Archive for the ‘Movie reviews’ Category

MOVIE: The Witch (2016)

March 11, 2016

The-Witch-Poster-Large_1200_1776_81_sMarketed as a horror movie, but billed as a “folk tale,” this is an incredibly fascinating, thoroughly unsettling film with even more to offer after you’ve seen it than while you’re watching (at least, if you, like me, are a near-pathological overthinker).

It opens with a family of extremely devout Christians, led by patriarch William, denouncing their colony’s weak beliefs in a town meeting. The family is immediately ousted from the group, and the next thing we see is their wagon exiting through the front gates, a pack of four kids crammed into the back watching the doors slowly close behind them.

The family builds themselves a little farm on the edge of a very deep, very dark wood (cue spooky strings music). They seem happy, though, to be starting over alone, where they can practice their completely nuts — I mean “very devout” — beliefs their own way.  They pray to the sky, arms raised, hope spilling out the edges of the frame. Life seems good.

And then a tragedy happens.

The eldest daughter, Thomasin, is hanging out in a field with her infant brother Samuel playing peek-a-boo, when she hits a BOO!, opens her eyes, and finds he’s vanished. The audience sees a figure in a red cloak fleeing into the woods with the baby, and later sees a nude old lady — the titular “witch,” we assume — doing something so horrific with that baby it’s better if I don’t try to describe it. Let’s just say . . . well, let’s not and say we didn’t.

The mother quickly loses her mind, and it isn’t long before everybody else in the family joins her. Despite their desperate attempts to convince each other it was a wolf who took Samuel, a wolf ultimately isn’t a big enough creature to take the blame they need to direct somewhere. They can’t direct it to God, so they end up heaving it up onto Thomasin.

It starts with a joke: when her spectacularly-creepy little twin brother and sister (Twins are so creepy. Signed: A Twin) come to her for comfort, she spins them a story to chill them instead.  She’s a witch, she says. And she’s the one who took Samuel. And THEY’RE NEXT.  You know, exactly the kind of thing big sisters do to little ones. Only in this case, the family is primed to believe it.

Now, whether or not there really is a witch is kind of left open for debate, which I appreciated.  Yes, we see her — more than once, or else more than one — but it’s hard to know, and intentionally so, whether what we’re seeing is real or a figment of one/more of the character’s imaginations (there’s a scene in which one character’s hysteria infects two others like a virus, after all: reminiscent of The Crucible, and with good reason).

As my astute movie buddy pointed out, this doubt would’ve been even easier to run with had the family been growing wheat instead of corn (a wheat fungus and its effects on the human brain has been posited as a possible cause of the delusions and paranoia that fueled much of the Salem witch trials).  But even without wheat fungus, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from extreme religious beliefs, complete isolation, fear of starvation, and grief to: totally batshit crazy.

Especially when you throw into that mix the complexity that comes from coupling those same extreme religious beliefs with crippling self-loathing (the two so often seem to go hand-in-hand).  Two characters in this film make an active decision to “sin,” the father and the eldest son, and both of them end up pretty messed up about it later.  The son even has a breakdown in which he begins speaking in tongues and eventually literally spits up the Original Sin — it’s hard to miss the metaphor there. Their beliefs can be summed up perfectly by the phrase “We’re not worthy,” and both the son and father talk multiple times about how horrible they are and how it’s a miracle God can still love them.  That’s gonna mess a person up.  That messes people up. Is it what’s going on in this story? I DO NOT KNOW.

The film gets a little bogged down in the middle, as the father casts blame on each kid in turn, the mother has nightmares in which crows are pecking at her breasts, and Thomasin struggles to stay in everyone’s good graces as doubt about her builds and builds.  But a lot of what happens during these slower sections ends up contributing vital elements to the overarching theme of the destructive power of religious extremism. It’s no coincidence that Thomasin, the target of everyone’s suspicion, is a young woman entering puberty.  We see more than once the older brother ogling her swelling chest. And whose fault is that sin? Why, it’s Thomasin’s, of course. Eventually, the entire family works to crush her, and, eventually — and horribly — that doesn’t go quite as planned, as Thomasin finalizes her transition from child to adult, wrenching back all the power taken from her in one seriously awful denouement.

This movie is both confusing and fascinating, but what it isn’t is “scary.” And I think that’s largely on purpose.  Yes, we see a witch do a terrible thing. Yes, the woods are spooky. Yes, there’s a (unfortunate) lot of classic horror movie music working those long pauses into a frenzy. But this movie isn’t so much interested in scaring you as it is in filling you with dread.  You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know what to believe. There’s a really creepy goat. And when the shizznit finally hits the fazzan, it’s still completely impossible to tell if what you’re seeing is “real.” How could it be? It’s totally insane! And yet . . .

