Monday, April 24, 2017

Always Have a Plan B

A pregnancy horror comedy starring Natasha Lyonne? Why would I NOT stop everything and queue it up?

Quick Plot: Lou (Lyonne) is an aimless young woman who spends most of her time drinking, drugging, or lounging about her isolated home with the occasional company of her BFF Sadie (Chloe Sevigny). After a particularly blurry bender, Lou feels bloated and sick, displaying all the typical signs one has when detecting pregnancy. But despite many a blackout, Lou is convinced she hasn't actually had sex in recent months. 

Could the stomach pains and morning sickness have anything to do with some of the drugs she's been taking from Gabriel, Sadie's bad boy boyfriend (and 13 Sins good guy lead Mark Webber)? Following the playbook of Contracted's skin-shedding protagonist, Lou tries her best to ignore her symptoms, finally accepting some help from passing mysterious lady Lorna (the always eerie Meg Tilly).

Let's start with something that is key to determining your enjoyment of this film: everyone in it is absolutely awful.

For some viewers, this is an (often understandably) automatic turnoff. Others may have the immediate instinct to say, "oh come on, they're not ALL bad" but really, no: they're all awful human beings, and that in part is the very point of Antibirth. With her daily diet of pot, vodka, donuts, and whatever pills are handed to her for free, it's a wonder Lou is still breathing on ANY day, let alone one where she's impregnated with...something. This is a movie filled with characters who throw dead baby jokes around as if they were standard conversation fodder. If that bothers you, do not, and I repeat, do not watch Antibirth.

Those with stronger stomachs/weaker filters will find something somewhat interesting, somewhat infuriating, and mostly one-of-a-kind. Ever since she slummed her way through Beverly Hills (or maybe before, when she popped by Pee-Wee's Playhouse) Natasha Lyonne has been the kind of husky-voiced, big-haired actor who typically served a very particular type in a variety of projects: the sarcastic, smoking, old-for-her-age screwup. She's front and center in that part here, and while I've personally always admired her as a performer, I will say it took me a very long time while watching Antibirth to NOT think "maybe she's better used in supporting roles."

Because like I said: Lou is terrible. She's a slob, an addict, a couch potato, and mostly, not really as fun as the movie thinks she is. I was ready to write off Antibirth in the way that most people (that weren't me) wrote off the similar in tone (and cast) #Horror, but by its end, I was mostly on board with this movie. This primarily hit towards the final act, where Lou outright acknowledges how useless she really is, a key point that makes the idea of others exploiting her finally feel wrong. 

Antibirth is written and directed by Danny Perez, a man who clearly has a very definitive grip on the style and tone of his filmmaking. I don't know that I necessarily liked Antibirth, but once it hit a certain rhythm, I was definitely curious to follow it through, and the bonkers ending definitely left me in a better place. It's not for the squeamish or those with high taste, but I think there's probably a big faction of horror fans looking for something different that might find plenty to enjoy here. 

High Points
You cannot say this is a movie without utter commitment to itself, be that its aforementioned dead baby jokes, stylish framing of the world's ickiest bowling alley, or all-out wacky gross-out monster design in its climax

Low Points
As I said a few weeks ago with my annoyance at Satanic's Coachella-craving 20somethings, sometimes it's just hard to get on board with a film when you find everyone in it so detestable. The fact that these characters are in their mid-30s actually makes it worse

Lessons Learned
Natasha Lyonne may have been born to say the name "Lorna"

On the flip side, Natasha Lyonne's gigantic curly locks were not born to bob around a fire

Meg Tilly is not to be messed with

I can't argue with anyone who hated Antibirth. This is the kind of film that has a character declare "I love pissing!" as if, I don't know, it's a funny character quirk. For a good portion of its running time, I was ready to write off Antibirth as try-hard hipster horror that wasn't nearly as clever as it thought it was. The ending, however, really helped salvage it, at least for me. It's streaming on Netflix, and I guess those interested in pregnancy horror, gross-out horror comedy, or Natasha Lyonne may certainly get something out of it. It's a middling recommend, but I think a certain type of audience may embrace it more enthusiastically. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

But Is It Gluten-Free?

Like many of my Generation MilleXial brethren, my introduction to Soylent Green came via the one and only Phil Hartman.

Sure, that '90s Saturday Night Live sketch might have spoiled the ending of one of sci-fi's most famous movies, but it still piqued my interest enough to give the film a go. It's now been a good 20+ years since I've last watched Soylent Green, and while DVR'ing off of TCM isn't that impressive a future over renting a VHS, it's still quite a thing to see with 2017 eyes. 

