The Monster Project


The suggestion of something terrifying is more frightening than the sight of something terrifying.

(2017) Horror (Epic) Toby Hemingway, Justin Bruening, Murielle Zuker, Jamal Quezaire, Yvonne Zima, Steven Flores, Shiori Ideta, James Storm, Susan Stangl, Phillip Sebal, Pat Scott, Shayne Eastin, Chase Olswang, Zac Cracknell, Allie Marie Costa, Jim Beinke (voice), Victor Mathieu (voice), Martin Lee White, PeiPei Alena Yuan. Directed by Victor Mathieu

 

So a vampire, a werewolf and a demon go into a bar and… That’s how a joke might begin but that’s loosely the premise in this indie horror film, only it’s an old abandoned house instead of a bar. Although it might have worked out better if it had been a bar; old abandoned houses are so cliché.

Devon (Hemingway) and Jamal (Quezaire) have been pretty successful making homemade YouTube horror movies. Devon is convinced that they are ready to take the next step – and make a horror feature. Jamal is a little hesitant but Devon talks him into a fairly high concept idea; their films have been faked “real” encounters with monsters – Devon in a cheap costume, Jamal running around with the camera. They were getting thousands of hits. What if they recruit people who actually think they’re monsters and interview them?

Devon recruits his ex-girlfriend Murielle (Zuker) and her current beau Bryan (Bruening) who is fresh out of his most recent stint in rehab – yes, there’s been more than one – to direct and run sound, respectively. Murielle is still angry at Devon for the break-up but jumps at the chance to direct a feature. Through Craigslist – iMDB for potential victims – they get responses from Steven (Flores), a native American who is a cop on the reservation and a skinwalker, or a sort of werewolf; Shayla (Zima), a pretty albeit heavily tattooed vampire who apparently has the hots for Bryan, and Shiori (Ideta), a miserable young Japanese girl who believes she’s demonically possessed.

The dashing Devon gathers them all together in a house that has a history – a devil-worshiping coven once operated out of it – on the night of a lunar eclipse. Now I don’t know about you but all sorts of alarm bells would be going off in my head if a friend tried to drag me into a situation like that. I mean, I’ve seen a few horror movies, y’know? In any case, it turns out that not only do these people think they’re monsters, they actually are the monsters they think they are.

Locked in the house with three beings possessed of plenty of fangs, teeth, claws and muscle, the four filmmakers are going to have a hell of a time (pun intended) escaping the house and getting home alive but it soon becomes apparent that there is something much larger at work – and something far more powerful with sinister plans in mind for all of them.

This is a micro-budget indie horror movie which in the genre means nothing; great movies have been made on budgets that wouldn’t cover the coffee budget on a mid-sized studio film. The movie has some strong points – the creature effects, considering the budget, are really effective. The last hour of the film is basically shot in darkness however so there’s a kind of “night vision” sheen to the cinematography that makes things a little murky, so we don’t get the full effect of the effects, if you’ll forgive a bad joke.

Found footage films, which this is, can be entertaining or they can be pretty rote and this one follows a pretty standard found footage template with an ending that isn’t unlike what you get with most found footage films; after all, if the footage is found it must first be lost. It does lack a framing story – if nothing else a graphic stating “this footage was found in the middle of the desert blah blah blah” to give the movie context but then again, considering how it ends, it doesn’t really need it. However, like nearly all found footage films, a lot of the movie consists of terrified videographers running with their cameras. After awhile it gets pretty old and quite frankly, that’s one of the qualities of found footage films that I dislike the most. I’d gladly trade the “you are there” quality for something more watchable.

