Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Into The Woods

Year: 1981
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cast: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I hope you won't mind if I air out some personal grievances. Well I suppose it doesn't matter because, guess what, it's happening. I've been feeling a little generic lately, because every time I watch a slasher movie and come up with a numerical rating, it's inevitably within one star of the average rating out of 10 on IMDb. As a budding slasher connoisseur, it has been worrying to me that I've been hewing so close to the middle ground.

As a blogger, shouldn't I be holding some controversial opinions? Carving a pathway for people to follow instead of regurgitating how other people already feel? Well, the time has come. You see, the 1981 Jeff Lieberman effort Just Before Dawn has a reputation among those in the know as being an exemplary Golden Age slasher, but you know what? I kind of hated it.

Suck on THAT, imaginary consensus!

OK, maybe hate is a strong word. Just Before Dawn is a remarkably well-shot film with some cool moments, but that doesn't prevent it from being a plodding gauntlet of boredom.

The plot is about as generic as it gets. After two hillbilly hunters (one of whom is played by Mike Kellin of Sleepaway Camp) are attacked by a mysterious mountain man, one is left dead with a machete through the ass and the other is sent fleeing into the woods. He comes across an RV full of twenty-somethings who have come up for a killer camping trip and attempts to warn them away, but they refuse to listen. So far so Friday the 13th.

The Spam in a Van consist of Warren (Gregg Henry, who went on to have bit parts in James Gunn films, including Guardians of the Galaxy of all things), a balding, blonde nature enthusiast who is so clearly not in his early 20's that it looks like he might die of old age before the killer ever arrives; Connie (Deborah Benson), his terribly boring girlfriend who's not The Slutty One so she's obliged to be our Final Girl; Daniel (Ralph Seymour of Killer Party), a nerdy photographer who's surprisingly cute without his terrible 80's glasses; Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), his preppy douche brother who owns the land they'll be staying on and thus sees fit to litter on it; and Megan (Jamie Rose), the requisite 80's Ambassador with ginger hair crimped into oblivion and an obsession with her caramel cream make-up.

While the kiddos are having a blast camping, forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy, who would later appear in the slasher parody Wacko) is alerted to the danger and spends the rest of the film chasing after the kids, Ahab-like on his literal white steed.

Although if he'd left well enough alone, we might have rid the world of awful 80's fashions that much sooner.

Here's the thing about Just Before Dawn. It has the perfect slasher setup. Sure, it's been done before, but the sideshow slashers tend to be at their best when they're shamelessly derivative. But absolutely nothing happens for the first 40 minutes or so as the actors half-heartedly improvise Fun conversations and wander through the admittedly breathtaking forest locale. And when the slicin' and dicin' begins in earnest, most of it's offscreen and anticlimactic. Also the movie is far more impressed with its mid-film twist than I am: [the killer turns out to be two twin killers, who are revealed in the least emphatic way in the least interesting kill scene, used to no valuable ends, and foreshadowed with all the subtlety and nuance of a game of Centipede.]

There is an absolute dearth of good gore in this film, which isn't by itself an inadmissible sin. A goreless slasher can be amended by strong characters or tense sequences, but Just Before Dawn has neither. The characters are hopelessly generic, though performed with a mite more vigor and talent than the average splatter ensemble. And don't even get me started on the "tension" sequences, which squander a series of interesting set-ups with a resolute refusal to go to close-up and radio silence on the part of the composer.

It's like watching a concert from the back row while wearing earmuffs. You understand that you're supposed to be excited about something, but it's hard to be sure exactly why.

Ah yes, see, the blob is in danger of falling into the larger blob. Quite.

Other moments are so drawn out that they feel like you're watching the film in slow motion. One chase sequence in particular is so unbelievably wrought that my 12-year-old nephew could have outrun the massive rampaging mountain man without breaking a sweat.

There are some good moments in the film, but none of them relate to the horrors at hand. At any rate, the killer, with his incessant wheezing laugh and wacky Fourth Stooge hairpiece, renders his every appearance a farce with his deliriously unfunny antics. His full figure is shown far too early and far too often for there to be any amount of terror surrounding his scenes.

Everybody run! Run from crossing guard Paul Bunyan!

Anyway, about those good things. As I said earlier, the scenery is beautiful, and that doesn't amount to nothing. The setting is never creepy, but it's rendered with a great deal of actually talented cinematography, which is never something to discount in an 80's slasher film. Also, there are two (and only two) truly great kill moments. One, the very first in the film, is described in detail in the Best Kill segment. The other is so very special that I'll have to put it in spoiler bars, because it is the only thing that makes the film worth watching to any meaningful degree.

[When the carbon copy killer grabs Connie and attempts to bear hug her to death, she straight up shoves her fist down his throat and chokes him to death with her own knuckles. It's hardcore as hell and it's utterly delightful.]

There's also some feeble slaps at a theme, with the idea that nobody can truly own nature and that the forest will fight back against any attempts to control it. Also there was enough in the budget to afford Blondie's "Heart of Glass," so it can't be all bad.

But as reasons for watching a film go, these are all still pretty weak. Just Before Dawn is better-made than a lot of the crap slashers I have to watch, so I'll give it that, but it's so unimaginative, that I had to use a thesaurus to come up with more words for how bored I was. It's lackluster. It's mundane. It's banal. It's jejune.

