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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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Time to Die

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Y’all don’t actually think it’s not gonna go down here, right?

You think I’m just gonna be looking out for who hasn’t already seen the movie.

No, bruh, I’m here to say some shit about Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve and producer Ridley Scott’s sequel to Scott’s 35-year-old seminal science fiction classic tour de force Blade Runner. And if this isn’t your first time snooping round Motorbreath, you’ve damn well noticed it established multiple times that Blade Runner is my favorite movie – give or take a knife fight with Casablanca, but permit me my passion.

So, when I get into spoiler mode, expect me to put a great big warning and give y’all some time to dip. But there are elements of Blade Runner 2049 I’m simply not going to be able to comment on without grabbing receipts from within the movie itself and while I’m not going to give away the ending, I sure am not going to be hiding the premise like the marketing has been. In the meantime, here’s the short spoiler-free safe mode version of my review:

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Blade Runner 2049 is not a bad movie. It is just a less hated Prometheus, a frustrating overglutted tangle of interesting ideas that are provided in a gorgeously realized future environment, provided by Dennis Gassner and famously lensed by Roger Deakins in what is almost certainly his last hope for that Cinematography Oscar. There are clearly things Blade Runner 2049 wants to be about and it so certainly wants to be about those thinks that it tries to provide overwhelming lip service from characters as much as it can and Blade Runner becomes so frequently a movie of “people talking about what’s going to happen” rather than anything happening.

Which is a weird complaint to make about a sequel to Blade Runner. Blade Runner manages to be satisfied to spend most of its running time just living with the decrepit future noir world of Los Angeles without having much action OR theme-based dialogue, but that last element is the thing. Blade Runner isn’t a movie that talks about what it wants to be about, it just is. The philosophy behind that movie lives within the world-building in itself, the melancholy and existential within the darkened rainy alleys where characters hide and they fear for their lives without having to say “I’m scared”. When Roy Batty comes to terms with his own obliviation, he doesn’t have to say “I’m ok with this”, he just smiles and talks about his favorite memories and he doesn’t even have to spell out the fact that a lot of those memories aren’t real.

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Float On

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My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it absolutely doesn’t make any true reflection on the final movie I was watching outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. I get the logic behind both decisions – production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic – it is impossible not to see it. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very home of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work in order to have narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or have any depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.

Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I do think they’re valid (I wouldn’t mention them otherwise), but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.

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The story of King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the aftermath of the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched in the first scene as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lure Georgie into a shockingly violent end.

Meanwhile, Bill and, parallel to him, new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, begins to grow against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.

Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.

But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård embodies a exaggerated stance of a being like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.

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Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels so much more honest.

It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide in such a legitimate fashion, is the real key to how well It works as a piece of entertainment. It even helps the script deviate away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that really works out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis ends up coming out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.

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But anyway, the town of Derry as a location gets informed by the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, there’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.

It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.

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*Though it seems like even on that end, the movie skims the price tag. There’s a hilarious tweet of a guy nitpicking a single Lego block used in the background, but I’m thinking of a character beat wide shot of a character looking at a wall of tampons all has notably 2010s packaging. Incidentally, talking about this in public with a friend led to an eavesdropping teenager who asked how I’d recognize that and we (alongside another eavesdropping woman) subsequently informed him that he’ll come to the day when his girlfriend sends him for tampons.
**The miniseries is inferior to the film in most ways, but they at least got this structurally downpat by making each initial encounter a kid had with Pennywise function as an extended flashback of trauma after they receive Mike’s call.
***Most especially aided by the fact that the movie removes all the cosmic elements of the novel – which work well for the book but seem overkill as a cinematic story – and makes the terror localized into Pennywise. But from what I understand, Chapter Two has intentions to involve the cosmic elements. Ugh.
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Why Would a Democracy Need a King?

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Even with the note that I personally did not care for Kingsman: The Secret Service, the role of Colin Firth’s star character Kingsman Agent Harry Hart and the way they Dougie Jones’d* him (which would probably function as a spoiler if the marketing wasn’t so happy to reveal his return) in the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle plays a metaphor for itself: an attempt to get right back to business with the stylistic things that made it charming in the moment, only for it having trouble finding its footing even when it’s just trying to repeat the same beats as the first verse.