As the final credits rolled, my friend turned to me and said, “What the fuck just happened?” and I replied, “I have no idea.” And it was glorious. Later, I found myself thinking a lot about the differences between “folk tales” and “horror,” and things got even more intriguing.  Horror stories classically fit into the genre of “folk tale,” but in modern storytelling, and particularly in modern American horror filmmaking, they’re mostly engineered for one purpose and one purpose alone: to scare the poop out of you.

“Folk tales,” on the other hand, are generally thought of as stories passed down from generation to generation, often rooted in something supernatural, and typically carrying along with them some kind of moral. If the goal of the story is to scare, then the goal of the scare is to teach. But what is the moral of The Witch? I can’t really answer that. Which is to say: I have about a dozen answers to that, but I have no idea what the “right” one is, and that, to me, is a sign of something really interesting going on. Is it about religion? Is it about “the patriarchy”? While I would say a lot of the imagery in this film gets slammed against us excessively and unnecessarily hard, overall, there’s still a thriving subtlety at work here. I saw this film about two weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it.

I like that about us.

Highly recommended, and you will want to see this on the big screen for full effect, I would say.  Treat yourself.

[View trailer]

Genre: Horror, sort of?
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Anya Taylor-Joy

 

Horror Movie Double Feature: It Follows and Unfriended (2014)

January 10, 2016

itfollowsI’m about 9,000 book and movie reviews behind at the moment. Last June, my husband fell down some steps and ended up having to have emergency knee surgery. The recovery was long and complicated and kind of threw us both off our games for the rest of the year.

I’m not going to try to catch up completely, partly because a lot of the movies I saw are ones that have already been reviewed six ways to Sunday, like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which were excellent, by the way).  But I am going to try to hit a few of the things I saw or read that I really enjoyed and that you might’ve missed.

FOR EXAMPLE: These two horror movies, which have a couple of interesting things in common, making them great choices for your next horror movie double-feature date night (I’m just assuming everybody else is having those; I’m married so I watch movies with my cats).  Both are about teenagers, and both take a fairly age-old horror movie plot and turn it into something fresh.  Of the two, I liked Unfriended better, which puts me squarely opposite most film critics and people with actual taste, but after you read my enthusiastically nerdy review of it below, I think it’ll make more sense.

It Follows opens with a scene designed to suck the audience right in, and man, does it ever work — a young woman fleeing her house in a panic, driving to the beach, calling her father to say goodbye, and then being found dead the next morning.  Opening scene: I salute you. Play on!

From there, we switch focus to another young woman, Jay, making out with a guy she has a terrific crush on (Hugh).  They have sex, she artfully ponders a flower, and the next thing she knows, she’s waking up tied to a wheelchair, Hugh looming and crazed in front of her.  He explains that he’s been suffering from a deadly curse he could only rid himself of by passing it on via sex, and she’s all, “I’m sorry, what?” (wait, once more with feeling: “I’M SORRY, WHAT?!”).

He explains: he’s been cursed with an entity that can only be seen by those who have been afflicted, one that takes on the appearance of various people and then follows him everywhere he goes, plodding along slowly in standard horror-movie easily-outrunnable-but-still-aaigh! monster manner. He knows if it ever catches him, he will die (I’m not clear how it then gets passed to the next person, by the way, but let’s not overthink this).

After a couple of weeks of terror (tough guy), he’s sorry to report he just couldn’t take it anymore (wuss). And since she was trying to get into his pants anyway (charmer), she was basically asking for it (jerk). Sorry, Jay (more jerk)! But hey, you can just have sex with someone too and then it’ll be their problem (sociopath).

In essence, it’s like the worst STD imaginable. The rest of the movie is about Jay trying to deal with the emotional complexities of having to choose between dying herself or potentially cause the death of someone else.  Talk about making the old horror movie trope “sex = death” about as literal as possible, right?

But this film actually goes a little deeper than that makes it sound. It’s not so much a fable about the dangers of premarital intercourse as it is about the intimidating specter of growing up (which certainly is aptly described as “plodding”). Okay, that may be a stretch, but still: this film is extremely effective and thoughtful, and it’s also incredibly creepy in places.  Overall, though, while I appreciated and enjoyed it, it’s not a film I’m likely to watch again.

unfriendedUnfriended, on the other hand, was so utterly fascinating to me, film-making-wise, that I’ve already watched it twice and can’t wait to do it again.

This one takes the old horror plot wherein a group of teens humiliate a peer and pay the price for it –think Prom Night, Carrie, etc. — and bumps it squarely into the modern age.  The camera is focused on a single location for the entire film: the computer screen of the main character, Blaire, as she watches stuff on YouTube, browses the web, and interacts with her boyfriend and pals via text and video chat.

As the friends log on to Skype with each other one evening, they notice a stranger has joined their call, the standard “no photo uploaded” avatar hanging out on the screen. At first, they think it’s a glitch and they hang up and try again. But no — it’s still there.

Then both Blaire and her boyfriend Mitch get a strange message from an old friend, Laura Barns, the girl whose suicide Blaire was watching on YouTube as the movie began (it’s the first anniversary of her death).

