Monday, November 27, 2023

I Got a Bad Case of the Zoomies


Not surprisingly, the first film to debut during the COVID-19 lockdown specifically addressing the issue was a horror movie. Historically, the genre has always been first in any cinematic race of social commentary, and today's technology makes it even easier for a style that thrives on low budget to succeed. 

Host didn't do much for me, mostly because I thought the same story had been told better in the Unfriended series. Also, its success meant we'd get more of this style. 


Quick Plot: A batch of late twentysomething pals meet up for their regular Zoom parties, this time to celebrate the birthday of the awful Evan. Almost all seven of our main characters are pretty terrible, but Evan, as we will soon see, is both toxic AND stupid. 

The somewhat less awful Ollie has surprised his pals with a dose of molly carefully delivered by no-contact FedEx. Here's where we learn that indeed, they're all the worst.

It's 2023 (in this case, a fictional 2022 where COVID has mutated to even deadlier strains the country is under strict police state law) but as far as I know, we stopped pushing drugs on people with the '90s D.A.R.E. program. One of the gang (patent lawyer Ben, a newer member of the jerk club) doesn't like to do drugs. WHICH IS FINE. So what do his boyfriend and the five other pals do? 

I'm supposed to LIKE these people? Please understand, I have nothing against drugs. I have a LOT against people who FORCE their friends into taking them when they clearly explain that they're uncomfortable doing so. 

Because I don't hate these characters enough, they proceed to play Never Have I Ever (again, FINE) but pause for Ollie and his girlfriend to go have sex (HOW OLD ARE THESE PEOPLE?) and for Evan to flip out when his girlfriend Jen reveals a sexual escapade from high school that he didn't know about. This was apparently 15 years ago, 10 years before she knew him, but he is AGHAST at the fact that she once slept with two different guys in one day. 

Run, Jen. Run.

Too late. They argue, Evan flails his arms out in such a way that Jen flies back and smashes her head on a hard desk. Everybody on Zoom happened to be looking away at the time (either having sex or arguing because THESE PEOPLE ARE AWFUL) so no one quite knows what happened, but since Jen isn't breathing, the natural response is for Evan to get the hell out of there.

I feel like there are other options here.

Granted, before you, like every sane human being, scream "CALL AN AMBULANCE", I will remind you that this is a slightly more dystopian present than the one we're in now. It's muddy, but I'll accept Safer At Home's reality that hospitals are overwhelmed and anything non-COVID-related might not be acknowledged. Plus, did I mention these idiots are all high on molly?

So, Evan runs, perfectly stable selfie stick guiding us the whole way. Ollie heads out to help, and everyone else worriedly watches from their couches. There's a twist ending that most functioning adults on or off molly will guess, particularly if you've seen director Will Wenick's Follow Me. 

Like most of the internet, I hated this movie. Zoom-based thrillers only work if your cast can pull it off, and this one...doesn't. They're hampered by dialogue that rotates between bland and painful, and a narrative that hurts the brain of any thinking adult. The ending would be offensive if it wasn't, well, so stupid. 

I guess that's my way of being nice to this movie?

High Points
Hey, as with Host, I respect the idea of using video calls to craft a narrative, and Safer At Home at least has some fresh ideas in centering on a manhunt in a darker timeline (if only, you know, it worked)

Low Points
As if this film needed another reason to make you groan, it's bookended by real news footage of Donald Trump giving press conferences about the pandemic he mishandled. Nobody needs that. 

Lessons Learned
Safer At Home succeeds in one very specific arena: it teaches anyone who lasts its 85 minute runtime that drugs will indeed impair your brain activity.

I can't think of anyone I know that I would have their life improved by watching Safer At Home. I'll leave it at that. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

I Guess You Have to Start Somewhere


Some perfectly fine actors just can't seem to find roles in good movies. As Margaery Tyrell, Natalie Dormer took a minor character in one of television's largest casts and turned her into someone worthy of her own show. And yet, post-Game of Thrones, the poor woman seems to only star in terrible movie after terrible movie.

Coincidentally, here's today's Peacock find.