To be fair to The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s sequel to his 2015 spy movie homage adapted from Mark Millar’s The Secret Service comic book about the independent intelligence organization, it feels less nasty and reprehensible than its predecessor (I might daresay it feels so by a large amount depending on how generous I am given the day). And it gets to feel so by having nearly every awful element amount it contained in one massively misconceived scene that easily would lose a point by me if I were a rating man. Make no mistake, the stuff that occurs in the scene centered around a mission at Glastonbury Festival is pretty damn bad. Narrative-wise, it’s a horrible introduction to the capabilities of Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) as well as providing a sudden conflict of assumed infidelity between our Kingsman Agent Galahad aka Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his committed Swedish Princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) that never truly gets resolved so much as just dropped. Content-wise, it has a painfully out-of-touch portrayal of 2010s youth that is the closest thing anything in the franchise came to functioning as parody and the parody is frankly unfunny. On top of which, the mission in particular requires two men to double team on seducing a young woman and place a tracker in her in a manner that outdoes the anal sex joke in the first movie in tastelessness, especially in consideration of the now-year-old Donald Trump/Billy Bush recording tapes, especially considering the juvenile manner of the camera zooming further on the tracker as it sinks into Eggsy’s target.

If I can remove that scene from my mind, it’ll be a bless up.

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Beyond that, the movie still makes a mess out of its attempt at political themes** by trying to argue that villainess drug mogul Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) attempts to kill every person who uses drugs – illegal or medicinal or whatever – in the world is bad but also makes third-act shift being anti-War-on-Drugs to turning its resolution into something akin to a “Drugs are bad” PSA with everything back to normal including the criminalization of the drug trade and addicts. And that’s only the thematic clunkiness of Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, the narrative pacing is kind of up and down all throughout. It all feels like a first draft assemblage of moments: Eggsy being introduced to Tilde’s parents, Poppy’s sudden destruction of all the Kingsman agents and headquarters G.I. Joe Retaliation-style (leaving Eggsy and Mark Strong’s intel man Merlin as the lone survivors), the Kingsman’s contingency protocol to rendezvous with their American co-organization Statesman, and their subsequent investigation as to what Poppy is up to in her 50s themed Cambodian hideout. That’s my attempt to streamline the main plot into some sort of summary and it ignores how momentum-halting the sudden return of Firth’s Hart from the grave becomes as they discover him suffering from amnesia, the domestic issue between Eggsy and Tilde, the president’s (Bruce Greenwood) apathy to the matter despite having no true stake in the denouement in the film (which also makes it the source of most of the film’s muddled politics), or the way Channing Tatum’s charming Agent Tequila is somewhat sidelined. That last one largely hurts because of what a Tatum fan I am and how very much best-in-show he is from the moment he shows up, turning it into more of a cartoon from his wild card guntoting Texan caricature.

Tatum is not the only worthwhile performance, though. Among the stand-outs in a mostly great cast: Egerton has only gotten stronger as a screen presence from his impressive breakout in the first movie, Pascal provides a great rugged Burt Reynolds imitation, Jeff Bridges only has 5 minutes tops of screentime but can play that sort of Southern Gentleman personality in his sleep, Moore is a wonderful demented home-maker of a villain, and Elton John tore the house down in a foul-mouthed extended cameo. In fact, the only real disappointment is Firth and part of that is just that the movie can’t let him go back to his full charms until late in the game at which point it’s underwhelming and too little too late.

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Meanwhile, the main action setpieces feel like one great big repetition over and over. While they’re all digitally-cut swinging long takes that get right in on the fight to a fun ole’ needledrop without much distinction between them when you get down to it. The ones that bookend the film are certainly a lot of fun – with a cramped car-bound fistfight opening the film and a great big environment manipulating gun battle as the second to last action scene – and the film is very quick to get down and dirty in an action when it looks like one’s coming, but that only goes so far to avoided feeling diluted in style when the movie can’t be as varied in its action movie tones as the original did so well. In fact, the original did that so well, it almost tricked me into liking it. The Golden Circle doesn’t get that far.

So, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a less objectionable than its predecessor, but I’m entirely convinced it’s better. It feels sapped of personality unlike the original, it feels paint-by-numbers. In lowering its weakneses, it also ended up lowering most of its charms and strengths and while I’m not sure this is a bad thing, this movie feels like the most grudgingly obligatory of Matthew Vaughn’s works since X-Men: First Class. He’s feeding us a burger of soiled meat and telling us it’s a Big Mac.

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*Even acknowledging that Twin Peaks: The Return is not at all the source of that kind of development in bringing back a character, I hope that term becomes a thing.
**And for all the Kingsman apologists try to claim it’s the sort of movie you should shut your mind off about, there’s no way to do that with the first’s pointed attempts at class commentary and the second’s War on Drugs plot points. If the Kingsman films fail to provide any political commentary that isn’t muddled, I find that to be a consequence of execution, not intent.
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Horrid Henry

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So, between Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, 2017 sure has me kind of turnt on narratives about sexual abuse to young girls that are written and directed by men absolutely unqualified to write about these topics. They’re not entirely clueless and there are elements of it that they illuminate, but in the overall narrative, they end with some extremely grievous final notes on the matter and that leaves a shockingly bad taste in my mouth watching these movies. However, while Split apparently houses some genre work that I spied well enough that I might be somewhat interested in re-watching and evaluating it someday, I have absolutely no desire to ever put myself through The Book of Henry again unless somebody is willing to sit down and roast the movie with me*. It’s a miserable experience alone.

And the fact that this movie has such a well-meaning but toxic male savior-esque attitude about rape is only the half of it. That’s not the main thing The Book of Henry is about nor is it the only thing wrong about the movie. It has been said by many people by now, but let me repeat, there is not one narrative element of The Book of Henry that doesn’t sit me down and wonder “who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?” The answer is clearly present in how much Trevorrow and company dedicate their efforts in the craft, right down to Michael Giacchino trying to give the sparkliest imitation of mid-90s Amblin’ family fare that only 90s kids like I would get, forever a sign of how cursed we are as a group. Trevorrow and his crew are dedicated to providing us to the most amiable Rockwellian blanket atmosphere making this feel like a warm family story, totally ignorant of the fact that the script Gregg Hurwitz is fucking psychotic.

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That script’s duotagonists are the titular precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his “struggling” single mother Susan (Naomi Watts who has made damn sure we will remember her 2017 as the year of Twin Peaks and not this shit). I put “struggling” in scare quotes because she insists on continuing to work hard as a waitress and driving a very distressed looking automobile, but Henry is gifted enough intellectually to turn her paychecks into hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to stock-brokering over a goddamn payphone at his school. He’s also apparently intelligent enough to crush a kid’s dreams of being an Olympic dodgeball champion in the classroom in a manner that apparently impresses his middle school teacher for appealing to her existential crisis, despite clearly deflating a child in her care.

Henry’s a fucking asshole. Like, flat out. And the movie thinks we’re going to be rooting for him when he begins elaborating on a plan to discreetly assassinate his next-door neighbor Police Commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris) that we know Henry can and will execute. Even with the knowledge of Glenn consistently abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), even with most of the movie told through the wide-eyed perspective of Henry’s younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) whom Henry protects from school bullies, all as emotional blackmail, Henry is so repulsive as a human being in his judgmental attitude towards his mother struggling to find a way to function as a mother figure despite Henry ripping all financial agency and maternal responsibility from her life, superiority complex towards his kids, and the clear psychopathy in his leap from “try to appeal to authorities or superiors who can help Christina and fail” to “I’m going to shoot this man to fucking death” in less than a week. Mind you, when you’re trying to appeal to your principal to help someone, you’re not going to get anybody on your side busting into the door with “Goddammit, Janice”.

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Even before we approach the middle development of the film where it takes a narrative turn that flips this at-first terribad Radio Flyer reboot (and mind you, Radio Flyer was already garbage) upside-down and incapable of figuring out what direction it can go with its story, Trevorrow is clearly interested in providing the most treacly nostalgic child’s wonder treatment of this material that is wildly inappropriate by any means, sun-dappled cinematography and directing the cast to be as casual about the shit that has to come out of their mouth as possible. Watts looks like she’s suffering the worst of it and wants to bail ASAP, while Sarah Silverman looks like there’s absolutely no bit of this she will take seriously, giving the sloppiest Amy Winehouse impression I could witness top to bottom. And when one looks at Hurwitz’ previous work*, which includes runs on the Batman comics and thriller novel series about genetically-modified hyper-intelligent assassins, I don’t know how anybody thought he was worth the benefit of the doubt on writing this movie, it reads on paper like just another one of his thrillers but if he sent it as a Peanuts story commission and wasn’t laughed out of the building.

