Monday, December 27, 2021

Nuns In the Sun

How many times have you dared to click on a listicle claiming to contain the best horror films you've never seen, only to skim through the same old compilation you've seen time and time again with your eyes rolled so hard they do a full Price Is Right wheel around?

When you stumble upon an interesting looking of a film on Shudder and see 1993 cited as the film's date, it's hard to expect much. SURELY, you say, if it was anything special you would have heard about it by now, right?

It's nice to be wrong.

Quick Plot: Somewhere on a rocky precipice overlooking a violent beach, a nun holding a stone amulet plummets to her bloody death. Was it sinful Catholic suicide, or did a mystery murderer give her a push?

Put a pin in that, as we move our focus to a classy young British woman named Elizabeth. She's journeying to this remote island in order to investigate the isolated convent her recently deceased father has been funding for the last twenty years. Now the sole heir to his fortune, Elizabeth wants to learn more about these mooching penguins and whether they're worth a cut.

Things at the convent are as severe as you'd expect. No television, no phones, no color. Elizabeth expected to find her old schoolpal Theresa there, but that nun-in-training has mysteriously vanished. Instead, Elizabeth is assigned the young Sarah as her companion, a kind orphan who's never left the island (which likely explains her fashion style: sad burlap nun snuggie):

Strange things start to happen on the island, beginning with Elizabeth discovering a horrific painting that suggests a sad fate for dear Theresa. Sarah vows to help her escape but warns that the next boat isn't due for a week, but when that proves to be wrong, Elizabeth is left wondering if there's anyone she can trust.

Surely not the crazy old lady who seems to recognize her, the creepily blind Mother Superior, or the blood-covered local always holding a knife? With this batch, the Caliban-ish first mate who introduced himself by tearing a raw fish apart looks darn good.

Dark Waters
goes a lot more Lovecraftian places, and all of it unfolds in shockingly beautiful photography. Filmed in remote stretches of Ukraine just after the fall of the Soviet Union, it feels out of time in the best of ways. How the HECK was this made the same year as Leprechaun and Ticks

Based on co-screenwriter Andrew Bark's short story, Dark Waters was Mariano's Baino's full-length directorial debut...and unfortunately thus far, his only film. Some web sleuthing suggests he works regularly as an artist, but considering how fresh Dark Waters feels for its time, it's a shame we haven't seen more.

By no means is this a perfect film. While it's clearly going for style over substance, some of the substance could still have used a little more tightening up. The acting is almost certainly a feat of editing and ADR, with the intricacies of human faces doing far more effective work than well-delivered dialogue.

But even with its flaws, Dark Waters is something special. It explores, rather than commits to some fascinating themes regarding religion. The Catholic nuns wear the uniform of an institution we know well, but the film kind of brilliantly plays their rituals as that of monstrous cult activities (which to be fair, are in reality as well). This might be a Lovecraft-inspired tale written by two men, but Dark Waters is also refreshingly female from top to bottom. 

I can't say this film will work for everybody, as it's messy and more than occasionally nonsensical (OR NUNSICAL IF YOU PREFER), but if the tone hits you, it will hit hard. 

High Points
Typically, describing a movie filmed in 1993 as looking like it was found in a dusty Italian vault sealed in 1972 wouldn't be a compliment, but I mean that in the best possible way. Dark Waters has such a striking, timeless look about it, and its sparse dialogue and overwhelming ocean soundtrack feeds into that mystery with so much mood. 

Low Points
I truly don't require clear storytelling in my atmospheric horror, but a few small expository decisions at the film's start to better explain some the basics involving Theresa, Sarah, and Elizabeth would have made it easier to get swept up in the visuals rather than be distracted trying to understand certain connections

Lessons Learned
American currency will buy you a lot of secrets, especially on mysteriously defined island countries

Sometimes it's best to just, you know, honor the dying wish of your father

Here's a really hot tip: the life of a nun, even one associated with demonic cults, is a serious drag. Don't do it girls. '

While I'd put Dark Waters just a few rungs down Messiah of Evil on my next list of surreal(ish) atmospheric classics that deserve more love, my husband spent its 90 minutes trying to keep his eyes open, which is to say that this is likely a VERY hit hard or miss badly watch. My vote: wait for a particularly stormy night, turn the lights off, queue it up on Shudder, and get lost. The worst that can happen is you'll be so bored that you'll fall asleep, which you were planning on doing ANYWAY, so what's the harm? It's streaming now on Shudder, with a fully loaded DVD/Blu Ray available through Severin. Apparently initial releases included a toy demon amulet, but I'm holding out for the version that includes this needlepoint pattern:

Monday, December 20, 2021

Can You Dig It?