As the story progresses, we learn that the group of friends had been involved in posting another video of Laura a little over a year ago in which she was recorded while passed out drunk, having either gotten her period or crapped her britches (I wasn’t clear which, but I think probably the latter).  That video ended up online, and the reaction from her so-called “friends” was brutal. Humiliated, she ended up shooting herself, also on camera (kids these days), the next day at school.

The mysterious avatar finally reveals herself — and it’s coming from Laura’s old account. It seems to, in fact, BE LAURA.  The kids go bananas. She tells them she wants to play a game, “Never Have I Ever,” in which each person puts up five fingers, and lowers a finger if they are guilty of the action described. Examples: “Never have I ever had sex.” “Never have I ever turned my friend into the cops.” “Never have I ever spread a rumor about Blaire.” With each revelation, the group of friends increasingly turn on each other. And meanwhile, they are also being killed off one by one by some mysterious (entity?) that drives them to commit suicide, just like they drove Laura to.

Now, granted, there is nothing even remotely unique about this plot. As previously noted, the revenge story is as old as the teenage slasher genre itself, and the “people forced to play murderous shame-game” thing is too (Truth or Die, e.g.). One of the things I’ve said many times on this blog is that once you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, as I have, it starts to become really, really hard to impress (or scare) you (me). That genre in particular seems plagued by unoriginality — not just because the same stories get told and retold, but because the same storytelling techniques are often recycled over and over until they lose their effectiveness (found-footage, for example).

Telling an entire story using only a computer screen is something I’ve never seen done before, though, and it is masterfully done here. Multiple platforms are used to build out the backstories at play, from websites about ghosts making contact from the afterlife, to online videos, to photos on Facebook, songs on iTunes, and chat. This could’ve made things difficult to follow, especially when multiple windows were open, or a lot of text appeared on the screen. But every time there’s a moment when you’re unsure where to put your eye, something happens that successfully orients you — a video starts, something flashes, a sound boops, the cursor moves over a line of text.

I found that element of this particularly fascinating, because as someone who develops multimedia online trainings as part of my day job, I’m constantly thinking about ways to keep a user focused on the right onscreen element. And another thing I do for a living — in fact, I co-wrote a journal article about this last year — is think about the best ways to gather and/or present information to people on computers. Which platforms are right for what activities? Which techniques work best for a specific audience? What is the best way to convey this type of information for that group of people? In my work, this is about the dissemination of information related to substance abuse research, but the more I thought about this film after seeing it the first time, the more I found it remarkable to consider this movie in that context. The way that, in some ways, effective dissemination of information is not that different from “storytelling.”

Both of these films get an A+ from me, but Unfriended is by far the more innovative of the two, even while it’s also the clear loser in terms of actual plot. I highly recommend both, and if any of you guys have seen Unfriended in particular, I’d love to hear what your reaction was. If I’m wrong that this has never been done before, definitely correct me, because I’d love to know what I missed and then go un-miss it.

Genre: Horror

It Follows: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Unfriended: Shelley Henning, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki

[Amazon Video: It Follows (streaming rental) and Unfriended (purchase only; try your local public library!)]

MOVIE: In Fear (2013)

November 8, 2015

infearI had never heard of this film, but picked it up the other day at the public library on a whim, in the mood for a good “lost in the woods”-type horror flick.  Hello, Halloween!  How are ya?

The good news is: it’s surprisingly entertaining and well-acted, and has a few very clever, very well-done scenes. Man, I love it when that happens!

The bad news is: the best moment comes about 20 minutes from the end and should have BEEN the end (oh, if only!), but instead the filmmaker goes on to totally wreck the awesomeness he had going and turn this from gold into. . . I don’t know. The opposite of gold, or something.  Man, I hate it when that happens!

The very first scene sucked me in right away, largely due to the acting chops of our hero, Tom, a young man who, as the story opens, is leaving a voice mail for a young lady (Lucy) he just met in a bar.  Nervously and very authentically awkwardly, he invites her to join him for a road trip to a music festival in a couple of weeks, something that ought to send any wise young lady who just met a young man in a bar screaming, frankly.

Cut to the next scene though, and it’s Tom and Lucy in a car on their way to the festival two weeks later, talking cheerfully about how the night is their “two week anniversary” (which, Lucy informs Tom, isn’t a “thing,” given what the word “anniversary” actually means. I like Lucy already; too bad she’s about to have the worst night of her entire young life. . .).

To celebrate two weeks of young love, Tom surprises Lucy by saying he’s booked a room at a fancy hotel for their first night.  Wisely hesitant for once, Lucy hems and haws a bit before giving in.  I’d love to blame her for it, but I would’ve done the same thing, largely because Tom’s undeniably a ridiculous cutie.

