ARRIVAL (2016)recommended! Dir: Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO, ENEMY, PRISONERS, INCENDIES) Science Fiction at its best! Can't recommend highly enough!
With horror elements and intrigue, this Sci-Fi masterpiece focuses on communication and language as not only means of connection, but also possible transcendence. In the tradition of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL(1951), the arrival of extraterrestrial aliens who just sort of show up and sit there, causes humanity to go upside down. Will our fears of the unknown boil over and provoke unnecessary disaster in our moment of greatest scientific opportunity? It seems the alien ambassadors, scientists in their own right, are facing the same pressure from their leaders that the Earthlings are getting from their own. With the clock ticking toward apocalypse, the aliens sacrifice themselves in an effort to connect, an incredible act of good will, but will it be enough for the humans to get it together and seize the correct path?Terrific writing, direction, cinematography, musical score, production design and performances make this one for the ages.
ALIEN ABDUCTION (2014)recommended! Dir: Batty Beckerma Yes it is another "found footage" film, but it was really good! Yes it implores choppy editing at times to get around special effects limitations, etc., but it's still great and really scary! There were some original touches to what might have been just another cheap attempt, but I believe the earnestness of this movie carried it beyond its low-budget limits, into a genuine frightener. There is no glossy Hollywood ending either- the story stays true to itself.
When a project like this takes itself seriously, it runs the high risk of coming off cheesy if it is not very precise in its direction and design. The characters seem real enough and not played for type or genre. Also fresh is the restraint the film uses in not falling into standard cliches. There is a "redneck" character for example, who isn't some loon played for yucks, but is actually a hero. Parents make harsh sacrifices and the kids do a lot of growing up fast. This isn't the kind of story where you really want characters to die (LOL) but find yourself rooting for them throughout. The film also steers away from moral structuring, life and occurrences are random, not ethically foretold. As with the recent rash of Alien sighting flicks, this one presents evil aliens who, in spite of their intergalactic technology, are still flesh and blood and can be fought against. Also strong is what the story does not attempt to explain. The narrative stays focused on the survival story of the human characters told strictly through their immediate point of view.
SPLIT (2017)recommended! Dir: M. Night Shayamalan Solid horror tale with exquisite performance by James McAvoy. Betty Buckley co-stars. What seems at first to be a psycho-killer film about a guy who abducts girls, refreshingly changes gears into a wider drama about a man burdened with multiple personality disorder. The characters are smart, well drawn and sympathetic. McAvoy's mesmerizing performance carries the film. A post-credits epilogue links this story to Shyamalan's previous UNBREAKABLE(2000), hinting that the film has been an origin story for an expanded superhero universe (which I find cheesy as hell unfortunately.)
SECOND STRING PICKS
THE SIGNAL (2014) Dir: William Eubank (LOVE) Excellent until the final act. For the first two acts I thought this would be my pick of the year. As with Eubanks' previous effort LOVE (2011), the ending gets a bit scrambled. Presenting a unique, high-concept angle on the alien-abduction milieu, THE SIGNAL sculpts its narrative and its characters with patience and thoughtful detail. As with LOVE, the story takes some radical turns, almost as if each act is a different movie. Late in the third however, what was a tightly drawn mystery begins playing it loose, almost lost in its own whimsical treatment of itself. I actually lost the plot at the very end and I'm not sure what actually was supposed to be conveyed. To me, this softened the blow of the final big plot twist, whereas had the film stayed true to the style of its first two acts, the twists would've been more powerful. All-in-all a worthy effort and a good watch!
IT FOLLOWS (2014) Dir: David Robert Mitchell (THE MYTH OF THE SLEEPOVER) Solid but somewhat tepid meditation on social connectedness and causality. When young people have sex, they begin to be followed by a ghoul. If the ghoul makes contact, it kills them. So the post-sex reality is one of constant vigilance and fear. The characters try everything- staying in groups, keeping constantly on the run, even having sex with strangers to pass off the curse. Insidiously, the ghouls take the form of someone you know as a strategy to get you. Everyone must be mistrusted! After finally escaping the curse, a couple finds true romance and earnest sexual fulfillment, only to be followed once again. The final shot leaves us with a wonderful picturization of the two holding hands, with an out of focus figure following them in the background.
