Sunday, December 30, 2018

My top 10 non-2018 movies of 2018

As always, one of my most satisfying projects of the year is this recap of my favorite movies from previous years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone, 2017) If I'd seen this movie just a few months earlier, it would almost certainly have been at the top of my 2017 best-of list. Instead it was a low-priority catch-up that I got around to almost as an afterthought, only to find myself with tears running down my face as I watched this beautiful, sweet, endlessly empathetic coming-of-age story about women of two different generations both finding themselves as they find each other. When spunky, athletic teenager Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) moves in for the summer with her author/professor aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), it could be the recipe for a cliched story about relatives with nothing in common learning to relate to each other. And it sort of is that, but in the most natural, touching way, as niece and aunt build a lovely rapport despite occasional conflicts. Cyd explores her attraction to a local female barista, while Miranda luxuriates in her middle-aged singlehood. There isn't much plot, but there are so many rich, complex emotions that any more plot would have been too much. Pinnick and Spence are both fantastic, and should land a ton more roles if anyone ever sees them in this. I hope more people do.

2. The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979) I watched this movie as part of the prep for my David Magazine feature on movies with eco-friendly messages, and I didn't expect much more than a competent social-issue drama. So I was pretty blown away by the level of suspense and character development that goes along with the nuanced political and social commentary. Yes, this is a movie about the dangers of nuclear power plants, but it's also a movie about the decline of journalistic standards, about the unfair ways that women and older people are treated in the workplace, and about Jane Fonda being delightfully sassy. Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas are all excellent, and the movie lays out its case clearly without sensationalism and without ever forgetting to tell an engaging story with fully realized characters.

3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) This is another 2017 movie that I got to just a little too late to make it onto my 2017 top 10 list, and I procrastinated on seeing it in part so that I could watch it in a theater and in part because I'm often left cold by Anderson's films. But "cold" is exactly the right word to describe the tone of this story, which is calculating and methodical in its depiction of what turns out to be a lovingly kinky relationship between demanding fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and headstrong waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). It's a slow burn that is often dryly funny, with sharp performances from the leads (including Lesley Manville as Reynolds' protective sister) and, of course, gorgeous (if often ridiculous) costume design.

4. Show People (King Vidor, 1928) There are always lots of fascinating discoveries at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but what struck me most about this movie is how fully formed its Hollywood satire already was, 90 years ago. This silent comedy starring Marion Davies as a small-town girl who makes it big in the movies and loses touch with her roots is clever and lively and quite funny, with some fun slapstick and some entertaining performances, and it also features the movie business poking fun at itself via celebrity cameos and movies-within-the-movie, in much the same way a movie like this would do in 2018. The more things change, etc.

5. Season of the Witch (George Romero, 1972) When Romero passed away in 2017, not many obituaries mentioned this little-seen psychodrama about a bored suburban housewife who takes up witchcraft (but mostly in a non-horrific, buying-supplies-at-an-occult-store kind of way). It's not really a horror movie, although it eventually does involve murder (maybe), and it has a constant unsettling, off-kilter tone. Instead it's a knowing exploration of the frustrations of married women in the early 1970s, still expected to fulfill traditional roles even as the world is changing around them. The frequent fantasies and dream sequences give the movie a sense of disquieting unreality, and star Jan White brings a sly, sensual quality to her lead performance.

6. The Student Nurses (Stephanie Rothman, 1970) The Nevada Women's Film Festival presented a rare screening of this Roger Corman production in a tribute to unsung exploitation filmmaker Rothman, and the movie makes a strong case for her as an undervalued talent who brought a progressive, proto-feminist sensibility to her work. I was impressed with this movie's frank and even complex takes on radical activism, sexual liberation, drug use and abortion (that last one in a more honest way than most movies today, really), via its cheesy framework of a group of sexy (and occasionally topless) young nursing students living together. It's rough around the edges, of course, and the plot about one of the main nurses falling for a terminally ill teen is way too maudlin, but overall this is a hidden gem worthy of rediscovery.

7. Finishing School (George Nichols Jr. and Wanda Tuchock, 1934) Speaking of exploitation, this is essentially the 1930s version of a teen sex comedy, starring Frances Dee as a sheltered good girl who learns all about smoking, drinking and premarital sex (this is a pre-Code movie, thankfully) from her naughty roommate at an upscale girls' boarding school. Ginger Rogers is very entertaining as the exuberantly sinful roommate Pony, and the movie has a refreshing lack of moralizing. There's still a central love story ending in marriage, but characters are allowed to explore their vices without judgment or comeuppance, and the story is driven by the choices of the female characters, in a rare co-directorial effort for that era (or any other, really) from a woman.

