Monday, June 17, 2024

A Dog's Life


It's wild to accept that 2006 happened 18 years ago. Low-rise jeans and chunky belts? They never went OUT of style!

Anyway, yes, we've reached the point where the early aughts are now nostalgic. Life is weird. 

Quick Plot: A dumb and drunk couple park their yacht on a mysterious island, only to disappear. Shortly after, a batch of recognizable college kids led by trust fund brat Johnny fly a private plane to the same lands for some beer and margarita-fueled fun (but sadly, no Maxim Magazine, in case you needed a reminder that it's 2006). 

Along for the ride is Johnny's younger med-student-in-the-making brother Matt, Matt's girlfriend (and Johnny's ex) Nicki, and lifelong pals Sarah and Noah. After a montage of nauseating fun (remember when you could drink warm margaritas and spin on playground rides without dying?), they discover an adorable German Shepard mix puppy, who leads Sarah to get bit by his much less adorable and aggressive parent. 

Sarah doesn't feel great, but Matt estimates she can spend a few more days chugging beer before she really needs a rabies shot. Of course, the pack of wild canines that now smell their new well-fed prey aren't eager to let the kids go. 

A well-trained cast of German shepherds and Malinois proceed to turn the vacation into a siege. The dogs even chew through the ropes holding the plane in place, ensuring their targets won't have an easy escape. All the while, Sarah's infection grows worse as she finds herself identifying more with her hunters than friends. 

I'm not here to say that The Breed is a particularly good movie, but nearly 20 years after its release and with various cycles of other subgenres passing by, what was probably a forgettable, even unpleasant straight-to-DVD flick has aged into something...okay. This is Nicholas Mastandrea's only full directorial credit, though he has dozens of high profile second unit films to his name. He clearly knows his way around the technical side of filmmaking. If you're looking for a fairly straightforward, competent dog-eat-hot-people movie, you' could do a whole lot worse. 

High Points
There are just as many hot young actors today as there were in 2006, but it really does make more watchable when your cast is actually charismatic. Taryn Manning has been, well, a bit of a confusing human being in recent years, but she's always had that it factor that makes you want to see her onscreen. Likewise, Michelle Rodriguez is in top form here. We believe she's the kind of athletic coed who can zipline with an arrow sticking out of her calf. Their characters may be underwritten, but their performances have enough energy to keep us involved

Low Points
Did I mention that I also kind of hated everyone in the movie?

Lessons Learned
Archery is a very white sport filled with very terrible white shots

There's a difference between being lost on a creepy abandoned penal colony and being stranded on a creepy abandoned penal colony

Dating your brother's ex takes more than 2 years to no longer be awkward

Adorable Puppy Notes
I'm a dog person. I grew up with dogs, spent years working with dogs, and generally spend every day in public hoping to pet a dog. Had I known The Breed was going to involve dogs being shot by wayward arrows and fired up by CGI flames, I probably would have passed. The poster and quick description suggested I'd be getting MUTANT dogs, and as we all know, there is a difference. All that is to say that the credits included several disclaimers that no animals were harmed during filming, and quick Googling suggests these were professionally trained dogs. This isn't the most pleasant film for a dog lover to watch, but most of the editing suggested these animals were treated fine. Make of that what you will

Early 2000s horror completists can do a lot worse than The Breed. It's far better put together than a lot of its competition at the time, though all that said, it's still not in any way the most innovative or dynamic movie. It's on Peacock for when you have that very specific era (or flea bite-induced) itch.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Milling Management

When you sit back and think about it, it's odd that the horror film genre has such little interest in everyday work. Sure, we'll get an occasional slasher-in-place-of-employment or the rarer team-building terrors, but the human stakes of capitalism are a bit less commonly explored. 

You could argue that virtually any genre film involves employment in some regard (most camp counselors aren't volunteering), but rarely is the very CONCEPT of work, particularly middle management, the basis of the actual horror.

Quick Plot: Joe (Get Out's Lil Rel Howery) is a well-dressed professional who awakens in a large open air concrete cell with no memory of how or why he got there. A helpful if grumpy voice on the other side of the wall provides a few tips, most of which boil down to "do whatever the loudspeaker tells you." 

