Unfriended: Dark Web


Your computer is watching you and no, that’s NOT a good thing.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (BH Tilt) Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Savira Mindyani, Douglas Tait, Bryan Adrian, Chelsea Alden, Alexa Mansour, Rob Welsh, Alexander Ward, Kurt Carley, Chuck Lines, Eric Watson, Maya Nalli, Ashton Smiley, Kiara Beltran. Directed by Stephen Susco

The Internet is like landing on a brand new planet; there are all kinds of places to explore, from web comics to news sites to social media. You can spend hours browsing Wikipedia, Snapchat, Spotify, Amazon, eBay, iTunes and wherever else you want to be. There are some corners of the web however that are best left unexplored.

Matias (Woodell) has a brand new laptop. Well, new to him anyway…he purloined it from the lost and found of the coffee shop he works at. He needs a new one because his current one is unreliable and slow and he can’t afford a new one. He can’t even afford a used one. He desperately needs one because quite frankly he needs to get back in the good graces of his ex-girlfriend Amaya (Nogueras) who he is almost stalker-ish obsessed over.

It’s also game night for a bunch of his millennial friends and in true tech-dependent fashion, rather than meeting up in person they get on Skype to play Cards Against Humanity (isn’t there an app for that?). His friends include cute couple Nori (Gabriel) and Serena (Rittenhouse), conspiracy junkie AJ (Del Rio), British tech guru Damon (Lees) and YouTube-famous musician Lexx (Mindyani). If these descriptions sound like stereotypical clichés, it’s mainly because they are; little thought is given to supplying any depth to any of the parts.

Editorializing aside – there’ll be plenty more of that kind of thing later – it turns out that there are some hidden files on the laptop and those files enable connection to the dark web, the semi-mythical place on the Internet where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap and nearly any perversion can be had for the asking, including murder and torture. Some of the files on the laptop show gruesome scenes of snuff and torture as well as webcam footage of a local missing girl. And the owner of the laptop now knows that someone else has it and is logged in and they want it back and not tomorrow but right freaking now. To prove how serious he is, the owner kills one of their number on camera, warning the survivors if they go to the cops he’ll kill them. And naturally, their life expectancies has just taken a turn for the worse.

I don’t really know where to start here. The acting is mostly okay – the majority of the cast has served time doing teen-oriented TV shows like Teen Wolf and The Originals. You really can’t complain about the actors because they are given so little to work with and their characters are required by the script to make some unbelievably dopey decisions in order to move the generally unrealistic plot along.

All of the action is viewed through various apps and laptop/tablet/smart phone screens, which is the trope that was used in the original Unfriended and is essentially the only connection between the two movies. This isn’t so much a sequel as part of an anthology which I can understand, but might not have been the best idea but then again, the original wasn’t all that compelling and had no characters in it that you’d want to see in another movie. Just like this one.

At least the first film had a fairly original concept but since it came out in 2015 several other movies have utilized the same or a similar gimmick. The supernatural element of the first is gone but replaced by a nearly real-world tone which goes completely out the window when we discover that the owner of the laptop utilizes a special jacket that causes cameras to malfunction, allowing him to not be seen; sort of a Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility for the Snapchat set.

And that brings up another problem – this movie essentially has built-in obsolescence. Any relevance it might have had (the first one at least had an anti-cyber bullying message) will be lost in the very pop culture/social media consciousness of the film. What’s cool in 2018 might not necessarily be in 2020. This is a film with a shelf life which means that buyers remorse will likely set in quickly once you realize that the movie is “so 2018.”

I was mildly entertained by this one – Rittenhouse and Gabriel make an appealing couple and Gabriel is actually a decent actress who needs some roles that will let her spread her wings a little. The scares aren’t terribly scary – clearly the producers were aiming for a PG-13 – the characters aren’t memorable and the plot is riddled with clichés like Swiss cheese is with holes. In an era where strong horror films are becoming more and more available, efforts like this which seem to be cash grabs capitalizing on a popular could-be franchise film aren’t really worth your time if you’re a horror gourmet. Of course if you’re ,more of a gourmand you might find this more suitable.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of disturbing imagery, sexual references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are two different endings in the theatrical version; also, the original title was to have been Unfriended: Game Night but the title was eventually changed to avoid confusion with the Jason Bateman comedy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Two

The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Insidious Chapter III


Insidious Chapter III

Stefanie Scott hears something that goes bump in the night

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Tate Berney, Michael Reid Mackay, Steve Coulter, Hayley Kiyoko, Corbett Tuck, Tom Fitzpatrick, Tom Gallop, Jeris Poindexter, Ele Keats, Phyllis Applegate, Phil Abrams, Erin Anderson, Amaris Davidson, Ashton Moio, Ruben Garfias, Fawn Irish. Directed by Leigh Whannell

When I heard they were going to make a third chapter in this series I have to admit i was skeptical at first. After all, the most interesting character had died in the first chapter and the second was far less credible than the first. There seemed to be nowhere for the series to go.