But watch it if you want, I won't stop you. 

Killer: [The Mountain Twins (John Hunsaker)]
Final Girl: Connie (Deborah Benson)
Best Kill: Vachel is stabbed in the groin with a machete and it comes out of his ass on the other side.
Sign of the Times: Although this girl lives in the forest with her crazy inbred family, she still has hair feathered out into the stratosphere.

Scariest Moment: When Megan is swimming topless in the lake, the killer's hand reaches out to touch her. She sees her boyfriend on the shore and realizes that it's not him touching her.
Weirdest Moment: While Connie and Warren have a conversation, Dan pees in a bush behind them, his splashing urine overtaking the entire soundscape of the scene.
Champion Dialogue: "I told you to skidoot!"
Body Count: 6
  1. Vachel is stabbed in the butt with a machete.
  2. Jonathan is knocked over a waterfall. 
  3. Dan is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Megan is killed offscreen.
  5. Killer is shot to death.
  6. [Killer's Twin chokes to death on Connie's fist.]
TL;DR: Just Before Dawn has one or two classic slasher moments, but otherwise it's the bare minimum of what a teen splatter flick could be.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1332

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Year: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Run Time: 2 hours 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

There are two schools of thought when it comes to viewing most arthouse films. There's the "this movie changed my life," and the "this movie ruined my life." I hate to go against film student credo, but I tend to fall into the latter category more often than not. Sure, I like myself some Jean-Luc Godard from time to time, but I will always grab American Pie from the stack instead of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's not even a contest.

Maybe it's because my film analysis skills haven't fully developed yet. I will concede that that's a possibility. Or maybe it's because some films are so unbelievably pretentious that their intense need to prove something to themselves chokes out their narrative landscape. Enter The Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick's 2011 film is a remarkable effort that heroically strains to push the envelope and fill itself with Important Meaning, in the process giving itself a hernia.

Actual footage of the universe not giving a crap.

Insofar as The Tree of Life is "about" a story rather than a series of theological ephemera, it is mostly about middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) remembering his boyhood in Waco, Texas (his younger self is played by Hunter McCracken). Living with his brothers under the stern rule of their unloving, taskmaster father (Brad Pitt) and guided by their ethereal, caring mother (Jessica Chastain), they... do some things. 

It's basically Boyhood with less narrative drive and more pit stops for quasi-evangelical soliloquies. As the family goes about their daily lives (and exactly how many films do we need about white dudes coming of age in Texas?), the film explores its overarching themes of choosing the path of grace over the path of human nature, the idea of how a loving God could allow bad things to happen to good people, and the motif that Terrence Malick is the goddamn best living director on the planet, no contest, look at him go.

When he's not preening in the mirror, he briefly looks back at the action to shout "More ambiguity!" then retires to his trailer with a bagel, leaving the camera on an extended shot of some rocks, or maybe a mysterious light blob.

OK, fine, maybe I'm being facetious, but still.

I will give this to The Tree of Life: It's one of the most visually ambitious motion pictures I've ever seen. The mostly handheld camera bobs and sways, inhabiting the space of its world with a kinetic urgency and, in one truly memorable moment, peering into a doorway while following the mother down the hallway. In this way, the camera adds meaning to the actions around it, exploring the world that the characters inhabit rather than necessarily being tethered to them.

Where the power of this style wanes is in the filmmakers' frequent use of jump cuts to the same angle, which assuredly hold some private meaning to Malick himself, but mostly look like they're feebly trying to disguise a lack of decent coverage. The frequent cuts to black also contribute to the film's jittery, overwhelmingly distracted aesthetic. It's very challenging cinematography, and a little to drunk on its own sense of artistic purpose to be truly watchable.

And for better or for worse, The Tree of Life explodes the very idea of narrative cinema. Exhaustively extended visual and spiritual symbolism abounds, to the point that the narrative hardly sticks to one's mind for lack of earning itself any decent screentime. In one dangerously long sequence obliquely depicting the creation of life, the film sloughs off its characters, slams Lady Gaga music video aesthetics into a 2001: A Space Odyssey framework, tosses in some Turok-reminiscent CGI dinosaurs, and culminates in what seems to be a bafflingly laborious Planet Earth episode.

Well, at the very least it's the easiest paycheck Brad Pitt has ever gotten.

In one scene, the children jump around in the cloud of gas as a truck sprays DDT up and down the suburban block. Considering that this film is heavily based on Malick's own childhood, this might actually explain a lot of the imagery.

This "pictures first, questions never" style holds a lot of meaning for some people, but I am unfortunately not one of them. It's frequently tedious and occasionally beautiful, but always inscrutable. Jessica Chastain holds her own as character that's more metaphorical construct than human woman, but Sean Penn is utterly wasted in a useless bookending role, and Brad Pitt is no more and no less than what he needs to be.

The Tree of Life might hold the answers of the universe for all I know, but as a piece of narrative cinema, it is bankrupt. If you're the type who like to crack open your skull and pour some trippy arthouse cinema right down your mind hole, go for it. But if you're an American Pie guy/gal like me, skip it.

TL;DR: The Tree of Life is an overlong, overheated arthouse flick with some admittedly beautiful imagery.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 856

Friday, April 24, 2015

Class Struggles: Part Four

Welcome back, comrades. My days in higher education are numbered. Let's not mince words. Here's some more reviews from my Russian Cinema class!

