Monday, October 15, 2018

Always Room For Growth

Let's get one thing straight: I will fight to the point of near death over the honor of 1956's The Bad Seed. It is brilliant, chilling, funny, smart, and simply the best.

Now let's slap that Lifetime Flowers In the Attic filter on a retelling and see what happens with Rob Lowe at the helm.

Quick Plot: Emma Grossman is a precocious 9-year-old whose current life goal is to win the citizenship medal in her exclusive private school (which for some Lifetime set availability reason, is set inside the kind of castle-esque manor best suited for wedding photos). When poor pubic speaker Milo wins instead, Emma's blue eyes narrow with the kind of ice cold fury that sends unsuspecting third graders to their deaths.

Widowed dad David (double duty puller Lowe) is a caring and concerned parent, but one also busy being the sole breadwinner with the (again) very Lifetime-ish profession of wildly successful furniture designer. He hires a carefree ex-snowboarder named Chloe as Emma's nanny, which briefly works out well since both sitter and charge are complete sociopaths.

That's right: if The Bad Seed didn't scream Lifetime to you at first glance, adding an eager-to-seduce pill-popping blond certainly helps. Not surprisingly, this is not the most subtle of remakes. While we don't get Rhoda Penmark's signature pigtails and tap shoes, we do get weaponized wasps' nests and poisoned hot chocolate, not to mention the rare "special appearance" credit that is ACTUALLY special because it's PATTY MCCORMACK AS A CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST.

This is the kind of film that follows the shot of a young woman being burned to death with a closeup of a fancy restaurant char broiling a fine steak. Subtlety rarely finds its way onto this network, and if anything, I wish Lowe pushed even higher over the top. Ultimately, we're left with a mild missed opportunity, but for all the woes we have about the time we're living in, the fact that we have a Bad Seed movie that includes Patty McCormack winking at the camera shows some positivity after all.

High Points
I've enjoyed screenwriter Barbara Marshall (Viral, Wish Upon)'s work immensely thus far, and while The Bad Seed does feel a tad Lifetime-limited, little touches, like Emma being a huge Shirley Temple fangirl, really show a special touch

Low Points
The Bad Seed is certainly not the first film to do this but it does give me an excuse to voice my hatred of water shots that insist on using liquid drops on the camera lens.I get what it's TRYING to do, but really, all it does for me is draw attention to the fact that what I'm watching is a product being filmed

Lessons Learned
Public speaking and spelling are not skills measured for citizenship

Some things never go out of style, be they class medals or little pink electric chairs

Always count your Xanax

The Bad Seed aired on Lifetime, so it's really only findable via your On Demand cable provider at this point in time. It never quite reaches the campy heights you (okay, I) want, but it's fun, disposable entertainment that hits most of the required notes. I certainly would have preferred a little more piano playing and pigtails, but my standards are obviously quite high. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Fatigue of the Dead

Another zombie movie following a handful of scrappy survivors in the countryside? Surely you've never seen anything like THIS before!

Quick Plot: Alice is living her life, fixing breakfast for her young daughter and taking a time out to pee on a pregnancy test stick. Delighted at the results, she phones her husband only to hear his frantic warnings to stay inside and not open the door for anyone...

Which naturally, her toddler has just done, granting access to a crazed 28 Days Later-style zombie. Alice makes it out alive and into the arms of friendly stranger Steven, bidding goodbye to her now eaten firstborn and old life.

Four months go by. Alice and Steven have settled into your typical drive-til-you-have-to-siphon-gas-and-keep-driving routine with a pair of siblings. Somewhere across the countryside, a mysterious woman is being held prisoner for some kind of unexplained medical experiments. Eventually, these stories will sort of kind of meet.

Anger (or Age, its alternate title) of the Dead is an Italian(ish) zombie film written and directed by Francesco Picone, with a terrifying executive producer credit for Uwe Boll. The production values are higher than your average streaming zombie flick, with performances that range from slightly painful to decent. So that's a good thing.

