Thursday, November 26, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 12

 Movies: various


Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

***

Dick Johnson is Dead

This documentary by filmmaker Kirsten Johnson is lighthearted, even though it deals with one of life's heaviest subjects: death. This film was Johnson and her father's (retired psychiatrist Dr. C. Richard Johnson--Dick to his friends) way of processing his eventual death. The film is part biography and part comedy, and includes scenes of staging various ways Dick could die, such as taking a tumble down the stairs or having an air conditioner fall on his head.

In between these comical fake deaths (which usually include a hilarious stunt double), Dick and Kirsten reminisce about Kirsten's mom (Dick's wife), who had Alzheimer's and passed away years before. The film includes heartbreaking footage of Kirsten's mom not remembering her daughter's name. But the footage isn't exploitative or played for cheap sentiment--it's a true look at how Alzheimer's is like waking death, since it robs its victims of their memories. 

Dick Johnson is Dead is a movie that children (adult children and older teens) should watch with their parents. It's hard to contemplate one's own death, let alone the death of someone who, if you're lucky, is someone you've loved deeply and who has loved you unconditionally your whole life. But by envisioning wacky fakes deaths--as well as imagining what heaven might be like for Dick--Kirsten Johnson makes a scary subject approachable, and even funny.

Grade: B+

***
Run

Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a bizarrely popular trope in movies and films. Remember that scene with a very young Mischa Barton in The Sixth Sense where she is a little ghost girl who reveals her mother was killing her? Or more recently, the disorder, in which a caregiver purposefully hurts (usually using poison) someone in their care in order to control them and get attention and sympathy from others, played a huge role in the excellent book and TV series Sharp Objects. It's an inherently fascinating disorder since we have a difficult time wrapping our heads around the idea of a caregiver--usually a mother--purposefully harming her child, especially if they believe they are doing it out of love.

Run, starring Sarah Paulson (an amazing actress who stars in just as much soap opera trash as she does in better quality films and movies) and newcomer Kiera Allen (who actually does use a wheelchair in real life--yay for casting disabled actors!), is the latest in a tradition of movies about moms who keep their daughters sick in order to keep them close. Paulson plays Diane, a single mom who nearly loses her baby, Chloe, soon after birth. Cut to 17 years later. Chloe lives with a variety of illnesses, including paralysis of her legs and heart issues, but she is an intelligent, thriving young woman who is excited to go to college after an entire lifetime of being homeschooled by Diane. The mom and daughter seem to get along great, with a nearly Gilmore Girls level of friendship between the two. However, when Chloe inadvertently sees a bottle of pills that are meant for her, but under her mom's name, she begins to question some things. When she tries to Google the name of the pill, only to find that the internet is blocked, she becomes increasingly frantic to find out exactly what her mom is giving her. And the more she tries to figure things out, the more Diane clamps down on her freedom.

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who directed Searching, one of my favorite films of 2018, I expected more from Run. While entertaining, the film quickly descends into soap opera territory with revelations about Chloe and Diane's relationship that add nothing to the plot. The film is more interested in shocking us that actually exploring the very interesting dynamic at the heart of the movie. The movie uses Munchausen by proxy as a means of titillation and thrills us with how "crazy" Diane is. It also ends on a sour note that I didn't care for and didn't think was necessary. 

Entertaining, for sure, but Run doesn't live up to Searching. Hopefully, Chaganty's next film with keep the thrills and leave out the over-the-top drama. 

Grade: B-

***
Paterson

I was expecting to like Jim Jarmusch's 2016 film about a poet bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) working in Paterson, New Jersey, a lot more. Reviews of this film are rapturous. While is was definitely very good, with an incredibly strong and subtle performance by Driver, I had some issues with it. Mostly about how unnatural some of the dialogue felt given that this is supposed to be a hyper-realistic film, and also the way people of color are used in relation to the main character, a white man.

Let's start with the positive: Paterson is a poetic film about the small joys of every day life. Paterson has a very set routine: he wakes up without an alarm at 6:10am, eats a small bowl of Cheerios, writes some poetry before work and at lunch, and then walks the dog and stops in for a single beer at a nearby bar every night. Paterson's wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is in many ways his opposite: she is a homemaker who dreams big and dreams a lot. One week she wants to start a cupcake business, the next she wants to learn guitar and become a country singer. She is very creative and supportive of Paterson's poetry, urging him to copy his poems somewhere else other than his notebook (the fact that he fails to do so comes back to bite him in the ass). Paterson is just a nice movie--it's calming, it's low stakes, and it shows that it's possible to both love life and be a pretty boring person at the same time.

However, the movie does this weird thing where basically every person in Paterson's life is a person of color, and they all encourage him and/or teach him lessons. When Paterson's notebook is destroyed near the end of the film, it is a tourist from Japan--a poet himself--who gifts Paterson a new notebook and tells him "an empty page presents many possibilities". Ok, what kind of Magical PoC shit is this? While I don't think the movie was racist or trying to lean into racist stereotypes, there was just something that felt off to me about a bunch of supporting actors--the bartender, two patrons of the bar, Paterson's boss, Paterson's wife, and the Japanese man at the end--who barely have personalities of their own (other than "creative" or "lovelorn") serving to support one white man's dreams. Hell, he doesn't even take their very good advice (like to get a cell phone or to copy his poems somewhere else) most of them time. 

Luckily, the film is held in Adam Driver's capable (and very large) hands. He plays the character as a mega-introvert who is never arrogant, never unkind, and just kind of a very internal, calm presence. Thank god, because one whiff of arrogance would have made this character truly awful. 

Paterson is a very good movie. But does it live up to all the hype? Not in my (poetry note) book.

Grade: B

***
Greener Grass

Greener Grass is a bizarre satire-comedy written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe that takes place in a very weird suburb where weird things happen. The movie kicks off at a kid's soccer game where Lisa (Luebbe) tells Jill (DeBoer) that she "loves" Jill's new baby, prompting Jill to offer her baby to Lisa...like, to keep. Lisa accepts. It's a decision that Jill comes to regret, especially once her son, Julian, turns into a dog during a pool party. You heard that right! Meanwhile, Jill's husband Nick (Beck Bennett, in a role he was born for) is obsessed with drinking their oxygenated pool water--going so far as to create popsicles from their pool. 


Greener Grass verges on horror-comedy, while not ever quite *becoming* a horror comedy. But the soundtrack leans into the creepiness of the characters and their strange little world, and certain scenes (such as when Jill removed her adult braces with a pair of pliers) are horror-lite. The best way to describe the movie would be "surreal". If you're a fan of off-kilter humor, especially if it's poking fun at American suburbia, this might just be the movie for you! 

Grade: B

***
The Dark and the Wicked

The Dark and the Wicked is a particularly creepy, but not particularly compelling horror movie that falls into the occult/family secrets camp (think: Hereditary). Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. play siblings Louise and Michael, who come back to the family farm to help their mother since their dad is basically in a vegetative state and nearing death. However, something isn't right with their mother either. After she..

spoilers spoilers spoilers



...commits suicide by hanging herself, the siblings begin to feel an evil presence on the farm much more acutely. They discover their mother's diary, and read that she was convinced that a demon or some kind of Satanic presence was stalking her and her husband.

