Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Citizen X (1995)

The early 80s in Soviet Russia. Policemen stumble upon a number of corpses in the woods. Most of the dead are children and teenagers, who have been stabbed, mutilated and raped before and after death. Nobody seems to care too much, but newly appointed forensics scientist Viktor Burakov doesn’t just care, he is convinced these are the victims of a serial killer (Jeffrey DeMunn) who picks out his victims from the young and the destitute in railway stations. He is even be able to convince his direct superior, Colonel Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) of the truth of his conclusion, so Fetisov makes Burakov an actual policeman and gives the case to him. However, this being the Soviet bureaucracy in its worst phase, Fetisov has other bureaucrats to appease. It doesn’t help that Burakov has somehow managed not to learn some basic techniques of survival, like never saying what one truly thinks to hard-line bureaucrats, so he early on actively antagonizes exactly the sort of people who’ll go out of their way to put stones in his way for the next decade, a mounting pile of bodies be damned.

Then there’s the little problem that serial killers are obviously a product of the decadent Western lifestyle and just don’t exist in the USSR, so there’s no infrastructure at all to deal with a case like this, even if the bureaucracy were able to accept it. Instead, Burakov is ordered to round up “known homosexuals” and has to listen to complaints about investigating party members in good standing. Despite a heavy psychological and personal toll, the hatred of his superiors except Fetisov - who increasingly becomes his ally and friend - and little resources, Burakov keeps on the case over years, until the dawning of perestroika makes it possible for him to take steps that can lead to the apprehension of the killer.

(Freely) based on the actual case of the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo and the men who tried to catch him, Chris Gerolmo’s HBO TV movie is an exceptional film. Well, except for the absurd – and given the high standards of the rest of the production patently ridiculous – decision to have the actors play their roles with fake Russian accents, the sort of thing that’s okay – yet still stupid – in a pulp fantasy context but that’s tonally completely out of whack with a film like this.

For the film plays out as a dark, earnest, character-based police procedural without action scenes and little on-screen violence, with the wrinkle that in its historical context, quite a bit of the procedural aspect is political in nature and concerned with Burakov’s first surprised, then angry and later depressed attempts to get the Soviet bureaucracy to see reason, something no bureaucracy tends to be well equipped for at the best of times and in the best of places – and the USSR in the 80s certainly was not the best of much. Through Burakov’s eyes, the film paints a picture of the USSR of the time as a place of quiet desperation where the greyness of the surroundings seems to wash into the minds of people who mostly seem beaten and bruised far before the end of the Soviet Union, living as they do in a country that seems a lot like a corpse that just hasn’t realized it is dead. Obviously, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to a specific time and place, and it is therefor not difficult at all to also apply the film’s view to other times and places – and not just under strictly totalitarian systems – where a culture of not seeing, not speaking, and scapegoating dominates; not always as obviously and heavily as in the film, but “not as bad as a utopian dream gone bad” isn’t much of a compliment.

However, despite its bleak portrayal of Soviet life, Citizen X isn’t a hopeless film. It also shows how Burakov’s tenacity and passion (and how Communist is the idea of this guy spending his whole life to improve that of his community?) slowly burns through Fetisov’s detached cynicism and turns that effective functionary into a human being again; and in the end, it also shows them catching Chikatilo.

Its treatment of Chikatilo – with whom we spend a few scenes from time to time during the investigation – is very typical of the film. Instead of going through melodramatic contortions and portraying him as a monster with the usual eye-rolling and “quid pro quo, Clarice”-ing, the film and DeMunn characterize him in a much more disturbing way: as a small, sad, pathetic man committing monstrous acts for reasons he clearly can’t fully comprehend, inadvertently enabled by a time and place that can’t even find enough passion to care about dozens of murdered children.

The acting is generally excellent, with half a dozen brilliant performances, all lacking in showiness yet full of nuance and a feeling of human veracity so strong, after twenty minutes or so I didn’t even hear the stupid accents anymore because I was too engrossed in what the characters were saying, what they could only express through their body languages, and why.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

In short: Final Destination 5 (2011)

By the time the fifth Final Destination movie rolled around, even the chaps at New Line Cinema (at least those that weren’t so embarrassed by the fourth film they still thought about the franchise at all) must have realized that the series’ basic idea actually lends itself very badly to it being a franchise, what with its lack of a visible antagonist (which ironically was one of the strengths of the first pre-franchise film) or much room for any interesting plotting. Sure, you can do another round of Rube Goldberg device style deaths interspersed with some more in your face carnage and invent another new rule for death (or is it Death?) to follow and roll out Tony Todd again to expose about it, but even an undemanding audience is going to get bored by the shtick rather sooner than later, particularly since the fourth and worst film already promised to be the last one. The film at hand actually tries to get around that last problem with a particularly smug gotcha ending, so I’ll probably have to at least give it credit for trying.

Otherwise, the producers kinda-sorta listened to their hearts and waved the series goodbye with Steven Quale’s outing (written by Eric Heisserer who seems to have specialized in nearly good scripts before hitting the big leagues in critical acclaim for the nearly good script to Arrival) with kills too full of references to the originals to be exciting for anyone not interested in the minutiae of the franchise, a particularly ill fitting new rule for Death, and said twist ending that would be clever if it weren’t so annoying in its smugness.

The new batch of Death meat is okay enough – though I certainly prefer the victims from films one and three – but I can’t say the film does terribly much for me, seeing as it just repeats the stuff that was original in the first movie and fun in the first three, and adds little to it but that most horrible of things – continuity wank.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Haunting of Seacliff Inn (1994)

Yuppie couple Susan (Ally Sheedy) and Mark Enright (William R. Moses) are giving up on the big city lifestyle to open up an inn – really a bed and breakfast place – in a small California coast town. It’s an attempt to get their marriage back on track after Mark cheated on Susan, which sounds like a bad plan to me, but what do I know?

When the Enrights have already decided on a house to buy for their genius plan, Susan takes one look at a different place and feels at once drawn to it, as if it were calling to her. Too bad the house already belongs to a nice, elderly lady who doesn’t want to sell. But what do you know? She conveniently dies the day after the Enrights visited her, so it looks as if the Enrights can go about building their dream inn in Susan’s dream house.

However, something’s certainly not right with the house: Susan has strange visions, feelings and dreams; curious accidents happen; a rather mysterious stranger (Lucinda Weist) appears and disappears as their first guest and seems rather interested in seducing Mark; and a black dog that certainly doesn’t act normal threatens. Why, you might think the house is haunted and has some sinister interest in pushing the couple into repeating a dreadful sin of the past!

If you’re going into Walter Klenhard’s TV movie The Haunting of Seacliff Inn expecting a standard horror film, you’ll probably be disappointed by its rather mild nature. This is more in the tradition of the second coming of the Gothic Romance that mostly happened in paperbacks – predominantly marketed to women – during the 70s and later, and filtered through the filter of a TV channel that certainly was rather more tame than HBO.

However, there is of course nothing wrong at all with the ghost story tradition this film belongs to, and while I generally prefer my ghost stories a bit nastier, and their ghosts rather more unpleasant to look at, I did enjoy my time with the film quite a bit. Klenhard (also working as a co-writer) certainly makes the most out of pleasantly shuddery shots of the coast line set to Shirley Walker’s romantically sumptuous score (which – as is typical of Walker’s TV scores as far as I know them – doesn’t sound much like a typical TV score at all), and while he’s never going all out on the horror, the ghostly attacks and visions are generally creepy and never feel harmless. I’m also very fond of the film’s use of a black dog which adds a folkloric edge to the film, giving it a pleasant resonance with quite a bit of British supernatural lore concerning these creatures.

Klenhard handles the Enrights’ marriage troubles very well, too, adding an appropriate dramatic punch to scenes that often feel very much like a real couple fighting – which means they often transfer the core problems of their relationship onto some minor crap, so they can become bitter about things of little to no import instead of facing their actual troubles. And as any fool knows, ghosts really like to wallow in this sort of thing, particularly the evil ones with their tendency to see the smallest parallel between their lives and those of the living as an invitation to cause bad history to repeat itself.

As a whole, The Haunting of Seacliff Inn is a well made and effective example of a type of ghost story one doesn’t encounter too often on screen (large or small); one of those films that knows exactly what it is and wants to be, and then proceeds to be just that.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


The Black Room (2016): Softcore veteran director Rolfe Kanefsky here turns his gaze to the seldom effective genre of the softcore sex horror comedy, delivering nothing to write home about. Nudity-wise, the film is surprisingly restrained, probably because it managed to catch Natasha Henstridge for the protagonist role but clearly can’t afford for her to take her kit off, leaving the bit of sleaze it does offer in the hands of the other actresses and Lukas Hassel. It doesn’t much matter anyhow, for the supposedly sexy bits – apart from some pretty damn embarrassing stuff like Henstridge having her way with a washing machine or the other way round – usually go hand in hand with the gory bits, keeping The Black Room away from possible titillation for anyone but the most specialized audience. Which  of course would be perfectly okay if the film had much else to offer. Alas, the plot is a bit boring, the comedy unfunny, and while the effects are actually fine, there’s still nothing going on here to keep one awake.