The performances are pretty solid from the unknown cast. Zima is phenomenally beautiful as the vamp but she does overdo a bit. Beyond that, I can’t really complain; there’s not a lot of character development here but I think the whole point is to get to the part where the monsters show up which is about forty minutes into the hour and forty minute film. Quite frankly, the movie could have used some trimming as well

Still in all, this is a fair to okay effort in indie horror that will certainly have its fans. While I can’t really rave about it, I can say that the movie pretty much meets the standards of the genre. I would have liked some more legitimate scares – the film is far more action-oriented than horror-oriented in delivery which I think doesn’t do the film any favors – but nonetheless I can say that you’re not wasting your time if you rent this or see it in the limited theatrical release it’s getting. Indie horror films have been on a bit of a hot streak lately and while this isn’t one of those big buzz indie scare flicks, it is at least competently made and has some gee whiz moments that will keep the fans happy.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are pretty nifty. The acting is for the most part pretty solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The cinematography is murky and like most found footage films the shaky cam gets old. It’s a little light on the scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and terror, plenty of profanity, drug references and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Shiori demon makes an early appearance in the DVD she gives Devon and Jamal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Trip to Spain

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Unrest (2017)


There can be beauty in medicine.

(2017) Documentary (Chicken & Egg) Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow, Nancy Klimas, Paul Cheney, Stig Gerdes, Lee-ray Denton, Casie Jackson, Ketty Hansen, Ron Davis, Per Hansen, Whitney Dafoe, Jessica Taylor, Darwin Jackson, Jessica Harden, Lee Routh, Sawyer Jackson, Ruby Taylor, Samuel Bearman, Colin Taylor, Randy Denton, Per Fink, Ron Gill, Theo Haugen, Linda Tannenbaum. Directed by Jennifer Brea

Unless you’re a medical professional, you’ve probably never heard of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). You may be more familiar with its popular name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a medical problem that the medical community has almost no understanding of. There are many doctors who believe it is entirely psychosomatic – in the patients mind  In some countries, that is in fact medical policy.

Jennifer Brea, originally from the Orlando area, was studying for her PhD at Harvard. A bright and vivacious girl, she traveled the world and lived life to its fullest. She was engaged to be married to a handsome Internet analyst (and later professor at Princeton) named Omar Wasow. Life was only going to get better.

Then she got sick, struck by a fever that at its worst measured 104.7 degrees. The fever broke, but she was left with extreme sensitivity to light and sound and bouts of fatigue so all-encompassing that she could barely get out of bed and eventually could only crawl inch by inch along the ground (the opening scenes of the movie document this). Eventually she is confined to a wheelchair but soon she is unable to sit up in a seated position. She is only capable of being prone.

Of course, she sees her doctor, and then specialists, and then other specialists. None of them can even offer a diagnosis. Some told her she was dehydrated and stressed due to her doctoral work. Others told her that her symptoms were due to a long-buried trauma that was surfacing only now. Meanwhile, her symptoms were growing worse. Unconvinced by what her doctors were telling her and determined to get to the bottom of what was affecting her, she did her own research and came up with ME and CFS which is said to affect as many as 17 million people around the world. She went onto YouTube and heard stories that were eerily similar to her own. She knew she had found the source of her problems.

But as she looked into it, she found the depressing fact that despite the fact that her disease was so widespread, there was little to no research being done on it. Few knew how the disease operated and those that did were only in the early stages of understanding how it worked. The more people Jennifer talked to, the more she realized that hope  was being lost on a widespread basis. Rather than face a lifetime confined to bed, many sufferers were taking their own lives.

Determined to make these stories public, Jennifer decided to make a documentary. She enlisted camera crews in England, Denmark and around the United States to capture sufferers of ME/CFS on-camera. We hear the story of Jessica Taylor, a young woman living in Kent, England who has spent her 16th through 21st birthdays in bed and whose inactivity has caused osteoporosis which gives her the bones of a 100-year-old, not an uncommon side effect for ME/CFS sufferers. There’s also Lee-Ray, a Georgia housewife whose husband left her after years of caring for her and when their daughter came down with the disease, finally realized that this wasn’t something Lee-Ray was making up and has since begun the process of reconciling with his ex-wife. One of the few geneticists looking into the disease is Stanford’s Ron Davis who has a personal interest – his son has ME and is unable to speak anymore.

