My Month in Film: September 2019

The Hole in the Ground and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

I am happy to say that, after a couple years of real-life chaos, I’ve returned to the world of amateur cinematic critiquing. Plus, TV Good Sleep Bad has returned for another run of cult TV randomness. All of this and more, if only I can get the hang of WordPress’s so-called “improved editing experience.” Feh!

September Content Recap

This month’s full-length reviews:

TV Good Sleep Bad: Episode 32 — Gravity Falls and Liquid Television

Other podcast appearances: The LAMBCast #496: It Chapter Two

Capsule Reviews

The Hole in the Ground

I reckon one of the upsides to not having children is that I never have to spend sleepless nights worrying that they’ve been abducted and replaced with physically exact duplicates possessing inhuman strength and a sudden taste for spiders.

Thus, I cannot relate to predicament Sarah, the young single mother played by Seána Kerslake in The Hole in the Ground, finds herself in after she and her young son discover the titular ginormous Hole in the Ground (which looks like a cross between a giant’s eye and the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi) in the immense, dense woods behind their new house. Which they’ve just moved into after fleeing Sarah’s abusive ex.

I hope you like your horror movies blatantly, unsubtly metaphorical, because so much of this movie fails to make sense if taken literally. (“How has no one other than Sarah and her son managed to notice this god damn huge sinkhole, even though it’s clearly been there since the ’80s at least?” is only one question that that film will not even attempt to address.) Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until about half-way through, when director/co-writer Lee Cronin shifts gears and decided he wants to spice the pot up with the sort of kick-ass motherhood that was all the rage in early 2010s horror movies.

It has quite a few lovely scenes, and also James Cosmo, who always seems to be at hand when Irish children are menaced by the supernatural (see also: Citadel). And it’s very pretty. Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t seem to have any ambition beyond “The Babadook, but Irish” which ultimately ends up letting the end product down.

Starring Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, James Cosmo. Directed by Lee Cronin. 90 minutes.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Nobody loves Hollywood more than Quentin Tartantino. So I was more than a little surprised when Tarantino’s latest turned out not to be a work of symbolic fellatio. His fairytale of L.A. proves to be quite compelling, largely through its meticulous recreation of the collective American folk-memory of Tinseltown in the first half of 1969, late enough in the ’60s for hippies and Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” but before Manson and Altamont. (Considered in this light, the film’s much-maligned ending makes perfect thematic sense.)

Key to this is Margot Robbie, a talent whom, like Tarantino, I find myself often adopting a cynical attitude towards even if I’m impressed with her body of work overall. Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of lines in the film, but unusually for QT, her performance works not on the basis of her ability to recite stylized dialog but her ability to embody Sharon Tate, or at least Tate as we collectively fantasize her to have been, not as she actually was. (Which isn’t to say the portrayal isn’t accurate; I don’t know enough about her to judge.) Leo and Brad may get all the QT dialog (although my favorite line of the film, “I’m as real as a donut,” is uttered by someone named Austin Butler), but it’s Margot we’re all going to walk out of the theater remembering.

As with most fairytales, it’s somewhat on the shallow side. Which is fine; Hollywood is not a particularly deep place, or at least, it won’t be until, in the words of Bill Hicks, “L.A. falls in the fuckin’ ocean and is flushed away” and leaves “nothing but a cool, beautiful serenity called Arizona Bay.”

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. 161 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.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Four

Final batch of reviews. Relaxer, Heavy Trip, The Appearance, and more short films.

Relaxer

Relaxer

Early on in Relaxer, the protagonist—a shirtless, pantsless slacker named Abbie—vomits what looks like a quart of milk all over himself. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the cinematic experience the film offers. The plot—at least, what passes for it—requires Abbie to best the world-record Pac-Man score* before he can leave his couch. If you think spending ninety minutes watching someone fiddle with a Nintendo controller sounds dull, guess what: it’s actually worse than it sounds. The script, largely devoid of incident, tends to focus on the largely unlikable characters engaging in interminable bickering (Abbie spends what seems like 10 to 15 minutes arguing with a “friend” over a bottle of cherry-flavored Faygo), separated by long, silent sequences focusing on lead actor Joshua Burge’s slack, dead-eyed stare. Not even a half-assed attempt at a subplot involving a pair of 3-D glasses that give Abbie telekinetic powers can relieve the monotony. If there’s an allegory here, I’m not finding it. Pointless, tedious, and actively unpleasant.

