be headed in that direction for the first ten minutes or so.  What we open with is a tumultuous, seemingly never-ending montage that combines credits with references to deaths throughout the series thus far and to come.  It was sort of cool, but wore out quickly.  Then the actual movie opens and plays out like a glossy teenaged soap opera--highly polished set and lithe, nubile characters with thick makeup (and eyebrows); lingering dramatic stares; and maudlin, melodramatic dialogue.  A recycled introduction of stock, uninteresting characters--check.  Indeed the first fifteen minutes do not promise an good remainder.  Just accept the mandatory Hollywood gloss and move on--the fun is yet to come.

Then follows the trademark of the series: a character has a premonition of a disaster--which in  this movie delivers some amazing effects--and then jolts back to reality in time to save a handful of characters from the impending doom.  Thus, they cheat death, who pursues them for the rest of the movie.  As the horror icon Tony Todd warns them, death does not like to be cheated.  So now the setup is in place, and we've got a lot of movie to go.  I was already thankful to be spared the ridiculous theatrics of the race-track disaster from the previous installment.

The obligatory funeral scene is where the movie takes an interesting turn.  A turn for the best.  It adds in humor that works.  As in, it caught me off guard and I really laughed.  This thread of irony and playful humor would continue throughout the film and was more than welcome.  The humor around the IT Guy, whom the manager thought was dead (a reference during the eulogy and later in the film are perfectly timed), and small ironic comments here and there, combined with the creative, inventive kills--the trademark of FD--work to keep the film entertaining and fresh.

In the final scene (or what I thought was the final scene), I braced myself for the big flop.  I fully expected the film to have lost steam after it's crowd-pleasing middle parts, and fall flat on its face.  And, yes, what was actually the penultimate scene is predictable and unoriginal.  The actual final scene completely won me over and secured my loyalty to the franchise (or, at least, the first and fifth films).  The ending isn't a great epiphany or mind-bender, by any means; it's just pleasantly creative.  And immediately following is another montage of actual footage of the various kills throughout the series (not just references to the instruments of death as in the opening montage).  It's killing me to not talk about the ending, so I'll just throw out an obscure literary reference: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Skew (2011)

Probably one of the more confusing movies I seen, Skew's greatest obstacle is its apparently lofty aims of cerebral profundity.  Or perhaps this is one of the better indie films.  I just can't decide because, for every negative of the movie I find a positive, and for that reason I'm simply left unsettled, without any closure.  One thing I can say with certainty: this movie begs for a re-watch, and I honestly wouldn't mind sitting through it again.

That I'm considering a re-watch is amusing to me now because within the first half hour I found myself thinking, I will never suffer through this again.  Within another ten minutes I was thinking, What is the real plot here?  My expectations were heightened by the film's opening quote.  Most of these films open with a quote from a more familiar figure (to most of the demographic), like, say, Poe or Lovecraft.  But Skew opens on a quote from none other than the 19th century French literary titan Honoré de Balzac.  A student of literature, familiar with French titans such as Balzac, Rimbaud, Rabelais, Verlaine, et al., this impressed me.  It said to me that this write was deeper than most, influenced by more profound literature.  Later I would find that the writer/director is the Canadian Sevé Schelenz.  (I would also find that the film was 6 years in the making, mostly due to the FX and budgeting.)

Then we're introduced to a trio of some of the most annoying characters I've ever encountered.  I couldn't em/sympathize with any of them at any time throughout the duration of the film.  Whiny, flimsy, volatile, frustrating characters, they are.  It only takes about fifteen minutes to realize what's going on between two of the characters, so I'm not sure if the filmmaker intended for it to be that way or not.  Either way, it's a subplot that permeates the movie and appears to be an intentionally mysterious element to keep the audience engaged.  I imagine a group of people sitting in a room with this script, debating on whether it's too subtle or not, and finally leaning toward the more obvious approach.  The final product is an insult to the audience's intelligence.  Or is it a plot device that is used to distract us from that more important clues?

The mockumentary style, brought to popularity by The Blair Witch Project, is growing old, so it's always interesting to see how certain things will be explained.  I can't remember exactly why our videographer, Simon, has the camera or why he's shooting (other than for fun), but it's a simple little recorder without a flipscreen (as we're specifically told in the film).  Simon also establishes that he does not care to be on camera, and the film sticks with that (except for a brief moment on a police station security camera, and even then we don't see Simon's face).  And with the established constraint that we're going to stay in  the camera's/Simon's perspective, the filmmakers have the obstacle of explaining underlying plot points while dealing with how to get the explanations on film for the audience.  No easy feat.  But Skew has the answer: the camera turns itself on.

And now for a few words about the "main" plot, or what we can think of as the marketed plot.  For this, the film borrows from Final Destination and The Ring, and the end product isn't moving in the least.  There's no creative factor, and there's no mystery (for all of Final Destination's failures, it has always prided itself on inventive deaths and intense buildups).  This plot does, however, setup three of the more unusual scenes in the movie, all involving people who have recently been killed.  These little scares were a mixed bag because (a) they were completely unexpected and inexplicable; and (b) they were completely outside of the scope of the mockumentary subgenre.  Then again, perhaps this is the change-up we're looking for to breathe new life into the genre?  Whatever the explanation for these choices, I don't think the marketed plot is the one the film spent its efforts to develop.

The ending is one of the strangest and most confusing endings I've ever seen.  Or is it the most brilliant ending that begs the viewer to watch the movie again?  (I'll update this post once I've re-watched the film, and let you know!)  Suddenly the film becomes a psychological breakdown that raises a myriad questions.  The whole "what's real" thing starts going on.  At the same time, though, there is no great epiphany.  There is no a-ha! moment.  Just before the movie ends, with several unresolved points that are still driving me crazy, the film is rewound (not for the first time) to moments that occurred before the point at which the movie started.  At first, I was delighted, and I sat up in my chair so as to really take in what they were going to unfold.  The film had me completely engrossed.  Unfortunately, the film only "revealed" explanations I'd ascertained in the first part of the movie.  And not content with leaving me completely disappointed, the film gives one final shot that is rewound a couple times and played back the last time with the slow-step function so as to show an image that I must assume is the key to this movie.

My review seems quite negative.  The only hope is that re-watching the film unlocks the secret of its greatness.  Based on the final confusing shot, I must assume that the movie has subtle clues scattered throughout, clues which the viewer overlooks the first time for their subtlety.  The other explanation is that it's one of these films that prides itself on its inexplicability, which I don't usually favor unless its done strikingly well.  To me that screams of someone who is intelligent and does not want to be able to be explained (forced profundity).  Then again, I'm a huge fan of David Lynch, so, Skew, you'd better have something  to show me this second time around!