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.

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.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

We all know the “monster-next-door” trope…but how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

Room

A family drama masquerading as a thriller, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement, and perhaps the best of the year.

Canada/Ireland. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2015. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy. 118 minutes. 10/10

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in a garden shed with his mother (Brie Larson), and in his five years of life, neither he or his Ma has ever left it. He doesn’t know that there’s a world outside the shed door, that the things he sees on television are, in some part, real, or that kindly “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) who brings them food and supplies abducted Ma before he was even born. He doesn’t know that Old Nick is his father by rape. He doesn’t know that Ma told him a lot of lies because he was too young to understand the truth. All he knows is the tiny world inside the shed, which he calls Room.

When Old Nick loses his job and can’t keep up with his bills, Ma sees a chance for escape. Unfortunately, Old Nick isn’t her only obstacle: she must convince her son to disregard everything she taught him about the world. And their problems don’t end once they leave Room. How will Ma adjust to a world she spent seven years away from? How will Jack cope with so many things he has never known?

Trauma is a popular source of conflict in drama, particularly in genre exercises: it’s natural to want to see characters in unusual, dangerous situations, defying all odds to succeed. Many such narratives limit the aftermath of that trauma to the final segment of the plot arc, the denoument, but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a rich source of drama itself. Ma’s captivity is a traumatic event, but so is her escape, at least to Jack, and Room spends as much time examining the lives of Jack and his Ma inside Room as it does on their lives on the outside.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donaghue (adapting her novel) tell the story from Jack’s point of view, giving him a metaphorical second birth into a wider world. This perspective is ironically inverted from the viewers’: we see the outside world as ordinary and banal, and Room as the scary place where bizarre, messed-up stuff happens, but to Jack it’s the other way round. Room is comfort, Room is predictability, Room is safety. When Jack and Ma go to live with her parents, a throng of well-wishers greets them–not to mention the media–and those qualities are no longer present.

Room has been described as a “thriller” and while there are moments of danger and tension, at its core it’s a family drama, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement. It needs a strong cast, particularly when it comes to Jack, a role that requires a certain natural-ness from Tremblay–too much of a “performance” will kill the film with preciousness. He succeeds admirably here. Larson is also terrific as Ma, who embodies an unusual mixture of maturity and immaturity: emotionally stunted by her captivity, she nonetheless possesses keen instincts when it comes to her son.

I’ll call it now: at this point in the game, I expect to name Room my favorite film of 2015. It’s a sad and challenging but ultimately hopeful story about broken people struggling to help each other fix themselves, buoyed by a great script and fine performances.

ROOM poster.

The Hallow

The Hallow isn’t likely to win any awards for freshness or originality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun.

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Corin Hardy, 2015. Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovik, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley. 97 minutes. 6/10

You can learn some important lessons from horror movies (and you in the back who’s about to shout out things like “don’t have sex” and other Scream-type “rules,” feel free to go screw yourself). For example: if you move into a big house in the middle of nowhere and your neighbors advise you to move the hell out, and if you can’t do that, then for the love of Christ don’t take those iron bars off your windows…well, that’s the kind of advice you probably should heed.

Adam and Claire Hitchens (Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovik, respectively) fail to heed this advice, and what’s worse, botanist Adam insists on rooting around forest as part of a survey for a logging company. None of the other locals will go anywhere near the woods, particularly Colm (Michael McElhatton), who’s been a bit unhinged since his daughter Cora disappeared in them years ago. What’s up with these particular woods? Why, that’s where “the Hallow”–the locals’ name for the changelings of Irish legend–live. And I haven’t even gotten to the omnipresent rapid-growth fungus that seems to have a lot in common with the stuff that grew on Stephen King in Creepshow.

Of course, Adam cannot leave well enough alone, and the Hallow make sure things do not end well for the Hitchens or their infant son Finn.