* Long story short: the world-record Pac-Man score (something in excess of 3.3 million points) cannot ever be beaten, because it represents reaching level 256 and scoring every possible point on all of those boards. Due to a quirk in the game software, it’s impossible to progress past 256, the game’s legendary “kill screen.”

United States. Directed by Joshua Potrykus.

Heavy Trip

Heavy Trip

Scandinavian black metal gets its very own equivalent to The Blues Brothers with this strangely feel-good comedy. The “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandic metal” band Impaled Rektum has been practicing at their guitarist’s father’s small-town slaughterhouse for twelve years but has never played an actual gig. That all changes when the promoter of a Norwegian heavy-metal festival pays a visit to the slaughterhouse, and soon the band finds itself on a quest to play said festival (even though they’re not actually invited). While the ensuing plot is more than a little familiar, the film succeeds with flying colors thanks to a rapid stream of hilarious gags and situations, strong performances and endearingly goofy characters (particularly Max Ovaska as the guitarist, who gets the film’s by-far best line). Probably the best tribute to heavy metal and its fandom since Saxon’s “Denim and Leather.”

Finland/Norway. Directed by Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren.

The Appearance

The Appearance

Jake Stormoen and Game of Thrones fan favorite Kristian “Hodor” Nairn play a pair of inquisitors investigating accusations of devilry at a medieval monastery in Kurt Knight’s historical horror The Appearance. Remixing a number of standard elements from the sub-genre—including a wide-eyed girl accused of witchcraft, a hard-assed, cruel abbot, a series of ghastly murders, and more secrets than you can shake the Latin mass at—The Appearance occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its familiarity (its overlong run time—I’m not sure how long it is, but the 90-minute time cited in the Cinepocalypse program was definitely wrong—doesn’t help matters). But Knight maintains a thick, eerie atmosphere throughout, and most of the cast (particularly Stormoen, Nairn, and Baylee Self) put in fine performances. If only they could have done something about those accents…

United States. Directed by Kurt Knight.

My Monster

Short Films

My Monster

Screened alongside Await Further Instructions.

Brea Grant finds herself plagued by both a hideous monster and a clueless husband(/boyfriend/partner/whatever) in this brief horror-comedy. I’ll pretty much watch Brea Grant in anything, and she didn’t disappoint me here, but overall My Monster didn’t do much for me.

Canine

Screened alongside Gags.

A man searches his neighborhood for his missing dog. I sussed out the twist pretty early, but I still enjoyed it.

Spell Claire

Screened alongside Relaxer.

The titular ’80s-obsessed Claire finds a Speak & Spell at a garage sale. It doesn’t like her. Have you ever wanted to watch a movie about an evil Speak & Spell? Here’s your chance. I’ll say it again for the kids in the back: EVIL SPEAK & SPELL! Winning performance by Wendy Jung.

Festival Overview

Ranking of all the movies I watched

The great:

  1. Heavy Trip
  2. Await Further Instructions
  3. Empathy Inc.

The good:

  1. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…
  2. Clara’s Ghost
  3. What Keeps You Alive
  4. The Devil’s Doorway
  5. The Appearance
  6. Satan’s Slaves
  7. The Russian Bride

The meh:

  1. The Ranger
  2. Gags
  3. Malicious

The bad:

  1. The Brink
  2. Hover
  3. Relaxer

Various achievements

Best director: Yedidya Gorsetman, Empathy Inc.

Best actress: Paula Neidert Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best supporting actress: Abby Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best actor: Zack Robidas, Empathy Inc.

Best supporting actor: Max Ovaska, Heavy Trip

Best screenplay: Gavin Williams, Await Further Instructions

Best original score: Omri Anghel, Empathy Inc.

Best use of non-original music: “Georgy Girl,” performed by the Seekers, Clara’s Ghost

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Three

Satan’s Slaves, Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…, The Russian Bride, Gags.

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.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Two

The Brink, Empathy Inc., Malicious, Clara’s Ghost, and the Short Trip to Hell short film program.

Mainline

Short Film Program: Short Trip to Hell

Page One

Abunch of actors in a zombie movie are attacked by actual zombies, and then they get into a huge fight because the survivor who has the best head on their shoulders is a redshirt extra that certain people consider themselves above having to listen to. (The extra is black and the people who don’t like him are white, so I’m detecting a bit of a metaphor here.) It was entertaining enough, I guess, but I had a bit of difficulty trying to remember it a couple days afterward.

