Monday, November 26, 2018

Like a Purge-in

Like any opinionated movie fan, I don't hate to say I told you so. 

Back in 2014, I found myself one of the few defenders of the first installment of The Purge. It's a decent one-off horror film, but more importantly, it was clear that writer/director James DeMonaco was setting up such a fascinatingly ripe world for more explanation. Here's what I had to say/predict:

"There's probably a whole novel that could be written about how the homeless community deals with the event, not to mention the mysterious history of what brought American society to this point in the first place.

My point is that The Purge is a great idea that deserves A LOT of further exploration and thankfully, its box office success seems to have guaranteed that. Perhaps a lot of early reviewers were disappointed with the film narrowing its focus to one family, but now knowing that we'll get more Purges, I'm happy to say that such a decision on DeMonaco's part was the right one."

Two incredibly fun sequels, one prequel, and a genuinely fun TV series later, I'm proud to have been right. I don't know that any of the Purge films have reached truly top levels of filmmaking (Election Year comes closest for me), but every one has been as fun an experience as it was weirdly, terrifyingly relevant in the current political climate. 

Now let's go back to the beginning. 

Quick Plot: After swooping into political power, the New Founding Fathers of America decide to begin beta testing the night that will become the infamous Purge. Due to its isolated location (and more importantly, high low income non-Caucasian population), Staten Island is chosen for the trial run.

The citizens are of mixed opinion, especially with government offering $5000 for any resident to remain in place for the night, with a bonus if they wear high tech body cams (in the form of cat-like contact lenses) and actually participate in the violence. Led by the politically active Nya, the more peaceful Islanders attempt to wait it out in a secure church. Others, including some vengeful bag ladies and drug addicted Skeletor, dig on in, channeling all of their anger at the world into embracing the Purge.

The level of Purge enthusiasm isn't high enough for the NFFA, who send in swarms of mercenaries to up the death count. This comes at the dismay of Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei!), the ace psychologist who developed the night's concept based on responsibly gathered research only to watch it be corrupted by the racist party now in control.

With its "Keep America Great" tagline, Election Year cemented The Purge franchise as being a dark funhouse mirror version of current American politics. The First Purge fully leans in to smart effect. This is the first Purge film not directed by DeMonaco, and his passing the reins over to Gerard McMurray, a black man, feels incredibly significant.

While all previous Purges have dealt with race, The First Purge is really the first to center itself on the topic. Look, I'm the last person to want less Frank Grillo, but it's refreshing and right that most of the cast members are people of color. DeMonaco's script and McMurray's direction feature diverse characters not just in their physical race, but in how they're represented. 

With all that said, I didn't *quite* have as much "fun" with The First Purge as the last two sequels. This isn't necessarily a fault of the movie; the idea that a genre film is a little too relevant is in no way a bad thing. Horror has always been a powerful tool to explore society's ills, and it's genuinely admirable how DeMonaco has managed to use his series to satirize modern America. 

It's just sometimes hard to watch.

High Points
The First Purge makes a great decision in its leads. Y'lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis are incredibly watchable, and it's impossible not to root for their safety

Low Points
On the flip side, it's something of a shame that Marissa Tomei doesn't get nearly enough to do

Lessons Learned
In Purge math, five bullets are more valuable than one spatula

Never go to a Staten Island church sermon without a fulls supply of liquor

Purge dance parties are going to end exactly how you expect

The First Purge is probably the the film in the franchise that I'll revisit least, but it's an absolutely solid effort and feels like exactly the right installment for this time. I can't really complain about the fourth film in a horror franchise being too politically relevant just because it makes me think too much about the state of the world, right? There are important things happening in this series, and it's exciting to watch. Just...a little less fun. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Gone Girls

Bumping a random flop of a 2012 teen-aimed thriller seemed like a great light way to kill 90 minutes.

Then the world happened.

Quick Plot: Diner waitress Jill lives with her hard-studying college student sister Molly. While Molly spends most of her time immersed in economics books and her boyfriend (pre-Bucky Sebastian Stan), Jill roams a nearby forest seeking evidence of her own alleged abduction a year earlier. 

One day, Jill returns home to find Molly vanished--er, GONE. JIll immediately jumps into action mode, digging for clues at the scene of the crime and calling the detectives who handled her own past cast.

Turns out, nobody believes Jill, neither then nor now. Since no evidence had been found to corroborate Jill's previous experience, the Portland PD has written off the young woman as a pathological liar. The fact that Jill spent some time in a mental asylum certainly didn't help.

Without the law on her side, Jill decides to hunt down Molly's abductor herself. Thankfully, most strangers are pretty willing to help an attractive young woman, especially since Jill has such an uncanny knack for making up elaborate lies on the fly. 

Directed by Heitor Dhalia, Gone premiered in the much simpler time of 2012. Back then, it opened to little fanfare, an 8% Rotten Tomatoes score, and the general consensus that it was an overcomplicated but underwritten PG13 dude. I'm not here to say that Gone is anything worthy of the Criterion Collection, but when you make the randomly mistimed decision to watch the day after Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the highest court in the nation, it's weirdly relevant.

Nobody believes Jill, but the male cops REALLY don't believe her. The film isn't quite good enough to explore that in a way that says much, but there is an extremely dark undercurrent to the idea in 2018. Along with that is the somewhat ahead-of-its-time recurring motif of men encouraging Jill to lighten up and smile. Any woman can tell you why that's a horror in itself.

