Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

J.J. Abrams ends the Skywalker saga with a hot but entertaining mess

The circle is complete. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker finds J.J. Abrams returning to the trilogy he kicked off five years ago, and the result is…a hot mess, to be honest.

Admittedly, two and a half hours isn’t a lot of time when you have to introduce three new humanoid characters and a few highly-merchandisable non-humans, re-introduce two legacy characters, resolve two films’ worth of dangling plotlines, and provide some sort of tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. So Abrams wastes no time in establishing the basic plot, which boils down to the search for Emperor Palpatine‽ (interrobang required), who has…returned…somehow (cue a million diehard fans crying out in rage at Abrams for pilfering the now-decanonized pre-Disney EU for ideas).

Abrams’ strong points are developing characters and establishing mysteries, which is why he was a great choice to kick off the sequel trilogy. His weak point is resolving those mysteries; ask fans of Felicity and Alias if they thought those series ended satisfactorily. (For the thousandth time, Lost doesn’t count because by the time that show ended, he had zero creative input.) So you can probably see the problems coming a parsec away.

Predictably, the things’s a mess. The narrative lurches from set-piece to set-piece, each one more heavily laden with fan service than the last. Rey, Kylo Ren, and Palpatine all now have nearly godlike proficiency in the Force, making their altercations feel like superhero battles. The now-requisite climactic dogfight-in-space, pitting the scrappy Resistance against an impossibly huge fleet of Ginormous Star Destroyers, lacks a sense of true stakes.

As for Skywalker‘s relationship with its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s contentious (but excellent) The Last Jedi…well, Abrams clearly doesn’t approve of Johnson’s twists and subversions and walks them back as much as he can. To his credit, he manages to squeeze out two or three genuine surprises and manages to make them work surprisingly well. It would have been nice if he had rolled with the changes, though.

Now, you may get the idea that I hated this film, and that’s far, far from the truth. Yes, it’s very uneven, with too many scenes eliciting eye-rolls or groans. Yet the scenes that work work exceptionally well. A lot of it comes down to the sequel series cast, with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac holding things together brilliantly. (Sadly, Kelly Marie Tran gets short shrift, garnering less screen time and fewer lines than Abrams’s Lost buddy Dominic Monaghan.)

The new additions shine as well. Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie squeeze sparks out of their scenes with Isaac and Boyega, respectively. Richard E. Grant is such an obvious to play a First Order/Imperial officer that one wonders why it took so long to get him into a Star Wars movie. Also, D-O is adorable.

The legacy cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Carrie Fisher’s scenes feel isolated and detached from the rest of the proceedings (which is understandable, as they were cobbled together from Force Awakens and Last Jedi outtakes). Mark Hamill gets one lame scene. It’s great to see Billy Dee Williams again, even if he doesn’t actually do a whole lot.

Abrams’ direction, while somewhat pedestrian (he’s certainly no stylist), at least keeps the energy level high enough to prevent the audience from noticing the glaring plot holes until they get home from the theater.

As the (apparent) official close to both the sequel trilogy and the larger Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker just about does the job. It can’t help but disappoint, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Ultimately, though, 2019 will be remembered as the year of The Mandalorian; so if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with Baby Yoda.

Starring Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 141 minutes.

Cats

God is dead

God is dead

Starring Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild. Directed by Tom Hooper. 110 minutes.

It Chapter Two

Pennywise isn’t the only clown in the unintentionally hilarious sequel to the 2017 blockbuster

The first chapter of It, released in 2017, ended with the adolescent Losers’ Club promising, should their victory over the film’s titular cosmic terror prove temporary, to come back and finish the job. Of course, such a return engagement would be inevitable, seeing as director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman left roughly half of Stephen King’s beloved epic doorstop unadapted. So what happens twenty-seven years later, when the now-adult Losers return to the haunted town of Derry, Maine, to once again do battle with Pennywise the Dancing Clown?

I didn’t expect the answer to be “hilarity ensues.” But It: Chapter Two places the comedic elements front and center. It’s not just a case of Saturday Night Live vet Bill Hader, playing pathological wisecracker RIchie, accidentally stealing scenes from heavyweights such as Jessica Chastain (as the tough, no-longer-tomboyish Beverly) and James McAvoy (Bill, now a beleaguered novelist). James Ransone provides his share of comic relief as the grown-up Eddie (no less hypochondriacal than he was as a child), and even McAvoy gets in a camp-laden rant in a memorable scene with a kid on a skateboard. Is this entirely a bad thing, though?

