Monday, May 10, 2021

A Lonely Island


Even when they're not very good, I will always give a chance to a deserted island set genre film. 

Quick Plot: Jenn, a young and resourceful American, washes up on a deserted island alongside her dying pal Brad. Much like Lost, her new home seems to be lush in coconuts, easily catchable fish, and unidentifiable monsters with a taste for human flesh.

The monster seems to be some sort of giant nocturnal amphibian. It hunts at night and drags its prey back to the water, where a mysterious black hole on the ocean floor awaits its feast.

Jenn is quick to understand the creature's patterns and seems on the right path to hunting it down when she spots a life raft filled with none other than her boyfriend Lucas and pal Mia. The pair have been floating for several days and are eager to enjoy the spoils of what seems like a tropical paradise, with little patience for Jenn's crazy rambling about a sea monster.

Directed by J.D. Dillard, Sweetheart is a beautifully restrained, extremely well-told little tale that seems to have an incredibly disciplined understanding of what it can and should do. It clocks in under 90 minutes and moves quickly, wasting no time on flashbacks or forced exposition

In fact, for a good 2/3rds of its running time Sweetheart doesn't even have any dialog. Why would it, if Jenn is all alone and not (like some people with horror blogs) the kind of person who has arguments with herself. Lead actress Kiersey Clemons is more than up to the task.

The lack of conversation makes the ones we have all the more interesting. Lucas is clearly not the hero here, both in terms of his disappointing survival skills and worse, the fact that he clearly treats his girlfriend like an unwanted child. There's a reason this film is titled Sweetheart, and it all seems to click when you hear Lucas use the term.

Jenn is clearly not as financially well-off as her partner or his friends, the kind of white people who can, you know, take boat trips without a thought for what would happen if a storm blew them off course. Dillard and cowriters Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer's script doesn't overexplain a note, nor does it force confrontation where you simply wouldn't have it. Questions go unanswered because you know what? If the sun was setting in an hour, I might not take the time to ask my asshole boyfriend if he murdered his boat captain pal.

My point is, Sweetheart makes some excellent, smart decisions at every step. This is good stuff.

High Points
Teasing a monster is never easy, since once you show it, you might lose the tension you've been working so hard to weave. Sweetheart handles this well, dropping plenty of hints as to what it's capable of but not pushing the final reveal past what would physically be possible.

Low Points
I appreciate a film putting me in the visual point of view of its characters, but sometimes, you just want to, you know, SEE things

Lessons Learned
Pack every suitcase as if it might be the only source of your necessities. You just never know

Sweetheart is streaming on Netflix, and it's easily one of Blumhouse's better non-theatrical productions. I thoroughly enjoyed it every sandy step.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Prom Capades

Sometimes you go into a movie for the wrong reasons and come out happy to discover new ones.

Evil twins and figure skating? I'm in.
Actual decent filmmaking?

Who knew?!

Quick Plot: Maria is a shy high school senior struggling with insecurity and what seems like a serious undiagnosed case of depression. Her best (and only) friend Lily is an aspiring figure skater dating Sean, the one guy in school who doesn't pick on Maria. At home, Maria's plastic surgeon father rules with an icy fist and intensely high standard of beauty, so much so that his proposed 18th birthday gift to his daughter is a nose job and cosmetic ear surgery.

One day, Maria stumbles upon an ultrasound that seems to reveal she had an in-utero twin. After a particularly cruel day at school, Maria meets Airam (get it?), her more confident mirror image, who convinces Maria to trade places.

Cue the succession of dead teenagers-via-head trauma massacre! Lily's offer to teach Maria/Airam how to ice skate turns fatal, followed by poor, easily seducible Sean. Flashbacks reveal Airam's tragic origin, as Maria seems to drift farther away into her mirror prison.

I took a chance on Look Away because the premise seemed interesting enough, the presence of Jason Isaacs and Mira Sorvino is always welcome, but most importantly, THE TRAILER SHOWED FIGURE SKATING.

I will never pass on a genre film that involves my favorite sport.

