Monday, January 26, 2015

Best of the Year Number 6!

To us mere mortals, the passage of a year marks us as 365 years closer to death. To us cheerier mortals, it marks a new calendar. But to the virtual glory that is a blog, one more year simply means another twelve months worth of film, some good, some so bad they’re good, and some nearly to truly great.

As is tradition around these parts, I like to celebrate my blog’s birthday (which just so happens to fall a week or so before its owner’s real life closer-to-death birthday) with my own best-of list highlighting my favorite movies reviewed over the last cycle of the Doll’s House.

Thusly do I present a countdown:

Honorable #15 Tie: Alyce Kills Contracted
I pair these two little indies together because both are fresh, flawed, and successfully dependent upon their central female performance. In Alyce Kills,  Jade Dornfeld plays a needy young woman whose obsession with her best friend leads to serious horror comedy chaos. Najarra Townsend carries Contracted as a recovering addict whose insecurities about her relationship (and in a less obvious way, misunderstood shame over being raped) result in her body disintegrating right before us. Neither film is perfect, but both brought something new to the genre from young filmmakers who I hope to see more from.

14. Tormented
At first glance, Tormented is yet another entry into the 'don't bully nerds' subgenre that's been dishing out slashers since Slaughter High. Thankfully, the combination of writer Stephen Prentice and director Jon Wright knows how to handle such a familiar trope with a fresh dose of black comedy. Tormented isn't a classic, but it's a strong, biting little film that never feels dull. I was shocked at just how much I enjoyed myself watching a story that I'd seen told numerous times before.

13. Jug Face
Any naysayer who complains about the current state of horror need only browse the straight-to-DVD-or-streaming realm to discover that original horror films are absolutely thriving (just not necessarily at the theater near you). Take, for prime example, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s indie tale Jug Face, a strange little story about a backwoods community who must occasionally sacrifice one of their members to a pit monster if the assigned sculptor happens to craft a jug of their faces. It's an incredibly fresh premise that is wonderfully backed up by restrained filmmaking and outstanding performances. The movie isn't perfect, but it's unexpected and for that, we should all be grateful to live in the era of cinema that we do.

I've never been shy about my appreciation for James Wan. Here's a filmmaker who clearly grew up a horror fan and therefore knows not just what works in the genre, but all those cliches that are done to death to no effect (look to Insidious's duplicate Sinister and ask yourself, "WHY THE HELL CAN NO ONE TURN ON A F*CKING LIGHT SWITCH?"). With The Conjuring, Wan and steady screenwriter Leigh Whannell take on a typical haunted house yarn and present it, without any particular flourish, to great success. Like Insidious, I was disappointed in the film's third act, but for a good hour, Wan creates true suspense, aided by a fantastic art department and camera crew that understood that to truly bring its audience on board, it had to treat us as if we were IN that house.

Warning: you will need to shower more than once after watching Kidnapped. It's not just the sleaze factor on Mario Bava's once-lost road movie: it's that star George Eastman sweats so profusely that it penetrates any streaming device you thought was waterproof. Perspiration aside, this is a fast-paced slice of the '70s at its slimiest complete with a superb ending that leaves you smiling. Give it a go (just remember to wear a slicker while doing so).

10. The Purge
Haters, go hate somewhere else. While James DeMonaco’s theatrical hit didn't fully exploit its high premise (see its slightly overstuff sequel for that), The Purge gave me a solid home invasion film sprinkled with rather fascinating economic commentary. I'm thrilled to see this franchise succeed and eagerly await next year's entry.

A sort of dry comedic take on A Clockwork Orange, this rather uncelebrated 1978 British film follows a trio of escaped mental patients as they hunt a busload of prim and proper schoolgirls in the quiet countryside. Filled with dry humor, occasional harmonizing, some Freudian exploration, and a heroic three-legged dog, this is '70s gem that deserves some true celebration. Preferably with scones.

Argentina isn't a film known for its thriving genre film output, but hopefully little gems like this one will help to change that. Here Comes the Devil is a strange, sexy, and scary little horror that follows a normal family down a very dark path of possible possession, incest, cults, and vigilante justice. The religious and sexual symbolism pulses through as the unique musical score shouts. This is not necessarily a pleasant watch, but it's a very effective one.

A great lesson in low budget genre filmmaking, Ben Wagner’s Dead Within sets its action inside a small cabin post-zombie apocalypse. Been there, done that, you want to say, until you watch two strong actors (Amy Cale Peterson and Dean Chekvala) create a complicated marriage tested by paranoia. What's even more impressive is how scary Dead Within manages to be. By creating such a strong sense of character and claustrophobia, it takes us to such levels of tension that we don't know where to go.