Well, probably, considering it consistently undercuts most attempts Dauberman and Muschietti might make to scare or disturb. With a few exceptions — most notably an early hate crime against a gay couple and a later encounter between Pennywise and a little girl with a facial birthmark — most of Chapter Two’s set-pieces are more likely to elicit amusement than fright. In the case of Hader and Ransone’s encounter with a certain Pomeranian, that’s clearly intentional. Ditto Bill’s encounter with a pawnshop proprietor played by a certain Stephen Edwin King. But one of Ransone’s earlier scenes, where he confronts his childhood demons in a pharmacy basement, probably wasn’t meant to come off as quite so funny.

Most of the film’s comedy comes from the filmmakers’ attempt to condense the source material (one of King’s longest and densest novels) into something that can be portrayed visually. The screenplay preserves the spine of the modern-day half of the novel’s narrative — the adult Losers are introduced, reunited, split apart, and finally reunite again to fight the final battle — while replacing the actual plot beats. Infidelity to King isn’t the problem here, as much of the novel’s action is either internal or metaphysical, and wouldn’t translate well to cinema. (That scene in the book — you know the one I’m talking about — at least makes thematic sense, even if to say it doesn’t work is an understatement.)

But the new beats and concepts (and there are a lot of them; Chapter Two has a runtime just short of three hours) often run the gamut from ridiculous to the profoundly stupid. Both book and film center on a ritual the Losers must enact to overcome It. King portrays it as a largely intuitive battle of wills with its own internal logic; the film transforms it into a silly pile of faux-Native American hogwash, with a scavenger hunt bolted on to facilitate the series of quest subplots that make up the second act. Everything culminates in a climax and denouement so bad that some observers have wondered if it’s intended as a meta-commentary on King’s own reputation as a writer of terrible endings.

I’m tempted to say that Chastain, McAvoy, Hader, and friends deserve better. (In fact they do. Chapter Two underserves the character of Mike as much as Chapter One did, and also conceives the grown-up version of Ben as some sort of sentient wallpaper.) But to be honest, the ensemble’s total commitment to the material makes the film entertaining even when it’s not particularly good. The kids are back, as well, appearing in flashbacks, recreating that easy camaraderie that was one of the first film’s highlights. Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård, whom Chapter One afforded very little opportunity to actually, y’know, act, gets a lot more to do here than dance a janky jig or lend his visage to a dodgy CGI effect. And some of the film’s most memorable moments belong to him.

Still, it can’t be denied that, qualitatively, It: Chapter Two is, to say the least, highly uneven. As a narrative, it’s (to quote Douglas Adams) a crazy piece of near-junk. As a cinematic experience — well, your mileage may vary, but it’s been a while since I laughed so hard at a movie. I’m not entirely certain that’s what the filmmakers intended, but I’ll take an ambitious failure over a successful mediocrity any day.

Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor. Directed by Andy Muschietti. 169 minutes.

Housesitters

Weirder than your average specimen of no-budget underground horror.

[Full disclosure: I know Housesitters director/co-writer Jason Coffman personally. Also, I contributed to the funding of Housesitters, which earned me an onscreen credit as a member of the “Tomorrow Romance Founders Club.” The point of all this is to assure you that if I genuinely hated Housesitters I’d be so nervous about the idea of writing a scathing review that I’d probably just not write anything at all.]

Do-it-yourself micro-budget horror films have a license to be weird, but even by this standard, Housesitters is an odd duck.

Sure, the plot—a pair of callow millennial slackers (played by co-writers Jamie Jirak and Annie Watkins) take what looks to be a sweet housesitting gig only to find themselves pawns in a ritual enacted by an evil magician—looks standard enough. But I didn’t mention the sitters’ obsession with gay porn. I didn’t mention the marijuana strains named after Italian crime thrillers from the ’70s. I didn’t mention the foreplay scene where a woman holds a smoke machine in front of her groin like it’s a strap-on. And I certainly didn’t mention Little Bastard, the green puppet monster that serves as the film’s antagonist.