The Dark and the Wicked is genuinely gruesome (a violent scene of self-harm happens near the beginning) and scary (I jumped out of my seat more than once). But it also feels like it doesn't add up to much. The people in the film are victims, full stop. There is no explanation as to why a demon wants them all dead--there is nothing in the movie to suggest bad deeds, an inherited curse, or any *reason* why they are being tormented by a supernatural entity. And there is nothing they can do to escape it, including straight up leave the farm. Michael does just that and comes to a horrific end. I guess this is what's supposed to make the movie scary, but I prefer my horror movie victims to have some degree of agency: some ability to escape or survive. Even if they don't escape or survive, the fact that they can *try* to do so is what makes a scary movie compelling. In The Dark and the Wicked all the human characters are just as much sheep as the animals they keep on the farm: powerless, as they are led to slaughter.

Grade: B

Monday, November 16, 2020

The New Scottish Gentry: What's this? An ALBUM review!?

 Albums: Franz Ferdinand 


So, I decided to do something very different and review an album. I've been feeling very nostalgic lately and have taken a dive back into movies and music I loved in late high school and college (keep your eyes peeled for  retrospective reviews of Being John Malkovich and American Splendor soon). And, first of all, I had/have great taste. If I do say so myself. The shit I liked when I was 18-22 holds up. Good job, me *pats self on back*. But more importantly than my own good taste is the way these pieces of culture make me feel. Emotionally, intellectually, sexually, and aesthetically. And nothing taps into those intense feelings that only someone who is exiting childhood and entering adulthood can feel more than the post-punk, garage rock band Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut album.


Clocking in at a tight 38 minutes and 49 seconds, with 11 tracks, Franz Ferdinand doesn't have a single wasted minute. Granted, there are a few songs on the album I care less for than others (I've never liked "This Fire", which is the song FF always closes out their concerts with), but even their worst song is better than the best song on plenty of other albums I own. 

But why do I love this album, and this band--who many people barely remember--so much? Obviously, their music hits all the right pleasure centers in my brain. Not being a music aficionado, I don't really have the language to describe why I like what I like the way I have the language to describe movies I like, so excuse me if I flounder a bit. Franz Ferdinand's music is dark--but not metal-dark. Sexy-dark. Lead singer Alex Kapranos has the voice to match, and is able to go really deep on some of the songs and make it feel like he's seducing you in the back room of a really upscale, but still funky, club. Their music makes me think of velvet couches, heavy drapery, guys in eyeliner and skinny ties. The band's aesthetic choices in their album art and how they dress during performance is all part of the package, as are their occasionally homoerotic lyrics (see "Michael" below). They're like if 80s new wave and glam rock had a baby. And that baby was adopted by David Bowie and was best friends with Harry Styles. 

Most average folks know the track "Take Me Out" from Franz Ferdinand since it was, and is, the band's biggest hit. And even though there are better songs on the album, it might be my favorite in terms of pure foot-stomping, ear candy joy. It's catchy, but not in an annoying way and after countless listens over the past decade and a half, I'm still not sick of it.

What would I consider the "best" song on the album? Probably "Dark of the Matinee", which contains my favorite lyrics in any song of any time:

I time every journey

To bump into you

Accidentally

I charm you and tell you

Of the boys I hate

All the girls I hate

All the words I hate

All the clothes I hate

How I'll never be

Anything I hate

In fact, all the lyrics in "Dark of the Matinee" are great, as is the video. 

And then there is "Michael". It's important to note that when I was a teenager and young adult, I was very into anything having to do with gay men. I mean, I still am, but it was a lot more potent back then because I was sexually inexperienced and so men were a scary and intriguing mystery to me. Therefore, gay men were the perfect group to attach my lust and fascination to since, hey, they didn't want anything to do with me so I was safe. This really isn't an unusual phenomena for young girls to experience. Just check out all the m/m fan fiction that teen girls write and read. 

So, "Michael", which is a song about a man who finds himself entranced by another man on the dancefloor, was catnip to me. The lyrics contain the refrain "so come and dance with me" repeated over and over, and in live versions, Kapranos often substitutes "so come all over me" for the final refrain. 

If "Take Me Out", "Dark of the Matinee", and "Michael" are my top three songs from the album, "Jacqueline", "Auf Asche",  and "Tell Her Tonight" would be my next tier. "Jacqueline" starts the album off on a melancholic note that transitions to straight up rock partway through the song. It's about an older man longing for a younger woman, and that woman just seeing him as a creepy old geezer. And speaking of longing, "Auf Asche", which contains lyrics such as--

You see her, you can't touch her

You hear her, you can't hold her

You want her, you can't have her

You want to, but she won't let you

--could easily come off as an incel anthem, but given that this was pre-incel, it just feels like good, old-fashioned longing to me. In fact, a lot of Franz Ferdinand's songs, in this album and others, capture the inherent tension of love and desire. "Tell Her Tonight" and "Cheating on You" are about, well, cheating. "Come on Home" ends with the lyric "so come on home, but don't forget to leave". And on their 2009 album Tonight, the song "Live Alone" is an ode to how familiarity can breed contempt in a relationship. I suppose if there is a single theme that pervades Franz Ferdinand's music, it's that love and relationships often inspire conflicting and ambiguous feelings. However, we shouldn't look too deeply into the messages behind the band's songs because, as Kapranos once said in an interview, the band's goal is "to make records that girls can dance to and cut through the postured crap". 

...but some posturing is ok. It makes them look cool. 

I think I just love this album so much because it makes me feel good. It's rocky and punky and sexy. It's easy to listen to over and over, and by now I know all the lyrics. The members of the original band--Alex Kapranos, Bob Hardy, Nick McCarthy, and Paul Thomson--are all good looking men who wore tight-fitting suits with skinny ties and had shaggy haircuts, as was the fashion at the time (mid-aughts. Think about The Strokes, The Hives, Interpol, et al). The album is at the intersection of deep and dark, and playful and fun--just like me at 18 and still today at 34. It speaks to me personally.

And I took their advice and never became anything I hate.

Grade: A+




Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 11

Movies: various


Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

***
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

It's been so long since I've seen the original Borat film that all I can remember about it are some vague scenes of naked wrestling and Borat saying "My wiiiife" and "very niiiiice" in a funny voice. So I was totally going to ignore this sequel until it started getting praise online.

Well, I was not disappointed. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm might actually be better than the original (might be, given I don't really remember the original). For one thing, it has character development and an arc. In this mockumentary/prank movie, Borat is released from a lifetime sentence of hard labor in a Kazakhstan gulag (after being sent there for causing Kazakhstan to become a worldwide laughingstock after his first film) and sent on a mission by the country's Premier to deliver a gift to Mike Pence in order to win Trump's friendship. 

