Monday, September 17, 2018

iPhone Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Sometimes, Steven Soderbergh threatens to retire. And on other days, he downloads an app on his iPhone and spends a week and a half making a movie.

Quick Plot: The dramatically named Sawyer Valentini is trying to restart her life in a new city, having relocated after a terrifying bout with a stalker named David (The Blair Witch Project's Joshua Leonard). Though she's doing well as a no-nonsense analyst trying to fend off a pre-#MeToo boss's advances, a failed one-night stand makes her realize that she's not quite where she would like to be mentally .

Sawyer stops by a nearby hospital during her lunch break and has a satisfying talk with a new therapist, determined to continue treatment and ready to sign paperwork to move that process forward. Before she's even had a chance to put the cap back on the pen, Sawyer discovers she's  "voluntarily" committed herself to a 7-day stay, fully covered by her insurance.

It ain't the Ritz. Putting aside the itchy clothing and potentially violent roommates, Sawyer's situation gets as bad as it can be when she discovers one of the orderlies is none other than David, now going by the name of George. Or maybe it IS a man named George, and Sawyer's head is even worse than a 30 minute psych session estimated.

Unsane is the latest cinematic experiment by Steven Soderbergh, and it's hard to not admire a veteran Oscar winning filmmaker continuing to play around with the tools of his trade. Shot in 10 days on an iPhone 7, it has a certain kind of gritty energy that helps to match its protagonist's unbalanced state. 

It's slight, but still fun enough to watch. When Unsane debuted last year, it was met with a fairly divisive audience reaction. Whenever that happens, I tend to expect an extreme only to find myself somewhere in the middle. That was certainly the case here.

As Sawyer, Claire Foy (best known from Netflix's The Crown) maintains an effectively brittle energy that creates enough of a character profile without us needing too much detail. If anything, I wish the film played more with questioning her sanity, because despite an incredibly shaky American accent, Foy is darn good. 

With Side Effects and Contagion, Soderbergh demonstrated a unique ability to craft tension with a slow build intensity. Unsane is a little more (appropriately) frantic, but it stumbles a bit once it dissolves its own mystery and turns into a more of a standard cat and mouse chase. 

It's hard to put too high of an expectation on Unsane, even if it is made by one of this era's most influential filmmakers. As a throwaway test of how a smartphone can handle drama, it works well enough. As a thriller, it's off balance, but at least an honest ending leaves the story on just the right note.

High Points
I've heard some comments that Sawyer is the dreaded "unlikable" protagonist, but I actually found her imperfections and occasionally questionable actions under pressure to be refreshingly believable. Sawyer isn't a hero; she's a damaged woman living in constant fear, and when that fear is finally tested in full, she's not necessarily making decisions for the betterment of human kind. Who really would?

Low Points
Maybe this was my own expectation based on some preliminary reviews, but I really was hoping for more mystery over Sawyer's state of mind. With the right actress and a solid backstory, it just felt like there was more to explore before turning into a straight genre flick

Lessons Learned
Being stalked will burn a ton of calories (as that's the only way I can understand how Claire Foy stays so fit despite eating a double egg/cheese/bacon sandwich on a roll with has browns EVERY MORNING)

Yes indeed, you really should read every semicolon and comma

The better your insurance, the better your odds of being kidnapped by a shadily run mental hospital with lax hiring hiring practices

Unsane is streaming on Amazon Prime, which seems like the exact way one should watch an iPhone-shot film in 2018. It never really rises too far above its gimmick, but it's solid enough time for a 90 minute thriller directed by a playfully slumming pro. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not Without the Woman Whose Husband Killed My Daughter's Daughter

Some days, you want to dig up a classic from one of AFI's "most important films of all time" lists. 

And most others, you find a "crazed preschool teacher trying to kidnap a student" Lifetime thriller and your day is made.

Quick Plot: After a dizzyingly intense opening closeup on a rattlesnake and fast-setting sun amid the sounds of a car accident, we meet Rachel, an impeccably hair'd mom in the midst of divorcing her cheating husband Daniel (Bryce Johnson, aka Detective Wilden from Pretty Little Liars). Rachel would prefer to spend her days playing with 3-year-old daughter Mia, but Daniel's low-paying job as a prosecuting attorney is forcing the poor woman to go back into the workforce as a courtroom sketch artist. 