It’s really hard not to turn this into just “this moment sucked and this moment sucked and so did this one” like I really really want to. Not only because of spoilers but there are so many miscalculations – from Silverman kissing Lieberher to a talent show montage crosscut with a climax that ends up wildly Brooksian in tonal whiplash all the way down to the final resolution the movie provides in the end – so all I can do is just give you my horrorstruck stare at what kind of movie everybody was ok with and how frustrating it is that people actually believed in this as wholesome and worth delivering to a family audience. Fucking miss me with this shit, don’t ever talk to me or my son ever again.

Man, J.J. Abrams is definitely not my ideal director of Star Wars: Episode IX, especially if The Last Jedi does a hell of a lot of work to move the new trilogy far beyond. But The Book of Henry is the most engaged time I’ve had watching any of Trevorrow’s three movies and at this point I’m glad to take anything out of the possibility of a Star Wars film by this guy.

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*Seriously, I gotta make a commentary for this movie. It’ll be to The Book of Henry the exact opposite of what Roger Ebert did to Citizen Kane.
**The way I got Hurwitz’ CV was from looking through his Wikipedia page, which reads heavily like a man trying to impress me, including non-sequiturs about going undercover in cults and swimming with sharks and sneaking into demolitions ranges with Navy SEALs. I would not be surprised if he wrote his own wikipedia page and if so, he sounds exactly the sort of dude who’d introduced himself by saying “I went to Harvard AND Oxford” and thus exactly the sort of dude who’d identify with Henry and want us to find him impressive.
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The Emoji Movie

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The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).

Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.

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There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.

Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.

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In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).

3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.

In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.

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Issa Ghost

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The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is the fact that, given the recent revelations of Casey Affleck’s behavior, I don’t have to look at his face for the majority of the movie given how novel (without being ridiculous) the concept is of him playing a ghost by wordlessly walking around in a bedsheet. It’s even nicer to discover that there’s the possibility that his double David Pink (who also was the art director for the film so figures he might have liked to spend time underneath that sheet during reshoots and pickups) potentially takes up more screentime as the titular ghost than Affleck does.

That is, in fact, not the nicest thing about A Ghost Story. It’s just a fun joke I wanted to open up on*. The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is how director David Lowery undertook it upon himself to make a very patiently meditative picture using as little words (and possibly sounds, the soundtrack is a very deliberate but sparse element mainly taken over by Daniel Hart’s warm intellectual blanket of tones that makes up the film’s score) to try to attempt Lowery’s personal version of The Tree of Life, a reflection on the status of our personal presence in the greater wheel of the universe and the interminability of how it keeps rolling despite our insignificance and how it’s still a pretty wonderful thing to be around.

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And the great thing about that being the nicest thing about A Ghost Story is that it’s highly reflective of the film as a whole. It’s a cohesive thing rather than just a whole lot of great stuff. Like, the depressed laconic performance of Rooney Mara’s central to the first quarter (maybe? I don’t think she remains in the film very long) as the widowed spouse of Affleck’s character is not just a great arc of the story in its own right but the very seed in which the plot builds out of the self-contained block of emotional grief – complete with the infamous long-take pie scene which would obviously be divisive but I found incredibly generous as a visual and temporal gag (the payoff made me nearly laugh except the friend I saw the movie with was unamused), a very telling character moment, a tonal reset for the picture to let us know how far our patience can go, and indisputable evidence that Mara has definitely never eaten a pie before in her life if she thinks it works like that.

Or how indisputably beautiful and sharp the darkness of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, providing both visual melancholy and a haunting atmosphere in such an essential manner to A Ghost Story getting away with its paced explorations of the Ghost’s lingering that I find it to be more irrevocably tied to the film being made than the cinematography of Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both also really lovely looking films. Those movies feel a little more divorced from the fact that they look good than A Ghost Story, where it matters in the details of the frame that we can witness what’s happening because there’s almost no other way we’re going to receive information.

