Monday, March 30, 2020

If a Cell Phone Rings In the Middle of the 2010s, Does Anyone Care?

Mobile phones were still a fairly new phenomenon in 2006 when Stephen King published Cell, en epic novel about a phone call that turned users into hive minded zombies. The material was ripe for a film adaption. Hollywood being what it is, it just took so long that by the time it happened, actual filmgoers ended up looking at the trailer and wondering, "Who still answers their cell phone?"

Quick Plot: After a good dozen different production company logos, we meet Clay Riddell (King regular John Cusack), a graphic novelist waiting to board a flight to return to his estranged wife and young son in New Hampshire. When his battery dies, he hops on one of those old-fashioned machines that require cash currency to make a call right as everyone with an active cell phone receives a fast zombifying signal. 

Clay survives the chaos and quickly teams up with Tom (Samual L. Jackson) and a character named DJ Liquid who thankfully dies immediately. The pair are soon joined by teenager Alice (Orphan's own Isabelle Fuhrman). Because this is a story written by a man in the late aughts, Clay insists on braving his way through hordes of cannibals to find his young son, presumed alive even though Clay was on the phone with him during the signal.

Look, I'm not saying a parent shouldn't/wouldn't risk everything to save his or her child, even if every logical bit of sense pointed to said kid being dead or worse. It's just that so many stories, particularly in horror, use the "dad risks it all for son" in such a way that it's forced me to roll my eyes. 

Anyway, the trio travel through New England, evading the creatures, picking up a few stragglers, losing a few more along the way, and having The Stand-like dreams with a shared villain on their tails. 

As you might have guessed, there's not that much new. Not too surprisingly, the script (written by King and Adam Alleca) stays fairly close to the novel save for a rather random, not very well explained or satisfying finale. Director Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2) has a far better cast than this type of movie would usually warrant, but the actors are all essentially stuck playing the kind of Stephen King types that have been reused and recycled so much that they barely register. 

That's not to say Cell is as big a failure as its "sat on the shelf for two years before getting dumped on streaming platforms" reputation might suggest. Williams does manage to capture that effective 28 Days -- or more fittingly, 28 Weeks-- Later tension level when it comes to some of his chase scenes. When you watch a movie like this during the COVID-19 crisis, there's certainly some unnerving effects in seeing a world made empty and gray. While movies like The Girl With All the Gifts have since done a better job of playing with the hive mind aspect of this kind of monster, Cell makes some mildly interesting plays at the idea. 

Overall, what more can you say for a film that embodies the review of "okay?"

High Points
We've seen plenty of variations of the "sudden mass hysteric zombie outbreak" on film, and while Cell's isn't necessary the best, it's an extremely well-done scene and strong opening for an otherwise fairly middle-of-the-road-filled-with-cellphone-zombies film

Low Points
Hell hath no fury quite like cheaply rendered CGI fire

Lessons Learned
Before blasting it across a large field filled with extremely flammable beings, take a minute to consider the basic rules of gasoline 

The human brain is just one big ol' hard drive

Pacifists are extremely quick to learn good aim

Ferland's Revenge?
So I have a complicated, rather useless theory Jodelle Ferland spent most of her teenage years cursing the name Isabelle Furhman. Both made their horror mark by playing evil brunette child types, but Furhman got the far better movie while Ferland's Case 39 had a delayed release with no real fanfare or success, while her smaller part in the better received Cabin In the Woods also sat on a shelf for two years. Furhman got a juicy role in The Hunger Games while Ferland ended up in a Twilight sequel. So while I don't play fantasy sports and I usually ignore celebrity feuds, there's a petty, specific part of me itching to know whether Furhman's participation in the, you guessed it, two-years delayed, released to little fanfare Cell was part of some pact Ferland made with the devil.

Look, it's been a really weird time. Allow me my diversions where I can get them. 

Eh, Cell probably isn't as bad as you've heard, but that's not necessarily a positive recommend. If you're a zombie or Stephen King completist, this is somewhere in the middle range of what you've come to expect. It's streaming on Hulu. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

That Was the Night That the Lights Went Out In Mandyloria

So today's feature initially had some kind of introduction celebrating the weirdness of Costas Mandylor and his career choices, but, well, times have since changed. This is a movie about the United States going into a tailspin when the power goes out. In case you don't know or are reading this in the future when the world has recovered or we've all been replaced by adorable WALL-E robots, we're currently on lockdown due to COVID-19. 

