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 They’re saddled with factory-standard “overstressed single mom” and “withdrawn, introverted teen” characters completely incapable of seeing obvious things in front of their faces.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.

Super Dark Times

A fascinating and chilling portrayal of doomed youth… ★★★★

Super Dark Times

United States: Directed by Kevin Phillips, 2017. Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves. 100 minutes. ★★★★

Super Dark Times opens with a death. In a high school classroom, a deer lies dying in a pool of its own blood. We don’t see how it got there—we only see the shattered window—and it probably isn’t important. What does matter is that it must be put out of its misery. The deer could be an omen that presages the tragic events to come. Or it could be the sacrifice that starts a ritual.

The characters of Super Dark Times are young teenage boys navigating the middle 1990s, the gap between the Cold War and the War, a time when we didn’t realize we still had things to fear. High school freshmen Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) spend their time doing teenage boy stuff: playing video games, discussing which of their female classmates (and teachers) they’d like to get it on with, spending hours tuned to scrambled cable channels, hoping to get a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Their younger acquaintances, eighth-graders Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), are on the road to becoming “bad kids.” Daryl dares his friends to do gross things, boasts about masturbation, and exhibits an interest in drugs and weapons: an interest which will ultimately cost one of the boys his life in a senseless accident.

If it weren’t for the 1996 setting (which allows for the soundtrack to feature songs like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth”, and explains the absence of mobile phones) I’d call Super Dark TimesRiver’s Edge for the 2010s. Both films take place in small towns where the sun hasn’t shined in years, with streets laid out in such a way to prevent escape. Both films center on kids living under the specter of benign neglect at best, outright abuse at worst. Both films work largely because they see the teenagers that don’t fit into the easy high-school stereotypes—nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, preppies, so on—and understand how they relate to each other. Chances are, you knew kids like this during your school days—or you were one of them.

Zack and Josh’s shared secret festers and rots like discarded meat, manifesting as paranoia; when Zack’s classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) reveals she reciprocates his crush, he proves too distracted to respond. Campbell and Tahan, both of whom have prior experience playing troubled teens (on the TV series The Americans and Gotham, respectively), deliver excellent performances—I could easily imagine the mental strain turning like metal gears in their heads, waiting for something, anything, to jam up the works and bring everything crashing down. These performances, as well as director Kevin Phillips’ commitment to cultivating a doom-laden, damn near apocalyptic mood—make up for a number of flaws, particularly a not-particularly-well foreshadowed twist in character development in the third act and a hard-to-follow action sequence near the end of the film.

Super Dark Times provides a fascinating and chilling portrait of characters cinema often struggles mightily to get right. One of the essential films of 2017, even if it’s not particularly comfortable.

Super Dark Times poster

Capsule Reviews: Personal Shopper; Hounds of Love; Okja; What Happened to Monday; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule reviews of Okja, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

France. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lee, Nora von Waldstätten.

In case It Comes at Night didn’t slake your thirst for ambiguity, might I recommend Personal Shopper? Starring Kristen Stewart as a young American bumming around Paris, working as a PA to an obnoxious celebrity and waiting for her recently-deceased twin brother to contact her from beyond the veil—oops, I probably should have mentioned that the sibs are mediums—this film is harder to interpret than phone poll data for a special election in Alabama.

Stewart’s generally subdued approach to her craft serves her well here, manifesting in-character as disaffection and cynicism, and she particularly shines during a series of second-act sequences in which her primary co-star is an iPhone. This is actually a lot more gripping that it might sound. Indeed, without the supernatural element Olivier Assays (who previously collaborated with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria) has crafted a canny and effective thriller. But the ghosts add an extra dimension, and their presence makes Stewart feel haunted in more ways than one.

I do have to say that the final act presents a puzzle that continues to confound well after the film ends, and that while I like the interpretation that seems to prevail among the film’s fans, there is something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s not something that bugs me a lot in the end, however.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love

Australia. Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Currie, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas.

The tendency for male filmmakers to draw a line between “feminine empowerment” and “cheap exploitation” probably existed before I Spit on Your Grave. Ben Young’s nasty psych-thriller Hounds of Love works squarely in that tradition but the feminism just about overpowers the prurience. The setup is very basic: a serial-killing married couple, John (Stephen Currie) and Evie (Emma Booth, of Netflix’s excellent Aussie import Glitch), operate out of Perth in the late ’80s (the setting allowing for a montage set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” one of the weirdest clichés to manifest overt the past couple of years). Their latest victim is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teen with separated parents, who quickly realizes she needs to play her captors off each other to survive.