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Hell, there’s even a more show-offy effects sequence involving a singular shot in which we watch the Ghost watching Mara exit the home in three different fashions with nary a cut in sight and the whole thing doesn’t feel like an effects showcase to me, but an efficient manner of having us and our guiding character feel the quickening perception of time slip right past us, only adding to the feeling of insignificance in a desperate manner. It’s all just more to wrap into the world’s self-reflective attitude.

Indeed, it’s funny that I feel the audacious attempts at cosmic commentary towards the Ghost’s sudden death and reflections of his life before and his widow’s life after are akin to Malick’s masterpiece, because it’s the closest I find in Lowery’s filmography to his independent personality coalescing into a film. It doesn’t function as a Malick homage this time, though the influence is there, it finally feels like a complete key into understanding what Lowery looks for in a film and his voice.

It is with great dismay that while it’s possibly the David Lowery movie I love most, I’m not convinced it’s not also Lowery’s worst (it’s not even my favorite Tree of Life copy with Twin Peaks‘ Part 8 being the best thing of 2017 period) and it’s kind of because by the second act – the one where its ambition is bigger than its stomach – it loses track of itself except in repeating its beats in a Macro scale. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when a movie whizzes right on by as quickly as A Ghost Story does and the visuals don’t stop having a tangible distinction between the settings (kind of, there’s never any doubt that we’re in the exact same spot the whole movie) and time periods, but it stops being revelatory at that point.

No, the real shitty point and potentially the reason I’m least responsive to the moments after it is during a central party scene in which reliable ol’ Will Oldham turns up and delivers the clumsiest clunky moment in the whole movie, giving an eye-rolling monologue on-the-nose about what the movie is trying to say and it’s upsetting because of how elegant Lowery’s storytelling has been up until that point. Like, my dawg, believe in your movie.

Let’s not dwell too long on such a blemish, because A Ghost Story remains one of the more fascinating movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching during such a somewhat underwhelming summer, with much to think about and the certainty that I’ll be rewatching it many times over and over. Potentially with skipping that monologue.

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*another great joke I like to make: how the ghost goes MAGA at one point in the film that you’ll know when you watch it. Can’t trust them white ghosts.
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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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The 2017 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

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Another year, another summer’s end, another return to O Cinema Wynwood with the upcoming Third Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival, right here in Miami, FL. And that means more features moving up from last year’s 16 to a whopping 21, including a section dedicated to Florida-based production entitled Homegrown. And full sell-outs by this point with every opening night feature, though that’s no reason not to take a chance on the rush line.

And that means more shorts, so same as last year – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – I’m gonna be giving a quick look at almost every one of them to tell you what to expect between 11 – 17 of August.

And looking back at it all, there’s even more variety than last year, enough to promise there may be something for every single type of horror-goer and nothing less than decent overall. It’s exciting to think about who will respond to what over the coming week, so allow me to introduce each one.

Great Choice

Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)
Playing Friday 11 August 7 pm before Tragedy Girls

Great Choice has a Catch-22: on the one hand, Carrie Coon is so well-known in 2017 as a face that the structural exercise can’t surprise us the way I would love it to (this would have found its home on Adult Swim at midnight). On the other hand, Coon’s performance (against a very foreboding Morgan Spector) really sells the cosmic horror of the thing and I wouldn’t trade her out of this for the world, salvaging even the out-of-step ending. Even if Coon wasn’t in the short, Comisar has provided us with the outstanding kind of physical video experimentation – mixing in and out of aged television textures with colors like a bad photograph and sharp arresting high definition in 1.78:1 (breaking out of TV’s 3:4) like if an Everything Is Terrible! video collapsed and threatened to crawl out of the screen and suck you in. Wart of an ending and all, this is probably my favorite short of the lineup (Buzzcut and Hell Follows gives it a fight).