Director and co-writer Jason Coffman has a peculiar sense of humor. I mean, here’s his idea of an effective commercial for his film:

Some of my favorite bits of Housesitters occur when he just lets that fevered brain of his loose. (Case in point: “Dancing About Barkitecture,” the lysergic machinima interlude that separates the film’s two halves.) The story is pretty flimsy, but it at least works on its own internal logic. The characters should be more annoying than they actually are, but Jirak, Watkins, and the rest of the cast give them an easy affability (or at least, I didn’t suffer from an intense desire to tase them in the face repeatedly). Moreover, Coffman is a genuine film geek and has some understanding of how cinema is supposed to work; as a result, this thing feels more genuinely cinematic than a lot of “I’ve got a camcorder and a few hundred bucks, let’s take a week off and make a movie” type productions do. And “Dancing About Barkitecture” is a work of genius.

That’s not to say that Housesitters is a great film. The pacing is occasionally wonky, Coffman displays his influences a bit too strongly, and many of the jokes just plain fall flat. (Or at least they fall flat to anyone not named Jason Coffman.) It probably doesn’t have much to offer anyone who isn’t already disposed to liking this sort of thing. But uneven though it is, Coffman delivers something you’re not going to find anywhere else—and isn’t that point of the no-budget horror underground?

Recommended for fans of Dustin Wayde Mills (who designed and built the Little Bastard puppet), Henrique Caouto, and such—you know who you are.

Starring Jamie Jirak, Annie Watkins, Peter Ash. Directed by Jason Coffman. 62 minutes.

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci takes the end of a bloody historical era and makes farce of it… ★★★★

The 1953 stroke that ended the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin left the country without a leader. There was an obvious (if not official) successor in Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov, but Moscow was full of ambitious men plotting to bring stability while carving out the largest slice of power for themselves. Chief among them were Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentiy Beria and Moscow party leader Nikita Khruschev. Vyacheslav Molotov, a former diplomat on the outs with Stalin, saw a chance to claw his way back to relevance. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily proved to be paranoid and erratic, and others struggled to control him. Loyalties turned on a kopek coin, and yesterday’s patriot could be tomorrow’s traitor. One false move—a mistake as simple or random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and you could be denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and shot. Even history could be rewritten, if you could convincingly deny that past events never happened.

Pretty funny, huh? Science fiction author Aaron Allston once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist responsible for The Thick of It and Veep, puts this principle to work in his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin. Iannucci interprets these historical figures as comical characters and makes farce of the lengths they’ll go to avoid being killed.

To wit: on the last day of his life, Stalin “requests” a recording of a Mozart recital broadcast on Radio Moscow. The problem: Radio Moscow didn’t actually record it. So the producer goes great lengths to stage a second performance—pressing a new conductor into service, bribing the pianist, and filling empty seats in the concert hall with citizens literally grabbed off the street. The result: a recording of what the producer assures Stalin’s men is the performance as broadcast.

Iannucci doubles down on the absurdity by casting identifiable actors (often comedians) in the roles who don’t transform into famous men of history. Indeed, three of the leading actors play their characters as variations of what they’ve been doing their entire careers. Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev is brittle, high-strung, and Brooklyn-accented. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a neurotic buffoon not far removed from the dozens of similar characters he played as a member of a certain Flying Circus. And nothing would have surprised me less than if Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov started spouting random George Bluth Sr. quotes.

Despite these and other remarkable performances—Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Jason Isaacs as the cocky Field Marshal Zukhov, and strongest of all, Simon Russell Beale as the crafty, canny, and psychotic Beria—the main draw isn’t any one actor or actress but Iannucci himself, choreographing historical events as if they were scenes in Clue and writing deft, sharp zingers for his cast to lob off each other. While none of the characters prove as quotable as Iannucci’s most endearing creations, Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker, we do at least get Buscemi responding “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly” to Vasily’s request to deliver a eulogy at his father’s funeral, and Tambor inviting his rivals to kiss his Russian ass, and those are moments worth having.

Now, is it funny? I laughed quite a bit, but all comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this specific kind of comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I do assert that one of art’s most important roles in culture is to help us make sense of the senseless, and The Death of Stalin uses comedy to transform the end of an unthinkably large tragedy (this will be the last time that losers in Soviet power struggles will pay with their lives) into something that can be held in the mind and understood—and if we understand it, perhaps we can prevent it from happening again.

Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko. Directed by Armando Iannucci. 107 minutes.

