Thursday, September 12, 2019

Where Have I Been?

If you're somebody who only follows my blog and not my Twitter, you may have noticed how much the content has dried up in recent months. I've been writing and podcasting in a lot of other spaces, so I haven't had as much time to devote here. Rest assured that October is going to be as jam-packed as usual, but if you're missing me why not check out this recent run I did on Alternate Ending, picking through the highlights of the krimi genre (German proto-slasher films from the 60's)? Links are below!

Room 13 (1964)
Gorilla Gang (1968)

Cheers, and see you soon!
Word Count: 119

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reviewing Jane: The More I See Of The World, The More I Am Dissatisfied With It

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2018
Director: Steven R. Monroe
Cast: Cindy Busby, Ryan Paevey, Frances Fisher 
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

So far in the line of duty, I've only encountered one franchise built off a riff on Jane Austen, which would be the Bridget Jones movies. The first film (adapted from the novel by Helen Fielding) was based on Pride and Prejudice and the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was based on Persuasion. That's interesting in and of itself, but then 2018 rolls around and the Hallmark Channel goes completely wild as usual.

2016's Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a modernized retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in the dog show circuit, was deeply mediocre. Which means it's an above-average movie for Hallmark and of course earned itself a sequel. The wages of sin come in the form of Marrying Mr. Darcy, from the director of the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave

Appropriately, this movie spits on the grave of Jane Austen.

Let me lay out two scenes for you. 1) Elizabeth (Cindy Busby) feels that her fabulously wealthy CEO fiancé Darcy (Ryan Paevey) is pulling away from her because he keeps working extra hours at work. What she doesn't know is that he's working extra hard because he's planning for them to have a monthlong honeymoon. You know, the kind of surprise that's appropriate to spring on a woman with a job. 2) During wedding planning with Darcy's mother-surrogate Aunt Violet (Frances Fisher, tempted back by the smell of that Hallmark money), Elizabeth feels like her desire for a simple wedding is being crushed by the upmarket society the Darcy family keeps.

You got those two scenes down? Good, because they're the only two scenes in the movie, repeated back and forth, back and forth ad nauseam until the movie runs down the clock enough to give us the promised wedding.

Did I mention that this movie was the centerpiece of Hallmark's annual June Weddings movie marathon? I bet you didn't think you'd be learning so much on a horror blog.

The fascinating thing about Marrying Mr. Darcy is that it attempts to create a sequel beyond the ending of Pride and Prejudice, which is usually the stuff of fan novels rather than actual cinema (I'm stretching the definition of "cinema" to the breaking point, but this is a feature film so I say it counts). The fact that it's not even a good sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy does not inspire confidence. It literally mentions the dog show element in exactly one line (conveniently, about how Elizabeth doesn't want to do dog shows anymore), and the dogs who were pretty much central characters in the film have been relegated to cute transitions. When the screenwriters can't figure out how to end a scene, they just have a character coo over a puppy until the audience forgets there's a plot going on and they can switch to a new scene without anybody noticing.

Naturally, it also removes the element that made it Austen-y at all. The bare minimum that most Pride and Prejudice adaptations (including Unleashing etc.) achieve is featuring a couple that has friction before eventually falling in love. But now that Elizabeth has already sanded the edges off of Darcy and has achieved her happy ending, the character is a totally featureless block of wood. He's a perfect Tuxedo Ken doll for the audience to project whatever man they want onto. Not only is his sublime, unwavering love and support for Elizabeth irritating, it actually makes the movie actively worse.

While Darcy's actions are causing problems for Elizabeth, they're actions that are so clearly morally "good" that it's hard to care. And in every scene they have together they constantly profess their love and mutual respect and immediately apologize for the way they've been acting, pushing the tension the film has built right back to zero. I was literally more interested in the romance between Elizabeth's sister and some dude who I've surely forgotten from the first movie, and they collectively have about three-quarters of a scene in this, in which they do absolutely nothing.

The back-breaking lengths this movie goes to avoid conflict are truly staggering.

So Marrying Mr. Darcy is a failure as a narrative, and being what it is, it's also a failure as an aesthetic object. From the lighting (even the outdoor scenes are lit like they're inside a Macy's) to the production design (Darcy's New York apartment has a roaring fireplace in mid-June) to the acting (at best, they're a fast asleep Frances Fisher, at worst they're cold automatons petting doggies without a hint of affection), every element fails to achieve even the basic competency one expects from a TV movie.

The wedding cake the happy couple eventually chooses is "vanilla buttercream with white ganache drizzle," the revolting blandness of which reflects how insipid and unchallenging this entire affair is. I get that that's exactly what Hallmark is going for with their movies, so I guess they get top marks for that. If you want an endless parade of women sitting on cushy chaise longues with champagne flutes clutched in their talons, boring handsome men who are full of empty flattery and refuse to take their shirts off, and a misunderstanding-based plot that wouldn't pass muster in a sitcom, then this is the movie for you. And I get being in the mood for that. But this is not what I'm looking for from a movie, not now, not ever.

TL;DR: Marrying Mr. Darcy is a tedious, atrocious slog.
Rating: 2/10
Word Counter: 947
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Ice To Skate You

Year: 1983
Director: Jonathan Stryker
Cast: John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's the accepted party line in the slasher fandom that Canadian slashers are as a whole superior to their American counterparts, and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. However, for every Visiting Hours or My Bloody Valentine, there's a Prom Night or Humongous (come to think of it, maybe I'm just not a Paul Lynch fan). But Paul Lynch had nothing to do with Curtains, a movie that was created by a Who's Who of Canadian slashmakers, including composer Paul Zaza, producer Peter R. Simpson, and Funeral Home and Happy Birthday to Me actress Lesleh Donaldson. So I guess there's a hole in that theory, because Curtains is an absolute mess.

