Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Girl

Quick Plot: A cameo'ing Katharine Isabelle heads home after seeing a horror movie, only to be promptly murdered by a pair of masked men with a camera. 

Soon after, we settle in on Claudia, a supermarket cashier toiling away in a small South Dakota town. The only thing interesting in her life is also rather horrifying: every few weeks, someone leaves a grisly photograph of a slain young woman on the community board in her store, where she's always the first to see it during opening hours. The local cops (including Mitch Pileggi) make Last House On the Left's officers look like Stabler and Benson, leaving the young woman frustrated and incredibly at risk.

Enter the world's douchiest fashion photographer--

No, seriously. I know heterosexual male fashion photographers are universally agreed upon to be the first group of human beings we sacrifice to our Martian overlords when the time comes, but my GOSH

This one is the worst, and I mean that in the best possible way.

For better or (usually) worse, horror films are often filled with unlikable characters. Perhaps we need to hate some of these men and women in order to make their painful deaths entertaining, but there's an art to creating these villainous victims, both on the acting and directing side. So many films misunderstand this, throwing obnoxious frat boys or cruel mean girls at their audiences in order to elicit a cheer when said coeds take an axe to the face. Speaking for myself, I don't enjoy watching an awful character die because I don't enjoy watching an awful character AT ALL. 

The Girl In the Photographs has some problems (I'll get to those) but its biggest strength is in how it understands that an unlikable character should still be fun to watch. Think of Michael Gambon in The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover: he's one of the most disgusting human beings you have ever watched onscreen, but you can't help but be entertained by just how awful he really is. It's the wrestling heel you love to hate, but most importantly, love to watch. Bless Kal Penn for taking Peter Hemmings (aforementioned douchey fashion photographer) to such extremely unpleasant, amazingly amusing levels of hipster terrible.

Peter grew up in Claudia's sleepy town, and after learning about the photographs via a Reddit-like forum (because again: inept police department) he assembles his team of airhead models and nice assistant to return home for a murder-inspired perfume shoot. Claudia is recruited as the local it girl, while unbeknownst to her, her best friend and ex-boyfriend are abducted by the camera-happy killers.

Directed by Nick Simon, The Girl In the Photographs is a wildly inconsistent, but somewhat consistently entertaining little genre film. The acting (BLESS YOU KAL PENN) is a head above most of this kind of movie's ilk, and the violence is handled with a chilling hand that offers some surprises and important gravity.

So what's the problem? Well, maybe those aspects are a little TOO good, making the fairly basic story with its familiar beats feel like such a letdown. There's no real mystery to our killers, and no interesting complexity to their motives. While Claudia is plucky enough to root for, the film doesn't really give her much to hold onto.

By most straight-to-Instant-Watch standards, The Girl In the Photographs is certainly better than average. The disappointment comes from the simple fact that it seems to have the potential to be something special, rather than just decent.

High Points
Seriously, give Kal Penn some White Castle and a gold-plated toilet (because you know, White Castle) as a reward for just how glorious his jerk of a character is

Low Points
I've said this several times in a post-2016 world, but damnit, life is hard enough right now without seeing a likable protagonist receive a sad fate

Lessons Learned
Serial killers use PCs (and the really twisted ones, Dells)

The only thing worse than phone service in South Dakota is the quality of its police force

Models don't eat...ever

The Girl In the Photographs is far from a great horror film, but it's funny and involving, and has a strong sense of sympathy for its characters. For a Netflix streamer, it's better than most, though perhaps its potential may leave you a little frustrated. You could do a whole lot worse. I just wish the film aimed to do better. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Get Out (please)

Some movies are made to scare you. Some are made to make you look at the world differently. Some want to make you laugh.
And some seem put together solely to piss you off.

Quick Plot: A pre-credits teaser introduces us to an attractive young woman home alone at night. Before we get to know much about her, a mysterious figure throws a plastic bag over her face and kills her in a quicker way than I though possible based on what I know about air supply.

Moving on. 

Elizabeth, a cellist for the Portland Philharmonic, is mulling the decision to accept an elite position with a London orchestra. Holding her back her university tenured boyfriend Justin, who respects Elizabeth's talent and ambition but can't make the overseas switch for his own occupational reasons. 

