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. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not Without the Woman Whose Husband Killed My Daughter's Daughter

Some days, you want to dig up a classic from one of AFI's "most important films of all time" lists. 

And most others, you find a "crazed preschool teacher trying to kidnap a student" Lifetime thriller and your day is made.

Quick Plot: After a dizzyingly intense opening closeup on a rattlesnake and fast-setting sun amid the sounds of a car accident, we meet Rachel, an impeccably hair'd mom in the midst of divorcing her cheating husband Daniel (Bryce Johnson, aka Detective Wilden from Pretty Little Liars). Rachel would prefer to spend her days playing with 3-year-old daughter Mia, but Daniel's low-paying job as a prosecuting attorney is forcing the poor woman to go back into the workforce as a courtroom sketch artist. 

What's a fairly well-off but potentially financially challenged supermom to do but find the best nearby daycare, one highly recommended by her best pal. Teacher Gabby (Disney Channel princess Christy Carlson Romano) is almost too good to be true, offering complete support to Rachel and taking a special shine to Mia. Little does Rachel know the motives, which in true Lifetime form, are glorious.

Remember that car accident audio aggressively placed in the opening credits? See, back when Rachel was pregnant, she and Daniel ended up lost on a desert highway with fast-setting suns and glimpses of rattlesnakes. They asked for directions from a parked couple with a young child, only to give up, drive aimlessly, and end up smashing their car straight into the not-that-helpful strangers.

Of course, one of those strangers was Gabby. Her husband was left paralyzed and their daughter Crystal dead on impact. Naturally, Rachel enrolling Mia in Gabby's class is a sign from God that Gabby must take this child and raise it as her own. 

Typical Lifetime hijinks ensue. Gabby begins her plan, trying to mother Mia and enlisting her husband to dispose of the suspicious assistant teacher. Her increasingly odd behavior doesn't get by Rachel, and before long, an armed Gabby is banging at her door as police officers take their time driving under the speed limit to catch up.

Deadly Daycare is written and directed by Michael Feifer, a man who has made a steady career making movies with either "Deadly" or "The Dog Who Saved" in their titles. I've had something of an allergic reaction to the latter, but thankfully, Deadly Daycare is a little more self-aware at what it has to do and does it efficiently. 

Gabby is your ideal Lifetime villainess, a wronged woman who feels entitled to something not hers. The problem, to an extent, is that it's far easier to feel sympathy for the doomed Gabby than the perfect Rachel. On one side, we have a picture perfect beauty with a beautiful home, healthy child, and a job she can seemingly resume with a simple phone call and show up to whenever she pleases. On the other, there's Gabby, a more financially strapped woman who, you know, watched her husband lose control in the lower half of his body and her baby daughter die a horrible death. 

Somehow, we're supposed to be firmly on the side of Rachel, since there's no room for shades of gray in the Lifetime universe. It certainly leaves the film a tad unfulfilling, but if you came to such a movie expecting character complexity and moral challenges, you probably have deeper problems worth addressing.

High Points
Many a Lifetime thriller lives and dies by the zest of its villain, and Christy Carlson Romano has a blast playing the unhinged Gabby, maximizing her craziness but always keeping a very key kernel of the real pain she's been through

Low Points
Seriously, this is a movie where our heroine's love interest was responsible for the death of a toddler and paralysis of her father but faced no charges because of his legal connections and the film is 100% in support of him ultimately reuniting with the wife he cheated in an idyllic beach walk coda that belongs in a herpes commercial

Lessons Learned
Legally, you can't just go sticking video cameras in the corners of rooms

You know a divorce is bitter when one party is perfectly fine with the other being forced to live in a (DEEP BREATH) studio apartment

The first day of a murder trial is a less than two-hour ordeal, and the hallways have incredibly reliable wifi

Look, Deadly Daycare isn't going to improve your intelligence or inspire great art, but it's exactly what you want from a Lifetime flick. Nothing more, nothing less. Enjoy on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Crushed It

As a fairly optimistic horror fan, nothing pleases me more than discovering a new hidden gem from a fairly unknown filmmaker. 