What I wouldn’t have done, though, is continued to give in once Tom informed me of the next huge and completely obvious red flag — that the hotel is so far out in the boonies, they’ll be sending someone on the staff to come meet them at a local pub so that person can lead them back to the utterly befuddling and off-GPS location.

Note to young ladies:  This is a thing creepy hotel proprietors, and ONLY creepy hotel proprietors, do. The rest of them give you directions on their web site.  But before Lucy can be all, “Say what, now?” a 4-Runner pulls in and honks, and Tom pulls out to follow.

Some lengthy, indeterminate amount of time later, the 4-Runner leaves them at a gate, honking again before driving off.  Tom pulls through the gate, and the rural maze to the hotel begins. The GPS in their car cuts out immediately, and the two find themselves resigned to following a series of signs pointing them left or right at multiple forks in the road.  After about an hour of driving in circles, they begin to realize they’ve been driving in circles; tension mounts.

As the night goes on, mostly what we get at first in this thoughtful little film is exactly what you’d expect from a couple that hardly knows each other now desperately lost in the dark in the middle of nowhere, watching their fuel gauge creep closer and closer to E.  The actors both handle this perfectly, and the dialogue is solid too.  They try to be kind to each other, then they fail, then they try again, then they fail again, as the stress continues to shake loose their tenuous ties to one another.

And then, stopped on the side of the road so Lucy can get her coat from the trunk, a masked man suddenly appears out of nowhere and grabs her.  Lucy manages to break free and she and Tom take off, panicked, directionless, terrified.  Suddenly, another man appears — he’s bleeding from head and tells the couple he’s just been attacked, can they help?  Lucy and Tom don’t know what to do — is he telling the truth? Is he lying?  What the hell is going on?  But he keeps railing on in terror about a bad guy in the dark, and eventually, they let him hop in the back.  He says, “We gotta get to the hotel near here so they can call a doctor for my head!” and then offers to lead them there, saying he’s very familiar with the area.

What happens next is an engaging and unique psychological thrill ride at 25mph on some dark and twisty roads, as Tom and Lucy continue to drive around with Questionable Intent Man in the back seat of their car rambling on fairly constantly so as to avoid giving them time to reconsider their very foolish plan to let him into the car.  Without giving anything away, I found the initial culmination of this situation extremely clever and wholly unexpected, and I was all set to give this little flick a serious thumbs up. . .

UNTIL! it wrecked the whole thing by veering suddenly in the most predictable of directions, followed quickly by the least predictable of directions, which I describe as “least predictable” primarily because it made no sense whatsoever.  It didn’t correspond to the bad guy’s originally stated motivations, which I found very intriguing, if not utterly cruel, and it also made no sense in terms of our victim’s ultimate reaction. Super bummer, major letdown.

Up until the disappointing ending, however, this movie really impressed me.  It features very solid acting by the two leads, if less-solid acting by Questionable Intent Man (played by Allen Leech, by the way, better known as chauffeur Tom from Downton Abbey), and a story I don’t recall ever having been told before. It’s also a nice little study both in character drama and in small-setting storytelling (almost all of it takes place in the car). I’d encourage you to shut it off when you get to the “first” ending, but you won’t be able to, is the problem.  And besides, you should see how the filmmakers totally blow it after that, because it’s an excellent lesson in filmmakers totally blowing it too.

All in all, recommended, is what I’m saying. I mean, sort of.  Sort of recommended, is what I’m saying. Definitely worth checking out. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about the ending, so if you do give it a gander, be sure to report back!

[DVD at Netflix | Watch online at Amazon]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, Allen Leech

MOVIE: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

September 26, 2015

This movie, based on the TV series from the 1960s, is about impossibly handsome men wearing impossibly well-fitting suits and doing . . . some stuff. Uh. Most of the impossibly handsome men were spies and there was something about a nuclear bomb. I think. Honestly, I had trouble focusing on the plot due to, shall we say, the cut of Superman and the Winklevi’s respective jibs. Also their biceps.  My goodness.

Plus, frankly, I’m 99% sure the plot was 100% dumb anyway.

You know what we should do instead of talking about this movie anymore? We should just do this:

bluesuit2

That man . . . can wear a suit. Hot damn.

color button down

I don’t even know what to say, the colors of everything were so perfect.

eyebrow

Also, the eyebrows. OF EVERYTHING.

come on

Now you know what I meant about the biceps. You should see what happens when he raises his arms. It’s worth $12 for the big screen version, I assure you.

dark blue

Good golly. Incidentally, his accent did not suck.

uncle_graysuit

POCKET SQUARE JUST SO.

YES

The only people who can successfully wear this hat are Armie Hammer and my dad, and that’s a fact.

grant

This poster makes it look like a publication named “The Intelligence” wrote a review of the film that just read “HUGH GRANT.” I’m all for it.

mccallum

There’s a reason why clothes were a big part of this movie.

mccallum2

This is the reason why.

dark gray

Oomph. Is what. Right down to the shoes. I regret nothing.