While several elements didn’t work for me—it seemed very weird that the killers would choose to target victims in their own neighborhood (they literally live two or streets away from Vicki’s mum)—what made the film was Evie’s characterization and Booth’s performance in the role. Evie is clearly damaged and disturbed but she’s also clearly a victim of John’s emotional and physical abuse. Vicki may be the film’s nominal Final Girl, but Evie is the character the audience roots for. I also liked how the relationship between John and Evie reflected dynamic between Vicki’s parents (note how much of an ass her father is).

Okja

Okja

United States/South Korea. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Ahn Seo-huyn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In theory, any director could make a film about a young girl’s quest to save her genetically engineered pet superpig from the evil multinational globalcorp that created her (the pig, obviously, not the girl). But only Bong Joon-ho could make that film in this particular way. By turns adorable and cynical, idealistic and fatalistic, Okja is a damn-near-perfect examination of life under predatory capitalism, where the difference between life and death can be found in the margin between profit and loss.

Bong pulls off a truly awe-inspiring juggling act. Tilda Swinton slips easily into the villain position, a dual role as a ruthless yet charming corporate CEO and the less-charismatic twin sister she overthrew, backed up by an opportunistic corporate weasel (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and a washed-up, alcoholic TV presenter (Jake Gyllenhaal). On the side of Good, Paul Dano leads a team of animal-rights activists who mean well but don’t always end up doing the right thing. But Ahn Seo-huyn provides the film’s heart and soul as Mija, whose bond with the superpig carries her through a whirlwind of exhilarating set pieces.

This is a lot for a film to take in, even a two-hour one, and it’s to Bong’s credit that he’s able to keep most of the pins in the air with grace. Gyllenhaal’s performance, an ugly mess of unnecessary hamming and funny voices, is the major flaw here, and yet he succeeds in lending genuine menace to the film’s most horrifying and heartbreaking sequence.

What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday

United Kingdom/France/Belgium. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pål Sverre Hagen, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe.

It would be hard to say no to seven Noomi Rapaces even in the worst of circumstances, and What Happened to Monday is surprisingly good. Set in a dystopian near-future where multiple pregnancies become more common, leading to rampant overpopulation, leading to laws limiting families to one child per, the film places Rapace in the roles of identical septuplets. Each named after a day of the week, the septs share a single legal identity (each one goes out into the world on her namesake day while the other six remain in hiding), a workable scheme until, as you can probably guess from the title, Monday goes missing.

It’s a lot of fun watching Rapace kick ass in seven different wigs, but what sets Monday apart is its commitment to its setting. Too many science-fiction actioners use their fantastical elements as little more than excuses to set up fights, chases, and explosions. Monday actually considers the difficult questions it poses. The Child Allocation Bureau and its supporters are evil, no doubt about that, with its policies bordering on eugenics. Yet the film consistently reminds the viewer about the overpopulation problem, and the final sequences explicitly address the consequences of nobody willing to make difficult decisions.

If all of that seems a bit heavy, you can always sit back and watch the characters hit each other, shoot each other, and blow stuff up. Rapace gets a number of impressive action sequences while never coming off as a superhero (or septet of them), the villains are suitably nasty, and Willem Dafoe gets some tender moments in flashbacks. Pity director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t convince Glenn Close to pick an accent and stick with it for the entire film; she’s been on a roll lately.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

United States. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

The transition is complete. The Force Awakens reset the franchise, back to basics; Rogue One tested the boundaries of what a Star Wars film could do and be outside the framework of the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi progresses from these, in many ways inventing a new kind of Star Wars movie, one that acknowledges the Campbellian principles of the George Lucas films (and of Force Awakens by extension) while forging a new, modern mythic path, one more morally complex than we’ve seen in the series proper.

That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Everything you expect from this movie, it provides: exhilarating space battles, thrilling acts of derring-do, explorations of the outer space and inner spaces of that galaxy far, far away. Poe Dameron remains the hotheaded wisecracker, Rey the plucky, determined seeker, General Organa the grave tactician, Finn the reluctant hero, Kylo Ren the uncontrollable villain, General Hux the rabid ranter. Nor does the film neglect to riff on the series’ classic set-pieces, most effectively when it places Luke Skywalker in the role of reluctant teacher, the very position he thrust Yoda into in 1980.

