Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Justice League

Justice League

United States. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds.

I like grim, dark cinema as much as the next guy. Hell, probably more. But when your antagonist is named Steppenwolf, your monsters are called Parademons, and your McGuffins are the Mother Boxes…maybe you want to make sure you’re not taking things too seriously. Especially if your design is so ugly you’ve somehow managed to turn Amber Heard into an H.R. Giger sculpture.

Still, that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. The big issue is that the arrival of Steppenwolf should be an awesome event, yet for all the film’s ponderousness, the stakes don’t feel any greater than a bunch of motion-captured CGI constructs punching each other in front of a green screen. And it goes on like this forever, until Superman finally gets his act together and joins the fray.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. The last-minute drafting of Joss Whedon provides the proceedings with a much-needed injection of levity. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman steals most of the action sequences, while Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash steal most of the dialog scenes. Most crucially, when Bruce Wayne states that Superman is “more human than I am,” one gets the sense that someone on the creative team has finally figured out what all these characters mean. Sadly, it’s all too little, too late.

But at least we’re inching toward the DC Comics crossover movie the characters deserve and the fans have been clamoring for.

Bitch

Bitch

United States. Directed by Marianna Palka. Starring Jason Ritter, Jamie King, Marianna Palka.

“Mothers are people too” shouldn’t really be a radical, subversive statement…not at all, especially not in 2017. But we have literal Nazis in the government and the President retweeting white nationalist groups, so we’re clearly living in Evan Dorkin’s Fuckworld (an alternate universe exactly like the one we used to live in, with the only difference being that everything’s totally fucked). So maybe it’s a good time to remind ourselves of things that are basically common sense.

Sadly, Bitch turns out to be less subversive than I’d hoped. I love the basic premise: Jill, a put-upon stay-at-home-mom to four adorable but unruly kids, whose philandering husband Bill refuses to let her take any other role in their relationship, finally snaps and takes on the personality of a wild dog. I had a great time watching the clueless Bill, who does not even know where his children go to school, flail (and fail) at the most basic tasks of child-raising.

Unfortunately, that’s just a series of jokes, not an actual narrative. When the story does develop, it coagulates around Bill instead of Jill; I understand why—the sudden absence of the glue that holds the household together is a great source of drama. This culminates in a redemption plot for Bill (which I felt he hadn’t earned) and something of a jarring happy ending. I, personally, would have found a comeuppance more satisfying.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver

United States. Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González.

The bad news is that Edgar Wright’s latest film is a classic example of style over substance; the good news is, when you have style like this, you don’t need substance.

Baby Driver is probably the best car movie I have ever seen not directed by George Miller (although I must confess I have never seen any of the Fast and Furious series), with Wright staging his chase scenes like parkour with autos, set to the best assortment of vintage and retro-sounding classics this side of Quentin Tarantino. There’s also a story—a young driving prodigy (Ansel Elgort) seeks to get out from under the thumb of a controlling crime boss and abscond with the waitress he loves—but it’s little more than an excuse for the stunt sequences and a series of amazing performances from some awesome actors, such as Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, and yes, Kevin Spacey.

That’s not saying that Baby Driver is perfect. For example, Lily James (who plays the love interest) has charm to spare, but it takes more than charm to cover up the fact that her character is little more than a plot device. But Baby Driver is so awesome that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Probably my favorite film of the year, so far.

The Square

The Square

Sweden. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary.

The titular Square is an art installation, a square set into the floor with a nearby plaque explaining: The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligationsThe Square‘s writer-director, Ruben Östlund (who’s actually installed Squares in real life), describes it as “a symbolic place where you’re reminded of our common responsibility and the social contract,” and he’s populated his film with personalities who could use such reminders.

Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a Swedish museum who’s just acquired the Square, is one such individual. A friend of mine once told me that it was possible for a very likable person to be “nice” without necessarily being “good,” and that distinction fits Christian. He’s not an unpleasant man, and he certainly seems to mean well, but he also easily falls prey to the sort of selfishness that its practitioners find very easily to rationalize; they don’t even realize they’re not doing the right thing.

