The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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Anomalisa


Running down the shining halls.

Running down the shining halls.

(2015) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

2016 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Animated Feature
WINS – Pending

Oscar Gold 2016

The world can be an impersonal place. Sometimes we seem to just be going through the motions, surrounded by automatons who are doing the same. Particularly when we’re lonely, we can feel isolated and unappreciated; we might reach out but sometimes we wonder what the point of another unfeeling sexual encounter, another meaningless friendship with vapid people who don’t do anything to arouse any sort of passion in us, might be.

Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a published author specializing in improving customer service. He has a young son and a wife in Los Angeles. He’s successful. A lot of people would consider his situation to be a successful life, but Michael feels far from successful. He’s alone in a crowd; his marriage has hit a rough patch and as he jets to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement, he decides to reach out to an ex-lover and see if she wants to hook up for the evening.

That goes predictably badly; their break-up had been not one of Michael’s shining moments and she’s still a bit bitter about it to say the least. It leads to an unpleasant scene in the hotel bar. Depressed, Michael heads back to his room but in the elevator he meets a pair of girls who are attending his speaking engagement; one, Lisa (Leigh) gets his attention.

That’s because to Michael’s eye, everyone looks the same, sounds the same, says the same things as one another. The world is a dull, dull place for Michael and Lisa is immediately like a breath of fresh air. She’s an anomaly in his life and he begins referring to her as “Anomalisa.”  Even though she lacks self-confidence and doesn’t think she’s particularly pretty or attractive, she welcomes his attention and the two end up in bed.

But Michael is not altogether well and his affliction threatens to pull him and Lisa apart. Is Michael doomed to lead a mundane life of emptiness? Or will he find something that at last, makes him feel alive again?

Kaufman, one of the quirkiest writers in the business, utilizes stop-motion animator Johnson to tell a story which absolutely suits the medium to a “T.” There is a Kafka-esque quality to the movie which can be unexpectedly humorous and occasionally surreal. When we saw the previews for this, Da Queen noted the line on the face of Michael that seems to go around his face; there is a reason for it that will become clear during one of the more funny scenes involving the hotel manager’s subterranean office and a much larger secretarial pool than any hotel manager in history ever had.

Thewlis has one of those distinctive voices, gravelly and British but with a sardonic twinkle in it. He captures Michael’s loneliness but also his narcissism well. Michael isn’t the nicest of protagonists; you get the sense that there is a reason that people don’t respond to him well and yet there is a humanity to him that manages to bleed through the puppetry (more on that in a moment). However, it’s hard to get too attached to someone who performs serial infidelity.

Leigh brings a very vulnerable quality to Lisa; at one point, she sings a version of Cyndi Lauper’s classic hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that is haunting and effective. You wouldn’t call her sexy but there is a kind of sensuality about her; you can see Michael’s attraction to her but she’s a bit on the mousy side. In other words, she’s the perfect foil.

The only other voice heard in the movie belongs to Tom Noonan. He supplies the voices to every other character, male and female. His performance is the most brilliant of all, managing to give a certain amount of individuality to each character while making them sound the same enough to fuel Michael’s strange perception. There is something a little scary about the sameness of everyone here, like something out of The Twilight Zone. The mundanity of Michael’s life fuels the whole story; Kaufman seems to be saying that safety and security is a prison of its own, something I certainly can see.

Where the movie goes wrong is that it gets too mundane sometimes; the movie drags a bit in the middle third and at times seems to be wandering aimlessly in a plot that seems to go places at random. There are some fairly funny moments and certain scenes seem to be added on just to add to the comedy that doesn’t feel like they belong in the narrative. That might well be intentional, but at least for me it didn’t work.

This isn’t for the kids so despite this being an animated feature, do leave them at home; there is a sex scene that is fairly graphic and intense, a scene of Puppet-lingus that may be difficult to wipe from your memory even if you try. Brain bleach is awfully expensive these days, after all. Still, there is enough here that is thoughtful to warrant a look, if nothing else to provoke some stimulating conversation, something ironically Michael doesn’t have enough of. If you’re looking for something to take you out of the ho-hum of life, this is it.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly human. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally confusing. A bit sloggy around the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult sexuality, graphic nudity and strong language. Definitely not for the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Tail Job

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

1408


John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

(2007) Horror (Dimension/MGM) John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormack, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Kevin Dobson, Paul Kasey, Benny Urquidez, Gil Cohen-Alloro, Drew Powell, Noah Lee Margetts, Jules de Jongh (voice), William Armstrong, Emily Harvey, Alexandra Silber, Kim Thomson. Directed by Mikael Håfström

Our Film Library 2015

There are places that have a presence in them, a kind of echo from the past. There are other places that have a feeling in them, one that tells of contented lives – or contorted ones. Then there are places that are just effin’ evil.

If Mike Enslin (Cusack) seems bitter it is with good reason. His career as an author has all but faded into oblivion and the death of his daughter Katie (Anthony) has split he and his wife Lily (McCormack) even further apart. He is intent on doing a sequel to one of his most successful books, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses with a new conceit, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotel Rooms. However, the cynical Mike doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He really doesn’t believe in anything.

He gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan with the cryptic message “Don’t Go in 1408.” He takes this as a personal challenge and heads promptly for the Dolphin. He demands to be given room 1408 to stay in but Olin (Jackson), the manager of the hotel, is reluctant. Mike invokes a New York state law that requires the hotel to rent the room to him so long as it is up to standards. Olin responds that 56 people have died in that room in 95 years and nobody has lasted more than an hour. Mike thinks that Olin is trying to create a mystique that will attract people to the hotel and dismisses his claims. Reluctantly, Olin allows Mike to rent the room.