The Open House

A clichéd thriller for people who like to yell at characters when they do something stupid… ★½

“Have you thought about how weird open houses are?” teenaged Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette) asks his mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton) about a third of the way through The Open House. “You give your keys to someone you hardly know, they stand in one room and welcome in a bunch of complete strangers, and those people just roam around the house. And the realtor doesn’t check the house when it’s done? They just turn the lights off and go?” All things considered, open-housing is one of the odder human rituals, but the Netflix thriller The Open House fails to make a case for it as the basis of a horror movie.

The titular open house is a McMansion in the mountains owned by Naomi’s sister. It’s on the market, but Naomi and Logan are staying there until they get back on their feet after the death of their husband/father and the loss of their rented home. Weird stuff starts to happen to the Wallaces as soon as they move in: the water heater develops a habit of getting turned off every time Naomi takes a shower, while Logan’s glasses and cellphone disappear and reappear seemingly at random. Disquieting, but easily explained away; it’s not like some psycho could have slipped in during an open house and is able to remain hidden from the Wallaces while fucking with them, right? Right?

I would think material like this would inherently be creepy, but writer/directors Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel work hard to drain each situation of all possible menace, usually by deploying the most obvious cliché possible at any given moment. Naomi and Logan driving at night along a winding road through a forest? How much you wanna bet they’ll nearly hit a mysterious figure who will just as mysteriously disappear when our heroes look back? Anything you can bet will happen, based on the standard cinematic grammar of thrillers and your own experience as a filmgoer, does. Which is a shame, considering how much work Coote and Angel put into constantly trying to fake out the audience (and it’s also a shame how little work they put into fig-leafing those fake outs).

You can’t help but feel bad for Minnette, who’s finally garnered notice as the star of Thirteen Reasons Why after spending most of a decade mining “sullen teenager” territory, and Dalton, an apparent relative newcomer. They’re saddled with factory-standard “overstressed single mom” and “withdrawn, introverted teen” characters completely incapable of seeing obvious things in front of their faces. Yet the one thing in this movie that works is the relationship between Naomi and Logan, and it’s almost entirely due to the actors. They deserve so, so much better than this.

Still, there’s one audience that might be able to eke some enjoyment out of The Open House: people who enjoy making fun of bad horror movies, especially screaming at the characters when they do stupid things. Everyone else should take the opportunity to catch up on Black Mirror or Everything Sucks or something.

Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins, Aaron Abrams. Directed by Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel. 94 minutes.

Retro Review: The Astrologer

An accidental amateur masterpiece… Rating N/A

Some bad movies are just, well, bad. Others are bad, but fun to watch. Then there is that special category of film which exhibits such disregard for the conventions of cinema that it falls down a metaphorical rabbit-hole and comes out the other side as, if not exactly a good movie, then the sort of cinematic experience which is uniquely compelling, drawing certain cult-like swarms of weirdoes to seek them out. You know the kinds of movies I’m talking about: The RoomManos: The Hands of Fate, After Last SeasonTroll 2. Add to that Craig Denney’s 1976 magnum opus and sole filmmaking effort, The Astrologer.

The film stars Denney as one “Craig Marcus Alexander,” following him through his youth as a street urchin and pickpocket, to his young adulthood as a fortune-teller at a carnival, to his eventual recruitment by a ring of jewel thieves. After two stints as a guest of the Kenyan correctional system, he smuggles a small fortune in gemstones out of Africa. Once he shakes the shady characters vying to relieve him of his bounty, he returns to California a millionaire, ready to pursue his lifelong dream: build a reputation as the world’s foremost astrologer and build a media empire. And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the film.

No written synopsis of The Astrologer can prepare the viewer for the sheer disregard for the basic fundamentals of film grammar Denney exhibits. He ruthlessly repeals the laws of cause and effect. Alexander’s rise and fall takes place over the course of months, but exposition fails to clarify which months, or what order they go in. Mood, tone, and even genre conventions change seemingly at whim: one minute, the film presents a Papillon-style examination of brutal prison conditions; the next, it’s high adventure in the jungle, like an Indiana Jones movie directed by Christopher Mihm. Denney crassly presses two songs and most of the orchestral bits from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed into service as incidental music. “I’m going to put those tropicalists where they belong: out of business!” Alexander says at one point, as if that were a thing a real person would actually say, even in the mid-’70s.

