Rent-a-Pal


Television is my only friend.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightBrian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Brandon Fryman, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard. Directed by Jon Stevenson

 

Loneliness can do strange things to the human mind. It can be as comfortable as an old friend, but it also gives us the opportunity to twist and turn every life failure that we’ve partaken in. Eventually, loneliness feeds on us much as a vulture that isn’t willing for the carrion to die.

David (Folkins) lives in a small Midwestern town and takes care of his mother (Brady) who is suffering from dementia, often mistaking David for his deceased father. Mom is often nasty to her son, who just seems to take it with a shrug. It’s 1990 and he doesn’t even have online chat rooms for company; mostly he watches old movies with his mom. He has gotten desperate enough to enroll in a video dating service.

This particular one requires their clients to make an introductory video. The “relationship experts” that work at the service then match the tapes up with people with similar interests; if the client wants to view the tape of someone who matches with him, they have to pay for the privilege. It’s lucrative, but you’d never know it from David who doesn’t match up with anybody.

On a trip back to the service to re-record his video as an update, David happens upon a videotape in the bargain bin called “Rent-a-Pal” and takes it and is thus introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a grinning sweater vest-wearing guy who carries on a conversation with pauses so that the viewer can respond. The lonely David is skeptical at first but eventually seizes on this lifeline and begins to converse with Andy, playing the tape night after night after night.

Then, something of a miracle happens – David gets a match, from Lisa (Rutledge), a kind-hearted nurse. The date goes well, and things are suddenly looking up for David. However, Andy isn’t so happy about his friend deserting him for a mere woman; there’s about to be a battle for David’s attention and it’s not going to be pretty.

Loneliness and isolation are particularly on our minds in this age of quarantine, where most of our interactions are done via Zoom and when more and more people who are working from home and sheltering in place by themselves are finding themselves to be more and more suicidal. Just because we’re safe from a coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe. Depression is far more insidious and doesn’t respect a mask.

David is one of those big, lumbering schlubs who are awkward both socially and physically. His heart seems to be in the right place but the more the movie wears on, the more we see how wounded his loneliness has made him. Gradually, he begins to descend into madness as he imagines that Andy is talking directly to him and listening to his every confession of failure. For Folkins, it is a masterful performance and one you won’t soon forget.

But as good as Folkins is, Wheaton is just as good and maybe a little bit better. He comes off as a cross between Mister Rogers and Beelzebub and his innocuous sweater vest and disarming grin doesn’t hide the fact that Andy doesn’t like women very much, and isn’t a particularly nice guy. I thought at first this would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40, but that’s not quite accurate; it would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40 if he had completely failed at life and romance.

Stevenson in addition to writing and directing the film also edited it, and he shows some real skills in all three; the editing is masterfully done, often giving the illusion that David is having a different conversation with Andy even though Andy isn’t saying anything different than he usually does. It raises the question in the viewer’s mind if there isn’t something supernatural going on, although what’s going on is clearly mostly in between David’s ears. Stevenson also invokes a strong sense of period, with the videocassettes and utilizing a great score by Jimmy Weber that calls to mind some of John Carpenter’s work.

The final scenes are fairly gory and more of a standard horror film type of thing, which some critics found disappointing after the effective build-up of tension and suspense; I thought that the ending was justifiable and while it is a distinct left turn from the feel of the rest of the movie, it isn’t too far of a change of route.

This is a solid suspense/psychological horror film that relies on two strong actors bringing well-written characters to life. This isn’t a loud, in-your-face kind of terror that you get here, but more of a slow building dread. It’s very effective and worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice placement in the 90s. Surprisingly creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have gone for the gusto a bit more.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Folkins previously worked with Stevenson in the horror film Hoax.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Session 9
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
I Am Woman

Centigrade (2020)


Baby, it’s cold outside.