Borat (Sasha Baron Cohen, in case you've been living under a rock these past 15 years) travels to the United States only to find that his top secret mission is foiled for two reasons: firstly, he is recognizable on sight in America, forcing him to don a series of disguises. Secondly, he discovers that his 15 year old daughter, Tutar (newcomer Maria Bakalova, keeping up easily with Cohen), has smuggled herself to America. After realizing that powerful men in America love beautiful women (especially "pussy hound" Mike Pence), he decides to give his daughter as a gift instead of the original gift (which I won't give away, since it's too funny). 

Borat and Tutar go on a series of misadventures in their quest to turn Tutar from a "notsie to a hotsie" and to teach her how to act ladylike and attract rich men. As in the first film, Borat's politically incorrect language and beliefs give the Americans he meets enough rope to hang themselves with, such as when a plastic surgeon uses the words "titties" to explain what breast implants are and acknowledges that he would sleep with Tutar if Borat were not in the room. The "victims" of such pranks include a pastor at a crisis pregnancy center, a couple Qanon neckbeards (who actually seem kind of nice, other than believing that Democrats drink children's blood), and Rudy Giuliani. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will make you laugh out loud, cringe hard, and maybe even tear up a bit. Strangely, the film doesn't feel as edgy as the first one did, despite Americans being just as ugly and racist as we were 15 years ago. I think this is because we're more used to feeling angry and "outraged" all the time and we expect people--esp. politicians--to behave badly, so Borat's pranks don't seem as damning. Even if the satire isn't the most cutting-edge, the Borat sequel is still just a really fun and funny movie.

Grade: B+

***
The Wicker Man (1973)

Robin Hardy's 1973 folk horror film is pretty seminal. Movies like Midsommar and TV series like The Third Day owe their existence, in part, to The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward plays Sgt. Howie, a police officer who visits the secluded island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. But at every turn, the inhabitants of the island thwart him in his duties. The girl's own mother claims not to know her and the younger sister claims that Rowan is a hare who lives in a field. Meanwhile, Howie, a devout Christian, is shocked and disgusted by the sexually free ways of the islanders and the fact that they teach pagan beliefs to their children.

Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the smug leader of the island, who does nothing to help Howie in his investigation. In fact, a number of the islanders basically tell Howie to just leave. The fact that he doesn't leave, despite being given a chance to, is what seals Howie's fate in the end.

I don't even know if it's worth putting a spoiler alert here, but the long and short of it is: Howie ends up being used as a human sacrifice so that the islanders have more success with their crops in the coming year. The whole movie is really just a build up to the climatic and iconic final scene, in which Howie is burned alive in a giant wooden man--the titular Wicker Man. What is tragic about Howie's death is that his own sense of integrity--his desire to save a young girl he truly believes is in danger--is what gets him killed. The islanders even point out that he has come to the place of sacrifice of his own free will. No one held him at gunpoint. And although I enjoyed making fun of the priggish Howie throughout the movie, his final moments are truly horrific as he prays while the flames start to lick up the sides of the wicker man and the islanders sing "Sumer is icumen in" with giant smiles on their faces.


The Wicker Man is a good starter horror film if you're interested in trying out the genre but are easily frightened. There are really no jump scares or anything that will keep you awake at night--other than the fact that "crazy people" can't be reasoned with. But in the end, who is crazy? The islander with their pagan beliefs, or the man foolish enough to believe that he, an outsider, can reason with them?

Grade: B

***
The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is a play written by Mart Crowley in 1968. At the time, it was considered shocking and cutting edge. The play centers on a group of gay men who gather together to celebrate the birthday of Harold. As the night wears on and libations are flowing, the characters--particularly Harold and the main character, Michael--get meaner and meaner. Michael challenges everyone to a game where they get points for calling someone they love and telling them. This leads to...poor choices.

When I read the play in my Queer Theory class as a senior in college, I thought "these people are fucking mean and I hate them". Well, the 2020 film, which stars Hollywood's best and brightest Gays (tm), such as Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Andrew Rannells, I still felt they were a mean, petty bunch. However, time and maturity have given me the perspective to see the deep well of sadness, loneliness, isolation, and self-loathing at the center of some of the characters' nasty traits.

Parsons plays Michael, the host of the party. His boyfriend, Donald (Matt Bomer) is the first to arrive. Then the extremely flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesus) shows up with Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Larry's boyfriend, Hank (Tuc Watkins) in two. Hank and Larry are having relationship troubles due to Larry wanting to sleep around and Hank wanting to settle down. Bookish Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) then arrives. 

This is where it gets interesting. Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael's college roommate, shows up somewhat unexpectedly. Alan is married and doesn't know Michael is gay. So when he shows up in the middle of the boys dancing to Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave", he is...confused to say the least. Michael attempts to keep up the charade that these are all NORMAL STRAIGHTS having a NORMAL STRAIGHT MAN PARTY, but that illusion is shattered when Cowboy (Charlie Carver shows up) and kisses Michael, thinking he's Harold (Cowboy is a "present" for Harold). The jig is up and Alan is now the lone straight guy in a room full of THE GAYS (tm). Oh, and then Harold (Quinto) shows up, and he's just a smug bitch amused at the whole situation.

Things go from bad to worse when Michael, pretty drunk at this point, forces everyone to play a game where they have to call up someone they secretly love and tell them. The whole game is a ruse for Michael to try to get Alan to admit he's gay. When Alan's phone call doesn't go as Michael expects, the party comes to a sad, abrupt halt and everyone leaves. Uh, the end.

The Boys in the Band was not an easy watch for me because I really chafe at movies where people basically yell at each other the whole time and act like total dicks in general. But the powerhouse acting, especially that of Jim Parsons in a pretty vulnerable role, helped. It also helps to remember that the story was written at a time where it most likely wasn't unusual for gay people to experience a good amount of self-loathing and anxiety about their sexuality. I think Crowley was just trying to be honest and real about how gay men suffered and, in some case, took that suffering out on others. And of course, we must not forget those who suffered even more. The men in the play are cisgender, mostly white, relatively well-off, etc. But that doesn't mean they didn't experience the crushing reality of homophobia and rejection by most of society. 

Do I recommend The Boys in the Band? Hell, why not? It's worth it for the cast alone, even if the content is cringey and upsetting at times. Will it blow your fucking socks off? No. But it's a good reminder of that old chestnut: hurt people hurt people.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Racist Roleplay

 Movies: Antebellum

Sadly, I knew going into Antebellum that I wasn't likely to be impressed with it, given the very lukewarm reviews that I read ahead of time. Now having watched it, I can say that I think the movie blew the opportunity to be a better movie. I was left thinking "that's it?". It's not the worst movie, but it's just...meh.

There's really no way to explain what this movie is about and why it's lacking without revealing major plot spoilers, so if you want to go in with fresh eyes please stop reading now. Otherwise, onto the plot revelations! 