Brother (Брат / Brat)

Year: 1997
Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Cast: Sergei Bodrov Jr., Viktor Sukhorukov, Svetlana Pismichenko
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

A young man goes to visit his older brother in Leningrad and becomes embroiled in the mob-run city's crime wave during the decadent post-Soviet Union era.

Russia, for all its faults, is one of the most interesting modern countries. While we all have our spats and geoglobal conflicts and whatnot, our most major historic incidents remain where they are - in the past. Meanwhile, over in Russia, their cornerstone event - the dissolution of the Soviet Union - happened in the same year as Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.

The country is still finding its footing after that massive shift, and while I can't say that where they currently are is my favorite place, civilian life has calmed down somewhat since the years following the fall. The post-Soviet 90's were a time of rampant crime, incompetent police, and gang rule in which violence and hedonism reigned supreme. 1997's Brother showcases that era through the eyes of Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), an aimless young man who has just returned from his stint in the military.

Danila is sent to live with his brother in Leningrad, where he gets caught up in his crime ring, quickly rising up the ranks and fighting against the mob attempting to capture him. Scored by the biggest rock band of the day, Danila assassinates gangsters, sleeps with married women, and hangs out with his homeless friends in an old cemetery. Although he maintains his personal moral code, always keeping his promises and not killing good people, he can't resist the tempting pull of the criminal underworld.

The film is a contemplative action thriller, filled to the brim with ruminations on the state of 1990's Russia. The homeless living in the cemetery is no coincidence. Nor the lighting that constantly threatens to pull Danila into the darkness. Nor the power shift where Danila - the younger generation - takes the power while his brother - the older - falls crumbling beneath the boots of the mob.

It's quite an interesting film, and it amassed a considerable cult following. With its story of a young country breaking itself in and a young man finding his way through the muck of it all, embracing his desires while remaining inherently good, it's easy to imagine the film's appeal. It's like the Donnie Darko or The Graduate of the Russian youth generation, though it's a damn sight better than the former.

My biggest issue with the film is its thinness. The production design is necessarily limited due to its budget, but its remarkably weak, especially in the scenes of the crime den, which look like they were shot in a local YMCA. And the entire movie is wracked with Fade Out Disease, killing the pacing at the end of each and every individual scene with yet another interminably long fade to black. But beyond that, it's a fun film and worth checking out for any crime drama enthusiast.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Sergei Bodrov, Jr. is still the cutest.

Rating: 7/10

Mother and Son (Мать и сын / Mat i syn)

Year: 1997
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cast: Aleksei Ananishnov, Gudrun Geyer
Run Time: 1 hour 13 minutes

A man faces mortality twofold as he comforts his ailing mother while she passes from this world to the next, in the process boring the audience to death.

I'm going to be straight up here. Mother and Son is one of the worst films I've ever seen in my entire life. The abundance of ten star reviews on IMDb is baffling to me, though I will admit the film probably has a lot more resonance for people who have watched a loved one slowly fall ill. So if this is the case for you, skip reading this or forgive my flagrant disregard for the emotional content of the movie, because I'm gonna tell you right now, the structure is crap.

Mother and Son is more like a series of screensavers than a film. While a son helps his ailing mother eat, drink, and walk around their secluded forest home, the camera lingers on vast expanses of open nature for minutes at a time while literally nothing happens. At one point, the son pops out to grab a photo album and the camera holds static on the mother lying on a bench for a full two minutes. It is ponderously dull.

Some would argue that the pacing of this film mimics the slowing down of life as it fades away. I would argue that this is the film that you're forced to watch in purgatory to pay penance for your sins. There's next to no music or dialogue, the picture is muddier than the road to DTV Hell, and there are only two scenes with a meaningful rumination on mortality and one generation passing on to the next. All the rest of the script (which could be written on a doilie), is composed of lines like "Do you want a snack?"

All there is over the film's 73 minutes is a series of tedious, monotonous scenes of the pair wandering through the forest, sometimes walking out of the frame 45 seconds before it cuts away. I think there's about twelve shots in the whole movie. It's not like watching paint dry. It's like watching Pangea divide. One to miss.

Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 920
Reviews In This Series
Class Struggles: Part One (March 29, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Two (April 9, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Three (April 22, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Four (April 24, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Five (May 6, 2015)
Class Struggles: Bonus Round (May 11, 2015)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Class Struggles: Part Three

In exactly a month, I will be an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach. That's a terrifying thought. Let's drown it in some more mini-reviews from my Russian Cinema class!

The Diamond Arm (Бриллиантовая рука / Brilliantovaya ruka)

Year: 1969
Director: Leonid Gayday
Cast: Yuriy Nikulin, Nina Grebeshkova, Andrey Mironov
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

An unsuspecting civilian on vacation becomes part of an elaborate criminal scheme when a misunderstanding leaves him with a cast on his arm full of smuggled jewels.

On my syllabus, the film The Diamond Arm was described as a "Soviet eccentric comedy," so you can imagine my excitement trying to picture what that could possibly mean. Evidently, what this spells out to is a barrelful of slapstick with a pinch of musical theater, soaked in flailing, constant attempts to jab laffs from the audience. It might only be intermittently successful, but let's remember that I am perhaps not the prime audience for a slapstick Soviet comedy from the late 60's.