Stay

A coven enacts a human sacrifice ritual to summon a demon and one of the witches enters a sexual relationship with it, and a lot of bodies pile up before she realizes it really isn’t into commitment. Pretty damn funny, actually. If you’ve ever heard/read me use the phrase “gnarly cock of Satan,” I’m pretty sure it appears in Stay.

The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds

A bunch of years ago I saw a short film called, I think, The Ballad of Stumpy Sam. It was a musical horror-comedy set at a summer camp and the main song told the story of the titular slasher that plagued the camp. This is pretty much the same thing, but in this case the slasher is called “Squirt Reynolds” because he wears a Burt Reynolds mask. It’s probably a lot funnier if you haven’t already seen the Stumpy Sam film. I do hope the big cowboy hat is a reference to the “oversized hat” Norm MacDonald wore while playing Reynolds, um, I mean Turd Ferguson, in the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skits.

Brace Face

A local girl wears one of those big awkward headgear things, presumably to keep her braces in place, so of course the local asshole kids make fun of her. It turns out she doesn’t actually wear braces. The actors playing the parents give their characters a sort of conservative-1950s-Jesus-freak vibe, giving the entire production a bit of a campier feel than a straight-up synopsis of the action would suggest.

The Daughters of Virtue

More retro religious zealot antics, although this time the aesthetics invoke the late ’70s and early ’80s. A quintet of seemingly upstanding, God-fearing ladies turn on one of their members when it turns out her friend’s husband has been bending her over the barrel and showing her the fifty states. It really didn’t do much for me, except for the final shot.

Quiver

If someone were to make a tutorial video on how to summon the Cenobites without the assistance of a Lemarchand Box, it would probably look a lot like Quiver. Which makes it sound like I should have liked it, but ultimately, it did nothing for me.

The Chairman

I tend to feel that short films are best when they’re condensed and focused; pretty much the opposite of The Chairman. It’s got something to do with psychics and conspiracies, and corporate shenanigans, and advertising. The protagonists are a telepathic father taken hostage by a shadowy business combine, and his equally telepathic daughter. The suits are driving the daughter to suicide for some reason, because they need the father to make mental contact with her and convince her not to, which he refuses to do because he doesn’t want to give the bad guys what they want. At least that’s what I think is going on; I had a hard time following it. It would probably have been a lot better at feature-length.

Mainline

When I say “condensed and focused,” Mainline is what I’m talking about: one actor, one room, a lot of Bob Loblaw about time travel. As with The Chairman, I wasn’t entirely sure why the character was doing what he did—something to do with eliminating paradoxical doubles left over from previous time-travel experiments—but the story was so laser-focused, the atmosphere so intense, it didn’t really matter to me.

Oxford Coma

You ever see someone get killed with punctuation? Easily my favorite of the program.

The Brink

The Brink

The Brink isn’t so much of a movie as a loose framework for first-time director Jonathan Lin to hang a series of action sequences on. The action sequences are genuinely remarkable, particularly the third-act set pieces that take place on a boat in the middle of a fucking typhoon. Unfortunately for me, I found the material not involving people beating the shit out of each other less than compelling. It’s really hard for me to accept a cop as “heroic” when he’s as reckless and ruthless as The Brink‘s protagonist—and his attitude towards his job, which places him squarely to the the right of Donnie Wahlberg’s character on Blue Bloods, did little to endear me to him. So I didn’t find the overall experience a pleasurable one, but there’s clearly an audience for this sort of thing, so.

China. Directed by Jonathan Li.

Empathy Inc.

Empathy Inc.

Yedida Gorsetman serves up science-fiction and social commentary in equal measures with Empathy Inc. Zach Roditas stars as a disgraced financial advisor who sees a shot at redemption when a college friend gives him an opportunity to invest in a new tech startup—a VR experience that allows the rich to walk in the shoes of the disadvantaged. Could it be that things aren’t what they seem? Insightful and thought-provoking, Empathy Inc. examines the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, and comes to the conclusion that even the most well-intentioned attempts to work within the capitalistic system can be corrupted. Gorsetman has more to offer than a sermon, delivering memorable images in crisp monochrome; the cast, including Roditas, Kathy Searle (as Roditas’ wife), Eric Berryman (as his college buddy), and Jay Kleitz (as the developer of the technology). Not to be missed.