Especially when it comes from the bargain bin sewage bucket that is usually Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Happy couple Ollie (co-writer Chris Dinh) and Blair (Katie Savoy) are professional thieves, finishing up one final house robbery before retiring from their life of non-violent crime. When their final score turns into a deadly domestic violence situation, ex-con Ollie ends up in jail. The only thing worse? Blair's decision to get a powerful gangster to free him at the cost of their life savings.

Eager to start paying their debt, Blair teams up with her dim brother Connor and his far dimmer minion Riley to start a new job on an isolated mansion deep in the hills. Very quickly, the quartet learns that two weeks of scouting is nowhere near enough time to determine that your mark is actually a serial killer with Jigsaw levels of home design skill. 

That synopsis makes Crush the Skull sound like yet another entry into the post-John Kramer villain landscape, but it's far from Die and Starve and the many, many direct-to-not-theaters genre fare so often covered here. To put it in simpler terms, Crush the Skull is a damn delight.

This Kickstarter-funded indie was clearly made on a dime, but what it lacks in budget is more than made up for with smart performances, clever writing, and key direction that finds the perfect way to balance both. Director and co-writer Viet Ngyuyen has essentially made a horror comedy, but his ability to never sacrifice the effectiveness of one subgenre for the other is genuinely impressive.

Bad things happen in Crush the Skull, and the movie never makes light of them just to score an easy laugh (although there certainly ARE laughs when said bad things happen). The sense of humor is established early on but carefully grows throughout the movie's brisk 83 minute running time. Most importantly, the humor itself is tied in specifically to its characters. Sure, Riley is comically dumb, but there's a genuineness to him that makes some of his stupidest comments believable and sweet. Crush the Skull evolved over several years and multiple short films, and it's clear that writers Nguyen and Dinh knew these characters inside and out.

Take, for example, Blair's inconvenient (but understandable) nervous tic of letting out a large spurt of laughter when nervous. The film establishes it early on, and Savoy's repeat delivery is so perfectly awkward that every time it arises, it rings true. The timing, both from the actor and filmmaker, is pitch perfect. 

These kinds of precise character mannerisms are rampant throughout Crush the Skull, and they help to make the film such a fun watch. The movie has more fun than scares, but it doesn't make light of the horrors at hand. This is something special.

High Points
Whenever called upon to explain the many reasons why I despise Bella Swan, I find the easiest default is to point to a key moment in the second Twilight movie, where the teenage "heroine" and her immortal boyfriend walk by a long line of innocent civilians (including children) who are about to wander straight into a den of hungry vampires. When she considers warning them, her pasty paramour gently pushes her onward and she continues without any guilt of, you know, sending a gaggle of innocent civilians and their children straight into death. I reference this moment because it's so key in explaining how important it is for a character's real moral center to resonant. In the case of Crush the Skull, Ollie makes the exact opposite decision, choosing to try (in vain) to help his initial robbery target at the expense of his own freedom. Sure, he fails miserably and screws his own life over in the process, but it's such a smart move to ensure the audience is firmly on his side.

Low Points
I'm a little more curious about the nature of Crush the Skull's villain than the movie is itself, but it's really not a worry when his victims are so much fun

Lessons Learned
Never underestimate the importance of learning to play dead

Avoid offering a meal to a torture victim if you're nowhere near a bite of food

True love means choosing your girlfriend's new boobs over a trip to Mars

The Winning Line
"Oh I'll step up if I have to, I'll step up to the streets!"
Seriously, a movie after my own heart

Crush the Skull is a true treasure from the often rusted box that is American low budget horror. It understands how to use its strengths (tone, performers, and script) and wisely doesn't try too hard to cover up what it lacks. It's a hearty recommendation, and an eager call to the production team to make more.