The allegories are too obvious too mention here but by not overtly defining specifics, the film stays nicely inferential. Rather than make socio-ethical statements about sex and abstinence, the film offers a generalized meditation on the realities of feeling haunted.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Dir: Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST) Glazer is the kind of director who takes an idea and just meditates on it, with little story. UNDER THE SKIN follows the exploits of an alien creature (Scarlett Johansson) in human female form, who hitch-hikes around Scotland luring men to their deaths. With promises of sexual fulfillment, the alien girl brings the men to an abandoned building where, hypnotized, they wade into some bizarre liquid until over their heads. Once immersed in the dark goo, the men freeze in an unemotional stasis, eventually just sort of disintegrating into frozen shards of paper. Later, the goo is flushed out a drainage pipe like yesterday's business. It seems that our alien protagonist has gone off reservation because a team of other male looking aliens begin tracking her down. Heading out of the city and into the country, alien girl takes up with a man and seems to begin a love relationship. However, when in the bedroom he enters her in lovemaking, she recoils in shock, inadvertently killing the man. With no care whatsoever about her murdered lover, she examines herself in a mirror, now fully aware of the nature of her corporeal human self. Back out on the road, alien girl is raped in the woods by a logger and in the struggle, has half her body skin ripped off, revealing a black, featureless form beneath. The man runs in horror and alien girl, her inner self now exposed, crawls away. In a clearing, alien girl is confronted again by the man, who lights her on fire and burns her to death. The end.
Something is clearly going on here about the rift between genders and by putting us in the point of view of an alien, Glazer has us meditate on the masculine humanity of the hapless male victims. It is not clear if the weird plasma goo liberates the men from Earthly form or is just their pure destruction. Is this a means of transcendence? Acquisition?? Assimilation?? The film seems to imply that while going about their business these visiting aliens stumble upon a reality even they were not prepared for- the human essence of male versus female. So captivated by this is she that alien girl seems to disobey orders (we guess) and make an enemy of her alien compatriots. There are so many subtextural routes to take here. All is seemingly well and at a distance till the act of lovemaking "penetrates" and violates the experience. The aliens are non-descriptive and perhaps non-gendered, represented literally and figuratively by their featureless black forms "under the skin." Does this symbolize some essence in-potentia of sentient beings in a universal sense? Certainly the narrative is an intriguing foray into examining our sexual nature from the outside, but what is discovered and offered to the viewer is left undefined. Kudos to Johannson for continuing to work on high-concept science fiction films.
THE CANAL (2014) Dir: Ivan Kavanagh (THE FADING LIGHT, TIN CAN MAN) A husband/father who suspects his wife of having an affair realizes his worst fears when his wife goes missing. Finding her drowned body in a nearby canal, the man starts having visions of supernatural forces that come out of the shadows, which he believes have taken his wife. Left to care for their only son, the husband endeavors to piece together the mystery of the shadowy forces by capturing their image on motion-picture film. When no one else sees what he sees on the film, he begins to realize his own psychosis and the creeping reality that he is actually the murderer. In the end, we are never really sure if there are in fact supernatural forces or not, but the husband, in the depth of his psychosis chooses to join with them on the dark side. The final scene has the voices of the dead husband and wife whispering to their son, who then takes his own life.
The drama is really well set up in the first act and you really feel for the husband. When it turns out that he was correct about his wife's affair, he becomes a single father trying his best to look out for his son. Even though it becomes clear the husband is the actual murderer, we still identify with his struggle. The film is a treatment on the interiorizing of paranoia and guilt, which in the case of the husband, manifests into pure psychosis.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts The CGI was really amazing in this bizarre 1970's period piece that merges KING KONG with the Japanese Kaiju tradition of giant monsters (hint, hint: GODZILLA,) South Pacific "Skull Island" has been shrouded in perpetual hurricanes since the beginning of time and evolution has developed differently here than the rest of Earth. Samuel L. Jackson plays a soldier who doesn't know how to live without a war and goes straight from Vietnam into a war against nature. Brie Larson is the obligatory hippie-chick journalist representing the anti-establishment front. Tom Hiddleston is the token beefcake who's there to be the pretty white guy. John Goodman plays a Washington Beltway beaurocrat who thinks he can find a cash-cow in the oil that likely resides under the Island. John C. Reilly is a WWII pilot who crashed down on the island and has survived with the natives ever since. The 40-story KING KONG is the guardian force of nature that acts as a moral sword to deliver justice.
The visuals are stunning and I actually liked the clever angle on the island as an evolutionary off-shoot. Unfortunately, the pacing made this feature film feel like a bit of a fly-by. I felt as though it was a three-hour film packed into two and less may have been more, whereas others have posited that this was likely the only way to pull it off. The tired Captain Ahab angle of one guy versus the monster was a bit much for me also. A post end-credits teaser ties this film to the new Warner Bros./Legendary GODZILLA franchise.
HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND (1972) Dir: Jim O'Connolly (THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, BERSERK, MISTRESS PAMELA) Aka: TOWER OF TERROR and BEYOND THE FOG. Fun Brit-horror from the 70's that utilizes wonderful set design, mattes and miniatures to create a nice why-don't-they-shoot-films-like-this-anymore atmosphere. I'm a big fan of O'Connolly's THE VALLEY OF GWANGI and this features' production design did not disappoint.
The hidden treasure of an ancient devil cult is the inciting element that leads a "haunted" lighthouse island through generations of family secrets and debauchery. When curious archeologists try once and for all to pin down the truth behind the islands' mysteries, murderous hell breaks loose! In the end, it is the predictable old greed of men rather than anything supernatural that is the cause of the foul play. Gorgeous photography and strong performances make for some strong throw-back fun.