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum opens on a confederate plantation. The very first scene involves an enslaved woman being shot by the head overseer, Jasper (Jack Huston, best known for his role as Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire. This movie is definitely a step down for him). This plantation is especially strict with its enslaved people, who are prohibited from speaking unless spoken to, even amongst themselves. Janelle Monae plays Eden, the favorite slave of the man who appears to be the head of the plantation. He doesn't have a name and is referred to only as "him". Eden dreams of escaping but know that unless she waits for the right moment she will surely die.


And then BOOM, we're suddenly in the present day! Monae plays Veronica Henley, a successful sociologist and public intellectual who has written a book about coping mechanisms Black women engage in to survive in the white patriarchy. She is also a wife and mother, though she feels guilt that her work takes her away from her daughter, Kennedi, for long periods of time. 

Veronica is at a summit in Louisiana, leaving dinner with her friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe, easily the highlight of the movie) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) when she is kidnapped by Jasper and Elizabeth (Jena Malone, absolutely gnawing on each scene she's in with a ridiculous southern accent). If one has not already inferred, these people are all involved in some kind of super secret Civil War Reenactment camp which includes a plantation filled with Black people snatched out of their daily lives and forced into slavery. This was not a shocking twist to me, since I already knew about it going in, but if you pay attention to context clues even from the very beginning (one enslaved man calls the confederates "crazy fuckers", which I don't think was the typical parlance of the antebellum south) you can figure it out.

The movie then goes back to "Eden's" current life on the plantation. After a woman who is newly arrived at the plantation and looks up to Eden/Veronica kills herself, she decides that now is the time to escape. Conveniently, the man who rapes her every night has a cell phone (turns out, he's Senator Denton, up for reelection in Louisiana. Do I believe a senator from Louisiana would kidnap Black women and force them into slavery? Ab-so-lutely). Veronica and another man on the plantation, Eli, try to use his phone to escape, but Denton wakes up and kills Eli. Veronica manages to wound him, and drags him into the "burning shed" (where they cremate enslaved people who try to escape). She manages to get Jasper in there too and burns those white fuckheads alive. Hell yeah!

Of course, the final confrontation is between Veronica, now on horseback, and Elizabeth, whom it turns out is Senator Denton's daughter and is the most racist bitch alive. She dies too, and good riddance. Then, Veronica rides out of the reenactment camp to freedom. Cut to credits.

Ok, so here are my issues with the movie:

1) There's no explanation about how this secret plantation came to be and how so many people (one scene involves an entire battalion of "confederate soldiers" having dinner there) can keep it a secret, especially when you pair it with the fact that all these Black people who have been kidnapped have, you know, families and what not who would be looking for them. In 2020 racism hides in plain sight. That's why it's so insidious. We don't need secret plantations in order to keep racism alive. All we need are white people who do jack shit. 

2) The end of the movie is anti-climatic and, honestly, not revenge-y enough. Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, but the guy knows how to do a revenge movie. Antebellum is no Django Unchained. I wanted all these white assholes to SUFFER. They all died too quickly, in my book. I wanted Janelle Monae to cut some dicks off and pluck some eyeballs out. The whole escape scene is just too quick and too tidy. This is a horror movie, and I wanted horror.

3) The main problem is that the movie lingers over scenes of enslavement, including beatings and rapes. It's not the *most* violent movie (see Django, above) but it's just kind of like...why? I guess the real question is: how does this movie contribute to the discourse on race in horror films and/or cinema that looks at slavery? You might say, well, it doesn't. It's just entertainment! Hmm, some entertainment. If you're going to make a movie about enslavement and white violence on Black bodies, it better either 1) have something to say or 2) be a damn good movie. Antebellum is neither.

About the only thing Antebellum *does* say is: don't trust historical reenactors, especially white ones, especially ones that want to play confederate soldiers. Trust me, I live in Virginia and I already know not to trust them. It's fuckin' weird. There are also historical reenactors who like to play Nazis. We have a word for those people: Nazis. 

Antebellum argues that racism is alive and well in 2020, which is kind of like a movie being made about how water is wet. White people don't need to create a double-super-secret plantation in order to violate and torment Black people. All they need to do is call the police. Or vote for Trump (or, hell, Biden). I fear that this movie will make some white people say "well, gosh, at least I'm not THAT racist. I'm a *good* white person." 

Overall: Antebellum is...fine? It's not good, it's not horrendously bad. It's just...*shrug emoji*. Definitely not worth paying $20 to rent, but more fool me I guess!

Grade: C+

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 10

 Movies: various


Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

***
The Devil All the Time

This recently released on Netflix film directed by Antonio Campos is bleak as hell. Starring a superlative cast, including Bill Skarsgard, Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, Mia Wasikowska, and many more excellent actors, The Devil All the Time follows two generations of men who live in shitty little towns in West Virginia and Ohio during the 1950s and 60s. 

Skarsgard plays Willard Russell, a WWII vet who only dreams of marrying the nice girl who works a local restaurant in Knockemstiff, OH and owning a home of his own. He gets his wish, and he and his wife Charlotte (the cute as a button Haley Bennett) have a son, Arvin (played as a teen/adult by Tom Holland). But life is not easy in Knockemstiff and tragedy hits the Russells and hits them hard. Because this is the 1950s, Willard turns to hardcore-bordering-on-insane religious fundamentalism in the face of difficult times rather than therapy and ends up traumatizing his young son in the process. The Devil All the Time uses religious fundamentalism to show how violent men can cause absolute havoc on the women and children around them. This is definitely not a pro-religion film.


Arvin grows up affected by the hail of tragedies that befall his family and moves in with his grandmother in Coal Creek, WV, where he becomes the protector of his stepsister, Lenora (played as a teen by Eliza Scanlen). But he can't protect the pious Lenora from a predatory fire-and-brimstone preacher, Preston Teagardin (played by Robert Pattinson, absolutely chewing the scenery here). Eventually, she faces the same fate as her mother, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), whose only crime was loving another insane preacher (Harry Melling). 

I found The Devil All the Time to be extremely well-acted, entertaining (though depressing), but not without its problems. Namely, the film focuses on men and women are simply there to foolishly love them, be protected by them, or become their victims. The film is also quite violent and disturbing, with scenes I won't soon forget such as a preacher dumping a jar of live spiders on his head to prove his faith, or WWII soldiers coming across a crucified and flayed soldier who is unfortunately still alive and gasping in agony. Trust: this is not a feel-good film. Still, I found it to be a very good film. 

Grade: B+

***
I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I wanted to like Charlie Kaufman's latest film, based on the polarizing novel by Iain Reed, but I just couldn't get into it. It was too slow, weird, and esoteric for me. Jessie Buckley is the narrator and protagonist of the film. Her name is unknown to us, but she is referred to as Lucy, Lucia, and Louisa throughout the movie. She is on a wintry road trip with her boyfriend of just a couple months, Jake (Jesse Plemmons), and they are traveling to have dinner with his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Lucy is haunted by an intrusive thought that she is "thinking of ending things" with Jake. 