The Hallow has its fair share of flaws–particularly in the third act, including a tendency to rely on jump-scares and “baby-in-danger” tropes, not to mention some business with a flaming scythe that falls on the wrong side of the line separating awesome from silly–but for the most part, director and co-writer Corin Hardy’s début feature is a tense and enjoyable modern monster movie. While the basic premise is a bit hoary (okay, a lot hoary), I enjoyed the light but deft characterization.

Mawle’s performance veers a bit too much towards Bruce Campbell territory in the last half-hour (probably deliberately; this is, after all, a film that credits “Fake Shemps”), but otherwise he does a fine job, as does Novakovik. I only know McElhatton from Game of Thrones, so it was nice to see him show a bit of range (although that’s not saying Colm isn’t entirely un-creepy). Michael Smiley–whose work you are doubtless familiar with, yes?–makes the most of his one scene as a skeptical cop.

But Hardy’s direction is the real selling point here. He evokes a heavy atmosphere, thick with suspense and the knowledge of things you shouldn’t mess around with if you know what’s good for you. In several scenes, he does things with light and shadow that would make hardened criminals weep with terror. The monster design is fantastic, all practical-effect goodness (none of yer CGI goblins here, at least not that I can tell), and best of all Hardy knows better than to over-light the goddamn things.

While I have to admit that once again that The Hallow isn’t likely to win any awards for freshness or originality, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. It’s a fun monster movie with a surprising amount of tension.

THE HALLOW poster

Let Us Prey

A film that will doubtless please those who like their horror noisy and intense, but beyond the excellent performances, it didn’t seem like there was much substance present.

United Kingdom/Ireland. Directed by Brian O’Malley, 2014. Starring Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh. 92 minutes.

The Irish character actor Liam Cunningham–best known these days for playing the gruff but sensitive Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones–tackles a very different kind of role in his latest cinematic effort, Let Us Prey. In it, he plays a vagrant who survives what should be a fatal automobile accident, and later shows up at a police station with a habit of playing with matches, a tendency to shed crow feathers, a little bit of dangerous knowledge about each and every other person there, constable and prisoner alike–and a disconcerting desire to cause trouble.

The character, never formally named but dubbed “Six” in the credits after the number of prison cell he ends up occupying, seems tailor-made for Cunningham, who seems to specialize in a dangerous-yet-thoughtful demeanor and a thousand-yard stare that has doubtless seen shit that would turn your hair white. He turns in an outstanding performance, which shouldn’t surprise you. But Let Us Prey really belongs to co-star Pollyanna McIntosh, who made quite the impression a few years back as the title character in Lucky McKee’s The Woman. Here, she plays Rachel Heggie, a police constable with a reputation for insubordination on her first night on a new beat, and whose new sergeant and fellow cops don’t like her much. McIntosh brings a ferocity and tenacity to Rachel–who has a genuinely shitty backstory–that won’t surprise her fans.

Indeed, all of the performances–including Jonathan Watson as a domestic abuser and Niall Greig Fulton as a physician with a novel approach to the Hippocratic oath–are excellent. That’s a very good thing, because this is the sort of horror movie where just about every character is, at best, a selfish, petty little shit and, at worst, undeniably evil–and the filmmakers seem to intend for the audience to gain their entertainment in watching “Six” (an obvious supernatural agent with a tendency to speak in terms vaguely reminiscent of the Old Testament) manipulate them into getting theirs. Not that I expect every character to be relatable or sympathetic, but here the most likable character, apart from Six and Rachel, is a juvenile delinquent who can’t bring himself to confess to having run over a schoolmate earlier in the evening…and it gets a bit alienating. Plus, it stretches the story a bit: while the script implies Six somehow called these various sinners to the police station for his own purposes, that’s still a lot of nastiness for one burg, and the audience might find itself agreeing with the exasperated Rachel when she screams, “What the fuck is with this town?”

The film establishes its almost operatic grand guignol tone right at the start, with a bombastic title sequence that seems like it would be more comfortable as a prog-metal video. I can’t begrudge director Brian O’Malley and screenwriters David Cairns and Fiona Watson their collective desire to take things over the top; this is, after all, a film where death comes in the form of battering rams and shoeshine machines. But the direction would have benefitted from O’Malley cranking his stylization back a couple of notches; several of the flashbacks lack any sort of coherence.