Quick Plot: Basically, 28 Days Later has happened, and now we're about two years in (104 Weeks?). Not quite angry monkeys, but canine rabies is the cause here. Much like those angry monkeys, these bites transform the infected into highly fit rage monsters.

Somewhere underground, obnoxious military soldiers and a handful of not-too-bright scientists are working hard to understand the virus (and believably communicate in American accents). The real hope lies in Morgan (Matt Smith), a low level officer who seems to have immunity to the pandemic. Not only did he not turn after being bitten, but he can also understand and communicate with the sick. Dr. Gina Rose (Dormer) and Scooter (John Bradley, who played the similarly silly named Samwell Tarly on Game of Thrones) are hopeful that by capturing and interrogating some infected, Morgan can help them solve the cause (and therefore cure) via the titular Patient Zero.

Could that be The Professor, a cocky rage zombie played by, hold your martini, Stanley Tucci?

All of this probably sounds fine, especially to a horror fan. Patient Zero isn't terribly unlike a slicker Day of the Dead: single spirited female staving off chauvinism, alpha male army jerks, kind but useless supporting men, zombie-ish creature that talks and likes music, you get the drift. 

What's missing? Well, a few things. The actors -- predominantly British -- all seem to be straining awfully hard to play Americans, begging the question "why not let them be British?" Matt Smith is obviously a charismatic and accomplished performer, but he's woefully miscast as the tough guy everyman with what might be an east coast accent? Our scientists seem like idiots, our survivors lack personality, leaving us all thinking the best case scenario for this reality is to let Stanley Tucci take over.

Without spoiling anything, Patient Zero ends on a weirdly open-ended note, as if this was all a setup for a new franchise the public was itching to see. "We must continue to fight!" our heroes stiffly narrate, as if this film has shown a single reason why humanity is worth saving. 

High Points
When we finally do get to the inevitable (not-but-totally) zombie invasion of the complex, director Stefan Ruzowitzky kicks into some quite good action horror

Low Points
Of course, seeing that highlight makes you realize how much this film missed its calling in not focusing on those kinds of sequences, rather than the far less compelling, far more labored human conversations

Lessons Learned
A viral apocalypse is no reason to let your hair lose its bounce

A lesser known side effect of canine rabies is that it increases your level of enjoyment of gossiping

The longer the lockdown, the messier the American accent

Patient Zero isn't a total wash, but it's an incredibly bumpy ride without a huge reward. Infected zombie completists have certainly seen worse. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Not So Quick After All, Are You?

We all know the meme, and yes, it's true: of all the things movies taught us to fear, quicksand is second only to spiders in terms of its silliness. Still, just as those eight legs sticking out of bulbous abdomens inevitably chill us, the idea of drowning slowly in gooey wet earth remains an easy way to make us squirm. 

Quick Plot: Sophia and Josh are a soon-to-be-divorced couple scheduled to give presentations at a medical conference in Bogota, Sophia's former home. They're miserable but trying to survive the week with some touch of civility so Sophia can restart her career, which she put on hold in order to focus on raising their two young children. Tired of missing out on the good stuff, Sophia insists on taking a hike. Josh joins, as does a snake-hunting pickpocket. 

A scuffle ensues, and to avoid the thief's gun, the couple run straight into Las Arenas, the spot on the map locals warn against. Sophia quickly tumbles into a vat of titular quicksand. Demonstrating some extremely poor decision-making under pressure, Josh leaps in to join her.

The generation raised on Beastmaster and The Neverending Story has obviously logged some extremely long hours in order to develop a better understanding of what to do to avoid what always sounded like the absolute worst possible way to die. Sophie and Josh are doctors with just enough knowledge to not immediately drown. They also have enough medical knowledge to identify the body that floats to the surface of their small pool as a death by starvation fate, meaning no one is likely coming to save them.

Written by Fringe and Westworld alum Matt Pitts and directed by Andres Beltran, Quicksand is a great idea with good execution. The film wastes little time setting its high stakes, but it also never feels as confined as it could. Part of that is the side non-quicksand action, but even the tightness between Josh and Sophia should have more tension. 

