Monday, September 16, 2019

I Prefer Ponytails

I love to see a fresh, completely original genre film connect with audiences.

I usually just wish I actually was a part of said audience.

Quick Plot: Petula and Tilda are paying off their student loans the old fashioned way: selling drugs from an NYC apartment. When cops bust their stash, they realize the $83,000 they now owe their terrifying boss can only come from one source.

Hopping on the Amtrack, the ladies travel up north to their childhood pal Daphne's sprawling Mrs. Havisham-like estate. Daphne (played by the always wonderful Madeline Brewer) isn't quite all there. Following a childhood treehouse fall (caused, no less, by Petula and Tilda), Daphne seems to be stunted in an endless game of make believe. Playing the doting mother, she welcomes the antsy Tilda as her fantasy daughter and slightly more controlled Petula as the visiting "doctor."

Written and directed by newcomer Mitzi Peirone, Braid has big ambitions of being high art. With its perfume ad imagery, overused filters, and deliberately muddled narrative, it's working really hard to stand out as avante garde.

I hated it.

Now I say this with a big grain of salt, most likely the very expensive pink Himalayan type. Braid is unique, and there's a lot of credit owed to Peirone's vision. She gets strong, if frustratingly aimless performances from her three leads, and certainly creates something you haven't quite seen before. I just wish it gave me something more in return.

One of my most frequently referenced films of recent years is the very divisive #Horror, a social media-fueled tale of preteen terror that seems to attract pure admiration or hatred from its audience. While I found it oddly and deeply thoughtful in capturing a very specific age, I can also fully understand another viewer--particularly one who never experienced the joys of being a 13-year-old girl--turning it off after ten minutes. Braid had a similar quality for me: I can, objectively, understand a critic raving about its use of imagery and nonlinear storytelling as an innovation. I will just not be one of them.

There's a sense that Peirone never wants her audience to really connect with the characters. Our sympathy is never aimed at anyone in particular, and as soon as the stakes seem to be raised, they're just as quickly removed with virtually no consequences to anyone's actions. 

But it all looks reallllllly pretty.

High Points
You can't complain about Braid's setting, a sprawling Yonkers mansion perfectly suited and filmed for this kind of story

Low Points
The film's own dismissal of any real consequences makes it hard to invest anything on our end into the story

Lessons Learned
If you really prefer drug dealing to office work, it's probably not a great idea to take selfies with your merchandise

The best way to stay fit when left to your own devices is to center your diet around the most colorful gelatin creations your kitchen can produce

Facial scars heal fast if they're accompanied by aggressive opera music

I didn't care for Braid, but it's by no means a waste of time. The style just didn't connect with me, but as is often the case, one woman's impression of pretentiousness is another's prime perfection. Those who want to check out a new filmmaker's voice, and especially fans of more ethereal style genre film may certainly find a lot here. I didn't, but hope to with Peirone's future work. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Newlywed Game

Sometimes, you reach a point that you look at yourself with pride in recognizing how well you're living your life. Then you realize you missed the chance to spend your wedding night playing a Clue-meets-The Most Dangerous Game version of hide-and-seek and you wonder if your marriage is even valid.

Quick Plot: A gloriously chaotic prologue hints at a very deadly game of hide and seek, with young Daniel hiding his little brother Alex before all out Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978-ing the hider, a tuxedoed groom about to meet a grisly fate.

Cut to 30 years later, when little Alex Le Domas is all grown up and getting hitched to Grace. Where Alex comes from an esteemed family who built their immense wealth on the gaming industry, Grace grew up in foster homes, never knowing what it meant to belong. Her wedding day is edgy but successful, as expensively dressed in-law after expensively dressed in-law welcomes her to her new clan.

Of course, like any marriage ritual, there are important aspects of tradition that must be honored. In the case of the Le Domas estate, no new entry into the family is accepted until he or she plays a game at the stroke of midnight. It could be an innocent round of checkers or old maid, but if the newlywed draws the “hide or seek” card, the evening gets a tad more complicated…as in, the entire family must catch the hider and sacrifice him or her to their ancestor before the sun rises.

Hey, I planned a wedding: sh*t gets intense.

Grace wastes no time accepting just how dire her situation is, and while Alex is doing his best to help save his new wife, an entire armed extended family with their own lives on the line is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully, they’re stuck using antiquated weaponry and in some cases, limited by a long day’s worth of cocaine and whiskey. Still, Grace has her work cut out for her.