She has a lot to say. Joe is quickly informed that due to his declining performance, Mallard, his employer (presumably an Amazon-ish stand-in), has taken advantage of some of that fine print paperwork no one reads to fast track him to a special form of corporate training. 

From 6AM to 10PM, Joe now works at the titular Mill. It's exactly what it sounds like: a heavy stone that must be pushed in a circle, his quota of rotations growing based on both good and bad performance reviews. Failure to comply results in termination, and no, there are no unemployment benefits.

Written by Jeffrey David Thomas and directed by Sean King O'Grady, The Mill reminds me of the first round of drinks at Friday night's office happy hour. It has a LOT to say, and some naughty fun doing so. Your reaction probably follows the rhythmic lean-in, nod, ask for clarification, gasp, and vow of solidarity that comes at many a coworker social interaction. You're unified in knowing that corporate culture is cruel, unfair, and often very unusual. But also, the 2-for-1 top shelf cocktail pricing ends soon, and you've already spent five days with these people.

All that is to say that The Mill is a good idea for a movie until you watch all 100 minutes of it and discover that's all it really was. I'll avoid spoilers here (though not in my Low Point) but will say that the last act twist was disappointing, and the final beat confounding. 

But there's a lot of good before that! The Orwellian doubletalk of Joe's employers is funny in a horrifying way, and the tension of literal wheel-spinning goes far. I'm sad to be so hard on the final product when so much of it is exactly the kind of movie I love. 

High Points
The early digs at corporate culture ("we're a family!") are both honest and clever in a maddening, all-too-familiar way

Low Points
SPOILER ALERT: putting aside the "this feels like a stretched out Black Mirror episode" sentiment across The Mill, it's Joe's final beat that simply makes no sense. After signing paperwork without reading the fine print (despite the nightmare he just experienced as a direct result), Joe defiantly stares at the camera to tell us he's tearing this place down. Um. How? 

Lessons Learned
Publicly traded companies have to document everything (including terminations)

Comfortable footwear is the real key to leveling up your career

There is nothing more arbitrary than a quota, especially when you are seemingly always able to do exactly what is needed to meet it

I really wanted to love The Mill but unfortunately, it's hard to recommend when the resolution is so flat. If, like me, you love a good Cube or The Platform-ish setup, you might still get a lot from the film's first hour. But then it goes on for another 46 minutes only to, well, I've said enough. Find it on Hulu and report back if you clock in. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

Going Up

You have to respect a movie title that tells it like it is.

Quick Plot: A gala for an investment group is starting on the 52nd floor of the Barton Building. Security is tight...ish. You need identification to access the elevator, but once you're in, good luck making it to the top. The interior security guard has a dead walkie talkie, the building crew is grumpier than me if I skip lunch, and the mechanics of the actual lift simply don't work well.

Nine enter. Maureen, a journalist, and her finance bro fiance Don. Celine, the 9-month pregnant bonds expert who eyes Don with a twinkle. Martin, a nervously sweaty mid-level adviser. George, a comedian tapped at the last minute to open the event with dated jokes. Muhammed, the security guard and veteran EMT. Twitchy Ohioan investor Jane. And finally, the big man of the hour himself, billionaire Henry Barton and his gloriously bratty granddaughter Madeline. 

Yes, that is too many people in one elevator heading up to an exclusive party.

Tensions immediately stir. George quickly proves himself to be as racist as he is claustrophobic. Jane has clear beef with Henry. Don is doing everything he can to avoid eye contact with Celine. And the miserable Madeline can't resist pulling the emergency break.

In most situations like this, you'd expect a tense but fairly quick maintenance call in order to get the guest of honor up to his shindig in time for the main course. But considering we'll soon learn that Barton Investments makes a good deal of its profit in junk bonds, perhaps we can also assume that they don't pay top dollar for good facility coverage. 

The clock ticks away as everyone gets sweatier, none more so than Jane. As she begins to suffer some kind of heart attack or stroke, she uses her dying words to warn her neighbors of something far worse than George's comedy: she's armed with a bomb. 