So when all else fails, try a prequel. In this case, we catch up with psychic Elise Rainier (Shaye) some years before she meets the Lambert family which would be a turning point in her life. She is terrified of the apparition of a bride in black (Fitzpatrick) who has promised to kill her one day. Because of it, she has given up doing readings.

A young teen named Quinn Brenner (Scott) hesitantly takes the bus to meet Elise, who at first wants nothing to do with her, but Quinn is so desperate to make contact with her mother (Keats) who passed away suddenly that Elise takes pity on her and tries her best to help Quinn out. We all know what is paved with the best of intentions.

Soon Quinn begins to see an old man who waves at her. She can’t quite make out his features but he creeps her out, to the point that she fails to get out of the way of a speeding truck and is gravely injured. She survives the accident but both of her legs are broken so she’s essentially bedridden once she gets home. Her dad Sean (Mulroney), already dealing with the loss of his wife as well as a son Alex (Berney) who is acting out not to mention trouble at work, does his best but he’s definitely overwhelmed. He doesn’t have much of a support system, other than a batty old woman (Applegate) and her husband (Poindexter).

Soon unsettling things begin to happen around Quinn, revolving around an old man wearing an old fashioned breathing apparatus (MacKay). Elise knows that there is an entity that wants to kill her out there but she can’t just abandon this young girl to a terrible fate. She decides to get involved, even as a couple of internet ghost busters named Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson) also get involved.

With Whannell taking the director’s chair, the movie moves at a different pace than the first two. It’s a bit more leisurely and some might find it a bit slow. However, I must admit that I have a fondness for horror movies that build up their scares and come by them honestly rather than the quick-paced throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen style that a lot of popular horror movies have adopted.

There is a ton of background; we find out how Elise’s husband died and how The Further (the other dimension where the dead go) got its name, so fans of the series will enjoy that. The Lambert family makes a brief appearance (not onscreen) early on which semi-sets up the action of the first two chapters. So in short fans of the series will have a lot to keep them happy.

Mulroney as the overwhelmed dad and Shaye are both screen veterans and both know what to do up there. Mulroney is the sympathetic figure who turns into a tiger when he has to fight for his daughter’s life. Sean is initially an unbeliever in the supernatural but after an encounter with the demon he is gung ho “call in the parapsychologists!”

Shaye has made Elise a memorable character who is an unlikely heroine, but kicks supernatural bootie nonetheless. After three films doing the character, she’s really at home in Elise’s skin, which does only good things for the movie. Shaye is one of those character actresses whose face is more familiar than her name, but this is a role that shows she can actually carry a movie on her own.

The reason you go to a horror movie is to be scared however and there are a few really good ones here, at least one of them non-supernatural in nature. However, the movie relies too much on jump scares, which is more like being startled than truly scared. The problem with this is that these scares are done with quickly and you don’t get that atmosphere of terror that a good horror movie creates. While The Man Who Can’t Breathe is pretty scary (and the make-up effects are plenty creepy), he isn’t nearly as frightening as The Bride in Black or any number of horror movie monsters of recent or not-so-recent films.

For those horror fans who aren’t too discriminating or those who loved the first two chapters in the series, you’re likely to go see this anyway regardless of what I say (and in all likelihood have already seen it). Those who are on the fence and looking for something to send shivers up their spine in the summertime, this is pretty much adequate for the task. Those looking for a horror movie that is going to scare the Beejezus out of them should probably go rent The Babadook and see that again.

REASONS TO GO: Mulroney is solid and Shaye is terrific. Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many jump scares and not enough legitimate ones. Seems to lack the momentum of the first two chapters.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of images that are disturbing and lots of jump scares. There’s also some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whannell, who co-wrote the first two movies in the series and has been the writing partner for James Wan, who directed the first two movies, makes his directing debut here; Wan was unable to take the director’s chair due to his involvement with Furious 7; he does make a cameo appearance as a theater director early in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Jurassic World

Unfriended


Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig's Facebook page.

Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig’s Facebook page.

(2015) Horror (Universal) Moses Jacob Storm, Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, Christa Hartsock, Darell M. Davis. Directed by Levan Gabriadze

The world has changed. Now more than ever our lives are wrapped up in social media and the internet. Friday nights for the average teen aren’t hanging out in malls anymore; they’re hanging out in chat rooms, Skyping with your friends, checking out videos on YouTube, listening to tunes on Spotify and often all at the same time.

There is also an ugly side to being a teen, one that has been around forever. It’s the cruelty of youth, the instinct to tear down those things – and people – that don’t fit in with the norm, that don’t march in lockstep to the beat of whatever your clique is marching to. Whether it is slut shaming, outing the gay kid or posting videos of the carnage that is a drunken teen party, kids do things without thinking of what the consequences of their actions can be, not just for those they’re being cruel to but to themselves as well.

And it’s a typical Friday night for Blaire Lily. She’s chatting up her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and on a Skype conference call with her friends Mitch, Jesse Felton (Olstead), Adam Sewell (Peltz) and Ken Smith (Wysocki). Pretty typical stuff, except what they have forgotten is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Sossaman). She’d taken her own life after a video of her drunken antics at a party had been posted to YouTube, complete with her passing out and soiling herself. The anonymous posting had devastated her world; trolls urged her to take her own life and eventually she did.

Now there’s a mystery caller who has hacked into their call, someone who knows all about their secrets but wants someone to fess up – who posted the video to the net of Laura Barns that led to her death? And the mystery caller has ways of making them talk, like a deadly game of Never Have I Ever that exposes some of their indiscretions to one another as the terrified teens begin to turn on each other. Who is this mysterious caller and what do they want? Blaire is beginning to suspect it’s Laura Barns herself.

Gabriadze has come up with a clever concept that the film is scene entirely through Blaire’s keyboard; we see her cursor moving, typing in responses to the chat, and the video on YouTube and Skype that she’s seeing. In a sense, this is a kind of found footage film to the ultimate degree. The downside is that this is going to get dated awfully fast but for 2015, it will fit in perfectly for the teens of the era.

The other side is that for all the gimmickry – and it is gimmickry, make no mistake – that no horror movie can rise above and become a classic without characters in it that will be memorable, that you want to root for and become genuinely concerned for as they are picked off, one by one. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps I’m old and jaded but none of these kids stood out at all; all of them were spoiled, shallow and had a mean streak deep down. How can I relate to someone who would post a video of their “best friend” passed out drunk in their own poop on the internet where it will remain forever? Does that sound like someone you want to spend any time with?

And like most horror movies lately, there’s not an adult to be seen. Anywhere. It’s like teen paradise where parents are always absent and they can pretty much do what they want. That’s how you sell movies like that to teens; they’re the heroes, there are no adults telling them what to do and when there are adults around they’re generally assholes or incompetent. No wonder they think we’re all morons. Of course, so often we are from their point of view. Or from anyone’s.

Anyway, this is the kind of horror movie that’s a little short on scares; mostly you’re watching Blaire’s laptop screen. That may sound boring but there is a kind of interactive element to it; the result is that you feel like you’re the one doing the typing and it does bring you closer to the story which is more or less a Ten Little Indians revenge rehash. If only we could have cared about the characters being knocked off the movie might have been more than a passing fancy that in five years will be dismissed as being “so 2015.”

REASONS TO GO: Nice concept.
REASONS TO STAY: More concept than execution. Characters all bland and undistinguished.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity and violence, some sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use as well as a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Facebook accounts see in the film actually exist and can be accessed by anyone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Monkey Kingdom

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

SOMM


When it comes to fine wine, it's best not to whine, fine?

When it comes to fine wine, it’s best not to whine, fine?

(2012) Documentary (Goldwyn) Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Shayn Bjornholm, Fred Dame, Bo Barrett, Mercedes Lam, Michael Mina, Peter Neptune, Jay Fletcher, Reggie Narito, Andrea Cecci, Rachael Wilson, Elizabeth Dowty, Michael Jordan, Rajat Parr, Jay Fletcher, Eric Railsback, Whitney Fisher, Margaux Pierog. Directed by Jason Wise

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The appreciation of fine wine is the hallmark of a civilized person. Sommeliers take this appreciation to a new level and master sommeliers are perhaps the ultimate expression in this regard. Their palates are ultra-refined; their knowledge second to none. A great wine can turn a great meal into a memorable one.