For all the years of horror fans grumbling about remakes and unwanted sequels, what a fine age to be living in when we get a fairly steady flow of theatrically released genre films built on original premises. Based on a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Southbound (and to less exciting extent, The Devil’s Due)’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready Or Not has a fresh energy met well by its quick pacing.

The cast certainly helps. With The Babysitter, Mayhem, and the mixed (but well-acted) Picnic At Hanging Rock miniseries to her name, Samara Weaving has quickly built a wonderfully genre-heavy resume, and with Ready Or Not, she deserves the most bloodily bedazzled crown fit for an official scream queen. We don't know much about Grace's past (or even present, marital status aside), but it's impossible not to be on her side. This is the refreshingly smart and gloriously sarcastic leading lady we deserve.

Likewise, Ready Or Not is stacked with some wonderful supporting turns. Cube's Nicky Guadagni's Aunt Helene is a glorious creation, while Melanie Scrofano's overly competitive Emilie (NOT A CHARACTER I IDENTIFY WITH AT ALL) brings a wonderfully manic energy to the proceedings. On the slightly more serious end, Adam Brody's Daniel gets a surprising arc, while Andie MacDowell's manages to create a full character history with just a few quick conversations as Grace's sympathetic-to-a-point mother-in-law. It's a genuine delight to watch this family unravel.

Ready Or Not will probably make you laugh more than jump, but it's still an incredibly satisfying genre film. For the most part, Bettinelli-Olpuin and Gillett treat the material with a smart weight. Real lives--and a family dynasty--are at stake, making most of the hunt feel heavy even when its rich, often airheaded villains end up bumbling fools. It's quite a smart tone, especially for a wide theatrical release.

High Points
Is there a contract with the devil somewhere in your antique weapons closet that keeps Samara Weaving acting in horror movies for eternity? Also, do you have a pen?

Low Points
Look, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh when the Robert Palmer-looking maids met their unlucky fates, but there is a certain level of cruelty that might have deserved a little more of a commentary

Lessons Learned
In case you’ve never seen a horror film set in a Victorian mansion, allow me to confirm that dumbwaiters are never safe spaces

Always pack a comfortable, quiet pair of sneakers for whatever may come up on your honeymoon

Never trust a wealthy child

I had a darn good time with Ready Or Not, and would encourage any horror fan who wants to support creative, quality genre fare to buy a ticket. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Oh What a Beautiful Morning Talk Show

I have a theory about the filming of Lifetime/Hallmark movies that makes watching crowd scenes excessively entertaining: as these are made as cheaply and quickly as possible, I firmly believe that no minute of usable footage is wasted. Hence, when you see your handsome leads sitting in a diner discussing the meaning of Christmas, note the couple in the booth behind them, who are most likely in the middle of filming their own Stalked By My (Fill In the Occupational Blank) drama.

This comes into play in true glory in Staged Killer, wherein halfway through, we enter a bustling hospital in a one-shot scene of frantic life-saving activity that feels ripped out of a failed ER reboot. 

It is a thing of glory, true of most of Christopher Olen Ray (clearly the son of Fred)'s Staged Killer. Note that my definition of the word "glory" means something very different from Webster when dealing with Lifetime-esque dramas. 

Quick Plot: In the world's fastest prologue, pretty and perky Naomi hosts a late night college show called Campus Cool with her platonic partner Jake. Things are going well enough until their interview subject, the school's star quarterback, makes the moves on Naomi. His ex-girlfriend Lana makes a scene, and a minute later, the jock we hardly knew is stabbed to death.

Cut to an ominous "ten years later" card as Naomi is now a mini-Kelly Rippa, hosting a morning show with Jerry O'Connell's brother. Who should arrange a chance meeting at her favorite coffee spot but Jake, now grown into a creepy former Florida news host who puts on his best Patrick Bateman to worm his way back into Naomi's partnership.

First up is Jerry O'Connell's brother, whose ominous heart problem makes him easy prey for a poison-protein-shake-packing Jake. Since live morning shows can't dare be interrupted, Jake fills in for the now dead Jerry O'Connell's brother. Audiences eat it up, and a hit is born.

Next on the list is Naomi's dumb architect husband Trent. After googling "rape date drugs" as you do when you're a criminal mastermind, Jake spikes Trent's half a beer and sends him on his way to crash into a traffic pole. Scarlett, Naomi's best friend and executive producer, grows suspicious but because nobody in Staged Killer has a triple digit IQ, she too ends up dead, drowned in her own bathtub and framed by an empty bottle of fruit juice/wine.

Seriously, it can't be THAT hard to fake merlot onscreen.

