Monday, August 26, 2019

Take the Long Way Home

The day may come when I turn down a heavily photoshopped poster of hot young people looking too serious, but it is not this day.

Quick Plot: A prologue introduces us to the titular shortcut, a wooded path in a small town where back in the '40s, a young woman escaped sexual assault by a soon-to-be soldier only to be slingshotted-to-death by a creepy little kid. So that's nice.

Cut to the present day (or 2009's flip phone variation of it), where high school senior Derek and little brother Tobey have just moved to town following the death of their father. Derek is your typical smartass protagonist who's aged rather terribly in the nine years since The Shortcut's release: good-looking white kid who forcefully, annoyingly hits on the school's hottest soccer player (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden), somehow winning her despite him being a complete jerk.

Young Tobey takes a bully's dare to walk home through the woods, where upon he encounters a far-less-grizzled-than-the-script-suggests old man and a dead dog. Could she be Tammy, pet to football jock Taylor (aka the only likable character in the movie?).

Derek teams up with Taylor, pals Lisa (Westworld's Shannon Woodward) and Mark ("Oh Hi Mark" Dave Franco), and the nice hot chick with terrible taste in men to investigate. Throughout their planning, we get more flashbacks explaining the insanity of The Shortcut's keepers, a wealthy, once esteemed family whose bad seed son led to their downfall.

The Shortcut is produced by Adam Sandler's Scary Madison (a division of Happy Madison, in case it didn't click) and directed by Grandma's Boy's Nicholaus Goossen. It's probably a good thing you know this going in, since it helps to classify The Shortcut as some form of horror comedy. 

Truthfully, I have no idea if this is meant to be funny. The film dances around for a good hour before delving into genre territory, which would be fine if the horror actually hit or the comedy was in any way entertaining.

The biggest problem with The Shortcut is that, like so many films of its ilk, its characters are awful. Lisa and Mark are unnecessarily cruel to little Tobey. Derek is incredibly unpleasant, and the mere fact that he charms Bowden makes us question her taste. The film seems to be making a joke out of Taylor's linebacker stature, but he is, without question, the only person onscreen I didn't want to see die. 

Spoiler alert: he does.

There's a decent twist to The Shortcut, followed by an even better one that certainly redeems the rather ho-humness of most of its running time. But overall, this is a strangely undecided film, one clearly made by a team that has seen a horror movie or two without really understanding what makes them work. 

High Points
It doesn't hit the way it should because we just don't care, but the final moments do come out of nowhere in a somewhat effective manner

Low Points
Did I mention how much I hate everyone?

Lessons Learned
When sneaking around in a remote cabin where the owner is confirmed as being out of the way, always remember to bring a good flashlight because under no conditions would you turn a light on in a remote cabin when the whole reason you're there is because no on else is near

Eh. I appreciated the rather bonkers ending, but The Shortcut's inability to commit to horror or comedy leaves it incredibly unsatisfying. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Shoulda Been Beta

Between The Company of Wolves, Interview With a Vampire, and Byzantium, Neil Jordan has always been a special filmmaker to the horror genre, and one with an interesting hand when it comes to women (okay, maybe subtract the incredibly male and even more incredibly erotic Interview from that list, but the other two are very much about their leads' gender). Even with the hugely negative critical reaction to 2018's Greta, I couldn't quite give up on it being something worth a watch. 


Quick Plot: Frances is slowly getting over the death of her mother, healing herself through the power of waitressing in a high-end restaurant and hanging out with her ridiculously wealthy roommate Erica (It Follows' Maika Monroe), whose father splurged for a loft in "New York City."

Let's get the first (of unfortunately, many) complaint out of the way: Greta's landscape looks about as Manhattan as a Hallmark Christmas movie. If my subways were half as clean as the oddly logo'd 6 train in this movie, I'd be using it to host mobile dinner parties.

Anyway, Frances is a nice girl from Boston, apparently too good-hearted for the big bad dangers of Irish York. One day, she spots an expensive purse abandoned on a pristine bucket seat. She promptly returns it to its owner, our titular French pianist (who might actually be the same damaged woman Huppert played in The Piano Teacher) who's so charmed by Frances's good deed that the pair become instant besties. 