Although The Diamond Arm spreads itself very thin through its attempts to cram as many comic scenarios as possible into its 100 minutes, it still has some historically stimulating underpinnings about the corruptive Western influence and placing one's trust in the police. Soviet Russia was a less unstable place to live following the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, but it was still Soviet Russia and the propagandistic elements of films from this period are evergreen and interesting to mine for cultural film buffs.

Aside from these slight political elements, The Diamond Arm is comfortable in its rhythms as a fish-out-of-water espionage thriller, the likes of Get Smart or The Pink Panther. There are a smattering of decent jokes, the high water mark of which might be when the suave villain flips his hair, hitting his head in the process. It's no sophisticated repartee to will make you chuff over your cigar, but it's amusing in that primitive sort of way that people don't want to admit they enjoy.

Overall, the biggest issue with the film is that it takes frequent pit stops that halt the pacing dead in its tracks. One of the film's most egregious moments is an arbitrarily inserted musical number (one of several) on the deck of a boat that does less than nothing to serve the plot or its characters. In fact, I'm pretty sure I came out of that scene with less understanding of what the film was about. Another long stretch at a seaside fashion show is interminably dull.

Although, it might be hypocritical for me to complain about these interludes, because one such moment introduced me to the Russian tune "A Song About Hares," which I am immensely grateful for. It's catchy! I dare you not to dance after pressing play. Just make sure not to bend your knees!

Rating: 6/10

Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник / Kavkazskiy plennik)

Year: 1996
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr., Susanna Mekhraliyeva
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

Two Russian soldiers are held prisoner by a Chechen villager who wants to trade them for his captured son.

The Russians do love their war films. As a country torn by many battles and revolutions, perhaps it's important to them to revisit and re-evaluate their sacrifices time and time again. And if the post-1950's films I've seen thus far in class are an accurate indicator of the general military climate, they seem to find it wanting.

1996's Prisoner of the Mountains joins Ballad of a Soldier as one of the defining Russian films about the futility and senseless violence of war. The film focuses almost exclusively on the character dynamics on two soldiers with opposite perspectives on their enlistment. The older soldier embraces his duties, but the younger draftee prefers peaceful interactions, and grows to understand the plight of the "enemies" that have captured them. These characters are brought to life by a talented veteran actor and a fresh-faced ingenue, both giving honest, genre-defining performances.

As these two stubborn minds battle it out, the film hammers out its philosophy in the spaces between their words: War causes everybody to suffer, and the delineation between Good Guy and Bad Guy isn't so clear once you get a closer look. As a series of delicate metaphors drift their ways to and fro, the soldiers struggle to balance their need for escape with their fondness for their captors, who for all intents and purposes may soon be their executioners.

It's a film about fighting against traditional worldviews and breaking the cycle of violence, and the inevitable destruction that a wartime mentality will bring upon all who subscribe to it, and everyone they love. Again, nobody ever said Russian Cinema was cheerful. 

But despite a downbeat ending (which I shan't spoil here), Prisoner of the Mountains is an uplifting take on humanity's capacity to love in the face of a massive, crushing threat to its well-being. As often as it emphasizes the wanton destruction of the military, it also embraces our capacity to learn to understand one another. It's a slow burn, but a highly recommended watch.

Also, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. is hella cute. You ain't seen the last of him.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 869
Reviews In This Series
Class Struggles: Part One (March 29, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Two (April 9, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Three (April 22, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Four (April 24, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Five (May 6, 2015)
Class Struggles: Bonus Round (May 11, 2015)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Ghost In The Machine

Trigger Warning: I'd just like to make it known that any sarcasm around the suicide of character Laura Barns is a dig at the screenwriters and nothing more. Suicide is a serious and devastating act. If you or a friend have been having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.

Year: 2015
Director: Leo Gabriadze
Cast: Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Heather Sossaman
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I have seen the future and its name is Blumhouse. Their model for low budget flicks has proved successful many times in the past, but their horror offerings have been largely traditional up until now. However, their newest theatrical endeavor, Unfriended, pushes the envelope. 

Originally created as an MTV film, Unfriended is... well, it's the Skype movie. There's no way around that one. As far as I can trace it, this is the first computer-only movie ever produced, or at the very least the first released theatrically*. I'm always interested when Hollywood filmmaking incorporates modern technology and social media (mostly to an unbearably lame degree, like a grandma texting you in all caps), and this new film is perhaps the most focused and accurate reproduction of teen interactions with the Internet that I've ever seen, though it's married to a plot that even Adam Sandler would find hackneyed and overplayed.

*UPDATE: It turns out I got a tad carried away when making this assertion. This cinematic style has predecessors in the 2014 Elijah Wood thriller Open Windows, the garbagetastic 2012 V/H/S segment obnoxiously entitled "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," and the 2013 cult thriller The Den. Though, to be fair, Unfriended is the first film with a scope beyond the indie bubble, and it's the first one to invest in a fully immersive desktop experience.

I'm sorry, the number you have dialed could not be bothered to come up with a better story.

The occurrence of Unfriended, which I'm going to go ahead and call a "story" for clarity's sake, goes as such: A group of high school friends has a group Skype chat one night, on what is implied to be the anniversary of the suicide of their classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). After a video of Laura soiling herself at a party went viral on YouTube, she was bullied relentlessly online until she shot herself on a baseball field. It's a needlessly showy way to go, but it makes more sense than a good 98 percent of The Happening's self-mutilations, so we're going to let it slide.