One can never go wrong by casting a genre film with people not normally cast in a genre film. One can also never go wrong by me in taking a battle royale-ish scenario and giving it a fresh spin. Indie filmmaker Paul Hough manages to do a whole lot more with The Human Race, a sci-fi horror that seems to deliberately set out to give long-unimpressed movie watchers something new. Whether it's the hero with an amputated leg, a surprise early death, or two deaf characters who speak in sign language, The Human Race just feels FRESH.

I won't deny that I was rooting for Curse of Chucky to be good. My history with the Child's Play saga remains a huge part of my identity as a horror fan, and my love of Don Mancini's most personalized entry, Seed of Chucky, knows no bounds (I've been known to draw blood when defending it). So yes, I WANTED to love Curse of Chucky, but that doesn't mean it wasn't still wonderful on its own. Mancini finds a great balance of humor and horror while also refreshing his story with new touches, not to mention a post-credits sequence that does warm service to dedicated fans.

French filmmaker Marina de Van is the kind of woman who makes David Cronenberg look uptight. With In My Skin, de Van delves into a different kind of body horror following a corporate go-getter (played by the auteur herself) who becomes disconnected from her personal and professional life as she rather nonchalantly embarks upon a journey of self-mutilation. There's much more to the tale than that synopsis can say, or maybe, there's far less. The beauty of de Van's rather icky film comes from all that's not spelled out. In other words, it's very deep (maybe) and certainly, very, very French.

3. 13 Sins
There was probably no need to remake a fairly recent Thai film for American straight-to-video horror audiences, but if doing so gave us 13 Sins, I won't complain. Directed by The Last Excorcism's Daniel Stamm, this horror comedy understands what so many any of its ilk do not: anchor your film with an identifiable lead. Mark Webber’s Elliot is a nice, believable guy trying to do his best, and that instant sympathy makes his story so much easier to get into than all of the Crowsnests and The Darkest Hours combined. 

I've always MEANT to visit the much-discussed cinema of Jean Rollin, but the descriptions seemed more atmospheric than interesting. On a whim, I decided to try one of his shorter entries on Instant Watch and boy was I thankful. The Iron Rose is a strange, eerie film unlike any other. An attractive young couple spend their first date in a cemetery which goes as well as any horror fan predicts.  Sure, the film is mood over story, but the mood is so uniquely haunting that it works.

I'm an easy mark. If you tell me a movie has a gorilla drinking a martini, I'm in. If you tease me with killer dolls or naughty children or Michael Ironside or possessed kittens or--well, you get my point. I will watch anything aimed at my interests, but that doesn't always mean I'll love it (but don't worry Mikey: I'll always love you). When several friends told me there was a slasher musical set at theater camp, it sounded almost too good to be true. But guys: it's real. Jerome Sable’s horror comedy embraces its jazz hands and Sondheim influence with the full enthusiasm of an alto belting Let It Go. It's not for everyone, but those who love a good tune next to their stabbings will, like me, squeal with glee throughout Stage Fright.

Friday, January 23, 2015

So Exciting That It Took Down An A-Lister!

Just a friendly reminder that if you like to hear chicks discuss Scarlett Johansson luring naked men to sexy death in alien space goo, then this week's podcast episode of The Feminine Critique is for you. My partner in crime Christine joins me as we tackle Jonathan Glazer's recently divisive indie hit Under the Skin and his unnecessarily controversial (but super good) 2004 film Birth.

Head over to iTunes to hear that plus a whole lot more talk on all things film, including just how awesome Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is and the true glory of watching a gorilla drink a martini.

C'mon. You can't tell me that isn't the best thing you've seen in your life. I mean, you CAN tell me, but there's no way in Africa that I'll believe you.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Lessons Learned, Year Six!

Tradition is not something I uphold lightly. Most of that comes from the fact that I'm an extremely disorganized person who sometimes forgets what season it is so really, annual activities are asking quite a lot. Nevertheless, there are three things this blog vows to do every year:

1. Reserve the month of February for movies devoted to vertically challenged villains

2. List my best-of-the-movies-I've-reviewed-this-year near the blog's anniversary

and for you, most importantly

3. Provide my darling readers with a list of the most important life lessons gleaned from the films I've covered here over the past 365 days. Thusly, let's get on with it:

The Culinary Arts
It's better to pay more than to go on a vegetarian diet -- Omnivores

Whiskey + gin = ginsky, and well, it's not good -- A Lonely Place To Die 

Shots solve everything! -- Contracted 

The best way to jump start a broken down vehicle is to be rear-ended -- Crowsnest 

Never drive on a quarter a tank of gas. You'll come to regret it when chasing dinosaurs on the streets of LA -- Age of Dinosaurs 

Web MD, Doll’s House Style
DIY brain surgery is not nearly as difficult as it sounds -- Antisocial 

It's incredibly easy to give CPR to druidic priestesses -- Idle Hands 

The hotter the nurse, the less effective the local anesthetic -- 13 Sins  

Wonders of Science
Potassium alum is the secret to tanning human skin -- In My Skin 