IF THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE TO WATCH...
THE SILENT SCREAM (1979) Dir: Denny Harris Predictable and forgettable PSYCHO clone that presents the tried and tired isolated-family-creates-twisted-and-murderous-offspring trope. Seriously mal-adjusted young man manages his families beach front estate, renting rooms to naive college kids who get picked off one by one. Turns out the murderer is actually the young man's sister (Barbara Steele) who is hidden away in a secret room by the young man and his mother. However, turns out "Sister" is actually MOM and "Mom" is actually GRANDMA! Who knew!? Sister/Mom is homicidal because upon finding herself pregnant with the boy way back when, tried to kill herself, but only managed to render herself mentally incapacitated. Family values thrive on with Grandma hiding the truth and leaving poor young man screwed up for life. The awkward son tries to avenge the situation but the whole family dies. The pretty girl and pretty boyfriend survive. Puritanical dogma and shame once again lead to horror!
DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (1979) Dir: Joseph Ellison (JOEY) I was ready to dismiss this as grindhouse torture porn in the first act, but to my surprise it was not. A sensationalist opening act (with a rather hard to watch immolation scene) gives way to an actual story of some merit. There are some ghoulish and well conceived moments, as we witness the inner contradictions of a sociopath lead to full on psychopathy. Religion is to blame! The film would've gone better if the lead actor had been stronger.
THE RESURRECTED (1991) Dir: Dan O'Bannon (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) Another low-budget attempt at realizing an H.P. Lovecraft tale into film, this time "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." I actually want to like this one but its direction and realization is so blah that I can't. The film is shot like a TV show- like an episode of "Remington Steele" or something. I liked the story and its pacing, the casting might have been stronger but this is a low-budget outing. The special effects, especially at the end were very limited which did negatively impact the affect of the story (although some of the prosthetic creature-effects were quite well done and ghoulish.) However, it is the sheer lack of style and cinematic presence that is the films' biggest short coming. Also, there is a moment near the end where the main characters friend gets pulled into a pit of monsters and our hero simply resolves to blow the place up. This moment really broke the story logic and realism because prior to this, the hero character we grew to knew would never have stopped looking for his friend. Anyway- "rental."
EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2014) Dir: Colin Minihan (GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, IT STAINS THE SANDS RED) Another genre picture about genre pictures
Another genre picture about genre pictures. (A CABIN IN THE WOODS) Could've been good, but settled on being a wanna-be Joss Whedon drive-in entry that was too insecure to trust its material. It is very much as if the filmmakers realized that if they took the material seriously it would not work, so they tried it as satire (and failed.) Solid production value supports a campy script and cartoonish characters. Original story-telling was not the purpose here, but moments of originality and genuine scares are undermined by snarky direction and winks at the camera that think they are funny but are not. It is one thing to use genre as a vehicle to offer interesting ideas, but when your only content is the form itself, the results are tired and insulting. If the material is that used up, why make a film at all? Should've been an episode of TV's "SUPERNATURAL" or "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER," not a feature film. Also, this wave of snarky flicks with the obligatory indy-rock soundtrack has to end. Skip this one.
OUIJA (2014) Dir: Stiles White
Although it looked really bad, I watched this because Olivia Cooke from THE SIGNAL stars. Oh well, just as bad as it looks. A phoned in yawner about high school kids who unlock an evil ghost by playing with a ouija board. No character, no theme, no subtext, nothing interesting at all just plot, plot, plot. When friends die, the poor actors have to pretend they care and it all gets in the way of the story. Eventually, as the body count rises, we just skip on past to the next scene without a care! The few visual scares that surfaced were not enough to make anything worth it. Pass...
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016) Dir: Tate Taylor (GET ON UP, THE HELP, PRETTY UGLY PEOPLE) Penises bad, vaginas good. Hitchcock this is not. The end.
By choosing to tell a rather nominal romantic-thriller from the point of view of a character with amnesia, the film uses a non-linear style of flashbacks to slowly reveal a mystery. The end however is a shaggy-dog let down as we realize we've been drawn into a universe where men are dogs and women are victims and we devolve into a violent and sophomoric revenge fantasy. Go rent I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE(1978) instead.
SILVER BULLET (1985) Dir: Daniel Attias Tepid 80's horror based on Stephen King story with screenplay by King himself. Really slow tale about a boy in a wheelchair in a small town who becomes aware of a werewolf in the midst. To no surprise it turns out to be the priest in town and there are no twists or action or themes or subtext much mentioning if at all. Gary Busey co-stars. Felt like a Disney movie-of-the-week family film.
LET US PREY (2014) Dir: Brian O'Malley (THE LODGERS) Pointless and cruel. One of those straight-to-video type films by filmmakers who just wanted to make a film but for no good reason. Lots of posing and snarky posturing and should've just been a music video. Lead actor Liam Cunningham has strong presence as a grizzled, cigarette smoking angel of retribution come to avenge the sins of men.