And not just because they left doll heads all littered about.

Curtains is a uniquely unfocused film due to its notorious troubled production, a three-year exercise in frustrating rewrites and additional photography that led the director to remove his name from the project entirely. At first it's about actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar), who is preparing for a role in her director boyfriend Jonathan Stryker's (John Vernon) upcoming movie about an insane woman. She's method (AKA irritating) so she wants to be checked into a mental institution, which Stryker helps her accomplish before completely abandoning her and refusing to check her out. That's one way to ghost somebody you're dating.

Cut to years later and he's prepping for the very same film once more, gathering six young actresses from all over into his secluded cabin for a weekend of hardcore auditioning. They wonder what his scheme could possibly be, because they're all so very different. What right do a skinny white lady with short hair and a skinny white lady with long hair have to audition for the same part?

Anyway, there's clearly no possible way this could go wrong. Of course, Samantha breaks out of the institution at the exact same time that the girls he's gathered start dying off one by one? Is this the work of a jealous, aged actress? Is one of the young and hungry actresses a little too hungry? Or is Stryker just the psychosexual maniac the whole premise of this film would show him to be?

But seriously, I have no answers about the dolls. Don't even ask.

The reason Curtains enjoys any sort of cult status must be the ice skating scene. For one thing, it's the only scene I seem to be able to find screen grabs of online. For the other, it's the only scene that is actually creepy or remarkable, and it's a heck of a lot of both. The killer, bestowed in their trademark "hag" mask, skates after one of the girls bearing a curved scythe, and the film's music and cinematography lurch into pure psychedelia. In or out of context, it's an off-kilter and exciting moment, but it's a diamond in a whole lot of rough.

Unfortunately, not a single one of the other kills in the film are an ounce as outré or exciting. The bulk of the deaths in the back half are relegated offscreen, and the ones we do get to see are bloodless and uneventful. I definitely think there's something there in the killer's getup, thematically evoking the fear and horror of women aging out of Hollywood, but other than Samantha Sherwood being a delightful vamp, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in pulling at that thread. 

Also, I'm sure the months and months it was knocking around in the back of some producer's trunk probably helped with its uncanny, withered look.

Really, pretty much every element of Curtains is lacking in one way or another, especially the plot, which is meandering nonsense. I know it took three years to make, but it shouldn't feel like it takes three years to watch. There is no apparent structure to the film, which makes it difficult to set up the series of red herrings and twists that a whodunit like this desperately needs. 

Even if it doesn't have that, the whodunit at least needs to have who's that "it" is done to. OK, that line might not have worked, but I'm saying the characters are entirely interchangeable. It's even more ironic that the girls are so perplexed by how deeply different they are because I literally had to look up a plot synopsis to figure out who died when. I usually have a Meet the Meat segment in my plot synopsis where I run through all the characters and their one personality trait, but I don't think this collected group of six girls has two interesting traits to rub together. The only one of them who's had a career worth mentioning anyway is Sandee Currie, who played Mitchy in Terror Train. Here she's a character called Tara, who... does something, I guess.

Curtains isn't necessarily a bad film, but it's just so thoroughly unremarkable that every detail slides right out of your brain by the time the credits roll. It certainly joins the pile of exceptions to the Canadian slasher rule, though. I will always perk up when I see a movie in the schedule that hails from the Great White North, but if there are more cracks in the armor like this one, that enthusiasm may fade sooner than later.

Killer: [Patti (Lynne Griffin)]
Final Girl: Patti (Lynne Griffin)
Best Kill: C'mon.
Sign of the Times: A man suggests Pac-Man themed role-play.
Scariest Moment: The mask is pretty creepy.
Weirdest Moment: There are definitely parts where this movie wants us to think a sentient doll is the killer, at least for a couple seconds at a time.
Champion Dialogue: "All's fair in love and auditions."
Body Count: 8
  1. Mandy is stabbed to death.
  2. Christie has her throat slit with a scythe.
  3. Laurian is stabbed.
  4. Brooke is shot.
  5. Stryker falls out of a window.
  6. Matthew is stabbed in the back offscreen.
  7. Tara is killed offscreen.
  8. Samantha is stabbed in the gut.
TL;DR: Curtains is a messy, largely incoherent slasher that leans on one iconic kill to prop up its reputation.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1030

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reviewing Jane: Indeed, I Am Very Sorry To Be Right In This Instance

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 1996
Director: Diarmuid Lawrence
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Bernard Hepton, Mark Strong 
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

I really do think Emma is Jane Austen's best heroine. She has the least to lose, so she is the most comfortable in her own skin and makes her decisions based on completely different criteria than your Harriet Smiths or your Catherine Morlands. This allows her to tread further, make more dire mistakes, and achieve more growth as a result. Clueless gets this. But of the two non-modernized adaptations of Emma to arrive just the following year, I certainly wasn't expecting the TV movie to be the one to get it right.

And I was correct. It didn't.

I really don't even see why I bother synopsizing the plots of these, so let's make it quick. After making the mysterious decision to open on a chicken thief raiding the grounds of Hartfield (setting up a bookend sequence at the very end, very poorly), we meet Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale, the only reason this adaptation has made the slightest impression on the culture at large), a rich young woman who has grown rather bored with her small town life and seeks to manipulate the other young people around her into falling in love, especially her docile simpleton of a friend Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton). She does this despite the admonishments of her brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong, the only other famous Brit to escape this project), who of course she eventually falls in love with.