8. People Places Things (Jim Strouse, 2015) The generic title and the mediocre reviews didn't give me high hopes for this indie dramedy, but it turned out to be a sweet and affecting romantic comedy that doesn't give in to cliches, and features warm, multilayered performances from Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall and Jessica Williams (around whom Strouse later built an entire romantic comedy, the equally lovely The Incredible Jessica James). The relationships are low-key and natural, and even though there's some silly comedy about the newly single Will (Clement) dealing with his cheating ex, the characters are all grounded and believably flawed. Strouse even makes some insightful observations about comic books as an art form via Will's job as a creator and professor of graphic novels.

9. Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) The term "gaslighting" has grown way beyond this movie and seems more prevalent than ever in 2018, but going back to its best-known inspiration is still an enlightening and entertaining experience. This movie is pure melodrama, with Charles Boyer hamming it up as the obviously sinister playboy Gregory, who's tricking his fragile wife Paula (Ingrid Bergman) into believing she's losing her mind. The suspense isn't in wondering whether Paula is crazy (she's clearly not), but in seeing how she will figure it out, and what revenge she'll take once she does. Boyer and Bergman play off each other masterfully, especially in their final confrontation, and the 19th-century London setting is just as seedy as any modern urban wasteland in any other film noir.

10. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933) I previously expressed my fondness for pre-Code comedies about shameless gold diggers when I wrote about the Jean Harlow vehicle Red-Headed Woman last year, and Baby Face is the much more famous version of a similar story about a resourceful, clever young woman who deploys her sexuality to get ahead in the world. Barbara Stanwyck is just as wonderfully devious in the role as Harlow in Red-Headed Woman, although her Lily is a bit colder and more premeditated in what she does, with a more tragic back story. That makes this movie a little sobering at times, but it's still always on Lily's side against the hapless men she manipulates to get ahead, just using whatever advantages she can find in a system that is rigged against her.

Honorable mentions: Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg, 2015); Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994); Girls About Town (George Cukor, 1931); A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

Previous lists:

Friday, December 28, 2018

The best movies of 2018

I wrote a lot of things about a lot of movies in a lot of places this year, but I don't have an official outlet for my top 10 list, so it's ended up here. These are the movies I enjoyed most in 2018, along with some honorable mentions, some favorite performances, and (why not?) a few picks for the worst of the year, too.

1. Thoroughbreds The biting wit, both verbal and visual, on display in writer-director Cory Finley's debut feature is pretty astonishing, aided by fantastic lead performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) and Olivia Cooke as two dysfunctional teenage girls plotting a murder. (Credit also to the late Anton Yelchin for some vital supporting work in one of his last onscreen roles.) This is a movie that builds slowly and inexorably, with a final line that clarifies and illuminates everything that came before it. I first saw it very early in the year (in March), but it stuck with me the entire time, and a recent second viewing just solidified its position at the top of the list. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

2. Disobedience The English-language debut from Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman) is another sensitive portrait of marginalized women, in this case two queer women in London's Orthodox Jewish community. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are both excellent as the old lovers who deal with forbidden emotions when they unexpectedly reunite, and Alessandro Nivola turns what could have been a one-dimensional agent of oppression into a nuanced character torn between his community's values and his commitment to seeing his wife happy. The movie is sensual and passionate but never salacious, treating its characters' desires with tenderness and understanding.

3. The Kindergarten Teacher Maggie Gyllenhaal gives possibly the best performance of her career in Sara Colangelo's remake of the 2014 Israeli film about a kindergarten teacher who becomes dangerously obsessed with one of her students. Gyllenhaal and Colangelo take what could have been an off-putting, unpleasant character and make her sympathetic and tragic, even when her decisions are so obviously misguided and self-destructive (and tough to watch). It's an extremely delicate balance, especially when the character's actions potentially put a child at risk, but the movie pulls it off by focusing on raw emotions and never sensationalizing its central relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

4. Cold War Pawel Pawlikowski's romantic drama set against the backdrop of 1950s-era European Communism is as gorgeous as his last film, 2013's Ida, with the same museum-quality black-and-white, Academy-ratio cinematography, in service of a story that's a bit more visceral and immediate. Thomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are wonderful as the star-crossed Polish lovers (Kulig especially), and Pawlikowski beautifully captures every triumph and heartbreak of their stormy, melancholy relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

5. Annihilation I was fascinated by Jeff VanderMeer's novel, and even though Alex Garland's film adaptation changes a lot, it still captures the sense of dread and unease in the expedition of five scientists to a mysterious contaminated area on the American coast, possibly inhabited by aliens or elder gods or something. Garland makes some aspects of the story more explicit and others more opaque, but in all cases he finds beauty in the grotesque and horrible, and the cast led by Natalie Portman brings a delicate humanity to the increasingly inhuman encounters.

