Sunday, March 31, 2019

Party Games

No, Truth or Dare is not an Asylum Studios adaption of the Blumhouse theatrical release of the same title. Much like meteors in 1998, sometimes a random plot point becomes all the rage in one cinematic year. From 2017-2018, that rage was, it would seem, teenage party games.

Quick Plot: In 1983, a group of college kids play a fatal game of Truth or Dare, leaving one lone survivor to live out her remaining years with an acid-scarred face but in a lovely, hard candy filled home. 

Some thirtysomething years later, a new gaggle of ridiculously attractive young people decide to spend Halloween weekend in that same former dormitory. Sure, this time there are cell phone videos, but really, a haunted party game can only evolve so much.

The rules of this version are simple: three rounds of truth or (mostly) dares, to be completed within 48 hours. Those who fail to complete the challenge die in semi-Final Destination ways so that their autopsies can be justified as bizarre accidents or creative suicides. If that doesn't sound Nightmare On Elm Street-ish enough for you, enter a very welcome Heather Lagenkamp to lend some maturity to the proceedings as the sole survivor of the last Truth or Dare massacre.

Directed by The Girl In the Photographs' Nick Simon, Truth Or Dare shares the same mean bone and black comedic sensibilities. That's mostly a good thing: by no means can this actually be called a good movie, but as someone who braved the '90s era of WB stars put through mild torment on the big screen, rougher dead teenager movies have their own certain charm. 

You can find a lot wrong in Truth or Dare -- bland characters, stupid decisions, and cockroach CGI so ridiculous that it's almost adorable -- but if you go in with the same attitude that made me the #1 fan of The Sand (yes, that's the movie about killer sand), then it's the kind of dumb fun horror movie that is weirdly watchable. This is the kind of film where a character announces her vegetarianism only to be forced to eat burnt human skin a few scenes later. 

You know what you're getting into.

High Points
Truth or Dare could have easily contained all of its action in its semi-haunted house, but its choice to break the game up and take it deeper into the real world is somewhat refreshing

Low Points
It's rare to find deep characterization in a movie like this, but it would have been nice to have some sort of character development that wasn't entirely based on who's dating whom. The movie makes a last minute attempt to fit its premise into a deeper "our punishments fit our hidden crimes," but it's so rushed and ultimately incomplete that it comes off as comically inept

Lessons Learned
If your friends refer to your partner as "what’s his face," the relationship is probably not long for this world

Baking soda has a roughly 50% acid protection rate

The power of besties involves being able to provide quick synonyms on call

Truth or Dare is not good, but hey: it's kind of fun. Queue it up on Netflix when you want to turn your brain off and enjoy watching pretty young people cut each other's fingernails. 

Don't act like you're above these things.

Monday, March 25, 2019

It's All About Your Aim

Like every business, Netflix is far from perfect. But for all its rate hikes and questionable politics when it comes to certain programming decisions, the service continues to serve as an undeniably powerful source of spreading cinema to an incredibly wide range of users. One of Netflix’s prime benefits in recent months has been its new import of a whole lot of international genre films.

Sure, some of these are rather politically terrible scared-straight-style abortion horrors (ah, The Unborn Child) but these are films that are otherwise easy to miss. Netflix’s algorithms know me well enough by now to constantly throw blood-covered mask poster art in front of my recommends. Hence, such quick views are how we come to randomly watch a movie like Indonesia’s Target.

Quick Plot: A group of performers (including action movie stars, a YouTuber, magician, and comedian) are gathered together for a mysterious film shoot that quickly devolves into a Saw-meets-And-Then-There-Were-None game, or what I can only assume is what every Escape Room turns into with enough paranoia. Some masked overseer has decided to create a different kind of film filled with real stakes, and our heroes must navigate personal tensions, physical feats, and kooky riddles to survive.

Written and directed by actor Raditya Dika, Target is an oddball genre film that thankfully establishes its comedic tendencies fairly immediately. Even though our cast is presumably made up of future and former action stars (all playing characters with the real actors’ names), they’re all goofballs in one sense or another. It’s endearing once you buy in. 