It's my sincere hope and belief that if we behave responsibly, we will get through this, hopefully with a few lessons learned. In times like these, we all do our best to maintain the sanity of ourselves and those around us. 

My only real skills are fast typing and writing about horror movies, so it looks like you're currently still stuck with these dives into genre weirdness. Hope it helps keep you busy. If you need something better, here's a picture of a dog and deer being friends:

Quick Plot: Curtis County is a small rural town where little happens, save for the sheriff quitting smoking and the mysterious hermit (graying Mandylor) playing chess via walkie talkie communication. On a pleasantly sunny spring afternoon, the power goes out. After a few days without any explanation, the townspeople start to panic.

It seems as though there's been a national, and possibly worldwide blackout. The sheriff tries to maintain order and implement resource rationing, but heavily armed escaped inmates have their own plans. In just a few days, society has collapsed and a handful of extremely bland but decent actors are forced into survival mode.

This is a perfectly fine setup for a mini-apocalypse thriller, but unfortunately, director Louis Mandylor (yes, Costas's brother) and writer Steve Yoon lack any kind of spark. The biggest issue probably stems from casting decisions and dialog: while the actors are perfectly fine, their characters are incredibly dull.

The worst offenders come in our quartet of teenagers. Why anyone would think it wise to take two tall brunette white guys and two pretty brunette white girls wearing ponytails and center a third of an ensemble movie around them? Save for one Australian accent, I could barely tell these kids apart, making me want to root for their survival even less (though "spoiled rich kids who missed the news because they were doing shrooms in the woods" is usually not the most endearing character trait to begin with). 

It isn't until halfway through The Blackout that we even meet our villains, a gang of escaped prisoners whose only defining characteristic seems to be rape. There's a hint of something interesting when we see how they've started to recruit new members and feed them via fight clubbing, but it's just not enough. At one point, we reach a siege, which I reckon is supposed to be the climax, despite a whole separate set of characters in some other undefined area debating whether to ask for help or go on the attack. It's ill-conceived plotting that fizzles into an ending. That's that.

High Points
I did enjoy the sweet chemistry between the central characters, Martin and Julia. They weren't really given much to do, but both Jordan Marder and Lymari Nadal managed to find some genuine humanity in their underwritten roles

Low Points
No, The Blackout, you do not get to introduce a character as having aspirations of making the Olympic track team and never once put her running skills into play

Lessons Learned
City people will come

When in doubt about how to end your film, consider giving the last laugh to a cymbal playing monkey

A real lady keeps applying eye makeup, even when the world around her has descended into martial law 

Oy. I love when I discover a truly great, truly unknown thriller about society's collapse (Dead Within always comes to mind). When I land on an extremely mediocre one, I'm less enthused. The Blackout is better in quality than its low budget and lack of pedigree might suggest, but there's just nothing really here. It's on Amazon Prime, so if you're one of those weirdos (like me) who take comfort in watching worst-case scenarios that maybe could mirror our times, that's something. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

So You've Decided to Play With Bitcoin

Another social media slasher? Must be Monday!

What a fine time to be alive.

Quick Plot: Early twenthysomething Matthias is updating his brand new/used Macbook just in time for Skype-style game night with a few pals. He's hoping the new bandwidth will make it easier to build an app designed to improve communication with his deaf girlfriend Amaya. Apparently, constructing a translation program is easier than attending a few classes in ASL.

As he fumbles through the setup process, Matthias becomes intrigued by his computer's previous owner Norah, a mysterious man who made a lot of promises to women on Facebook while hiding some very dark videos in buried folders. When he shares them with his Skype circle, Matthias realizes he's stumbled on a very dark, very dangerous dark web.

Or, like, The Den. He found The Den. 

Which is super confusing since Unfriended: Dark Web reads more like a sequel to The Den than the first Unfriended, which was actually about online bullying and Facebook ghosts, sort of like Friend Request (the one about Facebook, not the one about Anthony Michael Hall playing Gary Busey). It's incestuous and confusing and for the sake of you, dear reader, I'll try to push past it.

Side note: remember how we learned that Anthony Michael Hall doesn't know where a woman's ass is actually located? Good GOSH I love Friend Request 

Anyway, before Skype can crash and demand you update to the next version, Matthias and his pals have become the newest targets for Norah's sadistic cohorts. 