United States. Directed by Yedidya Gorsetman.

Malicious

Malicious

Michael Winnick’s tale of a young couple plagued by an evil spirit taking the form of their stillborn daughter isn’t out-and-out bad, but neither is it particularly memorable—it provides a bland viewing experience, and much of it slips out of one’s memory within a couple hours of viewing. Winnick borrows his one effective moment—you’ll know it when you see it; it involves the phrase “you don’t”—feels copied wholesale from the Blumhouse/James Wan playbook; not even Delroy Lindo can elevate this material. If there’s not much to say about this one, it’s because there’s so little there.

United States. Directed by Michael Winnick.

Clara's Ghost

Clara’s Ghost (U.S.: dir. Bridey Elliott)

Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost doesn’t find much new to say about the personal lives of actors—turns out they’re totes fucked up; who knew?—but she doesn’t pull punches and much of her directorial début (she also wrote) is fall-on-the-floor hilarious. Bridey’s mother Paula Niedert Elliott stars as the titular Clara, a washed-up and somewhat unstable alcoholic actress who finds herself the target of a ghostly visitor (Isidore Goreshter of the U.S. version of Shameless) on the eve of a photo shoot…all to the consternation of her husband Ted (Bridey’s father Chris Elliott…you know, from the Letterman show) and daughters Julie (Bridey’s sister Abby) and Riley (Bridey herself), all of whom are also actors. The hilarity that ensues is dark indeed. The plot tends to stagger vaguely from set-piece to set-piece, and I wish Bridey had the courage of her convictions when it came to the ending. But fans of sardonic dysfunctional-family comedies such as Arrested Development should find lots to love here.

Larry Fessenden makes a memorable brief appearance, increasing the festival’s Fessenden Count to 2.

United States. Directed by Bridey Elliott.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

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.

Capsule Reviews: Happy Death Day; Moon; The Childhood of a Leader

Brief reviews of: Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day, plus Moon and The Childhood of a Leader

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day doesn’t look particularly promising on paper; it’s basically Groundhog Day for the Blumhouse set, and even cops to the influence in the dialog. But it actually works despite its script being a pile of college-dorm-life clichés. Christopher Landon keeps the pace brisk enough to outrun the script’s copious plot holes without exhausting the audience. Meanwhile, Jessica Rothe provides an exuberant and affable performance in the lead role of Tree (not kidding), a sorority queen-bee who finds herself reliving the day of her murder over and over again. I would have liked a bit more edginess and satire and a bit less predictability, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Special props to Phi Vu for delivering the line “So did you tap that fine vagine?” as if it were something someone somewhere would actually say.

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken. Directed by Christopher Landon. 96 minutes.

Moon

Older Films

Moon

Sam Rockwell gets an entire movie to himself and the result is Moon, in which he plays an engineer and the lone crewmember of a lunar helium refinery. I felt director Duncan Jones could have done more with the script’s central twist (no spoilers but it’s very similar to a film released around the same time as Moon, that starred Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling as schoolteachers), but he does a great job of communicating the vast, awesome emptiness and solitude of the Moon, and I haven’t seen a better performance from Rockwell than this one. Also, Kevin Spacey gets to play the voice of the base’s controlling AI, a performance delightfully reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s outings as HAL.

Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry. Directed by Duncan Jones. 97 minutes, 2009.

The Childhood of a Leader

For his feature début in the director’s chair, American actor Brady Corbet—still probably best known for playing Peter to Michael Pitt’s Paul in the Funny Games remake—takes a Jean-Paul Sartre story and turns it into a two-hour-long temper tantrum…literally. British child actor Tom Sweet (apparently seven years old at the time this film was made) plays Prescott, the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Bérniéce Bejo) living in France during the waning days of World War I. For the most part, it plays as a typical dark family study about unpleasant parents raising an unpleasant child, until the film’s final fifteen minutes take everything to a bizarre yet logical extreme. Featuring gorgeous cinematography courtesy Lol Crawley and a frightening disjointed score by pop star-turned-avant garde legend Scott Walker, it’s bloated and pretentious, but not easily forgotten.

Starring Tom Sweet, Bérniéce Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Brady Corbet. 115 minutes, 2015.

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.