Monday, May 2, 2016

Bromance Or Bust

I think it’s safe to say now that it’s 2016, we can finally stop arguing over the merits of found footage horror movies. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. The same can be said about zombie flicks, slashers, and every other subgenre. 

So with that said, clear out a mere 77 minutes of your life for today’s found footage feature.

Quick Plot: Aaron is a young filmmaker who eagerly accepts a mysterious but financially savvy one-day job. His mission: drive to a secluded cabin and film a man named Josef's My Life-esque video message to his unborn child. Josef has a fatal brain tumor and doesn't expect to see his baby grow up, hence his fairly emotional state.

Still, isn't Josef just a little TOO friendly? The laid-back Aaron tries to take it in stride, but it doesn't take the full day to realize something just isn't quite right.

At just 77 minutes long, it's hard to say any more about Creep without giving a whole lot away. Directed by Patrick Brice (who also plays Aaron) and heavily improvised by indie king Mark Duplass, Creep is a minimalist two-man drama that doesn't wear out its brief welcome (at least for me). Duplass has such a strong confidence in talking directly to a camera that it's darn near impossible not to hang on his every word. To see him play so against type--or rather, like a long-lost and socially confused cousin of his quirky Mindy Project gynecologist character--is fascinating to behold.

That being said, Brice's Aaron isn't the most interesting of cameraholders, although in a subgenre that includes obnoxious messes like V/H/S and Crowsnest, he's certainly far from the worst. Still, for all its disciplined brevity, it's kind of frustrating to get so little out of our protagonist. For example, we gather that an independent filmmaker taking a mystery gig could probably use some cash, yet the brief glimpse of his home life seems to suggest he's living pretty decently. Similarly, we don't necessarily need to see him call his friends for advice, but considering how strange the situation gets, there's simply a missing link on our end to not see Aaron make any kind of effort for help (one quick police report aside). Would any sane adult agree to meet their stalker without dragging along at least one pal that owes a favor?

Creep doesn’t address these questions, probably because it’s just so much more interesting to put its energy into Duplass’s Josef. It makes perfect sense, but it also renders something about the film a little empty. Yes, I’d rather watch Josef over Aaron, but because we’re not ever fully put into Aaron’s shoes in a way that seems to fit, it’s hard to have the wollop hit as it should. 

That being said, Creep is...neat. Duplass is just too good for it not to work, even if it doesn’t quite connect the way I was hoping. Still, it's more than worth a watch, particularly if you've always dreamed of watching Mark Duplass dress like a werewolf and dance.

High Points
As much as I do have issues with how Aaron's character is handled, I will say that it's oddly refreshing to see this kind of tale focused on two male characters. The film doesn't hammer away at its gender flip, but it's definitely a clear and deliberate choice that puts a familiar story in just enough different context to make you look at things with fresh eyes

Low Points
Aforementioned frustrations with one half of the characters

Lessons Learned
As someone who lives on the 4th floor (plus an even bigger 1st floor stoop, so really, 5th floor) walkup, I can indeed back up Josef's claim that you just never get used to stairs

Turn around. Always, turn around

Every town has a diner known for its pancakes


Far from a masterpiece, Creep is still an enjoyable way to kill 80 minutes. The film plays with its familiar setup and style to deliver something much fresher than most of its brethren, and Duplass is just one of those artists who's always weirdly fascinating to watch. It’s something different grounded in the familiar. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Guys, You Know They Invented DVDs, Right?

Horror anthologies in the 21st century have, for the most part, been a strange and mean disappointment. With a few key exceptions--well, Trick 'r Treat--it just seems like whenever (usually) young filmmakers of this age tackle the short story format, we as an audience end up with something far from scary and entertaining and close to mean and for whatever reason, oddly misogynist.

I pretty much hated V/H/S, though I hated V/H/S 2 a little bit less. When I learned about the third entry, I was planning to finally cut the cord of grumble watching in a way I've only ever succeeded at with American Horror Story (that's right: I slogged through Sons of Anarchy and I'm a little less of a person because of it). Then I learned that some of the directors involved had made films that I genuinely liked (Deadgirl, Dance of the Dead, Resolution, Spring) and realized, damnit, I have to just get on that elliptical machine and watch this movie while burning some calories.

