Meander (Meandre)


Not for the claustrophobic.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Gravitas) Gaia Weiss, Peter Franzen, Romane Libert, Frédéric Franchitti, Corneliu Draomirescu, Eva Niewdanski, Cari Laforét, Henri Benard, Fabien Houssaye, Olympe Turi. Directed by Matthieu Turi

 

Great loss can leave us in such pain that life itself becomes wearisome. Our reason for living seems as tenuous and inconsequential as the mist; we stare off into the deep blue something and wait to die.

Lisa (Weiss), a French ex-pat working as a waitress somewhere in the West, knows that pain all too well. Her daughter (Libert) passed away and today would have been her ninth birthday. Lisa is alone lying on a lonely road, hoping for someone to come along and put her out of her misery. And someone does; Adam (Franzen), a night watchman who works nights because “I hate people,” He doesn’t run Lisa over but he offers her a ride in his truck which, after some hesitation, she accepts. They chat and he does get Lisa to open up somewhat. “I don’t want to die,” she informs Adam, “I just want to see my daughter again.”

Just about then a news report comes on the truck radio warning about a serial killer who can be recognized by a cross tattoo on the killer’s wrist. And damn if Adam doesn’t have such a tattoo on his wrist…for Lisa, it’s fade to black.

When she wakes up, she’s in a bizarre high tech tunnel. She’s wearing a neoprene jumpsuit and a wrist bracelet with a bright glowing light and a timer counting down from eleven minutes. She soon figures out that she has to navigate each section of the tunnels – which turn out to be a maze – in those eleven minutes or face a particularly nasty death, whether being fricasseed by flamethrowers, drowned in a murky pool, dissolved in an acid bath, or mauled by an alien creature that stalks the maze. There’s also a skull-like creature with a mechanical eye that seems sympathetic, repairing her injuries. There are also a few grisly corpses to remind her about the penalty of failure.

At first, the movie seems to be unrelenting, pointless torture of an attractive female character and I have to admit, I was thinking “Here we go again.” But strangely, and happily, Turi soon begins feeding us clues as to what’s really going on, and it isn’t what you think.

The production design here is impressive and the film suitably claustrophobic. Lisa is forced to crawl through most of the maze, often barely able to fit through the tight spaces. Turi gives us a sense of that closed in space without being defined by it; you feel Lisa’s pain and fear and frustration largely because Weiss gives us a strong performance as the heroine. She is deeply wounded, missing her little girl and wanting nothing more than to be reunited with her again. And that possibility does come up, in maybe one of the more emotional moments you’ll ever see in a horror film.

The movie doesn’t always sustain the level of tension that it needs to, and there is a bit of sameness to some of the traps, but overall this is an impressive and imaginative film that genre fans might find intriguing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nifty production design. A claustrophobic thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to be pointlessly cruel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, gore, some disturbing images and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The walls all display the dots and dashes of Morse code and each wall says something in French; for example, the first room code spells Vite, which means “quickly.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cube
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Enemies of the State (2021)

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

The Little Things


The darkness and the dimly lit.

(2021) Crime (Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, John Harlan Kim, Frederick Koehler, Judith Scott, Maya Kazan, Tiffany Gonzalez, Anna McKitrick, Sheila Houlahan, Ebony M. Mayo. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Any good homicide detective will tell you that the secret to catching a killer isn’t rocket science. It’s good hard work and paying particular attention to the little things. The devil is, after all, in the details.

This crime thriller, set in the 1990s (director John Lee Hancock wrote it back in 1993 but was unable to get it made until recently) and features no less than three Oscar-winning actors. You’d think that would bring the quality level up a notch, but keep in mind that Warners chose to release this in January – never a good sign.

A serial killer is targeting women in the Los Angeles area (what else is new?) and detective Jim Baxter (Malek) is stumped. One of Los Angeles’ most successful police detectives, he utters platitudes at press conferences but is no closer to solving the crimes than when he came on the case. Meanwhile, over in Kern County to the northeast of the City of Angels, former L.A. police detective (and current Kern County deputy sheriff) Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) has been assigned by his boss to collect some evidence held in Los Angeles critical to a case in Bakersfield. Deacon, who left  L.A. under less-than-ideal circumstances, eventually gets sucked into Baxter’s case (to be honest, Deacon doesn’t resist very hard) which may have a link to a case that Deacon worked on years before that was never solved.

With Deacon on board as an unofficial advisor, the two at-first reluctant partners zero in on a suspect – Albert Sparma (Leto) – a serial killer’s name if I ever heard one – who seems to be a slam dunk at first. He taunts the detectives and is creepy enough to set off any cop’s radar. But is he the killer? And can the two mismatched detectives stop him before he kills again?