Like the unrelated Unfriended, Dark Web is "set" entirely on a laptop. We see snippets of Norah's dirty deeds via his grainy videos, and real-time attacks as he sets his sights on Matthias's pals. First time director Stephen Susco (who previously penned a batch of horror scripts, including the 2004 remake of The Grudge) seems to have learned from the glut of internet horror films, keeping the action fairly clear in view and not forcing its audience to squint.

Yes, we're still victims to the typical "lots of attractive people shouting at the same time to the monitor", but perhaps because the characters are a little more mature than most of these types of films, it's not nearly as irksome. It might have been a simple personal preference, but I found myself moved enough by the better-than-usual cast to care about their fate. Once the action hits its point of no return, Susco creates some genuinely effective tension. 

Much like The Den, Smiley, and the very crowded catalog of these kinds of films, I'll probably have a very hard time remembering any of the particulars of Dark Web. It doesn't create a lasting impression or offer anything that new, but for its 90 minutes, I was pretty taken and invested. Sometimes that's all you want a horror flick to do.

High Points
I've said it before and I'll likely say it countless times again: having your characters be nice people is vital to having your audience care whether they live or die. Matthias's pals aren't perfect, but the fact that our lead makes a key decision to save a stranger rather than himself goes a long way in keeping us on his side

Low Points
The fact that this movie has four different endings (two were apparently planned as a theater gimmick, which went over just as well as it did for Clue) suggests a certain lack of confidence in what the story be

Lessons Learned
No good can come from attempting to be ambitious with a used computer

Fast typing is a vital life skill

Any coed group of friends will always, without fail, include one straight white a$$hole

Look, Unfriended: Dark Web doesn't break any ground (well, unless you count two of the four alternate endings, but I digress). But hey, for its fairly quick running time, it gives you a pretty tense, very mean little ride into some very dark places. If that's appealing to you, you can catch it on Hulu. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Pretty Little Truth Tellers

As said before, the Doll's House will always be a safe space for Pretty Little Liar alumni. There have been highs, there have been mediums, and as somewhat expected based on its reception, we now have a low.

But of course, me being me, not THAT low in comparison to the average person with taste.

Quick Plot: Olivia (Lucy Hale) is all set to spend her last spring break doing good with Habitat For Humanity, but her BFF Marky convinces/forces her to ditch that plan and head to Mexico for beaches and beer. Also in tow is Marky's boyfriend (and Olivia's obvious crush) Lucas, med student/drug dealer Tyson and his dependent girlfriend Penelope, and closeted (to his family) Brad. Wacky Instagram stories involving very attractive people ensue. 

On their final night out, Olivia is charmed by Carter, a handsome stranger who saves her from some mild sexual harassment from college pal Ronnie. Last call shuts their bar down but Carter suggests Olivia and her pals keep the fun going at an abandoned mission he found. Because they're young, drunk, and as dumb as they are pretty, the gang agrees.

Cue the titular party game. It only takes one round of truth for Carter to confess his intentions: he saw Olivia as a lonely pushover who would be easy to lure to this place. Once there, Carter pulled them into the game he and his own (mostly dead) pals began. Follow the rules and you won't die. Okay bye!

It's not until the group returns home and begins to resume their regular lives that they realize that Carter wasn't kidding. Olivia's turn of truth leads to a friendship-breaking reveal, while Ronnie's refusal of his dare ends with his death. The game is afoot, and while you can survive by completing your task, there's a lot on the line with every round.

If this sounds familiar, it might be because I covered ANOTHER film titled Truth or Dare about a group of attractive college students who begin to play a haunted game of, you know, truth or dare. The deep bonds of friendship between the film's central females are tested due to a love triangle. The token "hot couple always having sex who can't function apart" dies early, and the last few have to travel to the home of a shut-in female who survived a previous version of the game at the cost of her friends and face. 

Apparently, there's only one way to tell a horror story about this subject.

Directed by Cry Wolf's Jeff Wadlow and written by far too many screenwriters, Truth or Dare could be both a lot better and a lot worse. The film was savaged by critics when it came out in theaters, but as a two-years-later Hulu watch, it's exactly the kind of hot-people-in-peril horror flick that I tend to enjoy. In many ways, it really is indistinguishable from the same-titled movie that went straight to streaming the year before, and I could probably just remove one or two details from that review and come up with the same basic writeup.