The Frighteners (1996): Of course, I just might have no sense of humour at all, for I never did find myself terribly amused by the very slapstick-y first hour or so of Peter Jackson’s final horror comedy, apart from Jeffrey Combs’s hilarious FBI agent. To me, the film’s first part is a bit of a slog, with a plot that doesn’t get going because it is permanently put on hold for funny bits that aren’t. Once the film actually does get going, and the jokes and the actually rather dark story begin to seem to belong in the same film, it’s a different matter, the film turning funny and exciting and even a bit scary.

Exotica (1994): If you look at it from a certain angle, Atom Egoyan’s film could very well be your standard erotic thriller. Of course, it’s not a thriller at all but a meditation on loss, guilt, the search for closure, degrees of obsession, the lies we tell ourselves to survive, as well as the human capacity for compassion. It is shaped – quite typical of the director – like a puzzle box or a mystery, not because Egoyan seems much interested in suspense but because understanding the film’s characters and the ways their lives intersect is not meant to be a dry movement from plot point A to point B. There are complex and complicated undercurrents to these peoples’ lives we can better understand when we don’t experience them too linearly.

Apart from letting the viewer do this rather brilliantly, Exotica is also one of Egoyan’s most beautiful films, coming by poetry and beauty and sadness without feeling to strain for them, and certainly never showing any of the tendencies to artsy bombast that have marred parts of Egoyan’s films in the last fifteen years or so.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Past Misdeeds: A Whisper In The Dark (1976)

Original title: Un sussurro nel buio

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A rich Italian family lives the life of the rich and idle in their palatial mansion in the country. Things aren't quite as perfect as they seem, though. It's not just that family father Alex (John Phillip Law) is something of a jerk who cheats on his wife Camilla (Nathalie Delon) with a friend of hers who is staying as a house guest, or that the regularly visiting grandmother is a nasty old bint hiding her unpleasant interior behind impeccable manners, or that the family's two daughters make eardrum-shattering screeching noises whenever they open their mouths, or that Camilla's nerves are so on edge that she's bound to become the sort of hysteric that only exists in the mind of Freudians and filmmakers one day. No, all that is minor trouble when compared to the family's true problem.

Their little son Martino (Alessandro Poggi), you see, has an invisible friend called Luca on whom he seems to be more fixated than can be seen as healthy, but, quite unlike most invisible friends, Luca has a way of making his presence known physically. Luca moves objects around often enough to have Camilla and the nanny Francoise (Olga Bisera) believe the invisible child is more than just a figment of Martino's imagination. What's even more disturbing for Camilla is the fact that the name her son has given to his invisible playmate is the same she and Alex had given the stillborn boy they had before Martino, something the kid shouldn't know about at all.

Luca's presence becomes ever more direct, and though he seems to have the family's best interests in mind, he's not exactly unthreatening. Alex and Camilla decide their son needs professional help, but - not surprising to anyone watching - the usual neurological examinations find nothing at all. Alex manages to get hold of a rather dubious professor (Joseph Cotten) interested in the Weird, who is willing to move in with the family to take a closer look at Martino (and Luca). Although Alex doesn't realize it (obviously, being a jerk he ignores all of his wife's doubts), the Professor's interest in Martino isn't so much that of a doctor wanting to cure a patient, but rather that of a man having found an especially interesting lab rat. Of course, this isn't the sort of thing Luca will tolerate, and he defends his brother/creator/father in a rather lethal way. Alas, once a supernatural entity has begun with the murders, it tends not to stop with them again that easily.

Marcello Aliprandi's A Whisper In The Dark is Italian horror cinema of the 70s at its most typical: stylishly directed, beautifully photographed and drenched in a dream-like mood that is heightened by a fantastic Pino Donaggio soundtrack. It's a film occupying itself with creating an atmosphere for the audience's minds to inhabit, and not so much one interested in telling a clearly defined story. The film's pace is slow, very slow, from beginning to end, and what might sound like a clear increase in dramatic tension when looking at the plot on paper never feels as such when one is actually watching the film, because Aliprandi doesn't do dramatic tension as it us usually understood. Instead of working by the dramaturgical rules of the thriller, the film stops and starts, interspersing moments of tension and drama with scenes that prefer to circle around the things that are happening, or just hint at the things that might be happening or the motives that might be lying behind the characters' actions. For example, the film clearly insinuates that Cotten's Professor isn't wholly trustworthy through a certain shiftiness in the actor's behaviour (and the fact that he likes nothing more than let the family's maid bring him iced vodka to his bathtub, something he calls "imperative" for his mind to work), but it never outright shows or tells how bad his plans truly are, so that it never becomes clear how much of an act of self defence by Luca and/or Martino (again, if Luca is a telekinetic product of Martino's subconscious or his dead brother or something else is kept ambiguous) his murder truly is.

As an audience, we can speculate about the clearly supernatural, we can put our interpretative faculties into understanding it, yet we can never really know it.

Aliprandi uses a similar technique when it comes to the thematic underpinnings of his film. It's quite obvious that a part of the film's subtext is circling the way the child they have once lost has influenced the marriage and life of Camilla and Alex, and that Luca might be more of an externalisation of Camilla's inability to let go of her lost child (which in turn might be responsible for Alex being like he is), an interpretation that is certainly strengthened by the film's ending, but this isn't the sort of film ever willing to get concrete about, well, anything. Instead, A Whisper in the Dark hints and insinuates, and let's the audience do the thinking for themselves.

That's probably the point where friends of clear, linear narratives and directness in their horror movies will throw their remotes disgustedly at their TVs, but A Whisper in the Dark, like many of the most interesting European horror movies of the 70s, was not made with ideas like clarity and directness as virtues in mind at all, and therefore wasn't made for anybody expecting these things. It's all about the mood, the things that might be, and the things that happen inside of a viewer just willing to take a look, to feel and to speculate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

In short: Idle Hands (1999)

Teenage stoner Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa) has a little problem: a demon in the habit of possessing the body of the laziest sod it can find has taken possession of one of his hands, murdering people – including his parents but don’t you worry our hero will be more interested in his dating life than dead close relatives – while he’s sleeping the sleep of the stoned. Soon, his best stoner friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson) are dead too but return as undead because they couldn’t be bothered to step into the light, sometimes assisting Anton in a fight better left to the Ashs of this world. On the plus side, the whole affair also finally scores Anton the sexual attention of his big crush, neighbour Molly (Jessica Alba).

The teenage horror comedy is an intriguing little sub-genre, seeing how it has the potential to dig into elements of your usual coming-of-age stories from a different perspective. In reality, it’s the same mix of stoner jokes and underdeveloped female characters as most of the – typically guy-centric – non-horror teen comedies feature, just with more blood. That doesn’t mean these films are necessary all not worth watching: they just practically never do anything that’s even mildly deep or really interesting. Case in point is Rodman Flender’s Idle Hands with actors playing characters very much like the ones they play in all other teen comedies, and a romance that is pure teenage male wishfulfilment and only suggests Jessica Alba’s character to have anything even vaguely amounting to agency (or truthfully, a brain) when she’s turning into something of a badass for five minutes just before the script turns her into the prize to be rescued by Devon Sawa’s dubious prince completely.

However, if you’re okay with the total lack of depth, empathy and originality the film displays, there are some redeeming qualities to it: while Sawa isn’t a Bruce Campbell (or even a Michael Cain) in the hand fighting business he displays good comic timing and is generally funny in the splatstick lite sequences the film features, as is most of the rest of the cast in one way or the other. Well, there’s Seth Green, but my (probably unfair) complete antipathy to his apathetic acting style isn’t the problem of my imaginary readers (or his). On the feminist side, Vivica A. Fox’s demon hunter character does have a bit more to do than Alba, though her scenes usually feel like filler more than anything else.

And while most of the humour is pretty misanthropic and low-brow, the jokes tend to be timed well enough they still work on a guy like me who isn’t at all into this style of humour.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dead Awake (2016)

Having gone through various drug and related mental issues, Kate Bowman (Jocelin Donahue) seems to have come to grips with life again. Or rather, she would have, if not for the onset of a severe case of sleep paralysis. Kate experiences it every night, with the added bonus of hallucinations (or are they?) of a standard hag-style apparition crawling onto her chest to suffocate her. Which, one night, she indeed does, supposedly from an asthma attack; too bad she didn’t suffer from asthma. Her twin sister Beth (also Jocelin Donahue) feels there’s something wrong with what happened to Kate beyond the tragedy of an early death. For one, she had a dream of her sister being suffocated in her sleep at the exact moment when that actually happened.

Then, Beth and some of her sister’s friends begin to suffer from sleep paralysis with the exact same non-hallucinations, too, so it becomes rather difficult for anyone not to believe there’s something more supernatural going on than the (not terribly) scientific explanations Kate’s former physician, Dr. Sykes (Lori Petty) delivers. As a matter of fact, without anyone else knowing, Kate had been seeking help from disgraced sleep scientist Dr. Hassan Davies (Jesse Borrego). Davies is convinced that there’s a long-standing epidemic of people actually dying of sleep paralysis, and he’s also convinced that what they see in their hallucinations is a real entity trying to kill them. Beth and Kate’s boyfriend Evan (Jesse Bradford) – who will also suffer from his own bit of magic sleep paralysis soon – just might be better off following that angle, if they want to survive.