Considering the calibre of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s a bit surprising that the end result of this movie is less than stirring. Certainly it’s no fault of Washington or Leto, both of whom deliver scintillating performances. For Washington, this kind of role is old hat yet still he manages to bring a certain amount of freshness to the part. Leto may be one of the best actors at playing creepy, brings a braggadocio to his role that is refreshing.

Of the three main cast members, only Malek feels out of place. His sunken-eyed thousand-yard stare bespeaks someone with PTSD, not the well-adjusted family man his character is made out to be. The murky cinematography doesn’t do him any favors other than to highlight his ghoulish pallor. We know he’s capable of great performances, but his character is so underwritten that it’s almost criminal. If you’re going to cast someone like Malek in your film, you should better utilize him.

The plot feels like a pastiche of a fair number of era-specific crime thrillers; back in the Nineties, these sorts of movies were commonplace and often boasted A-list actors. As those types of films have largely fallen out of favor, we don’t see this kind of turbocharged cast in a thriller these days. I just wish they had a better film to work with.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is riveting (as usual) and Leto turns in a marvelous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, disturbing images and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leto was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 2/2821)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Go-Gos
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Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Prodigy (2019)


A little kid can be the death of you.

(2019) Horror (Orion) Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney Colm Feore, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau, Elisa Moolecherry, Olunike Adeliyi, Janet Land, Martin Roach, Byron Abalos, Ashley Black, Tristan Vasquez, Nicholas McCarthy, Jim Annan, Milton Barnes, Grace Armas, Brock Johnson, Michael Dyson, Mark Sparks, Martha Girvin. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy

 

The creepy kid is a horror trope that goes back half a century. Kids are innocent, angelic; they are the future and we can’t see anything bad in them – after all, they’re just kids – but who says a kid can’t be a psychopathic monster? There is evidence that some kids have exactly that trait within them from birth.

But the film is quick to point out, in this case, that it isn’t really the poor little dear’s fault. Young Miles Blume (Scott) is born to his protective mom (Schilling) and disbelieving dad (Mooney) just as serial killer Edward Scarka (Fauteux) is killed during a police raid, the cops having been led to his in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmhouse by the sole survivor of his escapades (Allen), who had her hands chopped off for her trouble.

At first, the kid just seems precocious to the delight of mommy. But that soon gives way to genuine creepiness – the dead-eyed stares, the animal abuse, the accident befalling a babysitter (Black). The kid is speaking a rare dialect of Hungarian in his sleep, one spoken by Scarka. It appears the serial killer is not quite dead yet and he has an axe to grind with the woman who got away – and he doesn’t have a problem using young Miles to do it.

Although there are some nice twists and plot points here, this is pretty standard for the subgenre. The big reveal about what is wrong with Miles is answered way too early in the film and rather than giving us a parental “is my kid really a monster” conundrum to deal with, we just get one parent (the mom) denying reality, the other perhaps embracing reality too easily.

Schilling (Orange is the New Black) and Scott (the doomed younger brother in the IT movies) are actually pretty good, particularly Scott who is truly convincing; the movie doesn’t work with a lesser performance in place. But the movie relies too much on jump scares (the refuge of unimaginative directors) and hackneyed dark house stalker clichés to really be of more than passing interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Schilling and Scott give pretty decent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable, utilizing too many jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, terror, profanity, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott sandwiched the filming of The Prodigy in between shoots for IT and IT Chapter 2, thus meaning he filmed three straight horror movies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bad Seed
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Outpost

Hell Fest


Seeing a guy in a hoodie and a mask carrying a knife is never a good thing.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Amy Forsyth, Michael Tourek, Courtney Dietz, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Elle Graham, Benjamin Weaver, Mason Pike, Roby Attal, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Stephen Conroy, Markus Silbiger, Ashley Ueker, Quandae Stewart, Alicia Rosato, Kimberly Battista. Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Let’s face it; getting scared is fun. It makes our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin spike and our breath quicken. For young men, it gives us a chance to be protective of our dates who might even be suitably grateful afterwards. It’s why we go to horror movies and why we go to haunted attractions.

Natalie (Forsyth) has returned home from school. Her best friend Brooke (Edwards) is happy to see her – Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus) not so much. But young Gavin (Attal) really wants to see Natalie after a summer flirtation. So much so that he’s gotten VIP passes to Hell Fest for the three girls as well as the boyfriends of Brooke and Taylor. Hell Fest is one of the biggest haunted attractions here is, a traveling amusement park with horror-themed rides and mazes. It’s a big deal every time it shows up. Brooke and Taylor are very psyched for it; Natalie is less enthusiastic, not being terribly fond of being scared.