THE THIN PLACE

The Thin Place (dir. Alexander Mattingly)
Playing Friday 11 August 9 pm preceding Jackals

Mattingly has a very good sense of timing and spacing to create terror but my one major gripe is the ending and I don’t think it would have bothered me as much if what preceded it didn’t impress me. For one, it seems too abrupt after nearly 15 minutes was spent with Arlene (Lindsey Shope) trying to find out what’s happening to her daughter Maddy (Kelsey Blackwell) and it’s more interesting drama than it deserves to be, with Blackwell’s delivery of Maddy describing her headspace when the creature (Faye Davis) stalking their home abducts her are unsettling. Maybe if the plot was a bit more thin, that ending wouldn’t have bothered me but I hardly think Mattingly and Hemphill should remove anything from a tight 15 minutes. And then there’s the real killer: Mattingly and S.T. Davis do outstanding things with the shadows and spaces for a low-budget production. Our first look at the creature is a great bit of “what was that?” unfocused movement in the far end of a frame that feels like the scare you get seeing something from your peripherals. And all the other teases of the creature between that moment and the ending are just as crawling and alarming as you could hope for. And then that ending shot is so underlit as to be anticlimatic. And that’s heartbreaking for what a great thing Mattingly and Davis had going. But ending on a bad note hardly ruins the whole song.

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Die! Sitter! Die! Rupert (dir. Lee & Sam Boxleitner)
Playing Friday 11 August 11:30 pm preceding Terrifier

Well, I’m not gonna pretend the movie is at all bad. It’s a perfectly fine work of horror craft, especially in its gruesome though clearly budgeted treatment of the trashy gore people would want out of such a premise. But it’s also exhaustingly sadistic. And I don’t know if removing the early subplot of the mom’s chemotherapy and the lead’s hard financial times would have made it feel less mean-spirited but it would have gotten rid of a lot of wasted runtime for a motivation we kind of don’t need for something like this (You don’t need to be broke to find $12,000 for one night’s work enticing and by the middle mark it’s very clear that she’s motivated by fear for her life). Either way, I’m still a sucker for hard reds and blues in horror and Rupert’s a very imposing presence by Boxleitner himself – less grotesque than one would expect a grown man pretending to be a baby, but still frightening from how in control he is – so there’s no room to call this a failure in anyway. I’m just not the audience for it.

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Buzzcut (dir. Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

It’s nothing Sam Raimi hasn’t already perfected, but not even Raimi has been reaching that apex since 2009 and Marrero and Rhoads get closer than any episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s a fantastically dense short for its length, frenetically establishing the rapture, the cannibal demon monsters and making it all seem so elliptical to Jane’s quest to get a haircut. The semi-episodic nature, the punk rock needle drops (although there’s one song choice that isn’t broad enough to work for me), and Kelly Jane’s frustrated no-nonsense performance as a foil to all the madness makes this 9 minute feature have all the efficient excitement of a feature without feeling like the joke went on for too long. It also gets points by me for making a very sex positive portrayal of an lesbian relationship without getting male-gazey about it despite two men directing, so right on.

Midnight Service

The Midnight Service No. 2 – Home Invasion (dir. Brett Potter & Dean Collin Marcial)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

The first of two internet document episodes, this one a pseudo-documentary produced by our local Borscht Corporation (who also produced Great Choice) and based on the testimony of NY-based comedian Kat Toledo on her possible break-in encounter with the missing delinquent Quincy Lemon and the alleged brushfire that occurred right outside the Everglades home she was house-sitting but had no clue about. And despite the extremely neat and structured manner Potter and Marcial (there is no credited editor so I assume they’re responsible for it) present this multi-tiered and mysterious tale, I can’t say I have a clear picture on everything that happened. Maybe that’s intentional to give us a bunch of pieces and see if we can make them fit together, but I would assume that the creepy atmosphere wants us to find at least some supernatural answer within it. In any case, it’s also fantastically gorgeous both in its representation of nighttime interiors and its landscape photography of the watery greens of the Everglades (again, no cinematographer credited) so I can’t say I wasn’t highly enjoying it.