You know what? I take it back. More movies need to have people feeding themselves to lions.

These friends are all quite douchey, but in richly unique, complexly variable ways like fine wines: There's Blaire (Shelly Hennig of Ouija), a supposed good girl with a wicked streak and our de facto protagonist through whose computer screen we view the ensuing events; Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Blaire's dull as dishwater boyfriend and a hopelessly dependent toerag; Adam (Will Peltz), the fledgling bro who looks like he was birthed from one of those beer bottle pyramids in a dingy frat house; Jess (Renee Olstead of The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who may or may not be Adam's girlfriend and is pretty useless otherwise; Ken (Jacob Wysocki of Pitch Perfect), who is good at computers and looks like Chunk from the Goonies if he grew up watching Entourage reruns; and Val (Courtney Halverson), who nobody really likes. And when these people don't like someone, you know something's up.

So, when these crazy kids begin their Skype hangout, they notice a mysterious blank profile is logged on as well. Despite all their efforts to get rid of it, it persists like acne on prom night. During this sequence there's a bit of dead space in the narrative as the kids log off and on again an aggravating number of times. But things start to perk up when the profile speaks out, revealing itself to be Laura Barns' account and challenging the friends to a deadly game of Never Have I Ever. 

As everybody's deepest, darkest secrets are revealed, Laura's spirit possesses their bodies one by one and forces them to kill themselves on camera. 

Teens these days, am I right?

By far the best element of Unfriended is the introduction of cyber horror as a legitimate concept with real potency. Going into the film, I was worried that the static screen and lack of camera movement would inhibit the film's value as cinema, but it absolutely does not. Like it or not, we're living in a plugged-in world and the massive shifts in how we view media play right in to the film's central conceit. 

The plot is kept moving through the interplay of many different web sites and apps, the biggest boon to the film being that they forked over the licensing money to actually use Facebook, iMessage, and whatnot. It's just not quite as intense when your lead is being threatened over Splashface Messenger. It only suffers a tiny bit from stilted TeenSpeak, and most everything a regular old movie might toss in the fray is diegetically provided with gusto.

You don't have a soundtrack? Wham, Blaire's Spotify playlist is at your service. You need to disguise a chintzy gore effect? Bam. The video's buffering, wouldn't you know? It all makes sense in the world of the narrative, and much of it is quite clever. Some of the soundscape is fictional, though it's not bothersome. And some of the Internet connection speeds are highly J. K. Rowling-level fanciful, but let's not look a gift horse in the mouth on that one.

But in spite of all its conceptual proficiency, Unfriended is just like every other middling teen fright flick we've seen before. It's not in the least bit spooky and bereft of bite beyond the surface-level cyberbullying narrative that it proves hesitant to explore. It exists solely to exist, much like the mass-produced found footage flicks of the past decade, a genre barely a stone's throw away from the cyberpunk path Unfriended is carving. It might seem shiny and new, but it has all the classic flaws of 2000's horror: unlikeable characters, a derivative plotline long past its sell-by date, and a concept that outstretches its budget.

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It's a real shame, is what it is. The plot never rises above its watered down post-Saw torture game concept (already achieved more adeptly - and far more timely - in films like Truth or Die, Would You Rather?, and even Nine Dead), and the scares are anemic at best. There's only so many times a Skype bubble appearing out of nowhere has the capacity to startle. And the characters are so ignobly irritating that it's more of a relief when they die than a shock.

But hey. What horror film isn't flawed? Some of Unfriended's flaws are quite damaging, but it has a strong original framework for its story, a couple wonderful gags that blossom from that conceit, and the acting is overall pretty decent. Considering that this film almost went straight to TV, the performance skill going into Unfriended is utterly remarkable. Taking on those enormously technical long takes while maintaining character and dialogue is a true challenge and they rise to it convincingly.

All in all, Unfriended is a fun time at the movies, but don't go in expecting to scream your eyebrows off. As a story it is basic to the utmost degree, but as an experience it is utterly unique.

Although I'd argue that the film is not improved by being blown up to theatrical screen proportions, this is perhaps the one film in existence that would work better on VOD. An immersive all-computer experience might just the shot in the arm the film needs to pack a punch. Pumping Unfriended into your computer screen must be like tapping directly into the Matrix, and I'd highly suggest giving that a whirl. 

TL;DR: Unfriended has a clever premise with follow-through, but its plot is generic and it lacks all but the most basic of scares.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'm always behind supporting original horror, so if you want to see it in the theaters, you have my blessing, but I really and truly believe that this film was meant to be viewed on VOD. Either way it's a decently fun time.
Word Count: 1428

Monday, April 20, 2015

Funnily, Last Summer

Year: 2001
Director: David Wain
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's a surprise I've managed to avoid seeing Wet Hot American Summer for so long, considering that I have a long-documented love affair with 80's summer camp movies and absurdist comedies

What's not a surprise, however, is how long it took me to write this review. Considering how a list of great jokes doesn't really count as legitimate film analysis and considering how there's precious little more than great jokes in the construction of WHAS, there's not a lot else to say.

But guess what! I'm gonna say it anyway. Suckers.