Is Gone a good movie? Not especially, but it has that kind of earnest intensity that I tend to enjoy. I've always found Amanda Seyfried to be incredibly watchable, and her crazy saucer eyes are used to grand effect here. It's also fun to see a random assortment of attractive character actors inhabit the red herring of the moment, from Jennifer Carpenter as a single mom diner waitress to Wes Bentley as the world's shiftiest rookie cop.

Perhaps more or less importantly, Gone is a different movie when watched in October of 2018. We can thank this vomit of a government for a lot of horrible things, but seeing a mediocre thriller turn into a weirdly relevant social message about believing women? That's a new one.

High Points
While I don't quite know how to feel about the final stinger of Gone, the main ending involving Jill's decision is incredibly satisfying in concept (even if the film is a little too distracted to truly earn it)

Low Points
Red herrings are expected and required for this kind of movie, but there's something annoyingly disappointing about just how carelessly Gone handles its handful

Lessons Learned
The way to a teenage girl's trust is the promise of a Justin Bieber concert ticket

Chasing split tail is for firefighters, not detectives

No woman taking a self defense class wants to be called "sweetie" by her male partner

Hell hath no fury like whatever it is living on the head of Daniel Sunjata's partner

I have no idea who should watch Gone. Like the occasional better-than-it-should-be Lifetime flick, it's probably more enjoyable to my eyes than most. It's also (and perhaps by the time November elections come up, less so) oddly infuriating until it becomes (mild spoiler alert) even more oddly uplifting in its depiction of how women are looked at by authority figures. The world is a strange place.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Coma Chameleon

As Buffy Summers, Sarah Michelle Gellar saved the world a lot. 

As Possession’s Jess, she gets to deal with her husband’s soul maybe being transferred to his no-good brother’s body. 

Or something.

Welcome to Possession.

Quick Plot: Jess is basically living what happens at the end of a Hallmark Christmas movie and the season changes to spring. She's an ambitious hard-working lawyer who comes home every day to the most obnoxiously romantic artist-husband of all time. Ryan (Final Destination 2’s Michael Landes) spends most of his time writing daily love letter to Jess and doing other normal husband activities, like carving stone busts of his beloved and snipping roses to leave in her pocketbook. Seriously, it’s EXHAUSTING.

Naturally, career-minded Jess doesn’t even realize it’s her one-year wedding anniversary (no worries: Ryan has baked a cake, lit their spacious wooded backyard with Christmas lights, and encased a miniature love letter in blown glass and put it on Jess’s dead mother’s silver chain). Perhaps she’s distracted by work and, more plot pointedly, Ryan’s little (but much taller) brother Roman, an ex-con with a violent streak taking unwanted residence in their home.

Ryan agrees to evict Roman, which sends the firebird out on a raging truck ride across the Golden Gate bridge. Ryan hops in his own car to track him down, only for—and this is the logic of this movie—the two of them to somehow crash into each other, putting themselves into matching comas in a double hospital room. 

I’m almost surprised the set designers didn’t work in bunk beds.

Because their blood mixed together on the pavement (or something; go with it) strange things happen. Roman awakens believing himself to be Ryan, right on down to detailed memories and a new hankering for writing perfectly calligraphic letters. Jess can only resist for so long, finally giving in to the idea of her sweet husband now living in the sweeter body of his formerly less sweet brother. Since said brother is played by Lee Pace, it’s not that far a leap of logic to make.

The terribly titled Possession is a remake of a South Korean film named Addiction. Made in 2007 and shelved due to its studio bankruptcy, it has a certain kind of bigger budget Lifetime thriller charm that makes it weirdly watchable, especially since it’s completely bonkers.

Much like the completely unrelated but pure Lifetime The Bad Seed, Possession suffers from not quite understanding just how ridiculous it is. Directors Joel Bergvall and Simon Sandquist handle the material with a modest level of heaviness, which means Possession never really lets loose with its premise. 

High Points
Maybe it’s just the turn of the seasons, but Possession is awfully pretty to look at. You’ve got a secluded forest-covered old house, Gellar modeling chic wool coats and Buffy-esque boots, and, well, Lee Pace’s face.

Low Points
The fact that there’s a 30 minute alternate ending (which actually shares the reveal, but lets its characters react completely differently) tells you that this is the kind of movie that never had a great read on what it wanted to do

Lessons Learned
When trying to understand why your husband’s brother has become your husband, there’s really no better source than a yahoo search engine

I think I say this any time he shows up on film, but my gosh: Lee Pace is a tall, tall man 

On the same note, you never realize just how short your wife is until you’re body swapped with Lee pace

I rented Possession from Netflix and have no regrets, but it’s certainly not a film you should invest any real energy in tracking down. 

Monday, November 5, 2018


There are a lot of things one can do on a Tuesday night, but do any come close to the potential glory of watching Cathy's Curse on the big screen?


That's right: next Tuesday, November 13th, I'll be presenting the Canadian treasure that combines possessed dolls, inebriated caretakers, and foul-mouthed little girls. Appropriately enough, it was the very first movie covered in this here blog some nine years ago, back when all I had was a scratchy Mill Creek pack print and a dream.

If you happen to be in Brooklyn on November 13th, come on down to the 9:30PM screening at the Alamo Drafthouse. You can get your tickets right here. Be sure to say hi, and I'll do my best to not channel an inner demon voice and sew your eyeballs shut.