The real difference at this particular edition of Hell Fest is that there is an actual psycho among the costumed actors who can dispatch young girls in full view of the patrons – it’s all part of the show, right? – with nobody being the wiser. He’s done it before, as we see in a prologue.

So when a terrified girl who knows that fantasy has crossed the line into reality begs Natalie to save her from The Other (Conroy), as the killer is known as here. Laconically, Natalie tells the masked figure “Do it. That’s why we’re here – to be scared.” And so the killer obliges. And now he has a new target to chase around the park.

I suppose the concept of having an actual killer hiding in plain sight in a haunted amusement park has some merit, although something similar was attempted earlier this year in the independent Blood Fest – which was actually much better than this although as my British friends might say, that film was also daftier. The other main difference is that while that film was obviously made by people who not only believed in what they were doing, they were having a great time doing it. This movie appears to have been approached with all the joy and enthusiasm of a high school student approaching a term paper on Pilgrim’s Progress.

It’s not that Hell Fest is a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not a good one. It shows little imagination or passion in any aspect, from the writing to the acting to the directing. Only the production design seems to have been approached with any sort of zeal. There are no real sore spots anywhere; neither are there any real bright spots (again, other than the production design).

The characters are literally just cookie cutters without depth and all ready to be ground into crumbs. The inevitable string of murders is neither imaginative nor particularly frightening. They’re just…there, like a misunderstanding in a rom-com. The last thing you want from a horror movie is a feeling of meh. Even a bad horror movie has its merits; there is nobody who itches to see a mediocre scary movie. That’s really what you have here; the horror equivalent of Wonder bread slathered with mayonnaise and American cheese. Horror fans deserve better. Heck, all of us deserve better. Natalie herself said “We’re here to get scared.” It’s a shame the folks who made her film didn’t listen to her.

REASONS TO GO: It’s not really bad in any category.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s not really good in any category either.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some gore, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scare characters walking around the park during the beginning of the film are actually employed by the Netherworld haunted attraction in Atlanta, one of the top ten in the country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood Fest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes

The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Strawberry Flavored Plastic


Sometimes even filmmakers feel the walls closing in on them.

(2018) Drama (Self-Released) Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo, Bianca Soto, Raelynn Zofia Stueber, Marisa Lowe, Giovanni Lowe, Maureen Winzig, Jim Cairl, Stuart Fray, Crystal Wolf, Kitty Robertson, Steve Boghossian, Erica Duke Forsyth, Maria Severny, Henry Hernandez, Logan Kenney, Margeaux Caroline, David Beach, Despina Drougas. Directed by Colin Bemis

 

Being an aspiring filmmaker is no easy row to hoe. Making films is generally an expensive proposition; it’s not just a matter of picking up a camera and pointing it at something. Even a documentary has to have a story to tell and in order to get a good one, research is needed. A good filmmaker will go to extraordinary lengths to get their film made. Sometimes they might just go too far.

That’s the position Errol Morgan (Urda) and Ellis Archer (Montejo) are in. They want to make a documentary but first they have to find the right project. It appears they have found one when after putting an ad on Craigslist they get a response from a gentleman named Noel Rose (Bristow) who was just released from prison after a crime of passion left two people dead. Sounds like a story, right?

But it’s not that story Noel has to tell. It turns out that while there are bodies in his past there are more than two – and that Noel has never actually been to prison. As a matter of fact, Noel is an active serial killer whose body count in a quiet suburb of New York City has begun to pile up.

That puts the documentarians in a difficult position. They have already committed time and money to Noel’s story and essentially if they call the authorities and drop the project, their careers as filmmakers are over before they start. Still, if they continue to roll cameras and document the process, it could be the biggest film, like, ever.

The thing is that playing with serial killers is inherently dangerous. Noel is a ticking time bomb with a temper that can go nuclear at even the slightest provocation and when Ellis commits a very serious no-no regarding the ground rules, Errol realizes that there is a target painted very squarely on his back and the backs of his wife and son.

Interviews with serial killers are not a new concept, but this one is executed in a fairly unique way. It combines found footage films along with a 48 Hours-like crime documentary vibe. Some independent horror sites have picked up on this film but I wouldn’t (and didn’t) classify this as horror although there are a couple of scenes that qualify – one in particular where Noel breaks into a home and commits an act of violence that is sudden and shocking.