Also Mark Strong (right) is an attractive man, so kudos to the stylist who managed to make him look so thoroughly unappealing.

I could end this review in a single sentence, because that's how little thought apparently went into the proceedings here. Though I shall soldier on as much as I can, because I owe myself a little venting after suffering through the thing. This Emma is yet another dull as dishwater Austen adaptation for British television, boasting all the creative vivacity and spark of a hot sausage. Literally just listening to the audiobook is a more engaging experience, the visuals are that deeply generic.

Emma suffers from the common mistaken assumption that Jane Austen's works are Serious Literature and thus must have all the air sucked out of them at once. While the humor of the novel isn't quite as present as her other works (or, at least, it's a little more repetitive and tiresome), it's still meant to be a satirical comedy about dating. Instead, as the British are won't to do, they have given us yet another stonefaced slog filled with wall-to-wall Goofuses posing as leading men.

Or maybe it's just that nobody can pull off Regency fashions. Come to think of it, they were probably created to discourage sex as much as possible, which would explain a lot.

Thankfully, the film does have a single creative bone in its body. Though it's certainly not enough, it at least provides relief from the crushing doldrums in brief little flashes. First and foremost are the fantasy sequences in which Emma imagines the happy results from her matchmaking. These are very reminiscent of the daydreams in the 1987 Northanger Abbey, and they break up the narrative quite nicely with a little burst of color and visual verve.

And I always say that the best measure of a Jane Austen adaptation's worth is if it can do something with its obligatory dance sequence that's more than just flatly showing people dance (think the other ballgoers vanishing in Pride & Prejudice to highlight Lizzie and Darcy's intimacy). True to form, Emma misses the mark, but it does at the very least make an attempt. There is an exchange of eyes in between choreographed moves that really allows the viewer to take stock of where each character is emotionally in relation to one another. It's a simple but effective tool, and I commend it for at least doing something, even if it wasn't enough for me to give the film a wholehearted recommendation.

I've suffered through a lot of stodgy, boring Jane Austen material in my time, and Emma is at least not the worst of them. That's about all I can say in its favor though. But until next time, all we can say is thank goodness Amy Heckerling was there in 1995 to save this novel from complete cinematic ignominy. Maybe one day we'll get a straight adaptation that's worth its salt, but today is not that day. Nor was 1996, for that matter.

TL;DR: Emma is plain as porridge, an incredibly listless adaptation of a work I admire rather a lot.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 794
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Census Bloodbath: The Killer Wore Short Shorts

Year: 1985
Director: Jeff Hathcock
Cast: Ava Kauffman, Robert Axelrod, Lonny Withers 
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

If I spot a release by Slasher // Video on the Blu-Ray shelf at Amoeba, I have to buy it sight unseen. Their releases aren't guaranteed gems (in fact, most of their films are terrible; see Killer Workout), but the preservation work they've done has helped this project tremendously. Unfortunately, despite the name, some of their films can be pretty borderline with their slasher-ness. Victims!, which is about a vanful of girls on a desert vacation, seemed like pure formula fodder, but oh if I could but count the ways that I was deeply wrong in my assumptions about the movie.

You'd also be forgiven for assuming this was a musical.

Victims! starts off well enough. And by well enough, I mean "a totally disconnecting string of thirty-second slasher kills perpetrated by a Norman Bates lookalike who is apprehended before the opening credits and never seen or heard from again." Then we cut to two men robbing a grocery store and beginning a trail of murderous terror as they make their way out to the desert. And wouldn't you know it, but four sexy girls are also making their way out to the very same desert for a little camping trip.

Now, here's where I normally list the characters' names and their single character traits, but I had a uniquely difficult time with Victims! As you might imagine, the characters are entirely indistinguishable from one another, but the audio was so muffled it was difficult to decipher anybody's name. I was not aided by the fact that the IMDb credits don't list any character names. So I shall be referring to the characters in the way the script presumably did - by the color of their bathing suit: Purple, Red, Green, and Orange.

I did hear the names Lisa and Debbie thrown about. And maybe Jem? Also one of them has a boyfriend who doesn't think she can handle herself in the wilderness, and Green has a mom who doesn't approve of her outfit. So the only things I know about them are how other people feel about them. You know, good writing!

And here's where things start to break bad. Once we have all our pieces assembled on the chessboard, it becomes very clear that this movie does not have slashing on its mind. It very quickly reveals itself to be a rape-revenge movie of the scuzziest kind.

Emphasis on the former with only a teensy bit of the latter.

Rape-revenge films, if created responsibly, can pack a real punch. Films like Revenge or The Last House on the Left have a lot to say about the way regular human beings can be forced into violence and its effect on their psyches. Victims! is not, shall we say, responsible. It is a deeply reprehensible plunge into the dark corners of the patriarchy, chock full of lines about how "they were asking for it the way they were dressed" and whatnot. It might as well be called Rape Culture: The Movie!

I think opening up a dialogue about the many justifications society, especially in the 80's, provided for rapists can be a useful thing to do. But the only reason this movie is actually about any of these topics is because it's indulging in those sentiments too far to be self aware of any sort of subtext it may have conjured up. Victims! is not meant to be useful. It is meant to be provocative and titillating and it's merely disgusting.

The film has already made its bed long before the true horror starts, with a string of scenes objectifying every female character, including ones we've never met and don't even receive names. The film will cut from a nude woman being stabbed to a girl taking a shower to a crotch shot of some aerobics. Victims! has one reason to exist, and it is not a reason that should endear itself to any socially aware human being on the planet.

Pictured: the appropriate response to somebody putting this movie on - evacuating the premises.

