Monday, May 31, 2021

Most Likely to Die


There are few things more powerful than a very well-organized type-A overachieving student council member.

Make them homicidal and you should probably be very, very afraid.

Quick Plot: Ian, twin brother Derek, Derek's girlfriend Jenny, and pal Miriam are overachieving high school seniors who rotate sports practice and yearbook club with a less common teenage hobby: murder.

Every few weeks, the group plans a random homicidal attack on strangers, changing up their style each time to avoid the authorities piecing anything together (though it always involves some variation on Purge-style masks). Ian and Derek's dad happens to be the quiet town's chief of police who slowly starts to connect some dots. Meanwhile, Miriam shows dangerous signs of having grown a conscience while Ian is intent on pinning it all on a well-meaning English teacher.

There's really not much more to Extracurricular, which isn't necessarily a complaint. Slickly directed by Ray Xue from Matthew Abrams and Padgett Arango's screenplay, this is a sharp-looking, well-acted little thriller without grand ambitions of any real character or thematic exploration.

There are jokes within Extracurricular about the silliness of nihilism, but let's face it: Extracurricular is itself an incredibly nihilistic movie, with sociopathic characters and a mean, murder-filled finale that serves up a horrible fate to the only people in the film ever referred to as "nice". You're not going to feel good about the world when this is over, but depending on your tase, you might leave entertained.

High Points
Enough can't be said about the young cast (many who have already built up their resumes with more mainstream work). It would have been very easy for all of them to push a little too hard on the "evil little rich kid" bite, but each actor manages to find just the right level of cruel, confident indifference

Low Points
I mean, they're also all horrible monsters and we don't have any kind of protagonist worth rooting for, so if that bugs you...

Lessons Learned
Adolescent testosterone combined with too much Nietzsche is a dangerous combination

The fancier the neighborhood, the longer it will take neighbors to call the cops on noise disturbance, even if it involves multiple shotgun rounds in the middle of the night

It's really easy to learn everything you need to know about a person via their city hall footprint

Extracurricular is a cold film, one that doesn't necessarily invite you in or, well, give you THAT much. Still, I found it sleek enough to be satisfying, so if you're in a particularly sociopathic mood, Amazon Prime is there for you.

Monday, May 24, 2021

All WASPs Go to Heaven


One of the more interesting, unintentional trends of recent genre films popping up on streaming services has been how shockingly keen even the mediocre ones have been at anticipating parts of the COVID-19 zeitgeist. While much of it is coincidence with a movie just landing in a new context than it was made, it does help elevate some storytelling into something more current.

The Beach House certainly felt that way, and now I'd add After Darkness, a film dated as a 2019 release, though based on now more grown actress Natalia Dyer, I'd wager it was filmed even earlier. The story of a family confined to one house, waiting for an end to their isolation...yes, I think we can all identify.

Quick Plot: Much like Danny Boyle's Sunshine, After Darkness can be introduced with four simple words: our sun is dying. Dark spots have led scientists to declare the end of the world, though many hold out hope that deep underground caves, reserved for the rich and powerful, may provide a safety net for a select few.

The Beatys just might qualify. Patriarch Raymond (Tim Daly) is a stern, rags to riches power player convinced that his past electoral deeds has earned his family a spot. His plan is to wait out a call from his senator pal in his sprawling country estate, complete with a well-stocked food cellar and decades worth of WASPy family tension.

Wife Georgina (Kyra Sedgwick) is heavily medicated and always one missed dose away from breaking down, possibly due to the trauma of her teenage daughter's earlier suicide. Prodigal son Ray has returned with a whole lot of anger for his dad but dedication to youngest sibling Clara, a sweetly naive 15-year-old. Middle brother and grad student Fred surprises his folks by bringing his very pregnant girlfriend Margot, something Raymond is less than cheerful about.

Stuck in sprawling but stifling estate, family tensions heat up as the world begins to freeze. And that's basically it! Based on a poem by Lord Byron (of which some lines are used throughout to frame the acts), After Darkness feels like a stage play, and could easily work in that format. Fernando Diez Barroso's script doesn't linger on the science of the world's demise, and director Batan Silva is clearly here to tell the story of this family, and not the world. As a strategy for a fairly low budget apocalypse, it's pretty sharp.

On the other hand, After Darkness does suffer from a different problem: a poor little rich family is hardly the most compelling subject matter. Loaded with good actors, it's not impossible to care about how the Beatys handle the end of the world, but it takes a fair amount of effort. Daly's Raymond is a pretty one-note jerk, while the rest of the characters are so passive that it's hard to muster much sympathy. 

Imagine being invited to a not-too-close friend's house for dinner. The salad course is perfectly acceptable, but by the time the main course rolls around, half of the table is screaming at each other, while the quiet half are nervously shifting their food with their forks before eventually fleeing to the privacy of their own rooms. And you're just there, watching it all, thinking, "so I guess this is my next 90 minutes?"

That's After Darkness. Accept the invitation at your own discretion. 