Staged Killer is everything you want in a perfectly timed 90 minute TV thriller: pretty people whose decades of expensive hair and facial products have rotted their brains so that their actions grow progressively stupider with every passing frame. You will marvel at just how easy it is to poison hospital pudding cups and create a media empire with simple social media tactics. Everything is guffawable in the best of ways.

High Points
Perhaps there's something to tension buildup, but I can appreciate a movie that wastes no time in introducing a character only to have him immediately poison Jerry O'Connell's brother's protein shake

Low Points
For a movie that has so much fun with its villain's mastery of his audience profile, the ending feels a tad rushed and unsatisfying

Lessons Learned
Morning television is a copycat medium

When questioning an old acquaintance about brutal murder, it's best to do so over a glass of champagne

Dream boards are inspirational, especially when you fill them with a dozen pictures that were taken on that one day you filmed a scene

The Winning Line(s)
This is Olympian levels of dialogue and thusly must I count down podium style:

The Bronze
"We're already trending on Chatter!"
Few things make me happier than movies that make up their own social media services. Just TRY to say that one with a straight face. That actress should have won an Oscar. Instead, she just got fruit punch

The Silver
"I'm on my way to the glam squad. It's been a really long day"
Context required: our heroine says this right before heading to hair and makeup to film her morning show, which, you know, films live in the morning which means she's been awake for all of two hours

The Gold
"Wow! I've never met a successful architect before!"
Pity the man who's lived his whole life without really, you know, living. Also, you're in a Lifetime(ish) movie! There's ALWAYS a successful architect!

Look, Staged Killer is a pretty stupid movie about very stupid pretty people. If that's what you want on a bright summer day, you really can't do much better. Pour yourself a nice big glass of fruit drink and enjoy!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Take the Long Way Home

The day may come when I turn down a heavily photoshopped poster of hot young people looking too serious, but it is not this day.

Quick Plot: A prologue introduces us to the titular shortcut, a wooded path in a small town where back in the '40s, a young woman escaped sexual assault by a soon-to-be soldier only to be slingshotted-to-death by a creepy little kid. So that's nice.

Cut to the present day (or 2009's flip phone variation of it), where high school senior Derek and little brother Tobey have just moved to town following the death of their father. Derek is your typical smartass protagonist who's aged rather terribly in the nine years since The Shortcut's release: good-looking white kid who forcefully, annoyingly hits on the school's hottest soccer player (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden), somehow winning her despite him being a complete jerk.

Young Tobey takes a bully's dare to walk home through the woods, where upon he encounters a far-less-grizzled-than-the-script-suggests old man and a dead dog. Could she be Tammy, pet to football jock Taylor (aka the only likable character in the movie?).

Derek teams up with Taylor, pals Lisa (Westworld's Shannon Woodward) and Mark ("Oh Hi Mark" Dave Franco), and the nice hot chick with terrible taste in men to investigate. Throughout their planning, we get more flashbacks explaining the insanity of The Shortcut's keepers, a wealthy, once esteemed family whose bad seed son led to their downfall.

The Shortcut is produced by Adam Sandler's Scary Madison (a division of Happy Madison, in case it didn't click) and directed by Grandma's Boy's Nicholaus Goossen. It's probably a good thing you know this going in, since it helps to classify The Shortcut as some form of horror comedy. 

Truthfully, I have no idea if this is meant to be funny. The film dances around for a good hour before delving into genre territory, which would be fine if the horror actually hit or the comedy was in any way entertaining.

The biggest problem with The Shortcut is that, like so many films of its ilk, its characters are awful. Lisa and Mark are unnecessarily cruel to little Tobey. Derek is incredibly unpleasant, and the mere fact that he charms Bowden makes us question her taste. The film seems to be making a joke out of Taylor's linebacker stature, but he is, without question, the only person onscreen I didn't want to see die. 

Spoiler alert: he does.

There's a decent twist to The Shortcut, followed by an even better one that certainly redeems the rather ho-humness of most of its running time. But overall, this is a strangely undecided film, one clearly made by a team that has seen a horror movie or two without really understanding what makes them work. 

High Points
It doesn't hit the way it should because we just don't care, but the final moments do come out of nowhere in a somewhat effective manner

Low Points
Did I mention how much I hate everyone?