6. Leave No Trace The father-daughter relationship at the center of Debra Granik's adaptation of Peter Rock's novel is both dysfunctional and heartwarming, with Ben Foster and impressive newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie embodying the fragile dynamic between a mentally ill parent and a teenager forced to take on too much responsibility. The movie is also lovely and meditative, full of quiet moments as the characters commune with their delicate natural surroundings. More thoughts in my review for The Inlander.

7. First Reformed Ethan Hawke's captivating performance drives Paul Schrader's disquieting and transporting examination of a pastor on the edge, who's contemplating the destructiveness of human behavior in contrast to the immense beauty of the universe (and of a fierce, pure-hearted wife and mother played by a radiant Amanda Seyfried).

8. Eighth Grade Elsie Fisher is so authentic as gawky teenager Kayla that it can be physically painful to watch as she navigates the endless pitfalls of junior high, but Bo Burnham's debut feature is so warm and genuine that it finds hope and humor even in the most unpleasant and cruel teenage interactions.

9. Never Goin' Back I feel like it's been my mission this year to promote Augustine Frizzell's hilarious and affecting stoner comedy about two teenage-girl best friends in grubby south Texas, and I'll say again that the lead performances from Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone should have made them stars, and this movie should have been a mainstream hit on the level of Superbad or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

10. Damsel The movies of brothers David and Nathan Zellner can be pretty polarizing, and I've been irritated and exasperated by their work as often as I've been entertained. But I really connected with the bone-dry humor and oddball performances (by Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson and David Zellner himself) in this deliberately confounding Western. More thoughts in my Las Vegas Film Festival recap.

Honorable mentions: Bisbee '17, Gemini, Minding the Gap, The Old Man & the Gun, Revenge, Searching, A Simple Favor, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Suspiria

Top five lead performances: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher; Ethan Hawke, First Reformed; Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds; Joanna Kulig, Cold War; John Cho, Searching

Top five supporting performances: Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed; Mia Wasikowska, Damsel; Blake Lively, A Simple Favor; Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Steve Buscemi, Nancy

Worst movies of 2018 (theatrical releases only): The 15:17 to Paris, Show Dogs, Truth or Dare, Demon House, Destroyer, Hunter Killer

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Flight 313: The Conspiracy' (2015)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I wouldn't have expected a serious drama about airline safety regulations to join the ranks of movies that get retitled for home video release with the number 13 in order to make them sound more ominous, but that's exactly what happened to the British social-issue drama A Dark Reflection, released on VOD in the U.S. as Flight 313: The Conspiracy. Really, both of the movie's titles promise more intrigue than is actually on display in what is essentially a dramatized position paper about the phenomenon known as "aerotoxic syndrome."

That's the idea, still mostly unsubstantiated, that the air in commercial airliner cabins is contaminated by chemicals from jet engines, causing illness in both passengers and crew members. Flight 313 director, co-writer, producer and editor Tristan Loraine is a former British Airways pilot, and the movie was financed entirely by airline crew unions and other advocacy groups. So it's mostly concerned with sending a message, which makes the narrative and character development secondary to the political and social cause. That's fine for a documentary, but it means that Flight 313 is clumsy, ineffective drama that frequently pauses to deliver dry statistics and explanations of the mechanics of jet engines.

Loraine clearly wants to emulate crusading-journalist dramas like The Insider, The China Syndrome and All the President's Men (even explicitly referencing Woodward and Bernstein at one point), but there's very little suspense in the story of newspaper reporter Helen Eastman (Georgina Sutcliffe) and her efforts to expose a cover-up of toxic cabin air at fictional airline JaspAir. Helen and her colleague Natasha Stevens (Rita Ramnani) very slowly connect the dots from the "near-miss" landing of the titular flight to JaspAir's policy of ignoring and hiding evidence of contamination in its cabins.

The drama here is mostly inert, though, and the characters are one-dimensional ciphers representing various points of view on the issue, even as Loraine attempts to flesh out a bit of Helen's back story (via an opening sequence set in the Middle East, where she witnesses a co-worker get killed). None of the flimsy character beats are relevant to the story, and the dialogue is always clunky and awkward, whether it's expressing outrage over toxic air or attempting to convey personal feelings. Plus, half the time it's muddled and difficult to make out. From a technical standpoint, Flight 313 comes across as a movie made by someone with more passion than skill, and while it's hard to fault Loraine for wanting to call attention to what he believes is an important issue, framing that issue as a dull movie-of-the-week-style drama isn't going to win him very many supporters.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Unit' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Yet another example of a direct-to-video movie retitled with the number 13 to make it sound more menacing (or maybe just more memorable), The 13th Unit originally had the much more evocative title of The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Maybe it's better that it ended up with a blander title, because there's no way this cheap-looking, repetitive, poorly acted and incoherently plotted movie could ever live up to something as grandiose as The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Clearly inspired by the filmmakers' access to a single location (a labyrinthine self-storage facility), Unit introduces some nonsensical mythology as an excuse to slowly kill off a variety of annoying characters wandering around this vast complex (yet rarely ever encountering each other).