MOVIE: Maggie (2015)

May 25, 2015

maggieOne of the reasons I like zombie movies as much as I do is because I also really, really like movies about pandemics, and a lot of zombie films are essentially movies about fast-spreading viruses chewing up the globe. I like pandemic movies both because they are scary in an authentic, contemporary way, and also because they are not.

That is, of all the things I worry about in life, and I worry about a lot of things (stop nodding so emphatically, you guys), pandemics are not high on my list — not because I don’t think they’re a legitimate thing to be afraid of, but because I don’t see a lot of point to freaking out over things about which I can do very little.  Aside from kicking up the hand sanitizer use and trying to avoid crowds, when a pandemic comes to town, I’m not going to be able to do much to avoid it, so why waste energy on being chronically afraid? And so, as with horror movies about monsters I don’t really believe in, not to mention freak weather patterns involving sharks and ‘nadoes, I find stories about global epidemics terrifying in an extremely safe sort of way.

Zombie movies typically take the pandemic thing to a whole new level, starting with a massive kicking-up of the timeline of the spread of the disease. In most of the zombie-virus stories I’ve seen, the disease launches and the world is quickly overrun in a matter of days (roughly 28, if Cillian Murphy is to be believed).  While I enjoy that scenario, and have enjoyed many a zombie movie that uses it, I feel like I’ve seen it so many times now, its capacity to engage me on any sort of deeper level has waned.

This is a long-winded way of explaining to you why I was intrigued enough by the description of this movie, which takes the usual zombiebola story in a different direction, to be willing to sit down for two hours to watch a zombie flick starring Arnold Schwarzehoweveryouspellit — something I would’ve been extremely unlikely to do had it just been another World War Z- or Walking Dead-type yarn.

In Maggie, the zombie virus has spread worldwide as usual, but its incubation period has been greatly slowed down, dramatically changing the character of the pandemic.  Instead of infected people turning into the undead in hours or days, people infected with the virus have about 6-8 weeks before their hankering for human flesh becomes a serious problem.  That’s given doctors and governments a vastly expanded ability to control the spread of the disease.  Sick people are typically rounded up and quarantined before they have a chance to infect others (timely parallel to ebola here, by the way), making the virus a lot more containable.

The title character, Maggie (Breslin), is a teenage girl who had left home for the big city only to be bitten by a rogue zombie one dark night in an alley (lesson to all teenage girls: avoid big city alleys after dark, regardless of rampant viral infections). She ends up in the hospital, where a doctor calls her father (Arnold Schwarzewazzup).  Ordinarily, someone with a confirmed bite is immediately sent to quarantine, but Dad has some connections in the medical world, and he calls in all his favors so he can take Maggie home until she “turns.”

What follows is a fairly thoughtful story about a dying girl home with her family with only weeks to live and a fairly horrible future to contemplate.  Just as wrenching as her side of the tale is that of her father, who not only has to watch his daughter die, but will also likely be responsible for taking care of business, so to speak, at the end.  The family doctor gives him a syringe of the drug cocktail used to euthanize the sick in quarantine (a place of expanding, terrifying lore, also in timely parallel to ebola) but tells him the drugs result in a slow, excruciatingly painful death and not-so-subtly suggests that the compassionate thing for a father to do in that moment is to shoot his little girl in the head.

It might be hard to take that quandary seriously when the disease involves turning into a zombie, but if you look at it as a metaphor for something else — say, terminal cancer — you can see a new relevance, and a new layer, to the story being told here. That’s true not just in terms of the anguished family members watching their loved ones suffer, but also for the policies surrounding medical procedures for the terminally ill, where we still typically rely on painful interventions to the bitter end instead of what some might describe as a more humane approach.

As Maggie begins her slow descent to undeath, complete with the terror of seeing her own body parts begin to rot and a sudden, startling, and confusing urge to eat her stepmother, the agony for all involved becomes difficult to watch. Schwarzenegger (I looked it up) is surprisingly effective in this for a guy I don’t typically associate with evocative emotional storytelling, though this movie would’ve been much stronger with somebody else in that role (mostly because I found his surprising effectiveness somewhat distracting, which isn’t fair, I’ll grant you, but it’s still true).  It also could’ve used a little more time in the rewrite room, because there are several moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite work, as well as more than a few scenes I felt were more than a little clumsy.

Still, overall, I enjoyed this film and appreciated very much its approach to the genre.  I’m always a little disappointed when a movie trying to do something a bit unique doesn’t quite nail it, but the attempt was certainly admirable, relevant, and heartfelt.  Definitely recommended, especially to fans of the BBC series In the Flesh, which this movie reminded me of more than once.