There's nothing too groundbreaking here, though the film does pull a neat little twist with its ending. More importantly, Truth or Dare does make a point of doing what it can with its fairly bland cast, trying its best to have their tragedies carry some weight. It doesn't always work, but I can appreciate the effort.

High Points
Lucy Hale's Aria was my least favorite Liar, so I was fairly surprised to see her Olivia end up being the best part of (Blumhouse's) Truth or Dare. The film establishes a very clear do-gooder heart that guides her character, making her final choice a neat surprise

Low Points
I knew that Truth or Dare was jokingly subtitled "The SnapChat Filter Flick", but I don't know that I was properly prepared for just how overused the CGI smile and red eyes would be

Lessons Learned
When a stranger tells you to tell him to piss off, listen

Everyone loves Beyonce

The great thing about modern coeds is how much they talk in detail about their lives and motivations, ensuring new film audiences just stopping by for a peak understand every key part of who they are and what they fear

Look, Truth or Dare isn't a particularly good movie--and I honestly can't tell you whether it's the best truth or dare movie to come out in the last three years--but it's not nearly as bad as you've probably heard. There are less entertaining ways to kill 90 minutes of your free time. I dare you to try it. 

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Home Insurance Is the Real Horror

There's a certain kind of film that seemed to have come out from the late 198s/early 1990s, a kind of drama with heavy ideas, grand storytelling, but oddly minimalist visual elements. Michael Tolkin's The Rapture falls into that category, and now I'd add Bernard Rose's Paperhouse, a fascinatingly sparse film without a genre.

Quick Plot: Anna is an angry young lady around 12 years old. Her class clown antics and aggressive behavior at school get her in trouble, while her exasperated mother (played by a somewhat British accent warbling Glenne Headly) lovingly tries to unlock her daughter's attitude. Much of it clearly comes from, you know, being a 12-year-old girl, but the on/off parenting of her absent alcoholic dad certainly doesn't help. 

As Anna fights illness at home, she busies herself with artwork only to discover that the house she has drawn comes to life in her dreams. Hanging out both in her drawing and dream is Marc, a boy her age suffering from muscular dystrophy. Or maybe, Anna just forgot to draw his legs.

Directed by Candyman's Bernard Rose from Matthew Jacobs' adaptation of Catherine Storr's novel, Paperhouse is a strange, haunting, and hard to classify little film. While there are certainly elements of horror, it has a far more serious fairy tale vibe that should speak to both the young and mature. At the same time, you can easily understand how it would have been lost on a video rental shelf. 

In her only onscreen role, Charlotte Burke is so achingly real and bundled with feelings that seem to only make sense in a dream world. Marc, it turns out, is a real boy, the patient of Anna's doctor. How she's able to reach him via her art dreams isn't explained, nor does it ever feel like the point. 

Anna can't save Marc or rewrite (redraw?) their lives to a happily ever after ending, but there's a strange, effective power the two youths find in whatever realm their friendship exists. Anna has her family demons, which are wisely never fleshed out in full. Marc is dying, and will never experience the full life of a healthy boy. Whether their connection is mystical or purely that of Anna's imagination, there's a very genuine element in how it seems to help both grow up in their own way.

High Points
Seriously, I'm sure she had her reasons and is hopefully a well-adjusted adult human now, but what a shame that Charlotte Burke retired from acting after Paperhouse. The film rests on her young shoulders, and she brings such a wonderfully fresh energy that isn't easily repeatable

Low Points
Hey, it's not MY fault I approached this movie assuming it was a horror movie and would call to mind the only thing I like in Nightmare On Elm Street 5, but yes, I may have been slightly disappointed to not get anything akin to this:

Lessons Learned
Snogging is a lot like kissing a vacuum cleaner

When in doubt, draw a pencil AND eraser

For the love of all things in this world, don't ever film an entire film with an American actress only to tell her after the fact that she'll have to dub her dialog with a British accent while giving her no time to learn anything about the mechanics of a British accent. Glenne Headly deserved better


Long out of print, Paperhouse is now streaming on Amazon Prime, and it's well worth a watch. Know that you're getting a very spare, unusual tale of coping, empathy, and connecting that won't necessarily satisfy your usual genre urges, but this is a movie unlike many others, and that alone makes it something very special.