Friday, February 3, 2017

Skeletons In The Closet: Best Actor 2016

Every year I try (and mostly fail) to catch every film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and I will continue that tradition this year. But I also want someone to root for in the Performing categories as well. But here's the thing. I don't have the patience to sit through quite that many Oscarbait movies, so I've decided to Brennan up the joint and run a new experiment:

I will watch a horror film starring each of the Best Acting nominees to honor the performances they gave long before they made the A-list. Let's begin with mini-reviews covering the male performers being honored at this year's ceremony.

Skeletons in the Closet: Best Actor Nominees

Casey Affleck

Nominated For: Manchester by the Sea

I actually caught this one, as it's also nominated for Best Picture, so you can read my review right here. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a grief-stricken man who must take on the responsibility of caring for his late brother's teenage son. But before that, he was a teen himself, and he wound up on the wrong end of a post-Scream horror extravaganza.

Skeleton in the Closet: Soul Survivors (2001)

Director: Steve Carpenter
Cast: Melissa Sagemiller, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck 
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

After a fatal car crash, Cassie begins to see ghostly visions of her boyfriend as mysterious happenings disturb her midterms week.

Seriously, what the f**k is p with Soul Survivors? As evidenced by its headshot lineup poster, crane shots of school buildings, and grotty pop metal soundtrack, it’s meant to be a post-Scream teenybopper slash-em-up, (during the prolonged death rattle of that particular trend), but it rams head-on into that other horror trend of the early 2000’s: the Sixth Sense-esque reality-bending parapsychological thriller. Toss in Dorm That Dripped Blood co-director Steve Carpenter, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an unholy disaster, even if its cast is a stunning result of the collusion of the B-movie gods, uniting millennium Scream Queen Eliza Dushku, a Wes Bentley fresh from American Beauty, and B-side brothers Luke Wilson and Casey Affleck.

This seems like it would be so far up my alley it’s blocking my back door, so why exactly does it fail so miserably? It’s certainly not Affleck, who’s giving a performance similar enough to his turn in Manchester by the Sea that I’m sure he’s praying nobody notices. And the rest of the ensemble is perfectly serviceable for this kind of movie (look, in the 90’s we got two films in a row starring Jennifer Love Hewitt’s breasts, so this is a step up). And the cinematography is TV movie bland, but at least it’s in focus.

I think the bulk of the blame will have to settle on the script, also by Steve Carpenter. It so vaguely resembles anything even remotely similar to a feature film that you have to wonder if this wasn’t some 85-minute Kuleshov experiment, juxtaposing random images to see if any meaning rises from them whatsoever. It doesn’t. Among the shattered fragments of motion Soul Survivors calls “scenes” are Elm Street nightmares, interminable clubbing shots that mimic Buffy’s The Bronze, an allegedly adorable wall-painting sequence that is frighteningly overzealous, and… Well, I have no clear idea who is where and why, because this movie had such a multitude of interlocking layers of dream, hallucination, and reality, but somebody definitely had sex with a ghost.

It’s a ten-car pileup of a story, one that could be called “nightmare logic” if the film was well-made enough to be scary to any degree. As it stands, the only shock gags it can come up with are shadowy figures that look like Eliza Dushku turning out to be Eliza Dushku. It has all the thrills of looking at things without your glasses on. It throws every spooky element it can think of into a pot (masked serial killers, ghosts, crypto-lesbians) but it fails to spice things up with any sort of atmosphere before forgetting to resolve anything it introduced in the first place.

In short, Soul Survivors is haphazard, poorly paced nonsense, and its very existence is an affront to everything I love. Don’t watch Soul Survivors, for the love of God.

Rating: 2/10

Andrew Garfield

Nominated for: Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield is a fresh face, having just hit the scene in 2010's The Social Network, but before he played a pacifist in Mel Gibson's Best Picture nominee Hacksaw Ridge he... Well, he didn't have much of a chance to work in horror before he escaped the B-list, but here's a mildly supernatural short film he did, which was incidentally directed by the screenwriter of another Best Picture nominee: Lion.

Skeleton in the Closet: "Air" (2009)

Director: Luke Davies
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Felix Benton, S.A. Griffin 
Run Time: 18 minutes

An English geologist meets a young boy with a mysterious secret on his travels through Texas.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare “Air” to a clichĂ©-ridden, desperately overserious student short film, because that’s in all likelihood what it actually is. If you’ve seen a  single ghost movie, you’ll be able to guess at least one of the two plot twists within seconds. Considering that I too have made my share of crappy student films, I’ll keep this short and polite.

The plot is overly straightforward, too much to justify the 20-minute run time, but one takeaway from this is that Garfield has an inherent neurotic charm. Even in this microbudget environment, he gives a performance that – if not superlative – is at least natural and engaging. Do I recommend anybody ever watch “Air?” No, of course not. But I’ve sat through enough short film festivals to know that it could have been much, much worse.

Rating: 5/10

Ryan Gosling

Nominated for: La La Land

Another flick I’ve seen and reviewed! It’s almost like I didn’t need to do this project after all. Oh well. In La La Land, Ryan Gosling reteams with Emma Stone for the third time (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) as Sebastian Wilder, a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist with big dreams. But before that, he was a Canadian child star with even bigger dreams, of being a famous actor. But if you want that Oscar, you’re gonna have to slum it...