A good part of Look Away's strength comes from its beautifully deployed winter setting, with snow piled everywhere and the gray overcast adding a moody feel. It gives the film such a specific visual tone, with a sparse and cold atmosphere so fitting of Maria's empty emotional home life (perfectly set in the kind of modern mansion that feels decorated by Lydia Deeks' minimalist rival).

Also, Prom: On Ice.

Seriously, in the world of Look Away, a high school throws its senior prom not at a local country club or banquet hall, but on an actual ice rink. Granted, clumsy students might be no worse in ice skates than they would be in high heels, but STILL.

It's a prom. On. Ice.

Yes, that's enough reason to watch Look Away. It's also rather beautifully made, although I don't know that Assaf Bernstein's screenplay is at the same level as his strong direction. There are hauntingly strong implications in Look Away's resolution, and I rather appreciate its ambiguity, but there's also just something lacking in the story that left the final moments just a tad unsatisfying. 

Maybe if it just had 5% more figure skating-induced violence... 

High Points

It's always a pleasure to see Mira Sorvino and Jason Isaacs onscreen, and they imbue their WASPily twisted marriage with the right levels of broken rich people. Sorvino conveys every bit of insecurity she needs in a glance, while Isaacs slowly lets his character's truly despicable nature unravel without overplaying a single sneer

Low Points
India Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey but more importantly, the titular other unhappy poor little rich girl in Lifetime's adaptation of V.C. Andrews' bonkers My Sweet Audrina) is effectively haunting as Maria, and I suppose Maria being the daughter of a plastic surgeon helps sell this, but we're at Chloe Grace Moretz-as-Carrie levels of "really, you're telling me THIS GIRL is considered ugly?"

Lessons Learned
Nice is a boy you don't want to go out with

Nothing kills hockey practice like a makeout session

The best way to convey turning evil: sudden smoking habit and a clean double axel

I went into Look Away expecting a fun dollop of YA-ish thrills, but this is a far more sophisticated film made with some accomplished style. Give it a go when you're in need of something chilly. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Don't Bet On It


I should know better by now.

It's not that I shouldn't take a chance on newish horror movies with dumb premises that are streaming on Amazon Prime. It's that I should know better than to dare watch them on a cell phone at the gym because virtually every newish horror movie with a dumb premise streaming on Amazon Prime will inevitably be dimly lit, and I'll spend a solid chunk of said film trying to find the right angle to see...anything.

Anyhoo, Odds Are... you won't watch this film anyway, but if you do give it a spin, avoid the elliptical.

Quick Plot: Tracy and Ryan are a hot college couple whose dates keep getting crashed by Kelly, Ryan's ex. The trio spend a fun day at a beachside amusement park, but Kelly and Ryan (DAMNIT WHY COULDN'T TRACY BE NAMED REGIS?) keep falling into their own obnoxious games, namely, "Odds Are."

Combine Truth or Dare with Pick a Number and that's basically it. One person issues a dare (or rather, just a rude thing to do to a perfect stranger) and if the other player guesses the same number between 1 and 10, that player has to do it.

A few rounds in, Ryan plays a pretty cruel trick on Tracy, heading into icy waters for a swim and faking drowning so she runs in after. In 58 degree weather.

Ryan is what we nice people like to call "an asshole."

The trio agrees to one more game: knock on a random stranger's door and enter. Kelly gets inside and disappears, and Tracy and Ryan quickly discover they picked the wrong doorway.

Directed by TV veteran Peter Markle, Odds Are... is one of the strangest paced direct-to-streaming-dimly-lit genre films I'm seen in some time. Once our leads are in the house, it seems as though we're in for a Don't Breathe meets Saw medley. We get something of it, before the story takes a slightly different turn.

For better and worse, Odds Are... is not your standard "attractive people trapped in a house and hunted by a brilliant sociopath" tale. Based loosely on a real-life murder (Wikipedia lists it as happening in "Eastern Europe," so the details are scarce), it takes a bit of a turn that's both interesting in theory and disappointing in its result.

I won't spoil the twist (though you'll probably figure it out fairly easily) because hey, maybe you'll want to watch Odds Are... It's decently put together with an adequate enough young cast, and some might find its direction to be surprising in a good way. I don't know how anybody could stand these characters for more than 10 minutes (much less the overlong 100 that is Odds Are...), particularly with their texting style:

Look, I get that at 39, I'm of a different generation than these kids, and nothing is more dull than a person complaining about today's youth, but, does NO ONE born after 1995 know how to use words? Was there a side effect of also vaccinating against punctuation marks when they got their chicken pox shot?