Opening title cards explain that this site was previously a warehouse where a group of criminals gathered following a museum heist, only to be mysteriously slaughtered, with the artifacts they stole never recovered. After that, there's a prologue featuring various irritating characters at the storage facility, being targeted by an entity of some kind (indicated by sinister POV shots, mostly). Then there's an opening-credits sequence of a shadowy figure engaged in some sort of demonic ritual. And then there's yet another set-up scene of our three main characters explaining the exact same background that was detailed in the opening title cards (complete with terrible fake-looking vintage newspaper articles).

Finally, the movie begins, although there's really not much to distinguish the main action from what happens in the prologue, other than that we get to spend more time with these particular annoying characters and hear them whine about their back story. Maybe the demon that killed the criminals back in the 1930s is back? Maybe it was summoned by the ritual during the opening credits? Maybe it's unleashed when the three dumb protagonists open the box that those criminals stole decades ago (which they find in like 10 minutes after apparently no one could locate it for years)? Maybe it's not a demon at all, but a kind of infectious ooze that causes people to go crazy and turn on their friends?

The answer to all of those questions is an indifferent shrug, and writer-director Theophilus Lacey haphazardly posits various half-formed explanations for what's happening. Some of the characters clearly do end up possessed by some black goo and turn violent, but other characters are clearly killed by some sort of monster that never fully appears onscreen. Both the demonic summoning and the discovery of the artifacts occur around the time of the attacks, but some attacks seem to start before either of those things happen. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, since these grating characters, who spend almost all of their screen time yelling at each other about either their personal squabbles or their deadly predicament, totally deserve whatever gruesome fate they encounter, by whatever means.

Plenty of low-budget horror movies have made great use of a single available location, and the storage facility has lots of potential (anyone who's been in one of those places late at night can attest to its inherent creepiness). But Lacey doesn't capitalize on any of that potential, just having his characters literally cover the same ground over and over again. Onscreen titles meant to convey where each character is only add to the confusing inconsistency (levels are variously referred to as "lower level X," "sub-level X" or just "X levels below"), and there's nothing narratively unique about the setting. It's the ultimate squandered opportunity in a movie that drops the ball at pretty much every possible chance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

VODepths: 'Death Kiss,' 'E-Demon,' 'The Landing'

Death Kiss (Robert Kovacs, Eva Hamilton, Daniel Baldwin, dir. Rene Perez) From writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer Rene Perez, Death Kiss is one of the oddest projects I've covered in this column. The movie seems to exist for no other reason than to showcase star Robert "Bronzi" Kovacs' resemblance to the late Charles Bronson, which is indeed uncanny. The title deliberately references Bronson classic Death Wish, and Kovacs plays a character who dresses like Bronson's Death Wish character Paul Kersey and dishes out vigilante justice. But rather than remaking Death Wish or constructing another similar revenge story, Perez has created an almost entirely plotless movie, mostly just a series of disconnected vignettes showing Kovacs' mysterious "K" gunning down various criminals. K gets no back story and no motivation, and when the movie begins he's already stalking the streets of an unnamed city, looking for bad guys to kill. He doesn't have much of a moral code, either; at one point he saves a woman from being raped and then forces her to kill one of her attackers so that she's complicit in the crime and won't go to the police. He does "penance" by sending money to a single mother and her crippled daughter, and the thin explanation for that is the closest he gets to character development. Daniel Baldwin shows up in a few interludes as a ranting right-wing radio host whose connection to K reveals the whole movie as a rabid fascist fantasy. But it's too poorly acted, poorly shot, poorly paced and poorly dubbed for the political message to make much of a difference. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