Skeleton in the Closet: Are You Afraid of the Dark? S5E3 "The Tale of Station 109.1" (1995)

Director: Ron Oliver
Cast: Gilbert Gottfried, Zachary Carlin, Ryan Gosling
Run Time: 22 minutes

A kid who’s obsessed with death is accidentally sent to the afterlife’s waiting room after stumbling across a radio station transmitted from the beyond.

Of the two beloved children’s horror shows of the 90’s, Are You Afraid of the Dark? maintains the best continuing reputation, and for good reason. A kids’ series that wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the Twilight Zone trenches, it didn’t talk down to its young audience. “Station 109.1” isn’t particularly gory or shocking, but it’s a reliably macabre tale that combines low-fi ghostly thrills with an ironically bureaucratic satirical tang provided by – of all people - Gilbert Gottfried.

Gosling isn’t the lead in this one, but he’s oddly convincing at playing a mechanically-inclined older brother in spite of his weedy-ass arms. There’s nothing that would indicate the stellar work he’d grow into, but we all have to start somewhere. “Station 109.1” is a delightful 90’s relic (a major plot point hinges on a slap bracelet), even if it’s utterly disposable TV entertainment. But wait, there’s more… 

Rating: 6/10

Skeleton in the Closet #2: Goosebumps S1E15 "Say Cheese and Die" (1996)

Director: Ron Oliver
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Akiva David, Renessa Blitz 
Run Time: 22 minutes

A kid discovers a cursed Polaroid camera that causes bad things to happen to whoever it takes a photo of.

Guess who has two Oscar nominations and was also in the other pre-eminent kids horror show of the 90’s? This Gosling! While I love the Goosebumps book series and “Say Cheese and Die” in particular, Goosebumps was the Bud Light to Are You Afraid of the Dark’s craft brew, A cheesy ramshackle affair with a toothless approach to Stine’s already light horror material, this one wears its low budget on its sleeve. Although the splashes of red, green, and blue light in an abandoned warehouse are lovely, the easiest prop in the world – a spooky camera – is a dreadful hunk of plastic that looks like it was fished out of a Burger King dumpster.

And I don’t know what happened in the intervening year, but Gosling is terrible here, mugging like the back shelf of a coffee shop. The only redeeming thing about his performance is that it’s not half as dreadful as his co-stars: excepting Richard McMillan (Cube Zero, The Day After Tomorrow) serving a delicious plate of ham as a sinister lurker in a bright silver fright wig. I suppose as a child actor, you learn on the job, and somewhere along the way Gosling sharpened his craft to the stiletto point it is today. Maybe it happened on the set of Young Hercules

Rating: 3/10

Viggo Mortensen

Nominated for: Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen is a happy surprise on this list. It's been a while since we've heard the Lord of the Rings star's name in casual conversation (especially considering nobody actually saw Captain Fantastic), but before he played a hermetic father who has raised his kids deep in the woods, he belonged to another, even less healthy family living in rural seclusion...

Skeleton in the Closet: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Director: Jeff Burr
Cast: Kate Hodge, Ken Foree, R.A. Mihailoff
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Well whaddya know, I've already reviewed this one. How convenient for me!

Rating: 4/10

Denzel Washington

Nominated for: Fences

Denzel Washington has had a long and storied career, so it's no surprise to see him gracing this list. But while that career has taken him to the role of washed-up lower class father Troy Maxson in the film adaptation of August Wilson's play, he had a chance to get down and dirty with a film that combined one of his most frequent roles - a homicide detective - with something a little more supernatural.

Skeleton in the Closet: Fallen (1998)

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After a serial killer is executed, his crimes begin again. A local homicide detective quickly learns that he must hunt down a body-hopping, murderous demon who’s perpetrating the killings.

Fallen is a preternaturally weird movie. And I don’t just mean because it’s a theological police procedural with a literal demon as the villain. This is a film that pretty much incinerates the fourth wall with an in medias res “how did I wind up like this?” gag straight out of Emperor’s New Groove before diving into its vein-throbbingly serious rumination on God and the human experience. This tonal imbalance teeters through the entire film, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s Silence of the Lambs, Seven, or Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.

Whatever it is, it’s still pretty good. Denzel Washington is so charming he actually humanizes the role of “perfect, by-the-book cop,” and his partner is John Goodman so I can’t complain. And although the film doesn’t explore its body-switching concept to tis fullest extent (it’s much more content to wallow in philosophical soliloquies, because the 90’s were a rough time for everyone), it provides several memorably chilling moments where a cotillion of random passersby have their average facades splinter into expressions of pure malice.

Do I like the abortive Hannibal Lecter riddles that paint our hero to be such an unrestrained moron that he has to ask a nun to define the word “apocalypse” for him? Of course not. Do I want to watch the incessant shots that paint the world in the mottled yellow hue so popular in late 90’s urban dramas? Hell no. Do I enjoy seeing the sole major female character be treated like an anthropomorphic baby carriage? I’d rather gargle hot coals. But in spite of its excess of extremely dated detritus, it still manages to leave an impression.

Maybe it’s because I just watched Soul Survivors, but I had a good time with this one. It’s far more a Denzel Washington movie than it is a horror movie, but its villain is distinct enough to cast an eerie pall over the proceedings. And a certain reveal in the third act should be monumentally silly, but it’s so earnestly presented that you kind have to love it. I’d sooner watch Fallen than any other project on this list, though- full disclosure – my tragic viewing history predicts I’ll probably catch Leatherface way more times.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 2140

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