Frances is obviously seeking a mother, and with her homemade sauce and sad widowhood, why wouldn't Greta fit the bill? If you've seen the trailer, you know that very quickly (within the 40 minute mark) Frances discovers that this ain't Greta's first time at the befriend-a-young-woman-with-good-handbag-taste rodeo. 

At first, Greta tries to win back the terrified Frances with phone calls and visits, standing like a performance artist in the street to watch her young friend as she waits tables in terror. It doesn't take long for Greta to reveal herself to be faster than The Flash and more durable than Michael Michaels. Also, she can teleport like the Leprechaun.

There is a point in this movie where the only earthbound explanation for Greta's ability to stalk Erica is that there are actually eight Gretas. Folks, I would have sent a check to Neil Jordan if this movie had a twist that involved evil twins or quintuplets. 

Sadly, there's apparently nothing supernatural about a Hungarian widow pretending for no explained reason to be French. Except, you know, the scene where she stalks Erica in an alleyway, sending pictures to Francine at every possible angle and, I kid you not, somehow--IT'S NEVER EXPLAINED AND IT'S MY NEW OBSESSION--ending up sitting smugly on the very bus that Erica hastily hops on to escape the Greta who was...following her. 


Don't worry: the movie certainly doesn't.

Look, based on every single professional and amateur review I'd seen of Greta, I did not expect a quality film. That being said, I did know that I was getting one of the genre's most interesting filmmakers directing one of the world's best living actresses in a juicy role. Surely, SURELY I guessed Greta would have its charms. 

What's so damn disappointing about Greta is how lacking it is in fun. Frances is a complete dud. We know Chloe Moretz can be a fiery performer, but the script's insistence on her character being sweet without giving her an ounce of snazz makes her painfully dull to watch, and pretty impossible to root for. The fact that is a recent college graduate enjoying a life of leisure in a million dollar loft doesn't even let us feel some natural sympathy for her. How hard would it have been to tweak her situation just enough to make her an actual underdog? WE ALL LOVE UNDERDOGS.

And come on: we all would kill for secret Isabelle Huppert triplets.

High Points
This is the kind of movie that has Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing at crescendo when Isabelle Huppert throws a table-clearing tantrum in a fancy restaurant. It's impossible not to feel somewhat giddy at that kind of moment

Low Points
And yet--AND YET DESPITE ISABELLE HUPPERT SMASHING WINE GLASSES--Greta is such a messy, aimless, energy-less movie that it's nearly impossible to find any satisfaction from its run time

Lessons Learned
People from Boston return expensive handbags; people from Manhattan call the bomb squad

The crazier they are, the harder they cling

The only thing less effective in solving crime than the NYC police department is Stephen Rea in a cameo

Dog Alert
I watched Greta on a plane and therefore lacked access to the invaluable "Does the Dog Die(.com)" information I needed, but if you couldn't guess that the sweet schnauzer mutt Greta brings home at Frances's urging would meet a tragic end, then let me sell you a bridge

I never thought I'd discourage anyone from seeing a movie wherein Isabelle Huppert spits gum into another woman's hair, but darn it: Greta is a slog. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a good feature-length set of deleted scenes and alternate endings, because there is so much plain sloppiness in its storytelling that I simply have to believe there were problems offscreen. 

Don't we all.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sticks & Stones Can Break Your Bones But Comments Are Forever

Let the record show that I have absolutely no problem with both studios and independent filmmakers making social media-based horror movies. Whether the end product is a pile of goof or actual commentary, the genre's earnest attempts at being current never cease to be adorable.

Quick Plot: We open on a teenager with streaked makeup, her phone ominously drowning in a fishbowl as she weepingly hammers out "I'm sorry" on loop on a broken laptop

Across town, a group of rowdy high schoolers have a drunken house party. New girl Kristen is eager to fit in, taking shots with queen bee Nicole and joining her as she cyberbullies a former classmate named Morgan with her phone pal Amber. Kristen feels bad, but worse when she discovers some sort of Facebook bug won't let her delete the comments. 

That's nothing compared to Amber, who, you might have guessed, is our frazzled typist from the opening, and now, dearly deceased after jumping off her roof. Nicole begins to experience her own ominous Morgan-inspired visions, while Kristen tries to apologize online. Rather than accept, Morgan sends Kristen a video of her very own doppleganger screaming with a SnapChat filter.