Bemis has a very good grasp of tone and realism and the viewer remains firmly invested in the film’s back story and environment. He benefits from having an unknown but solid cast; Bristow in particular excels here; he reminds me of Arrow regular Josh Segarra from a vocal standpoint. Noel is handsome and charming and Bristow captures that. The one objection I have with the character is that when he shows his mad side, it gets too over the top with lots of screeching and maniacal laughter like The Joker on speed. I think the character would have been far more menacing and realistic if the madness had been more subdued; the fits of rage should not be tantrums so much as unexpected explosions of violence. Urda has a kind of Ben Stiller look to him and also delivers a very strong performance.

The movie runs a bit long and part of the reason for that is that some of the characters, particularly Noel, often go off on somewhat flowery monologues which really add nothing to the story. These should have been edited a little bit; they tend to take the viewer out of the film because this is not how real people talk. It probably looked good on the page but sometimes dialogue should be spoken out loud by the writer before committing it to paper. Some of the scenes were a little on the talky side, particularly when delivering exposition. That needed to be edited too.

This is a very strong effort and despite its flaws a worthwhile one. Bemis has a good deal of potential as does Urda and particularly Bristow. I thought the movie stands very well on its own merits and I don’t have a problem recommending the film to my readers. It was due to have been released on Amazon today but that has been delayed as the movie is being shopped at Sundance and Berlin for potential distribution. I can only keep my fingers crossed that it will find an audience because it certainly deserves one. I will try to keep you updated when it becomes available either theatrically or for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances, particularly Bristow and Urda, are very strong. This is a very cerebral movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a little flowery. A few scenes are a bit on the talky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, adult themes and some situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bemis’ first feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Anatomy of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO

Jigsaw


Hannah Emily Anderson observes her motivation.

(2017) Horror (Lionsgate) Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Edward Ruttle, Michael Boisvert, Sam Koules, Troy Feldman, Shaquan Lewis, Esther Thibault, Lauren Beatty, Nadine Roden, Adam Waxman, Arabella Oz. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

It doesn’t seem all that long ago (but in reality has been a decade) when every Halloween like clockwork a new Saw film would come out. The original film was gruesome and cruel but had a clever side to it and appealed not only to gorehounds but also to mainstream horror fans as well. Not everyone was fond of the series; after all, it did kick off the “torture porn” genre that made a lot of critics as well as sensitive sorts uncomfortable. After a seven year run, the franchise was shut down by Lionsgate who quite frankly became a fairly major player thanks to Jigsaw and his fiendish traps.

Now seven years since the final entry in the series Lionsgate has seen fit to resurrect the franchise. Will it begin a new  and profitable run, or will it be destined to be a one and done?

Five people have been unwillingly gathered in a barn-like structure which is quite the house of horrors. In each room, the five are given a choice mainly to confess their crimes or make a blood sacrifice. In each room, the number of the survivors is reduced by one as those who are unable to confess or sacrifice something are offed in gruesome and inventive (sort of) ways.

In the meantime a pair of cops (Rennie, Bennett) is chasing down a number of bodies that have begun turning up that would seem to be the work of John Kramer (Bell) – who died more than a decade earlier. Aided by two coroners – one an Iraqi war veteran who was at one time captured and tortured (Passmore), the other a comely Goth punk-esque vixen (Anderson) who has a somewhat suspicious obsession with the killer known as Jigsaw – the cops chase down what could only be a copycat killer…or a ghost.

Jigsaw doesn’t show a whole lot of originality or imagination either for that matter. Some of the traps are taken from previous films in the franchise which doesn’t feel so much as an homage as it does a rip-off. Even the plot feels like it has been recycled from previous films, although I have to admit the end twist was pretty gnarly.

It’s not exactly a spoiler that Bell appears in the film as Jigsaw who died of cancer following Saw III. However, that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in all the succeeding films in the franchise including this one which is a good thing because he has been the best part of the series all along. He is one of the great horror villains of all time and yet he rarely does the “dirty work” himself; he simply captures people he feels need to prove themselves worthy of continued life and puts them in situations where their survival depends on their own strength of will and willingness to take responsibility for their actions and yes, the actions that the five in the barn have committed are pretty heinous indeed.

The gore is pretty intense here but veteran horror fans should have no problem with it. Those who are more dilettantes might be a little more squeamish in that regard. The traps are fairly Rube Goldberg-like although a couple were kind of lame. Those who have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of the film series should have no difficulties following the action but those coming in fresh without ever having seen any of the first seven films are going to be scratching their heads an awful lot.

The big problem here is that the movie feels rushed; the only time that the directors seem to take their time on anything is when the barn denizens are on the edge of getting mangled. Otherwise it feels like they’re impatient to get to the next gruesome murder. Maybe their core audience is too. The rest of us though may wish for a bit more exposition. Even given that, the movie doesn’t have a lot of energy; I did see it at a matinee screening that was mostly empty and maybe I would have felt differently in a crowd of horror fans enjoying the hell out of themselves. That’s probably the best way to see this.

