Rust Creek


Kentucky back roads are full of unusual roadkill.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Hermione Corfield, Jay Paulson, Micah Hauptman, Sean O’Bryan, Daniel R. Hill, John Marshall Jones, Jeremy Glazer, Jake Kidwell, Denise Dal Vera, Laura Guzman, Virginia Schneider. Directed by Jen McGowan

 

Road trips are a favorite of mine. There’s no better way to see the countryside, to get a feel for those who live there. However, there are some roads that are best not traveled upon.

Sawyer (Corfield) is one of those college students who are popping up everywhere – bright, ambitious, and fiercely determined to follow the road they’ve mapped out for themselves. Yes, that spells “irritating” for us older folks who once were bright, ambitious and fiercely determined to follow the road we mapped out for ourselves but somehow took a wrong turn.

Sawyer has also made a wrong turn. She’s driving through the backwoods of Kentucky during Thanksgiving week to get to Washington DC for a job interview and not just any job interview – one for her dream job. The Interstate is literally bumper to bumper with holiday traffic so she decides to take a road less traveled. Her GPS turns out to be unhelpful to say the least – sending her down roads that don’t exist or in dubious directions. Hopelessly lost, she stops to get her bearings and consult an actual paper map.

That’s when she gets the attention of Hollister (Hauptman) and Buck (Hill), a couple of locals – brothers and from an inbred family, judging from appearances. Things quickly get creepy and before you can say “isn’t that the kid from Deliverance?” she’s saying “you’re making me uncomfortable” and one of them makes a try for a Presidential pussy grab which goes over about as well as you’d expect. Things escalate and both of the Backwoods Boys get stabbed but unfortunately so does our heroine.

She escapes into the woods though, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She’s bleeding and the Kentucky woods are no joke in November. She eventually passes out and finds herself awake and in restraint in a trailer that looks like its seen better days. So too has the guy living there, Josh (Kidwell) who to make matters worse is a meth cooker and brother to both Hollister and Buck.

But Josh is different and he knows what the score is; why the Sheriff (O’Bryan) seems unconcerned with an abandoned car and missing persons report, and what Buck and Hollister were up to. Sawyer knows she’s in over her head but if she’s going to get out of this alive she’s going to have to be even tougher than she’s ever been.

Sawyer is one of the strongest and fiercest female characters in a low budget thriller to come along in a long time and Corfield does her justice. She could well be a 21st century Ripley, but strangely during the second half of the film her character’s strength seems to be sapped and she is almost waiting for Josh to save her. I can understand that a character as traumatized as she is during the course of the movie might lose some of her steam but I think the film would have been better served had Sawyer been more of a force throughout. I could see her being a role model but then….well, not so much.

Cinematographer Michelle Lawler gets to play in the Kentucky woods and she hits it out of the park, turning this into as beautifully shot a thriller as you are likely to see anytime soon. The woods are deceptively beautiful, the bad guys notwithstanding and it almost gives me thoughts of moving there someday. Almost.

The movie is a little bit on the long side as we learn more about meth cooking than I think most of us will ever want to know. Also Buck and Hollister are so stereotypical that the state of Kentucky might seriously think of protesting the film for perpetuating those stereotypes. I’m not saying that guys like his don’t exist, but they’re given not a lick of character development and that, too, hurts the film.

Still, this is a solid and eminently watchable thriller that has some really high points but just misses on others. It’s out in theaters for a limited run and also on VOD if it’s not playing in a theater convenient to you. As January films go, this one isn’t half-bad.

REASONS TO GO: Corfield is one of the strongest and fiercest scream queens to come along in years. The Kentucky scenery is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat long. The villains are for the most part stereotypical rednecks.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production company, Lunacy, has a mandate to support female filmmakers; thus most of the key behind the camera roles have been filled by women, including director, writer, director of photography, production designer, sound mixer and colorist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Archer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Christmas Chronicles

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It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Blair Witch


Don't go into the woods; you'd think they'd have learned that by now.

Don’t go into the woods; you’d think they’d have learned that by now.