Östlund uses Christian’s moral fractures and his journey through the world of bleeding-edge modern art to explore one of my favorite themes, the difference between who we believe ourselves to be and who we actually are. The Square has a tendency to meander through its picaresque structure; for example, none of the main characters figure heavily in the film’s most widely-discussed scene (a performance artist doing an uncomfortably accurate impression of a monkey at a fancy-dress party). Put bluntly, there’s too much seemingly aimless drifting during the film’s two-and-a-half hours. In compensation, The Square offers up several moments of sublime absurdity that make the overall experience worthwhile.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

United States. Directed by Macon Blair. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, Devon Graye, Jane Levy, David Yow.

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin represented a breakthrough not just for Saulnier, but also for his lead actor and longtime buddy, Macon Blair. I found Blair’s own directorial début, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, heavily reminiscent of Blue Ruin, albeit not in a bad way: they both take place in similar environments and feature similar characters. Blair’s film, while somewhat dark, doesn’t borrow Blue Ruin’s bleakness, opting instead for a gallows humor not entirely removed from the Coen brothers’ dark crime-dramedies.

World-weary nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) and lonely weapons enthusiast Tony (Elijah Wood) experience the world’s weirdest meet-cute when the former takes the latter to task for allowing his dog to shit on her lawn. But they end up forging a surprisingly strong relationship when she asks him to help her track down the thieves (led by Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) who burgled her house. To say they end up over their heads is an understatement.

Blair doesn’t always keep the tone on the right side of the humor-serious line, and Wood has trouble distinguishing between “endearingly awkward” and “creepily awkward.” But the milieu works, with the backwater setting serving as a character unto itself, a run-down slice of Americana that still possesses enough hope to get its inhabitants through the day.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

United States. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell.

If Three Billboards only consisted of Frances McDormand (as a mother frustrated with the lack of interest the police show in solving her daughter’s murder) squaring off against Woody Harrelson (as a popular sheriff whose force has been beset with allegations of racially-oriented brutality), it would be worth the ticket price.

But writer/director Martin McDonagh isn’t content with mere thespian fireworks. Three Billboards is an unflinching examination of rural Middle America, a community as familiar as the small Midwestern towns many of us hail from. Here, nobody likes change and the first rule is “don’t rock the boat.” McDonagh wears his themes a bit too obviously on his sleeve—Sam Rockwell’s character, a drunken, racist deputy and Harrelson’s Number Two, is named “Jason Dixon.” The subtext should be obvious.

But it’s ultimately all in a good cause, as the film forces the viewer to confront the possibility that the bad guy just might be as human as you are. And yes, McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all on fire, as are John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin (here playing a character not entirely removed from her signature role as Mrs. Mac on Always Sunny), and a dozen others.

The film cuts quick, and cuts deep, and it hurts more than we expect, because we recognize we’re looking at ourselves. Hands down, one of the top films of 2017.

The Girl with All the Gifts

I Also Watched…

The Girl with All the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy, 2016). It’s rare enough that a year gives us one good zombie movie, but 2016 gave us two great ones. While Train to Busan took a back-to-basics, balls-to-the-wall attitude to zombie mayhem, The Girl with All the Gifts is more thoughtful and less action-oriented. It takes the time to consider what might cause zombie outbreaks (although here they’re called “hungries” and they have more in common with 28 Days Later’s rage-zombies) and whether such unfortunates have a right to exist. Plus, it’s stacked with powerful performances, particularly Sennia Nenua as the titular Girl, whose biology may hold the key to defeating the “hungries,” and Glenn Close as a scientist willing to go to any length to find that key. Overall, a great film that wants to scare you and make you think in equal measure.

Blood in the Snow 2017

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

Animals

Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Cinepocalypse: Mohawk; Applecart; secret screening

My fourth day of screenings (and sixth day of the festival overall) brought me MohawkApplecart, and the much-anticipated secret screening.

Mohawk

Mohawk

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan. Starring Kaniehtiio Horn, Justin Rain, Eamon Farren, Ezra Buzzington, Jonathan Huber. 91 minutes.

Ted Geoghegan’s follow-up to We Are Still Here finds the filmmaker in an angry mood. Set in unsettled New York territory during the War of 1812, Mohawk pits the Mohawk couple Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), and their mutual lover, Englishman Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) against a small squadron of American soldiers led by the ruthless Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). The Americans’ goal is to secure the Mohawk as allies against the British—and to treat them as enemies if the tribe refuses. If you know anything about American dealings with the country’s indigenous peoples, you don’t need me to tell you that things go south pretty quick.

