Blood Fest


A bunch of friends take a moonlit stroll through the woods.

(2018) Horror Comedy (Cinedigm/Rooster Teeth) Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi, Olivia-Grace Applegate, Owen Egerton, Isla Cervelli, Paul Ogola, Nicholas Rutherford, Samantha Ireland, Tristan Riggs, Rebecca Lynne Wagner, Chris Doubek, Carl Thomas, Lynn Andrews III, Jessica Polk. Directed by Owen Egerton

 

Horror has rules. That has been drilled into the heads of fans throughout the annals of horror films; at least since Wes Craven’s Scream outline most of them for us. Still few genres have as much structural similarities between films as horror does. That has made for some pretty nifty self-referential meta films that remind us that virgins have a better chance of survival and never ever go into the basement by yourself.

Dax (Kay) loves horror movies, a love instilled by his mother (Ireland) who promised him that horror movies give us the opportunity to realize that we are stronger than our own films. Of course, she tells him that moments before she is brutally murdered by one of her husband’s (Donovan) patients who has a similar love for scary movies.

Flash forward fifteen years and Dax is eager to go to a major horror event called Blood Fest promising haunted attractions, panel discussions with filmmakers and horror icons, and a rave-like atmosphere with a horror movie theme. However, his dad won’t allow it (and tears up his precious ticket before his very eyes after a similar warning from his sister (Wagner): “Blood Fest is going to suck.” Little does he know how right she is.

Dax manages to get his hand on a precious wristband and makes it in for the big event and at first it’s everything he hopes it would be as he and his best friends Sam (Gabriel) and hacker Krill (Batalon) at his side. The MC is a well-known horror producer (Egerton) but he has plans for the revelers. You see, the horrors at Blood Fest are real and it will take all of their knowledge of the rules of horror films along with all their resourcefulness and courage to survive the night.

I’m not a big fan of horror comedies. Few of them succeed in balancing the screams with the laughs and this one is no exception but it is more successful than most. The fact is that they don’t go for the over-the-top laughs that bring the comedy into spoof territory, and spoofs are as far as I’m concerned the lowest form of cinematic humor. The scares are never particularly over-the-top either but there’s enough energy in the pacing and from the performers that the movie keeps your attention other than a few points where some exposition is going on.

The performances by the fairly low-budget cast are solid and professional. Chuck star Zachary Levi (also from the upcoming Shazam) has a thoroughly enjoyable albeit brief cameo, while the female cast is mega-sexy without any nudity which is quite a feat when you consider there’s at least one obligatory shower scene and a lesbian vampire make-out scene. Still, that’s just further proof that a woman doesn’t have to show her boobs to be sexy.

The writing is a bit spotty; the reveal is early on in the movie and while the mysterious partner behind the murders is kept hidden until near the end (and veteran horror fans should be able to figure out well before then) and while some of the plot points stretch the boundaries of plausibility to the breaking point (and beyond), for he most part the writing is pretty decent for this kind of film. The dialogue sounds authentic and there is a good deal of affection for the genre and those who love I – and obsess over it. This is a pleasant gem that will probably find a long shelf life on VOD and home video.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining and generally well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: A few plot points lack cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, a good deal of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rooster Teeth is a content supplier mainly for YouTube; this is their third feature after Lazer Team and Lazer Team 2. It is actually however the second film released as Lazer Team 2 hasn’t yet received a release date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

Veteran (Beterang)


Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

(2015) Cop Action Comedy (CJ EntertainmentJeong-min Hwang, Ah In Yoo, Hae-jin Yoo, Dai-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong, Woong-in Jeong, Yoon-ju Jang, Shi-hoo Kim, Kyung Jin, In-yeong Yu, Kil-kang Ahn, Ho-jin Chun, Zoltán Durkó, Eung-soo Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Su-dam Park, Jake Patchett, Young-chang Song. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo

Being a cop means understanding the difference between justice and closure. One doesn’t necessarily ensure the other. Sometimes you don’t get either. It’s very rare that you get both.

Detective Do-cheol Seo (Hwang) is a bit cocky and something of a hot shot. Bad guys rarely make it to the station without a few bumps, bruises or broken bones when he arrests them. Because he is so good at taking down Seoul’s more violent element, his superiors tend to look the other way, even after breaking up a violent car thief ring, infiltrating them with the help of trucker Bae (W.I. Jeong) who brings his little boy along, mainly because he can’t afford to have anyone watch him while his wife and he work. Bae and Seo develop a friendship during the long truck ride.

Celebrating his success that night, Detective Seo runs into Tae-oh Jo (A.I. Yoo), the son of a billionaire industrialist and a high-ranking executive in his company.  Seo immediately knows that the spoiled Jo is bad news, sadistic and arrogant. Seo senses that Jo is going to be trouble but he can’t really arrest him for his suspicions.

Shortly after that Seo’s friend attempts suicide by jumping off the office building owned by Jo’s company. Seo smells a rat and despite the smooth denials by Jo’s assistant and fellow executive Sang-Moo Choi (H.J. Yoo) who is the serpent to Jo’s shark. Seo decides to investigate the suspicious “suicide” attempt. However the company has influential friends in high places and Seo finds himself frustrated at every turn, sometimes by cops directly on the take.

In the meantime Jo is getting more and more reckless and doing more and more cocaine. Through smooth Choi he attempts to bribe Seo’s wife who turns it down flat and berates her husband for putting her into that position. In the meantime, Jo begins to get sloppy and make mistakes and is obliged to leave the country but not before throwing himself one last big blowout party but that quickly disintegrates and leads to a bloody confrontation between Jo and Seo.