Wet Hot American Summer is essentially a series of interconnected sketches given context through the location and residents of Camp Firewood, a 1981 Jewish summer camp in the forests of Maine. Because he is shown first and has the most complete character arc, the de facto protagonist is nerdy counselor Coop Cooperberg (Michael Showalter), but the story is mostly composed of vignettes starring a clown car of contemporary and future stars.

We've got Romy and Michele's Janeane Garofalo as the head counselor, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers' Paul Rudd as the resident bad boy, Elizabeth Banks as his bikini-clad companion, David Hyde Pierce as the astrophysicist next door, and Amy Freaking Poehler and Bradley Hulking Cooper as the officious siblings who run the talent show. The ensemble is fleshed out with Ken Marino (In A World...), Michael Ian Black (Ed), and Molly Shannon (SNL), among about a dozen others. Seriously, the wattage on this tiny 2001 comedy could short out every circuit breaker in a large city. Or one of Paris Hilton's smaller vacation homes.

My face every time a new character comes onscreen.

Think of all the Ant-Man/Pitch Perfect spin-offs this pairing could create.

Over the course of its 97 minutes, WHAS runs the gamut of just about every type of comedy under the sun (not to mention one or two lunar styles), but its biggest strength lies in absurdist subversion of the typical tropes of the teen sex comedy. Entire lung-busting scenes are built from the insertion of just one cliché line and the exploration of its implications. The screenwriters pick apart semiotics of the genre that the typical audience would never pick up on because they're so accustomed to the formula that they just don't think about it anymore.

Wet Hot American Summer is willing to do that thinking, and as a result, many of its parodic scenes are intelligently tilted into the absurd. In general, the absurdity of the film is its shining light, as the gods of comedy arbitrarily raise the stakes in low drama scenes, thwart any possible expectations, and spur laughter from even the stoniest of guts. Also, the denouement creates a surprisingly feminist thesis, and the films treatment of homosexuality as a running gag is similarly sensitive, surpassing even the genre titan Will & Grace in terms of its treatment of minority sexualities.

You might notice that I'm tip-toeing around the actual contents of these scenes, but that's because spoiling the jokes completely removes any reason to view the film. And therein lies the biggest flaw of Wet Hot American Summer

Besides this haircut, I mean.

Much of the comedy is genuinely enjoyable, but the film has no meat and potatoes. It's all sugar, and the rush wears off quickly. The sketches have no geographical or character continuity between them, and some of them are exceedingly pointless, tossing themselves like boulders in the path of the film's pacing. Two of the film's worst moments are given favored run times, and one recurring gag culminates in a sputtering finale that not only utterly fails to even attempt to be funny, but interrupts the film during a key third act moment.

But all in all, Wet Hot American Summer is necessary viewing for any fan of teen romps like American Pie or scatterbrained absurdity like Monty Python or National Lampoon. In spite of its flaws and its relative shallowness (as compared to true classics like Airplane! and other Leslie Nielsen vehicles, in both senses of the word), it has a lot of joy to give and I can't bring myself to deny anybody of its pleasures.

TL;DR: Wet Hot American Summer is an intelligent absurdist comedy that's genuinely funny, but perhaps too thin to be a truly unimpeachable classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 745

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Rural Furor

Year: 1981
Director: Frank De Felitta
Cast: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Canadian slasher movies are better. It's just true. Sure, our polite Northern friends can churn out crap just like the rest of us (here's looking at you, Humongous), but their hack 'n slash pics ineffably, inevitably turn out more engaging and fun than their American counterparts. Consider Terror Train over New Year's Evil, or My Bloody Valentine over any other film ever released. Even their direct to video cash-ins like Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil have their measure of charm.

But in October 1981, the Canadian slasher complex would face its biggest challenge yet: the television movie. TV movies are generally notorious for their crouton-sized budgets, their community theater performances, and their noxious Hallmark plotting, but a TV slasher flick? Without blood and guts or boobs and butts? Removing the slasher from its raison d'être is genre suicide.

Enter Canada.

1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a unique film for many reasons, but the fact that it's pretty darn good is not the least of them. Thanks to the restrictions and limitations of television the filmmakers were forced to get creative, and the product is an off-model slasher with a chilling EC Comics-esque premise and a good deal of suspense. Sure, there's no drippings or strippings, a small body count, and no traditional Final Girl, but for that reason its success is all the more remarkable.

You don't need Karo syrup to find this scarecrow creepy as hell.

In classic Canadian slasher tradition, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is set as far from the Yukon as humanly possible, this time the American South. One day, the wicked and corrupt postman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) spots an opportunity to enact his violent fantasies on the mentally challenged Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, who would later fill the title role in Dr. Giggles).

After Bubba's best friend Marylee (Tonya Crowe), a young neighborhood girl, is attacked by a dog, he is blamed for her injuries and summarily executed by Hazelrigg and his bloodthirsty cronies. They find him hiding in the cornfield dressed as a scarecrow and shoot him to death, planting a weapon - a pitchfork - on his body. They're quickly found not guilty by the local court. So before the killings even begin, the real terror can be found in the atrocities committed by closed-minded human beings on the less fortunate. Blammo. Film theory.

Needless to say, somebody wants revenge on Hazelrigg and his posse, the dim-witted yokel mechanic Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons), the greedy feed factory owner Philby (Claude Earl Jones of the same year's Evilspeak), and their less interesting friend Harless (Lane Smith). I guess you could say he's the DUFF of the group. Somebody is pursuing them, placing scarecrows outside their homes to taunt them, and murdering them in respectfully chaste but darkly nasty ways.