Geoghegan mixes genres unapologetically here, but the main vibe is that of a hunt/chase film with a hint of horror and a large portion of tragedy, with sharp and brutal action sequences; you can almost feel the musket ball as it tears through flesh. The three leads put in fine performances and have fantastic chemistry, but the American soldiers, villainous though they are, are drawn fully as characters; particularly memorable are WWE wrester Jon Huber as the hulking but strangely honorable Lachlan and Noah Segal as the foppish, cowardly translator Yancy.

The suspense, action, and overall intensity of the film help deliver its powerful social commentary. Mohawk’s resistance to the whitewashing (pun very much intended) of American history is especially important, for reasons I hope are obvious.

Applecart

Applecart

United States. Directed by Brad Baruh. Starring Brea Grant, AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Dalah, Elise Luthman, Joshua Hoffman. 80 minutes.

Director/co-writer Brad Baruh (a protégé of Don Coscarelli, who executive-produced) subjected his feature début, Applecart, to “radical changes” since rolling it out at Fantastic Fest to what seems to have been a largely negative reception. I gather opinion of this “definitive cut” is still polarized, but fuck it, I really liked it.

Brea Grant and AJ Bowen play the parents of two teenagers (today in “You Are Old”: Brea Grant is old enough to play the mother of teenaged children) who head to an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter’s plus-one; the horror starts when Bowen happens across an unconscious Barbara Crampton in the woods. Baruh and co-screenwriter Irving Walker interpolate the plot with scenes from a future episode of a true-crime reality show (shades of The Final Broadcast) focusing on the family’s tragic massacre at the cabin. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the two versions of events don’t jive.

Baruh delivers top-notch gore and fantastic performances from his cast (particularly Grant and daughter Sophie Dalah, but Crampton steals the show), but what I really loved was the structure and commentary. Without it, all you have is another cheap Evil Dead knock of. Instead, Applecart delivers a wallop of a message about the importance of “controlling the narrative”—a powerful and devastating lesson, but a vital one in today’s post-truth culture.

It Came from the Desert

Secret Screening: It Came from the Desert

United States/Canada/Finland. Directed by Marko Mäkilaakso. Starring Harry Lister Smith, Alex Mills, Vanessa Grasse.

It is as Mark, the Elevator Operator, told us on the night we met David S. Pumpkins: “Hey, look, it’s a Hundred Floors of Frights. They’re not all gonna be winners.”

And so it was with the secret screening. After initially trying to wrongfoot the audience with the first twenty or so minutes of Barney’s Great Adventure (the first act of which bears an uncanny resemblance to, I bull you no shit, Troll 2), the programmers revealed It Came from the Desert, a dudebros-versus-giant-ants extravaganza with all the charm and appeal of an Asylum production: that is to say, none.

I gave up after about half an hour and went home. It’s conceivable that it improved after that…

…no, I take that back, it’s not actually conceivable.

Next

My last two movies of the festival will be the Canadian wartime horror Trench 11 tomorrow and the surreal-looking Animals on Thursday.

Cinepocalypse: Part 3

Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Cinepocalypse: Part 2

Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

Cinepocalypse: Part 1

Cinepocalypse: Tragedy Girls; Get My Gun

This November marks the inaugural Cinepocalypse. While it can’t accurately be said to be Chicago’s first film festival dedicated to genre (Willy Atkins’ Chicago Horror and Indie Horror Film Festivals probably deserve that distinction), it does seem to be the first one with major power behind it. Co-organized by one of the minds behind the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival and boasting sponsorship from IFC Midnight, Bloody Disgusting and the AV Club, the basic idea seems to be Fantastic Fest-type fare, with 100% less Devin Feraci. The festival takes over Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater for eight days, running from November 2 to 9.

And, of course, I’ll be there. I plan to see a dozen films, and as always, I’ll pass my opinions along to you—starting with my Friday screenings, Tragedy Girls and Get My Gun.

Tragedy Girls

Tragedy Girls

United States. Directed by Tyler MacIntyre. Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Josh Hutcherson. 90 minutes.

We haven’t had a teen horror movie since…uh, Happy Death Day, I think. I haven’t seen that yet, but don’t judge me; I was busy covering CIFF. Anyway, the dark high school comedy Tragedy Girls stars Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as the titular Girls, a pair of morbid BFFs with a nascent social media empire. When a serial killer (Kevin Durand) takes up residence in their town, the Girls sieze their chance to boost their numbers by committing a few murders themselves.