What's a fairly well-off but potentially financially challenged supermom to do but find the best nearby daycare, one highly recommended by her best pal. Teacher Gabby (Disney Channel princess Christy Carlson Romano) is almost too good to be true, offering complete support to Rachel and taking a special shine to Mia. Little does Rachel know the motives, which in true Lifetime form, are glorious.

Remember that car accident audio aggressively placed in the opening credits? See, back when Rachel was pregnant, she and Daniel ended up lost on a desert highway with fast-setting suns and glimpses of rattlesnakes. They asked for directions from a parked couple with a young child, only to give up, drive aimlessly, and end up smashing their car straight into the not-that-helpful strangers.

Of course, one of those strangers was Gabby. Her husband was left paralyzed and their daughter Crystal dead on impact. Naturally, Rachel enrolling Mia in Gabby's class is a sign from God that Gabby must take this child and raise it as her own. 

Typical Lifetime hijinks ensue. Gabby begins her plan, trying to mother Mia and enlisting her husband to dispose of the suspicious assistant teacher. Her increasingly odd behavior doesn't get by Rachel, and before long, an armed Gabby is banging at her door as police officers take their time driving under the speed limit to catch up.

Deadly Daycare is written and directed by Michael Feifer, a man who has made a steady career making movies with either "Deadly" or "The Dog Who Saved" in their titles. I've had something of an allergic reaction to the latter, but thankfully, Deadly Daycare is a little more self-aware at what it has to do and does it efficiently. 

Gabby is your ideal Lifetime villainess, a wronged woman who feels entitled to something not hers. The problem, to an extent, is that it's far easier to feel sympathy for the doomed Gabby than the perfect Rachel. On one side, we have a picture perfect beauty with a beautiful home, healthy child, and a job she can seemingly resume with a simple phone call and show up to whenever she pleases. On the other, there's Gabby, a more financially strapped woman who, you know, watched her husband lose control in the lower half of his body and her baby daughter die a horrible death. 

Somehow, we're supposed to be firmly on the side of Rachel, since there's no room for shades of gray in the Lifetime universe. It certainly leaves the film a tad unfulfilling, but if you came to such a movie expecting character complexity and moral challenges, you probably have deeper problems worth addressing.

High Points
Many a Lifetime thriller lives and dies by the zest of its villain, and Christy Carlson Romano has a blast playing the unhinged Gabby, maximizing her craziness but always keeping a very key kernel of the real pain she's been through

Low Points
Seriously, this is a movie where our heroine's love interest was responsible for the death of a toddler and paralysis of her father but faced no charges because of his legal connections and the film is 100% in support of him ultimately reuniting with the wife he cheated in an idyllic beach walk coda that belongs in a herpes commercial

Lessons Learned
Legally, you can't just go sticking video cameras in the corners of rooms

You know a divorce is bitter when one party is perfectly fine with the other being forced to live in a (DEEP BREATH) studio apartment

The first day of a murder trial is a less than two-hour ordeal, and the hallways have incredibly reliable wifi

Look, Deadly Daycare isn't going to improve your intelligence or inspire great art, but it's exactly what you want from a Lifetime flick. Nothing more, nothing less. Enjoy on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Crushed It

As a fairly optimistic horror fan, nothing pleases me more than discovering a new hidden gem from a fairly unknown filmmaker. 

Especially when it comes from the bargain bin sewage bucket that is usually Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Happy couple Ollie (co-writer Chris Dinh) and Blair (Katie Savoy) are professional thieves, finishing up one final house robbery before retiring from their life of non-violent crime. When their final score turns into a deadly domestic violence situation, ex-con Ollie ends up in jail. The only thing worse? Blair's decision to get a powerful gangster to free him at the cost of their life savings.

Eager to start paying their debt, Blair teams up with her dim brother Connor and his far dimmer minion Riley to start a new job on an isolated mansion deep in the hills. Very quickly, the quartet learns that two weeks of scouting is nowhere near enough time to determine that your mark is actually a serial killer with Jigsaw levels of home design skill. 

That synopsis makes Crush the Skull sound like yet another entry into the post-John Kramer villain landscape, but it's far from Die and Starve and the many, many direct-to-not-theaters genre fare so often covered here. To put it in simpler terms, Crush the Skull is a damn delight.