At first, the room seems like any other room in any other hotel. Then, little things start to happen; the clock radio begins playing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for no reason. Strange calls from the front desk about food Mike hasn’t ordered. Then, he begins to see spectral visions of past inhabitants of the room and the clock radio begins a countdown from 60:00.

The visions begin to grow more terrifying and his dead daughter appears on the hotel TV set. Mike’s attempts to leave the room are fruitless, the door knob breaking off in his hand. An attempt to leave through the air conditioning ducts gets him attacked by a mummified former guest.

Soon it becomes apparent to Mike that the room isn’t just interested in him; it wants his estranged wife to come to the hotel and enter room 1408. Knowing that he was wrong about the room, that it is indeed an evil place, he must somehow prevent the room from claiming the last vestige of his family.

This adaptation of a Stephen King short story is one of the finest adaptations of his works ever, right up there with The Mist and the first Carrie. Some have compared it (favorably and not) to King’s other haunted hotel story, The Shining although like King himself, I never warmed to Kubrick’s version of the novel and never found it particularly scary. Not so for this one.

Cusack was at his best here, playing an embittered man and failed novelist (a favored protagonist of King’s) who still deep down has love in his heart, particularly when he is forced to confront his deepest pain. Cusack has a knack of making guys like Mike Enslin relatable and even admirable, despite being not the easiest guys to get along with in the world. While you can clearly see why Lily would have given up on their marriage, you still end up rooting for Enslin to survive.

This isn’t as effects-driven as other movies based on King’s works nor does it use as much CGI as popular horror movies. Much of the effects here are psychological and Håfström goes out of his way to implant seeds of doubt that everything happening is occurring in Mike’s head, which leaves you with a sense of not being able to trust what you see which is deliciously disorienting to the viewer.

There are false endings here – scenes that make it appear as if Mike’s ordeal is over but then something else happens and horror movies have had a tendency lately to go to that particular well a bit too often. It works okay here but it did make me grumble a bit, curmudgeonly critic that I am. You may not find it quite as annoying as I did depending on how many horror movies you watch.

Once this gets rolling it is quite a ride, although it takes a good long time to get going as Olin attempts to dissuade Mike from entering the room. Hey, if Samuel L. Jackson is scared of a room, I would certainly think twice about going inside. Of course, if Mike didn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Leaves us questioning reality throughout. One of Cusack’s best performances ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might have gone to the false ending too often.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images of violence and terror as well as some adult themes and horror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The axe wielded by the fireman late in the film is the same one Jack Nicholson used in The Shining.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an extended director’s cut with an ending different than the theatrical version (which is also included here). There are a couple of brief webisodes here as well.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $132.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror (1979)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues

Bad Words


Spelling bee-yatch.

Spelling bee-yatch.

(2014) Comedy (Focus) Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, Rachael Harris, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting, Beth Grant, Gwen Parden, Anjul Nigam, Allan Miller, Bob Stephenson, Patricia Belcher, Matthew Zhang, Madison Hu, Michael Patrick McGill, Judith Hoag, Greg Cromer, Kimleigh Smith, Connor Kalopsis, Rachel Taylor. Directed by Jason Bateman

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop screen, trying to come up with a way to start this review. I couldn’t think of anything pithy or wise, so I just thought I’d cheat and lead with how I couldn’t come up with a lede.

Cheating though is something Guy Trilby (Bateman) is not above. At 40 years old, he’s had an unremarkable career as a proofreader with one somewhat quirky but useful skill – an eidetic memory that allows him to remember how every word he sees is spelled.

An indifferent student who never passed the eighth grade, Guy discovers that there’s a loophole that would allow him to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Parents are aghast at the 40-year-old man entering a competition meant for children. Dr. Bernice Keagan (Janney), the President of the Golden Quill foundation that runs the Bee, is just as aghast and tries to figure out ways to get Trilby out. The founder of the Golden Quill, gruff academic Dr. William Bowman (Hall) is also appalled, particularly since this is the first year that the Bee will be televised nationally.

Intrepid reporter Jenny Widgeon (Hahn) wants to get to the bottom of what is motivating Guy but instead winds up in the sack with him…more than once. The only one who seems to be making any headway with him is Chaitanya (Chand), a 10-year-old competitor who has been ostracized as nerd his entire life. Like most people, Chaitanya seems to bring out a testy, vulgar response in Guy but for whatever reason he is able to make friends with the 40-year-old man. However, they are still competitors and at least one of them will do whatever it takes to win.

Bateman takes over the director’s chair for the first time in his career and the result is pretty impressive. It doesn’t hurt that he has to work with one of the 2011 Black List screenplays (an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays to that date). He also gets one of the better nice guys in Hollywood and managed to talk him into an unlikable role. I hear he has an “in” with the star.

This is a vulgar, vulgar film with every profanity you can imagine, some of them hurled loose by kids. There is a good deal of sexuality as well including some fairly frenetic sex scenes with Hahn screeching “Don’t look at me!” at Bateman as they copulate. People who are easily offended with foul language and sexuality should be warned that there are plenty of both here.

But beyond that, this is a comedy that hits the funny bone with a sledgehammer. Da Queen almost bust a gut laughing. However, I do have to admit that the kids drove me crazy. Even the one playing Chaitanya, who was better than most of the rest of them, occasionally would get on my nerves, sounding whiny which is the way to get on my nerves the most quickly.

That aside, this is a very funny comedy which may be a bit too mean for some. Certainly the critics have been making mean remarks about it – which I suppose under the circumstances is understandable. If I were you though, I’d ignore those critics and go check it out on your own and make your own opinion.

REASONS TO GO: Hysterically funny. Bateman does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: Chand gets a little whiny in places. May be too raunchy for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A surfeit of expletives, some brief nudity and plenty of sexual and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the filming took place at the Sportsman’s Lodge in the San Fernando Valley.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old School

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Noah