The Russian Bride

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Three

Satan's Slaves

Satan’s Slaves

If you like Asian horror, jump-scares, and overpowering musical scores that punctuate every incident—scary or otherwise—with a SINISTER DRAMATIC SWELL OR STING!, you might find Joko Anwar’s remake of the Indonesian horror classic Satan’s Slaves worth a watch. For myself, I felt the film—which finds a family in dire financial straits under siege from both mundane and supernatural threats after their matriarch passes away, leaving behind a pile of nasty secrets—meant well, but simply tried too hard, especially in the third act. In its defense, it does feature three or four genuinely effective scares alongside some fine performances. I just tend to prefer a less over-the-top approach to horror.

Indonesia. Directed by Joko Anwar.

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss...

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

The preciousness of Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh doesn’t stop at the title, or the presence of Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates) at the head of the cast. Micucci and Sam Huntington play a young couple starting a new life in Los Angeles, only to discover that their cheap apartment has been appropriated as a shrine by a suicide cult founded by one Reginald E. Storsh (Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok). At times, the film threatens to collapse under the weight of its own quirk, and its “cast of thousands“—including Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty), Rhea Seahorn (Better Call Saul), Mark McKinney (The Kids in the Hall), and Maria Bamford (Lady Dynamite), among others—occasionally proves more of a distraction than a benefit. But when Seven Stages… works, it really works, thanks to director Vivieno Caldinelli’s commitment to the absurdity and brilliant performances by Micucci, Huntington, and Harmon.

United States. Directed by Viveno Caldinelli.

The Russian Bride

Single Russian mother Nina (Oksana Orlan) dreams of a new life for her and her young daughter (Kristina Pimenova) in America—but her dreams turn into a nightmare when the two move in with Nina’s internet love match, a retired surgeon played by Corbin Bernsen. Writer/director Michael Ojeda (The Amityville Terror) wastes too much time before finally ratcheting up the craziness, but Bernsen’s sinister master plan finally comes to light in the third act and the film practically explodes in a fireball of blood, diesel, and cocaine. It’s hardly destined to go down in the annals of genre history as a classic, but the sets and location work are gorgeous, and Bernsen’s return to the “psychotic medical practitioner” trope is most welcome.

United States. Directed by Michael S. Ojeda.

Gags

Sightings of a creepy clown have the entire city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, on edge in Adam Krause’s feature-length début Gags. The disjointed and meandering narrative follows four separate storylines of citizens responding to the clown-related madness, to varying effect. The most effective plots center around Heather Duprey (Lauren Ashley Carter of The Woman and Darling), an embattled local news anchor reluctantly following the story, and Charles Wright (Dead Weight’s Aaron Christensen), a conservative podcast host hunting the freako terrorizing his city on streaming video. While much of the commentary works—particularly when it comes to examining the relationship between “independent” and “mainstream” media—much of the humor falls flat, and too much time on a storyline involving stupid teenaged pranksters who behave like stupid teenaged pranksters in every horror movie ever. However, Carter and Christensen rock the house, and the whole thing culminates in ten minutes of brilliant weirdness.

United States. Directed by Adam Krause.

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

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.

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).

A scene from GREEN ROOM.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up

Note to those who have been following my Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage: there isn’t any new content in this post, this is just the “Best Of” and Ranking segments broken off from the day 8 post for ease of reading.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up”

A scene from FEBRUARY.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Five

Day five gave us: the surreal German black comedy Der Bunker; the Emma Roberts horror vehicle February; Schneider vs. Bax, the latest from Borgman director Alex van Warmerdam; the French remake of Mario Bava’s crime drama Rabid Dogs; and more!

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Five”

Gemma Arterton and Ryan Reynolds star in THE VOICES.

The Voices

United States/Germany. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, 2014. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver. 103 minutes.

Last week, in my review of Self/less, I wrote that Ryan Reynolds “will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor.” After seeing him in the black comedy The Voices, the latest film from multi-hyphenate Marjane Satrapi (she wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Persepolis, then co-wrote and co-directed its animated adaptation before moving on to live-action filmmaking with Chicken with Plums), I won’t entirely walk back that assessment of his talent but I am willing to accept that he might be a better actor than I realized. (It’s possible my completely justified utter fucking loathing of Van Wilder blinded me.)

Reynolds stars as Jerry, a worker at a bathroom-fixtures factory in a small town so relentlessly pastel-colored it makes the town from Edward Scissorhands look like a set from The Begotten. I mean, he even wears a pink jumpsuit on the job. Jerry has a history of mental illness, part of which manifests itself as hallucinations of his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers talking to him (Reynolds supplying both voices as well, natch). He develops a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), an English expat temp who works in accounting. A series of mishaps ends with Fiona dead by his hand, possibly an accident, possibly not; he’s not really sure. So he cuts off her head and sticks it in her fridge, as one does, and it begins to talk as well. Jerry wonders if he can put himself back on the path of goodness; Bosco, Whiskers, and Fiona all have opinions on that, while Fiona’s co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Jerry’s court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) complicate matters further.

Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry dish out a huge plate of food with this project: it wants to be insightful, it wants to be philosophical, it wants to make some social commentary, and it wants to be funny a specifically tasteless way. I can’t shake the sense that, metaphorically speaking, Satrapi and Perry’s eyes might have been larger than their stomachs. There are certainly bits that don’t seem as thought-through as they should have been, the overall structure’s a bit loose, and let’s be honest, “intelligent, evil, scheming cats versus good-hearted if essentially dumb dogs” has been played out for years.

I can forgive a lot of this because it’s just so damn hilarious, and Reynolds’s performance is key to that. While there are comedic dimensions to Arterton’s performance (especially once she’s a severed head in a fridge) and also Kendrick’s, Reynolds is essentially the comic lynchpin of the film. The pets get a lot of the attention–understandable, because talking animals always do. Plus, when you’ve got Reynolds giving Bosco a dopey Goliath-from-Davey and Goliath drawl (great for lines like “You’re a good man, Jerry. No one’s going to rape you”) and Whiskers the best terrible-but-brilliant fake Scots accent since Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer, it’s hard for them not to steal the scenes.

But they’re a sideshow, not the main event. Jerry is the main event, and the wide-eyed, upbeat naïf with a dark side he can barely acknowledge exists is so completely removed from anything I ever thought I would ever see him do in anything ever that I want to call his performance “unrecognizable.” It’s not, of course, but there were points in which I forgot I was watching Ryan Reynolds, actor. I rarely get that feeling, even when I’m watching actors I legitimately think are great.

Which isn’t to say he’s the only think worth watching in the film. Arterton and Weaver also put in great turns, as does Ella Smith as another member of the accounting department. Aesthetically, the film is a treat, from its opening song about how great the town is to the lovingly retro production design and Satrapi’s impressive camera skills.

But this is, above all, a Reynolds vehicle, and he’s what makes it worth watching during its less-strong moments, such as when it deals with Kendrick (who’s not bad, just kinda miscast), and–I know I sound like a broken record here, I can’t help it–the cat/dog stuff. If dark comedies are your thing, you owe it to yourself to make a bee-line to this one.

THE VOICES poster.