When they reach Jake's parents' home, things go from weird to weirder. Lucy sees a picture of herself as a child hanging on the wall, and Jake insists that it's a picture of *himself* as a child. Dinner with the parents is awkward as hell, and Jake's mom and dad seem to keep getting older and older as the night wears on. Lucy keeps insisting they need to leave because she has work the next day, but everyone ignores her. Finally, they leave, but the ride home is weird too and leads Jake and Lucy to a high school where they confront a janitor who may or may not be Jake as an old man.


Obviously, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is meant to be symbolic and dreamlike (or nightmare-like, to be more accurate). The plot is meandering and never really goes anywhere. The film changed some aspects of the book--aspects that actually explain the events better. Meaning, the movie went out of its way to be more confusing and open-ended than the book. For better or for worse. For worse, in my opinion. 

But I'll give the film a C+ for its balls and creativity, as well as for the hilarious and excellent performances of David Thewlis and Toni Collette, whose characters bring a sense of levity into an otherwise bleak and boring film. But I'm thinking of never watching this movie again, to be honest.

Grade: C+

***
A Serious Man

Considered to be the Coen brothers' most personal film, A Serious Man is yet another bleak film, though not without a healthy dose of the patented Coen absurdity and humor. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a professor of physics in 1967 whose wife is leaving him for widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is mentally ill and has moved in with the Gopniks permanently, much the the consternation of Larry's wife and daughter. Meanwhile, Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), has a plot line of his own, involving preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and experimenting with marijuana (which inevitably leads to an epic scene where Danny attempts to read the Torah while high as a kite). 

A Serious Man is a pitch-black comedy steeped in Jewish references and themes, so much so that this gentile probably didn't quite "get" all of it. Over the course of the film, Larry visits multiple rabbis for advice, only to be given weak advice or riddles and parables that go nowhere. The opening of the film, which takes place in a 19th century shtetl, suggests that Larry's ancestors might be cursed, which means that Larry himself is cursed. It certainly seems that way, given that throughout the film Larry is blackmailed, cuckolded, stolen from, and generally treated poorly. What could frustrate viewers is that there is no resolution or explanation. Larry Gopnik isn't a bad man. He's a "serious man", in fact, who has always done right by his community and family. Yet he is bedeviled by bad luck. A lot of movie watchers don't like films to reflect real life, which is often filled with bad luck that has no obvious reason or cause for it. So, if you're a fan of dark humor and ambiguity, A Serious Man might be the film for you. If not, you can always just rewatch The Big Lebowski.


Grade: B

***
Horns

Horns is one of the weirder movies I've seen in a while. It has a really fascinating premise (and is based on the book by Joe Hill) but the execution is middling. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ignatius (Ig) Perrish, a young man whose girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered. Ig is the main suspect although he is clearly devastated by the loss of the love of his life. After one drunken night, Ig wakes up with literal horns protruding from his skull. The horns have an effect on others: they provoke people into telling Ig their sins and their most dark desires, from hitting a screaming child to having sex with a coworker to eating an entire dozen donuts. Ig is also able to encourage bad behavior and make people give in to temptation. Everyone is affected except for his friend Lee (Max Minghella) who is unable to see the horns. 

Throughout the film, more information about what really happened on the night of Merrin's death comes to light. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that Ig did not kill Merrin. There is a final confrontation between Ig and Merrin's murderer that feels over the top (in addition to the horns, Ig is able to control snakes and can command them to attack) and has some pretty awful CGI. Overall, the film feels overstuffed, ridiculous, and pretty misogynistic. Which is a shame, since I've heard the book is actually pretty good and actually have some feminist themes.

The best part of Horns is Daniel Radcliffe's performance as the grieving, angry, and occasionally devilish Ig. He brings emotional honesty, dark sensuality, and a sense of humor to a role that could have been cringe-worthy. But I'd go ahead and skip the film and just read the book instead.

Grade: C+

***
What Keeps You Alive

I was so disappointed in the Canadian thriller What Keeps You Alive. The movie is a queer take on intimate partner violence, which is not a super common thing to see in movies. Alas, the choices made by both of the main characters verge into "too stupid to live" territory making this movie feel absurd and irritating more than thrilling and nail-biting. 

It starts off promising: on their one year wedding anniversary, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) takes her wife Jules (Brittany Allen) to her family's remote cabin in the Canadian wilderness. Everything seems to be going swimmingly for a romantic weekend away, until Jackie's childhood friend Sarah (Marth MacIsaac) shows up and calls Jackie "Megan". Jules, understandably, is confused and hurt to find out that Jackie never told her she changed her name.

The next day, Jules rows a canoe across the lake to Sarah's house and Sarah mentions offhand about a traumatic childhood incident in which her and Jackie's mutual friend, Jenny, drowned in that very lake. Sarah is surprised that Jackie never told Jules about the incident since it was a huge event growing up. Well, at this point you might be able to guess where the plot is going. (stop reading to avoid spoilers)...



...during a hike the next morning, Jackie pushes Jules off the edge of a cliff. However, Jules survives and is able to get away and hide, foiling Jackie's plan to simply call the cops and say that a horrible accident has occurred. This is where the too stupid to live parts start piling up. Jules actually returns to the house in order to tend to her wounds and call the police. But she is apprehended by Jackie, who instead of just finished the job right there is insistent that Jules needs to specifically die an credibly-looking accidental death (insurance fraud is involved). And we're not even halfway into the movie yet. More and more unbelievable actions, foolish choices, and questionable motivations stack up to the point where I was done with the movie. I genuinely did not care if Jules, the protagonist, lived or died. I just wanted this ridiculous movie to be over. 

So, I can only recommend the film to die-hard horror/thriller junkies and/or fans of queer cinema. Personally, I think the movie was a wasted opportunity to explore a horror trope (one's spouse is out to get them) through a queer lens. 

Grade: C

Saturday, August 22, 2020

This Is The Zodiac Speaking: A Retrospective of David Fincher's Zodiac

 Movies: Zodiac

I recently re-watched David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac, twice. Meaning, I re-watched it and then re-watched it again. And I realized that I've watched this movie about 10 or 11 times and have never reviewed it. The film, about the serial killer who named himself "Zodiac" in the late-60s through late 70s, is extremely compelling to me. It's a movie about research, obsession, and the torment only a cold case can cause. 

Nearly everything about this film is perfect. From the top-notch performances from a number of actors in their prime--Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sevigny, and John Carroll Lynch among others--to the funky and mellow soundtrack featuring hits of the time period (you'll never listen to Donavan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" without thinking of this film once you've seen it), Zodiac is a finely tuned masterpiece. There's just no other word for this film.


Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle (the film is based on the book he wrote about the Zodiac which was published in 1986). Graysmith sits in on a meeting of the editorial board after the Chronicle receives a letter from a person who claims to be the man who killed a couple, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau, on July 4th 1969, as well as Betty Lou Jensen and Arthur Faraday on December 20th, 1968. The letter contains information the police never released to the public, as well as a part of a cipher and a demand that the Chronicle print the cipher or more lives will be taken. 

Graysmith follows the investigation, which is assigned to Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) after the Zodiac takes credit for shooting a taxi driver within San Francisco's jurisdiction. Additionally, Graysmith pesters Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the crime reporter at the Chronicle, for updates and information. The first half of the film mostly focuses on the hunt for the Zodiac, which leads to dead end after dead end. The second half focuses on Graysmith's obsession with the case, leading him to play citizen detective and ultimately write a book about the case in which he posits that Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) was the Zodiac, even though all the evidence tying Allen to the murders were circumstantial. Graysmith's wife (played by Chloe Sevigny) left him due to his intense fixation on solving the case.

Zodiac is a perfect blend of creepiness and looming dread without gratuitous violence, wry humor, and brain candy (lots of searching in archives and trips to the library). It's a very Ficherian film: dark, gripping, compelling, and compulsively rewatchable. Looking at Fincher's filmography, I realize that he is one of my all-time favorite directors. His films Gone Girl, Se7en, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and his TV show Mindhunter are all works of art I've watched multiple times and introduced to others. I like dark movies, but especially if they are also smart movies and Fincher hits the nail on the head. 

Zodiac was never the most prolific or most violent serial killer, but his cat-and-mouse games with the cops and newspapers make him memorable. If you're a true crime buff or a movie buff, this is one film you don't want to miss.

Grade: A+



Sunday, August 16, 2020

The COVID Diaries: HORROR-STAVAGANZA

 Movies: a lot


Readers! I have been watching movies at a rate too quickly to review in a timely manner. To remedy the situation, I welcome you to... ***HORROR-STAVAGANZA***

In this blog entry, I will review all of the horror/thriller movies I've watched in the past couple months. We're talking 17 muthafuckin films. Now, I will try to stick to a few sentences per review, but if I am particularly passionate about a film, it might stray beyond the bounds.

Additionally, to further organize my thoughts, I will be review in order from best to worst (in my opinion). I will try to avoid spoilers, but in general if you want a totally clean slate going into a film on this list, I can't make any promises.

Buckle up, chucklekfucks, it's going to be a spoopy ride.

***

Buried

Kicking things off is this tight (literally) thriller starring Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes, the film plays on one of humankind's most visceral fears: being buried alive. Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is a contracted truck driver in Iraq in 2006. After an attack on his truck, he wakes up to find that he's been buried in box. The box contains a cell phone, on which a kidnapper informs him that he better somehow get 5 million dollars in a couple hours or they'll just leave him there. The film is just Reynolds in a box, dealing with the hell that is the United States military industrial complex, company bureaucracy, and, oh you know, being buried fucking alive

Warning: Buried is one of the few movies that has made me extremely upset, and that's saying a lot! It's a great movie on every level but it is NOT for the faint of heart.

Grade: A-

***

We Summon the Darkness

Recently released on Netflix, We Summon the Darkness is a fun horror-comedy that turns the Satanic Panic fears of the 1980s on its head. Alexis, Val, and Bev are three young women on their way to a heavy metal show in 1988. They meet three guys at the show who seem pretty cool. The gals invite them back to Alexis' McMansion for an after party. Liquor and a game of "Never Have I Ever" take a dark turn when sinister intentions are revealed and the evening gets bloody.


I can't say much more, lest I give too much away. But I can say that between the realistic behavior and dialog of the characters, the surprising plot twists, and a cameo by Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness is wildly entertaining. 

Grade: B+

***

Host 

A Shudder exclusive, Host was conceived of, filmed, edited an released in just 12 weeks. The film, which is a short 57 minutes long, takes place entirely in the context of a Zoom call between friends who are stuck at home during the COVID pandemic. Haley, the host of the Zoom call, hires a medium to lead a seance, thinking it will be a fun, spooky activity to pass the time. You can probably guess where this is going.

While the seance does not go as planned due to some of the people on the call not taking it seriously, it appears to actually work in that some kind of spirit starts creeping on the friends in their individual homes. And, unfortunately, this entity is hostile. 

In the spirit of the Unfriended films (see below!), Host feels intimate (like we're on the Zoom call!) which only ramps up the terror. And like all found footage horror films, I was searching the screen constantly for the next jump scare. Reader, I watched this movie between my fingers. Highly recommended!

Grade: B

***

Hostel 2

For years, I was too scared to delve in the world of "torture porn" films. But as my tolerance for horror and violence increases, I decided to rip off the band-aid with one of the classics. I'm talking about Eli Roth's Hostel, which sucked and you can read about it below. BUT...Roth came out with a sequel that in a bizarre twist no one saw coming is actually WAY better than the original. It's nearly the same plot: three young people (in this movie, women) are in Europe for a vacation and get tricked/lured into a warehouse where they are served up as torture toys to elite buyers who pay to torture and kill people. 

Unlike the original, the sequel is funnier, campier, and even plays with some gender dynamics. For example, two of the buyers are American businessmen Todd and Stuart. Todd is the aggressive, domineering alpha male and Stuart his meek, henpecked beta friend. Well, guess which one of them turns to the be waaaaaay more into torture than the other one?! Ok, it's not exactly groundbreaking commentary on masculinity but at least it's something. Especially given than Hostel 2 didn't need to be good. It just needed to be bloody. But if you go in with low expectations you might be surprised at how fun it is to watch a girl chop a dude's genitals off right after he calls her a "cunt". (It's very fun). 

Grade: B

***

Relic

This recently released film, starring Emily Mortimer, is a supernatural twist on an all-too-normal fear: aging parents, whose bodies are slowing down and whose minds are slipping away. Mortimer plays Kay, who returns to her childhood home when her mother goes missing. After a couple days gone, Kay's mother shows up, covered in mud and with a giant bruise on her chest, but otherwise acting as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Relic has a slow build to an intense climax in which the house literally becomes oppressive to Kay, her mother, and her teenage daughter. 

I didn't find Relic to be particularly groundbreaking, or even that scary, but it's an empathic take on a real monster: Alzheimer's disease. I don't want to give too much away, but in the end Relic manages to walk the line between horror and sympathy in the recognization that death comes for us all.

Grade: B

***

She Dies Tomorrow

Like Relic, She Dies Tomorrow is another horror movie that takes a normal thing (in this case, anxiety and general existential dread) and adds a supernatural twist. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wakes up one morning convinced she will die tomorrow. She spends her day listening to Mozart's "Lacrimosa" on repeat, drinking (she's a recovering alcoholic, but who cares about falling off the wagon if you're dying tomorrow), and researching how to have her dead body made into a leather jacket. When her friend Jane (Jane Addams, wonderful as always) comes over to check on her, Amy passes her fear onto Jane. And then Jane, consumed with the absolute knowledge that she will die tomorrow, goes to her brother's party, where she infects all the guests.