Composer Steve Lynch has gained some accolades for his retro synth-based score, and I liked what little I could make out, but at many times the sound designer buries it under a constant cacophony of foley. Even the most innocuous of noises–the advancing minutes of a clock, the flick of a light switch–is delivered with the volume of a gunshot, and it’s the rare important event that isn’t accompanied by the sudden screech of noisy instruments.

Let It Prey will doubtless please those who like their horror big, noisy, and intense. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it a lot of work for me to look beyond the surface of the stylistic choices and while I did enjoy the performances, it didn’t seem there was much of substance there. As always, your mileage may vary.

LET US PREY poster

Calvary

A remarkable and beautiful meditation on the subject of death, that begins with one of the most striking lines in cinema history.

Ireland. Directed by John Michael McDonough. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd. 102 minutes.

The penitent man has an opening line so striking even the priest expresses being impressed with it: “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.” The abuser, it turns out, was himself a man of the cloth, now long dead. Denied a chance at revenge, the penitent man will instead kill a good priest, an innocent priest, which would be more discomfiting for the Church than if he were to kill a bad priest. The victim will be the man on the other side of the lattice, who has seven days to put his affairs in order. “Killin’ a priest on a Sunday?” he concludes. “That’ll be a good one.”

The priest is Father James (Brendan Gleeson). The penitent man isn’t revealed to the audience until the film’s end, but there’s no lack of suspects in his parish. A dull butcher (Chris O’Dowd, The IT Crowd) married to an adulterous woman (Orla O’Rourke); an incompetent fellow priest (David Wilmot); a surly mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé); an atheistic surgeon (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones); an unhappy millionaire (Dylan Moran, Black Books); an aged writer (M. Emmet Walsh); a down-on-his-luck barkeep (Pat Shortt). But Calvary isn’t much of a whodunit: Father James knows who made the threat, even if the viewer doesn’t.

Instead what writer/director John Michael McDonagh delivers is a meditation on death. It is, of course, a comic one: a film with lines such as “I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant…one of the two” and “I feel I’ve exhausted all the possibilities of pornography,” which contains a conversation between two priests on the subject of felching and the sight of a man pissing on an expensive painting by an Old Master has earned the right to be classified as a comedy. But if it’s a comedy, it’s a singularly melancholy one. The subject of death hangs over Father James like a shroud over what might be the last week of his life. He entertains his daughter (Kelly Reilly), visiting from London after a failed suicide attempt; he gives the last rites to a foreigner on holiday, mortally wounded in an auto accident; he visits a former pupil (Gleeson’s own son Domhnall), imprisoned for serial murder.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bob Dylan once sang that “he not busy being born is busy dying” and I think McDonagh would agree with that sentiment.

So more than anything else, Calvary is a character piece and you need a great cast to pull that off. Boy howdy, does McDonagh ever get one. Casting O’Dowd as a bumbling, clueless fool, Gillan as a charismatic but slightly creepy charmer harboring deep-seated anger, and Moran as a haughty misanthrope may seem too obvious, considering the actors’ signature roles, but the film refuses to brook any discussion that they are any less than perfect for their parts. O’Rourke exposes the pain behind her character’s promiscuity. Reilly perfectly embodies every young woman (and man) who consistently makes poor choices despite knowing better. Killan Scott and Owen Sharpe, in minor roles, steal every scene they appear in. Looming over all of them as if he’s part of the landscape, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, who, if not exactly beatific, then at least consistently determined to preserve his faith in God and man, even when he doesn’t understand the former and the latter disappoints him.

The last performance comes from the coastal Irish landscape, the perfect reflection of its people: majestic and beautiful, yet overcast and violent. It’s the last place on Earth you’d expect to find a thriving community of surfers, thanks in part to the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Calvary is a remarkable examination of humanity, its nature and its great obsessions, sex and death. A stunning work of truth and beauty, it stands amongst the very best films of 2014.

Calvary poster