Do you, like me, often find yourself wondering why there aren't more sexy thrillers starring Beverly Hills 90210 stars set in the sandy, sweaty world of beach volleyball? I had this problem for YEARS until I found the wonderful podcast Married With Clickers, where a classic episode introduced me to the glory of 2008's Impact Point. 

Put on your sunscreen. We're serving it up. 

Quick Plot: Kelly Reyes is a big(ish) time beach volleyball star who opens the film by losing an important match to bitter rival Jen. The next day, Jen's partner dies in a hit and run, and with a big tournament on the horizon, she's forced to bring Kelly Reyes on as her new teammate. 

Before she embarks upon a new training regime under Jen's boyfriend and coach Matt (played by a baby-faced and mostly topless Joe Manganiello), Kelly Reyes meets Holden Gregg, a sports reporter eager to profile Kelly Reyes in more ways than one. 

After a night of drinks and no dinner, Holden Gregg takes Kelly Reyes back to his place for some fully clothed couch sex that doesn't seem to know where genital positioning. No worries!Holden Gregg and Kelly Reyes have a great time and schedule date #2. 

If you're wondering why I keep referring to Holden Gregg and Kelly Reyes by their first and last names, the answer is very simple: that's what the movie insists on doing virtually any time either character is spoken to or about. It's the Colin Robinson or the Kekoa Shaw of 2008.

Anyway, back to the beach. Kelly Reyes shows up for practice only to be interrupted by a pair of detectives who have serious questions about Holden Gregg. Not the Holden Gregg she had PG-rated Showgirls-y sex with the night before, but the REAL Holden Gregg, who is absolutely NOT the man she had sex with the night before. 

Turns out, Not Holden Gregg is a stalker, one who took Jen's partner out of commission in order to get the object of his affection into the championship game. Next on his list is Matt, who he beats into a coma because in this cinematic universe, David Silver is stronger than Big Dick Richie.

Directed by Hayley Cloake, Impact Point is what I like to call Hot People Horror. Okay, it's more elevated Lifetime thriller than genuine genre fare, but it belongs in the same rotation as The Sand in that we get super attractive people being thrown into some ridiculous situations. 

With sand!

As I so often say, this is not a particularly GOOD movie by your general standards of quality (though in the scheme of beach volleyball stalking thrillers, it has to at least crack the top five), but when you want a breezy summer watch, this is a darn good time. 

High Points
Without spoiling a movie that you'll only see if you actually use Netflix's DVD service, allow me to say that the reveal of Not Holden Gregg's actual identity is pretty neat

Low Points
Look, Melissa Keller is a gorgeous woman and very decent in this movie, but that doesn't really excuse the simple fact that Kelly Reyes is kind of the worst. Her rival Jen (who at one point, comes thisclose to doing a justified Homer-to-Bart-Simpsons-choke on her new teammate) is 100% correct in all of the insults and snide comments she hurls

Lessons Learned
With the dawn of cell phones came the death of the police sketch artist, a tool that would have been wildly useful in identifying a man our victim knew intimately

There's nothing more boring than a winner's quotes

Much like the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, there's little need to have medics on hand at an outdoor directly-in-the-sun sporting event taking place during a heat wave 

Smart complicates things 

Smart complicates things
(look, the movie makes a point of repeating it as if it's a very important mantra, so who am I to not pass along its weight?)

If you're the type of person whose life gets better hearing the words "There's a movie where Brian Austin Green plays a mastermind stalker obsessed with a beach volleyball player," then Impact Point will in no way disappoint you. Currently, it's rentable on Apple TV, but this really seems like the kind of yard sale DVD you might be lucky enough to one day score. And hey! IT'S WORTH THE MONEY! Just LOOK at these special features:

Game. Set. Match.  