The film offers nothing to redeem itself beyond its central premise. The production value is low, even by the standards of shot-on-video offerings, boasting muddy visuals generously ladled with muddier sound. At least it's not packed with dialogue, so there's not a lot you need to attempt to parse out. 

I wish anything in the movie matched the manic, almost cheery energy of the opening credits, which are full of smashing zooms to crazed calliope music. Or even the opening kill of the movie proper, of a picnicking couple who seem to think that sprinting through the forest is the best foreplay. If it had continued in that vein, Victims! could have been a dumb, silly, but forgettable slasher film. Instead it's something totally different and rotten to the core. Never has the male gaze been so weaponized in an 80's horror movie and that is saying a freaking lot.

Killer: Eric and The Other One (Robert Axelrod, Lonny Withers)
Final Girl: Purple, Green, and Orange
Best Kill: He doesn't die, but the killer who isn't Eric gets his dick cut off with a knife, which will always give a film a point in my book.
Sign of the Times: The girls make a Steve Martin reference, talking about their "wild and crazy" road trip.
Scariest Moment: The girls pull into a gas station full of men who all stare at them lecherously.
Weirdest Moment:
Champion Dialogue: "Mother, I'm going to see other girls, we ALL have boobs!"
Body Count: 7; not including Red, who I super duper thought survived but is not featured in the closing interrogation scene so maybe she died in a rock slide and I didn't notice?
  1. Stripey Polo Girl gets axed in the head.
  2. Naked Woman is slashed with a cleaver.
  3. Campus Woman is stabbed in the back.
  4. Grocery Man is shot.
  5. Sunburned Mustache Dude is hit in the face with a shotgun.
  6. Eric is kicked off a cliff.
  7. Random Woman is shot in a flashback.
TL;DR: Victims! is a despicable film that could have been a terrifying indictment of the patriarchy but doesn't seem to notice its own potential.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1049

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Oklahoma, Where The Blood Comes Rushing Down The Knife

Year: 1987
Director: Tim Boggs
Cast: Doug Barry, Angela Darter, Mike Kaufman 
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

When AGFA (the American Genre Film Archive) teams with Bleeding Skull! (the internet's foremost curators of shot-on-video trash, and the only reason I have been able to see Cards of Death in my lifetime), that's the cue for any self-respecting slasher fan to perk up their ears. They have done so to bring the world Blood Lake, which is billed as the only slasher film that has a stamp of approval from both David Lee Roth and Andy Warhol. Mind you, I can't find any evidence for this claim, but even if it's true just reflect for a minute exactly what kind of toxic masculinity these men might be keen to reward, and then multiply that by ten. There you have Blood Lake.

That is, if you can even see it.

Stop me if you've heard this before: In Blood Lake a group of teenagers heads up to a cabin by Oklahoma's Cedar Lake for a bit of good clean American fun. Becky's (Angela Darter) parents own the place; Mike (Doug Barry, also the film's writer, insofar as it has one credited even though it was clearly improvised), her boyfriend; straight couple Bryan (Mike Kaufman) and Kim (Andrea Adams); and gay couple Chuck (Darren Waters) and Dennis (Michael Darter), who the movie would have us believe are straight best friends who just happen to be sharing the cabin next door. So far so peachy. 

But here's the thing. They've dragged along Mike's younger brother Lil Tony (Travis Krasser) and unaffiliated child Susan (Christie Willoughby). And as evidenced by every line of dialogue he ever delivers, Lil Tony reeeeeally wants to make passionate love to Susan even though they're both like ten years old. Everybody seems perfectly fine with this, and with the fact that they're lugging around two literal children on their water skiing weekend. It's a frighteningly aggressive choice that is both inscrutable and disgusting, but at least it's... interesting? Question mark?

Anyway, a killer (Tiny Frazier) shows up eventually to knock off a couple people who wander away from the party, but tragically Lil Tony doesn't end up on the chopping block.

Even though his entire role is basically anti-masculinity propaganda.

Wow, Blood Lake... Where to begin... How about the fact that there's almost nothing worth watching in this entire span of 82 minutes? This is one of those slashers that has almost no money for special effects so they don't really attempt any, making the already sparse killings feel incredibly anti-climactic. And the scenes we get to spend with the characters (which are numerous) don't allow us to penetrate even an inch into their skulls and we end up knowing not a single thing about any of them, with one bizarre exception.

The only reason to even perk up during these endless, vacuous scenes of water skiing to full Voyager trackss, muffled babbling at picnics, and what feels like fifteen full minutes of playing Quarters around a card table, is Mike - specifically Doug Barry's performance of same. Mike is an enigma wrapped in a mystery shrouded in an Oklahoma accent. While he can be a deadpan bore about 80 percent of the time, including the scene where he discovers a body (his flat, entirely unaffected delivery of "It's Dennis..." when he sees his friend's corpse strung up in the trees needs to be heard to be believed), he has a hair trigger for the smallest, most specific stimuli. Something like a noise in the attic or a locked door will send him careening into madness, and for minutes on end he will run shrieking through the dark, usually shirtless, like Arnold Schwarzenegger from Commando has suddenly possessed his body. Every choice involved in the construction of Mike is a baffling one, and he's the only character worth watching because he's such a puzzlement.

Unfortunately, Blood Lake thinks its ensemble is so inherently interesting you'll want to revel in their scintillating lack of chemistry for hours on end. We're only here for Mike, movie! Bring on the Mike!