But the film also challenges (an observation I must attribute to Channel Awesome’s Rob Walker). New character Rose Tico serves as the Resistance’s conscience. Luke has become a tragic figure in the classical sense. Fan complaints about the hypocrisy of the Jedi become canon. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in Canto Bight becomes an indictment of the Star Wars class system.

To observe that The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect film feels like dredging up cliché, but it must be admitted. Rian Johnson doesn’t integrate his visual style as seamlessly with the series’ visual grammar as J.J. Abrams did. Benicio del Toro needs to reign in his twitchier tendencies. And, of course, like every other tentpole picture of the last couple years, it’s just too damn long.

Yet ultimately The Last Jedi is a triumph: for Johnson; for the cast, especially Mark Hammill and the late Carrie Fisher; for Kathleen Kennedy and Disney/Lucasfilm as a whole. It will likely stand as the apex of the new trilogy, as it’s hard to believe the Abrams-helmed Episode IX will surpass it. My heart will always lie with The Empire Strikes Back, but in realistic terms, The Last Jedi is as good as a Star Wars movie can get.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

An intense psychological thriller, a horror movie about the scars of war, and a crime drama-cum-fairy tale

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

My Months in Film: March through September, 2016

An overview of the last six(ish) months

So I’m back, apparently.

I didn’t expect the Gallery to remain shuttered this long: I made some genuine attempts in April and May to get back into the groove…and couldn’t get anything to stick. Real Life was kicking my ass, something had to give, and it was the film writing. I had burned out. I think my exhaustion even shows in the spring and early-summer podcast episodes. I’d been doing this for over five and a half years—starting all the way back in late August 2010 when I launched Forced Viewing—and during that entire time, I’d never taken more than a couple of weeks off from watching and writing. It even encroached on my vacations.

That being said, I never considered not writing about this year’s Fantastic Fest, though. So I was glad to discovered I still had my mojo, and it was great to get back into the rhythm of things. (Even after I caught a cold that turned into a bronchial infection that needed to be nipped in the bud lest it mutate into pneumonia.)

It looks like I have some time to seriously reconsider the future of this site and my film-writing hobby. I’m still determined that reviews will re-commence, at some point. I’d like it to be soon, but I can’t make any guarantees: things are still hairy busy in Real Life. My content schedule won’t be as punishingly aggressive as it was in the past; I’m thinking three movies every two weeks sounds reasonable. But we’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.

And to prove I haven’t spent the last six-odd months just twiddling my thumbs…here are the movies I watched during the hiatus.

Continue reading “My Months in Film: March through September, 2016”

Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up”

Estranged

Despite its strong visuals and cast, Estranged simply isn’t memorable, and its shortcomings stick out more than its strengths.

estranged.jpg
United Kingdom. Directed by Adam Levins, 2015. Starring Amy Manson, James Cosmo, James Lance. 101 minutes. 5/10

Dysfunctional family relationships often prove fertile ground for psychological thrillers, with first-time director Adam Levins providing his take on the trope in Estranged. Amy Manson (Being Human U.K., Once Upon a Time) stars as January, a young woman left wheelchair-bound and amnesiac by a motorcycle accident, returning home with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) to a family she hasn’t seen in six years and has no memory of. I probably don’t need to tell you that the family has some huge skeletons in their closet…the biggest being the reason January left in the first place.

The screenplay, by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo, has the requisite twists and turns and gothic trappings (long-buried secrets, huge mansions), not to mention the occasional scene of genuine shock. Unfortunately, I occasionally found the plot a bit hard to follow; not incoherent, exactly, but I never shook the feeling that there were things I should have figured out before the characters did. There were times when the plot seemed needlessly complex and the pacing and editing seemed somewhat off. It seemed to me as if Levins had problems developing the narrative effectively.