Quick Plot: It's the year 2022(!), and the world's population is exploding. Over 40 million people now live in the New York City area, so while I may have thought my first few Manhattan apartments, with their shared bathrooms and converted closet-space-to-bedrooms were small, I now see that I was indeed a spoiled, spoiled urbanite. 

With the world being a mess of pollution (whaaaaaaa? NEVER!) fresh food is a luxury only the 1% can afford. The rest of the proletariat "enjoys" nutritional products put out by the Soylent Corporation, supposedly plankton-based squares of protein. When one of Soylent's top executives, William Simonson, is found dead, Detective Thorn (full-toothed and scarfed Charlton Heston) suspects murder, something the deceased's business associates are quick to cover up. 

On hand to help Thorn is Sol (the great Edward G. Robinson), his elderly roommate who reminisces about a time when food came from the earth, and Shirl, the beautiful "furniture" that came with the corpse Thorn investigates. Thorn suspects Simonson's bodyguard Tab Fielding (Tourist Trap's Chuck Connors) of foul play, especially considering the working class hotshot is enjoying such luxuries as $150 bottles of strawberry jam for his girlfriend.

If you've lived in any kind of pop culture space during the last 50 years, you probably know the real twist of Soylent Green's big reveal. I suppose the biggest question one might have in deciding whether to give this film a shot is whether that matters. 

Sure, it would probably be much more rewarding to experience Soylent Green without any foreknowledge of, you know, what the titular meal replacement is made of, but in my opinion, this remains a worthwhile watch. Directed by Conan the Destroyer's Richard Fleischer, the film isn't necessarily a landmark in the genre, but like a lot of its ilk from the '70s, there's something fascinating in its somehow dated-but-ahead-of-its-time conceits of the future.  

Yes, Soylent Green, like Logan's Run or Zero Population Growth, looks like a movie about the future that came out of the 1970s. And while we may be further from 5 years away from SPOILER ALERT, packaging our elderly into cracker squares, one can't read a newspaper today without thinking, "yeah, that's not the most outlandish 2022."

The film itself is flawed, but entertaining. Fleischer's future has a great smoggy grain about it that drives home the world's ugliness, with the contrast of Simonson's luxury high-rise and its artificial charms. Heston is at his masculine muggiest, but is wonderfully softened at times by his relationship with Robinson's Sol. While I would have enjoyed more exploration of society, the film does an interesting job of establishing a bleak, but livable future, particularly in how it uses the dirty, sad mobs that seem to pile up on staircases, in churches, and on the streets.

High Points
You know that moment in Wayne's World 2 when Wayne stops at a gas station for directions, and Mike Meyers breaks the fourth wall to ask for a better actor to elevate the material (and fittingly enough, Charlton Heston wanders in to deliver the scene)? I also call this the "Peter O'Toole Saves Troy" performance, wherein an older thespian shows up in supporting role to elevate everything around him. That's how I feel about Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green. He's just so damn good, and everything around him is better when he's onscreen

Low Points
Look, I know the big announcement of the reveal is an AFI greatest line and touchstone in pop culture, but the film's actual ending somehow feels a tad disappointing, with a sort of open-endedness that feels more unresolved than ambiguous

Lessons Learned
Old people cry a lot

Lettuce will never be exciting, even if the world hasn't had fresh food in decades

In the future, never stand too close to detectives unless you plan on being shot. The dude goes through pedestrians faster than Spinal Tap drummers

Don't avoid actually watching Soylent Green just because you know the final line. While this isn't a masterpiece of cinema, it is a hallmark of American science fiction, and it has enough truly memorable parts to make it well worth the 100 minute investment. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Devil Wears Coachella (cause that's a clothing brand, right?)

Like any teen-centric horror flick, Satanic opens with a deep quote about hell by none other than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Okay then. 

Quick Plot: It's spring break, and a quartet of mostly awful college students are driving to LA for a few days of satanic tourism, followed by a stay at Coachella.

Yes. As you can imagine, they're incredibly likable human beings.

Chloe (Modern Family's Sarah Hyland) is the most human of the bunch, while her jerky boyfriend David huffs around acting better than everyone, her cousin Elise channels a halfhearted goth girl who thought The Craft was hardcore, and Elise's boyfriend Seth manages to be worse than all them combined. Offended at the sheer rudeness of an occult store cashier, the gang decides it would be a great idea to follow the practicing satanist on a midnight drive.

Things go great, obviously.

Rude occult store cashier and his pals seem to be taking part in a kind of ritualistic sacrifice of a young woman named Alice, who flees before having her throat cut. The next day, Alice joins the group in their maybe-haunted hotel room, partying like any former satanic cult member/teenage runaway does.