I've never seen a great movie set in an elevator, so my expectations for a movie all-out TITLED Elevator didn't pack a lot of promise. But by golly, I had a great time here...for a while. 

Directed by Stig Svendsen, Elevator is clearly not an expensive movie. Did I mention 85% of it takes place inside the titular Elevator? There's an awkwardness about the very setup (not to agree with the racist comedian, but that IS too many people in one elevator) and a general sense of "that's not how things work" about some of the basic interactions. These people seem to have great cell service, yet no one thinks to escalate their phone calls until they've been stuck with no contact for 20 minute? One of the country's wealthiest man is trapped inside a skyscraper's elevator on the night of a party celebrating his very existence, yet security doesn't think to give him a little extra attention? 

You catch my drift. And yet, I was fully forgiving of Elevator's ridiculousness for 2/3rds of its running time because it really grew on me. The cast of character actors, some more known than others, all were giving their best and working to create actual human beings with just enough individual backstories to raise the stakes (Devin Ratray in particular creates a whole lot out of what could have been a human punchline). There was clearly some interest in exploring the horrors of capitalism in Marc Rosenberg's script, but the film just seems to run out of steam in its final act. We get a little violence, some action, a bit of tragedy, and a muted coda that feels like the battery inside the camera is dying. 

On one hand, I think Elevator's ending (which I won't spoil) has things to say with its very unspectacular style. On the other, it's pretty darn unsatisfying. 

High Points
Elevator was made in 2011, which was a different time in terms of "being trapped in an elevator with people of different political persuasions than you." I say that first in order to give some context for what I'm saying next: there's a very rewarding shift in who's right and wrong throughout Elevator. Joey Slotnick's George is an awful bigot, but watching him also reveal human layers that tend to make more sense than some of the people around him is surprisingly complex. There's good character work being done here.

Low Points
I said it with Down, and I'll say it here: there's a special place in Emily's version of hell for a movie that traps a pregnant woman in an elevator only to NOT have her go into labor, and SPOILER ALERT, Elevator joins that club

Lessons Learned
A fake bomb is supposed to be seen, not hidden

Opening for Andrew Dice Clay doesn't necessarily make you not stupid

When attending a cocktail party in your third trimester, always accessorize with a purse large enough to hold your bladder

Is Elevator the best genre film I've seen set almost entirely in an elevator? Yes. Have I seen many good genre films set almost entirely in elevators? No. I had a good time with this movie, so while I was disappointed in how it wrapped up, I still think there's a lot to enjoy. Find it on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, May 27, 2024

Worth Every Quarter

I need to find some kind of term for the kind of "credits heh?" movie that I find so often on Amazon Prime. You know what I mean: you queue up a film you know little about only to say, "heh" multiple times as names you know well show up. It's a positive turn of speech that comes from the top of your throat, not a full-out "wow", more a shortened form of "hey". In the case of 1993's Arcade, which was released by Full Moon right as I stopped renting those movies every weekend, it's a parade of incredibly important '90s faces (at least to young me).




And of course, LUCAS

Quick Plot: Teenage Alex has had a rough year. It happens when you're the one to find your mother's dead body from a self-inflicted gunshot. Thankfully, she has a solid group of pals and a loyal boyfriend Greg, all of whom enjoy afterschool hours down at an arcade called Dante's Inferno.

One afternoon, the gang is excited to be part of the test audience for the less than creatively named virtual reality game Arcade. Skeptic Nick goes first and falls in love, but when Greg takes up the controls, he seems to vanish. The teens are a little distracted by the complimentary home versions to notice for a while. 

Alex senses something is wrong, especially when she takes a turn and discovers the games seems to know she's looking for Greg. Nick begrudgingly decides to do some research with her, only for them to discover the rest of their friends have been sucked into Arcade. A trip to the development headquarters yields some disturbing answers: in order to keep upping interest from a bored generation of gaming teens, the company has resorted to using human DNA. It goes as well as you think it would.

Full Moon Entertainment was probably the first film studio I knew by logo. To young video store regular Emily, its presence implied killer dolls. Was there anything better?