Maybe the issue is that the most dreadful aspect of mythical '80s movie quicksand -- the agonizing drowning in sludgy cruel nature -- is pretty quickly taken off the table. Instead, the danger comes from unimpressive CGI ants, slightly more impressive snakes, and the threat of eventual starvation. Way less sexy, if you ask me.

High Points
A near two-person show like this requires strong characters and performances, and while it takes a little time to warm up to the guarded Sophie and a little too loose Josh, over the 90 minute running time, Carolina Gaitan and Allan Hawco do great work in slowly breaking down their walls to give us a fully layered view of their life together

Low Points
The away-from-the-quicksand action is necessary for this variation of the script and in truth, is handled better than it could have been, but at the same time, shifting from imminent death by exotic wildlife to miscommunication in a fancy hotel takes so much away from the tension of Sophia and Josh's plight

Lessons Learned
Always read the guidebook in full

Ants hate nothing more than sweaty pants vodka

When dining in Texas, avoid eating oysters in bulk

The internet told me to go into Quicksand with low expectations and as a result, I had a much better time than I expected. That being said, it's been a few days since I watched Quicksand and in that time, I've found myself thinking a lot about all the little things it could have done more effectively. If you're itching for some natural element/rainforest-themed horror, this should lend some satisfaction. Just don't expect too much.

Monday, November 6, 2023

My Sorority Sister Is An Alien


It's rare to discover a movie made in Canada that fully acknowledges it was, you know, made in Canada. Maybe it's my own history with Hallmark (I once paused once during Once Upon a Holiday at exactly the right moment to catch a screenshot of characters wandering by The First Bank of Ontario despite the film being set in New York) but it's shocking in the best of ways when a film rampant in aboots embraces its own politeness and ice hockey obsession.

Quick Plot: It's Halloween, and a teen jock enters a home to discover a pair of frozen frat bros watching static. Put a pin in that because now, it's winter at St. John's College and virginal freshmen Luke and Roger are very, very horny. 

Luke meets the dorm neighbors of his dreams in the laundry room. Lilly and Constance are a pair of pre-med sorority blondes eager to flirt with the Elijah Wood-by-way-of-Jonah-Hill Roger and CW-pretty Luke. It seems too good to be true because obviously, it is! Playing peeping tom like the typical college nerd of cinema history does, Luke discovers there's more to those beautiful bodies than pilates classes.

Tentacles! We've got CGI-spewing tentacles because as you probably figured out by now, Constance and Lily are aliens on a Canadian mission to find food and breeding opportunities. Not surprisingly, Luke has a hard time getting anyone to believe him, even after a few male students sporting bucket hats and pooka shell necklaces turn up dead in mysterious ways. 

He has two lady allies: ex-girlfriend and detective Nicole Eggert (give me that movie) and misfit classmate Alex, whose misfit status seems to stem from the simple detail that she has dark hair. As Roger grows closer to Constance, Luke knows their time is running out. What's a boy to do?

Decoys is a strange little film, one that plays like a junior version of Species but with (thankfully) a knowing wink. It took me just about up to the big talent show -- one that involved baton twirling, flame throwing, ventriloquism, and flight attendant safety lessons -- to confirm that director/co-writer Matthew Hastings expected his audience to chuckle more than scream. 

How much of that is fully intentional and how much came about when the 2004 computer effects kicked is probably up for debate. I'm guessing the target audience was more the age of the college characters than 40something horror bloggers, so while I can't really speak to how well the actual film works for its goals, I'll say that somewhere in its 90 minute running time, I stopped rolling my eyes and found myself rooting for it. 

High Points
Oddly enough, it's the absurdity of the "cold Canadian college beauty pageant" setup that somehow packs the most successful laughs

Low Points
On the other hand, icky frat pledges talking in rejected Animal House jokes as a language is pretty painful

Lessons Learned
Yanni fandom is the clearest indicator of alien origin

You can do a lot of bad things at a frat party, but spilling beer on angora is an unforgivable offense 

In Canada, a "red dress" (deliberately in quotation marks) is actually blue

When you find yourself in the mood for a mild Canadian sci-fi alien thriller with a sense of humor, I don't know how many more choices you'll have than Decoys (well, maybe its sequel Decoys 2: Alien Seduction).  It's streaming on Peacock in all its 2004 glory.