Monday, December 13, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Nosedive

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. So find the right filter and get ready for #7!

The Talent: 
It's a big one! While the story started with showrunner Charlie Brooker, the actual script comes via The Good Place's Michael Shur and Anne Perkins herself, Rashida Jones. Behind the camera is heavyweight Joe Wright,  whose Atonement and Hannah remain high bars. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey, who has such striking visual credits as Nocturnal Animals and We Need to Talk About Kevin, brings a wildly interesting eye and star Bryce Dallas Howard goes all in.

The Setup: 
In a nightmarish future landscape packed with incredible lighting, the frills of daily life are determined by your online popularity. Every human interaction requires a rating from 1 to 5 stars, and once your profile dips below 4, life gets very, very difficult.

Lacie, insufferably perky and terrifyingly insecure, is doing everything she can to bump her rating up in order to get a discount on a new luxury apartment rental. Opportunity comes calling when her childhood best frenemy Naomi asks her to be maid of honor at her high profile wedding. It's the perfect chance for Lacie to reach the big leagues, but a few hiccups put everything she's worked for in jeopardy.

The Ending:
After a sour encounter with an airline attendant (American-voiced Michaela Cole no less!), Lacie struggles to make the wedding, striking out with a rental car disaster, striking gold by hitchhiking with a wise, 1-star rated but wisdom-filled Cherry Jones, and striking into a whole lot of mud by dirt biking the final mile. Naomi is horrified to see a social pariah make it past the altar, and after a raw, honest, hysterical wedding speech, Lacie is carted off to some form of literal social media jail, where she's ironically freer than she's ever been before. A neighboring prisoner begins to insult her, she cheerfully joins in, and they scream in release.

The Theme:
Like many a Black Mirror yarn, some of its ideas that seemed extremely clever just a few years back now feel a bit well-worn. Our internet identities are facades, the joys we find there are fleeting, and the "friends" you follow there are probably not nearly as happy as their filters might suggest. 

The Verdict:
Nosedive is one of the most definitive Black Mirror-y Black Mirror episodes in that it comes as close as possible to holding up, well, a black mirror to its audience so they can see themselves (providing they can look away from their own phones long enough). Honestly, in 2021, it's a tad tiresome a theme, hitting so close to the (pun somewhat intended) nose that it just doesn't seem as interesting as it did on initial watch. 

That aside, it's hard to call Nosedive anything but a very accomplished hour of television. It's one of the best-looking episodes not just of Black Mirror, but of any show produced in its time, and virtually every visual decision seems deliberate and tonally correct. Equally important is Bryce Dallas Howard, who seizes Lacie by the ponytail and isn't afraid to test our tolerance. Just listen to her laugh, and how it evolves throughout the show's sixty minute runtime. It's terrifyingly admirable. 

Technology Tip: 
Look, there's a lot of obvious messaging here regarding us all turning off our smartphones, but on a far more practical note, let's take a moment to appreciate the lesson that one should NEVER drive away from a car rental lot before taking a few minutes to confirm you know the necessary details of this particular vehicle

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 3/10
Yes, this is a vicious universe, but as Cherry Jones' free-spirited truck driver already knows and Lacie is ready to discover, it doesn't HAVE to be if you can make your break.

Quality Scale: 8/10
This was Black Mirror's first big budget Netflix launch, and you can certainly feel it. The visual elements are striking and special, but all the less expensive elements are also working well. Howard's performance is extremely dynamic, while the pacing manages to world build and destroy within the hour. 

Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
Nosedive is one of the lighter Black Mirror entries, and its poppy visuals make it genuinely pleasing to watch. But unlike The Twilight Zone, whose universal sci-fi setups still pack a punch half a century after their initial airing, Nosedive already feels a bit of its time. Maybe we'll look back in another ten years and declare it a masterpiece. For now, it's clever, pretty, and a good one-time watch. 

Up Next (Month): I hear San Junipero is beautiful this time of year

Monday, December 6, 2021

Corn Rigs & Coconuts

Because Neil LaBute is a laughable misogynist who directs films with the spiritual energy of an angry teenage boy lashing out on the internet after being rejected by his crush because he had Cheetos stuck in his teeth, it's safe to say we've experienced the worst possible remake of The Wicker Man that can ever be humanely possibly. So go ahead, Death of Me! Do your worst.