An hour into the film, stuff happens.

My description for Satanic probably sounds like I despised the movie, but by its end, I found a few things to like. Hyland is sympathetic enough to root for, (even if the movie gives her no discerning trait other than "is nicer than her friends") and a few decent jump scares shake things up well. I also couldn't decide if the odd pacing choices were terrible or brilliant.

See, we're used to a certain formula with any teen-centric And Then There Were None-style horror flicks. The fact that Satanic opens with a teaser from the ending (one of my more hated trends in recent horror, most notably used to terrible effect in Don't Breathe) certainly tells us that we're getting something pretty formulaic. But writer Anthony Jaswinski (of the solid Kristy)'s screenplay seems to toy with some of our expectation, spending far more time on the weirdness of Alice's hotel hijinks than the actual horror aftermath. There's something fresh about this in concept, but unfortunately, with such bland characters at its core, it doesn't really do much.

The last 20 minutes or so are spent, rather literally, running in circles around an abandoned warehouse. Characters we've watched for over an hour are dispatched quickly offscreen. Big ideas about hell being a state of mind are introduced, only to culminate in that equaling dismemberment and darkness.


Directed by Jeffrey Hunt (who has a long career in directing for television), Satanic is the kind of movie perfectly suited to the walls of Netflix Instant, where some stoned college kids might come upon it or a teenage slumber party could scream with each other in solidarity or roll their eyes while playing Candy Crush (KIDS!). I'll fully admit that hearing my protagonists whine about missing Coachella brought upon me a certain realization that this kind of genre film would be growing more and more distant from my own sensibilities as the years go by, which was upsetting in its own odd little way.

Maybe more so than a batch of fairly unlikable millennials being sent to hell.

High Points
As someone who has never spent any significant time in LA, I appreciated Satanic's use of the city to establish a very particular environment of sunniness with a strong undercurrent of evil 

Low Points
It's just getting harder and harder to invest in a film about how terrible the young people of today are

Lessons Learned
If (or rather, when) a satanist spits, it's going to be loaded with a lot of phlegm and aggression

LA hotels will charge guests extra to stay in rooms where guests committed suicide

Walking to the house once owned by Sharon Tate requires good leg muscles

Homeless teenage runaway satanists have super shiny hair

The Winning Line
"Why are we not at a taping of Two and a Half Men?" whines David, the Christian alpha male of the group, begging the question: would you rather be sent to hell with your limbs torn off, or be forced to sit through Charlie Sheen doing CBS comedy?

I probably go a lot easier on films like this than a lot of other diehard horror fans, but what can I say? Satanic isn't terrible. It's an "assemble attractive 20somethings for a brutal death in under 90 minutes" kind of movie, and as that surprisingly large subgenre goes, it's better than many. The production values are strong, the cast is able, and the LA scenery is used to fairly interesting effect. I'd never argue for a place for it on your DVD shelf, but if you're doing one of those infamous Netflix Instant movie searches where you find yourself spending more time trying to figure out what to watch than actually watching a movie, this isn't terrible. Not really GOOD, but you know...fine?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Office Royale

For many a dull reason, I do not often go to the movie theater to see films on the big screen. Time is limited, the experience is usually frustrating (don't get me started on how I was ready to break out into my best Class of 1999 Pam Grier-as-a-badass-robot-authoritarian when people refused to sit in their assigned seats at the packed house for Get Out), and most films will end up streaming or available via a handy Netflix DVD pouch (yes, I still use those) within half a year. In the time it takes to get to a theater, sit through decades of trailers, and make the trip home, I probably could have watched two or three films, all without the squeaky seats, sticky floors, and constant internal debate of whether it's better to suffer in silence through chatty neighbors' rudeness or risk getting beaten up by teenagers in trying to make a stand.

That being said, when a genre film comes out that looks fresh and representative of where I'd like to see film trends go, I often feel the need to give it my support. When I first saw the trailer for the James Gunn-written, Greg McLean-directed The Belko Experiment, I vowed (possibly audibly like a rude teenager) that I would go see that in the theater. I've long whined about the lack of office-centered horror, and while the premise was obviously inspired by many a Battle Royale-esque tale, those are my absolute favorite of all the tales. This was the TYPE of movie I wanted to see being made, so any way I could help that continue to happen (i.e., with a $16.25 weeknight ticket, yes, that's what it's like in Manhattan and I'm crying, not you), it felt like my very duty.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Belko, Inc., a U.S. based corporation that specializes in bringing business to South America. We're introduced to the Bogota-based office and its various employees, a mix of expats that range everywhere from a stoner janitor (Sean Gunn) to the cool and collected maintenance manager (Michael Rooker, shockingly NOT trying to kill people) to a newcomer clocking in on her first day and of course, the boss, played with intense corporate confidence by the always welcome Tony Goldwyn. While the film makes a pointed effort to give us enough of an idea of the sprawling cast to be able to follow multiple characters, the lead is clearly John Gallagher's Mike, a pleasant and morally-minded middle manager who sort of embodies what Jim Halpert might do in case of...well...