The only other interesting thing about Blood Lake is the killer, and that's only because of what the final ten minutes of the movie decide to do with him. Before that he's as anonymous, unmasked, and unthreatening as the no-name stalker wandering through Final Exam, but once his motive gets explained... Well, it's a doozy. Spoiler warning: Apparently Becky's parents "bought the house from him and never paid him for it." Excuse me, what? That's a whole lot of bad-good dialogue to chew on, and that flavor is amplified greatly by the bizarre coda of the killer staring out at the now dry lake, seemingly contemplating his life and his choices. Maybe this is the only scene Andy Warhol saw before giving his recommendation.

Of course, even this scene is bogged down by extra padding as the camera Ken Burnses itself into a coma with infinite, poorly framed shots of the muddy trash the lake has left behind. Look, we never pretended this was a well made movie. Beyond a mirror shot that's kinda neat, there's absolutely nothing that is pleasurable to the eyes in Blood Lake. It's a movie directed by a man who would go on to be quite successful in the field of sound editing, and it shows. Mind you, the sound isn't particularly great on this movie either, but you can blame the equipment and the budget entirely for that one. 

OK, time to stop ragging on this movie. In the low budget reviewing game, it's easy to get carried away. But there's a difference between a movie where you can go "they missed the mark but really went for something and I respect that," and one that has no clear ambitions other than to fill your time with whatever empty fluff they can stuff into the screen. Blood Lake is firmly in the latter camp.

So while I respect AGFA & Co.'s contributions to the preservation of slasher film history and by extension this very project, I would not recommend any single human being watch this movie. Ever again. Please. For the love of God.

Killer: Jed (Tiny Frazier)
Final Girl: Susan (Christie Willoughby) ish. And Becky (Angela Darter) survives but it's definitely not her.
Best Kill: When Brian's throat is slit, he hilariously sprays blood all over his girlfriend's face.
Sign of the Times: The sheer casualness with which gay slurs are flung between male friends.
Scariest Moment: Any time Lil Tony opens his mouth.
Weirdest Moment: The film ends on the following credit: "Dry Lake Special Visual Effects by An Act of God."


Champion Dialogue: "I've got my beer, my sex partner, I'm fine."
Body Count: 5; not including two stab wounds in the finale that don't turn out to be fatal blows.
  1. Worker is stabbed in the chest.
  2. Chuck is drowned.
  3. Dennis is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Bryan has his throat slit.
  5. Kim is stabbed.
TL;DR: Blood Lake is an abysmal shred of low budget slashery that has a few elements to make it interesting but which conspicuously fail to redeem it.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1202

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Popcorn Kernels: Vote For Pedro

It's my only friend, the end! After these three mini-reviews of his more obscure 90's work, we will finally be finished with our long-running retrospective on the filmography of Pedro Almodóvar! (Full disclosure, two of these reviews were written about a year and a half ago. It took... a while to finally motivate myself to watch Kika, perhaps the only movie of his that literally nobody has a good word to say about.)

High Heels

Year: 1991
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Miguel Bosé
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A news anchor's estranged actress mother returns after 10 years, and they both become embroiled in a murder investigation when her husband - her mother's ex - winds up dead.

There's melodrama and then there's Almodóvar melodrama. And then there's High Heels. An operatically tragic affair, every other scene features or or both of the lead actresses' eyes brimming with tears (the first being Marisa Paredes, anchor of The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother, returning to his ensemble for the first time after Dark Habits; the second being Victoria Abril, his rebound muse after Carmen Maura's departure, who was fresh off his previous effort Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). The labyrinthine plot twists and turns at every opportunity, full of unexpected reveals and simpering heartache.

OK not every reveal is unexpected, one of them being rendered entirely predictable by the presence of a hilariously fake beard, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to notice that.

But I digress (as you're probably aware if you've read more than one of my reviews). Coming on the (pun absolutely intended) heels of a decade of work dominated primarily by comedies, High Heels was the beginning of Almodóvar's transformation from Madrid punk wild child to respected international filmmaker. it's not an entirely smooth transition. This is the first of two films co-produced with a French studio whose process wouldn't end up gelling with him, and it's marked by a handful of flaws.

To be fair, these flaws do stem entirely from Almodóvar himself: the first a tendency to linger far too long on non-plot progressing musical numbers. This would work well in his future works (and in fact did so in Law of Desire four years earlier), but the plot is so bare bones that it can't withstand the diversion. There is still an inordinate amount of style in the way High Heels is shot (especially its red-heavy color palette), but it is not so inundated with pure cinema craft that it can take a break to rejoice in the pure act of creation in the way that the much more confident Volver can.

The second, less invasive, flaw is the cast, which sees Almodóvar still reeling from the loss of Carmen Maura. And now her male counterpart Antonio Banderas has also left the scene (he dropped out of High Heels for his role in 1992's The Mambo Kings). The director just doesn't seem to know what to make of his leads (minus the reliably excellent Marisa Paredes), and though Miguel Bosé and especially Victoria Abril give very fine performances, they lack that ineffable spark that defines most of Almodóvar's leads, even one-time players like Bad Education's Gael García Bernal.

But that said, High Heels is still capable of great heights. The comic bit with a sign language interpreter is excellent, and a joyous moment of dance in a women's prison numbers among the director's most delightful - if inexplicable - scenes. High Heels is a beautiful melodrama with a gripping plot and a unique sensibility, even if it's occasionally a bit lethargic. How anyone could complain about that I do not know, though I understand why this is one of the less revered works in the director's filmography.

Rating: 6/10

Kika


Year: 1993
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Peter Coyote, Verónica Forqué, Victoria Abril
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

An upbeat cosmetologist must weather affairs, a voyeur, a serial killer, a rapist, and an evil television announcer in a very fateful week.