Thank you for your time. If you'll excuse me, I have to run to make sure I get a dinner spot at the early bird special.

High Points
It goes without saying that the scariest part of Odds Are... is the fate of the beautiful chocolate lab puppy, and I'm pleased to report that not only does Choco-Latte make it, he also gets bonus likability points to Tracy for taking the time to return him to his mother

Low Points
Of course, Choco-Latte's male owner is, without question, the only pleasant character in the film, so the fact that he meets such a sad fate and the rest of these jerks get to swim another day is pretty disappointing

Lessons Learned
Nothing tastes better after millennial murder than a fresh fireside s'more

The colder the water, the better your hair will look after an impromptu swim

Checkhov's Law of Breath Holding Techniques will obviously pay off (meaning if a character discusses holding their breath for 14 minutes in the first act, it shall indeed be held somewhere around the third)

If you're itching for a good horror film on Amazon Prime about attractive young people who invade the wrong house, watch Crush the Skull. If you want a mediocre version that turns into a dull mystery, here's Odds Are... 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Striking Vipers


Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Herein lies #15.

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote the script, while veteran television director Owen Harris helmed the episode. Harris is no stranger to the Black Mirror universe, having directed two of its most celebrated (and not just by me) episodes: the Emmy-winning San Junipero and my personal favorite, Be Right Back.

The Setup: We start with a sort of softer Crocodile-style intro to Danny, Theo, and Karl's carefree 20s. Danny and Karl are besties and roommates who pass many an evening playing a Mortal Kombat-ish video game called Striking Vipers, but time moves on and ten years later, they've grown up.

Danny and Theo are now a married suburban couple with a young son, putting a whole lot of effort into conceiving number 2. Karl is still living the wealthy music producer bachelor life, finding his younger dates via apps and spending awkward dinners trying to explain his '90s references.

Life gets complicated for both men when they decide to play the new, far more advanced version of Striking Vipers, which lets its players enter a realistic virtual space and try out a whole set of new moves without consequences. Before you can throw in a high kick, Karl's avatar Roxette and Danny's Ryu-ish Lance give up on street fighting and begin, well, you know.

The Ending: After testing out their relationship IRL (as the kids say), Danny and Karl confirm that they're not attracted to one another but still, the game sex is better than anything they've seemed to experience in real life (as the adults say). Danny tells a now very pregnant Theo the truth and the credits-filled coda tells us their future: once a year, they're allowed a respective dalliance. For Danny, that means logging on and summoning Lance for a date with Roxette. For Theo, going to a bar and meeting a stranger for sex.

The Theme: Satisfaction comes in many forms, and for our Striking Vipers trio, it means occasionally looking outside your marriage (and physical body).

The Verdict: I still maintain that Striking Vipers isn't quite as adventurous as it thinks it is, mostly because the coda's resolution feels rather strict. Clearly, Lance/Roxette sex is more satisfying to Danny (and obviously Karl) than anything in real life, and the tradeoff that means an annual virtual trip for Danny and a one-night-only one night stand for Theo feels, well, disappointing for all parties involved. Perhaps that's the point?

That being said, Striking Vipers is certainly fun to watch, particularly if you have any connection to '90s era fighting video games (Street Fighter 2 champion talking here). Anthony Mackie shows a different side than anything we've seen him do onscreen, while pre-Watchman Yahya Abdul-Mateen II manages to convey so much stifled unhappiness hiding behind his playboy persona in limited screentime. It's a solid hour of television, but just one with bigger ideas that deserve a deeper dive.

Technology Tip: All those fantasies you had as a teenager with a SEGA Genesis are even hotter in your adult future

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 2/10 No one is actually hurt, and while Danny and Theo's marriage hits a bump, it ends up far stronger than it started (at least for now). The 2 really all falls on Karl, who is clearly longing for. whole lot more.