So of course with a movie like this the major reference point will be Heathers (pay close attention when the Girls reveal the serial killer’s name) and the ’90s works of Kevin Williamson. What makes Heathers work, for me at least, is the fact that even if Winona Ryder’s character isn’t an actual outsider per se she has outsider cred. This means that, number one, she sees the high school social hierarchy for the steaming pile of bullshit it is, and number two, the target audience, whose members probably see themselves as outsiders, have an identification figure.

The Tragedy Girls, on the other hand, are two of the most popular students in their class—they’re cheerleaders, they run the Prom Committee. They pass for normal, and apparently always have, partially because almost all of their classmates are also sociopaths, and partially because everyone in town in any position of real authority is an idiot. They’re don’t want to burn the system down because the system sucks, they want to burn it down because they like burning shit down.

Now, none of this is automatically wrong per se, but since I found myself unable to root for the Tragedy Girls and the one other possible identification character was clearly doomed from the start, I felt adrift. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, and a lot of it is very funny. I liked the sly commentary about how important social media has become in our lives (and I found a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement about halfway through the film…at least I hope I did). I liked the visual shout-out to Cannibal Holocaust. I liked all the performances, particularly Hildebrand and Josh Hutcherson as a shallow kid who hilariously pretends to be deep.

But I also noticed I was only laughing along with the audience about half the time. Clearly they were seeing something else in the film I wasn’t.

Get My Gun

Get My Gun

United States. Directed by Brian Darwas. Starring Kate Hoffman, Christy Casey, Rosanne Rubino, William Jousett. 90 minutes.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through Get My Gun, its protagonist Amanda (Kate Hoffman) screams, “How the FUCK is this my life!” By this point, she’s been raped, impregnated by her rapist, and discovered that the woman who’d agreed to adopt Amanda’s unborn child has, shall we say, severe emotional and mental issues. We can reasonably assume things are not going to get better without getting much worse first.

Filmmaker Brian Darwas, alongside co-screenwriter Jennifer Carchietta, cast Get My Gun squarely in the tradition of exploitation classics such as Ms. 45 (and if you want to put the word “classics” in ironic air quotes, add I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The overall film doesn’t focus as much on revenge as the opening scenes—which include Amanda clad in a nun’s habit, pointing a shotgun at a creep and demanding he “Get in the fucking car!”—imply. Instead, Darwas and Carchietta just keep throwing shitty situation after shitty situation at her, seeing how much she can take before she finally breaks.

Even with the filmmakers portraying Amanda’s rape as sensitively as possible without losing its intensity, this isn’t an easy watch, and I respect the filmmakers and the cast for their commitment to the material. Hoffman displays extraordinary vulnerability and bravery in her performance. Unfortunately, the introduction of Catherine (the psycho who wants Amanda’s child) sees the film stray too far into slasher-film territory. The script leaves too many gaps between characters: Amanda’s best friend sets up the practical joke which leads to her rape, but this doesn’t change their relationship at all. The final third of the film sees multiple characters gain superheroic abilities to suffer multiple potentially fatal injuries and not only survive, but not suffer any side effects.

I really wanted to like Get My Gun more than I did, but that third act pretty much killed it for me. Oh well.

Next

My next screenings are on Sunday night: the Canadian film The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Turkish director Cam Evrenol (Baskin).

Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

It

United States. Directed by Andy Muschietti, 2017. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton. 135 minutes.

Muschietti takes the same approach to the flashback half of Stephen King’s massive 1985 tome that he took to his Del Toro-produced début Mama: take a live-action performance, CGI it up, and throw it at a bunch of tweens. All that’s missing is Jessica Chastain (and she’s heavily favored to star in the sequel—although my ideal adult Bev would be Lizzy Caplan).

Astonishingly, it actually works, even if the parallels with Stranger Things are inevitable (but let’s be honest: Finn Wolfhard is the ideal Richie Tozier). The cast are the key to this, particularly Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis and Jack Grazer. Unfortunately, Jaeden Lieberher was a bit of a wash, but he didn’t impress me much in Midnight Special either.

But Bill Skarsgård, who plays the film’s titular clown-monster, deserves better than to be buried under all this CGI. He only gets to actually perform two or three times over the course of the film, and they’re easily the most memorable moments. More scenes like those would have made the difference between “very good horror movie” and “possibly the best horror movie of 2017.”

Mother!

Mother!

United States. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2017. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem. 121 minutes.