Lessons Learned
When sneaking around in a remote cabin where the owner is confirmed as being out of the way, always remember to bring a good flashlight because under no conditions would you turn a light on in a remote cabin when the whole reason you're there is because no on else is near

Eh. I appreciated the rather bonkers ending, but The Shortcut's inability to commit to horror or comedy leaves it incredibly unsatisfying. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Shoulda Been Beta

Between The Company of Wolves, Interview With a Vampire, and Byzantium, Neil Jordan has always been a special filmmaker to the horror genre, and one with an interesting hand when it comes to women (okay, maybe subtract the incredibly male and even more incredibly erotic Interview from that list, but the other two are very much about their leads' gender). Even with the hugely negative critical reaction to 2018's Greta, I couldn't quite give up on it being something worth a watch. 


Quick Plot: Frances is slowly getting over the death of her mother, healing herself through the power of waitressing in a high-end restaurant and hanging out with her ridiculously wealthy roommate Erica (It Follows' Maika Monroe), whose father splurged for a loft in "New York City."

Let's get the first (of unfortunately, many) complaint out of the way: Greta's landscape looks about as Manhattan as a Hallmark Christmas movie. If my subways were half as clean as the oddly logo'd 6 train in this movie, I'd be using it to host mobile dinner parties.

Anyway, Frances is a nice girl from Boston, apparently too good-hearted for the big bad dangers of Irish York. One day, she spots an expensive purse abandoned on a pristine bucket seat. She promptly returns it to its owner, our titular French pianist (who might actually be the same damaged woman Huppert played in The Piano Teacher) who's so charmed by Frances's good deed that the pair become instant besties. 

Frances is obviously seeking a mother, and with her homemade sauce and sad widowhood, why wouldn't Greta fit the bill? If you've seen the trailer, you know that very quickly (within the 40 minute mark) Frances discovers that this ain't Greta's first time at the befriend-a-young-woman-with-good-handbag-taste rodeo. 

At first, Greta tries to win back the terrified Frances with phone calls and visits, standing like a performance artist in the street to watch her young friend as she waits tables in terror. It doesn't take long for Greta to reveal herself to be faster than The Flash and more durable than Michael Michaels. Also, she can teleport like the Leprechaun.

There is a point in this movie where the only earthbound explanation for Greta's ability to stalk Erica is that there are actually eight Gretas. Folks, I would have sent a check to Neil Jordan if this movie had a twist that involved evil twins or quintuplets. 

Sadly, there's apparently nothing supernatural about a Hungarian widow pretending for no explained reason to be French. Except, you know, the scene where she stalks Erica in an alleyway, sending pictures to Francine at every possible angle and, I kid you not, somehow--IT'S NEVER EXPLAINED AND IT'S MY NEW OBSESSION--ending up sitting smugly on the very bus that Erica hastily hops on to escape the Greta who was...following her. 


Don't worry: the movie certainly doesn't.

Look, based on every single professional and amateur review I'd seen of Greta, I did not expect a quality film. That being said, I did know that I was getting one of the genre's most interesting filmmakers directing one of the world's best living actresses in a juicy role. Surely, SURELY I guessed Greta would have its charms. 

What's so damn disappointing about Greta is how lacking it is in fun. Frances is a complete dud. We know Chloe Moretz can be a fiery performer, but the script's insistence on her character being sweet without giving her an ounce of snazz makes her painfully dull to watch, and pretty impossible to root for. The fact that is a recent college graduate enjoying a life of leisure in a million dollar loft doesn't even let us feel some natural sympathy for her. How hard would it have been to tweak her situation just enough to make her an actual underdog? WE ALL LOVE UNDERDOGS.

And come on: we all would kill for secret Isabelle Huppert triplets.

High Points
This is the kind of movie that has Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing at crescendo when Isabelle Huppert throws a table-clearing tantrum in a fancy restaurant. It's impossible not to feel somewhat giddy at that kind of moment

Low Points
And yet--AND YET DESPITE ISABELLE HUPPERT SMASHING WINE GLASSES--Greta is such a messy, aimless, energy-less movie that it's nearly impossible to find any satisfaction from its run time

Lessons Learned
People from Boston return expensive handbags; people from Manhattan call the bomb squad

The crazier they are, the harder they cling

The only thing less effective in solving crime than the NYC police department is Stephen Rea in a cameo

Dog Alert
I watched Greta on a plane and therefore lacked access to the invaluable "Does the Dog Die(.com)" information I needed, but if you couldn't guess that the sweet schnauzer mutt Greta brings home at Frances's urging would meet a tragic end, then let me sell you a bridge

I never thought I'd discourage anyone from seeing a movie wherein Isabelle Huppert spits gum into another woman's hair, but darn it: Greta is a slog. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a good feature-length set of deleted scenes and alternate endings, because there is so much plain sloppiness in its storytelling that I simply have to believe there were problems offscreen. 

Don't we all.