Also, Morgan has been dead for months.

Directed by Tim Shechmeister from a script he cowrote with his brother Matt, Can't Take It Back doesn't have much to say that we haven't heard from Friend Request, Unfriended, and the rest of the Facebook-induced horror canon of recent years. Cyberbullying is bad, yet as is the case for almost any horror genre, the punishment will be vastly worse than the crime.

The cast does a decent job for what it's working with. Lead Ana Coto is a solid presence, while Lexi Atkins makes an entertaining mean girl who sells her role reversal better than you'd expect in a film of this budget. There's also a "youtube star" in the cast, which seems appropriate (even if the fact that I knew nothing about him but was able to guess his identity tells you everything you need to know about his performance). 

It's almost a shame that Shechmeister doesn't lean harder in on his meta casting, as it might have given Can't Take It Back a little more memorability. This is the kind of throwaway genre film that I'll have a hard time remembering in a few weeks, which, in a world of memes and viral videos, could be meta in itself.

High Points
While there's nothing revolutionary in the scares department, Shechmeister does a decent job of staging some moments of violence, particularly in how Nicole's manic trauma unfolds

Low Points
There's just nothing new here, which can't help but feel limiting

Lessons Learned
One can never have too many candles or flashlights on hand to fight off an evil bullied spirit, even if the lights are working just fine

Being a dick to the goth kids will come back to bite you

"I'd rather see Hunger Games 1000" is the ultimate putdown to Generation Z

Can't Take It Back does nothing new, and doesn't do what it does with great skill, but it's an entertaining enough block of 90 minutes. It's streaming on Shudder, so the next time you're looking for a social media slasher, it's something.

Monday, August 5, 2019

I Gotta Crow

With its Peter Pan title and grisly premise, Don't Grow Up sounded right up my alley. 

If only it wanted to go there.

Quick Plot: On a chilly island somewhere in Europe, a group of scrappy foster teenagers discover they've been left alone in their sprawling care facility. After a little too much whiskey, they explore their near-empty town and discover something very, very amiss.

It starts when they chance upon a chatty little girl in the arms of her zombie-staring mother. In a tense, horrifying scene, the mother squeezes her daughter to death, thus revealing some form of outbreak that has turned all the adults into homicidal maniacs.

Think The Children, but reversed. Or Mom and Dad, but not terrible.

Unfortunately, it's also not great. 

Directed by Thierry Poiraud from a script by Marie Garel-Weiss, Don't Grow Up has moments of brilliance but more passages of serious downtime. Running just under 80 minutes, it seems oddly disinterested in nailing any kind of specific pacing. A short horror movie is often a very good thing, particularly when dealing with the kind of murderous outbreak that should have our heroes on the move nonstop. That's just the case here.

You'd think, with that description, that Don't Grow Up would instead be more a character study. It's not, even though it has everything in place to be so. Our leads, the mysterious bad boy with a heart of gold Bastian and the self-proclaimed bored loser Pearl, are played by charismatic young actors who demonstrate plenty of potential. But for whatever reason, we don't really get enough of them in any real meaningful way. They fall flat, as does so much of Don't Grow Up.

We never learn what's causing this behavior, which is by no means a requirement of the genre (see Who Can Kill a Child? or the aforementioned The Children). There's an interesting, also unexplored mystery involved with what constitutes adulthood, as some teen characters turn and others still seem immune. That in itself is a neat theme, but either I'm too dense a film watcher or Don't Grow Up has no real interest in delving deep on the issue. That leaves us with something neither overly thoughtful nor that exciting. 

High Points
That first real scene of horror is genuinely effective, giving me hope that Poiraud has the right instincts when it comes to building tension. Hopefully his next film finds something more solid

Low Points
The overall lack of commitment, both to character and story, just leave Don't Grow Up feeling incomplete

Lessons Learned
In a pinch, perfume makes a decent, fragrant antiseptic

Seeing murdered children is a big hormone booster for British teenagers

Eighteen does not an adult make

My frustrations with Don't Grow Up stem in part from the film's clear ability to have been better. This concept has been executed better. Find it elsewhere.