By the time I figured out what was going on, the film was three-quarters over—which turned out to be a positive thing, because that was also the point at which I stopped caring about what was going on. But hey, I’m glad that someone was willing to finance and distribute the most alienating film of Aronofsky’s career (and I’m saying this as someone who loves The Fountain). I mean, it’s quite an accomplishment to make a film with Jennifer Lawrence that nobody wants to see.

Theory of Obscurity

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents

United States. Directed by Don Hardy, 2015. 87 minutes.

In the late sixties, a quartet of disaffected artsy individuals made the journey from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California. Operating on the premise that artistic clarity could only be achieved by entirely hiding their identities from the public, thereby insulating oneself from the expectations of the outside world—they formed the Residents, the cult rock band to end all cult rock bands. They gained notoriety for wearing eyeball masks in public and released classic records such as The Commercial Album (forty songs, each exactly one minute in length), Duck Stab!, and The Third Reich ‘n Roll. They pioneered postmodern deconstruction of pop songs, musical mashups, and music videos as an art form.

Sadly, Don Hardy’s documentary Theory of Obscurity can only get so close to a group of artists whose commitment to anonymity is such that they refuse to speak for themselves on-camera. Hardy gets plenty of interviews with collaborators and admirers (including Penn Jilette and members of Devo, Talking Heads, Primus, and Neurosis), along with the band’s longtime management team, the Cryptic Corporation. But the Residents themselves don’t break five decades of precedent.

In his defense, Hardy does offer a few highlights, mostly of interest to hardcore fans, such as interviews with ex-Cryptic officers and a video recording of a 1972 guerrilla open-mic performance by the band’s (probably fictional) mentor N. Senada. But with these exceptions, very little material seems actually revelatory.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

United States. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto. 163 minutes.

The world may not have needed a sequel to Blade Runner, but since it has one, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that it doesn’t suck. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t the mind-blower its predecessor was, but then again it never could be, not after nearly forty years of future-noir and cyberpunk. What it does do is advance the aesthetic somewhat, bolting it to an intelligent and thoughtful story. This is the benefit of having Denis Villeneuve at the helm: while I’ll readily admit to liking Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I don’t think Ridley Scott’s treatment of the Blade Runner themes would have had quite the power.

My main criticisms are that the film is too long and does not feature enough Mackenzie Davis.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Ireland. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp. 120 minutes.

With his latest effort, Yorgos Lanthimos dials back his comedic sensibility (understanding that the definition of the word “comedic” shifts somewhat when applied to a Lanthimos film) to reveal something more nakedly disturbing.

Don’t take that to mean that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a conventional specimen of whatever the hell it’s supposed to be. If it’s a horror film, it’s one in the same way that Funny Games is. Lanthimos puts a textual layer between the characters and the audience, usually represented by the actors’ somewhat stilted and awkward line-readings (this filmmaker’s trademark; you’ll recognize it if you’ve seen The Lobster), rendering even the most intense moments a little chilly.

This works very well for the film’s antagonist (played by relative newcomer Barry Keoghan), whose dead-eyed stare emphasizes the disturbance in the character’s mind. Most of the rest of the cast aren’t so lucky, and only Nicole Kidman seems to be her character as opposed to acting (this is one of my favorite Kidman performances in a long time).

This is almost certainly Lanthimos’s intent, and in all fairness, I liked Sacred Deer a lot—I enjoyed its Kubrickian aesthetic sensibility. But I couldn’t help wondering if the film would work better if he took a more conventional approach.

TV Good Sleep Bad: Episode 21

TV Good Sleep Bad #21: “Stranger Things & The Outer Limits”

It’s October again, and that means a spooky horror-themed episode of TV Good Sleep Bad, the podcast that wants to know if you took Bear-Bear! So grab your character sheet and your twenty-sided dice and prepare to do battle with…the Demogorgon! (Well, actually it’s episodes of The Outer Limits and Stranger Things.)

In this episode, we discuss:

The Outer Limits, “Under the Bed” (season 1 episode 11, 1995): A young boy disappears from his bedroom, and it’s up to a small-town cop and a child psychologist to find out what happened to him…and to prevent his little sister from sharing his fate.

Stranger Things, “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers” (season 1 episode 1, 2016): What happened to Will Byers as he rode his bike home from his friends’ house? Who is the mysterious, shaven-headed girl known only as “Eleven?” Will the douchey Steve Harrington ever get it on with Nancy Wheeler?

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Part Three

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.