Quality Scale: 7/10; like most of the series, this is a beautiful looking episode, with quality actors giving performances that we haven't quite seen before. And anyone who grew up learning the button codes for character-specific moves and experiencing extreme '90s joy at defeating their opponent in an exotic 2D backdrop will appreciate the game design.

Enjoyment Scale: 6/10; seriously, I count Chun-Li among my childhood heroes, so I can't say I'm immune to the charms of Striking Vipers. This might be the sexiest episode in the series, but I still, on second viewing, just find it missing something.

Up Next (Month): Yet another video game, albeit one of a whole different genre with Playtest

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Sorta Newlywed Game


Continuing the accidental marathon of recent-but-pre-pandemic-films-that-all-too-well-apply-to-the-pandemic-era, here's a mangled love story fitting for our times!

Quick Plot: Eve and Tom are a happily engaged young couple with finance woes. British Eve is still waiting on her American visa, while Tom is determined to make it as a novelist (cue my gag here). 

Eve comes across a classified ad that is naturally too good to be true: a psychological institute is looking for newlyweds to take part in a month-long study for a grand payment of $50K. The goal is to disseminate the titular honeymoon phase, and to learn exactly what it is that turns once-amorous couples into bitter divorcees. 

Faking a month-long marriage, the Jacobs are moved into a high-tech apartment where their only communication to the outside world comes in the form of their hologram study check-ins. They can request anything they need to be instantly deposited in their kitchen (think Alexa meets those cool bank teller drive-thru depositories). Eve figures it will give Tom the perfect opportunity to write that novel (cue my stifled laughter) and they're off to a nice start. 

Or are they? Upon their first round at sex in their new setup, Eve is shaken by Tom's unusually aggressive style. He's not writing (obviously) and worst of all, seems to be newly obsessed with having a baby. 

After taking LSD one night, Eve witnesses an older participating couple in an act of violence. Tom sees nothing, nor does the study's director or any of his cameras. Was it just a bad trip, or have the gaslights been primed?

The Honeymoon Phase is the feature debut of writer/director Phillip G. Carroll Jr. and was apparently filmed on a shoestring budget with some intrepid use of Airbnb. On that note, it's incredibly impressive. While the limitations show their head a bit when the action moves outside its primary setting, The Honeymoon Phase is sharply put together, both in its visuals and performances. 

I wish I could say the same about the story, which has grand ambitions but feels a bit muddled, particularly in its rushed final act. Watching The Honeymoon Phase, it was hard to not think about Vivarium, my favorite new film of last year (and one also streaming on Amazon). It's also a tale of a young, happy but not yet experienced couple trapped in a home designed to meet their basic needs, but one clearly after a far more sinister agenda.

I don't think The Honeymoon Phase reaches the bar Vivarium set, but it makes for an interesting pairing, and one appropriately fit for our seemingly endless pandemic quarantine. There's a lot to be explored in the nature of millennial relationships, with power dynamics quite different than they were in older generations. Eve serves as our point of view, but Carroll does play with her reliability. There's always the chance that everything is operating exactly as it should.

I didn't love The Honeymoon Phase, and I doubt I'll revisit it anytime soon, but it certainly held my attention and felt extremely fresh (even if I was a tad distracted thinking of somewhat similar films). I wish the screenplay had another draft or two, and I don't know that I loved where it left me, but it was successful for what it was. 

High Points
Any woman can tell you that no words are more offensive and dismissive than "calm down," and The Honeymoon Phase subtly uses things to s to growing effect

Low Points
I can forgive budgetary challenges that made The Honeymoon Phase's climax a bit, well, anticlimactic, but the explanation surrounding the reveal AND the coda left me feeling pretty unsatisfied, which is never a good way to walk away from a film

Lessons Learned
The more closeups of a crimson curling iron, the stronger the payoff for said crimson curling iron being used in an act of violence

Wannabe writers who want to be writers just to say they're writers will always find excuses not to write

If the psychologist in charge of the Dharma Initiative is the guy running your experiment, consider reading the fine print 

In the realm of low budget, minimalist sci-fi horror, The Honeymoon Phase is something new. There are more accomplished tellings of this out there (the aforementioned Vivarium, for one), but there's plenty to pull out of this one. Give it a spin.