Dead Awake is a bit of a mixed bag: the script by Jeffrey Reddick (creator of the original concept and story of Final Destination, among other things) contains some wonderful ideas, and interesting characters but the pacing seems off, sequences of tension are followed by scenes that seem to have no actual reason to be in the movie at all, and the supernatural threat stays vague rather than ambiguous. Phillip Guzman’s direction certainly doesn’t help the viewer over the script bumps. While there’s certainly nothing terribly wrong with it, the scenes of horror are rather on the generic side, only quite late in the game really using concepts of dream and sleep in any interesting ways and even then not doing much that’s visually distinguished or moody. Visually, it’s a pretty bland film, dominated by shots and set-ups that certainly do their basic jobs in the plot well enough but only seldom create a world for the audience to believe in or do much for the creepiness factor.

There’s good stuff in here too: Jocelin Donahue is good as Beth and Kate) as I by now expect her to be. Dead Awake gives her a character arc from guilt to acceptance to anger (that’s sometimes the more productive sequence) to hag-butt kicking that feels perfectly appropriate and perfectly human, and is certainly one of the real successes of the film. I also liked quite a few of the small clever details: for example how exactly the belief in the supernatural threat is what kills its victims yet also – of course – the prerequisite to beat it; or how awkward and half-crazed Davies is as what could be the film’s Van Helsing figure without turning him into a joke. The finale is also rather effective when it brings an internal struggle to life.

So, while I don’t think Dead Awake is terribly successful as a whole, I did find enough of interest in it to make it worth watching. At the very least, it tries its damndest to do something interesting. And hey, that’s certainly more than I’d say about The Conjuring.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In short: Nerve (2016)

High school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) is the sensible – and decidedly too pliable - one in her small group of friends, hiding behind her extroverted friend Sydney (Emily Meade), ignoring the mute pining of her friend Tommy (Miles Heizer), and pining for some quarterback guy herself. She’d never actually say something, of course.

However, things change when her peers pressure Vee into playing a new, mysterious online game named Nerve. Nerve pays its players for filming themselves fulfilling increasingly difficult dares, while another part of its customer base pays to watch and vote and judge. Riding on an adrenaline high, driven on by all filmmakers’ love for the classic cliché of the inhibited person losing all measure of control once she steps out of her rut, and by the fact that the game throws her together with mysterious, brooding hottie Ian (Dave Franco), Vee keeps playing and playing, going from silly to problematic to outright dangerous and cruel dares, only realizing what she’s doing when it is perhaps already too late.

There have been quite a few films attempting to use and/or exploit contemporary social media youth culture (man, do I feel old writing this) for horror and thriller plots, but quite a few of these films fail because it is all too obvious – even to a guy like me born in the late 70s of the last century – that the filmmakers have little clue about how actual teens live their online lives (“Something about the Bookface, right, Jim?”), and therefore can’t but fail trying to comment on it. Going by their filmography, Nerve’s directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and their screenwriter Jessica Sharzer are much closer to contemporary teen culture, and are consequently much better suited to evoke it as the basis for their film and comprehending what might be good or problematic about it.

This doesn’t mean that the film has any ambitions at being documentary or being “realistic”; it is more interested in grounding its thriller plot in something close to actual teen experience and then to exaggerate certain elements of it to comment on them. This grounding of course helps the film work as a thriller, too, building a reality whose boundaries can then be tested. Having said that, Nerve’s final act leaves any of that grounding business behind, solving the characters’ problems in ways that are certainly thematically appropriate but have nothing whatsoever to do with how computers are used, programming works, or what “open source” means. However, at this point, the film’s generally clever approach has earned it enough brownie points I feel it has also earned itself the right to leave the realm of plausibility behind.

Particularly since the film happens to be a solid teen thriller, with good acting, excellently paced escalation that usually also resonates thematically, beautiful, pretty damn eye-popping use of 2010s style neon colours and a slick but not vapid direction style. Now, Nerve’s finale is rather too on the nose for my taste (and would have utterly infuriated me by being so on the nose when I was a teenager) but I really think it is an honest and logical part of the film as a whole.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Warning: if you haven’t seen this yet – and my perfect imaginary reader really should have - mild structural spoilers are inevitable (though I’ll not outright spoil a certain important plot point).

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has perhaps chosen a bad night for starting a long drive through the American South northwards. A car crashes into hers, and when she wakes up, she finds herself chained in what looks like some sort of underground prison cell.

Her captor (John Goodman), a man we will later learn is named Howard, seems appropriately unhinged. As far as he tells it, he saved Michelle’s life when he grabbed her out of the wreck of her car and brought her to his private underground fallout shelter, for there’s supposedly been some sort of chemical or biological attack which supposedly killed everyone on the surface. Which doesn’t really explain the chain around Michelle’s ankle if you ask me, but what do I know about etiquette?

After a time, and some grumbling about a lack of proper thankfulness, Howard does let her free. Turns out there’s another man down in the shelter too. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) did some work for Howard and happened to be at the right place at the right time to be let in when something he isn’t clear about but that looked dangerous to him happened. For a time, Michelle plays house with Howard and Emmett, but the situation and Howard are too off, and there’s too little information for her to ever lose her distrust. The question is, what kind of crazy is Howard? The harmless lonely, type who just happens to be paranoid about catastrophes and is for once right? The kind who kidnaps people and pretends to save them from something terrible? And even if there’s something going on outside – what exactly is it?

Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a rather wonderful film. For most of its running time, it is a thriller realized as a chamber play, carried by a sharp script that is very good at suggesting terrible as well as perfectly harmless explanations for a lot of things going on, and by performances as good as you’ll find them in a genre movie. Winstead (whom I’ve never seen give a bad or even a mediocre performance) not just makes Michelle’s confusion, anger, and panic palpable but also perfectly realizes the moments when Michelle stops being the person things are done to and finds the strength and determination to act until a decision she makes in the last scene that should be way too over the top heroic to be believable feels like the natural consequence of her growth. She and Goodman’s (right now in a big late career high when it comes to the consistency and quality of his work) sad, frightening, crazy, frightened and mysterious Howard are perfect foils for each other, neither ever attempting to overbear the other actor. Gallagher’s performance isn’t quite as obviously great, but he’s so on point in his interactions with the other two it’s difficult to find any fault in his performance.

For the first hour or more, Trachtenberg escalates the tension in the bunker expertly, with stakes and scale of the proceedings subtly escalating until things come to a head and the film turns into a very different, bigger kind of story (whose precise nature shall remain undisclosed) the director and his lead actress convey just as well. To me, this is exactly how the sort of twisty thriller so many films try to be right now should be directed and written, with a big twist that doesn’t turn everything that came before into nonsense but gives it an additional dimension.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: In a world of temptation, obsession is the deadliest desire.

Warm Bodies (2013): I suspect Shaun of the Dead will always be the best romantic comedy with zombies, so it is outright decent of Jonathan Levine’s teen romantic comedy with zombies (or rather the book it is based on) to not at all try and compete with that classic but rather to do its own thing. It’s a generally inventive, usually funny and often cute film, with a likeable romantic couple in Teresa Palmer (alive) and Nicholas Hoult (dead). It is a pretty enjoyable movie, but it’s not really made with the horror fan at heart, so if you can’t help yourself, you might be turned off by the only very mild gore, the too pat and friendly ending and the film’s general niceness.

Twisted Nightmare (1987): Being too nice is probably nothing anyone will blame Paul Hunt’s slasher for. It’s the usual thing about a bunch of attractive young things gathering in a cabin in the woods and getting struck down. Atypical for slashers of the time (and of today, really) the film features three(!) victims that aren’t white. That’s of course not terribly important in the long run, because everyone’s meat for the usual ritualistic killings anyway. These are decent but not spectacular but do run through the whole of the film instead of the last twenty minutes, which is not something all cheap-o slashers have to offer. The script even contains one or two ideas that make it possible for it to have more than one “finding the bodies” sequence and plays around with who its final girl may or may not be. There’s also a potential supernatural angle involved, lots of nudity, and the whole she-bang was apparently shot on the same set as the third Friday the 13th (though that film is certainly better shot and directed).

That’s certainly not the worst you can get out of a late 80s slasher.

Secret Window (2004): David Koepp’s Stephen King adaptation is certainly one of the decent ones, mostly living off the – sometimes rather more showy than the director knows what to do with – central performance by Johnny Depp and the sort of slick look money can buy a production even when it otherwise lacks much of an aesthetic identity of its own. It’s not terribly deep either, never quite digging into the meat of the novella (one of King’s best as far as I’m concerned) it is based on, or displaying anything but a Hollywood screenwriter’s idea of human psychology, but is coasting on Koepp’s – again very slick – rather emotionally distanced conventional thriller stylings. Curiously enough, the film goes for a darker ending than that of the not exactly chipper novella, yet still has a lesser impact than the story did, perhaps because Koepp misses out on fleshing out the other characters (as played by an underused Maria Bello and Timothy Hutton) enough to convince me the film actually cares about what happens to them.