In any case, this isn’t the worst film in the series nor is it the best. It falls pretty much solidly in the middle. I doubt that the hardcore fans of the series will be satisfied with this effort; and I don’t think that there’s a reason to continue the series from this point forward. Judging from the less than thrilling domestic box office, it appears that most American filmgoers agree. However, the global box office was enough that we might continue to see these showing up at Halloween (although at present there are no concrete plans to do so). If so, I hope they make some changes; I can’t see the next one being any better than this.

REASONS TO GO: The usage of Bell as John Kramer is a nice touch. There is some spectacular gore for those who like that kind of thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie felt oddly lifeless and rushed. Watching this movie really requires at least a basic knowledge of the Saw mythology in order to understand it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence that is both bloody and gruesome, scenes of torture and plenty of profanity which you’d expect if you were being tortured.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tobin Bell as John Kramer is the only actor and character to appear in all eight Saw films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared

Happy Death Day


Isn’t reliving the same day over and over and over again a scream?

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Boyle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Ramsey Anderson, Brady Lewis, Phi Vu, Tenea Intriago, Blaine Kern III, Cariella Smith, Jimmy Gonzales, Billy Slaughter, Donna Duplantier, GiGi Erneta, Lindsey Smith, Dane Rhodes, Caleb Spillyards, Missy Yager. Directed by Christopher Landon

We all have days that we’d rather forget. Days in which things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, days in which we do things we’re not proud of, days when we’re the victims of bad circumstances. Think about how awful it would be to relive those days over and over and over again; it would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is having that kind of day that nobody wants to relive. The Bayview College sorority sister wakes up after a night spent partying in a dorm room – a dorm room! – apparently having spent the night with a cute but nondescript guy named Carter (Broussard) whose name she has already forgotten. She makes her way across campus to the sorority house, encountering a global warming activist, a couple soaked by a sprinkler and a fainting frat pledge. Her dad keeps calling and she keeps on ignoring the calls.

He’s calling because it’s her birthday and she’s going to have an even worse day than she’s already had. That evening, on the way to a frat party, she is ambushed by someone wearing a mask of the college’s mascot (the Bayview Babies – really?) who shoves a knife into her – several times.

But then she wakes up, much to her surprise and then she relives the same day, the same events, only to meet the same fate. No matter how she changes things up, her killer always finds her. She realizes she’s going to have to find out the identity of her killer if she’s to escape his homicidal rage and bust out of this strange and terrible time loop.

This is a movie that borrows liberally from other movies, most notably Groundhog’s Day and Scream. I don’t think a movie has to reinvent the wheel every time out but there should be at least some originality and some effort put in to developing the characters so they aren’t just two-dimensional types but that doesn’t really happen here. And that’s okay so long as the movie remains entertaining and thankfully it does.

Rothe is the centerpiece here. Tree starts out the movie self-centered and shallow in what is pretty much a sorority stereotype but as you’d guess during the course of her many relived days she begins to discover what a bitch she’s been and  begins to actually grow. By the end of the movie she’s still not entirely likable – wisely the writers don’t go a complete 180 on us – but she’s more likable. Rothe, a veteran of young adult movies and the Mary + Jane TV show on MTV, shows a great deal of presence and camera-friendliness. I hope she’ll be able to break out of these teen stereotype roles and get some meatier parts at some point soon.

I do like the meta twist at the end – that was an unexpected delight – but discovering who the killer is isn’t going to take a lot of brain power for anyone who has seen more than one or two slasher movies in their time. I would have liked to see more of the self-awareness that the writers showed at the end as it would  have made the movie a lot more fun since the slasher aspect was so rote.

The movie has done pretty well at the box office especially considering it’s bargain basement production budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel or two on the horizon. There are some pretty fun aspects here and if your expectations aren’t too high you should get a kick out of the film, although I would tend to recommend it more for teens and young adults who haven’t seen a whole lot of slasher movies but like the ones that they’ve seen. On that basis what they see here will seem a lot more fresh and new than it does for older farts like this reviewer who has been there and seen that but was entertained nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Rothe has some potential as a lead actress. The Meta ending was much appreciated.
REASONS TO STAY: The film borrows too liberally from other movies. The plot twist is a little too easily figured out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and scenes of terror, some crude sexuality as well as brief partial nudity, profanity and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers couldn’t get the rights to use the ringtone in the trailer, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” so they were forced to use an original tune as Tree’s ringtone in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Groundhog’s Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Light of the Moon