Primal Scream

This Wooden Boy (dir. Rodney Ascher)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

Yet another documentary internet episode for the Homegrown program. I think short format fits Rodney Ascher much better as a documentarian. An episode of the new Shudder original series Primal Screen, the 30-minute runtime forces the director/editor to include more narrative and thematic focus than the tangle of his popular features Room 237 and The Nightmare. Not entirely focused, since its still floating between several different stories of fears of dolls and dummies in a freeform manner that doesn’t clarify between three similar adult narrations (plus Ascher’s habit of adding in unnecessary tv/film clips appears here in the form of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) but it clearly draws a throughline between pop culture in television (capturing the Screen part of the show title) to the public consciousness to the psyche of its subjects fearing all of these dolls. It’s a very sharp and interesting watch, aided by Ascher’s direction of recreations using black negative space to sell the subconscious memory aspect of these recreations.

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Fierce (dir. Izu Troin)
Playing Saturday 12 August at 9 pm preceding Mayhem

So I’m not 100 percent on the story being a parable for workplace aggression and the dog-eat-dog world of corporate work (it seems to only function in the bookends of the short rather than the actual meat of the protagonist’s hunt), but I am always 100 percent on watching some new animation and this French production is pretty detailed in both the shocking gruesomeness of the violence – splatching red against the otherwise muted browns and greys – and the sort of smeared, outside-of-the-lines style of the thing has enough shape to establish who is where and already gives a feeling of visual momentum before the chase even truly begins. And that’s without even acknowledging the interesting artistic choice of having the frame constantly moving in a fluid manner as though in a handheld camera. A short that wants you exhausted and catching your breath by the end of it.

CURVE

Curve (dir. Tim Egan)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding The Endless

Oh boy, was that anxiety-inducing. A simple premise – a girl (Laura Jane Turner) is trapped on an impossible incline with an abyss below and one leg already broken – and enough time to make it feel unbearable and hopeless, no less thanks to undetailed design of her apparent prison and the depressing gray palette of the whole thing. It’s nothing but an exercise in patient fear-building and nihilism and it’s an extremely effective one at that for all of its limited resources.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

A Knock at the Door (dir. Katrina Rennells & Wendie Welldon)
Playing Sunday 13 August 9:30 pm preceding Better Watch Out

A subtle and short throwback to scary tales of domesticity being violated (particularly a famous classic sci fi feature), helped out by a sense of physical place for the house in which nearly all of the 8 minutes of the story takes place, only breaking out to establish the behavior that should be setting off a red flag for our man Nick (Drew Jenkins) and then for a final beat showing what’s to come. It’s pretty straightforward and gets the tension going enough for its final beat (no real climactic payoff but there’s a gotcha moment), which is good work for a horror short to accomplish.

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Fucking Bunnies (dir. Teemu Niukkanen)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding 68 Kill

Wow, “Fucking” seriously translates in Finnish to “Saatanan”? That’s gnarly, I love the design of the title. I also can’t help loving the short, which is not remotely “horror” – at no point does the genial demon-war-painted face of Maki (Janne Reinikainen) come across as threatening, even when he’s holding a kitchen knife joking about his killing his new neighbors (and I think superintendent) Rami (Jouko Puolanto) and Kirsi (Minna Suuronen). Nor do I think Niukkanen wants it to be, Puolanto’s off-put anxieties about Maki’s Satanic lifestyle is clearly meant to be in the wrong and the result is a pretty funny short that’s a lot more layered about cultural differences than meets the eye (the patronizing way Rami greets the Senegalese janitor with “Jambo”, a shot where Rami practices ejecting Maki that is framed to look like him lecturing an immigrant family). It’s actually so pleasant that I only really don’t care for the sudden needle drops of black metal, probably meant to push the viewer into feeling as apprehensive as Rami which I don’t think we need. But then I’ve never been a fan of Finnish black metal (Norway represent!), so that might just be my own bias showing much as Rami’s.

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Couples Night (dir. Robert & Russell Summers)
Playing Monday 14 August 7 pm preceding Lake Bodom

There is nothing to comment on negatively in the least – the performances are all broadly fitting for their characters attitude, one couple being as sinister as you can be without it being scary and the other being manically pleasant in an alarming one – there’s just also not much for me to praise with a short. I don’t want to call artless, but it isn’t visually interesting. Not that it needs to be to work out in the end as a fine little brief comic gag to whet some horror movie appetites. We’re not looking for something weighty here.