If you've seen the trailers, you know the gist: on a typical workday, Belko's walls are sealed and a god-like voice on the intercom orders those locked inside to kill two employees within an hour. The penalties will be severe, and it doesn't take too many tracers implanted in the back of staff members' heads to figure out this is no practical joke. People will die. The question becomes, rather quickly, who?

In many ways, The Belko Experiment came custom-made for me. About a dozen years ago, when I first saw Battle Royale, I became mildly obsessed with applying the setup to every possible scenario I might encounter (and a few years later, wrote about it here). Bored on the subway? IMAGINE IF EVERYONE ON THIS CAR WAS SENT TO AN ISLAND AND WE HAD TO FIGHT TO THE DEATH. At the time, I was teaching ESL in Korea to elementary and middle school students. IMAGINE IF MY CLASSROOM WAS DROPPED ON AN ISLAND AND--you get the point. 

Naturally, when I started working in an office, the game continued. Those who might remember my eons-ago review of Office Killer might recall how disappointed I was to see the titular setting barely used. On any given day, there are about a dozen products in my reach from Staples that could kill me. WHY IS THIS AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE FOR HORROR?

While The Belko Experiment doesn't fully embrace the possibilities of death-by-paper cuts, it does have a little fun with some creative weaponry (that is indeed one hardcore tape dispenser). At the same time, it seems to hint at ideas that it just doesn't have the time to fully flesh out. As we're introduced to Belko, we learn a little about the hierarchy, meeting the CEO in his sprawling office only to then see managers in their more modest but still private glass rooms compared to the presumed entry level workers in crowded cubicles. The movie gets one great joke about this in there, but the actual social order doesn't ultimately seem important come the chaos. Perhaps that's a point in itself, and maybe I should be thankful that I'm not just witnessing another sleek adaptation of High-Rise, but like so much in a 90 minute high concept huge cast horror, it just feels like there could have been more.

Not that there isn't quite a bit. As the horrific reality of the situation hits each staff member, McLean intensifies things to pretty wacky levels. Goldwyn's alpha male takes charge, utilizing the bloodthirsty talents of the ultimate a$$hole character actor John C. McGinley as the kind of guy who has probably been waiting for permission to stab his coworkers since the day of his first interview. The moral divide between the hunters and the pacifists gets a little muddled, but the top-shelf actors help to sell their positions pretty well. 

High Points
I'm not sure if it's James Gunn's script, quality actors, or the simple truth that introducing characters by their jobs can help to establish who they are incredibly fast, but there's something very satisfying about how the character introductions lay out such a strong foundation for where these men and women will stand when the chaos begins. Take Brent Sexton's Vince, the affable HR manager whose instincts to keep everyone safe and calm fit perfectly with his position...for a while

Low Points
While I appreciated the waste-no-time pacing, the standard downside of what was lost in that time crunch is VERY felt in a lot of areas. Take, for example, a minor character who is introduced as a strict no-nonsense pencil pusher who drops a pile of reports on the newbie's desk and demands, in a terrifying German accent, that they're finished by lunchtime. Boy could I not wait to see how SHE handled the upcoming crisis. Unfortunately, (MINOR SPOILER FOR A MINOR CHARACTER WHO GETS A BAD HAIRCUT AND NO NAME), nothing comes of her introduction. Come the big sacrifice, she's lined up with 15 other extras and shot accordingly. It feels like quite a missed opportunity.

Lessons Learned
James Gunn loves few things more than an elevator muzak gag

Flirting with a good-looking coworker on your first day of work may not seem like the best career advice, but if your office is suddenly subjected to a cruel homicidal experiment, it may just be the thing that saves your life

Cubicles offer very little sound protection

I enjoyed The Belko Experiment more than I can say it was a good movie. Much like his Wolf Creek films, McLean has an unapologetic mean spirit in his work, relentless in how he punishes his characters. Normally, that's something of a turnoff for the fairly happy person I consider myself to be, but the grand premise of The Belko Experiment helps to mitigate some of the ickiness I might have felt watching nice-enough people being put through such hell. It's a movie with a great setup, fast pace, and some deathly black humor that connected for me.