(2020) Thriller (IFC MidnightGenesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Brendan Walsh

 

I think one of the basic fears of modern man is being stranded, particularly in the middle of nowhere. We rely so much on our modern conveniences – a working car, the Internet, our creature comforts – that when they’re taken away, we’re at a loss as what to do. In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go?That’s what faces young American married couple Matt (Piazza) and Naomi (Rodriguez) when they pull over to the side of the road one night during a blizzard. They are on a European book tour for her latest tome, and were driving to their next stop, a hotel in the hinterlands of Norway. She is very pregnant, nearly ready to give birth and they wake up after sleeping the night away to discover that the car won’t start. They can’t open the doors because of the weight of all the ice and snow. It is dangerously cold, and they have precious little in the way of food and water.

The two have very different ideas as to what they should do next. One of them wants to stay put and wait for rescue, while the other thinks that their best chance of survival rests on getting out of the car and walking to safety. Initially, it’s not much of an argument – getting out of the car is out of the question anyway, so they are more or less forced to stay put but as time goes by and desperation grows, something is going to have to give or all that will be found of them re their frozen bodies, still wrapped in blankets in the car.

Rodriguez and Piazza are both fine actors and they do a decent job. It’s a pity that they weren’t given more defined characters to work with. We really don’t find out very much about them during the course of the 90 minutes we are forced to spend with them, which considering that they are stuck inside a car with nothing to do, seems to be almost criminal. They do bicker, but so do most couples and the stress of a life-or-death survival situation is likely to bring out the worst in both of them.

The production is pretty minimalist which makes sense given the confined quarters the characters are in. Walsh at least is creative with his camera angles, but after a while it isn’t really enough to keep our interest. This is the type of movie that would have been much better as a short than as a feature length film; there’s not enough dramatic conflict to sustain us and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks to change the monotony

A word about true stories: the movie claims it is “inspired by a true story,” but I couldn’t find any information anywhere about whose story this was based on. That could mean one of two things (at least that come to mind right away); either the people this happened to were unwilling to grant the rights to their story, or the finished story veered so far away from the truth that the real couple wanted nothing to do with it. For all we know, some friend of the producer might have been stranded in their car on a chilly night and the producer thought “Hey, this could be a great movie if we add a blizzard….and they’re snowed in! Yeah, that’s the ticket!!!” All kidding aside, the words “inspired by” can hide a lot of sins, so take the true story aspect with a grain of salt. One aspect couldn’t possibly be true; no obstetrician on the planet would let a woman as pregnant as Naomi fly to Europe to do a book tour.

This is another case of strong concept, less successful execution. For a movie like this to work, we have to get invested in the characters and without really getting much of a glimpse as to who they are, we haven’t much to hold onto and so our interest wanes. Even though the movie isn’t a long one, the lack of action or character development really made it feel much longer. That might be a little bit cold to say, but given the circumstances I think it justified. Still, the actors do give it their all, so if you like either Piazza or Rodriguez (or both) this isn’t a bad rental, but otherwise this is disappointing to say the least.

REASONS TO SEE: Nicely tense and claustrophobic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty good amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez and Piazza are an actual couple in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lamp Light
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Unfamiliar

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

The Wretched


When a troubled teen comes to call, don’t always answer the door.

(2019) Horror (IFC Midnight)  John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden, Richard Ellis, Blane Cockarell, Judah Abner Paul, Ja’layah Washington, Amy Waller, Ross Kidder, Kasey Bell, Harry Burkey, Trudie Underhiill, Sydne Mikelle, Tug Coker, Madelynn Stunekel.  Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce

 

In this pandemic, we’ve focused on the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly. However, we sometimes forget the other vulnerable side of society – the children. The Pierce brothers, who have assembled this slick horror yarn together, certainly haven’t.

In the 1980s, a hapless babysitter stumbles on the mother of her charge chowing down on her own kid. Faster than you ca say Dario Argento she ends up locked in the cellar with a hungry mama. Flash forward to now which is when sullen rebellious teen Ben (Howard) is forced to spend the summer with his Dad working the lakeside marina in Michigan with his Dad (Jones) after an incident left him with a broken arm and an exasperated mom.