It certainly is still a well-made, entertaining film but I never felt myself getting emotionally involved.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Cat Girl (1957)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After nine years of absence, Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) returns to her ancestral home on insistence of her uncle Edmund Brandt (Ernest Milton). Leonora has bad memories of the place and her uncle's habit of making her life a decidedly cheerless one. Why, he even managed to torpedo her love to student of medicine Brian Marlowe (Robert "Bland" Ayres). Somehow, the end of her first big love had set Leonora on a path to a horrible taste in men (not that Brian's exactly like winning the lottery, as we will see), and now she's freshly married to Richard (Jack May), a semi-professional gold digger who is such a prick he even takes his not-so-secret lover Cathy (Paddy Webster) with them on the visit to Uncle.

As luck will have it, Leonora meets Brian again right before she arrives at her uncle's. Brian is now a full-grown psychiatrist (though, as it will later turn out, a crap one) and happily married to Dorothy (Kay Callard), which comes as a bit of a shock to Leonora who is quite obviously not at all over her love for the guy.

Once the travellers arrive at his place, Uncle Edmund shows himself not at all happy with Leonora bringing someone with her - not for the natural reason of Richard's personality, but because he has a secret to tell her. Edmund makes do anyway during a nightly meeting in which he discloses to Leonora that their family has been cursed for generations into a strange mind/body share affair with a leopard where the leopard kills whom- or whatever his partner pleases and the human partner takes on some of the leopard's more unpleasant psychological characteristics. Now is the time for Edmund to die and for Leonora to take on the curse's burden.

At first, Leonora doesn't believe her obviously quite mad relative, but soon enough Edmund is killed by his leopard, and she begins to feel changes inside of her that start to convince the young woman her uncle was telling the truth. She confides her troubles to Brian, but his mixture of bad rationalism and book burning is of no help to anyone.

Leonora's feelings about the family curse turn into certainty when Leonora and the leopard witness Richard having sex with Cathy in the woods close to the house, and the animal gives Richard his just deserts.

Leonora isn't happy with her familiar's deed, though, and confesses all to the police, who of course don't believe a single word the woman says and call in Brian in his capacity as a psychiatrist. Him being - as I said - a crap member of his profession, he takes on the case concerning an ex-lover who is still quite fixated on him after nine years of being apart and hates his wife's guts - a decision that would be idiotic even if the curse weren't real. Quite obviously, things won't go too well.

The British-based AIP production (and how's that for an ironic combination?) Cat Girl is not as close of a reworking of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People as I had expected after hearing its title and reading what the Internet in its wisdom tells about it. Sure, they are both films featuring a curse, murderous kitties and a woman's troubles to cope with her subconscious desires, but Cat Girl is so unambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural and so blunt in its psychology that both films are never seeing eye to eye about anything, and feel completely different from each other even though the British film should by all rights be an inferior copy of the US one.

That different feel is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. After all, Cat People does already exist, and I'm certainly not going to blame Cat Girl for being less of a rip-off than I had expected it to be.

If you can cope with its complete lack of subtlety, the film at hand is even a pretty good example of an attempt to combine outward appearances of the Gothic in horror - on show in the often pleasantly expressionist black and white photography of Peter Hennessy and the moody if conservative direction of Alfred Shaughnessy - with more modern ideas like the film's Freudian subtext about repressed female sexuality and desires expressed through acts of violence committed by a large cat.

Apart from its often sledgehammer-like treatment of its themes, the film's script (by AIP mainstay - and brother of Samuel Arkoff - Lou Rusoff) also suffers from some highly melodramatic dialogue not all of the actors are coping too well with. Fortunately, designated Cat Girl and future Hammer actress Barbara Shelley has to carry the main load of that part of the dialogue, and she doesn't have the slightest problem in selling it or her character to the audience. She even manages to smuggle some nuances into her performance I'm pretty sure weren't called for by Rusoff's script, making her character a bit more rounded, and believable as an actual person who once had hopes and dreams that all didn't work out one way or the other. It's difficult not to root for her even once she's gone over the deep end - though this might also have something to do with the fact that neither Robert Ayres nor Kay Callard who is playing his wife are even half as present or charismatic as Shelley is here. I didn't exactly want Callard to suffer, but the film sure as hell didn't do anything to make her enough of a person to care too much about her.

Shelley's performance plus the decent look of Cat Girl are more than enough for me to give the film a minor recommendation. I don't think this will make anyone re-think the importance of Cat People, but there is always room for perfectly fine melodramatic horror movies next to the more subtle classics of the genre with me.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In short: Slaughterhouse (1987)

The oh-so-hilariously named Lester Bacon (Don Barrett) and his son Buddy (Joe Barton) – a guy who communicates via pig noises and likes to spend his valuable free time spooning pigs in the sty – have hit on hard times. Once, Lester owned a giant pig farm and slaughter business, but his unwillingness to lose the personal touch in pig murder via automation killed his pig plant stone dead. Now, a trio of the good people of the town try to get their mitts on the land the dilapidated pig apocalypse house is situated on by rather shady means.

So Lester and and Buddy start murdering their enemies, with the small caveat that Buddy’s really just going to kill everyone he meets, particularly of course your usual group of high school kids played by actors all in the appropriate age to have at least graduated from college. Hilarity/senseless slaughter ensues. Oink.

Usually, I tend to complain about the desperate sameyness of traditional slashers; now Slaughterhouse mostly sees me complaining about the things it does differently than your standard slasher. Clearly, nobody can do anything right for me. The problem of course isn’t so much that the film’s first time and only time director/writer Rick Roessler changes up some standard slasher business, but that he changes it for no good reason and usually for the worse. A particularly obvious flaw are the film’s attempts to mix up Buddy’s standard concentrated teenage slashing with the vengeance plot of his father, breaking the classical dramatic unity of time, place and personage slashers as a whole tend to keep to, seemingly to have more scenes of even more people gabbing some not terribly involving nonsense. Frankly, among the things neither Aristotle nor I need in a slasher, more talk and a plot that’s too drawn out for its own good are right up there with lots and lots of horrible jokes, another unasked for thing Slaughterhouse delivers in shovels of pig shit. You’d think at least having more people for Buddy to kill would be a good thing, but there’s so much bland and boring dialogue surrounding the murders, I found myself unable to enjoy the carnage. Let’s not even start on deeper or more complex feelings a film may want to evoke.

The saddest thing about Slaughterhouse is that Roessler often shows a really good eye for moody, creepy shots of his decrepit locations – certainly helped by Richard Benda’s photography that seems downright classy for this era of the slasher movie – and even makes intelligent use of the whole frame in more than one suspense scene. A handful of scenes here would – taken alone – suggest one of the more capable late 80s slashers but the film’s effective moments are so regularly broken up by the dire humour and a whole lot of nothing, it’s not easy to appreciate the film’s better parts.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Term Life (2016)

Nick Barrow (Vince Vaughan) works as a planner for all sorts of heists, though he doesn’t involve himself in crimes where people get killed or actually hurt. His last plan for stealing quite a bit of money being held as evidence doesn’t work out terribly well, though. Someone murders the group that were his clients, which makes the father of their leader rather unhappy. Unfortunately, Viktor (Jordi Mollà), as the man is called, is a big Mexican cartel boss, so he’s bound to seek someone – like a certain planner he just might suspect to have sold his plan to two groups at the same time – to blame for the death of his son and do nasty things to him.

The first little talk between Viktor and Nick ends with the cartel boss leaving Nick in the hands of his goons to go and fetch Nick’s estranged teenage daughter Cate (Hailee Steinfeld) as a tool of persuasion. Fortunately, Nick escapes and grabs a rather unwilling Cate before Viktor can get his hands on her and goes on the lam with her. It’s really a rather awkward way for a father and a daughter to reconnect, particularly since Nick’s actual plan right now isn’t to find a way to get Viktor off his back so much than it is to keep Cate and himself alive until a freshly signed life insurance policy comes into effect and Nick can die with a good conscience.

Exacerbating the problem of survival is the fact that the people who actually killed Viktor’s son and his gang, a group of corrupt policemen lead by Joe Keenan (Bill Paxton), are on Nick’s and Cate’s trail too; and let’s not even speak of the father-daughter trouble ahead.

Peter Billingsley’s crime thriller and father-daughter (sort of) road movie Term Life certainly is not an original film: it’s full of well-worn character types going through well-worn plot points until things finish on a bit too much of a happy end. It is, however, also a well-directed film chock full of fine actors breathing life into their stock characters. There are not just Vince Vaughn and professional teenager (who is actually really good at playing this sort of role while feeling real and not becoming annoying) Hailee Steinfeld. This is the sort of film that can cast Annabeth Gish for what amounts to a single shot of a telephone conversation with Steinfeld, just happens to include guys like Shea Whigham or Mike Epps among Bill Paxton’s gang, and adds Jonathan Banks and Terrence Howard for supporting roles. Basically, it’s a bit of a dream cast for this sort of thing, and elevates what could be a film going through the motions into something at least much more lively.