(2016) Horror (Lionsgate) James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

After a sixteen year absence in the franchise, we return to Burkittsville to further explore the secrets of the legendary Blair Witch in this follow-up to the original Blair Witch Project which somewhat tellingly ignores the events of Blair Witch 2: Book of Secrets. The filmmakers were so determined to keep this sequel a secret that they didn’t reveal the title of the film until the San Diego Comic Con, just two months before it was to be released. Like the original, that was genius marketing but would that translate to a good movie?

James Donahue (McCune), the little brother of the Project’s Heather, is in a bit of a tizzy. Some footage discovered in the woods near Burkittsville has yielded an image that might just be his long lost sister. With a trio of friends – Lisa (Hernandez), Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) in tow, he heads out to Maryland to talk to the two bloggers who found the footage – high-strung Lane (Robinson) and super-cool Talia (Curry). The bloggers agree to lead James and his filmmaking crew to the spot where the footage was found.

Of course, immediately they get lost. Their GPS becomes unreliable. Their drone begins to function erratically. The four filmmakers know very little about woodcraft and they bicker with the locals who are only slightly more experienced. Then some strange figures made of sticks start appearing in their camps and as things become more and more twisted, time itself becomes something that can’t be counted on.

As people start disappearing, it becomes clear that something malevolent is at work in the Maryland woods and that the mysterious building that doesn’t show up on Google Earth that appears suddenly out of the rain has something to do with it. But is this the home of the notorious Blair Witch or part of something even more sinister?

All the ingredients were here for something special; a talented up-and-coming horror director, a legendary franchise and a studio eager for a hit to re-launch that franchise. Certainly the way Lionsgate has handled the marketing for the film has been innovative and respectable. They’ve gone the minimal “less is more” path in order to generate interest while giving the project an air of mystery.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to the marketing. There’s a lot of inconsistency regarding the found footage trope; at times that’s what Wingard seems to be going for but then at others we get what is clearly standard filmmaking with all of the characters in camera view. It’s annoying as all get-out as the point of view changes constantly and without warning. There are also plenty of the kind of horror cliches that drive me bonkers about horror movies – namely a bunch of young people in a scary situation doing things rational human beings would never do. Of course, frightened people can do irrational things, but even people who are terrified might not necessarily do the things the kids do here.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some genuinely creepy moments. Wingard manages to generate an atmosphere that is ripe for some really spooky stuff and we occasionally get them. Kudos also go to the audio crew who generated an awful lot of legitimate scares solely with sound. Sound can be even scarier than sight upon occasion.

The acting is okay, albeit not stirring. The characters however are written mainly as archetypes rather than real people. James comes closest to being relatable but at times he can be a real schmuck. I will say that this could be the ultimate millennial horror – being lost in the woods with failing tech. Horrors!

The movie’s ending also purports to reveal some insight into the nature of the Blair Witch but as it’s meant to generate more questions than answers, it ends up being kind of maddening to say the least. We do at least get to find out why the characters at the end of the original were facing the corner. There is clearly room for a sequel, albeit one with any members of the Donahue family likely to be involved…unless there are cousins waiting to search for Heather and James.

REASONS TO GO: There are some freaky scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit of a yawner most of the time.
FAMILY VALUES:  The atmosphere is plenty spooky, there is a fair amount of profanity and some of the images are disturbing to say the least.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Filming was done in British Columbia rather than in the original Burkittsville, Maryland location in order to keep it quiet that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project was being filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The People Garden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Snowden

Gravity


In space, nobody can hear you scream "OH CRAP!!!!"

In space, nobody can hear you scream “OH CRAP!!!!”

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Phaldut Sharma (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Amy Warren (voice), Basher Savage (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Some movies go for a visceral experience, using special effects to bedazzle and wow their audience. Others go for an emotional experience, using the dialogue and characters to create a response in their audience. It is a rare thing for filmmakers to attempt both in the same film.

Gravity is a game-changer in almost every sense of the word. Here, we are treated to a magnificent view of a space shuttle mission drifting in space with the curve of planet Earth hanging above them. It is breathtaking in and of itself. The mission to make some software updates and minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope is commanded by Matt Kowalski (Clooney), an affable, devilishly handsome country music fan on his last mission hoping to break a Russian cosmonaut’s record for longest space walk. With him is Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist on her first trip into the great big out there. Kowalski is testing a brand new thruster pack that is working much better than the repairs and upgrade to the Hubble are.