As Elizabeth sits back for a leisurely weekend of laundry, wine, cat sitting, decision-making, and a LOT of showering, a hooded figure slips into her apartment to commit such atrocities as peeing in her kitchen sink, taking a bite out of an apple in a fruit bowl and putting it back, and worst of all, dipping his dirty finger into her cottage cheese.
Over the next day or so, Elizabeth showers and runs some errands, unaware that a potential killer is following her every move. She showers. She does some laundry and meets an odd but seemingly nice enough neighbor named John. She feeds her friend's cat and showers. She stops at her rehearsal studio to practice some Dvorak under the strict eye (and terrible line delivering) of her conductor Vincent, played (badly) by Moby for reasons unexplained. Then she showers. Because the movie needs a few more suspects, Elizabeth also continues to bump into a mysterious man who's either homeless or, you know, another mysterious neighbor.  Justin stops by for some makeup/breakup sex. Elizabeth showers. She pours more wine, Skypes with her mother, practices her cello...

Guys, seriously: the cello is the most interesting part.
I have no way of discussing why I hated this movie so much without spoiling it, but before I do that, allow me to provide the stupidest warning I have ever had to give: if for some masochistic urge you decide to watch this movie (maybe because you really like showers), make sure you stick around past the first minute or so of the credits. This is only if you want to actually see the ending of Intruder, which for some reason, is "hidden" after the first round of titles. So if, like me, the movie ends you say, "Are  you kidding me?", take some comfort in knowing another 3 minutes are coming soon. 

Note that when those 3 minutes end, your reaction, if you are me, will be something more akin to, "Oh, are you F*CKING kidding me?"

So. After 80 minutes of watching a hooded figure skulk around the likable but possibly deaf Elizabeth, the movie decides to just SHOW his face. And yes, it's John, the creepy neighbor who says more words than the other creepy neighbor who proves to be one of a few red herrings in a mystery that the film doesn't have the skill to actively craft. 

So. 80 minutes of buildup and teasing, a lot of showers and closeups of a cat's bland facial expressions, a one second reveal, punctuated by Elizabeth going to sleep, sneezing, and awakening the reveal that JOHN HAS BEEN IN THE HOUSE THIS WHOLE TIME BUT AT LEAST HE SAYS BLESS YOU SO BRIDGET FONDA IN SINGLES WOULD LIKE HIM.

I'm angry now, but about to be angrier at writer/director Travis Zairwny (sometimes credited as "Travis Z." which does not help matters in the least). After we learn the names of a few key players behind Intruder, we get our coda (which is actually an ending, and not a coda, but whatever). Elizabeth wakes up trapped in John's basement. She bangs at a window for help.
And John wraps a plastic bag around her pretty face and kills her.

A few more credits roll.

Then he goes to his favorite coffee shop and starts on his new female fixation.
Eff. This. Movie.
Eff it for burying its ending after the credits as if its viewers were that invested that they wouldn't immediately change the channel after it ended. Eff it for tossing in suspect after suspect without giving us any reason to evaluate their motives. Eff it for being so cruel in how it disposes of a character we've just spent 80 minutes watching with such mean abandon. Eff it for making said character the least observant person to ever be presumably gifted with the five senses (I mean, she cooked breakfast and somehow didn't smell the urine in her kitchen sink?). Eff it for the amount of times it almost has her realize THERE'S A PERSON IN HER APARTMENT ALL WEEKEND only to have a last minute distraction save said PERSON IN HER APARTMENT from being discovered. Eff it for how it offers absolutely no finesse in revealing WHO THE PERSON IN HER APARTMENT IS other than just randomly showing his face. Eff it for its showers. Eff it for wasting so much time showing how the cat is the only one in the movie with any awareness that there's someone inside, except that the cat doesn't act like any cat ever in that he never actually acts as if there IS someone inside. Eff it for pretending to be this deep character study in such a terribly paced slice of life way while offering no sense that anything matters. And of course, eff the many, many showers.

It is mean, it is pointless, it is boring, and it is easily one of the most unsatisfying films I have ever watched. 

High Points
The real shame of Intruder is that it contains the kernel of a great idea. We've seen the home invasion tale told time and time again, but the way the film begins to (very loosely) craft its suspects suggests a much more interesting look at how, for a very attractive young woman, every interaction with a man might pose some kind of danger. We meet Moby's Vincent as he berates Elizabeth while giving her an unwanted massage (thus opening up a whole slew of uncomfortable questions about a woman trying to fend off sexual harassment without confronting it). John is introduced as the kind of nice neighbor you meet and should be friends with, but then goes on to ask just enough questions to make you immediately mention your boyfriend to shut down any chance of the conversation going in the wrong direction. Then there's the creepy guy who just seems to live outside this nice neighborhood. Maybe he's just an eccentric who likes the rain, but as any woman who has had to decide whether to respond when a stranger on the street says hello will tell you, there's a complicated threat there. 