This Kickstarter-funded indie was clearly made on a dime, but what it lacks in budget is more than made up for with smart performances, clever writing, and key direction that finds the perfect way to balance both. Director and co-writer Viet Ngyuyen has essentially made a horror comedy, but his ability to never sacrifice the effectiveness of one subgenre for the other is genuinely impressive.

Bad things happen in Crush the Skull, and the movie never makes light of them just to score an easy laugh (although there certainly ARE laughs when said bad things happen). The sense of humor is established early on but carefully grows throughout the movie's brisk 83 minute running time. Most importantly, the humor itself is tied in specifically to its characters. Sure, Riley is comically dumb, but there's a genuineness to him that makes some of his stupidest comments believable and sweet. Crush the Skull evolved over several years and multiple short films, and it's clear that writers Nguyen and Dinh knew these characters inside and out.

Take, for example, Blair's inconvenient (but understandable) nervous tic of letting out a large spurt of laughter when nervous. The film establishes it early on, and Savoy's repeat delivery is so perfectly awkward that every time it arises, it rings true. The timing, both from the actor and filmmaker, is pitch perfect. 

These kinds of precise character mannerisms are rampant throughout Crush the Skull, and they help to make the film such a fun watch. The movie has more fun than scares, but it doesn't make light of the horrors at hand. This is something special.

High Points
Whenever called upon to explain the many reasons why I despise Bella Swan, I find the easiest default is to point to a key moment in the second Twilight movie, where the teenage "heroine" and her immortal boyfriend walk by a long line of innocent civilians (including children) who are about to wander straight into a den of hungry vampires. When she considers warning them, her pasty paramour gently pushes her onward and she continues without any guilt of, you know, sending a gaggle of innocent civilians and their children straight into death. I reference this moment because it's so key in explaining how important it is for a character's real moral center to resonant. In the case of Crush the Skull, Ollie makes the exact opposite decision, choosing to try (in vain) to help his initial robbery target at the expense of his own freedom. Sure, he fails miserably and screws his own life over in the process, but it's such a smart move to ensure the audience is firmly on his side.

Low Points
I'm a little more curious about the nature of Crush the Skull's villain than the movie is itself, but it's really not a worry when his victims are so much fun

Lessons Learned
Never underestimate the importance of learning to play dead

Avoid offering a meal to a torture victim if you're nowhere near a bite of food

True love means choosing your girlfriend's new boobs over a trip to Mars

The Winning Line
"Oh I'll step up if I have to, I'll step up to the streets!"
Seriously, a movie after my own heart

Crush the Skull is a true treasure from the often rusted box that is American low budget horror. It understands how to use its strengths (tone, performers, and script) and wisely doesn't try too hard to cover up what it lacks. It's a hearty recommendation, and an eager call to the production team to make more.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Empty Nest

In the bizarre age of mail order ancestry blood tests (which seem terrifying to a paranoid conspiracist like me), let us all take a moment to acknowledge that horror movies have long taught us that investigating our roots can only lead to terrible, terrible things.

Quick Plot: "Somewhere in Russia" circa 1966, an isolated farm is taken by surprise when a truck crashes into its barn, revealing a dying female driver and a pair of screaming infants. Flash forward 40 years as one of the now-grown babies heads back to her motherland to meet with a notary and learn more about the lakeside property she's inherited.

Marie isn't thrilled with her new responsibilities, in part because waterfront Russian real estate isn't so exciting for a bitter American divorcee who can't swim. Once she arrives, her enthusiasm hits a much, much lower point.

Maybe it's the zombie-like double that starts shuffling her way, maybe it's the dilapidated property hiding secrets in its broken floorboards, or maybe it's the sudden appearance of hereto unheard of twin brother Nikolai. No matter how you look at it, Marie's situation is less than ideal, particularly when the mysterious house begins to rearrange itself with a serious aggressive streak.

As Marie and Nikolai observe Haunted Mansion-ish hologram flashbacks to their family's troubled history, the pair start to piece together their tragic past. Unfortunately, the house seems destined to relive it.

Released as part of the AfterDark Horrorfest of 2006, The Abandoned is decently made but incredibly forgettable. The script (by Karim Hussain and director Nacho Cerda, with some last minute rewrites by Hardware's Richard Stanley) does some intriguing things in centering itself on a 40-year-old single mother who seems to be stuck in lifelong depression, and lead actress Anastasia Hille makes for a refreshingly more layered final girl than we tend to find in these kinds of movies.  