E-Demon (Julia Kelly, John Anthony Wylliams, Christopher Daftsios, dir. Jeremy Wechter) Although producer Timur Bekmambetov has gotten a lot attention for his line of "screen life" movies (including Searching and the Unfriended series), he doesn't have a monopoly on the concept of movies that take place entirely on a computer screen. As the mediocre found-footage horror movie E-Demon proves, though, he's clearly figured out that aesthetic better than most. Writer-director Jeremy Wechter makes minimal use of the myriad possibilities of the internet in his story of online possession, mainly just cycling through a series of video-chat windows and headset-mounted webcams that are very similar to the style of other, non-online-based found-footage movies. The movie's main characters (engagingly played by the cast of unknowns) are four former college friends catching up via online chat from their homes in various cities, enjoying banter and pranks until one of them accidentally unleashes a demon that's been trapped in a mirror in his family's attic. The demon quickly begins possessing people through internet-enabled cameras, which is kind of a cool and creepy idea that gets lost under typical horror-movie demon hunting in the third act. Wechter sparingly augments the video-chat windows with text chats and online research, but E-Demon mostly squanders its technological potential, instead settling into familiar B-horror rhythms. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Landing (Don Hannah, Warren Farina, Jeff McVey, dir. David Dodson and Mark Dodson) Anyone coming into The Landing completely cold might be convinced for quite a while that the movie was a genuine historical documentary about the failures of the 1973 Apollo 18 mission to the moon, which in reality never occurred. Only when filmmakers David and Mark Dodson start getting into the use of neurotoxins by potential double agents working for the Chinese government does it become obvious that the movie is a work of fiction (and even then, some gullible viewers might still take the story as fact). With their mix of talking-head interviews (labeled as taking place in 1998), pseudo-re-enactments and faked archival footage (most of which is quite realistic), the Dodsons mimic the structure and style of a midrange investigative documentary so effectively that The Landing can sometimes be tedious to watch. Rather than building to twists or revelations in the story of how the Apollo 18 astronauts ended up landing in the Chinese wilderness rather than the Pacific Ocean, the movie merely throws out a bunch of competing theories and leaves them for the audience to ponder. That's probably how a real documentary would work, especially one depicting conflicting accounts that can never be proved or disproved, but as a fictional story that aims to thrill and surprise, The Landing is more admirable than engrossing. Available on Amazon.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Chambers' (2017)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Although it's been billed as a horror anthology, 13 Chambers doesn't feature much that could be categorized as horror, and its 13 segments are closer to formalist experiments than anything scary or creepy. Most feature no dialogue and no plot, just various images and movements meant to convey a feeling or mood, and most of those fail, evoking just frustration and bafflement. Watching the 13 "chambers" in this movie felt like watching a particularly annoying avant-garde shorts program at a pretentious film festival, and by the last few segments I had almost completely tuned out.

That made it especially tough to focus on, say, the segment that is essentially just vague shadows behind a blindingly white screen for several minutes, but even the segments with more going on are just as much of a slog, with very few exceptions. By far the best segment (and not coincidentally pretty much the only one with anything resembling a plot or characters) is Lindy Boustedt's Liminal, about a man returning to the empty shell of his former elementary school and meeting the grown-up version of his childhood imaginary friend. It turns out that the friend may not have been so imaginary, and what follows is a smart and moving exploration of alternate universes and the regrets of aging.

I couldn't find anything smart or moving or even mildly engaging in any of the other segments, all of which take place within the same decaying building and are created by female filmmakers. The site-specific nature of the project (which was actually shot in a building slated for demolition) may have pushed some of the filmmakers toward making abstract pieces that could be shot quickly without a lot of advance planning, but that's no excuse for the barrage of inexplicable images (and, as one Letterboxd reviewer notes, the surprisingly substantial amount of interpretive dance).

The fact that 13 Chambers isn't actually a horror anthology isn't a problem, although the world could use more female-driven horror anthologies. The problem is that it's not much of anything, created to fill an arbitrary mandate in a limited period of time, like a fancy version of something like the 48 Hour Film Project. Challenges like this may be good learning experiences for filmmakers, but that doesn't mean that audiences should be subjected to watching them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

VODepths anthology edition: 'A.I. Tales,' 'A Taste of Phobia'

A.I. Tales The four segments in the sci-fi anthology A.I. Tales are all independently produced shorts that were then collected together to be released as a feature, which means they have very little in common stylistically or thematically (also, none of them actually deals with artificial intelligence). Watching this movie felt a bit like watching the sci-fi program at a short film festival (that's always one of my favorites at the Dam Short Film Festival), only without the one or two shorts that usually stand out. All four of the shorts here start with solid sci-fi premises (an overpopulated future where people are forcibly euthanized at 40; a woman signing up for a mission to Mars; a post-apocalyptic band of nomads stumbling across a secret bunker; a scientist with a homemade time machine) but fumble the follow-through, with clunky dialogue, unappealing characters and weak plotting. None of the filmmakers seems to know how to craft an ending, and all four shorts just kind of stop without resolutions (it's not surprising that one is credited as being based on a feature script). Throwing all four together doesn't make them stronger; it just makes their shortcomings more glaring. Available on Vimeo and elsewhere.