The most outrageous case is that of Karina Hansen, a young girl afflicted with the disease who is forcibly removed from her parents home by the police and confined to a mental hospital in Copenhagen where her parents are refused access to her. Largely due to a Danish physician named Per Fink, the Danish medical establish operates on the principle that the disease is entirely psychosomatic and that removal from the environment which reinforces belief in the disease is the only means of cure. It was only after this proved ineffective that Karina was finally allowed to return home.

Through these stories we get to see how ME/CFS impacts not only the person who has it but their families and loved ones as well. The central story however belongs to Brea and her husband and in some ways we feel a bit of the intimacy between them as we are privy to moments of romance, frustration, and conflict but mostly support and love. Omar sometimes questions the desperate methods Jennifer tries to ameliorate her disease like ingesting a hookworm and living in a tent out in her yard to avoid any vestige of mold but for the most part, he does everything he can to give her a normal life and most importantly to keep hope alive.

The movie keeps the focus mainly on Jennifer herself but gives an adequate amount of time and focus on the other stories as well. As with all things, ME/CFS affects different people differently so seeing the various degrees and results of the symptoms on the lives of different people gives us a bit more of perspective. The only thing I can really fault the film with is the opening sequence may prove challenging to those who are more sensitive to camera motion, as I am; a chronic vertigo sufferer, I found the opening sequence started to bring my symptoms on. I recognize the need for the sequence; it gives viewers a sense of what Jennifer goes through but those like myself who have that sensitivity should be aware that the opening few minutes may be a problem.

That can be hard to do; we look at the prescriptions Jennifer is supposed to take; it’s a staggering amount and personally I can’t believe all those pharmaceuticals can possibly be doing her body any good. It’s no wonder that Jennifer is looking into alternative treatments.

But she’s also not taking her situation if you’ll excuse the pun lying down. She’s helping to organize and was involved with the Millions Missing event in which family members of ME/CFS victims left shoes out in public places to illustrate how he people who have this affliction have disappeared from life (some literally; the suicide rate is high). Most importantly, she’s made this documentary which brings to light the plight of those suffering from this illness and the medical establishment’s attitudes towards it. One can’t help but notice that suffers of Multiple Sclerosis were once upon a time often told the same things by the medical establishment until the invention of CAT scans revealed an actual issue. As of yet there are no tests that show a medical cause for these issues although some work is finally starting to get done.

This documentary goes a long way into not only showing the global impact of the syndrome but also its immediate effects. That gives the film both an intimacy as well as wide perspective, a very difficult wire to walk. This is an important documentary which hopefully will give a greater understanding of the illness not only to the general public but to the medical and scientific communities as well.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heart-rending and occasionally heartbreaking film. You can’t help but admire Brea for her courage. Brea manages to reveal the scope of the disease worldwide and provide intimate details of its effects at the same time.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of the Go-Pro camera at the beginning of the film may be rough for those who are sensitive to jarring camera movement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers are mounting a campaign to show the film in medical schools to allow new doctors to get a glimpse into what ME means to the patient.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: In Circles

Meat (Vlees)


This is not your ordinary meat market.

This is not your ordinary meat market.

(2010) Thriller (Artsploitation) Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, Elvira Out, Kitty Courbois, Gurkan Kucuksenturk, Wilma Bakker, Jasper van Beusekom, Ali Sultan, Frans Bakker, Eric van Wijk, Taco Schenkhuizen, Guido Paulsen, David Jan Bronsgeest, Nadine Roodenburg, Philippe de Voogdt, Florian Visser, Maarten Wijsmuller, Cindy Robinson, Sander Schreuders, Piet Leendertse. Directed by Victor Nieuwenhujis and Maartje Seyferth

 

We are a carnal species, creatures of the flesh. Most of us are meat-eaters and all of us indulge in a healthy interest in sex and, occasionally, unhealthy. As civilized as we like to think ourselves to be, we are at heart animals with animal needs and animal desires.