I am nothing if not a multitasker.

Quick Plot(s): Story by story, here we go:

Our wraparound, Vicious Circles, is helmed by Deadgirl co-director Marcel Sarmiento. It follows a slacker named Kevin who, hold onto your butts, REALLY LIKES VIDEOTAPING STUFF. Most of that “stuff” includes his girlfriend Iris. One night, a high-speed police chase involving a wayward ice cream truck flashes by his own window, prompting Kevin to grab his camera and get in on the action. Iris is somehow abducted by the speeding truck, but she manages to send Kevin video phone messages helping him track her. Meanwhile, other bystanders who witness the chase circling them seem to fall into fits of violent madness.

I’ll say this about Vicious Circles: it’s gallons better than any of the wraparounds in the other two V/H/S films. Unfortunately, that’s kind of like saying having your cavity filled is gallons better than experiencing a root canal, or that the characters on The Walking Dead are more consistent than Fear the Walking Dead. For whatever reason, the framing segments in this series just can’t seem to click into place in a way that works. As a huge fan of the underrated Deadgirl, Vicious Circle is a letdown but could have been worse.

The first full segment is Dante the Great, written and directed by Gregg Bishop of the surprisingly delightful zombie comedy Dance of the Dead. Dante is a wildly successful magician whose tricks baffle and excite the world. His success, however, is actually due to the possession of a powerful and evil cloak that craves fresh bodies.

Dante the Great is kind of the perfect story for this kind of anthology. It’s a simple setup that probably wouldn’t warrant a 90 minute feature, but it’s a fun and unique concept that also gives you something new in its brief running time. It’s also refreshing that the story is told more documentary-style than handheld found footage. I can’t say that I’ll think of Dante the Great ever again, but it entertained me just fine while I watched it.

Up next is Nacho Timecrimes Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters, which follows an amateur scientist who creates a portal into a side universe where his own double has seemingly done the same thing. As our lead explores his counterpart’s home, he discovers some key differences that just might involve genital monsters.

I’ve yet to see the well-received Timecrimes, in part because I’m still trying to get to the point where I don’t remember the details of what’s known to be the very similar in nature and details Triangle. Like the first segment, Parallel Monsters is good, if not great. I enjoyed how it never had to come out and explain its alternate devil (or something) worshiping religion. It drops enough clues to know something is very, very wrong, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a solid short story, which is what I like to see in anthologies.

The final segment is titled Bonestorm and is directed by the promising team behind Resolution and Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead. In the typical V/H/S tradition, Bonestorm is about a group of awful teenage boys. Thankfully, it’s much better than most of the previous shaky cam dudefests found in the other films.

The youths in this case are a group of skateboarding brats who head across the Mexican border to get some video footage of extreme moves. As they flip around an abandoned skate park with some ominous ritual symbols, one of them sheds some blood and accidentally summons a cult of undead skeleton zombie killer things. Shot primarily via Go Pro cameras, it certainly has the expected “what am I actually seeing?” effect, but the chaos is handled well enough that the almost video game-esque feel keeps the material watchable.

Due to their format, anthologies are rarely the most exciting type of film to write (and I assume, read) about. Oddly enough, I could never manage to put together my thoughts on the first V/H/S film because every time I tried, I felt like I was writing from a soapbox stuffed with estrogen. It felt mean and misogynist, and I just couldn't vocalize it in a way that satisfied where I stood. I covered the sequel on my podcast, The Feminine Critique  (Episode 43), because, well, sometimes it's just easier to stumble through spoken words than written ones.

I don't particularly want to see more V/H/S entries, but if considering they're on a (rather slow) upward track, I guess I won't complain. It's encouraging to see newer genre filmmakers taking some chances. Let's just hope they stay somewhat interesting.