Unfortunately, and this could certainly be a case of comedy not always translating easily over several oceans, much of Target also just feels somewhat juvenile. An overweight’s character primary tic is that he likes to eat. A gay man’s effeminacy is his defining characteristic. Dika is our default lead, but he’s also the least dynamic of the bunch, which throws off the one major relationship that helps to solidify the story. The final twist is a surprise, but since the film never really knows whether anything should be taken too seriously, it’s ultimately underwhelming.

Target isn’t terrible, but as most genre fans know, few sub-categories of the genre are more uncomfortable to sit through than an inconsistent horror comedy. There’s a lot of charm to Target, and its diverse nature certainly makes it a more interesting watch  than a lot of the other streaming choices. 

High Points
I’m probably a broken record on this point, but when you cast an ensemble film with actors of all genders, ages, and statures, your story will instantly be more engaging 

Low Points
Look, I’m all for an oversized comedic actor having fun with his stature, but it’s 2019: can’t we be done with the token “fat guy eats a lot of food” scenes that are there for the simplest of jokes that, you know, fat guys eat a lot of food?

Lessons Learned
Standup comedians are not celebrities

Always take English lessons, especially if the school is so close to your house

One can never be too cautious when plotting a landing

Target is streaming on Netflix, and at just under 90 minutes, it’s a breezy enough watch for a lazy day. I struggled to stay with its goofy spirit, but if nothing else, there’s something worthwhile about watching a genre film from a country we don’t often see easily

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Mad Man Next Door

Hey, did you know that the '80s are like, totally IN right now? 

Observe the many new horror movies to prove it.

Quick Plot: Davey is a 15-year-old Cape May paperboy with big dreams of becoming the next Spielberg. Until now, suburban life has proven to be fairly uninspiring. Thankfully, local news reports the first interesting thing to ever happen to Davey and his trio of misfit friends: someone within the island is abducting and murdering teenage boys.

For Davey, this is a chance to shake up evenings of manhunt with something actually worth being hunted. Things get especially exciting when he suspects his neighbor, Officer Mackey (Rich Sommer of Mad Men) as the killer. Knowing it will be a tough sell to the adults, Davey and his pals devote their titular summer to collecting evidence (with occasional pauses to spy on the sexy former babysitter next door).

Directed by the Turbo Kid team of François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, Summer of 84 (and yes: I'm annoyed we don't get an apostrophe) feels heavily indebted to the current wave of nostalgia sparked by Stranger Things. That's a good and bad thing. Sure, it's fun to remember the horrors of faces you might know showing up on milk cartons and the freedom of riding your bike around town without adult supervision, but then you realize writers Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith (born respectively in 1980 and 1981) don't actually know how teenagers talked in 1984, and you become incredibly distracted searching for the probable (and many) anachronisms.

The other glaring issue in Summer of 84 is that it toys with its tone, constantly playing with exactly what kind of horror movie it wants to be. What starts as a lighthearted romp suddenly turns into a truly cruel finale, only to then slightly lighten up with no serious mediation in its denouement. Tonal shifts can certainly be used to good effect, but in Summer of 84, it just ends up feeling mean. Much like most visits with Freddy Krueger, the fact that our killer is most likely doing terrible, presumably sexual things to his underage victims is never given any real weight. That would be fine if Summer of 84 wanted to stay in a fluffier realm, but when it ends on such a devastating note, the nature of the entire film just feels inconsistent. 

High Points
Though the quartet of wildly different boys doesn't necessarily fit well together on the page, the young actors have nice chemistry with each other, and the moments where they actually serve as loyal, unquestioning friends are easily the film's best strength 

Low Points
Look, I'm all for including female characters in boys' stories, but if you're going to throw in a token girl, can you first take a few minutes in your writing room to figure out who she is? Maybe it's just that one of the kids is played by The Babysitter's Judah Lewis, but the whole "slightly older dream girl who knows all of your references and exists for no reason other than to be cool" is so over. It doesn't help that the character of Nikki is handled so clumsily, showing up at random moments and being sent off without any resolution. 