When there’s action, Billingsley does stage it well, if not spectacularly; I couldn’t shake the feeling spectacle wasn’t really in the budget.

Billingsley does have a nice, straightforward directing style that works well when it comes to supporting actors doing their thing, and isn’t interesting in wowing the audience with style. Rather, it’s the kind of direction that puts itself in the service of characters and plot and prepares room for them to breathe. Which is just the right sort of approach for this sort of film, if you ask me.

The script might not be original but it features quite a few good scenes and no bad ones (which makes it a good film in a Howard Hawks sense as well as in my book) with particularly the father-daughter conflict feeling believable enough to make me root for the two to patch things up and survive. In general, most scenes here have a moment, a line or a dialogue exchange that feel more real, more interesting, or just more alive than usual in this particular sub-genre. It’s not enough to start mumbling about this being a future classic but most certainly enough to turn Term Life into a satisfying genre film that puts more effort in than it strictly needs to.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In short: Krisha (2015)

I believe there’s hardly a more typical stage for an US indie movie than a family thanksgiving dinner, but then, that’s probably the only thing in Trey Edward Shults’s film you’d describe as typical. Made for a piddling sum, mostly with members of the director’s family - like the director’s aunt Krisha Farichild in a truly incredible performance in the title role - and close friends in front and behind of the camera, this is a heart-breaking film about everything that divides us from the people we are meant to be closest to. The film charts breaks and breaking points between and inside of its characters relentlessly, finding the moments of greatest hurt without expositing about them, and without ever looking away. Yet Shults never loses compassion either, not just for Krisha, a recovering alcoholic making a doomed attempt to mend bridges where she should probably rather first have tried to secure phone lines, but for the people she’s hurt, too – usually for everyone at once, making it nearly impossible for a viewer to make it easy on herself and choose a character as The Bad Guy. This makes for harrowing viewing, to say the least – though the film can at times be drily funny too – as painfully honest art sometimes does.

Stylistically, Shults often uses techniques usually connected to the horror genre, not as a way to distance himself ironically from what he is showing nor the audience from what it is seeing, but because what we are seeing – or rather experiencing – indeed is a horror film for everyone involved. In fact, I suspect adding a masked killer to the proceedings would probably improve the characters’ day immensely.

Emotionally, Krisha is as touching as films go, demonstrating how great, involved filmmaking and what I can only describe as conviction and clarity of vision can move the most jaded viewer.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

Original title: ゴジラvsキングギドラ

A UFO lands in Japan! After some dithering, it turns out the craft doesn’t come from outer space but from the future. Its crew – consisting of some white guys who aren’t actors some kind and wise person in the production decided to dub into Japanese making this world a much happier place, one Emmy Kano (Anna Nakagawa), and a ridiculous android (Robert Scott Field) you’ll learn to love – explain to the usual group of earnest looking men in suits and uniforms (but don’t worry, Heisei mainstay Megumi Odaka as Miki Saegusa will have her day too) that they have come to Japan to save it from its coming total destruction by Godzilla. They have a simple plan, based on the secret origin of Godzilla.

Apparently, our most beloved city smashing lizard was once just a simple dinosaur hidden away on a Pacific island – though he did find space in his schedule to protect a group of Japanese soldiers from the Allied forces during World War II – until he was irradiated by the US nuclear tests in the area. Obviously, the best way to hinder Godzilla from destroying Japan is to go back in time and move him to another island before he mutates. For some timey-whimey reasons, the time travellers do need some people from the 20th Century to go back in time with Emmy and the android alone. All works out well, Godzilla isn’t rampaging anymore – though everyone still remembers him and his attacks. So clearly, it’s time for the happy end. But wait! Now another giant monster, the deplorable King Ghidorah (boo hiss) appears and attacks Japan! Is it possible that these time travellers have been lying all along and had a sinister plan to destroy Japan’s future glory as the most awesome country in the world? You betcha!

Usually, the less time a kaiju eiga spends on the city smashing and the monster mashing, the less interesting it is to watch. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this rule, and Kazuki Ohmori’s second Heisei era kaiju movie Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is most certainly one of them. It is also a decided improvement on Ohmori’s Godzilla vs. Biollante in pretty much every respect, with a much better bad guy monster suit, superior monster action (once the film gets around to it), as well as superior city smashing. It does take quite some time to get around to all that, though, leaving quite a bit of running time to be filled.

Fortunately, Ohmori (also credited as the writer), decided to go completely crazy with the human part of the plot and replaced the rather lame men’s adventure action of Biollante with all the silly ideas and SF clichés he could lay his hands on. So we get the absurd time travel plot that goes out of its way to have the silliest – and therefore most awesome for everyone’s inner twelve year old – answer to any plot question possible. For example – how do the time travellers produce King Ghidorah? They just leave three easily controlled cute/weird little animals that look like bats made by a godhood on psychedelics on Godzilla’s island to be irradiated and turn into King Ghidorah, because that’s logically the only way this could turn out, right? Later, coming to the rather important question of how to get Godzilla back into the plot, seeing as how he now never existed, Ohmori just lets the Godzillasaurus swim into some nuclear waste and somehow turn into Godzilla (though supposedly an even angrier one). This stuff is only the tip of the iceberg, though, the film also includes the inexplicable weirdness of that darn android, who is basically the Terminator, but goofy, with added abilities like running really fast via hilarious special effects, and acted in a way human language is not meant to describe or explain. The plot logic is rather on the dream-like side, too, which is my way of saying that the plot makes little sense as our human logic understands the term but does so in the most entertaining manner.

Ideologically, the film goes for the curious, somewhat schizophrenic balancing act of post-Honda Godzilla films (see also Shin Godzilla) to include at once elements that are extremely reactionary (like calling the people in power in Japan who were also influential before World War II the “people who rebuilt Japan” without ever mentioning that they were also the people who were responsible for its need to be rebuilt, or the whole bit where the time travellers want to destroy Japan so it can’t dominate the world, the latter not a concept the film seems to have terribly much trouble with) and others that are deeply humanistic and/or progressive without ever really choosing a side. Hell, the heisei films often even manage not to choose which monster the audience is supposed to root for, so this might even be a conscious approach by the producers. All this may of course just be a very Japanese political position and world view I’m culturally unable to parse.

In any case, that’s an observation, not a criticism, because what Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah really is, is a joy to watch – and this time around, also to listen to again, for the film also marks the glorious return of composer Akira Ifukube (and music that actually fits what is happening on screen) to Toho’s kaiju cinema.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Mary's Evil is Beyond Legend

The Dead Next Door (1989): For people with sympathy and tolerance for microbudget horror, and even though this one’s budget actually wasn’t quite as micro as you’d assume, J.R. Bookwalter’s film is one of the pioneering efforts of this particular type of indie horror. Not just because this is one of the early films of its kind, but because Bookwalter operates on a comparatively epic scale, with ambitious scenes and a plot that actually takes place in more than just a living room and someone’s garden. The script about the misadventures of the curiously accident-prone “Zombie Squad” in early post-zombie-apocalyptic Ohio (and a bit of Washington, D.C.) is certainly goofy and a bit silly, but the writing comes over as so good-natured and likeable these things become some of the film’s true virtues, as is pacing that doesn’t waste the audience’s time. The actors were overdubbed in post-processing, giving the affair a certain Italian genre movie vibe, while action and special effects are some of the best semi-professional work I’ve ever set eyes on.

It’s also certainly the best-looking film ever shot on Super-8.

The Nice Guys (2016): Rather on the other side of the budget divide dwells this Shane Black action comedy taking place in a fever dream version of the 70s. It’s a bit too nasty to its characters for my general taste in comedy (cruelty is only very seldom funny unless you’re a bully or a serial killer) but I do admire the way Black from time to time manages to move his – really rather well acted – lead caricatures Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling into some actually human emotional beats and scenes without breaking a sweat. And even soft-hearted old me can’t deny how well the film manages to create its world. Now if it were only populated by people I – or the film – cared about.

Mr. Right (2015): Paco Cabezas’s film does work better for me than Black’s does. It’s still full of the old comical ultra-violence but I find the black humour warmer, the characters definitely more likeable in their amorality. The way the film mixes the general absurdities of action movies with killers as heroes and your run of the mill romantic comedy is rather effective – and very funny – too, Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick making for a pleasantly odd couple. And who wouldn’t root for one of those, right? Particularly when they have to kill their way through a bunch of lovingly caricatured gangsters and Tim Roth looking to have a lot of fun doing his particular villain with a dash of tragedy. Why, even RZA brings his best acting game.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Alien Encounters (1979)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Astronomer Alan Reed (Augie Tribach) is up in Alaska with his family, manning a telescope in the search for life in outer space. One day, Reed seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough observing radio signals coming from Barnard's Star, but he gets a bit distracted from that - as well as a potential UFO sighting - by the house his wife and little son are in going up in flames in a gas explosion.