Lessons Learned
Sigh. The usual. If you have boobs, a V/H/S camera will ogle them. If you have a vagina, you won't be allowed to do anything behind the camera. If you have motion sickness, a V/H/S camera will jam its fingers down your throat and vomit you. You get it.

Stray Observations
V/H/S: Viral might be the odd case of a film that works better when viewed on a cell phone than a larger television screen, where the shaky cam effect can be overwhelming

My expectations were pretty darn low for V/H/S: Viral, so a mild endorsement might be worthy of video box art. That being said, I found this one more...tolerable than the first two. The stories all bring something mildly new to the format, and none overstay their welcome in terms of length. It's on Instant Watch and at just 80 minutes, it won't hurt your brain to watch. It won't do much to improve it, but things could be worse. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Note To Self: Next Time, Just Rewatch Swimfan

Sometimes, running length is all it takes to sell a movie.

Now onto the 75 minute long (thankfully) The Tortured.

Quick Plot: Elise and Craig Landry are a successful suburban couple with a cute little six-year-old son named Benjamin. Before you can roll a credit, Benjamin is grabbed in broad daylight right out of his backyard by a twisted child killer.

Naturally, such an awful event does all but destroy Elise (Swimfan Forever Erika Christensen) and Craig (Passions Forever Jesse Metcalfe). Things don't improve when Benjamin's body turns up in the nightmare house of John Kozlowski (genre veteran Bill Moseley). Though Kozlowski is found guilty, the mere 25 year prison sentence does little to ease the Landrys' pain.

What follows is a typically miserable revenge plan that's fairly unpleasant for all involved. Elise decides prison is no payment for what John has done, convincing a reluctant Craig to help abduct the convicted man from police custody, bring him to an isolated cabin, and torture him for weeks until they feel satisfied. In typical no-that-perfectly-thought-out-characterization, Elise and Craig continuously flip flop positions in deciding they're doing the right or wrong thing.

It's as fun as it sounds, especially when we reach the kind of twist ending that does little but make its main protagonists look like even bigger idiots than we already thought they were.

Directed by Robert Fire In the Sky Lieberman, The Tortured is...well, exactly what you'd expect from a 75 minute movie about torture made by a decent filmmaker. The actors are fine, considering what little they're given to do. Like a lot of this subgenre, the entire film seems to be washed in a greenish blue filter that somehow makes the action even more remote and hard to care about. It's not dreadful by any means. Just...well, pretty blah.

High Points
Credit to a movie that understands there's no need to go on too long when you have rather little to give

Low Points
It's just so hard to accept a gut punch of an ending when there's so little justification for its main characters' mistakes

Lessons Learned
Drugging police officers is about as easy as untying one's shoes

Never store your sunscreen in a junk drawer

"Hush Little Baby" may have a nice lullabye tune, but when you actually listen to the lyrics (which show up at least twice), it's hard to not judge the singer as being a crappy parent whose master plan of raising her child is to spoil it rotten

Eh. The Tortured is a more professional production than a lot of the other torture-porn under the radar flicks you're likely to find on Instant Watch. That doesn't make it actually pleasant to watch in the least, so go on with it only if you just REALLY want another 75 minutes of watching two pretty people turn a body into something very ugly.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Supertwins Unite

In this day and age, positive buzz on a horror movie can be a dangerous, dangerous thing. Any film that premieres to a positive reception will inevitably then catch an equally negative blowback once too-smart-for-fun horror fans decide they sound cooler if they dub something as being overrated (see: The Babadook and It Follows). 

Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy seems to have suffered a similar fate. In my opinion, like the aforementioned oddly divisive horror films of last year, this one also more than merits its initial positive reception.

Quick Plot: Elias and Lukas are an especially close pair of Austrian twins who live with their pseudo-celebrity mother in an isolated but sprawling country estate. As Ma recovers from surgery, the twins spend their time doing healthy youth activities like playing in the outdoors and collecting giant cockroaches.