High Points
I really do have to hand it to Silva and Barroso for being extremely clever in how they used just a few brief expository news reports in the film's opening to fully create an end of the world that we never question

Low Points
As I said, watching a wealthy white family argue about past sins is pretty far down my list of things to do during quarantine

Lessons Learned
When designing your emergency food stash, always consider all possible points of entry

Checkhov's law of poisoned berries will never fail, even if the lack of sunshine may have disrupted said poisoned berries growth cycle

Before committing to spending the rest of your life with your in-laws, it's probably best to have actually these said in-laws

Look, I appreciate After Darkness's rather Beckettian approach to the apocalypse, but even if you consider its genre to be family drama, it's just not that dynamic. Apocalypse aficionados who know what they're getting into will still find some interesting takes on the genre, so there's always that. Find it on Hulu if you have the lack of energy. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Playtest


Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Today, we tackle my 14th seeded choice, Season 3's Playtest.

The Talent:
Playtest is another Charlie Brooker script, but the direction comes courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, who also gave us the good-but-better-the-more-you-think-about-it 10 Cloverfield Lane. Our lead is the achingly likable Wyatt Russell and his main costar is none other than Wunmi Mosaku, who, with Lovecraft Country and His House, has rather immediately become one of the most exciting actors working today.

The Setup: Cooper is your definitive bearded backpacking American adventurer, leaving behind his distant widowed mother to travel the world and try to move past the recent death of his much more beloved father. When his credit cards are compromised, Cooper finds a quick job testing the newest video game technology from the Nintendo-like SaitoGemu.

Despite reasonable warnings to turn off his cell phone, Cooper can't resist taking a few pics in the hopes of selling the information to a high bidder. Led by Katie, he proceeds with the official "playtest", which puts him in a Victorian mansion filled with his own subconsciously simulated fears.  

The Ending: As Cooper's visions become realer and more horrifying, the test is forcibly ended only to be revealed to, well, never have started. Because he didn't turn off his phone, a ring from his mother when the technology was being implanted caused some kind of surge, killing the player before he could actually press start.

The Theme: In some ways, Playtest's gotcha ending undermines what it's actually trying to do in terms of its story. Cooper's psyche being invaded only to create its own beasts is clearly something Brooker wants you to sit with, but the "HE WAS ACTUALLY DEAD ALONG" rug pull is so, well, specific (particularly to certain viewers with strong feelings on cell phone abuse) that it's hard to leave the episode--even on a second viewing--without much else.

The Verdict: It's hard to not enjoy watching Wyatt Russell. I'm usually predisposed to judging the children of celebrities a bit harsher than your average worked-really-hard-and-nailed-just-the-right-audition civilian actors who have a much harder, often impossible hill to climb, but Russell is so gosh darn charismatic (a similar trait he shares with his dad) that Playtest, which rests entirely upon his very tall shoulders, is, if nothing else, a compelling ride with a guy you can't help but like. In the wrong hands, Coop could have been insufferable, an ugly American millennial who makes mistakes and pays for them. It's hard not to be reminded often, as I and probably no one else in the world is, of just how wrong this goes in The Darkest Hour, which ALSO begins with a flight attendant having to ask an American tourist to turn off his phone. But see, I wanted Max.... and the rest of that cast to die a horrible death because they were, well, just douchebags. I'm sure Wyatt Russell could play a villain, and I'll pay to see it, but by golly, the dude has it.

Technology Tip: As I've been known to shout whisper at many a stranger in a movie theater, when the rule is given, listen and turn off your motherf*cking phone.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:4/10
I mean, by GOSH is Russell someone you don't want to see die, but I'm old enough to have experienced the first wave of cell phone abuse, and therefore, I have a hard time being too crushed by the tragic but very avoidable passing of someone who didn't obey a very simple rule

Quality Scale: 6/10
Of course the episode looks good, right down to the CGI intended to look like CGI, and the haunted house theme has its scares, but the overall effect is so inconsistent that I still think this one belongs in its rightful middle of the pack place

Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
All that being said, Wyatt Russell is so effortlessly enjoyable to watch that Playtest is never a slog. I don't love a lot of its decisions, but I certainly didn't mind my time with it again.

Up Next (Month):
We dive all the way back to season 1 with the dystopian 15 Million Merits

Monday, May 10, 2021

A Lonely Island


Even when they're not very good, I will always give a chance to a deserted island set genre film. 

Quick Plot: Jenn, a young and resourceful American, washes up on a deserted island alongside her dying pal Brad. Much like Lost, her new home seems to be lush in coconuts, easily catchable fish, and unidentifiable monsters with a taste for human flesh.

The monster seems to be some sort of giant nocturnal amphibian. It hunts at night and drags its prey back to the water, where a mysterious black hole on the ocean floor awaits its feast.

Jenn is quick to understand the creature's patterns and seems on the right path to hunting it down when she spots a life raft filled with none other than her boyfriend Lucas and pal Mia. The pair have been floating for several days and are eager to enjoy the spoils of what seems like a tropical paradise, with little patience for Jenn's crazy rambling about a sea monster.