While his storytelling has issues, Levins has a keen visual sense. The interior sequences, in particular, work very well, with the mansion’s massive, cavernous spaces generating a sense of foreboding. He also works the cast very well, with Manson breezing through an emotional range and keeping Jan sympathetic even when her behavior becomes difficult. But the real star of the show is James Cosmo (better known as Jeor Mormont on Game of Thrones) as Albert, the family patriarch, who deftly maneuvers his role from “stern” to “menacing” with nary a hitch. James Lance also makes quite an impression as Laurence, Jan’s slimy brother.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much else to say about Estranged–perhaps it simply caught me on a bad day–and that could be its biggest problem: despite the film’s strong visuals and cast, it’s simply not very memorable, and its shortcomings stick out in my mind more than its strengths. I wouldn’t advise people to steer clear of it, but I can guarantee I’m going to have a difficult time remembering it in a month or so.

ESTRANGED.

They Look Like People

An unconventional and highly unnerving psychological thriller.

They Look Like People

United States. Directed by Perry Blackshear, 2015. Starring MacLeod Andrews, Evan Demouchel, Margaret Ying Drake. 80 minutes. 8/10

Once again, let’s turn to Wikipedia, the repository of all human knowledge:

The Capgras delusion (or Capgras syndrome) is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member (or pet) has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.

The Capgras delusion resembles the “pod people” trope: invading monsters taking the form of our friends, our coworkers, our loved ones, their goal the eventual eradication of humanity. Inevitably, only one person (or a small group of people) has any knowledge of the monsters’ agenda and the coming disaster. Such narratives only rarely examine the psychological toll such knowledge has on those who possess it. What must it be like to know something so terrible…and to understand that nobody you tried to convince would ever believe you?

In Perry Blackshear’s feature-length début, They Look Like People, longtime friends Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Demouchel) unexpectedly reunite after some time apart. Both men have recently endured devastating break-ups. While Christian seeks to overcome his lack of confidence with weightlifting, alpha-male affirmations, and romantic overtures toward his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), Wyatt seems to have taken the opposite route, becoming antisocial and withdrawn.

But Christian doesn’t know the truth of why Wyatt and his fiancée broke up. He doesn’t know about the late-night calls Wyatt receives from sinister strangers. He doesn’t know about the stash of power tools and hardware Wyatt has stashed in the basement. And he definitely doesn’t know that Wyatt believes the world threatened by an impending invasion of pod people.

Blackshear approaches his material as a psychological thriller rather than as an alien-invasion horror story, maintaining a laser focus on the relationship between the two men and how they’ve changed since they last met. Blackshear does away with many of the investigative and procedural elements that often accompany the trope. He uses the pod people not as a primary source of dramatic conflict, but as a sort of environmental challenge: they exist and must be dealt with, but what they mean to Wyatt is more important than what they actually do; they are a thematic approximation of his neuroses.

The screenplay takes something of a minimalist approach to the narrative, never overexplaining and leaving the audience to fill in many gaps on their own. The protagonists are often unsympathetic—Christian’s “affirmations” bear an uncomfortable resemblance to pick-up-artist dogma—but deft characterization, in addition to powerful performances from Andrews and Demouchel, make them seem more real than most fictional alien hunters. Blackshear makes the most of his low budget, taking the emphasis off of visual effects (although deploying them effectively when needed, such as a backlit silhouette composition of a sleeping figure that makes her seem faceless) and using sound to keep the audience at the edge of its seat.

I did feel things did start to unravel towards the last ten or so minutes, and I wasn’t sure whether I was satisfied with the end; but, for the most part, Perry Blackshear has crafted an unconventional and highly unnerving thriller. Definitely worth checking out.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing They Look Like People to Chicago.

THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE poster.

The Interior

No matter where you go, the universe is a total jerk.

The Interior

Canada. Directed by Trevor Juras, 2015. Starring Patrick McFadden. 80 minutes. 9/10

Recently, a friend of mine gave up his job, home, and girlfriend in New York, and (citing a struggle with “the practical necessities of modern life” and a feeling of being “isolated from the sun and trees”) relocated to Arizona to pursue his dream of living as a “hunter-gatherer.” I think my friend would find a lot of common ground with James, the twenty-something protagonist of The Interior, played by Patrick McFadden. James lives in a swank apartment in Toronto, but hates his soulless copywriting career and his narcissistic boss, finds no creative fulfillment as a rapper, and finds himself incapable of committing to his year-long relationship with his girlfriend. Bad news from his doctor about a series of nosebleeds and a bout with double vision turns out to be the last straw; soon afterward, we find him wandering the forests of British Columbia (the Interior of the title), there to live his life in peace and solitude.