In a small Dutch seaside town lives a Butcher (Muizelaar) who runs a small but tidy butcher shop. He’s a lonely guy looking for someone to love and who’ll love him back, but he’s not an exceptionally handsome, in good shape kind of guy and I suppose people just inherently don’t trust people who work with a lot of knives. He has a prostitute friend named Teena (W. Bakker) whom he has romantic illusions of but she turns out to be all business.

The butcher’s apprentice is Roxy (Benner), a comely student who has a boyfriend named Mo (Kucuksenturk) who is, ironically enough, an animal activist. Roxy has a handy-cam that she turns on whatever turns her fancy, whether it is the Butcher disconsolately shagging Teena in the freezer, or a tray of freshly butchered offal. When the butcher begins what can only be termed sexually harassing Roxy, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. In fact, the two begin shagging themselves, particularly after Teena starts flaunting her sexuality, having sex with clients and her pimp (who happens to be the butcher’s boss) in the freezer which seems to spur on Roxy, who is much younger than Teena, to initiate a sexual affair with her boss.

Parallel to that is Inspector Mann who has a startling resemblance to the Butcher – mainly because he’s played by the same guy. Inspector Mann seems to be floating along through life on whatever current might take him. His marriage to Sonia (Out) is disintegrating, largely because of Mann’s own disinterest. The only things that apparently interest him are watering his desultory office plant, and eating. Sex with his wife seems to frighten him. Even tragedy doesn’t move him much; he just seems to shrug his shoulders and move on.

The butcher’s tale (which sounds like it should have been written by Chaucer but in this case more like by way of Lars von Trier) intersects with that of Inspector Mann in an unexpected and somewhat horrific way. Once that happens, the lethargic Mann is moved to take action, but where does the connection truly lie?

This isn’t a horror film precisely. It’s more of a psychological thriller but on LSD. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a psychedelic thriller; some of the images resemble an acid trip and truly they speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot of dialogue here (a previous film by Seyferth had none at all) and indeed Roxy doesn’t speak until nearly halfway through the film. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on though.

There is an awful lot of naked flesh here, both of the human and slaughterhouse varieties. We see the butcher plying his trade which may make some sensitive vegetarian/vegan sorts more than a little nauseous. We see a lot of very graphic sex, almost to the point of pornography which may make some sensitive prudes more than a little squeamish. If you fall into either category, it would be a wise thing for you  to stop reading now and move on to something else because there’s no point in you seeing this movie at all.

Benner is a fresh faced beauty and certainly seeing her naked (as she is for a good percentage of the film) is no great hardship; Muizelaar is a fine actor and has two similar but disparate roles to work on here, although he is less pleasing naked. However, both Inspector Mann and the butcher have body image issues so the flab both of them display naked is somewhat necessary.

The movie doesn’t always make narrative sense and the ending is something of a bad trip. This isn’t a film for everybody – let’s be very clear about that now. It requires a bit of work to get into but I thought it well worth the effort. Not everybody will. This Meat is rather highly seasoned and spicy, but for those of that particular palate, this is a dish best consumed quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Benner and Muizelaar give sterling performances. The film keeps you off-balance in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it too “artsy fartsy.” A little bit on the disjointed side.
FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic nudity and sex, some disturbing butchery images, an attempted rape and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film is just getting released in the states, it debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival way back in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wetlands
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nick Cave: Once More with Feeling

Presenting Princess Shaw


A pop Princess in the making.

A pop Princess in the making.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Samantha Montgomery, Ophir Kutiel. Directed by Ido Haar

The American Experience

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral things, ideas that we vaguely like but really don’t do anything about so they remain formless. Others are those we work actively towards and put our hearts and souls into. Those are the ones more likely to come true.

Samantha Montgomery, whose stage name is Princess Shaw, has a dream of being a singer. And not for nothing; she has a legitimate voice, beautiful and evocative. She’s also a crackerjack songwriter, her songs filled with longing and emotion so much so that they reach out and grab the listener, take hold of them by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go until they feel the same thing Princess is feeling.