[Rent at Amazon | View trailer]

Genre: Zombies, Drama
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Mattie Liptak

MOVIE: Grabbers (2012)

April 10, 2015

grabbersThis is the time of year when I’m typically at my most busy, aided this year by the fact I’m about to start pretty intensive training for a new volunteer gig on top of everything else, so please excuse the recent lack of posting. However, I just spent a week at my mom’s prepping for this spring chaos, which also means I have a whole lotta movies to tell you guys about.

Of the batch we watched on my week off, this was easily my favorite. It’s not just funny and clever, it also has a great big disgusting alien monster in it — whee! Recipe for joy in the Wood family! Plus, the solution to staying alive in this crazy yarn ended up being “get real drunk,” and who among us hasn’t wished, at least once, that that would actually help with anything whatsoever? I certainly have. I am, in fact, having a gigantic glass of wine right now, on the off-chance.

As the story opens, Irish cop Ciarán O’Shea, an alcoholic whose knowledge of booze is about to come in handy f’realz, has woken up, hungover, to find himself temporarily partnered with a young, ambitious female officer, Garda Lisa Nolan, there to serve as his temporary boss (to make matters worse) while his real boss is out of town. She’s straight-laced and judgmental — oh, joy — and he’s about to have one heckova day.

Their first case together is the strange beaching of a bunch of sea life. Something has killed a ton of seals really fast, which can’t be good.  Meanwhile, a local (likewise alcoholic) fisherman has some kind of new species stored in his bathtub — coincidence? I think not. (Let’s pretend not to notice that a species that thrives in an ocean of saltwater would not likely also thrive in a bathtub of potable. Don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club.) As the day progresses, the Garda come to discover that that something is, for lack of a better term, “a big huge grody alien octopus thingy.”  It lays many eggs, which hatch into many nasty little creatures, which in turn lead later to a scene in a bar nicely reminiscent of the 80s movie Gremlins, something that never fails to bring me great pleasure.

It doesn’t take long for our intrepid heroes to discover that the big huge alien octopus thingies do not like to eat people who have extremely high levels of alcohol in their systems (aforementioned fishermen is tasted and spat out).  Luckily, they also appear to be readily killed by firepower. The problem is, this little island Irish town doesn’t have much in the way of said firepower (at one point, they attempt to make a flame-thrower out of a Super Soaker water gun filled with gasoline — this goes about as well as expected).  They’ve got a call into the mainland for help, but, of course, a vicious storm is on its way, and the Big Guns won’t arrive until the morrow.

The solution? Get the townsfolk into the bar, and load ’em up.  The twist?  Alcoholic cop O’Shea stays sober to lead the team, whilst teetotaler Nolan gets rip-roarin’ ripped. Cue fireworks! And plenty of good old fashioned alien splatter for the kids in the audience!

It sounds ridiculous, I know, and, generally speaking, as a substance abuse research librarian, I’m not typically a huge fan of movies that make extreme binge drinking look like a good idea. Yet somehow, this movie just works and works and works. The chemistry between O’Shea and Nolan is sparkling, and the writing is sharp, witty, and polished. The monsters look extraordinarily silly, and we loved them all the more for it.

Overall, this is a pretty great installment in the B-movie monster genre, and if you’re looking for an entertaining way to kill a couple of hours, especially if you have a large bottle of booze nearby, you need look no further.

Highly, highly recommended!

[Netflix it | Buy it at Amazon]

Genre: Monsters, Comedy
Cast: Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley, Russell Tovey, Lalor Roddy, David Pearse

MOVIE: Nightcrawler (2014)

February 26, 2015

nightcralwerLos Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief with a nasty streak looking for his next big score. One night while out punching people and taking their watches, he comes across the scene of an accident, and is fascinated to see a group of freelance “newsmen” there with cameras, filming the carnage.  After a brief conversation with one of them (Bill Paxton), Lou learns just how lucrative the gig can be and quickly arms himself with a camcorder and police scanner.

Almost immediately, he manages to score some footage he’s able to sell to a blood-and-gore-thirsty news director, Nina (Rene Russo), desperate to raise her station’s ratings before she gets fired. She’s impressed enough to hand him a check for a couple of hundred bucks and thus a new career for Louis is born.

As it turns out, his life of not giving a crap about anybody else around him turns out to be a handy asset in his new biz, called “nightcrawling” because, it appears, everyone who does it is a big slithery worm only coming out after dark.  Methodical to the extreme, and a lover of self-help books and TED talk equivalents, Lou soon develops a complex business plan, which he begins to share in motivational poster-style quotables with his new “intern,” the hopeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid desperate and dumb enough to be willing to do just about anything for $30 a night.

Then one night, Lou crosses the line — he moves a body to get a better angle on the shot.  It ends up being so effective, he can’t resist going to greater and greater lengths to catch the perfect grisly footage, finally even breaking into a murder scene right after the killers leave and just before the cops arrive in order to get close-ups on the carnage. Meanwhile, Rick is growing first a set of balls and then a niggling sense of moral unease, just as Nina is starting to make the horrified realization she has joined forces with an absolute sociopath — one who is so outrageously good at what he does she doesn’t dare defy him lest he take his footage and its sky-high ratings somewhere else. Oh, moral complexity: why you gotta be so morally complex?

