Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

Sandra Oh stars in LAST NIGHT.

Retro Review: Last Night

Canada. Directed by Don McKellar, 1998. Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie. 95 minutes.

The world ends at midnight and the citizens of Toronto try to make the best of what few hours are left. Widowed architect Patrick (Don McKellar) wants to spend his final minutes by himself, much to the chagrin of his family, who commemorate the occasion with a Christmas celebration even though it’s not Christmas. Sandra (Sandra Oh), finding her car demolished by vandals, desperately tries to make it home to her husband. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) ticks items off of his sexual “bucket list,” including a black woman, a virgin, and his high school French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). And Duncan (David Cronenberg), a gas company executive, calls each and every one of his customers, wishing them a peaceful death and promising that service will remain until the very end.

McKellar also wrote and directed Last Night and his vision of the end is unfailingly polite. He tells us the streets are dangerous, implying that gangs of ruffians prowl the streets looking for unsuspecting victims. But he shows us mostly deserted streets, a bit of garbage, and the occasional destructive act. A woman and her young daughter sit unmolested for hours in a disabled streetcar–not something that indicates danger or threat. In Toronto–to misquote Bob Geldof–even the muggers are home by eight. (Yes, I realize this is probably a cost-cutting move; deserted streets are cheaper than huge crowds and wanton wreckage.)

Of course all these characters turn out to be connected in some way, which leads to what largely is my biggest issue with Last Night. Shifts in mood come radically: Duncan’s genteel good humor, Sandra’s increasing desperation, Patrick’s darkly comic pathos, and whatever Craig’s story is supposed to be like. Sometimes the film’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s tragic, but McKellar never quite blends the various modes and tones together just right. The bombastic, flamboyant score, which always seems at cross-purposes to whatever the visuals are trying to accomplish, doesn’t help at all. Maybe that’s by design.

At any rate, the issue is largely counterbalanced by the excellent cast. I’m never going to be a huge fan of Oh, but she does very well here, particularly towards the end; her performance is what makes the risky “tell me something that will make me love you” sequences work as well as they do. Rennie’s take on Craig is particularly interesting; he’s the least horny horndog the moving pictures have yet seen, and it seems like he’s not so much fulfilling long-harbored fantasies as doing things because all rich, straight white guys are supposed to want to have done them. (The hint that he’s actually gay is one of the best things in the entire film.)

Cronenberg tends to use his measured calmness for evil (see Nightbreed and To Die For), but here it makes Duncan perhaps the most likable character in the film. That’s not to say I advise him to quit his day job, but it’s nice to see him stretch out a bit as an actor. Of the principals, McKellar is the weak link–he doesn’t seem to have the range to pull off one of the screenplay’s most complex characters. Most of the time he does just fine, though.

The supporting cast is also strong, including McKellar’s late wife Tracy Wright as one of Duncan’s co-workers. A young(ish) Sarah Polley makes an appearance as Patrick’s sister; she seems to be miscast (the role feels like it was written for an older actress), but she puts in a good performance nonetheless.

Although uneven in parts, Last Night is an enjoyably low-key, well-behaved, intimate and distinctly Canadian apocalypse. Won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but still worth checking out.

Last Night poster

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars

United States/Canada, 2014. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon. 115 minutes.

Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.

The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.

It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.

Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.

While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.