With his family dead, Reed crawls into a bottle until the sudden realization hits him that the last signals he got from Barnard's Star seem to have contained an actual voice saying something in an alien language (note: the audience never gets to hear it that way). Reed stops drinking at once and turns into one of those holy crusaders roaming the American highways in search of the Truth, researching alien encounters, ghost sightings and so on, everywhere.

Five years later, Reed arrives at the house of the widow (Patricia Hunt) and teenage son (Matthew Boston) of one Dr. Arlyn. Arlyn has written quite a few books on Reed's favourite topic, and was supposed to be building a machine for human cell regeneration called the Betatron (not to be confused with the Metatron or that guy from the bible) before he died. Obviously, our hero has a few questions about that. It will take quite a few scenes of sitting and flashbacking and hiking through deserts and hills while flashbacking until the Arlyns trust Reed enough to point him in the direction of a truth containing benevolent aliens, flying silver spheres and the evil men in black (who, disappointingly, don't wear black). Somehow, there's also room for a short flashback visit, a rather slow car chase sequence and some hair-curdling soft rock (alas not with lyrics actually connected to what's happening on screen) in the film. And yes, Mister Mulder, they have been here for a very long time.

I still fondly remember James T. Flocker's Ghosts That Still Walk as a wonderfully peculiar example of US independent local filmmaking, so I went into the same director's The Alien Encounters with some hope, but also a certain amount of trepidation based on my experience that many of the most interesting local films of this type come by their value through a rather alchemical process which might not necessarily be repeatable in a second movie. Turns out my hope was more justified than my trepidation.
However, before I come to that, I have to give the usual warnings about movies of this type: if you can't ignore a film's obvious technical flaws in favour of its odd (perhaps dubious) charms, this just isn't for you. So, yes, The Alien Encounters has all the problems I went in expecting from it: the acting's rather wooden (although lead Augie Tribach's long rambling off-screen narration that at times gives the whole affair the feel of a very weird pseudo-documentary in the Charles B. Pierce mould is much better than his on-screen acting), the shot composition is often bland, and the script tends to go on and on with scenes that exist for no particular reason, or takes detours into not always necessary and nearly always overlong flashbacks without moving the plot (such as it is) forward one iota, until it's not always clear if you're watching a movie, or a movie is circling around you, ready to pounce or fall asleep.

What the film has going for it makes being patient often worthwhile, though - and is certainly where my hopes for Flocker were fulfilled. Even with its director's not exactly exciting visual style, Alien Encounters still manages to build a peculiar mood of (a bit awkward) otherness out of its own flaws. There's often a point in a movie when rambling pacing turns from boring to hypnotically interesting for me and the film at hand reaches it early and with skewed enthusiasm. Plus, there's also the thing even a lack of budget and experience can't ruin - landscape. One should never underestimate the possibility of something as simple as rocky hills and desert to turn from quotidian to slightly odd in a viewer's mind when a movie just insists on showing enough of it, and that's exactly what happened to me with The Alien Encounters. Once the natural world has turned strange, it only takes a little effort to find the classic US UFO mythology in the movie fascinating again instead of played out.

Still, said UFO mythology certainly is the film's weak point compared to Flocker's more imaginative Ghosts. The older movie was particularly effective in mashing up some of the 70s' greatest paranormal hits with really peculiar ideas very much Flocker's own; The Alien Encounters just tries to reproduce stories that everyone has heard a thousand times before (even though, honestly, I like these stories), and only comes into its own in what may seem like accidents of production. Or would seem like accidents if Ghosts didn't suggest Flocker to be a man with peculiar interests and talents hell-bent on putting them on screen, even if it means packaging them inside of forteana's greatest hits.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

In short: Adventureland (2009)

Not being a professional middle-aged US film critic, I don’t really share the group’s love – obsession, really – for coming of age films (nor films about directors whining about how horrible their life of luxury and fame is). You probably need to be nostalgic for your youth to love the sub-genre quite so much, I suspect, and I tend to be not terribly nostalgic for the worst decades of my life.

Anyway, that doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate when a coming of age movie works as well as Greg Mottola’s film about a young guy (Jesse Eisenberg) taking a summer job in an amusement park to scratch together the money for his college tuition does. Especially when a film puts an enormous effort into portraying a recognizable time and place. While Adventureland certainly hits the usual beats of its genre, it is often really rather witty doing it, with sharp dialogue and pacing that suggests thoughtfulness without being slow.

The film also takes some pleasantly unexpected turns, adding complications and depths to character types that don’t usually get these, in coming of age comedies particularly. The film even makes efforts to treat its female characters as more than pure hurdles for its teenage male white main character to jump over, under or through. Characters who have their own lives, wishes, and dreams that might even not have anything to do with the protagonist at all. In fact, one of the film’s more subtle arguments seems to be that growing up means learning to realize how people and their lives aren’t only important in the ways they relate to one’s own life, and that some adults – here exemplified by Ryan Reynolds – never learn this kind of empathy and understanding, which stunts them more than any shit job ever could.

This is also one of the better outings of young Kristen Stewart, doing an okay job in the part of her career when that sort of consistency wasn’t a given – which is of course perfectly understandable from a nineteen year old kid.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

XX (2017)

It’s time for another horror anthology. XX’s particular selling point is that its four episodes are exclusively directed by women, which at the very least makes a nice contrast to bro horror (though at least one of the producers and directors involved is rather ironically involved in the VHS franchise which to me – next to the films of Eli Roth – epitomises this particular sub-genre). The stories are connected by wonderfully macabre animated interstitial segments by Sofìa Carrillo.

Story number one, “The Box”, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, and based on a story by Jack Ketchum, starts the film off very nicely. It’s a creepy and deceptively calmly told tale seen through the eyes of a mother (Natalie Brown) in one of those super-traditional suburban rich (what Americans tend to call middle-class but which certainly isn’t) families, whose little son (Peter DaCunha) suddenly stops eating after having had a look in a mysterious box carried by a stranger. The demonstrative family harmony frays, particularly since the knowledge of what is in the box seems to work like an infectious disease.

This one might be my favourite episode of the anthology, thanks to not just the fine cast but also to Vuckovic’s subtle direction that elegantly swerves around the most obvious interpretations of the tale. That doesn’t make these interpretations wrong, it just robs them of explanatory monopoly. Vuckovic keeps up a growing feeling of dread turning this into the movie version of really good contemporary weird fiction, or a nightmare.

The second segment “The Birthday Party” was directed by Annie Clark whom you’ll probably know better under her nom de plum as a musician, St. Vincent. On the visual, design and acting level, this darkly comedic little tale of an even richer suburban housewife’s (Melanie Lynskey) attempt to hide the suicide of her husband so as not to spoil her daughter’s birthday party is rather successful. On a less technical level, the story did little for me. There’s just too little substance to it as a story, and the message of “suburban housewives are neurotic because they are under enormous pressure” is not exactly news, nor does the segment really add anything – say emotional resonance – to that message.

The third segment “Don’t Fall” by Roxanne Benjamin changes tack completely by being a pretty to look at but short and pedestrian bit of monster filler that feels like something that didn’t make the cut in one of the other contemporary horror anthologies. There’s too little to it even for the low standards of something like the VHS films. It’s not, mind you, in any way, shape, or form, an incompetently made tale, it’s just terribly uninvolving in its competence, and as shallow as a campfire tale.

Fortunately, the film does find its feet again with Karyn Kusama’s unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby and similar tales, “Her Only Living Son”. The segment about a mother (Christina Kirk) finally facing up to who - or what - her son (Kyle Allen) is when he turns eighteen has quite a bit of fun with winking and nudging towards the films it thinks further. It also picks up two finely realized scenes of paranoia on the way, and expresses rather more complex thoughts about the idea of motherhood and motherly love in extremis than horror films usually do, while also just being an effective horror story.

So, while one segment leaves me cold and another one feels like pure filler to me, the two good segments of XX are so well done, the film still is one of the best entries into the contemporary minor wave of horror anthologies. While I’d have been even happier if all four segments had worked for me, two brilliant segments, wonderful interstitial animations, and no bad segments do make for a very satisfying anthology.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In short: The Stay Awake (1988)

Somewhere in “Europe”. A group of Catholic school girls and their teacher are locked into their school for a stay awake – a night of movies, potato chip munching and aerobics, apparently.

Alas, for reasons the film never bothers to disclose, the demonic spirit of obviously Gacey inspired dead American serial killer William John Brown (Lindsay Reardon), calling himself the Angel of Darkness whenever an opportunity arises, has chosen this night and school for his Angel of Darkness-y business, namely murder, and some sort of plan possibly concerning the conception of the anti-christ and suggested rape via tentacle tongue. Though I might be misreading Brown’s plan or position in the hierarchy of evil. What I’m sure of is that the girls’ teacher will turn out to be rather more spunky than the undead serial killer might have imagined.