2AM

2AM (dir. Huseyin Hassan)
Playing Monday 14 August 11 pm preceding Happy Hunting

So, let’s just toss aside the fact that we have an idea where this story is going from square one when its established that our protagonist Alex (voiced by Mark Kenfield) is looking through an asylum and absolutely know how it’s gonna end the moment Dr. Hattaro (Akira Bradley carrying the human element as the only amicable face we see the whole movie) align our understanding of the plot a third into the 15 minute short. Despite that, it’s still a really excellent execution of such a recognizable plot type, provided by a whole 15-minute uncut first person point of view that sinks us into Alex’s clear descent into madness (something Hassan really wants to sell as Alice in Wonderland esque, but I didn’t find that necessary). What really impresses me is how seamlessly the ghostly presence of Nichola Jayne’s character can pass in and out of frame, alongside the sound mix helping us feel surrounded by the things that haunt Alex’s walk into the truth. It’s basically “you are here” experiential horror, done no differently than the infamous playable teaser to the cancelled Silent Hills and that includes being as well-done and very entertaining.

HELL FOLLOWS

Hell Follows (dir. Brian Harrison)
Playing Tuesday 15 August 9:30 pm preceding Psychopaths

Now here’s some really daring stuff: something that gives Great Choice a run for its money. Harrison, in the span of 10 minutes, provides a very genuine anti-genre short: those genres being yakuza and revenge. Much of it is the anticipation towards a certain revenge being taken, carried by the paced duel performance of Iba Takuya. But it’s so stylized – in a coldly metallic black-and-white for the majority of the runtime and a frenetic jarring editing manner including overblown (and sometimes recognizable) needle drops to keep us disoriented and on-edge – that it’s still exciting to be in anticipation for the very thing our narrator Ishimatsu is dreading. It essentially feels like what you’d get if Tsukamoto Shinya was told he could have one long monologue scene for his short film (which is dishonest of me, there’s much more going on here narratively than that including a wonderful climax in bold color) and decided to make it the most electrifying thing ever out of spite.

THE TICKLE MONSTER

Tickle Monster (dir. Remi Weeks)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 7 pm preceding It Stains the Sands Red

Another great little teaser. Some great cutting to make a novel idea both amusing and tense at the same time, but some of the underlighting within the final minute where the scares are being heightened becomes more frustrating than frightening and the opening shots within the room are too well-lit to make that feel deliberate. Still a fantastic pay-off in the end.

IMEDIUM

iMedium (dir. Alfonso Garcia)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 9:30 pm preceding Still/Born

So, iMedium is my least favorite kind of First-Person Camera Movie… the kind that knows there are things within the style that it cannot possibly communicate within the aesthetic so it has to break away and cheat it frequently. In spite of that, iMedium is actually really damn good. In fact, I say it’s the best first-person camera movie I’ve seen since [Rec], meaning that Spanish people are way better at this thing than Americans. It’s heartbreaking because I think it could get rid of both the app element of the plot and still keep its derangement, especially with director/editor Alfonso Garcia’s finger on the emotional beats, Jesus Velez’s ability to sell the amateur quality of the story without making audience’s have to squint to see what’s on-screen, and Jose Bermudez’s on-edge performance, none of which really demands that the movie be FPC. It could have stood proudly on its own without that camera phone crutch.

THE CLEANSING HOUR

The Cleansing Hour (dir. Daniel Leveck)
Playing Thursday 17 August 11:30 pm preceding Dead Shack

This is pretty funny. Not really bellylaughs funny, but from the moment at the end of its stone-faced opening montage that it actually establishes this supposed exorcism to be an internet hoax phenomenon by “Father” Lance (Sam Jaeger) and Drew (Neil Grayston) with the assistance of aspiring actress Heather (Heather Morris). All three central performances do an adequate job – Jaeger at selling Lance’s insincerity, Grayston at being his exasperated foil – to bringing enough levity to the material that the overly polished and labored production feels self-reflexive as a comment to the falseness of sensationalist videos, but it’s all on Morris at switching to grisly demon mode once it’s clear that something inside her is going off-script that re-establishes the stakes while The Cleansing Hour is clearly trying to parody this sort of exploitation. It’s not particularly intelligent parody nor laugh out loud, but it’s entertaining enough to breeze past its runtime on to a sharp final beat.

And there you are. The short film line-up of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Hope to see you there starting this Friday!