Kika was in very many ways a transitional film for Almodóvar. It was the first time he would ever work with an American actor - Peter Coyote - and it was also the last. The ties to his regular ensemble of actors are extremely loose - of the notable people who worked with him multiple times, it's pretty much only Rossy De Palma, who does get her first truly meaty role with him here - and this was the last time he would make a film featuring temp muse Victoria Abril.

Abril, who had a small uncredited role in Law of Desire before leading Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels and taking a sizable supporting role in Kika, never managed to produce truly extraordinary work with the man, who was in his most artistically uncertain period following the departure of Carmen Maura from his stable of reliable performers. She's a totally capable and extremely game actress, I don't mean to blame her. But she wasn't what he needed at the time, and it's telling that his very next film The Flower of My Secret would lean heavily on the miraculous Marisa Paredes and the subsequent Live Flesh would spark his relationship with Penélope Cruz and finally add another huge star to his firmament.

While I absolutely wouldn't say Kika was his worst film (for my money, some of his rougher early works just don't quite find their way), it's certainly the nadir of the pretty much uninterrupted string of cinematic triumphs that began with 1987's Law of Desire. Its narrative messiness is a little closer to the shapeless blob of Matador than his more artistically esoteric later works, positioning Peter Coyote as co-lead provides a huge emotional black hole (he just doesn't seem to care about anything going on here), and the film is tinged with a palpable bitterness that translated to a direly low box office pull everywhere but France (take from that what you will).

In spite of that, however, Kika does have its moments of brilliance. Kika's apartment, the location where about 60% of the film takes place, is a perfectly Almodóvarian haven of bright colors that is perfectly complemented by sassy, eye-searing Jean Paul Gaultier costumes. Victoria Abril's character (a TV shock jock who calls herself "Scarface") is f**king bizarre, but her costumes are a stroke of twisted genius - she is frequently dressed in a full body catsuit with a camera affixed to a helmet, and two cutouts for her breasts which also act as lamps. It's deeply insane, in the best Almodóvar fashion.

Speaking of... His kinkiness and demented comedy reach their most controversial peak in Kika during a scene that is hard to parse out in 2019. I'll be frank about it: It positions a rape sequence as a busy farce. I think it's pretty clear he's making a statement about how women are treated in European society at the time (a later line about "Women are being raped every day, today it happened to be me" cements this idea for me), but a viewer's mileage with this will absolutely vary. To be clear, the rape absolutely isn't a joke, it's the women's calm, almost bored and quotidian reactions to it. That said, it's an extremely tightly wound comic scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film, perhaps unfortunately.

Anyway... Remember what I said about Kika being kind of a bitter, nasty film? It's definitely an outlier in the Almodóvar canon, because even though it aesthetically fits in with the rest of his works, there's a fatigue here that isn't present even in his most recent works, created as a sexagenarian. I wouldn't recommend it to any first-timer approaching his work. In fact, I'm glad I saved it for last. I think the more context you have for his career, the more you'll appreciate it. Otherwise, focusing on the ones you've heard of instead is probably the best course of action.

Rating: 6/10

Live Flesh


Year: 1997
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Javier Bardem
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An ex-con attempts to insert himself into the relationship of two of his victims.

Live Flesh is maybe the most straightforward melodrama Pedro Almodóvar has ever made. I guess that's not saying much, considering that it features three time jumps spanning 26 years, a complicated web of revenge sex, and literally every character points a gun at at least one other character. But it's at least linear, with one event directly informing the next, and that's a luxury you shouldn't thumb your nose at.

Because it's so linear, it's also a teensy bit predictable, but that's the only patch on what's otherwise a completely stunning, typically twisted tale of lust, blood, and betrayal. Live Flesh's tantalizing storyline is brought to lurid life by Almodóvar's inimitable style, which had finally kicked into high gear after a brief mid-90's decline (he had to build up speed before making All About My Mother, I suppose). Come to think of it, in a lot of ways Live Flesh feels like the director is pressing the reset button.

While he is exercising his visual prowess with renewed vigor (he captures the streets of Madrid with a  delightful symmetry, finding unique shapes through which to tell his story - whether they be the harsh rectangle of a city bus, the inviting circle of a blessing wreath of flowers, or the repeating star motif), he has also chosen a cast of conspicuously unfamiliar faces. Every Almodóvar film pulls from his established ensemble of actors for at least two or three roles (usually more), but the only member of Live Flesh's cast he had ever worked with before was Javier Bardem, who held a small role in High Heels so negligible you wouldn't have noticed him if he wasn't now incredibly famous.

Of course, that doesn't mean he wouldn't work with these people again (hell, this is the film where he found Penélope Cruz, his second greatest muse), but for all intents and purposes this cast gave him an entirely new sandbox to work in, as his career progressed forward into its more Oscar-worthy stretch. None of them reach the peak of what an Almodóvar ensemble can accomplish, but they're all nevertheless game for the task.

Really, the most striking thing about Live Flesh is how overtly political it is. Although I certainly don't have a thorough enough grounding in Spanish politics to have all the context I need, the film is very clearly an indictment of the regime of the dictatorial King Franco, as well as a depiction of the insidious way it poisoned the lives of those who lived under it. It's also an exuberant celebration for the freedom of modern Spain, so passionate that anyone who doesn't have a scrap of geopolitical understanding could still feel its warmth.

A captivating story with political fervor is exactly what I want from a film, so I greatly enjoyed Live Flesh. It suffers a little from its more anonymous cast, but I wouldn't even have noticed if I wasn't as terrifyingly deep into the man's filmography as I surely am. It's a gorgeous, terrific film that is also one of his more easily accessible works, so I recommend it to veterans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1908

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing Jane: I Am Half Agony, Half Hope

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2004
Director: Beeban Kidron
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may remember, the original Bridget Jones's Diary was ostensibly based on Pride and Prejudice, a connection I found dubious considering that naming a character Darcy doesn't mean you've read Jane Austen. But three years later came Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which was even more ostensibly based on Austen's final novel Persuasion. Time to repeat the refrain. Having a couple get back together after a period of time doesn't. mean. you've. read. Jane! Freaking! Austen!