This was a pretty entertaining, well-crafted film, though it’s not one I’m likely to watch ever again.  Of the players involved, Riz Ahmed is by far the most interesting, both as an actor and in terms of his character in the story.   I have no idea if “nightcrawling” is an actual “thing” in TV news, especially since I thought the FCC had some pretty strict rules about showing real-life shotgun wounds in HD at 6pm. Then again, they don’t say “If it bleeds, it leads” for nuthin’, after all.  Still, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the film was, really, since the idea that American TV news watchers are all sickos who love seeing the suffering of others in technicolor is hardly revelatory.  Plus, there’s always something vaguely dissatisfying (for me, anyway) about a movie in which the yucky people win.

Nevertheless, this one is definitely worth a rental if you like crime thrillers — both my husband and I enjoyed it for what it was.  Solid entertainment on a Saturday night; you could do a lot worse for $3.99.

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

MOVIE: World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

January 29, 2015

worldsRecently, I saw — and loved — the horror movie Willow Creek, written and directed by, of all people, goofy 80s comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. I’ve always been a Bobcat fan, but it honestly had never once occurred to me that he might be such a brilliant, not to mention deeply thoughtful, filmmaker.  Seeing that film really surprised and intrigued me, and I’ve been working my way back through his (short) writer/director catalog ever since.

This film, made in 2009 and also written and directed by Bobkitty, was, to be honest, a bit difficult to watch so soon after the loss of its star, the great Robin Williams.  It’s a film about death, you see.  A film about suicide, even (sort of).  Even harder, it’s a film about feeling negligible, a particularly poignant sensation for me, as well as the crazy-making impact of being a negligible person suddenly found necessary (knowing all along that it is a find both illegitimate and temporary).  Push your way through those emotional challenges, though, and you will be rewarded with a truly poignant dark comedy pumped up with so much effusive, legitimate heart it’s practically beating while it rolls.

Williams plays Lance, a high school English teacher, failed writer, and single father to a single teenage son, Kyle.  Kyle is essentially an outrageous asshole, and not just because he’s 17. You’ll try — you’ll try to write it off as a boy simply being 17 — but Kyle will not let you. He’s selfish, he’s judgmental, he’s snide, and frankly, he’s downright mean. Even worse, especially for his father, he’s also not all that smart.

Lance, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels things a little too much, painfully skulking away in a shy, dark corner way over on the opposite side of the empathy spectrum from his son.

When Lance gets home one night to find Kyle dead in his room from auto-erotic asphyxiation gone bad, his first thought is. . . well, his first thought is gut-wrenching grief. But his second thought is to protect his son from what he feels is a shameful, undignified death. The idea of his boy becoming even more of an outcast, a mockery, is so painful a notion he cannot bear it. So, he strings Kyle up from a pull-up bar in the closet (you see, then, why this was hard to watch in light of what happened to Williams) and fakes a poignant suicide note on his computer.

Though devastated by the loss of his son, the instant attention and affection Lance gets in the wake of his loss,  from the very people who used to make him feel so terribly, agonizingly invisible for so long, is utterly addictive. And while at first it’s easy enough to ride along, when Kyle’s “suicide note” is leaked to the school paper, things kaboom out of control.  Thus ensues a dark, satirical look at the way we humans so, so love revisionist history (as long as it’s revised in our favor, of course), as students and teachers galore begin claiming close, personal connections to the lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood Kyle. Latching onto Kyle suddenly makes them all feel less invisible too, of course, as they seek each other out for memorials, cry-fests, memorabilia swaps, and deep conversations with the poor dead boy’s lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood father. The world’s greatest dad.

Caught in the undertow of his own wave, Lance is astonished by the power his faked note has on the people around him, and can’t resist digging himself ever-deeper, next writing and releasing Kyle’s “journal.”  It’s the first time in his life his writing has ever gotten anyone’s attention, and that attention, to this poor ol’ underachieving big-heart, is painfully, agonizingly consuming — and, ultimately, painfully, agonizingly consumptive.

This is an incredibly smart, sharp, clever, witty, beautiful film.  It’s also a powerful reminder of the broad-achieving talent of Robin Williams, and his ability to play a wide range of moving characters, both inside and outside of comedy. (Extra irony here too, of course, because of the intense outpouring of love and support for Williams after his own death by many whom, I would imagine, actually barely knew and hardly liked his work. In my own defense, I was a completely unapologetic fan of Patch Adams, even, and so my aim here is true.)

Anyway. Dudes. Highly recommended, and DO NOT MISS.

[Netflix it (streaming) | Amazon Prime streaming (or DVD)]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Cast: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Morgan Murphy, Naomi Glick, Henry Simmons.

MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

January 6, 2015

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

MOVIE: Willow Creek (2014)

December 5, 2014

willowcreekI’ve been incredibly, insanely busy lately, and also haven’t been sleeping well, which, wrapped together, turns me into this big buzzing beehive of unceasing energy. That makes it extremely difficult to sit down and watch a movie, read a book, or do just about anything else that requires focus of a relaxed variety.  I’m not really doing “relaxed” very much these days. Maybe in January. We’ll see.

That said, two weekends ago I had some time to kill by myself at home, and I wanted to use it to watch a movie. A friend on Facebook had recently posted that this flick was fun, so I figured I’d give it a shot and see how long I lasted before I had to get up and clean something I just cleaned two days ago. (Upside to exhaustion-fueled mania: clean house!)

As it turned out, Willow Creek sucked me in right away and kept me thoroughly sucked-in throughout. For a rip-off of The Blair Witch Project about a mythical monster I find not-even-remotely scary, this movie was surprisingly effective for me.

It’s a “found footage”-style horror flick about a young couple, Jim and Kelly, who decide to head off on a road trip in search of Bigfoot for a documentary.  Jim’s been a Bigfoot fanatic since he was a kid and knows everything there is to know about the subject; Kelly’s a skeptic.  He seems to really believe there’s something to find out there in the woods; she loves him enough to be willing to go camping for a few days where there are no bathrooms. (I wonder what it’s like to love someone that much? I’ll probably never know. . .)

Similar to Blair Witch, they start out with an exploration of the small town outside the woods where the most famous Bigfoot sighting of all time took place (I have forgotten the details of that sighting, but apparently it’s legit lore).  There, they interview a few locals, get some advice on where to go, and film a few scenes for color — eating a “Bigfoot burger” at the local diner, smooching a giant wooden S’quatch statue, etc.

The next day, they head out in their car for the spot where they plan to park and hike in, only to be stopped on the access road by a man who threatens them aggressively, forcing them to turn around, and establishing nicely the possibility that what is about to follow is carried out not by Bigfoot but by a crazy local guy with a grudge against tourists (useful tool of reasonable doubt, always necessary in these sorts of things).

They manage to find another way in and start their hike, stopping periodically to film some scenes for their movie.  They don’t find much — some dubious-of-origin scat, a footprint — until night rolls around and they are awakened by a series of strange hoots and cracks from the woods (Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?). Something bashes against their tent.  A bear?  A giant, hairy man-beast? Nobody seems willing to venture out to check, surprise surprise, and not much sleep is had, to say the least.

The next day, exhausted and somewhat alarmed, they decide to hike back out and go home. Only they quickly get turned around, start looping back on themselves, and can’t find their way out (again, Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?).

And then the hoots begin again. This time in broad daylight. Something throws a rock at them.  They run. They’re still lost. They’re forced to camp another night. It does not go well.

Though the plot is obviously ridiculous, and not even remotely original, what makes this movie work as well as it does are the characters themselves and the script, which is very well-written. Jim and Kelly are an authentic, completely believable couple; it only took a few scenes for me to forget I wasn’t watching an actual documentary about two young dumb people on a quest to find Bigfoot.

There’s also a stand-out scene in the tent the first night (I think it was the first night, anyway) in which Jim proposes to Kelly and Kelly doesn’t exactly say yes. This was a surprisingly tender moment, thoughtfully approached. Did I mention the movie was written (and directed) by endearing weirdo comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, by the way?  That’s why I say “surprisingly tender;” who knew that was in there waiting to come out?

I went into this movie thinking Bigfoot was a pretty lame choice of villain, and I still mostly contend that it is. I mean, does anybody really believe in Bigfoot? And even if you do think there’s some giant, hairy man-beast in the woods no one has ever managed to get a good photograph of, why would you automatically assume it was evil?  I mean, a giant, hairy man-beast in the woods that was evil would probably be responsible for a lot more mysterious disappearances and dismembered bodies, right?

However, the last 15 or so minutes of this movie were effectively scary, to say the least.  For no good goddamn reason, I might add, because I DO NOT BELIEVE IN BIGFOOT.  There’s a long shot — maybe 8 minutes — that simply features Jim and Kelly sitting in their tent in the dark, the camera perfectly still, while she clings to him looking down, terrified, and he keeps his face up, listening intently to the sounds coming from outside.  Periodically, they both jump.  And then. . . Well.  Then things get a little nuts.  Something appears that has noooooo right being there.  No right at all, people The camera falls, there is screaming, and then we’re left to guess about what happens next.

All in all, this is a highly entertaining film, and I was really impressed by it.  I wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it was, especially with the aforementioned endearing weirdo comedian’s name attached to it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work (if anybody has a favorite, let me know in the comments!).

Highly recommended if you like scary movies, good writing, and giant, hairy man-beasts in the woods (well, who doesn’t?)!  Good clean fun.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Kristina Klebe, Alexia Rasmussen