The suspects abound, including Bubba's stern but loving mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister), his best friend Marylee, the D. A. (Tom Taylor of Maniac Cop) who lost the case against them, or maybe something more inexplicable.

My vote is on the little girl. She's hardcore. Those flower leis can crush a windpipe no sweat.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow certainly has its weak spots. I mean, come on, it is a TV movie. The acting is a little showy across the board, the sets are sparse (in one memorable sequence, Otis opens his massive desk drawer to reveal that its only contents are a single pistol), the opening sequence is laboriously extended, and its background soundscape is comprised of endlessly looped cicada chirps like the world's worst white noise sleep tape.

But the film more than makes up for its lo-fi splendor. First off, it's surprisingly dark. The scene where Mrs. Ritter is forced to explain to Marylee why she won't be seeing Bubba anymore rips out your heartstrings and plays a funeral dirge on them like a cello. Which is the saddest instrument. How are short musicians supposed to reach all the way up there?

But I digress. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is more than just a murder spree, because it has to be. With a focus on back home drama over gore (although the kills are all impactful and slyly foreshadowed), the story it tells is richly spooky and full of intrigue. And as Otis and his buds tear their way through the town in a mad dash to discover the culprit, their interactions reveal a detailed sketch of life in a rural town in the early 80's.

Sure, the screenwriters have probably never even eaten grits, let alone visited Texas, but the small town atmosphere crosses all borders. The community depicted here is full and lively, forming a realistic backdrop for the more uncanny scares.

"This is the least canny thing I've ever experienced!"

As for the scares themselves? They don't exactly come thick and fast, dispersed as they are amid the townspeople's frequent interactions. But when they arrive, they're terrifically bone chilling and effective. The presence of the scarecrow constantly lingers in the back of one's mind, so whenever a character gazes out of the frame, the shivers return before anything is even revealed. Not to mention that the scarecrow design itself is quite impeccable. It's a shame the film never saw a bigger audience, because that would be one award-winning Halloween costume if anybody actually cared to recreate it.

All in all, I'd without a doubt tout this film as a lost second tier classic. It doesn't have the camp factor of a House on Sorority Row or the deft intellect of a Nightmare on Elm Street, but it's worth recognition. Do I wish the protagonists weren't also despicable human beings? Yes. Am I glad to watch them inch closer and closer to their inevitable demise? Hell yes. It's a balance, I suppose. Check out Dark Night of the Scarecrow if you're in the mood for some low key, but hair-raising fun!

Killer: The Scarecrow [The ghost of Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake)]
Final Girl: None
Best Kill: Philby is buried alive in his feed silo until only his flapping, helpless hand is visible.
Sign of the Times: Nothing in particular, but Skeeter's trademark polka dot hat is pretty atrocious.

Scariest Moment: Whenever the scarecrow appears, heralding the next death.

Weirdest Moment: While a dog mauls Marylee, the scene cuts away to close-up shots of unimpressed garden gnomes.

Champion Dialogue: "The only thing official you ever done is lick stamps!"
Body Count: 6; only three of which are perpetrated by the Scarecrow.
  1. Bubba is shot to death.
  2. Harless falls into a woodchipper.
  3. Mrs. Ritter has a heart attack.
  4. Philby is buried alive in his feed silo.
  5. Skeeter is hit in the head with a shovel.
  6. Otis is pitchforked in the gut. 
TL;DR: Dark Night of the Scarecrow makes good use of its limitations to be a deliciously creepy low budget chiller.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1174

Monday, April 13, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Suffering Is Good For Pleasure

Year: 1981
Director: Jesús Franco
Cast: Olivia Pascal, Christoph Moosbrugger, Nadja Gerganoff
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

European slasher films are something special. Whether they're top shelf fare like Suspiria and Twitch of the Death Nerve or low rent knock-offs like Trhauma and Murder Syndrome, there's always a spark that dances in the eyes of the Eurotrash flicks. Perhaps its just that I've grown used to the Western modes of storytelling or that I allow the language barrier to gloss over simple mistakes, but whatever it is, these films are truly, undeniably different.

1981's Bloody Moon (AKA Die Säge des Todes) is one of these films. What would have otherwise been an unremarkable smear on a forgotten footnote of cinema history is double-filtered through the addled mind of Spanish sleazemeister Jesús Franco and the resources of West Germany, then slathered with the most literally transcribed, un-emphatic dub ever created by stoned Americans trapped overnight in a recording studio with nothing else to do.

It's not a film you'll want to take home to mama, but it's unique in that ineffable way that the American films of the time couldn't capture. It's certainly not better than the bulk of its peers, but its logistical missteps, overwrought dialogue, and surreal scene structure at least create an indelibly memorable experience.

Case in point.

Bloody Moon takes place on a remote resort in Spain, which one Professor Alvaro (Christoph Moosbrugger) has converted into a language school. The estate is the home of Countess Maria Gonzales (María Rubio), an elderly spinster in a wheelchair. Although her niece Manuela (Nadja Gerganoff) takes care of the place, she has bequeathed her fortune to her nephew Miguel (Alexander Waechter), who has a deformed face (it's burned, I guess, but it just looks like spilled oatmeal crusted around his forehead) and the unfortunate quirk of murdering women who won't sleep with him.