A Taste of Phobia Like The ABCs of Death, horror anthology A Taste of Phobia features a collection of filmmakers creating segments around a particular theme, which in this case is various phobias (or possibly made-up phobias). Also like The ABCs of Death, Phobia is mostly terrible, as the majority of filmmakers fail to do anything interesting (or even, much of the time, competent) with the subject matter. The 15 segments are largely slapdash and amateurish, relying on gross-outs over scares and sometimes only tangentially connected to the supposed theme. There are a few with stylish visuals, but the occasional striking image doesn't compensate for the consistently poor writing, and most segments barely even craft a story, settling for cheap shock value rather than a compelling narrative. There's a framing sequence (which eventually leads into the final segment) of a woman sitting on her couch watching the other segments, and she looks bored and annoyed most of the time, like she's just waiting for the movie she's in to be over. It's disappointingly easy to relate to her. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Was a Judas' (1971)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A spaghetti Western with a plot that resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery, 13 Was a Judas (also known as The Last Traitor) is an odd hybrid that doesn't really work, although it has some scuzzy B-movie charm. The title comes from the apparent superstition that 13 people at a table is bad luck, and that's exactly what Confederate army veteran Ned Carter (Donald O'Brien) has at his wedding banquet in Sonora, Mexico, where he's gathered a group of outlaws and miscreants to celebrate his impending betrothal to Maribel (Adriana Giuffrè). But before the wedding can even begin, the stagecoach carrying Maribel arrives with all of its passengers dead, slaughtered by some unknown assailants.

Thus begins a series of investigations and accusations among the 13 men, along with some of the residents of the small Mexican town where they've been taking refuge. There are the requisite twists and double-crosses, although most of the characters aren't particularly well-defined, so it's tough to figure out whom to root for, or even how some of the men are connected to each other. The plotting relies on flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue to eventually explain the motivations behind each killing, as the members of the group also start getting picked off one by one. (Not surprisingly, there's a hidden cache of gold that everyone is after.) Despite all the talk, though, the eventual explanations aren't exactly satisfying, or even entirely clear.

As is customary with spaghetti Westerns, the dialogue from the mostly Italian actors (O'Brien aside) is dubbed into English, which is always awkward but is notably poor here, with too many voices that sound similar to each other. It's hard enough to tell some of the characters apart, but it becomes even more difficult in crowded scenes when the dubbing obscures who is talking to whom at any given moment. The voice acting is stiff, which is especially detrimental to a story that features more talk than action.

There are some evocative moments, though, including the semi-impressionistic flashbacks, and while it's frustrating not to have a real protagonist to focus on, it's also impressive how committed the movie is to making all of its characters reprehensible outlaws, even the one who emerges as a sort of hero at the end. Unlike a typical Agatha Christie story, which would end with the genius detective wrapping things up neatly, Judas ends on a hollow victory, the mystery not so much solved as obliterated. It's an admirably bleak conclusion, but the journey to get there is far too clumsy and uneven to be satisfying.

Monday, September 03, 2018

VODepths: 'Euthanizer,' 'The Forest of the Lost Souls,' 'Searching for Fortune'

Euthanizer (Matti Onnismaa, Jari Virman, Hannamaija Nikander, dir. Teemu Nikki) True to its title, the bleak Finnish drama Euthanizer starts out with a cat being put to death, and things do not get cheerier from there. The title character (Matti Onnismaa) is a gruff mechanic who has a side business in putting animals down, for prices much lower than at the veterinarian's office. His methods are much cruder, too: For smaller animals, he has a makeshift gas chamber in the back of a car, and for larger animals, it's a bullet to the head out in the woods behind his shop. When Veijo the euthanizer crosses paths with the members of a white supremacist gang, it seems inevitable that he'll bring his euthanizing talents to humans. But that's not quite what happens here, since Veijo is only interested in being left alone and upholding his peculiar code of ethics, which has no tolerance for mistreatment of animals but doesn't apply the same standards to people. Veijo starts up a relationship with the nurse caring for his dying father, but this guy is clearly not cut out for normal human interaction. Parts of Euthanizer are darkly funny, while other parts are painfully difficult to watch (this is definitely not a movie for animal lovers), but Onnismaa ties them all together with a fascinating performance, and his nuanced portrayal of Veijo helps the movie earn its darker and darker turns. It's never obvious or predictable, and its off-kilter rhythms keep it from just wallowing in misery. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Forest of the Lost Souls (Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, dir. José Pedro Lopes) The prologue of the Portuguese art-horror film The Forest of the Lost Souls is a haunting, wordless sequence featuring a young woman in the title location, an eerie wilderness similar to the Aokigahara forest in Japan, where people come for solitude and isolation when they plan to commit suicide. This unknown woman moves with determination toward her death, and the movie follows that with an evocative opening-credits sequence featuring stop-motion animation. It sets the tone for a somber, reflective movie, but writer-director José Pedro Lopes doesn't quite follow through, at least not in the way that the opening would indicate. The rest of the film is divided into two sections, the first featuring another young woman (Daniela Love) and an older man (Jorge Mota) in the forest, trading thoughts on their impending suicides. It's a somewhat ponderous but still intriguing examination of mortality, that then shifts gears entirely into a sort of slasher movie, as the young woman targets a family for revenge (for reasons that are never specified). That abrupt change in location and styles leads the movie into less unique, less intriguing territory, although the black-and-white cinematography remains lovely throughout, with some striking shot compositions, and Love is creepy as the unfeeling killer. But what started out as something distinctive and stylish ends as empty B-horror provocation. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Searching for Fortune (Brian Smolensky, Christina Moore, John Heard, dir. Joseph Matarrese) Writer and star Brian Smolensky personally asked me to review this movie (and even complimented one of my other reviews, with specific examples, in his pitch!), so I'm sorry that I don't have more positive things to say about it. Smolensky plays Mike, a hardscrabble oil driller in Colorado who spends his off time drinking, picking up women and getting into bar fights, and lives in a trailer strewn with dirty clothes because he's a man's man and can't be bothered with domestic niceties (also, he never closes the door when he comes home, which I found really distracting throughout the movie). His world is rocked when Emily (Christina Moore) shows up on his doorstep and reveals that he had an older brother who was given up for adoption, and that brother has just been killed on active military duty in Afghanistan. Emily, the brother's widow, then asks Mike to help her have a child, since he's the closest thing she has left to her late husband. What follows is an awkward mix of pseudo-romance (there is some seriously inappropriate sexual tension between Mike and Emily), earnest working-class drama and family soap opera, with some very clunky dialogue. The lead performances are decent, with John Heard (in his final role) delivering a soulful turn as Mike's dad, and there is some lovely footage of rural Colorado (captured on Super 16mm film). But the plot proceeds in awkward fits and starts, the bonding scenes between Mike and his macho buddies are painfully stilted, and the resolution is abrupt and dissatisfying. Available on Amazon.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13' (1986)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Also known by the more accurate title City in Panic, the 1986 Canadian exploitation movie 13 is a weird mix of surprisingly forward-thinking social commentary and typically grubby low-budget slasher-movie aesthetics. The acting is terrible, the pacing is awkward, the dialogue is blunt and utilitarian, and some of the camerawork is seriously questionable (although I saw the movie on Amazon Prime in what was obviously a rip from a degraded VHS copy, so I may not be able to accurately judge the visual style). But this is a movie from 1986 that explicitly takes on the AIDS epidemic, with an often compassionate (if also sometimes clueless) perspective on tolerance and understanding for those afflicted.