But people aren't exactly out here adapting Persuasion left and right, so we take what we get with this one.

So the film opens on Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) happily in love with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), but because she is an insecure mess who's incapable of holding a cogent thought in her head for more than two seconds without going ballistic or falling into a mud puddle, of course this goes terribly wrong. It would appear that Mark is having an affair with his secretary Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett), and her anger is fueled by the fact that she expected a proposal that never happened (six weeks into this relationship, mind you) so she dumps him and throws herself into work, a travel show that brings her into close context with her misogynistic ex-boss/ex-lover Daniel (Hugh Grant).

A love triangle almost ensues.

Roll credits!

Is it clear I didn't like this movie? If not, allow me to highlight my point further. A lot of the problems inherent to the original Bridget Jones are alive and well here, to the point that the rigorously anti-funny opening scene is repeated beat by exhausting beat. Come to think of it, the clumsy third act climactic fight between Grant and Firth is also repeated in full.

And do we get another scoop of terrible gay jokes dumped on top of the script? You betcha! And this time we're taking down history's iconic artist Michelangelo by calling him a "poof," because it's fun when you slur titanic cultural figures and reduce them to their sexuality, something which would have been highly dangerous to openly exhibit at the time yaaaaaaay! Oh, and how could we not be racist to huge swaths of the Asian population and use an entire foreign country and its people as a prop to further along a white woman's romantic journey?

Oh and you know we're not going to be able to escape the gags about the beautiful Zellweger being a fat pig who deserves to be mocked by everyone in her life and the public at large! For a movie squarely intended to land in the "chick flick" category, Bridget Jones sure just hates women. It's exhausting!

Good thing Colin Firth has almost exclusively played gay from this point on, because this just isn't working for him.

The sad thing is, this is actually a major improvement over the first film all things considered. Director Beeban Kidron (who also made the terrific To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar) actually knows how to shoot a movie, and the rich fantasy life that Bridget leads actually is incorporated into the visual schema in ways the original movie only sporadically attempted to. Her thoughts take the form of text and images inlaid onto the screen or transposed onto signs and buildings in real life, and it creates a lush bedrock of imagery upon which this crap sandwich is plated.

Also a plus, Hugh Grant is barely in this movie. I have nothing against the man himself, but his character is such a toxic despicable presence that his reduced screentime also slashes the proportion of this movie's most severely hateful and outdated humor.

This absolutely isn't a movie I'd recommend. To anyone. But if somehow you have a stomach of steel and enjoyed the original film, this one will give you more of the same, but with a little more focus and intentionality, and I guess that might be a good thing.

TL;DR: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a massive improvement on the original, but that one was terrible so that makes this one only OK.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 722
Reviews In This Series
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tears For Fears: Don't Cry Because It's Over

Year: 2019
Director: Michael Chaves
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So it's all come to this. My marathon of Llorona movies started at the literal inception of Mexican horror in 1933 and wound its way through the decades, past luchadors and cabin-in-the-woods slashers and bad modernizations and even animation to find its way to this very moment. I never expected the 2019 Conjuring-verse production of The Curse of La Llorona to be very good, I was just using it as an excuse to explore a cobwebby corner of horror I was interested in and knew almost nothing about. 

It's a good thing too, because otherwise ending here would be a huge letdown.

So here we are. It's 1973, and child protective services worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) encounters a case where a woman named Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) has locked her children in a closet. When she removes the children from her care, they are found drowned in the river the very next night. It turns out she locked them in said closet to protect them from La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez), an ancient Mexican folk legend who turns out to be very very real, and she's dressed like Cady Heron's ex-wife costume from Mean Girls.

Anna's own kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) begin to be tormented by the spirit, and she must seek the help of Rafael (Raymond Cruz) a lapsed priest turned curandero, to save them before it's too late.

Though Lord knows why she wants to keep these bland ass children around, especially when they don't know better than to NOT follow La Llorona's trail of creepy evil breadcrumbs right the hell up to the swimming pool.

Let's make one thing clear. For as many virtues as this movie has (and frankly, there's not many), it utterly, completely fails to make any sense of the extremely simple Llorona legend. By forcing her into the framework and formulaic scares of a Conjuring style movie, they obliterate any personality she has as they ruthlessly continue to pile rule after rule upon her that they're clearly making up as they go along. 

For one thing, she's not an entity that actively seeks out victims and marks them with her very very hot burny hands (my absolute favorite of these idiotic developments). She's not weak against the trees that were next to her when she drowned her children (just like I'm not allergic to the tiles in the bathroom, the place where I have committed my greatest sins). She's not a demon who needs to be exorcised by someone who cherry-picks cool looking elements of Mexican brujeria but is still just totally a Catholic exorcist in function if not in name. She's a ghost who lives down by the river and drowns your kids. It's not hard! It might not be super narratively satisfying, but let's just do that story once, for the love of God!

I may have finally snapped, it turns out.

The Curse of La Llorona doesn't leave quite as bad a taste in the mouth as the previous franchise entry The Nun, but where that movie was powerfully stupid, this one is more just generic and bland. I know I'm not the most excellent barometer for this kind of thing considering how many of these I watch, but I was scared by this movie not one single time. James Wan may have perfected the formula for the perfect jump scare in the Conjuring movies, but his army of acolytes that make these spinoff ones are patchy at best. While Wan can pump his formula full of atmosphere and dread, here you can practically hear the director counting the beats offscreen. "One, two, three, and... spooky lady!"