He probably needn’t bother. Writer/director Trevor Juras approaches his feature début as The Blair Witch Project filtered through the sensibility of Samuel Beckett…or nihilist-horror author Thomas Ligotti. The narrator of Ligotti’s story “The Clown Puppet” described his existence as dominated by “the most outrageous nonsense,” something James can surely relate. Having abandoned the crushing modernity of city life for the solitude and simplicity of the majestic Canadian forest, he still finds himself plagued by absurd, petty inanity, the work of briefly-glimpsed forces whose only goal is to fuck with him. No matter where you go, Juras figures, the universe is a total dick.

Any horror-comedy tasks itself with performing a delicate balancing act, with The Interior laying out a more delicate goal than most, thanks to its absurdist sensibility. Overt gags (James’s doctor asks him if he’s stoned, the tip-off being the joint he holds just out of frame…later, he breaks into a vacation cabin and drinks a bottle of wine; he signs the apology note with the name “Jesus”) gradually become more subtle and sinister without losing their humor value. When a stranger visited James’s tent in the dead of night and poked its canvas wall with his (or her) finger, I found myself torn between the equally appropriate options of uncontrollable laughter or whimpering in fear.

Juras applies a distinctly minimalist aesthetic that takes “show, don’t tell” to its logcial extreme, making John Cage’s 4′33″ look like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by comparison. McFadden largely carries the film on his own as the only major performer for about sixty of the film’s eighty minutes; appropriately, the script assigns him, or indeed anyone else, very little dialog once we arrive at the Interior. Not that we really need it, as the immense, looming trees say what mere words can’t.

If there’s a weakness with The Interior, it’s in Juras’s stubborn refusal to provide a conventional structure, satisfying resolution, or even a sense that he knows where the story, such as it is, is going. Admittedly, this is rather the point of the whole exercise, but I expect most audiences will find themselves turned off by the whole approach. Those left over–including myself–will find themselves left with a beautiful enigma, something to be treasured.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing The Interior to Chicago.

THE INTERIOR poster.

Goodnight Mommy

A genuinely shocking horror film and one of the best of the year

Goodnight Mommy

Austria, 2014. AKA Ich seh ich seh. Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. Starring Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz. 99 minutes. 9/10

Humans seem to possess an innate aversion to change. As adults, we understand we must fight stagnation, but children rely on routine and the familiar for comfort and learning. To a child, even the most subtle shift or recontextualization can become a source of terror, particularly when they threaten said child’s sense of safety.

In Goodnight Mommy, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz), twin sons of an Austrian television personality (Susanne Wuest), find themselves confronting such terror when their mother returns home to recover from cosmetic surgery. Mummy’s frightening appearance–eyes bloodshot, face covered in bandages, nose braced by a splint–worries them enough. More disconcerting are the changes in her personality–especially her refusal to interact with, or even speak to, Lukas, and her insistence that Elias do likewise. The boys come to the terrible conclusion that the woman who came home from hospital is not their mother.

Under ordinary circumstances such a synopsis might indicate an ordinary thriller with a somewhat obvious twist, but writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala present a convincing case from Elias and Lukas’s point of view. In retrospect, the filmmakers dropped plenty of hints I should have picked up on, but I was so firmly on the boys’ side I didn’t even think to consider alternatives; the reveal left me genuinely surprised.

Using clever editing and cinematography, strong atmosphere, and a disquieting ambient score (one of the best of the year) from Olga Neuwirth, Franz and Fiala create an environment that should provide safety and comfort, but gradually generates unease until madness becomes the only logical response. Then they pull the rug out and things become intense. Violence is the inevitable result of everything that has come before, and the film earns its shocking conclusion.

Its character-centric focus requires Goodnight Mommy to rely more on its performances than other horror-thrillers; the filmmakers have a tougher row to hoe in this regard, as they tell from the children’s point of view. The Schwarz brothers are the hinge upon which the film moves—if we don’t accept Elias and Lukas, everything collapses. They succeed admirably, turning in two of the best young-actor performances of the year (second only, perhaps, to Jacob Tremblay in Room).

One of the best films of the year, Goodnight Mommy transcends the banalities of its basic set-up and becomes one of those rarest of horror films, one that finds a primal pressure-point in the unevolved subconscious and knows when to press its finger down. I can think of no higher praise.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.