Life isn't quite as bucolic as it used to be though, as Ma seems to have changed. She's distant now, especially to the more rascally Lukas. Wrapped in gauze bandages, Ma may not even be the same woman who once so lovingly cared for her boys. Eventually, Elias and Lukas decide to find out the hard, super glue-and-restraint way to determine if she's an imposter.

Goodnight Mommy is a strange, wonderfully creepy little film. The setting and tone bears an odd resemblance to Ex Machina's isolated modern setting, with the sparse but carefully detailed art direction helping to set the scene. The performances, particularly by the otherworldly young Lukas and Elias Schwarz, are perfectly unnerving in just the right way. 

To say more risks spoiling what for me, was a shock of an ending. In all honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt so darn dumb at a reveal, because in hindsight, Goodnight Mommy is exceptionally clever. It never cheats, and that allows its ending to hit all that much harder.

High Points
Twins in cinema is always ripe for potential, and with their tics and secret language, Lukas and Elias are used to perfection here

Low Points
Not that there's anything wrong with this, but I do find it impossible to not get this title confused with the very different but weirdly wonderful Lifetime movie Don't Wake Mommy. Such is my plight

Lessons Learned
In Austria, an unlocked door is an open invitation for Red Cross volunteers to enter your home

Never apply crazy glue if you don’t have an exit plan

If you really want your kids to leave you alone, you might want to invest in a nanny or all-access cable system. I know there's a modern way to raise your kids and all, but you may only be hurting yourself in the end

Goodnight Mommy is a weirdly haunting film, and I found it incredibly effective. Its slow pace may certainly turn some views off, while savvier ones than I will no doubt spot the twist before its rather hard-hitting reveal. You can find the film free on Amazon Prime and it’s well worth a watch.  

Monday, April 4, 2016

Doctors Are People Too. Insane Socially Awkward Violent Rapey People

Believe it or not, there are some movies on this planet that are almost too fun to watch. 

This is one of them. 

Quick Plot: Dr. Beck is a man with needs. Despite being one of the country's greatest heart surgeons, he just can't seem to find that special someone to share his life and beach house with. Online dating gives him great excitement in between complicated cardio procedures, but his dates scare off quickly when he reveals his inner creep.

This is not a subtle man.

Sophie Green learns that the hard way. The fresh-faced seventeen year old is driving home with her boyfriend one day when his irresponsible texting lands her in the oily hands of our dear Dr. Beck. Before you can say A Talking Cat?!, Dr. Beck is licking the lips of a sedated Sophie after saving her life.

That's how you pay back a doctor, right?

I worry that I'm several paragraphs into this review and you, dear reader, are thinking to yourself, "this sounds like any other Lifetime obsession movie." Well friends, I ask you, does any other Lifetime obsession movie involve Eric Roberts sniffing the underwear of a knockoff American Girl doll, then having an epic freak-out on said knockoff American Girl doll that makes a rock star in a hotel room look like a gentleman dropping a monocle? 

Does any other Lifetime obsession movie have Eric Roberts going from 0 to 11 in less than a minute of a date gone wrong? With said date gone wrong ending with the greatest declaration of a breakup to come out of the 21st century:

That should be enough to cement Stalked By My Doctor into the annals of cinematic heave, but there's more. So much more. An oblivious dad who either has never seen a man lust after a woman, or really does believe that it's acceptable if the woman is attractive and the man is his doctor. A boyfriend with a chronic  texting-when-driving condition that's treated with more severity than a positive HIV test. Randomly inserted still photographs of Eric Roberts achieving recognition for his surgery prowess to support daft dad's assessment that "he really is one of the best doctors in the country!"

Writer/director Doug Campbell, you are a treasure.

High Points
There's a reason why a podcast exists titled Eric Roberts Is the F&cking Man. The reason is, plainly and simply, Eric Roberts is indeed the f&cking man. Also, go listen to this podcast's coverage of Stalked By My Doctor. You will be better for it

Low Points
There's something a tad unsatisfying about the ending, but that's easy to dismiss when the possibility of a sequel smells sweeter than gently aged books or a new carpet

Lessons Learned
Hot teenage girls are just going to have to learn to accept that medical professionals are going to inappropriately hit on them when they're at their most vulnerable

Attention Starbucks employees: when writing a customer's name on his or her cup, be sure that all stalking surgeons are listed as "Dr."