The problem with Age/Anger of the Dead (which, side note: did they choose that title to get a few extra eyes due to its alphabetical placement?) is that it sporadically commits to a deeply cruel streak. Granted, this is a film that opens with an adorable toddler being eaten alive in front of her mother's eyes, so perhaps we have no right to be annoyed at its insanely nasty final shot. 

Still, it would have been nicer had Picone found a little more consistency in tone. Having a mushy moment of love interrupted by a zombie bite tells a darkly funny story. Implying the systematic rape of a female prisoner tells another.

High Points
You can't argue with a zombie movie that doesn't waste time, opening on immediate chaos and moving fairly swiftly from there

Low Points
Seriously: Age/Anger of the Dead deserves better than a 2.9/10 rating on IMDB, but the fact that it ends on such a sour, mean note makes it a little understandable that someone's gut reaction might go that low after finishing the film 

Lessons Learned
Always keep the sharpest object of your home in your toddler’s sock drawer

Enjoying the fresh air on a lovely day is great, but when the undead are roaming the roads, maybe it's worth the splurge of air conditioning instead of keeping your window wide open

When fleeing running zombies, most drivers take their keys before abandoning their cars

New Rule
We all know of the classic Chekhov's Law involving guns and to a lesser extent (but larger in the horror world) bear traps, but it brings me great joy to add a new one to the roster: Chekhov's Law of Naming a Character Alice and how one cannot do such a thing without including at least one "You're not in Wonderland anymore" reference

Anger of the Dead is slightly more watchable than a lot of other low budget zombie films of recent years, but it ends on such a horribly mean beat that I almost wish I hadn't watched it. Some of its action works just fine, but the ultimate mood is so negative that it genuinely destroys any goodwill. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hazing Is Hell

It's weird when I discover an '80s slasher that I didn't know existed. Surely it must be a long-buried diamond shining through the rough!

Or maybe it's just Final Exam.

Quick Plot: After the most "couple making out in car gets hacked by a mysterious killer" scene of a couple making out in a car getting hacked by a mysterious killer (with the world's most glorious dummy death to boo), we move the action to the last week at Lanier College, an isolated liberal arts school.

Jocks bully the nerds, sorority sisters pine about their boyfriends, good girls study hard, and the frat bros stage the world's worst aged mass shooting prank in order to pass a chemistry final. As a result, the local grumpy sheriff vows to never listen to the students' calls again, which is great when, you know, your job description implies that you're responsible for their safety and stuff.

After a good 58 minutes of college shenanigans, Final Exam finally turns into a slasher. A tame, rather suspension-free slasher that hunts down its characters with all the energy of a long distance runner hitting a wall and crawling to the finish line. 

Written and directed by My Best Friend Is a Vampire's Jimmy Huston, Final Exam was a prime target of the Video Nasty witch hunt. While it hits most of the beats of the Dead Teenager subgenre, it's also surprisingly tame. Despite centering itself on young coeds, the film shows no nudity (unless you count an unlucky frat pledge in his underwear). Most of the violence involves little blood, and ironically, the hardest scene to watch is the boy-that-aged-poorly shooting prank.

There's some fun to be had with some of the characters, all played by unknown actors who mostly manage to create real people worth caring about (or in the case of the horrid frat boys, wishing true violence upon). Still, nobody comes to this kind of film looking for minor drama about being pinned or seducing your married chemistry professor after your piano recital. Unfortunately, with its blank villain, Final Exam's final act doesn't particularly justify an hourlong after-college special.