John Bernard’s The Stay Awake belongs to the small number of South African horror movies, and shares with the handful of other genre entries I’ve seen from the country a really confusing script (also by Bernard), a low budget, and an interesting concept of pacing. The script is vague when it probably should be precise (see: what’s the supernatural menace up to, and why does he do it in “Europe”, and to these girls?), rambles in a way that suggests a first draft, uses zero characterisation and can’t even make use of the film’s more interesting ideas in a vaguely effective manner.

On the other hand, when you’re used to wading through the less savoury or just obscure little by-ways of horror cinema, little things like a terrible script and a film that moves like molasses won’t stop you from finding something to appreciate about an epic like The Stay Awake. Consequently, while I found myself rather bored for most of the running time, I also somewhat admired the film’s from time to time semi-effective lighting and the standard disembodied monster camera as given to us by Saint Raimi; and while it certainly added to the general tedium, the incredible length of some of these sequences that suggest a monster not hurling towards some evil deed so much as one that has gotten lost in the school’s hallways is more than just a bit hilarious, now that I think about it.

The demon suit our killer sometimes wears is pretty funny too, as is the tongue tentacle and the general awkward way most of the horror sequences are staged, full of characters that tend to position themselves in the frame in often completely absurd ways so that Bernard can get his shocks in. There’s also rampant Catholicism, cheesy teen dialogue, an excellently primitive synth score, rubbery gore and quite a bit of general nonsense trying to break up the general tedium. If that starts to sound as if I (sort of) recommend The Stay Awake, you’re probably the kind of viewer who might get something out of it.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

We Go On (2016)

Miles (Clark Freeman) is afraid of everything: cars, people, the outside, you name it, he’s afraid of it. His multitude of phobias is really the expression of one central fear: the fear of death that came upon him with the sudden death of his father.

Miles thinks the only way to lose this fear is to prove that we go on after death in one form or the other, so he puts out a bounty of $30,000 for the person who will prove an afterlife to him. Sifting through a huge number of propositions with the help of his mother Charlotte (Annette O’Toole), Miles finds a lot of obvious fakes, bad jokes, and attempts to sell him stuff, whittling his list down to three proposals actually worth investigating, and a mysterious phone call on his mail box. In the end, Miles will get the positive proof he seeks, but not surprisingly, it’ll not bring him much happiness.

Directing partners Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton made an interesting indie movie named YellowBrickRoad that a lot of people were really impressed by, but that never really won me over thanks to various technical issues I found highly distracting as well as a script that – for my taste – completely broke down for the film’s final third. We Go On is a mighty improvement in all regards, definitely still made on an indie budget but much slicker realized, never looking as cheap as it probably is, featuring performances that are at least decent – usually better – and some effective moments of horror. I was particularly fond of the scene in which Miles follows his last possible informant to a ruined house next to the LA airport and encounters something that may not be totally surprising to the genre-savvy audience but that still works wonderfully because it is so carefully shot and edited. In general, Holland and Mitton show themselves to be highly capable when called to create moments of slight disquiet; I wasn’t always as convinced by the more obvious shocks, but then, when am I ever?

For much of its running time, We Go On is a clearly observed character piece about Miles and the source of his anxieties as they are revealed by the things and people he encounters during his quest. This approach works as well as it does because it is always clear the writer-directors actually know what kind of story they want to tell and are very good at revealing Miles through the people he encounters while also telling us all we need to know about these people in very economic ways. Stand-outs here are certainly the medium Josephina (Giovanna Zacarías), who teeters on the edge of madness thanks to the way she has to live yet also shows surprising amounts of kindness where self-absorption would be absolutely understandable, as well as O’Toole’s tough and dignified portrayal of Charlotte, that feels highly authentic to a certain kind of mother with a damaged grown-up child.

So, the character work is generally very strong here, the mood is evocative, the filmmaking successful, and the film knows what it wants – yet still I can’t say I was wholly happy with the final act. The problem – though make no mistake, this is still a film very much worth watching – is that I never completely managed to buy into the film’s shift from something character-based into something plot-based. There’s an awkwardness to this approach that suggests an attempt to achieve a more conventional dramatic arc with a very pat ending because that’s how genre films are supposed to work, and not really because this particular film actually needed it, leaving me unsatisfied when We Go On suddenly appeared to care most about resolving a plot arc I wasn’t particularly invested in, while just finishing the character arc I was invested in as an afterthought.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: There's a new police force on the streets... and they only come out at night.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016): There’s the old chestnut that says not every film is for everyone, and that some films are definitely less for everyone than others. This pretty much describes Oz Perkins’s Netflix arthouse horror movie about a live in nurse (Ruth Wilson) moving into the house of elderly writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) and the haunting she experiences. Which sounds rather easily consumable, but in Perkins’s telling, it is a film of shifting realities and meanings, where there’s never a clear dividing line between the real and the unreal, the psychological or the supernatural, and where that line only ever dissolves further. It’s a very slow and subtle film, with a brilliant lead performance by Wilson, yet it is also a film that needs patience, thought, and viewers absolutely willing to follow where it goes. For me, the film is beautiful and intense, but I can definitely see why someone might watch it and just get bored. Some films just either resonate with you, or they don’t.

Rollercoaster (1977): In comparison, James Goldstone’s thriller with disaster movie elements about an amusement park ride safety inspector (George Segal) finding himself drawn into the hunt for a mentally not terribly healthy blackmailer (Timothy Bottoms) threatening to sabotage rollercoasters around the USA is downright fast. In actuality, it’s a bit of a slow starter, spending too much time dithering before Segal’s Harry Calder is drawn into the plot. Once it gets going, though, this turns into an exciting little film that makes highly atmospheric – and often clever - use of the amusement park surroundings, plays fair with its audience and comes by its best set pieces as organic parts of the plot. There’s a fine cast too, with people like Richard Widmark and Susan Strasberg in various supporting roles.

Goldstone’s – who was mostly a TV guy - direction isn’t spectacular, but he’s effortlessly effective when it comes to the suspense sequences, and by now the style has taken on the enjoyable patina typical of well made but not spectacular 70s films.

The Wackness (2008): Looks like I’m not escaping the coming of age films these days. Jonathan Levine’s genre entry recommends itself through an off-handed but efficient portrayal of mid-90s New York – with hip hop as the logical soundtrack – solid acting by coming of ager Josh Peck, mandatory The Girl Olivia Thirlby, and Famke Janssen as her mother, and one of his showy yet intelligent and typically enjoyable performances by Ben Kingsley as the psychologist of our dope dealing hero – also his best customer, friend, and the stepfather of his love interest. The best parts of the film really concern the relationship between the two male characters, with Kingsley’s Dr. Squires despite the age difference still not having life figured out much better than the kid has. The relationships between the men and their respective women alas don’t really work too well because this is one of these male-centric coming of age films that never does spend any time alone with its female characters, and so never develops much motivation and personality for them not connected to the guys, turning their actions into plot conveniences more than choices made by human beings. Which to me always seems like a rather childish approach for films supposedly all about growing up.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Born to Fight (1989)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

TV reporter Maryline Kane (Mary Stavin) walks into a bar in Vietnam to hire war hero Sam Wood (Brent Huff) to relive his escape from a Vietnamese prison camp for the camera. At first, Brent isn't too happy with the idea, but once Maryline has offered him enough money, he decides to take her up on her offer. After a nice little boat trip, Maryline, her two-men camera crew and Sam just happen to witness the execution of an American prisoner escaping from a camp full of prisoners of war. Turns out Maryline knows all about the war prisoner problem in the area, and actually wants Sam's help in rescuing her father, General Weber (John Van Dreelen), from the prison camp, but thought that whole interview business and going to the place unarmed would make Sam more willing to help. Or dead. Or something.

Anyway, given Sam's unarmed and unwilling status, the couple (and you know they'll be one in this sort of movie, because they never agree about anything and hate each other's guts) has to flee first. There's also some stuff about Romano Puppo playing another guy who is supposed to buy the general's way to freedom, but would prefer Kurt (Werner Pochath), the boss of the prison camp who will also turn out to be Sam's arch enemy, to kill the general so they can share the money. Which makes as much sense as Maryline hiring Sam to free her father without telling Sam about it, I guess. Plus, further complications because Sam doesn't like Weber. Let's just say that shooting and exploding huts - many of the latter without a good reason to explode - will result.

After half an hour or so, I just gave up on trying to make sense of the random stuff that makes up Born to Fight's supposed plot. After all, it is a Bruno Mattei film written by Claudio Fragasso, and where these two walk, no sense ever follows. As expected, the movie becomes a much nicer piece of entertainment once one decides to just giggle about its lack of coherence and fling poo at the screen.

Of course, if you're like me and adore the special charms Mattei and Fragasso so often brought to their films, you will be delighted to hear that Born to Fight is an eminently worthy entry into the gentlemen's respective filmographies, full of the desperate idiocy we have come to love. This is, after all, a film whose hero (and I use that term loosely) is first encountered showing off his ability to smoke a cigarillo and snore at the same time, likes to spice his drink with cobra venom and has a catchphrase that fluctuates between "It CAN be done. It can be done." and "It CAN be done. Can do.", or various combinations thereof, even when nobody ever questions the possibility of things being done. I should also add that Wood's catchphrase is - improbably - still better than his other one-liners. But as Werner Pochath's character explains, Sam was "BORN TO FIGHT", to which I might very well add "and not to talk".