If only the movie were smarter to actually explore this

Low Points!!!!

Lessons Learned
Extremely skilled musicians typically have terrible hearing 

Anyone who claims to make a living by blogging is definitely a lying homicidal maniac

When done effectively, fatal stab wounds yield no blood

You want an effective thriller about a hard-working young woman being stalked by an obsessive psychopath? Watch Sleep Tight. Want a poorly constructed, misanthropic slug of 90 minutes that will waste your time? This one's on Instant Watch. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

What To Expect When You're Expecting (an evil baby)

If you'll forgive the pun, I think we can all agree that pregnancy is fertile ground for a good horror film. With a poster that directly references Rosemary's Baby, the Danish film Shelley seemed like the perfect creepy Netflix stream. 

Quick Plot: Elena accepts a housekeeping job in Denmark for a mysterious childless couple named Louise and Kasper. The household is vegetarian and anti-electricity, growing most of their own food and living a quiet throwback lifestyle. While it's not her idea of paradise, Elena gives it her all in order to raise enough money to buy an apartment for her young son back in Romania.

After a little bonding, Louise reveals the reason she's been so distant and sad: after a miscarriage, she had a hysterectomy and is now unable to carry a child to term. Elena agrees to be a surrogate and will be paid with the home of her dreams. It's only 9 months. What can possibly go wrong?

A few months into the pregnancy, Elena starts to show your typical cinematic signs of A Very Bad Fetus. She craves meat, scratches at her shrinking body, and wants nothing more than to go home and get whatever is growing inside of her far away. 

Terrified that Elena leaving would mean losing their last chance at parenthood, Louise and Kaspar decide to keep her close, even though it's clear the young woman is only getting worse. I'll now step into some spoiler territory, as the 50ish minute mark throws a bit of a surprise at us.

You've been warned.
Elena attempts to give herself an abortion via Louise's spare knitting needle. Doctors are able to save the baby but not Elena, whose body can't handle the internal bleeding (and possible demon spawn that came out of her womb). Little Shelley seems perfectly healthy and least to her mother.

Louise takes to parenthood like nachos to cheese, but Kasper can't seem to connect with his new daughter. Even Louise's own spiritual doctor senses some kind of evil from the baby, fleeing the house rather quickly upon meeting the infant. Something is wrong with Shelley.
And then the movie ends.
I'm incredibly torn about how I feel about  Ali Abbasi's film. It's beautifully acted and nicely shot, with a subject matter that's incredibly compelling right from the get-go. We like Elena and respect her motivations to build a better life for her child, just as we feel incredibly sympathy for Louise's infertility. Even Kasper's hesitance at fatherhood is understandable. 

Abbasi builds a strong and effective atmosphere, but I'm just not sure how much I'm willing to forgive the fact that the film ends at just the moment when something actually happens. There's some good tension as Elena's pregnancy develops and even more as the adorable baby coos (and maybe clicks) away. The "sorta" reveal that Shelley has more sinister origins than a mere egg transplant opens up plenty of questions, but the nerve of the film to not even chance an answer is pretty frustrating.

High Points
The performances are good all around, but a lot of credit has to go to Ellen Dorrit Peterson as Louise. On paper, it's a frustratingly thin character (especially considering how many questions go unanswered by the time the film has ended) but Peterson uses her ghostly paleness to fantastic effect, always making us wonder if she's haunted by grief or something far more sinister. 

Low Points
Aside from the aforementioned ENDING RIGHT WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS, there's also the issue that the only real scene of action is shot and lit in such darkness that I had to check Wikipedia to make sure I understood the plot point correctly

Mixed Points
Initially, I was incredibly bothered by the idea of yet another film taking surrogacy as an easy plot device to start a horror film. There's something incredibly offensive about using something scientifically complex but completely understandable as a jumping point for insanity (much in the way it's 2017 and television and film continues to treat online dating as if everyone that uses it is a serial killer). Thankfully, Shelley sidesteps this. Yes, there's a moment or two where Elena seems to be taking more ownership of the fetus than Louise would like, but that's never the real issue. The fact that Louise couldn't carry her own baby makes perfect sense once we learn the truth about Shelley and Elena's fate. 