Samantha works by day in a New Orleans elderly care facility. She is upbeat and cheerful and seems to love working with her patients and caring for them. Some nights, she goes to Open Mike shows at local bars, and once in awhile sings at nightclubs and parties. She uploads a capella versions of her songs onto YouTube where she has a channel that several hundred subscribers check out from time to time. She labors in obscurity but still hopes that one day, she’ll be discovered.

What she doesn’t know is that she already has been. Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the name of Kutiman, has made some Internet fame for himself as a remixer, taking elements from YouTube music videos, cutting and pasting them together to make a cohesive song – all without the knowledge of the participants until the new video is posted. He has, against all odds, discovered the work of Princess Shaw and has been captivated by it. He takes one of her songs, “Give It Up,” and layers percussion, guitars, brass and piano – and creates a song that has a timeless urban pop feel to it, taking elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and a little bit of rock and roll to make something really tasty. You can see the results of his efforts here.

&Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar originally was going to look at all of the various components of the video but once he met Princess Shaw he knew he didn’t need any of the other musicians. Her story is compelling, with a background of being sexually abused as a young girl and continuing on into adulthood into an abusive romantic relationship, she has weathered some tough times. We find out most of this later on in the film; she’s really a blank slate as the film begins, which is a wise move. We only know the longing and loneliness she feels through her music.

We never find out what Samantha/Princess thinks is the reason she’s being followed by a camera crew. She was unaware of what Kutiman was up to although Haar was certainly in the know. I think that knowing what she thought was going on would have been beneficial to the film, but that’s really nit-picking. Then again, it would make some of what’s going on feel a little less staged.

Princess Shaw has an amazing voice but it is her heart that is at the center of this film. Not only is she upbeat despite the obstacles and difficulties she’s had to face, but she shows tenderness and appreciation for her patients, her family and those musicians she encounters around town (midway through the film, she moves to Atlanta to try and make her dream happen). One of the most special moments in the film is when Montgomery hears the Kutiman music video for the first time…and watches in absolute astonishment as the video approaches a million views.

The movie ends with Princess being flown to Tel Aviv to perform at a Kutiman concert there. She is absolutely delightful, hugging every musician like a long lost friend, taking delight in being somewhere she never thought she’d be. The concert is a bit anticlimactic, but it’s clear she’s a performer with a capital P. I don’t know what happened with her career after filming ended, but I’d like to think she’s getting representation and getting ready to record with musicians…and maybe touring. I’d pay to see her, and I don’t go to any concerts anymore.

It is stupid difficult making it in the music industry. People long to be stars but few are willing to put in the work to make it happen and fewer still have the talent to make it happen. Even if you have both of those qualities, that’s no guarantee you’ll make it in a business that’s as cutthroat and as insular as the music industry. As anyone who’s seen any episodes of shows like American Idol or The Voice can attest, the world is full of people with the dreams of pop stardom. It’s nice to see a movie about someone who actually deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Truly this is cinema of the heart. Montgomery has an amazing effervescent personality and a tremendous talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels a bit staged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Haar’s 2007 documentary 9 Star Hotel previously appeared on the acclaimed PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 2008.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

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

Into the Storm


They're not in Kansas anymore.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

(2014) Disaster (New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, Jimmy Groce, Linda Gehringer, Keala Wayne Winterhalt, Maryanne Nagel, London Elise Moore. Directed by Steven Quale

In this era of climate change and super storms, we have seen Mother Nature’s fury at levels unprecedented in our lifetime and scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. That may send a chill through most of us but through Hollywood filmmakers it might be classified as more of a thrill.

Silverton, Oklahoma is very much like many small towns its size throughout the United States. High school seniors graduate amid what pomp and circumstance their towns can muster. Teens suffer from a feeling that their parents don’t listen to them. Lovelorn boys work up the courage to talk to beautiful young girls. Video projects get corrupted and need to be redone. Redneck idiots get drunk and do stupid things all for the sake of YouTube glory. And sometimes, bad storms cause havoc.