That is, of course, contained within a plot about a serial killer stalking the streets of an unnamed city (shot in Toronto), and an edgy radio talk-show host basically taunting the killer. The movie's hero is Dave Miller (David Adamson), who's kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and who becomes bait for the killer known as M when he encourages the mysterious figure to call in to his show. M brutally slashes his victims and carves an M into their flesh, and police soon discover that all of the victims have AIDS, and most are gay men. There are some crude ideas about homosexuality and the spread of AIDS in this movie, but there's also a blatantly homophobic and sexist police detective who is consistently chastised and corrected by his colleagues, as a sort of avatar of outdated, intolerant attitudes (that also hinder the investigation).

Somehow Dave's friends and colleagues seem to be disproportionately afflicted with AIDS (and are all keeping it a secret), so a bunch of people that he knows fall victim to the killer. Some of the murders are staged with style, including an opening that mimics the famous shower scene from Psycho and a particularly gruesome scene in which a man gets his penis chopped off at a glory hole. The movie tries to walk a line between salaciousness and thoughtfulness, and it doesn't really succeed, in part because the acting is so uniformly awful that none of the more sensitive moments are particularly convincing, and in part because the low-budget effects are also not all that convincing, despite the homages to classic films (Fritz Lang's M, namesake of the killer, also gets referenced). The AIDS angle is really just a framework for your typical serial-killer cheapie, with a rushed resolution to its mystery topped off by some condescending moralizing by Dave in a closing voiceover. It's not exactly a shining example of social progress, but at least it has a few distinctive elements.

Monday, August 06, 2018

The stilted cowboy poetry of 'The Rider'

Positioned somewhere between naturalistic drama and impressionistic documentary, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider never quite captures the strengths of either one, even with a cast full of compelling characters (or are they subjects?). Zhao casts former rodeo competitor Brady Jandreau and his family and friends as versions of themselves, telling a story drawn from their real-life experiences. The result is a movie that has moments of unvarnished honesty, but is also full of stilted, uncomfortable interactions with the occasional undercurrent of exploitation.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who when the movie opens has just checked himself out of the hospital against medical advice following a serious head injury suffered in the rodeo ring. After a fairly graphic scene of Brady using a knife to pry out the staples holding a bandage to his head wound and a reunion between Brady and his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), the movie cuts to some amount of time later, with Brady’s hair now mostly covering the scar on his skull, although he’s clearly not completely recovered.

Brady may never completely recover, and the conflict between his desire to return to the rodeo and his need to preserve his fragile health forms the core of the movie. Brady putters aimlessly around the family home (which is a trailer), joking and arguing with his dad and his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). He reluctantly takes a job at a local grocery store, and also starts working as a horse trainer, even though he isn’t in stable enough physical condition to ride horses for any amount of time. Whenever anyone asks, he says he’s taking a little time off before returning to professional riding, although it’s pretty clear that he’s fooling himself.