High Points
As hard as I'm being on the film's odd pacing and insistence on getting to know these kids, there is some decent character work by Cecile Bagdadi and Joel S. Rice. A film about the insecure brainy beauty and self-aware death-obsessed genius could have genuinely made an interesting story in itself

Low Points
Not every '80s villain needs a complex backstory, but it's a little unsatisfying to learn everything there is to know about a film's victims and absolutely nothing about our killer aside from his extreme skill at catching arrows with his bare hands

Lessons Learned
Fraternities in the 1980s (and possibly today) were populated by certified sociopaths

When breaking in to a professor's office for the expellable offense of stealing an exam, you should probably avoid wearing a t-shirt with nothing but your name printed on the back

Having a sheriff come to your aide during his early dinner time is an actual crime

Final Exam is certainly worth a watch for slasher completists, but it doesn't offer that much else for the casual horror fan. It's streaming in fuzzy glory via Amazon Prime.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Prox Partum Depression

Quick Plot: As Esther leaves her final OBGYN appointment, a hooded stranger attacks her from behind, stealing some cash and inflicting terrible harm on her pregnant belly. Having lost her baby, Esther is visited by a hospital social worker who encourages her to try out some support groups.

It seems as though that's exactly what she needs. The reserved, distant Esther lives alone with a tank of fish who don't survive her hospital stay. At a group meeting, Esther is befriended by the much more put-together Melanie, a friendly woman recovering from the loss of her husband and son at the hands of a drunk driver.

Proxy is a film best watched knowing nothing more than the above synopsis, so those who haven't seen the film should probably stop here. It's not quite perfect, but it's an intriguing dark ride that makes an appropriately chilling followup to director Zack Parker's outstanding debut Scalene. You can find it streaming on Hulu.

Now let's talk.

There is much to be said for films that don't reveal what they're about until well into their running time. Proxy begins as Esther's story, as we struggle to understand this distant, lonely victim of a truly horrible crime trying to rebuild her life.

Or so we think.

Aside from the fact that Esther is far more complicated than we ever imagined, Proxy also does some fancy footwork in changing gears halfway through to become Melanie's story. Melanie, an equally if not more damaged woman, is a Muchausen by Proxy poster girl with dangerous ambitions about playing the hero. 

Much like Scalene, Proxy doesn't comfort its audience with any sense of morality. Our only real sympathetic character (the always welcome Joe Swanberg as Melanie's clueless husband) is so specifically kept in the margins that while our hearts go out to his plight, he never really seems to stand a chance. In an odd inverse, Kristina Kelebe's hell-in-a-pickup-truck spurned ex-con is introduced as an untamed animal with a violent streak, only to become something of an antihero purely because her crimes seem somehow purer than the wolf-in-sheep's-blouse-wearing Melanie.

Zack Parker, along with his writing partner Kevin Donner, is an exciting filmmaker with a wonderfully twisted ability to tell incredibly challenging stories. Next to Scalene, Proxy also reminded me a bit of Simon Rumley's Red White and Blue, a similarly harrowing genre-bender that successfully suffocates its audience in the amount of human-caused tragedy that attacks its characters.

Proxy isn't a fun film (though it packs its own brand of occasional dark humor), nor is it scary in any traditional sense. But it will, I imagine, lodge itself deep under many a viewer's skin. If it doesn't, you probably shouldn't volunteer to babysit anytime soon.

High Points
I've said it before and I'll say it again: a well-executed ambiguous ending can be a truly beautiful thing

Low Points
It says a lot about a horror film when a 2-hour running length isn't long enough, but I really did wish we had just a little more time learning about Esther and what brought her to the kind of place where, well, she'd ask her girlfriend to anonymously crush her almost-ready-to-deliver baby

Lessons Learned
Tattoo artists who want to know what's going on read the newspapers

Local newsmen are loyal to their sources

Think very carefully before asking someone who has just gone through tremendous loss, "So how are you doing?"

Proxy won't make anyone feel better about the world, but it will hopefully give many a film fan hope for the future of honest, cruel, and incredibly rich cinema. I'll continue to buy what Zack Parker is selling...even if I want to curl up in a ball with my far better intentioned cats after.

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.