Gary Morris (Armitage) is the vice-principal at Silverton High School and both of his sons – Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend the school. Donnie is something of a video nerd, president of the school’s audio-visual club and charged with recording the graduation ceremony. He has also been assigned by his father the making of a video time capsule to chronicle his high school years to deliver to himself 25 years later (an excellent idea by the way).

Pete (Walsh) is a storm chaser and documentary filmmaker who is frustrated with the lack of success this storm season. His funding is on the verge of being pulled and his meteorological expert Allison (Callies) has been spectacularly unsuccessful at using the weather data to predict where tornadoes might appear. However, a super cell has formed and there is hope that it will generate enough tornadoes to finally get Pete the shots he needs to complete his documentary. Taking the armored vehicle TITUS which has the ability to lock into the ground and withstand winds of up to 170 MPH, Pete, Allison, cameraman Jacob (Sumpter) and technicians Daryl (Escarpeta) and Lucas (Whitaker) head to where Allison believes the tornadoes will form – Silverton, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Donnie overhears Kaitlyn (Carey) being told that her video project had to be turned in that week for her to be considered for a summer internship, even though the video was hopelessly corrupted and needs to be reshot. Prompted by Trey, he offers to help reshoot footage at the abandoned paper mill some 20 miles out of town, even though it will take place during the graduation ceremony he’s supposed to film. Trey isn’t happy that he is now responsible for filming the ceremony and feeling the wrath of Dad.

A couple of knuckleheads named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep) – think of them as a real life Beavis and Butthead – are doing the usual; getting drunk, trying stupid stunts and dreaming of fame and fortune on the Internet when they see the TITUS whizzing by. Sure that something big is up, they follow, hoping to grab some storm footage of their own.

What nobody knows is that the storm that is beginning to form over doomed Silverton is like no other in history and the destructive power more than anything that they could prepare for. While a desperate father searches for his son, the storm chasers bear witness to an American town being wiped systematically from the map.

The good news first. The storm sequences are very well done with no two tornadoes ending up being too alike. Several strike during the course of the film and all with differing results and creating different types of danger. As eye candy summer movies go, Into the Storm delivers.

However, what happens between the storms is what weighs this movie down. The characters in the movie are given little development and exist essentially to be buffeted by wind and debris, to drive maniacally as tornadoes form around them and to wistfully call home and talk with their angry 5-year-old daughter (in Allison’s case).

The movie starts out going the found footage route, mainly using the footage that the storm chasers shoot as well as from Donnie’s video time capsule. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way through the movie, the filmmakers abandon this approach in favor of traditional cinematic forms to tell the story and then return to the found footage thing for a post-storm coda. It’s a bit jarring, and tells me that they didn’t have the courage of their own convictions to stand by one form or another. Commit to it or don’t do it.

Armitage, so good in The Hobbit trilogy and Callies who turned heads as Lori in The Walking Dead sleepwalk their way through this one. Both in their previous roles showed that they are compelling performers but there is nothing compelling here. Perhaps if they’d been given more to work with. Then again, one has to look at the writing credit to realize that the guy who wrote this also wrote Step Up: All In opening the same weekend to realize that this isn’t a screenwriter who specializes in people stories.

In a disaster movie, it’s not just about the disaster; it’s about those put in harm’s way. We have to have a rooting interest in them to survive and we just don’t here. Kudos to the special effects teams for the CGI storms that are breathtaking but this could have been so much better if they’d put in as much care and craft into writing characters that we care one way or the other whether they survive the storm.

REASONS TO GO: The effects work is worth seeing on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: The characters are essentially an afterthought. Feels like a theme park attraction more than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of tornado destruction and mayhem, some teen peril, a smattering of foul language and sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to keep their spirits up during a wet, tiring and miserable shoot, the extras would often spontaneously break out into song. A favorite was the Styx classic “Come Sail Away.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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