Directed by J.D. Dillard, Sweetheart is a beautifully restrained, extremely well-told little tale that seems to have an incredibly disciplined understanding of what it can and should do. It clocks in under 90 minutes and moves quickly, wasting no time on flashbacks or forced exposition

In fact, for a good 2/3rds of its running time Sweetheart doesn't even have any dialog. Why would it, if Jenn is all alone and not (like some people with horror blogs) the kind of person who has arguments with herself. Lead actress Kiersey Clemons is more than up to the task.

The lack of conversation makes the ones we have all the more interesting. Lucas is clearly not the hero here, both in terms of his disappointing survival skills and worse, the fact that he clearly treats his girlfriend like an unwanted child. There's a reason this film is titled Sweetheart, and it all seems to click when you hear Lucas use the term.

Jenn is clearly not as financially well-off as her partner or his friends, the kind of white people who can, you know, take boat trips without a thought for what would happen if a storm blew them off course. Dillard and cowriters Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer's script doesn't overexplain a note, nor does it force confrontation where you simply wouldn't have it. Questions go unanswered because you know what? If the sun was setting in an hour, I might not take the time to ask my asshole boyfriend if he murdered his boat captain pal.

My point is, Sweetheart makes some excellent, smart decisions at every step. This is good stuff.

High Points
Teasing a monster is never easy, since once you show it, you might lose the tension you've been working so hard to weave. Sweetheart handles this well, dropping plenty of hints as to what it's capable of but not pushing the final reveal past what would physically be possible.

Low Points
I appreciate a film putting me in the visual point of view of its characters, but sometimes, you just want to, you know, SEE things

Lessons Learned
Pack every suitcase as if it might be the only source of your necessities. You just never know

Sweetheart is streaming on Netflix, and it's easily one of Blumhouse's better non-theatrical productions. I thoroughly enjoyed it every sandy step.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Prom Capades

Sometimes you go into a movie for the wrong reasons and come out happy to discover new ones.

Evil twins and figure skating? I'm in.
Actual decent filmmaking?

Who knew?!

Quick Plot: Maria is a shy high school senior struggling with insecurity and what seems like a serious undiagnosed case of depression. Her best (and only) friend Lily is an aspiring figure skater dating Sean, the one guy in school who doesn't pick on Maria. At home, Maria's plastic surgeon father rules with an icy fist and intensely high standard of beauty, so much so that his proposed 18th birthday gift to his daughter is a nose job and cosmetic ear surgery.

One day, Maria stumbles upon an ultrasound that seems to reveal she had an in-utero twin. After a particularly cruel day at school, Maria meets Airam (get it?), her more confident mirror image, who convinces Maria to trade places.

Cue the succession of dead teenagers-via-head trauma massacre! Lily's offer to teach Maria/Airam how to ice skate turns fatal, followed by poor, easily seducible Sean. Flashbacks reveal Airam's tragic origin, as Maria seems to drift farther away into her mirror prison.

I took a chance on Look Away because the premise seemed interesting enough, the presence of Jason Isaacs and Mira Sorvino is always welcome, but most importantly, THE TRAILER SHOWED FIGURE SKATING.

I will never pass on a genre film that involves my favorite sport.

A good part of Look Away's strength comes from its beautifully deployed winter setting, with snow piled everywhere and the gray overcast adding a moody feel. It gives the film such a specific visual tone, with a sparse and cold atmosphere so fitting of Maria's empty emotional home life (perfectly set in the kind of modern mansion that feels decorated by Lydia Deeks' minimalist rival).

Also, Prom: On Ice.

Seriously, in the world of Look Away, a high school throws its senior prom not at a local country club or banquet hall, but on an actual ice rink. Granted, clumsy students might be no worse in ice skates than they would be in high heels, but STILL.

It's a prom. On. Ice.

Yes, that's enough reason to watch Look Away. It's also rather beautifully made, although I don't know that Assaf Bernstein's screenplay is at the same level as his strong direction. There are hauntingly strong implications in Look Away's resolution, and I rather appreciate its ambiguity, but there's also just something lacking in the story that left the final moments just a tad unsatisfying. 

Maybe if it just had 5% more figure skating-induced violence... 

High Points

It's always a pleasure to see Mira Sorvino and Jason Isaacs onscreen, and they imbue their WASPily twisted marriage with the right levels of broken rich people. Sorvino conveys every bit of insecurity she needs in a glance, while Isaacs slowly lets his character's truly despicable nature unravel without overplaying a single sneer

Low Points
India Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey but more importantly, the titular other unhappy poor little rich girl in Lifetime's adaptation of V.C. Andrews' bonkers My Sweet Audrina) is effectively haunting as Maria, and I suppose Maria being the daughter of a plastic surgeon helps sell this, but we're at Chloe Grace Moretz-as-Carrie levels of "really, you're telling me THIS GIRL is considered ugly?"

Lessons Learned
Nice is a boy you don't want to go out with

Nothing kills hockey practice like a makeout session

The best way to convey turning evil: sudden smoking habit and a clean double axel

I went into Look Away expecting a fun dollop of YA-ish thrills, but this is a far more sophisticated film made with some accomplished style. Give it a go when you're in need of something chilly.