As an idea, She Dies Tomorrow is fascinating. I would ask 'what if delusions are catching?', but lol we live in 2020 so of course we know that delusions are catching (what's Q been up to lately?). But a delusion as specific, personal, and dread-inducing as believing you'll die tomorrow? The film succeeds in capturing what anxiety feels like: you know what you're thinking doesn't make logical sense, but it still keeps gnawing at you and *feels* real. However, She Dies Tomorrow is very slow. And anti-climatic. Director Amy Seimetz was clearly going for a more philosophical pace rather than a fast-moving thriller. And while I understand that the film isn't meant to be a "traditional" horror film, I have to say that the slow pace and ambiguous ending worked against it. It's good, but not a rewatch.

Grade: B-

***

Lights Out

And yet another film in which mental illness is the monster. Lights Out got a lot of acclaim when it came out in 2016. It was praised for its take on depression as a supernatural monster. However, those who have seen it know that the ending is *very* controversial.

My take is that, yes, it's a good horror film. Lights Out is tight (81 minutes), scary (the monster is truly creepy), and creative. But man, the ending is REALLY not cool. You want me to spoil it? Ok, you twisted my arm:

SPOILER AND TRIGGER WARNING-- 


The mom in the film, Sophie (Maria Bello), is haunted by a manifestation of her depression, whom she calls Diana after a little girl she was friends with when she was in a mental institution as a child. At the very end, Sophie realizes that Diana is going after her children and will not stop until...well, Sophie dies. So she kills herself. The implication, whether intended or not, is that people suffering from chronic depression can help their families by, you know, not being alive. While the director claimed he was not trying to say this, it's an upsetting and dangerous idea because those who struggle with suicidal ideation have to fight against the belief that suicide would somehow be better for their loved ones. While Lights Out is "just a movie" and it's up to everyone to make smart choices about what they watch, the film's ending could do more harm than good. On the other hand, I don't have chronic depression, so maybe I don't know what I'm taking about. /SPOILER

Overall: if you are sensitive to depictions of mental illness and self-harm on screen, especially if they are triggering to you, I'd sit this one out. Otherwise, see it and decide for yourself what you think of the ending.

Grade: B-

***

Unfriended: Dark Web

Unfriended was the first movie that was filmed with the entire focus on a computer screen. Since then, similar movies like Searching and Host have come out. But Unfriended was first. I wasn't crazy about it (see below). However, the sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, is actually a smidge better. The premise is ridiculous but the characters are much more interesting and sympathetic.

Basically, a dude named Matias discovers an abandoned laptop and takes it home. As he goes about his evening, he gets messages from someone named Erica claiming to be the friend of the person whose laptop Matias stole. Matias and his friends (over Skype) do some digging into the laptop and discover a cache of snuff porn films as well as access to what appears to be a sort of "Silk Road" type website. So Matias was unlucky enough to steal the laptop of someone involved in gruesome, ritual crimes. Pretty soon, everyone on the Skype call is the target of a mysterious group called The Circle. Ok, yes, it's ridiculous and would never happen, but I liked the premise of the film more than Unfriended, which was supernatural (a ghost fucking with people as opposed to real people fucking with people). And as I said, the characters are a little older, more mature, more interesting, and more sympathetic that the characters in Unfriended.

Grade: B-

***

Last House on the Left

Released in 1972, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left was considered one of the sickest movies to ever be released in its time. By today's standards, it's fucking nothing. In fact, I was shocked at how campy, funny, and just...bad this movie was. The soundtrack itself is a wild ride: not only does it have upbeat music at wildly inappropriate times, some of the original songs (which are goofy AF, btw) were written by David Hess, who plays the main bad guy in the movie. Just listen to this fucking ridiculous song (lyrics start at 1:30) and imagine it playing knowing two girls about about to get raped and murdered.


The plot: two teen girls are on their way to a concert when the ask a guy standing on the sidewalk if he has pot. He brings them into his apartment, where two other men and a woman--violent killers who are wanted and on the lam--await. They take the girls out to the woods and rape and kill them. Then, because their car broke down, they knock on the door of the closest house, not knowing it's the home of one of the girls. Once everyone beds down for the night, Mom and Dad realize that these folks killed their girl and decide to take their revenge. Chaos and penis-biting ensue.

While the scenes of rape are as rough and painful to watch as one might expect, the actual violence in the film is more on par with what an R-rated Home Alone might look like: trip wires and electrified doorknobs. What was considered so frightening and disgusting that people would pass out in the theater in 1972 would now be considered a "soft R" rating. Hell, if you take out some cusswords and tweak some scenes, it could practically be PG-13. I can only recommend it to horror buffs who want to pay their dues to horror legend Wes Craven. Otherwise, it's just a campy, weird flick.

Grade: C+

***

Child's Play

I have been afraid of dolls since I was a child. Therefore, I avoided the entire Child's Play franchise for years. I ended up watching Bride of Chucky years ago and found it to be a really fun and silly movie. So, to finally face my fears of the red-headed hellion doll, I settled in with a friend using Netflix Party to watch the original film. It was a lot funnier, campier, and over-the-top than I ever would have imagined. Can I just list some of the bizarre shit that happens in this film?

  • A bad guy just happens to know a voodoo spell that allows him the enter the body of a doll.
  • A mom buys the doll for her son from some creepy, back-alley seller. When she goes back to confront him after realizing the doll is alive and evil, that same dude tries to sexually assault her in public! I was not expecting this.
  • The kid who plays Andy is REALLY young. He's literally six. It's weird to see a kid in a horror film who isn't extremely precocious and actually acts like a child.
  • The kid ends up in a psychiatric unit that literally has bars on the doors and windows.
Child's Play did not scare me. It made me laugh a lot and go "what the fuck?" a bunch of times, but I did not lose one minute of sleep over that potty-mouthed doll. I can't say the movie was "good" but it was definitely fun.

Grade: C+

***

Unfriended

As mentioned above, Unfriended is the first movie to be filmed from the perspective of someone watching a computer screen. That alone makes it worth a watch, if you're into that kind of thriller/horror (which I am). The plot is also pretty intriguing: a group of friends are seemingly haunted by a girl who killed herself after a video was posted of her passed out in her own feces after getting drunk at a party.

The problem is that these characters are vile--they're bratty, disingenuous teenagers who all played a role in harming the dead girl. The ghost, or whatever it is, forces them to play a game of Never Have I Ever which reveals their secrets and what horrible assholes they all are. I mean, are we supposed to be rooting for the ghost here? While the gimmick of the film is super fun, the characters kind of ruin it. Check out Host instead.

Grade: C

***

Underwater

Underwater has an irresistible concept: what if the deepest, darkest part of the ocean contained creepy-ass monsters?? Let's be real: the ocean is terrifying. Man has walked on the moon and yet much of the ocean remains unexplored since it's so difficult and dangerous to dive to the deepest parts. 