Sure, I can describe in mere words the restaurant argument scene—the slow motion, the cuts perfectly timed to match the dramatic bits of Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel”—but I can’t ever come close to conveying the actual emotional resonance of that sequence.

It becomes clear that The Astrologer is the work of a man who has no idea what the hell he’s doing, other than taking money and turning it into whatever he thought the movie was going to be. Yet Denney’s amateur status makes the film more, not less, riveting. Is it good or bad? The question’s moot.

Sadly, it has never seen a home-video release in any format and is unlikely to ever do so, apparently due to music-licensing costs. Your only option is to pray that the American Genre Film Archive brings it to a theater near you sometime during your lifetime. If it does, I sincerely urge you not to miss it.

Starring Craig Denney, Darrien Earle, Arthyr Chadbourne. Directed by Craig Denney. 96 minutes, 1976.

Desolation

An entertaining survival-horror flick with an awesome antagonist… ★★★

Desolation

United States: Directed by Sam Patton, 2017. Starring Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols, Claude Duhamel. 78 minutes. ★★★

I don’t have any statistical evidence that more films about getting over loss have come my way since October than normally do, but it sure seems like it, to the extent that I’ve called 2017 “the year of grief” somewhat facetiously, if not entirely disrespectfully. It rears its head again in Sam Patton’s Desolation. Recently widowed Abby (Jaimi Paige) sets off on a hiking trip with her thirteen-year-old son Sam (Toby Nicholas) and best friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse) to scatter the ashes of her late husband and Sam’s father. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a creepy stranger (Claude Duhamel) who starts stalking them.

This is Patton’s first feature as director and his keen eye, use of location work, and control of mood impressed me. There are a few flaws with the story and characters. The plot develops in a largely predictable way; ordinarily, I’d find this a problem, but since it looks like Patton’s going for suspense over shock or surprise, I didn’t really mind here. That could bug some viewers, though; and since it’s pretty clear from the outset which characters will live and die, the film never quite sells the danger. I appreciated how the theme of grief manifested itself in the film’s climax, but I also felt the script could have tied the themes and plot points together a bit more tightly. In keeping with the focus on suspense, Patton uses blood and gore sparingly, although it is present.

Similarly, Abby, Sam, and Jenn fall into familiar, standard-issue character roles. When the ladies discover a joint in a geocache, you just know Jenn (the mildly hedonistic bestie who brings two bottled of Cabernet on a hiking trip) will eventually suggest smoking it. Thankfully, Paige and Nichols have enough skill as actresses to add extra dimension; while Nichols’ performance doesn’t transcend the surly-teenager clichés, I didn’t find him outright annoying. Which is something.

However, Claude Duhamel provides the most compelling reason to watch Desolation. It’s not just the long hair, beard, hoodie, or ’80s-style mirrorshades that make the stranger such a menacing character. Duhamel conjures up a physical presence just oozing with menace, almost more of a force of nature than a human being. His performance kept reminding me of the big looming evil truck from Duel and the better Shapes of the Halloween franchises. He’s the sort of guy who can make you crap your pants with a slight tilt of his head.

Desolation is an entertaining survival-horror flick; while it has some flaws, it also has some strong strengths to compensate.

Desolation poster

Super Dark Times

A fascinating and chilling portrayal of doomed youth… ★★★★

Super Dark Times

United States: Directed by Kevin Phillips, 2017. Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves. 100 minutes. ★★★★

Super Dark Times opens with a death. In a high school classroom, a deer lies dying in a pool of its own blood. We don’t see how it got there—we only see the shattered window—and it probably isn’t important. What does matter is that it must be put out of its misery. The deer could be an omen that presages the tragic events to come. Or it could be the sacrifice that starts a ritual.

The characters of Super Dark Times are young teenage boys navigating the middle 1990s, the gap between the Cold War and the War, a time when we didn’t realize we still had things to fear. High school freshmen Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) spend their time doing teenage boy stuff: playing video games, discussing which of their female classmates (and teachers) they’d like to get it on with, spending hours tuned to scrambled cable channels, hoping to get a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Their younger acquaintances, eighth-graders Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), are on the road to becoming “bad kids.” Daryl dares his friends to do gross things, boasts about masturbation, and exhibits an interest in drugs and weapons: an interest which will ultimately cost one of the boys his life in a senseless accident.