This - and my inability to make sense of the plot - should make quite clear that Fragasso was in top form in the twenty minutes it took him to write the script; seldom has a scriptwriter's complete divorce from reality been more adorable.

It looks like Bruno Mattei didn't want to be left out when his friend and partner was having so much fun showing off his talents (or "talents"), and so decided that what Fragasso's script really needed to shine was the extensive application of slow motion to each and every scene. People not familiar with Mattei's genius might think the heavy use of slow motion in an action movie like this to be nothing special, or even stylistically justified and possibly cool. Well, some uses of slow motion are; Mattei however always knows how to use a perfectly normal part of the filmic language like it and twist and turn and overuse it in the most improbable ways until it becomes quite hilarious and grotesque.

The high point of Mattei's very special use of slow motion is surely the film's "emotional" finale, when Sam kills Kurt, who was responsible for the death of all of his prison camp buddies years ago. It begins with some hot slow-motion reloading action. Pochath blubbers (in slow motion, oh yes) "Nooooo!". Sam shoots in slow motion, once. Pochath overacts being shot in slow motion and does some excellent slow-motion whimpering. Then - because what could be more heart-wrenching? - Sam shouts the name of one of his dead friends, still in slow motion, sounding like an elk during rutting season (or so I imagine them to sound). Sam shoots again - still shaking muscles and gun in slow motion, then shouts the next name in elk. This is repeated a few more times - yes yes, in slow motion, still - while Sam walks to the still slow-motion-groaning Pochath, until finally, even Mattei must have thought enough is enough, Sam shouts "Aaaaaaaandddddd aaaaalllll thhhhhheeee ooootthhheeeeerrrssss!", and Werner Pochath is finally allowed to overact dying (die overacting?). I have heard rumours of people rupturing one or the other of their inner organs from laughter while watching this scene, and for once, I do believe a rumour.

The great thing about Born to Fight is that this single (and quite singular) scene is only one of many scenes nearly equal in their power of unbelievable stupidity, all coming to the delighted audience live from the brains of two of greatest purveyors of intensely entertaining crap ever to have come out of Italy. It's enough to make one tear up out of pure joy, really.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

In short: Body Puzzle (1992)

Rich widow Tracy (Joanna Pacula) is having a bit of a hard time. Someone is sneaking around leaving her rather disturbing presents, things like a  human ear, a hand, or a “finger” (“it’s not a finger”), like a kitten gone bad. These body parts belong to the victims of a series of murders shaking the town. Apart from his habit concerning Tracy, the killer (François Montagut) likes to put a bit of Mussorgsky on his walkman while he’s working, so expect to hear the same bit of “Night on Bare Mountain” again and again and again.

Cop Michele (Tomas Arana) is on the case, yet despite the killer’s fixation on Tracy, he has a lot of trouble catching his man, or finding the bizarre secret behind the murders.

As a rule of thumb (there are of course obvious exceptions to this rule), the more time a giallo spends following a cop on a police procedural (but with everyone involved being pretty darn dumb) style investigation, the less enjoyable it becomes. Lamberto Bava’s Body Puzzle certainly is a pretty great example for this rule. But it goes even further to demonstrate it: while the scenes of the killer slashing his victims are generally entertaining enough (and sometimes even a little bloody), and those of Tracy being stalked by him are even downright suspenseful, whenever our hero Michele starts investigating – usually slowly and badly – the film turns into a void of utter boredom that suffers from the blandness of Michele, the general – there is one terrible gay stereotype which isn’t enjoyable but at least memorable – lack of distinction of the characters he interviews, and what looks like an inability by Bava to film these investigations in any interesting, stylish or even just economical manner.

Unfortunately, at least half of the film is taken up by Michele’s non-adventures, always slowing things down in the worst possible moment. This state of affairs is made even less interesting by the perfunctory romance between Tracy and our man Michele in scenes that feel so pointless and disinterested, I can’t help but ask myself if the producers strong-armed Bava into including them.

Of course, as this was made in the early 90s, long after the genre had faded away, it was certainly not easy for Bava to get a giallo made at all; going by the results, I’m just not sure it was worth his effort.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Life (2017)

Warning: while I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll have to include some structural spoilers; also, this one made me rather cross!

Apparently, there is life on Mars, and an international probe is hurtling towards Earth, carrying some promising samples in its belly (or wherever probes are carrying samples). The scriptwriters were probably afraid to lose the audience right at the start if not something “exciting” happens to begin with, so the probe is a bit out of control and instead of some sane manoeuvre, the crew – as played by the overqualified and desperately underused cast of Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare - of the international space station tasked to evaluate the samples has to catch the thing with a robot arm, which improbably works too.

The samples are worth the effort, though, for among them is an actual living alien cell. A cell that quickly grows into many cells, and then into an organism that becomes increasingly big. If you think you know where the rest of the movie is going to go, you are exactly right.

For if there is something that is inarguably true about Daniel Espinosa’s alien on a rampage movie, then it is that is has no original bone in its cinematic body. The plot goes where you expect it to go, the characters are the blandest bunch of nonentities with vague motivations you could get from these actors, the production design certainly suggests the 58 million dollars the movie supposedly cost didn’t go into creativity, and Espinosa’s direction is sort of there, but certainly not reaching any – even small – heights of suspense and excitement.

There are two elements about the script that truly stand out: firstly, it is chock full implausibilities: the crew of a small space station who will potentially work on alien biological material does not know what the final stage in a complete breach of quarantine is; a space station manned for this project has only one person actually qualified to work on the samples in its crew; on the other hand, said space station has a potent hand flame thrower; the so-called quarantine measures make no sense at all, the characters might as well just leave all doors open and invite their alien guest in; nobody ever follows procedures. And it goes on and on that way.

Which are of course all problems I’m not unaccustomed to from my SF horror movies, and willing to overlook (though a film at least trying to sell me on its world usually helps my tolerance here) but then comes in script standout problem number two. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the valuable brain space freed by not taking care of details to demonstrate cleverness without being actually all that clever (a tendency that already annoyed me quite a bit in their scripts for Deadpool and Zombieland). First, they pull a Psycho through killing off one of the “name” actors first (so that they can keep exactly the other two you’d expect them to keep for as long as possible), but telegraph it so much it does not feel surprising so much as expected. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t 1960 anymore.

Next, the film tries something so clever with a moment involving a leg you won’t have to look long on the Internet to find people who think it is a plot hole, when in actuality, it’s a character helping the creature because he’s lost it. The characterisation is so bland (probably aiming for subtle, and badly missing) the character never reads like actually losing it until he holds a speech about it. The film is much too coy about actually showing how leg met alien and why for the scene to work at all, and it’s no wonder people do misread what’s going on. It probably sounded like a clever little flourish to add, but again, the script doesn’t put the work in for this part of the plot to feel plausible at all and expects the audience to imagine stuff it doesn’t bother to show them.

The last and most annoying example of the film thinking it is clever for cleverness’s sake is, of course, the ending, when Life attempts to pull what it clearly thinks is a very bright little trick on its audience by lying about what its climax is actually about. That sort of thing can work, but a film really needs to have worked for the audience’s trust and patience up until that point, which this one certainly has not, and really only should use this sort of trick if the realization of what is actually going on in the ending will put everything that came before into a different light for the audience. To my great annoyance, Life opts for using this technique to finagle the usual horror movie bullshit ending. Most horror films save that sort of thing for a single shot pseudo-twist because that’s much less annoying than wasting the potential emotional effect of your whole climax, but then most horror films don’t think they are quite this clever when pulling this sort of crap, unlike Life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In short: Nighcrawler (2014)

When it comes to films about horrifyingly empty people, Dan Gilroy’s sort of crime movie, kinda thriller, satire and portray of an actual sociopath would probably make a good double feature with Mike Hodges’s Croupier, even though Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom in this film is a somewhat different proposition to Clive Owen’s croupier. Where Owen’s character in Croupier loses his tenuous grip on something amounting to humanity, Gyllenhaal plays his character as an alien who genuinely does not understand human ethics or empathy and most certainly never possessed them – quite unlike the characters surrounding him who do understand these things but decide not to act on them for various reasons, enabling the evils Bloom perpetrates for their own expediency and success, and because the void is just so damn seductive.

I found Gyllenhaal’s performance, the way his character parrots phrases he’s learned on the Internet or in how to business books genuinely disturbing, even more so since he clearly sees himself as an all-American success story, an afterschool TV special hero. Gilroy’s film suggests various rather frightening things (that’ll not surprise quite a few of us): that you best be a monster to make it in late capitalist society or transform yourself into one; that the systemic pressures inherent in media and society push people incessantly to give up on very basic elements of their humanity while pretending they don’t; that in this society, being a monster is simply easier than being human; and that pretending to be be an actual human being is much more important than acting like one.

All this is packaged in an elegant, very Los Angeles film, that is so strongly structured and so well made Gyllenhaal’s incredible performance seems a natural part of his filmic surroundings.