Quick Plot: Americans Christine and Neil wake up with a massive hangover on their last day on a remote island off Thailand's mainland. With barely any memory from the heavy partying the night before, they rush their way to their boat only to discover their passports are missing. 

Looks like they're stuck in tropical paradise, right in time for a massive typhoon. The locals laugh off the weather reports because, as the brochures proudly proclaim, there hasn't been a storm in over 200 years. The couple decides to dig into their phones and cameras to help piece together their missing memories only to discover a haunting video that puts a whole new perspective on their lost evening.

Not surprisingly, Neil and Christine drank HARD, and not just fruity mai tais. Video shows them accepting a uniquely strong drink from a flirty waitress, who followed up the shots with a mysterious necklace for Christine. After, they stumbled home to their airbnb and had aggressive sex, which ended when Neil choked Christine to death and buried her in a shallow grave.

What a great concept, right?! It's haunting and fresh, and yet, for reasons I don't understand, Death of Me decides to stop it in its tracks and proceed to just follow every step of the much better The Wicker Man. Don't worry, it is most certainly aware of what it's doing, so much so that Neil stops to say, "hey, what happened in The Wicker Man?" 

I can't decide if I should commend Death of Me for saluting the elephant in the room or chide it for reminding the audience how much better a movie we could be watching.

Directed by the inconsistent but genre-loving Darren Lynn Bousman, Death of Me is an extremely frustrating, possibly racist, occasionally neat, and ultimately unsatisfying tale. From the beautiful Thai setting and unusual setup to its decent cast and score, It's positively dripping in potential. This film should work!

It does not.

Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth are adequate, though the screenplay (credited to three writers: Ari Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish) never offers a single detail about their lives to make them interesting and not, you know, just very attractive. The magical island is described as being small, yet Bousman makes no effort to give us any sense of its geography. Also, it's not necessarily my place to say it, but the more I think about Death of Me's depiction of its villains, the more horrifically problematic it seems. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and Bousman's camera turns that into something sinister in a way that just doesn't feel right (especially coming from what seems like a fairly American, Caucasian creative team). 

The thrust of Death of Me's story is that human sacrifice staves off tsunamis. The very idea is cringe-worthy, and the film never really seems to know whose side it's ultimately on. It wants us to see the islanders as monsters, but half of that comes from the simple fact that they're speaking a language most of the intended audience doesn't understand. Are we supposed to be afraid of a shot like this?

Yes, The Wicker Man's morals and faith are also muddy, but turning Gaelic culture into folk horror feels a bit less icky in 2021 than making Thai customs into something of terror. It also doesn't help that I watch Death of Me thinking about a much better outsiders-in-Southeast-Asia film (Fabrice Du Weiz's Vinyan) and how that was effectively used:

Made for more money than your average under-the-radar horror film (you can tell that just be seeing this streaming on Netflix as opposed to Amazon Prime), Death of Me is not a waste of time. It has ideas, and it's pretty enough to look at. But if you're the type of genre fan who can't let some very bad choices go, it will frustrate you to no end.

Still: nice beach. 

High Points

I'll never complain about seeing Starry Eyes' Alex Essoe show up in a genre film, and while I wish she had more to do here, she still helps lend a great sense of distrust to the film as the airbnb host with secrets

Low Points

You know how on America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks would often chide a beautiful young woman who didn't know how to work in front of the camera with the line, "the camera loves you, but you don't love the camera?" Well, that's somewhat true of how this film uses Thailand. Death of Me is infinitely more interesting because of its location, but I don't know that Bousman or his team pull anything exciting out of it

Lessons Learned

The Wicker Man might have had a different ending had Howie had a cell phone, but considering how poor service is anytime a genre movie is set away from a character's home, I'd say we'd have the same movie...only with a few scenes of "no bars!"

A tourist should never be confused for a celebrated guest

Maybe don't shoot the mystery gasoline-flavored alcohol that locals won't drink? JUST A THOUGHT


As with Abattoir, I appreciate Bousman's commitment to putting new spins on horror. And as with Abattoir, I find myself wildly disappointed in the end result.