All that being said, I just couldn't get into The Abandoned. What probably felt fresh 12 years ago in terms of plotting seems fairly rote today. An endless cycle that keeps you in the same setting, no matter how far you seem to wander? Great idea...that we've since seem dozes of times. 

High Points
Any fresh setting is always welcome, and in The Abandoned's case, the isolated Russian (well, Bulgarian) countryside offers some entrancing visuals

Low Points
On one hand, I appreciate Marie being such an atypical protagonist. On the other, it's hard to really to feel much for someone who seems so empty inside

Lessons Learned
When you see your doppelganger, it's time to die (hence why my plan upon seeing a doppeganger has always been to take no mercy)

I know some adults have their reasons, but considering this planet is 70% water, shouldn't we all learn how to swim?

And for those of us who don't, shouldn't we keep better track of our boats?

I was underwhelmed by The Abandoned, but it's a decent little thriller that handles more right than wrong. The tension just didn't click for me personally, but if the premise has interest to you, it's a worthwhile 90 minute watch via HBO Go.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Welcome to the...

You know what five words I hate seeing in film taglines?

Based. On. A. True. Story.

Here's the thing about such a phrase: it instantly tells you that whatever you're going to see is a) within the realm of physical possibility and b) results in your lead surviving. Now granted, the true story in this case is actually pretty fascinating, but still...if you tell me it's based on reality, I watch the whole film with the preordained disappointment that no aliens or unicorns will appear. What an immediate letdown.

Quick Plot: Having finished his service in the Israeli army, young Yossi decides to travel the world and avoid a life of expected responsibility. While backpacking through South America, he befriends the adventurous Swede Marcus, his American photographer pal Kevin, and a mysterious Austrian named Karl begging to be their Amazon jungle tour guide.

Once they're deep into the wilderness, it doesn't take long for dissension to strike amongst the team. Marcus proves too weak to handle the trek, while the self-proclaimed expert Karl turns out to be a fraud who can't even swim. Since rafting down some wild rapids is the fastest way out before the rainy season strikes, this poses a problem.

Marcus and Karl decide to slowly hike back together. Kevin and Yossi begin their water trail only to immediately be separated by the raging waters. The film (mostly) then follows Yossi as he battles the elements.

And my, what elements they are! Fire ants, gooey quicksand, worms that somehow lodge themselves on the east side of Harry Potter's scar, you name it. While Jungle wouldn't particularly fall into the category of horror movie, it does occasionally tilt its hand to have been directed by Wolf Creek's Greg McLean.

Jungle is based on the real Yossi Ghinsberg's experience in the wild (and also dramatized in a 2005 episode of Discovery's I Shouldn't Be Alive!, a show whose title exclamation point can never not make me think of the glory that is I Don't Want To Be Born). The story itself is genuinely incredible, and it's a wonder it took 40 years to make its way to the big screen.

At the same time, it kind of worked better in hourlong documentary form.

The biggest problem with Jungle is that it simply doesn't trust its source material enough to be its own movie. For a good half hour, we're following Yossi without any influence of the outside world. It's riveting, capturing the real horrors of being truly alone in the heart of the wilderness. 

So why cut away and show Kevin getting help from a nearby village?

McLean, or his script, also toy with Yossi's mental setting, flashing back to his family strife before he left to travel. It's the same issue I had with Danny Boyle's celebrated 127 Hours: the reason these survival stories fascinated the world is because it's truly incredible to imagine what a person can do to make it through such an ordeal. Sure, there's an argument to be made for how your past might affect your current situation, but it's such a trite, standard movie trick that sucks all the true tension out of scrounging for birds' eggs and fighting snakes. 

High Points
Hey, you film a survival movie in a wilderness filled with rapids and greenery and the occasional stock image of a fuzzy spider and you'll have an audience impressed

Low Points
Daniel Radcliffe is the other best part of Jungle, so it's one of those things I just can't acknowledge: the actor clearly gave this his all, putting his body through an intense regime and losing dozens of pounds...for this?