There’s enough humor here to warrant calling it a comedy although the synopsis is more that of a hard bitten police procedural. The humor may be a little over-the-top for American audiences who tend to prefer their over-the-top humor to be more profane. One of the running jokes is the petite police woman (Jang) who kicks everybody’s ass.

This was a major hit in Asia this past summer and is just now making the rounds at a select few film festivals and will likely be hitting more film festivals in the spring. I hope so; this is one of those movies that is absolutely entertaining. There’s plenty of well-choreographed action – and Hwang turns out to be an extremely skilled martial artist.

But as good as Hwang is, Hae-jin Yoo is even better. A matinee idol in Korea, he plays the psychotic villain here and the baby-faced actor is absolutely perfect, delivering one of the best villainous performances of the year. He can be charming and charismatic but out of left field he’ll do something despicable and sadistic, forcing Bae to get into a Fight Club-style brawl in his office – in front of his own son, who sobs while his father is pummeled into a bloody pulp by his manager.

The story isn’t anything to write home about; the commentaries on corporate culture in Korea probably are going to fly right over the head of the average American audience, and we have seen plenty of lone cop fighting insurmountable corruption movies from both sides of the Pacific. Still, this one is so much better than most, with terrific performances, really good action sequences and some genuinely funny moments. This ain’t art but it’s pure entertainment, which is an art in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Kinetic action sequences. One of the nastiest villains ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor might be a bit broad for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some profanity and drug use as well as a hint of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite only having been released this past August in South Korea, the movie has already become one of the top ten all-time box office champs in that country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

I, Robot


Ever feel alone in a crowd?

Ever feel alone in a crowd?

(2004) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Adrian L. Ricard, Chi McBride, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan, Peter Shinkoda, Terry Chen, David Haysom, Scott Heindl, Sharon Wilkins, Craig March, Shia LaBeouf, Simon R. Baker, Kyanna Cox, Emily Tennant, Tiffany Knight. Directed by Alex Proyas

Isaac Asimov was one of the giants of science fiction. Like many of the sci-fi writers of the golden age (and on into today), he had a scientific background. He also had an interest in robotics and wrote many stories on the subject.

Detective Del Spooner (Smith) of the Chicago PD lives in a world that’s a lot different than ours. For one thing, it’s 2035 and robots have become ubiquitous particularly in doing the kind of jobs humans don’t like doing – waste disposal, household work, drudgery. Spooner has a thing about robots – he doesn’t trust them. He’s a bit of a technophobe, preferring the world of the early 21st century which he considers to be the good ol’ days.

When kindly scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell) takes a header from the top of his company’s skyscraper, it looks like suicide at first but Spooner ain’t buying it. Lanning was responsible for most of the advances in robotics that have allowed robots to be so prevalent and his company was about to release their latest model. Their CEO (Greenwood) is keen that there is no hint of trouble on the eve of the release that will put one of their new models in every U.S. home.

Spooner doesn’t like that idea much, particularly since he has a nasty hunch that a robot had something to do with Dr. Lanning’s death. The robot, a twitchy sort named Sonny (Tudyk) may be the key to unlocking a nasty little conspiracy. Disbelieved by his superiors, on the run from homicidal robots and with only a comely robot psychologist (Moynahan) on his side, Spooner will have to save the day – or see humanity become slaves to robots.

It’s hard to believe it but this movie is ten years old now. Doesn’t seem that long since I saw it in the theater but thus is the passage of time. While the CGI  was groundbreaking in its time, these days it looks a little bit dated which is the big trouble with CGI – someone’s always inventing a better mouse trap in the field.

The filmmakers brought in Akiva Goldsman to make the film Will Smith-centric and this is definitely a Will Smith film. He’s onscreen nearly the entire time, and to be honest Spooner isn’t much of a deviation from the typical formula of Will Smith characters. Agent J and Spooner would get along fine.

The character of Sonny is largely shot in motion capture with Tudyk providing both the movement and the voice of the robot and it’s right on, a cross between HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Niles from Frazier. Sonny of all the robots has personality, showing more than the colorless emotionless mechanical voice that we normally get for robots. Sonny can get frustrated and angry but also expresses compassion born of his adherence to the three laws of robotics (an Asimov invention that plays an important role here). Sonny in many ways is more real a character than many flesh and blood characters in the movie.

What irritated me here is that the movie has the opportunity to talk about the relationship between humans and technology and how technology is affecting us as humans. The writers take stabs at it from time to time but almost in a half-hearted manner and without much consequence. There seems to be more of a reliance on car chases and fight scenes than on any real thought. On that aspect, Asimov would have been rolling in his grave had he seen what had become of his work although in all honesty there really isn’t enough of it in there to justify labeling this with Asimov’s name. This turns out to be sheer popcorn entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that it could have been so much more. And should have been.

WHY RENT THIS: Sonny is as fully-realized a character as CGI will allow. Will Smith just being Will Smith.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Storyline weak and full of missed opportunities.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense but stylized action sequences and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie claims to be “inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot,” there is no story under that name written by Asimov. It is a collection of short stories thematically linked to the Three Laws of Robotics. The movie was originally written separately with no link to Asimov but when Fox optioned the Asimov stories it was decided to adapt the existing screenplay to include the Three Laws and add a character from Asimov’s stories.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the original DVD release had no additional features of consequence, the All-Access Collector’s Edition has a Director’s toolbox looking at the three main special effects houses that worked on the film and followed their specific assignments for the film. There are also interviews with Asimov’s daughter and editor discussing the late author’s views on how robots would impact the future. The toolbox feature is also available on the Blu-Ray edition in a truncated from.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $347.2M on a $120M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Rid of Me