Lessons Learned
Boys want to have boys, and girls want to have girls

Pregnancy makes your skin really, realllllllllly dry

Knitting needles should probably not be left in easy reach of the suicidal

As goes with many a slow-burn thriller, the question to ask is always "does the end result justify the time spent teasing it?" In the case of Shelley, there IS no result, so, you know, no. That being said, there is something very haunting about the film, and it's well-made enough that it still manages to be engaging, even if it ultimately leaves you with very little to show for it. If you go in knowing that it sort of stops before it starts, you may manage to appreciate some of the skill and take in the themes that are suggested without being fully explored. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

America's Next Top Parasite

There was a time in my life when I could tell you everything you never wanted to know about America's Next Top Model. Then Tyra Banks went to the Harvard Business School and decided to make a "college" season which actually just convinced 14 young women to drop out of school to be on an overproduced reality show, teasing them with "scholarship funds" only to take all of it away from everyone except for the winner (who happened to be already wealthy). 

It was the last straw in a long, complicated relationship. And all this is really just a preamble to say that today's feature, Viral, stars an a former contestant. 

Quick Plot: Brainy Emma and her older, mildly rebellious sister Stacey (ANTM's Analeigh Tipton) have just moved to a new Californian town in a suburban development. Their dad (the always welcome Michael Kelly) teaches high school biology, while their mother seems to be maintaining some mysterious distance on business trips. Emma balances schoolwork with a chaste crush on boy next door Evan, while Stacey engages in a more physical relationship with skater boy CJ (played by something called Machine Gun Kelly, which I don't think is any relation to aforementioned Michael Kelly). 

Also, there's a parasitic outbreak and the country is going to hell.
Directed by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (they of Catfish and the underrated Paranormal Activity 3 & 4), Viral tells a story we've seen many times from a fresh angle. Normally, I'm the last person to ask for more teenagers in horror, but much like the wonderfully underseen Into the Forest, Viral understands the key to centering your film on young characters is to make them real, sympathetic, and specific.

We don't need too much exposition to understand Emma and Stacey. They come from caring, if distracted parents. Emma follows the rules, occasionally making exceptions if it means helping her older sister. With her blue highlights and eye rolls, Stacey is a wannabe bad girl still good enough to respect most of her dad's requests, while also helping to edge Emma just far enough over to the dark side to ensure she has fun. 

Such a dynamic would be healthy and fine if, you know, there wasn't a highly contagious outbreak of worm things that essentially turn their hosts into hungry zombies. 

Viral does a nice job in balancing its gross-out horror with the very grounded reality of its characters. While it may be frustrating to watch our leads ignore quarantine rules for a nearby keg party, it's also easy to understand why these young women wouldn't put much stock in government warnings. In the last ten years, we've been through swine flu, ebola, and Legionnaire's disease "outbreaks" that were never nearly as dangerous or widespread as the panic-inducing media wanted us to believe. Even an honors student would rather listen to her crush than an anchorman. 

The lack of initial action may be a turnoff for some viewers, but it felt true to the characters for me. Leads Sofia Black-D'Elia and Tipton convey a real connection as sisters, and it helps to drive the film once infection becomes extremely close to home. There's nothing revolutionary about the story or style, but Joost and Schulman know how to tell a story like this in a way that the audience cares. Along the way, they manage to pack in some decently gross parasitic attacks and effectively tense chase scenes. Solidly done all around. 

High Points
I always appreciate when a movie understands just how large or small its scope should be. Viral doesn't aim to tell the end of the world; it simply takes a pair of teenagers and watches the start of it through their limited viewpoint. All the information we know comes from the snippets of news stories they see, so we never have an edge over them in terms of understanding the full nature of the infection or state of the world. It helps to keep the tension exactly where it should be: on this very small, very specific collection of characters

Low Points
I've excused it because the movie overcomes it, but you know, there's not much new here
Lessons learned
On the hierarchy of supplies included in an emergency kit, band-aids are pretty lame

The trick to not vomiting when dissecting a frog is to chew gum

Doing your homework in sweats when school is canceled is pretty uncool

Viral isn't the most memorable of the parasitic apocalyptic subgenre, but it's a solidly made little film that moves well in its under-90 minute running length. If you're looking for a breezy way to kill some time, it's certainly one of the better of the new offerings currently streaming on Netflix.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sliver Me Timbers

Ah, the early '90s, a time when R-rated thrillers were a thing, Billy Baldwin was considered a sexy thing, and Joe Esztrerhaus could make millions of dollars by writing R-rated thrillers that let Billy Baldwin tease the world with showing his thing. 