Brady also spends time visiting his buddy Lane Scott (as himself), another former rodeo star who’s now mostly paralyzed and unable to speak, living in a full-time care facility. They watch videos from Lane’s rodeo glory days and even prop Lane up on a makeshift saddle to practice riding as if he, too, could someday return to the ring. These are the scenes that feel the most exploitative, as Scott (like Jandreau) suffered very real injuries (albeit in a car accident, not in the rodeo), as is readily apparent in his performance.

Brady’s interactions with Lilly also have a sort of queasy awkwardness, although most of the movie is more sensitive, especially to Brady’s internal conflict over whether to ignore his doctors’ advice and literally get back on the horse. There’s nothing quite as bad here as the non-professional performances in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, but most of the dialogue scenes come off as artificial and forced, which is surely the opposite of what Zhao was aiming for. Brady Jandreau gives the most convincing, fully realized performance, conveying his anguish and melancholy in quiet scenes of solitude, as he slowly trains a new horse or just stares off into the South Dakota skyline, pondering his uncertain future.

That South Dakota scenery is one of the movie’s major assets, and Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards take full advantage of it, shooting gorgeous vistas of empty, open prairie, capturing the loneliness and isolation (along with beauty and tranquility) that surround the characters. Zhao immersed herself in the South Dakota Native American community for both The Rider and her debut feature, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and her affection and respect for the culture and the people come through in the film she’s made. It’s a lovingly shot ode to a dying corner of American society—it’s just not particularly effective as a dramatic narrative.

Available on home video tomorrow.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Jaws: The Revenge' (1987)

There are many, many (many, many) shark movies that are worse than Jaws: The Revenge, but probably none are quite as notorious for their awfulness. Bad low-budget shark movies are a dime a dozen, but there are only four official movies in the Jaws series, so for one of them to be among the worst movies ever made (by some estimations) is far more noteworthy than some indie filmmaker producing a terrible shark movie with a pun for a title and a budget of $1.98. The Revenge was a major studio release of summer 1987, bringing back one of the main stars of the first two Jaws movies (Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody) and co-starring big-name actor Michael Caine. And yet it's nearly as entertainingly terrible as something like Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast.

Blatantly ignoring the events of Jaws 3, The Revenge picks up with the Brody family in pretty good shape, although patriarch Martin (Roy Scheider, running far away from this movie) has apparently died of a heart attack between movies. His widow Ellen seems relatively upbeat, however, happy that her younger son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) is following in his father's footsteps as a sheriff's deputy in their coastal hometown of Amity Island, and keeping in touch with older son Mike (Lance Guest), who's working as a marine biologist in the Bahamas, where he lives with his artist wife Carla (Karen Young) and their ultra-annoying five-year-old daughter Thea (Judith Barsi). But their tranquility is soon shattered when Sean is killed by a shark, and Ellen becomes obsessed with the idea that the shark from the previous movies is coming to seek revenge on the Brodies.

Never mind that two separate sharks terrorizing Amity Island were killed in the first two movies, or that the sharks in the third movie (which, again, is completely ignored here) had no connection to those other sharks. No one bothers to remind Ellen that her late husband already killed two sharks, and there's no speculation about whether this is somehow a relative of the original shark(s), or a reincarnation or what. She seeks a fresh start by temporarily moving in with Mike and his family in the Bahamas, and the shark somehow follows her all the way there, targeting family members including little Thea, who wasn't even alive when the original shark(s) were killed (or not killed, or whatever).

The idea of the shark taking revenge on the Brodies is absurd, of course, but the movie could be more fun to watch if writer Michael de Guzman and director Joseph Sargent played up the pseudo-mystical angle a bit more, going all-in on Ellen's psychic premonitions about the shark and the shark's apparently preternatural abilities to identify and track the members of the Brody family. Instead the movie wastes time with a half-assed romance between Ellen and Caine's roguish pilot Hoagie, who get thrown together seemingly just because they're the only two middle-aged people in the cast. There's also far too much material with Mike's Bahamian research partner Jake, played by Mario Van Peebles with an "island" accent that sounds like the characters from the In Living Color "Hey Mon" sketches.

Perhaps worst of all, the production values are so low that the shark attacks aren't remotely scary or intense. Despite more than a decade of advances in special effects, the shark looks faker than ever, and Sargent completely fails to build up any suspense for the attacks. Although it features a few quotably awful lines ("I've always wanted to make love to an angry welder" is Mike's come-on to his sculptor wife), The Revenge isn't self-aware enough to make any clever commentary on its own ridiculousness. and any comedic value comes from the general lack of filmmaking standards. Almost every micro-budget shark attack movie these days knows to make a few jokes at its own expense, but The Revenge plays everything depressingly straight.