Lessons Learned
Monkey meat is positively delicious

Nothing can change a person's mind with quite as much efficiency as a pack of fire ants

Amazonian snakes are surprisingly easy to handle, even on an empty stomach

Argh. Jungle isn't a bad movie, but it just feels like a story that deserved a better telling. You can find it on Amazon Prime...where you can also find the I Shouldn't Be Alive episode.

Monday, August 13, 2018

It's Cookie Time

Has any chunk of pop culture made in the last 30 years aged more weirdly than mid-'90s sexy corporate thrillers? I say this with all the affection in the world. 

Quick Plot: Peter is a high level marketing manager at a cookie company with a little darkness in his past. Estranged form his wife (a young and banged Maura Tierney) and son due to some "Mr. Hyde"-esque behavior, he's now focused on climbing the corporate ladder with a new plan to relaunch oatmeal raisin cookies. He'll have to work his damnest to impress his boss Charlene, played by Faye Dunaway with the exact level of business aggressiveness you'd come to expect. 

His work day takes a turn when his assistant has to exit for maternity leave, opening up a new position for the titular temp. Enter Lara Flynn Boyle in full '90s working girl fashion as Kris, a way-too-good-for-her-job secretary who immediately drops Lady MacBethian vibes all over the workplace. 

Before you can boil a bunny, higher level employees standing in Peter's way begin dropping like flies (or rather, Chekhovian wasps stinging highly allergic Oliver Platts). Meanwhile, Kris continues to impress the rest of the office and find her own name on the shortlist for VP. What's a hotheaded yuppie businessman to do?

The answer to virtually any late '80s to mid-'90s thriller is to get sweaty, tear at his floppy hair, and watch his comfortable existence slip away as his sexier rival gets what she's been working far harder for...until, inevitably, the moral patriarchal majority decides she needs to be punished.

Directed by Child's Play and Fright Night's Tom Holland, The Temp is a the definition of "product of its time," right on down to its muddled re-shot ending which leaves a HUGE plot hole or asks its audience to believe that Kris has insanely high faith in her former boss-turned-rival's ability to drive like a Nascar champ on a mountaintop highway. More importantly, this, THIS, was the initial climax:

As originally shot by director Tom Holland, the climax showed Peter (Timothy Hutton), a young company executive, inside the bakery fighting for his life with the temp (Lara Flynn Boyle). Hutton's character is dipped in dough, sent to the sugar room, falls onto a conveyor belt and finds himself heading straight at the "whopper chopper." They go into the chopper and as he desperately tries to drag himself out, she grabs his leg, the chopper comes down and cuts off her hand. The last we see of the temp, she is sliding toward the cookie oven--Source. 

I mean, why even set your film in a corporate cookie landscape if you're NOT going to incorporate a deadly Child's Play 2-esque factory chase in a violently robotic bakery setting? More importantly, why cast the (admittedly complicated) goddess that is Faye Dunaway if you're not going to make up your mind on her own trajectory until a weekend before opening?

It's a letdown, but in fairness, this remains a movie where a character roadblock is dispatched of via a carefully curated paper shredder accident. It's hard to fully pan such a flick, especially when it also gives us Lin Shaye as an embittered veteran secretary and, you know, Faye Dunaway at Network level intensity but constantly saying the word, "cookies."

High Points
Like many, I remain an extreme sucker for some early '90s corporate fashion, and a documentary (probably more riveting than this) about Lara Flynn's Boyle hair skills could have been Oscar-worthy

Low Points
Confused ending aside, the real shame of The Temp is that much like Fatal Attraction, it squanders its best asset by constantly undercutting her motives. Kris is smart, sexy, and resourceful, and occasionally, the script allows her to make genuinely deep and ahead-of-their-time comments about how she's learned to master the game on such an uneven playing field. A movie about her would have been far more interesting than an unexceptional white male protagonist trying to balance his middling career skills with his libido

Lessons Learned

In the '90s, everyone wanted to go back to the '50s

Much like hot air, success rises to the top

The birthing process is like an NBA game: nothing happens until the last two minutes

In case you haven't figured it out, you can cram a LOT of similes into your corporate speak in the first five minutes of your film

The Temp is available on HBO Go, which makes sense considering it's the kind of middling thriller that would have aired in rotation with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle throughout 1994. It's worthwhile as a product of its time in both a fascinating and frustrating way, but only those with a serious interest in that area need queue it up.