If you feel guilty about almost killing your girlfriend with your careless driving, the best way of showing it is to simply ignore her. She'll get the message

Why be unhappy when you can just watch Stalked By My Doctor? Heck, why do ANYTHING when you can just watch Stalked By My Doctor?

Point being, this is a masterpiece. Go make your life better.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Carnival Is In Town

Because of its doll head poster and carnival setting, I’d always meant to watch Dark Ride.

And now I have. So now life is fully open to so many more possibilities...

Quick Plot: Five awful college students decide to drive to New Orleans for spring break, taking a detour to New Jersey (because GPS wasn’t quite all there in 2006) and spending the night in a carnival dark ride that once hosted a sadistic serial killer. Naturally, said sadistic serial killer is residing in a mental asylum run by equally sadistic and far stupider orderlies whose abuse offers him an easy exit back to his killing grounds. 

No, you haven’t seen this movie before.

Well, I mean, of course you sorta have.

Directed by Craig Singer, Dark Ride is, well, it’s a slasher set in a funhouse and not unlike The Funhouse or many another horror flick set in a funhouse. Our cast is led by Meadow Soprano as a rather unremarkable final girl trying to figure out her relationship with an on again/off again boyfriend. Ashley Tisdale’s sister is her blond friend/early death fodder/partner in slut-shaming the friendly blonder hitchhiker they pick up. Also on board is Patrick “The Sandlot” Renna as Bill, the token fifth wheel/film geek with some confusingly ridiculous secrets of his own.

It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm when discussing a movie like Dark Ride because the movie barely has enthusiasm about itself. As the token frat jerk, Alex Solowitz is the only cast member to offer anything interesting onscreen, so that’s a minor problem. The overall tone can’t seem decide if it should be serious or silly, and the story seems to not even want to tell itself. The logistics of our killer conveniently escaping from a mental institution the same time that--


The only reason I go this deep into the plot is that Dark Ride just doesn’t have much else to talk about. Since I’d rather write about messy storytelling than a woman being slaughtered while giving a dude oral sex, allow me to spoil away.

Bill, the geeky friend who wouldn’t really be the rest of our cast’s friend in real life but is required on the trip since movies have a nerd quota, is revealed to be none other than the little brother of Dark Ride’s raging maniac. Which would make sense if said raging maniac brother’s escape was planned for the same night when Bill’s caravan ended up in the out-of-the-way dark ride. But so far as we see, both were done by chance. Considering the wrap-up isn’t even wrapped up with any kind of satisfying resolution, it’s hard not to think Dark Ride was written as it moved on the tracks. 

Which, actually, don’t really exist inside the dark ride of the title. Customers visiting this attraction are apparently supposed to walk through miles of unclear path with no discernible way out. I don’t know about you, but from 1985 on, I don’t know that I’ve ever gone through a haunted house without having the illusion killed by a glowing “emergency exit” sign. But again, maybe things were just, well, 2006 New Jersey.

High Points
While the geography of the actual dark ride doesn’t quite add up, there’s certainly some interesting imagery and effective production design going on

Low Points
Aside from the rather ridiculous machinations of the plotting, Dark Ride suffers from serious tonal confusion in just how seriously it wants to take the death of its characters. Some of the gore is over the top and silly, while other deaths seem as if they’re meant to be taken with great gravitas

Lessons Learned
In the early 2000s, going to New Orleans was considered retro

Unless you're Danny Trejo, no orderly in a mental asylum is ever not a sadistic bully

Shit old towns are the best

Feeding raw steak to an insane and weirdly muscled vegetarian is like giving spinach laced with crystal meth to Popeye if Popeye were, well, you get it.

Eh. One could do worse with a breezy 21st century slasher than Dark Ride, but that’s about the highest compliment I can give. So, you know, that. 

Sometimes these reviews just THAT themselves.