Becoming a master sommelier however is no easy task. Since the certification process began in 1977, only 197 people around the world have passed the test. Many spend years in preparation only to be disappointed.

The Master Sommelier examination is administered once a year and is done in three parts; an oral exam on general wine knowledge, a service exam which puts the applicants in a restaurant situation with hostile, ignorant or demanding customers and a blind taste test. The latter can be the most daunting.

We follow four close friends as they prepare for the 2011 exam; Ian Cauble, a brilliant and driven young man who his friends affectionately refer to as “Dad” for his tendency to take a paternal role in getting the young men to study. He is a flash card ninja and possibly the most knowledgeable of the group. Dlynn Proctor is an elegant and dapper young man who is self-possessed and confident; he radiates authority and knowledge.

Brian McClintic is married and badly wants to pass the exam; he feels guilty that he has spent so much time on the exam and wants to give his wife her husband back. He is fully aware that the master sommelier certification opens a whole lot of doors and he really needs to go through at least one of them for the sake of his family. Finally there’s Dustin Wilson, a stabilizing influence on the other two and another very focused individual. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do flash cards on Skype in the wee hours of the morning to help out his friends.

We get to watch these guys as they are mentored by some of the finest sommeliers on the planet including Steve Dame, thought to be the best American sommelier and one of the first grand masters. When he speaks, a young master in training is best advised to listen. That’s pretty much true of all of their mentors although alas, some don’t – one of the applicants has the temerity to question one of the master’s veracity when being quizzed on the wine tasting aspect of the test.

There’s no doubt it’s a grueling process; the movie is very successful in communicating it. While some might question how rough it is to sit back and sample lots of good wine, being able to discern one from the other with pinpoint accuracy requires a finally trained palate and that doesn’t come from sipping a glass of grocery store-bought chardonnay on the back porch.

The filmmakers are also successful in getting us to care and root for these applicants which isn’t always easy; at times they can be a bit arrogant (well, at least one or two of them). These seem to be genuinely decent guys who want to be successful, not just for themselves but for their families.

Where the movie fails a bit is in the choice of us watching them do wine tastings; yes they are in several different venues (from their own homes to a restaurant with their mentors to online Skype sessions) but it amounts to the same thing. We see almost none of the service portion of the test, and even then only one candidate is presented. I would have liked to have seen how all four of them responded in a similar situation and less how each of them can distinguish merlot from one region from another.

You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur or even like wine at all to enjoy the film. This isn’t so much about wine or even about being a sommelier so much as being about chasing a difficult dream. People do it for all sorts of reasons – pride, financial gain, opportunity or even just to prove to themselves that they can. We can all relate to that in some form or another. That is the triumph of the human spirit and the movie celebrates that; of course, any celebration is just that much better with a glass of a good wine.

REASONS TO GO: Involves the audience. Doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of wine. Fascinating insight into the world of the sommelier.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some editing – too many wine tastings.

FAMILY VALUES:  Nothing here that should worry any parents about bringing kids to see it – hey get them started early on wine appreciation, I say.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Master Sommelier exam is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, who have four levels of expertise – Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Candidates must pass exams for each level before being allowed to progress to the next.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet. Although Goldwyn has picked up the film, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. A theatrical release is possible for later this year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Taiwan Oyster and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

VHS


V/H/S

All in all, you might have been better off using Match.com

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Calvin Reeder, Adam Wingard, Lane Hughes, Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Drew Moerlein, Chad Villella, Matt Bertinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Paul Natonek. Directed by David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Radio Silence, Glenn McQuaid and Adam Wingard

 

While technology improves, some things stay the same. We can upgrade our recording systems but the images don’t change much. One vacation video is pretty much the same as another, whether it was taken in 1982 or 2012.

But these are anything but vacation videos unless you have a peculiar idea of relaxation, but let’s start from the beginning. An unknown party hires four small-time criminals who are known for making videos of women that they catch in parking garages and brutally show off their naked breasts. These make tons of money on the Internet, but their mysterious employer isn’t interested in boobs. He wants the gang of four to enter a house that’s more or less deserted (and it turns out to be less), and steal a videotape.