If it weren’t for the 1996 setting (which allows for the soundtrack to feature songs like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth”, and explains the absence of mobile phones) I’d call Super Dark TimesRiver’s Edge for the 2010s. Both films take place in small towns where the sun hasn’t shined in years, with streets laid out in such a way to prevent escape. Both films center on kids living under the specter of benign neglect at best, outright abuse at worst. Both films work largely because they see the teenagers that don’t fit into the easy high-school stereotypes—nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, preppies, so on—and understand how they relate to each other. Chances are, you knew kids like this during your school days—or you were one of them.

Zack and Josh’s shared secret festers and rots like discarded meat, manifesting as paranoia; when Zack’s classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) reveals she reciprocates his crush, he proves too distracted to respond. Campbell and Tahan, both of whom have prior experience playing troubled teens (on the TV series The Americans and Gotham, respectively), deliver excellent performances—I could easily imagine the mental strain turning like metal gears in their heads, waiting for something, anything, to jam up the works and bring everything crashing down. These performances, as well as director Kevin Phillips’ commitment to cultivating a doom-laden, damn near apocalyptic mood—make up for a number of flaws, particularly a not-particularly-well foreshadowed twist in character development in the third act and a hard-to-follow action sequence near the end of the film.

Super Dark Times provides a fascinating and chilling portrait of characters cinema often struggles mightily to get right. One of the essential films of 2017, even if it’s not particularly comfortable.

Super Dark Times poster

Beyond the Gates

Yet another middling attempt at gory ’80s-style supernatural horror.

Beyond the Gates

United States. Directed by Jackson Stewart, 2016. Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin. 88 minutes.

Over the past few years, throwback horror seems to have sprouted a sub-subgenre of its own, one taking the form’s commitment to retro elements (old-style storylines and plot devices, synth-driven scores) one step further by reproducing the practical-effect goriness of yore: Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye, for example, reimagines Scanners as Brian Yuzna might have made it. For some reason, they all seem to star Graham Skipper, who has developed the acting technique of “staring furiously” into something of an art form:

Graham Skipper

Beyond the Gates sees Skipper taking the role of Gordon Hardesty, returning to his hometown to join his brother John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) in sorting out the affairs of their father, a video-store proprietor who disappeared some months earlier. At the store, they find the only clue to their father’s fate: a spooky “VCR board game” named Beyond the Gates, hosted by the cryptic Barbara Crampton. The brothers—along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant, Dexter and Heroes)—soon discover the game serves as a portal to another realm…and now that they’ve started playing, they have no choice but to see the game through to the end.

I can’t deny that the film has a whole heap of flaws. The pacing feels lopsided, with the first act overloaded with too much exposition, taking too long to get to the stuff that we actually care about. The supporting characters receive little in the way to define them beyond cannon fodder. Despite some impressive effects work, the gory bits play out too quickly, while the “gameplay” sequences quickly fall into repetition.

The three leads turn in decent performances in isolation, but have little to no chemistry with each other. In the case of the brothers, estranged for so long they can’t even hug each other without being awkward, this mostly works. It presents more of a problem for Skipper and Grant: their characters need to work through some long-term relationship difficulties but I could barely bring myself to believe the two actors ever met before beginning production on the film. Few of the supporting actors—including Matt Mercer (the Contracted franchise), Justin Welborn (The Signal), and C-list scream queen Sara Malakul Lane—bother to find much depth in their characters beyond “gonna die soon.”

In spite of all this, the production does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Crampton, playing a bit more flamboyantly than her recent roles in You’re Next and We Are Still Here, dominates her scenes with a curious alluring menace. Another supporting player—Jesse Merlin, as an eccentric antique store owner who knows more about the game than he’s willing to say—steals his two or three brief sequences, playing the character’s camp to the hilt.

Meanwhile, Wojciech Golczewski’s analog-synth score owes little to John Carpenter’s spare pulsing waveforms, choosing instead to evoke the prog-rock stylings of Italian composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti; it’s a bit more interesting as a result. The music combines with director Jackson Stewart’s visuals to give the film a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere, not entirely dissimilar from Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This doesn’t entirely balance out the problems, but it creates a context in which those problems become somewhat more forgivable.

Which doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend Beyond the Gates; it’s a middling effort that doesn’t get as much right as the audience might hope for. But it works better as a way to kill ninety minutes than it probably should.

Beyond the Gates poster