The lack of real scares makes it even harder to buy the already weak premise of this movie. Ghost movies tend to have problems with the "rules" of how everything works, but this one is almost deliriously inconsistent with how corporeal La Llorona is. She seems to be deterred by a locked door in one scene, when mere moments before she floated right through a solid wall. If I was being scared and caught up in the moment, maybe I wouldn't notice. But I did, and now I'm pulling at these threads and my whole sweater is destroyed.

At the very least, this film is saved by a largely excellent cast. Raymond Cruz is chewing up the scenery like a woodchipper on full blast, and while he'll hardly be as iconically weird as someone like Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, he's got a very strange energy going on that is quite compelling. And bless her heart, Linda Cardellini is throwing her all into this film. Her throaty roar of fear as she works desperately to protect her children is bone-chilling, and you buy every second of it. It sucks that the stuff she's screaming at is such fatuous bullshit, but that's certainly no fault of hers.

But there's a lot of people whose fault it is, and I'm questioning why they decided to make a movie about La Llorona in the first place, considering they clearly don't know who she is.

TL;DR: The Curse of La Llorona is further proof that even the Conjuring spinoff movies know almost nothing but diminishing returns.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 894
Reviews In This Series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016) 
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Penultimate Peril

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2019
Director: Damir Catic
Cast: Nichole Ceballos, James Ezrin, Ron Gelner 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

Once upon a time in 2013, there was a film called Her Cry: La Llorona Investigation. It was a microbudget found footage film created by a senior assistant manager at an Edwards multiplex in Texas that saw a local release and quietly vanished into the dark night of indie film apocrypha. It was one of the films on my longlist when I initially researched this project, but I had to scratch it off because it just wasn't available for public consumption.

Cue the impending release of The Curse of La Llorona. One week before, WildEye Releasing snuck onto Amazon clutching the distribution rights to Her Cry and peddling a DVD now titled The La Llorona Curse. What a wild coincidence, one might say! Even though you and I both know that they just grabbed whatever related property they could get their hands on, I will be referring to the film by its new title and release date, because for all intents and purposes it hasn't existed in the greater film market until now.

It turns out all you need is a Ouija board to summon a slimy distributor.

So, The La Llorona Curse (which crudely shoehorns its title card in at the beginning, even though they forgot to excise the Her Cry title card drop a couple minutes later on) is about a paranormal investigation team in South Texas who run a TV show with inscrutable degrees of success. They're successful enough that certain interviewees have seen it and they have enough fans to demand followups to popular episodes, but when an intern shows up on site for her paranormal training she is shocked that there are cameras filming her.

It's best not to think too hard about that. Anyway, the intern in question is Andrea (Gabrielle Santamauro), and she's joined teammates James (James Ezrin) and Brian (Everardo Guzman) in an ancient house of spirits that was once owned by renowned explorer Hernán Cortes (as played by a generic suburban tract home). This is the site where sorority girl Tina (Nichole Ceballos) was haunted by La Llorona several years ago - in fact she has been locked in that room right over there since then! And nobody fed her, I guess, so I don't know why when they see her they expect that she won't be inhabited by the spirit of La Llorona. Oh well. 

Será será.

I won't dive into the plot any further than that, because there really isn't one. In the cold open, which involves an interview with one of the last people to see any of these kids alive, the interviewer explains that he pieced together what he could from the footage they left behind, excising everything but the important events and "some that are not so important." Well let me tell you what, the whole movie seems composed of the latter, unless the police considered "amateur actors ad-libbing for full minutes on end" to be incredibly important to the investigation.

I don't want to harp on the amateur cast and filmmakers for screwing around with a camera and having fun. I've participated in my fair share of projects that were never supposed to see the light of day. But I can blame WildEye Releasing for scooping it up and trying to trick people into watching it, because it's not exactly a fountain of fascinating entertainment. Just because I knew exactly what I was getting myself into doesn't mean that a whole bunch of unsuspecting knuckleheads on Amazon need to see this film.

I do want to highlight a couple moments from actress Gabrielle Santamauro, however. She injects the film with a delightful and much-needed shot of adrenaline during an ad-libbed monologue where she desperately tries to convince the others to leave the house. She throws her whole body into the performance, hands flapping like she's batting away an entire Amityville film's worth of flies as her mouth runs a mile a minute. It's not a Meryl Streep moment, but she's incredibly engrossing to watch. And there is one facet of her role that gives the film its only moment of subtlety. When a priest visits to do the obligatory "this is beyond the realm of God" bit, there is a moment when she clearly wants to say a curse word, but nervously looks at the Father and switches streams mid-sentence. It's the only moment where anybody seems to be actually inhabiting a character, and while it's not a wow zowie going-on-the-reel bit, it's something I really respected her for doing.

You go, girl!

Unfortunately for me, beyond those moments this movie doesn't have particularly anything to offer, even to the larger canon of La Llorona. They don't seem to have any interest in using the legend as anything other than a generic Paranormal Activity possession riff. There's almost nothing to do with children, rivers, drowning, or even the literal namesake of the original film, crying. She's just a generic spooky shadow seen in the corner of rooms who does nothing interesting.

This new movie doesn't look like it will be particularly good, but at least it seems remotely aware of the iconography of the character, and for that I will thank it. I need to be lifted out of the cookie-cutter, milquetoast morass that these movies became in the mid-2000's, with very few exceptions.

TL;DR: The La Llorona Curse is everything a shitty early 2010's found footage movie promises to be.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 956