Released (kind of?) in 1993, Arcade feels like a far more professional production than some of the Demonic Toys offshoots that would come shortly after. Sure, the actual visuals are as dated as you'd expect, but the general video game theorizing still has relevance a lifetime later. Screenwriter David S. Goyer would go on to a far more glamorous career in the DC and Marvel universe, but as someone who usually groans when I see his name above the title, I can say with surprising confidence that this might be my new favorite of his credits. 

It's not the deepest compliment to ever say that this is top tier Albert Pyun (this is the same prolific B-movie maestro who directed Alien From LA). Still, Arcade IS good! Maybe my expectations were low, but this film had a lot of charm. The early '90s aesthetic goes pretty far, plus we have a genuinely strong young cast easily holding our interest. The ending is satisfyingly pleasant, then even MORE satisfyingly winking if you catch the Amazon Prime 'extended' version. All in all, well worth a few quarters. 

High Points
Megan Ward isn't the most dynamic of final girls, but her Alex is a believably hurting teenager, and by the end, I was fully onboard in rooting for her triumph

Low Points
90 minutes is absolutely the right length for a 1993 low budget horror movie about virtual reality gone wrong, but with a cast this stacked, it's hard not to feel like this film deserved a LITTLE more time with some character interactions and development

Lessons Learned
To sublimate is to mess up

Nothing gets executive attention like the threat of a virgin sacrifice

Any Star Trek: Next Generation fan would know: never buy anything Q is selling, even if it's free

I can acknowledge that I'm a VERY particular demographic. Arcade might not have worked for 11-year-old me, but 31 years later, it's incredibly satisfying in a fairly dumb way. Give it a go via Amazon Prime.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Putting the Kill In Your 401K


It's shocking to me how rare the horror genre dips into workplace culture. Setting your film in an office opens up such a great opportunity for a diverse mixture of ages and skills, yet it's all too rare to see it explored. For every ten summer camp sessions or ski trips, we seem to get one Belko Experiment.

Like Severance (one of the all-too-rare co-worker slashers), The Conference takes an office team and moves them to a corporate teambuilding excursion. So yes, we get more cabins than cubicles, but it's something.

Quick Plot: Who needs family farmland when you can have an exclusive mall and residential housing for white people? That's the attitude of boss Ingela and project manager Jonas as they take their corporate team out to the woods for a work retreat in celebration of the big upcoming ribbon cutting ceremony to break ground. 

Two things stand in the way: Lina, the rare businesswoman with a conscience who went on sick leave right before Jonas finished some fudgie paperwork, and Sooty, someone who has found the oversized mascot head for the mall and wears it as he machetes his way through the cabin staff and their guests. 

All in all, it's just a hair worse than trust exercises and work-mandated potato sack races.

Directed and co-written by Patrick Eklund, The Conference is exactly what you hope to find in a horror comedy. We get a memorable slasher mask, inventive kills, clever comedy, and biting satire about corporate greed. What's not to like?

High Points
This is a big SPOILER, so skip ahead if that's not your style: The Conference is very much a traditional slasher, but it has a refreshing ending in NOT killing all but our final girl. In my younger years, such an act of mercy might have annoyed me, but today, it feels...nice. Some people deserve to live (or at the very least, to not die horribly at the hands of a vengeful farmer) and it felt genuinely GOOD to walk away from this movie seeing some of the perfectly fine and surprisingly capable characters limp off into the sunset (and hopefully, a very nice severance package)

Low Points
Considering the substantial size of the cast (by slasher standards), it feels like there could have been a little more time spent in introducing the characters and the roles within the company. The ones who DO get that attention (Jonas, Ingela) are clearly established, but as we round the last act, it's a bit frustrating to not necessarily remember some of the last employees standing

Lessons Learned
There's a big difference between goals for the climate and goals for the environment

Charcoal burners were once the proletariat of the forest

There are plenty of white gang members in Sweden (though they rarely make the cut in feel-good corporate video ads)

I had a grand old time with The Conference, streaming now on Netflix. It's a sharp satire with some successful laughs, plus plenty of fresh horror violence, including gore you've never quite seen before. Put on your away message and have a go.