Wide lens flashlights are great, but apparently, night vision on your 20 pound videocamera held is far superior -- Atrocious 

The Supernatural
Ghosts are extremely fast adapters to today's Apple technology -- Haunter 

Ghosts smell like rancid meat or REALLY bad farts (pic) -- The Conjuring 

Worldwide Customs
In mystery European land where everyone has their own accent, barbecues are generally held in chilly weather that requires autumn jackets -- Stevie

People from LA know their nipple clamps while people in Oregon know how to light an entire roomful of candles in just 60 seconds -- Body of Evidence

Know your Australian folk songs. Love your Australian folk songs. -- Wolf Creek 2 

Toy Stories
Rhode Island Reds are the manliest of dollhouses -- Insidious: Chapter 2 

Toy Story-esque robot baby-head creations can be useful in a home invasion, but equipping one with a two-way radio should definitely be included in the next prototype -- The Purge 

The Job Market
Contrary to popular thought, getting a suicidal limbo-stuck slave to do your bidding is not easy -- The Prophecy 

The Human Male 
Guys only cry when they go to Cooperstown -- The Skeptic

Post-Apocalyptic Preparation
In case of apocalypse, be sure to wear layers -- Im Not Jesus Mommy

Meals served that shouldn't be appetizing, but somehow made me hungry included canned peaches seasoned with nutmeg and the crunchy joys of uncooked lasagna noodles coated in Crisco -- Dead Within 

The Art of Escape
Always keep a sack of pennies on you. They might cause you to run with a limp and almost get caught by clumsy martians or schoolteachers, but it's worth it -- Invaders From Mars 

Crutches have some pretty nifty use when you happen to be thrown into a cruel and unusual race to the death -- The Human Race 

Group Think
Splitting up is the number one way to get pack raped -- Mine Games 

Always listen to your crazy elderly neighbors. Because if you can't trust your crazy elderly neighbors to deliver important exposition, who can you trust? -- The Haunting of Helena 

When traveling with a group of friends on a mysterious mission, resist the urge to take an adorable group photo just before takeout unless you want it to be prime motivation for an evil force to focus upon how happy you are before inevitable doom -- Devil’s Pass 

English Class
If and only if you are scientist, it is pronounced 'piranya' -- Piranha

Money Saving Tips
If you’re confined to one secluded house that gets no cellular reception, you’re probably better off just canceling your iPhone plan and saving on the unused minutes -- Curse of Chucky 

You don’t need a phone if you don’t have friends to talk to -- Tormented 

The first thing you do with a lot of money is screw some broad with big boobs -- Kidnapped 

Relationship Advice
It takes two to tarot  -- Frightmare

Just because your drug dealer throws out terms like pre-war German expressionism does not mean he's a standup gentleman -- Alyce Kills 

It’s proper etiquette to sheathe one’s sword before surrender -- The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine 

The Art of Seduction
When in doubt, never forget the powers of a sexy saxophone score -- Poison Ivy 

The night of her mom's funeral is generally not the best time to ask a girl out for a casual date -- We Are What We Are 

A sudden turn-on to the bones of young children is generally not a good portent for your relationship -- The Iron Rose 

Basic Survival 101
Don’t ever try to eff with Peter Cushing. Not only can he slit your throat with those cheekbones, but he also most likely has supernatural control over everything he touches and will ensure you suffer a grisly comeuppance -- From Beyond the Grave

Always bury a useful treasure. You just never know when you’ll need that junior pocket knife in the wilderness -- Black Rock 

Little Known History
Computer imagery enhancement was at its peak in 1994 -- My Soul To Take 

Makeup in the Old West held up amazingly well to the elements -- Gallowwalkers 

Social Media For the Modern Age
Kindergarten teachers in Not-New York City prefer to use professional headshots for their Facebook profile pictures -- Faces In the Crowd

YOU Be the Detective
A big pair of sunglasses is all you really need to trail a car unnoticed -- Here Comes the Devil 

The Challenges of Growing Up
The only thing worse than being jug faced by your friend, whipped by your dad, and impregnated and abandoned by your brother is having Sean Young for your mom -- Jug Face  

Trust the cave. I mean, it's trying to kill you in all sorts of horribly painful ways, but still,just trust it -- Sanctum

Friends don’t let their brilliant, daring, and one-of-a-kind scientists not keeping great records of their illegal research drive irresponsibly--The Wasp Woman 

Haute Couture 
People in fashion should own boots -- The Sacrament 

Everything You Need To Know About Mummy Theme Park Safety
Jars of dangerous acid are thankfully labeled 'dangerous acid' in mummy theme parks -- The Mummy Theme Park 

Current Affairs
The white slavery industry has been ruined by too many enthusiastic amateurs -- Killer’s Moon

The Most Important Piece of Advice You Can Ever Remember
Never forget: just when it all gets quiet and peaceful, BEARS -- The Last Days