Break in they do and they enter the house to find a dead body and a pile of videotapes. As one of the group checks out the tapes to figure out which one is the right one, the rest of the group goes to investigate a series of mysterious noises – and you know that is going to end badly.

The first tape concerns a trio of frat boy-sorts who attach a spy-cam to one of the lad’s glasses and they go out hoping to get him laid. After some trial and error and enough alcohol to prove that these boys (save the one with the camera) are pretty much assholes when drunk, they manage to pick up a couple of girls. One of them passes out quickly but the other, named Lily, takes a shine to the cameraman (“I like you” she says repeatedly) but apparently one of the frat boys likes her a lot and decides to horn in on the action. Lily doesn’t seem to mind at first but, well, she’s a very special girl.

In the second, a newly married couple visit a southwestern tourist attraction – a wild west ghost town and do some hiking in the mountains. They are followed by a young woman who seems a little creepy, particularly to the husband. He really doesn’t know the half of it as some of the minor annoyances on their trip are her doing. But what are her intentions and why is she doing this?

In the third, a quartet of friends visit the home town of one of them who once they enter the woods around the town begins to act strangely. It turns out that there were some inexplicable murders there a few years earlier and that their friend knows more about the subject than she’s let on. As her creepy pronouncement that they’re all going to die there looks more and more likely, they’ll discover that the killer is still around and a creature like him they’ve never seen – say hello to Glitch Man.

The fourth is mainly the Skype conversation between a doctor and his girlfriend, who is convinced that the house she is in is haunted. He, being a rational sort is skeptical but he begins to see things too. Soon he’s more concerned about her situation than she is – she’s convinced that she can reason with the spirits and send them on their merry merry. But she may have miscalculated their intentions, particularly in relation to the mysterious bump on her arm.

The final tape shows a group of four friends who are invited to a Halloween party at an isolated house on the edge of town. Sounds like fun so the high-spirited boys and off they went to a very nice house in the middle of nowhere. When they get there, nobody’s there even though the house is unlocked and all the lights are on. While they speculate that this might be a Halloween attraction of some sort, however, it’s not the sort of attraction you’d want to spend money on and when the boys make it into the attic, all hell is going to break loose.

Anthologies are a horror film mainstay. It’s an effort to tell shorter stories that might deserve a telling without devoting an entire movie  In this case, each vignette is directed by a young up-and-coming filmmaker in the underground and mainstream horror genres. West is the best known, having directed the sequel to Cabin Fever which actually wasn’t all that bad for a direct-to-video effort and a really fine horror movie from last year called The Innkeepers. The rest are not as familiar to me so I didn’t really know what to expect. And pretty much as you might expect, the efforts here run from really good (the first tape) to not so much (the fourth).

The acting is as you also would expect rather uneven as well, although there are some finds. Hannah Fierman as Lily in the first movie is genuinely creepy. Her transformation from meek party girl to…well, I don’t want to spoil it but trust me it’s pretty spectacular and Hannah has a lot to do with it. If you see her in a bar near you walk on my friend, walk on.

The glitch man in the third vignette is also pretty nifty although the constant noise and jumpiness in the film gets really old really fast. In fact, one of the conceits of the movie is that they are all from videotapes so the quality of the images is pretty weak but that doesn’t mean the cinematography is bad, if that makes sense.

There is a gratuitous amount of gore and bare breasts, so if those things offend you my guess is you wouldn’t be interested in seeing a movie like this anyway. Everyone else, this is a solid and spectacular in places horror anthology that won’t completely win you over (the weak portions can be pretty boring and the movie at a little over two hours is about 20 minutes too long for my taste – a whole vignette could have been eliminated and they would have been much better off. Short of that, it’s available on VOD right now so if it isn’t playing near you, you can still check it out.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of gore and lots of boobs – mainstays for an excellent horror film.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the vignettes are more successful than others.

FAMILY VALUES:  A load of strong and often gruesome violence, lots of nudity, a fair amount of bad language, some horrific images and a bit of drug use. Oh, and some sex

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Ti West grew up in Delaware and went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100. The reviews are as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Videodrome

HORROR FILM ANTHOLOGY LOVERS: This comes from a tradition of horror film anthologies, several tales (often with different directors) linked together by a single story; among the more recognized anthologies include Twilight Zone: The Movie, Creepshow, Tales of Terror, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Trilogy of Terror, Cat’s Eye and The House That Dripped Blood.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Day 3 in the Six Days of Darkness 2012