The only consolation is the perky Mallory (Curda) who works at the marina with him, so Ben battens down the hatches for a rough summer squall, made even rougher when he gets the depressing news that his dad has a new girlfriend (Tesfai). However, that soon takes a back seat to the family next door, whose tattooed mom Sara (Mahler) has taken to scaring her young son (Cockarell) and butchering a deer she accidentally hits with her car on the way home from a walk in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, there was something hiding in the deer carcass, something that has designs on her but more to the point, to feed on her son.

Nobody believes Ben that there is something very sinister going on so in the finest plucky teen fashion he goes about trying to save the town from itself but it isn’t easy because nobody can remember the family next door having a child. That turns out to be really inconvenient – and puts the crosshairs right on Ben.

It’s no accident that the film’s prelude took place in the 80s, because the movie is rooted in the cinema of that era. There are elements of Steven Spielberg fantasy, with the broken family and the plucky kids; it’s an oeuvre that has become massively popular as of late thanks to the Netflix series Stranger Things but other than the intro, this film is also rooted firmly in modern horror.

To the credit of the Pierce Brothers and their cinematographer Conor Murphy, the movie looks like something that a major studio might have put out. Every technical aspect of the film works to perfection, from the mainly practical effects to the score to the sound to the set design. There are some really nice scares to be had here, although there’s a feeling that the Pierce Brothers realized that their budget was such that they couldn’t afford a really decent build-up so they skipped right to the climactic battle. For that reason, the pacing feels a bit off and the ending disappointing.

Still, this is an engaging and – dare I say it – fun summer-style horror film that makes for essential quarantine viewing, particularly for those who love the influences I mentioned. If anyone who loves the horror genre is looking for the next James Wan, we may have found them for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The horror sequences are well-done.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, sexual situations, child peril and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Northport, Michigan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aquaman

The Other Lamb


It’s all there in black and white.

(2019) Drama (IFC Midnight) Raffey Cassidy, Michael Huisman, Denise Gough, Eve Connolly, Kelly Campbell, Isabelle Connolly, Aibhe Cowley, Irene Kelleher, Jane Herbert, Charlotte Moore, Mallory Adams, David Khalid Fawaz, Zara Devlin, Eva Mullen, Juliette Crosbie. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

 

It is, for better or worse (mostly the latter), a man’s world. Men take women for granted, objectify them, abuse them and for generations, women have borne their cross with quiet grace. The thing is, you can only push someone to the wall for so long before they push back.

Selah (Cassidy) has been raised in one of those cults which time has forgotten. Run by the charismatic Shepherd (Huisman) – the only male member – he sets the women to working hard, tending sheep, cooking, cleaning and raising the children. He has divided his flock into two groups; sisters and wives. When one of his wives has a baby, it always seems to be female. He makes sure the women wear plain, homespun dresses. They lead a life the Amish would find rustic.

But Selah isn’t like the other cult members. She’s intelligent, headstrong and doesn’t accept everything at face value. She is warned by outcast wife Sarah (Gough) that Shepherd isn’t necessarily the loving and caring creature he makes himself out to be. And as the outside world begins to encroach on their wooded paradise, Shepherd decides to move his flock to an even more remote, pastoral location where he can continue to live life as he sees fit but Selah, on the cusp of her first period, soon realizes that Shepherd is keeping some mighty dark secrets from his flock.

This largely allegorical tale incorporates elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Apostle into a beautiful pastoral setting. Cinematographer Michal Englert is the unsung hero here, filming the misty Irish countryside with a kind of grey sheen that is both oppressive and beautiful at the same time. This is as beautiful a film as it is disturbing.

Huisman, looking every inch the WASP Jesus, has the charisma to pull off the role. Handsome and soft-spoken, it’s not hard to figure ot why the women fall for him as they do. Shepherd is a master manipulator, as many sexual predators are. There’s a scene in which the flock grows almost hysterical in their devotion, whipped into a frenzy by their love for Shepherd. But, as Chrissie Hynde once sang, there’s a thin line between love and hate.