As the new crop of students arrives for the semester, late arrival Angela (Olivia Pascal) begins to suspect that a mysterious prowler is stalking her and her friends. There's barely enough characterization of the women in this film to even qualify them as Meat rather than Wallpaper, but they are Inga (Jasmin Losensky), a whiny, unlucky in love type - think the beginning of a Jennifer Aniston movie, Eva (Ann-Beate Engelke), a blonde, and Laura (Corinna Drews), a blonde who dies wearing cheetah print hot pants.

After a series of gruesome murders, Angela must rush to discover the identity of the killer. Is it Miguel, who is always hanging around, peeping into windows? Is it Manuela, who seduces her brother and leers up at the moon topless every night? (See? European films are something special.) Alvaro, who is having trouble paying his rent and is so despicably lazy that his "school" is just a set of booths with headphones where the students listen to language tapes? Antonio (Peter Exacoustos), the resident tennis stud/gardener with a hive of jealous women orbiting around him? Or is it Paco (Otto Retzer), the groundskeeper who always seems to be quietly hallucinating in the background while handling sharp objects?

Well, that's for me to know and you to find out, but rest assured the central mystery draws from the best and brightest tropes of the giallo film. A suspect list of biblical proportions? Check. An elderly stateswoman with a dangling inheritance? Check. A nonsensical plot that exists only insofar as it is scooting helpless women toward their untimely demise? Check, check, and check.

I've learned so much about garden tool nomenclature while watching these films.

As a low budget Eurotrash slash picture, do I even need to tell you that Bloody Moon isn't scary to the slightest degree? Sure, there's sequences that drum up some semblance of a gut feeling, but these are generally through the defiance of expectations, like "Deary me, they killed a real snake. Someone call PETA." or "Yeah, I legitimately didn't expect them to run that child over with a car." They even manage to screw up the perennial Spring-Loaded Cat scare, making our fateful feline nose open a door and then somehow leap up at the unsuspecting victim from floor level. 

It's cartoonishly terrible, but at least this allows the film to lean into the curve and embrace its campiness. The actors chew the plaster off the walls, the music sounds like either Pac-Man's death throes or Frankie Avalon and Ritchie Valens' attempt at Gone with the Wind, and the cinematographer ambles along, liberally applying zooms wherever he deems necessary. And that's everywhere. There's plenty of trash panache littered around, like the obligatory roller disco sequence, the wooden dummy that appears in a bungalow during the height of a chase sequence, or the conspicuously foam-textured boulder inexplicably careening from the bluffs toward our heroine.

There's dozens of these moments floating around the film, completely separate from any sense of narrative motivation or realism, buried like chestnuts in the thick bed of indigestible dialogue. I know I mentioned the laughably bizarre dub earlier, but it's time to dive in. Each line is tortuously wrenched from its mother tongue, fastidiously converted word by unrelenting word until it's nothing but an incomprehensible, slavering mash. 

One of my favorite chestnuts takes a place of honor as the title of this review, but other favorites include "Caress me everywhere, melt in my arms," "I could use a drink like beer," and "As a lover, he's fantastic." The entire film is like this. It's like Yoda reading Shakespeare and it is exquisite.

And come to think of it, Miguel kind of looks like the illicit love child of Yoda and Shakespeare.

The only straightforward appeal that Bloody Moon has lies in its gore sequences, which are tremendously fake, but fun and blood-soaked in the best kind of slasher tradition. These sequences were enough to earn the film an honored spot on the UK's Video Nasties list, and they are a veritable Ice Bucket Challenge of grue, splattering its victims every which way with scissors, gardening tools, granite blocks with giant buzz saws, and much much more.

The plot is far too dull and rudimentary to carry the weight of its superior camp sequences, but Bloody Moon is worth checking out for the amateur masochist on the prowl. It's the perfect movie for a low pressure evening hangout if you have friends who aren't too great at paying attention. A less than hearty, but feebly determined thumbs up from me!

Killer: [Alvaro (Christoph Moosbrugger) and Manuela (Nadja Gerganoff)]
Final Girl: Angela (Olivia Pascal)
Best Kill: Inga lets a man with a stocking over his face tie her to a cement slab because she thinks it's kinky, but then he cuts her head off with a circular saw.
Sign of the Times: I don't know whether this is supposed to be a towel or a dress, but it's doing both jobs poorly.

Scariest Moment: The language students are forced to learn the "vosotros" conjugation.
Weirdest Moment: Inga pretends she has a lover in her bungalow by bouncing on her bed and moaning.
Champion Dialogue: "For progress in Spanish, nothing beats lessons in bed."
Body Count: 9; not including a snake that gets decapitated with garden shears.
  1. Party Girl is stabbed in the gut with scissors.
  2. Aunt Maria is burned to death with a torch.
  3. Eva is stabbed through the boob.
  4. Inga is decapitated with a circular saw.
  5. Souvenir Kid is run over with a car.
  6. Laura has her neck crushed with tongs.
  7. Miguel is stabbed through the neck with a knitting needle.
  8. Alvaro is sliced in the chest with a chainsaw.
  9. Manuela is strangled. 
TL;DR: Bloody Moon is a suspenseless giallo riff, but the campiness and gore slightly make up for it.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1295