This film, starring Kristen Stewart (who does NOT do a good acting job here. This is basically a Twilight-level performance), opens on a drilling facility stationed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. An earthquake destroys most of the facility but a group of employees plus the captain manage to survive. In order to get to escape pods they are forced to put on deep diving gear and actually walk across the ocean floor to where the pods are housed. On the way they face crushing pressure levels and--holy shit!--creepy alien-like things living down there in the depths. This sounds like a premise for a great horror film! Sadly, it has some problems:

  • The black guy dies first. Ok, come on, why do horror directors still do this? Fuck that. Strike one!
  • The film "stars" TJ Miller in the funny guy role, but he is SO not funny. Strike two.
  • I mean, I get that the ocean is dark, but you basically can't see anything for half the move. Strike three. 
  • The movie has voiceover narration done by Kristen Stewart and tries to sound profound. Strike four.
Basically, it's just a bad movie. Cool idea, a few scenes of spooky shit, but overall not good.

Grade: C

***

Vivarium

Another film with a cool premise that ends up being disappointing. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a couple looking to buy a house. When they wander into an office selling plots for a new development called "Yonder", the very strange real estate agent offers to show them around the development, which turns out to be filled with identical houses. As they try to leave, the couple realize that they are unable to find their way out of the neighborhood and always end up right back where they started.

There's more to the movie that this, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Vivarium is definitely unsettling and creepy, but it's also boring and overlong. The director doesn't hold tension very well and we're stuck waiting for a payoff that never really comes. I'd only recommend this one to horror fans looking for new content while waiting out the quarantine.

Grade: C

***

Crawl

I was surprised at how much I didn't like Crawl given that it got mostly positive reviews when it came out. I think it's because I'm not crazy about "creature features" as a sub-genre and Crawl is definitely that. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is an aspiring swimmer. She goes to check on her estranged dad as a category 5 hurricane is about to hit Florida. She finds him passed out and injured in the crawl space of his house. But if an injured dad and a powerful hurricane weren't enough trouble, it turns out that two enormous alligators are basically chilling in the crawl space as well...with more lurking right outside. Haley and her dad have to find a way past the alligators before the crawl space floods. 

Crawl is fine. I'm glad I didn't pay 12 bucks to see it in theaters. If you're into horror movies where Mother Nature is the bad guy you might really enjoy it. Also: the dog DOESN'T die.

Grade: C

***

Come to Daddy

This is a truly bizarre horror-comedy directed by Ant Timpson and starring Elijah Wood as Norval Greenwood, a fey musician who gets a letter from his estranged, alcoholic father asking him to visit. Norval shows up at his dad's huge house which is right on the coast of Oregon. His father, Brian, very quickly becomes aggressive and eventually physically violent, calling Norval a "cunt" and attempting to kill him. In the ensuing struggle, Brian has a heart attack and dies. 


Norval stays in his dad's home and after hearing some creepy noises, discovers a basement where, lo and behold, his real father is being kept prisoner. Apparently his real dad, the man who died of a heart attack (Gordon), and a third man named Jethro were all involved in kidnapping in Thailand. Brian took all of the ransom money and ran. So Jethro and Gordon hunted him down to kill him and reclaim their money. So now, Norval (who, remember, is Elijah Wood-sized), who hasn't seen his father since he was a toddler, is obliged to help fight off multiple violent criminals to help his (also a criminal) dad. 

Come to Daddy is just a weird movie overall. The scenes between Norval and the man pretending to be his father at the beginning of the film are excruciatingly tense and not in a fun way. The film from that point on is a wild ride of bloody mayhem. I think horror fans, especially those who are into sick comedy, will like this one, or at least admire its weirdness. But I can't say I'll be revisiting it any time soon.

Grade: C

***

Hostel

After avoiding Hostel like the plague for over a decade, afraid that this torture porn classic might somehow destroy me, I was amused to find that 1) it's not super scary, 2) the special effects are ridiculous, and 3) it's not a very good movie. As I point out above, the sequel is much better (and partially that's because I had such low expectations of it after watching the first one). 

Hostel is about two college friends, Paxton and Josh, who are backpacking through Europe with their Icelandic friend, Oli. In Amsterdam, they get a tip from a guy whose house they crash at for the night that they should go to Slovakia and stay in a particular hostel where there are extremely beautiful women (who apparently will fuck annoying American college students). So they go and, indeed, the hostel is filled with very comely women. 

Do I really need to relay the infamous plot? The guys get tricked into going into a factory where wealthy men pay to torture and kill people. We are treated to stabbings, achilles heel-cuttings, and eyeball-gouging before Paxton is able to make an escape. 

So why did I hate it so much? Unlike in Hostel 2, which has *some* attempt at character building, Hostel's characters are one dimensional to the max. The torturers are all nameless, faceless men whose motivations we aren't privy to. Josh, Paxton, and Oli have two defining characteristics apiece: Paxton is bro-y and horny, Josh is nice and horny, and Oli is Icelandic and horny. I basically hated them all and were ok with them dying--especially Paxton. This being an Eli Roth joint, the script is littered with slurs, specifically "retarded" and "fag"/"gay", making the movie sound like it was written by a 9th grader. That's something I've always loathed about Roth. While Hostel 2 has a little bit of this language, Hostel is drowning in it, making me absolutely hate Paxton (the alpha male bro). 

I can only recommend this movie to hard core horror buffs who want to watch it for its place in the horror cannon as one of the films that kicked off the torture porn obsession in the early aughts. Otherwise, skip it.

Grade: C-

***

Ma

Oh man, what a weird movie this is. Directed by aggressively mediocre filmmaker Tate Taylor (same guy who directed The Help), Ma is about a group of teenagers in a small town in Ohio who are looking to get loaded. When they ask Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) to buy them alcohol, she agrees under one condition: they have to drink it in her basement so that she can keep an eye on them and make sure they are safe and don't drive home drunk. The teens agree and party nights at Sue Ann's (who prefers to go by "Ma") become a regular thing.

But Sue Ann isn't content to just be a cool auntie who lets teens illegally get wasted in her house. She wants to be one of them. She's down there doing shots with the rest of them. The teens humor her, but quickly get annoyed that Ma wants to party every night so they start ignoring her calls. That's when shit goes down.

I feel like Ma had some real potential but just chose to be a weird, fucked up movie instead. There is a lot to explore here: white teens, older (not old, but older) black woman who is an outcast in the very town she grew up in. There's a depressing backstory about Ma, who was tricked/sexually assaulted in high school by the parents of some of the teens. Instead of exploring how Ma has been treated like garbage her whole life, the movie decides to make her a "crazy" woman out for revenge. I resent a film that brings up a character's sexual assault as a way to be like "oh, that's why she's bat shit crazy" whereas the perpetrators of the assault are seen as the victims of this nutty woman.

Ma is trash. Octavia Spencer deserves better than this role, which is steeped in racism, ageism, and sexism. My recommendation? Skip it.

Grade: C-