Cassidy is absolutely revelatory here. Already haven distinguished herself with performances in Vox Lux and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, she knocks it out of the park here. It’s always telling when you realize that she really doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to utter; much of her performance is done facially and through body language. There is a scene with Huisman when she is initiated into wife-hood that is heartbreaking and makes you want to reach through the screen and rescue her.

It is one of several scenes of disturbing content, such as one where Selah encounters a lamb prematurely born, hairless and in terrible pain. This isn’t a horror film per se, but one can’t discount the elements in it as being horrific. In that sense, the film will chill you to the bone.

It’s not perfect, though. The film drags a little bit and there is a lack of context that makes it hard to follow the action, occasionally. Szumowska has stated that the film is “a dark cry against the patriarchy” and if ever something deserved a cacophony of banshee-like shrieks, it’s the patriarchy but in some ways it fees a bit manufactured; certainly we’ve seen enough films about cults and this doesn’t really add a lot to the overall “cults are bad” dialogue.

This is the kind of movie that demands your full attention. When you watch it, make sure your smart phone is put away, the shades are drawn and any distractions are set aside. You can’t watch this passively, or as background noise. Give it the benefit of your commitment. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO SEE: Cassidy delivers a powerful performance. Creepy and foreboding throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does the world need another “cults are bad” movie?
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some sudden and unexpected violence and much sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three cast members (Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly) have also appeared in the History Channel series Vikings.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Creed II

Swallow


(2019) Psychological Horror (IFC MidnightHaley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Zabryna Guevara, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti, Nicole Kang, Olivia Perez, Kristi Kirk, Alyssa Bresnahan, Laura Dias, Elise Santora, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Nicholas M. Garofalo, Matthew Waiters, McGregory Frederique, Jackie Almonte, Mingjie Li, Sophie Max. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

 

A great movie tells a great or compelling story. We are taken from point A to point B and all the way to the end, watching the story unfold. That isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, what makes a movie great are the things that are left unsaid.

Hunter (Bennett) would seem on the surface to have it made. She is married to a wealthy husband (Stowell), a rising star in his father’s (Rasche) firm. She lives in a gorgeous house her in-laws bought for the couple. To top it all off, she is newly pregnant. What’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. As the movie progresses, we see that the in-laws, supportive and caring on the surface, pay only lip service to that persona. What they really are is condescending and controlling, particularly her mother-in-law (Marvel). Hunter has come to realize that she’s in a prison cell. A comfortable, beautiful prison cell but a prison cell nonetheless.

Her means of regaining control is by ingesting objects that aren’t edible, starting with marbles and dirt, ramping up to more dangerous items like batteries, pushpins and thumbtacks. Is she trying to off herself and/or the baby? Or is there something deeper at play here?

This squirm-inducing psychological body horror film is based on a real condition called pica. Mirabella-Davis takes the tactic of not answering all the questions; we are never given a definitive answer as to why Hunter is subjecting herself to this dangerous habit. Is it a means of courting danger and getting an adrenaline rush? Is it compensation for her past which is revealed during a conversation with her therapist (Dias). That past is dealt with eventually in a coda in which she establishes that she has a voice and is no longer content to be the submissive, mousy little housewife. The tone of the denouement is at odds with the rest of the movie which renders it much more effective.

Bennett is a revelation, delivering a mind-blowing performance that is terrifically layered, showing a surface persona that hides deep-seated anxieties and resentment. Despite Hunter’s often maddening submissive behavior, Bennett makes the character someone we can root for particularly in the last third of the movie.

The production design is also quite amazing; despite the modern conveniences (Hunter constantly plays video games on her smartphone), there is very much a 50’s/early 60’s vibe here, from Hunter’s perky blonde bob, her A-line skirt wardrobe and the 64 World’s Fair furnishings. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi impresses with shots bathed in lush primary colors. It’s visually a very striking film.