Then Mission Control (Harris) orders them back to the shuttle for an emergency evacuation. It seems that the Russians have spontaneously decided to destroy one of their spy satellites but in typical Russian fashion haven’t really thought it through. The resulting explosion set off a chain reaction of debris impacting other satellites which in turn sends off more debris to impact more satellites. Small pieces of satellite are hurtling through orbit at speeds faster than bullets, wiping out everything in their path. GPS and communications satellites are going down rapidly as the debris approaches the shuttle and its crew.

The shuttle and the Hubble are destroyed in a silent, spectacular spray of debris. Only Ryan and Matt survive the initial disaster but they are far from out of the woods. Their ride home destroyed, they will need to find some other means of getting back. The International Space Station is near enough by that they can use the Soyuz craft as a lifeboat but that too has been hit by debris, leaving only a Chinese space station as a last hope. Dr. Stone, living with her own tragedy and with little experience, must summon up every bit of training she’s received and every ounce of courage she possesses to find a way back home against all odds.

Let’s look at the visual aspect of the film first – in a word, stunning. I think it’s safe to say that this is the most immersive special effects experience in any movie since Avatar. You are brought into a world that is made utterly believable and real and at the same time utterly alien. While in Avatar that world was Pandora, here it is outer space. You never for an instant doubt that these are astronauts floating in the weightlessness of zero gravity. It is an astonishing achievement of special effects. Don’t be surprised if there are Oscars awarded for it in February.

The collisions of debris and machine take place in absolute silence. Since sound doesn’t travel in space this is as it should be. It is also completely terrifying. Don’t let the sounds of collisions on the trailer fool you – the studio insisted on them for the trailer but they are absent in the final film. We are often treated to the point of view of Dr. Stone, seeing things through her helmet. We see her breath fogging the helmet glass; see the panic in her eyes and the spinning of her horizon as she hurtles through space in the initial cataclysm. It is breathtaking in its simplicity, devastating in consequence as the audience gradually realizes what these shots mean. The enormity of what these characters face is unstated; it is left to the imagination of the audience to conjure up their own conclusions.

Looking at the emotional aspect, we have to first start with Bullock. This is clearly her movie and she is the avatar of the audience, representing us in the film. She is inexperienced because we are as well; it is far more effective to have her trying to guess and figure out what to do rather than see things through the eyes of Kowalski who is better trained. He is there mainly to offer encouragement to Dr. Stone and a bit of comic relief here and there.

As impressive as the special effects are, this is a very human film. As we see the astronauts struggle to survive and figure out a way against all hope to get back home, we see our own struggle to survive in a world just as inhospitable and unforgiving and cold as that of outer space. We become invested in Dr. Stone and in no small part due to Bullock’s performance. This may well be her crowning achievement as an actress; it’s note-perfect capturing the flaws and frailties of a character who is brilliant but terrified. She is in fact brilliant enough to imagine the negative outcome of what is happening to her. Clooney gets to essentially play himself; wise-cracking and devilishly handsome but entirely competent at what he does.

In a nice little grace note, Cuaron casts Ed Harris to be the voice of Mission Control; Harris also played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. That aside, there isn’t much in terms of in-film references to please the fanboy contingent which I think has stuck in the craw of some of that ilk.

From a scientific standpoint, Cuaron has said that some liberties were taken with science in order to advance the story – one of the most egregious of these is that the journey from the Hubble to the ISS was not possible with the equipment shown in the film simply because of the distance involved. Simply put, if this had happened for real (and some scientists have warned that it potentially could), the chances are that the astronauts would perish right then and there. That would have made for a depressing film and wasn’t the story that Cuaron wanted to tell. Once again, this isn’t about the effects – it’s about the human beings inside them. From that standpoint, it’s a marvelous film. Whatever your feelings about the space program – gigantic boondoggle or absolute necessity – you will be blown away by the special effects but more importantly you will be moved by the human story, a rare achievement. This is one of the best films of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Phenomenal special effects. Tense, edge-of-your-seat throughout. Bravura performance by Bullock.

REASONS TO STAY: One or two nitpicks.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images that are pretty rough and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The length of the movie at 90 minutes is exactly the time it takes for the actual International Space Station to make one complete orbit of the Earth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marooned

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Tigger Movie