Lessons Learned: the 1980s Edition (cumulatively culled from the recent rash of '80s-infused horror movies)
Old meatloaf smells like werewolf crap

Hot blond babysitters love nothing more than flirting with sensitive smart younger teenage boys

All parents are absent and terrible

Look, a lot of horror fans seem to love Summer of (')84, and I'm not here to say anyone is wrong. While I was entertained (and incredibly frustrated) while watching, it's a film that has soured significantly for me the more I've thought about it. It's on Shudder, and probably worth a watch just for you to make up your own mind.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Season Is Open

I don't know what it says about my morality, but there are few subgenres I enjoy quite as much as a good old variation on The Most Dangerous Game. Hence, to Netflix we go for 2016's Happy Hunting (and my conscience).

Quick Plot: Warren is a lifelong alcoholic, eking out something of an existence by selling fake drugs to dangerous meth-heads. When a sale goes wrong, Warren flees, landing in a sleepy Texas border town called Bedford Falls and befriending the tad-too-friendly AA leader Steve, who brings him home to clear his brain cells with his tad-too-cheerful wife Cheryl.

After further clearing his head with a dose of bathroom horse tranquilizer, Warren wakes up bound with a batch of other ne'er do wells. Turns out, every year, Bedford Falls shakes off its tumbleweeds with a human hunt, casting the most undesirable men within city limits as prey.

Deep in withdrawal, Warren proves to be spryer than you'd expect for a man whose sobriety is a thing of distant past. Battling a grizzled senior hunter, trio of bloodthirsty siblings, and the Ned Flanders-ish horrors of Steve and Cheryl, he puts up a good fight en route across the Mexican border.

Happy Hunting is written and directed by the debut team of Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson (son of Mel). Its pacing is messy, dragging in its first third with a bigger-than-necessary setup and rushing a bit in its middle. At the same time, it's beautifully shot in a steaming desert and well-scored with some fittingly Western-style tones. As Warren, Martin Dingle Wall makes a solid, interestingly flawed center that helps to keep the whole thing together.

It's not a new classic, but Happy Hunting is a solid action thriller that brings some new ideas to a fun subgenre. Plus...

High Points
Bear trap! There's a bear trap and like Most Dangerous Games, I sure do love a bear trap!

Low Points
The only thing I hate more than I love a bear trap is a cruel ending. While Happy Hunting has a harsh spirit throughout that probably doesn't warrant a finale involving ice cream sundaes, there's something especially mean and somewhat culturally questionable about this one

Lessons Learned
Hell hath no fury like a recently widowed relapsed Christian alcoholic

Open windows and most dangerous games are not the best of friends

Any town with a an overabundance of mannequins is not a place to spend the night


Much like Mel Gibson's directorial output, Happy Hunting is a pretty well-put together trek of vicious violence. I don't know that I loved watching it, but it's sharply done, and packs some surprises (plus, bear trap!).

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Short(ening) Roundup!

Another turn of the calendar, another moment to bid adieu to the Shortening! Of course, one can't quite do that alone. Remember, we vertically challenged often need a little assistance. Just ask the random taller strangers we constantly require to reach up for the good cereal cruelly placed on the top shelf at any supermarket.

Over at Senseless Cinema, the one and only Doctor Pseudonymous wheels on over to Canada for the glorious weirdness that is The Pit! I'd honestly forgotten just how bonkers this murderous-boy-and-his-talking-teddy-bear truly is, but the doc goes deep into the details! Head on over (but remember to keep your head down so as to not fall into the titular man-eating orifice).

Way down under at Not This Time, Nayland Smith, we've got the one and only Chris Hewson tackling 1964's Tintin & the Blue Oranges. From what I gather, it's a pretty movie LOADED with kidnappings!

And if your fill of the little is still running low, then plan ahead: on Tuesday night, March 19th, I'll be bringing the tiny terror to Brooklyn by hosting an evening screening of a movie near and dear to my cold blackened heart, Dolls! Get your details here and tickets soon!