This isn’t for everyone. The scenes of her ingesting some of the items are cringe-inducing to say the least and the scenes of her retrieving the bloody objects from the toilet may send some straight for the exit. Still, this is a mesmerizing film that cinema buffs are going to appreciate and horror fans might just find compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: Bennett gives a bravura performance. Disturbing on in a good way on so many levels.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets caught up in its own bizarre tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of sexuality and some truly disturbing behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Mirabella-Davis’ first solo feature film; the movie was inspired by his grandmother’s institutionalization and eventual lobotomizing. During the film’s Tribeca screening, an audience member actually fainted during the thumbtack ingestion scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Los Ultimos Frikis

Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas

Knives and Skin


High school can be scary.

(2019) Thriller (IFC MidnightKate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, James Vincent Meredith, Tony Fitzpatrick, Audrey Francis, Claire VanDerLinden, Alex Moss, Grace Smith, Ty Olwin, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Raven Whitley, Robert T. Cunningham, Kayla Carter, Jalen Gilbert, Genevieve Venjohnson, Aurora Real de Asua, Ireon Roach, Emma Ladji, Grace Etzkorn, Haley Bolithon. Directed by Jennifer Reeder

 

Small towns are microcosms. The people who live there have roles – some chosen, some assigned. Not everyone fits into or likes the role they have, but it’s part of an overall system that keeps things going. It doesn’t take much to throw the status quo completely out of whack. Add a new element – or remove an established one – and the whole dang thing can come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Young Carolyn Harper (Whitley) – a band nerd – snuck out of her house one night to meet a horny jock on the edge of town for clandestine sex. When she changes her mind at the last minute, a tussle ensues leaving her with a nasty gash on her forehead and her brand-new glasses still in the jock’s car as he drives away, leaving her in the middle of nowhere screaming for help.

She never makes it home that night and her disappearance ripples through the midwestern town of Big River like an electromagnetic pulse. Carolyn’s mother (Engelhardt) understandably begins to unravel. Her friends Joanna (Smith), Charlotte (Roach) and Laurel (Carter) – all from disparate cliques in school – grow closer together and discover in their grief that they have strength in consent. The word “no” – often given in the form of an apology. They soon discover how empowering “no” can be.

It is the teens of the town who show maturity, resiliency and strength as the adults soon begin to revert back to the secrets and failings that characterized their lives before the disappearance, only acting out more vigorously. It is up to the teens to remind the adults that there is still someone missing – but it is also the teens who seem more likely to move on.

Reeder takes a bundle of trendy influences, from David Lynch to Harmony Korine to Chantal Akerman and crafts a kind of pastiche, a movie that’s equal parts Riverdale and Twin Peaks with a dash of Neon Demon thrown in. This is a town full of quirky people and the young people are no more and no less quirky than the rest.

There is a very definite post #MeToo feminist tone here as the young girls explore their sexuality and soon begin rejecting the roles that have been assigned them, developing into powerful, strong young women. In many ways it’s heartening to watch but in other ways it’s a depressing reminder of how young high school-age girls are caught in a terrible bind when it comes to their roles in life.

Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the screen in neon blues, greens and pinks which give the film a modern feel, but be warned that this kind of palate is nothing new and while it’s eye-catching, it isn’t particularly inventive. However, Rejano (and Reeder) also do a masterful job of framing their shots, using foregrounds and backgrounds effectively. There is also a propulsive electronic score that brings to mind 80s films but the music you will doubtlessly remember is the dirge-like choral renderings of pop songs by the Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper and others.

This may come off as a high school version of Twin Peaks and while that isn’t necessarily inaccurate, it is also over-simplifying it. I suspect that this is being aimed at girls the age of those being played in the film, or slightly older but the pacing here is surprisingly slow and methodical which doesn’t bode well for post-Millennial attention spans. In any case, this is something that’s a little different than the holiday films out there; while it is also getting a brief limited theatrical release, you can also catch it on VOD if you’re of a mind to.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and scored.
REASONS TO AVOID: Paced a little too slowly for its target audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, violence and sexual situations, mostly involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twin Peaks
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Grand Isle