Quick Plot: Carly Norris is a successful book editor and unhappy divorcee. Things perk up when her application for a fancy modern high rise is accepted. The only catch? She's inheriting the apartment of a late lookalike who was either depressed enough to leap from the 23rd floor or unlucky enough to be murdered there.

The neighbors are an eclectic bunch: a lovably nosy old man quickly befriends Carly before dying alone in his shower. A coke-headed neighbor seems to flirt with the same men Carly fancies until she ends up murdered, possibly by one of them. The suspect list is small: either Jack Thompson (Tom Berenger), an impotent mystery novelist (whose impotence is mentioned about 17 times over the course of 100 minutes) or Zeke (William Baldwin before the goblin transformation), a hot young video game designer who also happens to own the building.

It doesn't take too long for Carly to fall hard for Zeke. Together, they work out, have load acrobatic sex, and disgust fellow diners at fancy restaurants by throwing lingerie back and forth.

They are pretty much as insufferable as they sound, only more boring.

Oh! But he's also a voyeur who has planted hidden cameras inside every apartment in his building.

And yet, he's still...really...boring.

Let's get the first problem out of the way: Billy Baldwin is sort of kind of playing the Sharon Stone Basic Instinct role, only he's no Sharon Stone. More tolerable than Stephen, and yet still a far, far cry from Alec, it's hard to ever feel much of anything for his Zeke. It's not entirely his fault. Director Philip Noyce introduces him as a sort of charming rogue, only to rather quickly turn him into a mildly obsessive creep (though the movie doesn't seem to see that itself) and maybe vicious killer, or maybe not, or maybe ...well, the truth is, by the very end of the movie, I have no idea what I'm supposed to think of him or what he did or didn't do.

Sharon Stone's Carly fares mildly better, but possibly only because if nothing else, her character is best friends with Colleen Camp's gloriously loud-talking Judy (WHY ISN'T THIS MOVIE ABOUT HER?). As I said way back with the slightly less dull Deadly Blessing, the woman has always had star power that any camera adores. She does her best with an absolute nothing of a role, but it's a shame that following Basic Instinct, this was the best she could get. 

Noyce doesn't make an incompetent film, but he sure does make a stupid one. While everything you'll probably read about Sliver will focus on its voyeuristic obsession, the film takes a full ONE HOUR AND TWENTY MINUTES before it becomes any real plot point. Worse, Sliver has no idea how to contextualize it in any way for its characters. Carly is disgusted when she discovers Zeke's habit for all of 60 seconds before she decides it's hot and something SHE'll be obsessed over until it becomes dirty and something she needs to make a grand statement against because huh? 

I won't get into the spoiler territory of the murder mysteries, only one (out of three) of which is officially solved (we're left wondering if one was an accident or murder, providing you remember anything that happens in this movie by the time you get done with it). The film is apparently very messily based on Ira Levin novel, which isn't surprisingly when you see that the screenplay comes from the pen of that sultan of class, Joe Eszterhas. Those looking for Showgirls levels of fun will be sorely disappointed.

Those looking for a heartbeat will be worried.

High Points
The only real saving grace of Sliver is its incredibly time stamped '90sness. Not only do we get the kind of darkly lit, partial-nudity containing sex scenes, but we're also gifted with choker necklaces, Pearl Jam references, and the very simple trick of having a character under 30 be a video game designer. Buy some Zima and have yourself one phat drinking game!

Low Points
Everything else?

Also, screw any movie that wastes the talents of the insanely wonderful Polly Walker, aka the underrated Rome's Atia and pre-Cersei Lannister evil goddess

Lessons Learned
Life is boring if you're not a dirty old man

Everybody has a telescope!

Women are usually not overly impressed when they first discover you've been filming them in the privacy of their apartment

If you don't want people to think that you're a murderer, wear something other than black ski caps when indoors

Oy. If you have a soft spot for sexy '90s thrillers, Sliver has a lot to offer. If you have standards for storytelling, Sliver is probably going to make you want to throw your underwear at the TV (not in a sexy way; more to make some kind of statement against VOYERISM or something). It's available to stream on Amazon Prime, and while I don't necessarily regret watching it (because I do not have standards when it comes to storytelling) I would never tell anyone I actually like to do so. It's stupid. But sometimes, that's okay (but seriously: this is stupid, and this is me speaking before the Jolly Rancher-spiked Zimas).