Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Movies 9: The Last Winter

When you think about it, fossil fuels are sort of macabre, because they are the remains of formerly living things. Hold that thought, because Larry Fessenden will get back to it. The Earth is apparently angry, it will take out its frustrations on a remote Alaskan oil exploration station in Fessenden’s The Last Winter (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.

In an alternate universe, a small way-the-heck-and-gone corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been opened to drilling—more or less. The North Corporation still has a lot of hoops to jump through before it can start pumping crude. Their environmental impact must be minimal, so they have brought on board several former activists to certify everything is on the up-and-up. Presumably, it will be worth it. A local Inuit tribe commissioned the exploratory KIK well in the 1970s—the results of which have been a closely guarded source of much speculation ever since.

Unfortunately for project manager Ed Pollock, the weather has not cooperated. It simply has not been cold enough to construct their low-impact ice roads, so bleeding heart James Hoffman refuses to sign off on any further development. To add insult to injury, Hoffman has taken up with Pollock’s deputy and former main squeeze Abby Sellers. Of course, everyone will have more pressing things to worry about when Maxwell McKinder goes start raving mad. He is the first, but he won’t be the last. Something is obviously very wrong, but the gritty petroleum workers are rather dismissive of Hoffman’s warnings of a vengeful Mother Nature.

Yes, there are similarities between Winter and M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious The Happening, but Fessenden’s indie horror film predated the ill-conceived studio release by two years. It is also much more skillfully executed—and it has Ron Perlman.

Still, there is no denying Fessenden’s messaging gets a tad heavy-handed, especially down the stretch. On the plus side, he brings some real visual flash and dazzle, including several terrific tracking shots and a number of appropriately unsettling, psychologically expressive montages that could possibly induce seizures in some viewers. Fessenden also earns style points for his unexpected use of the classic Nina Simone recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

As usual, Perlman does his thing as Pollock. Really, what more needs to be said? Yet, as Hoffman, James LeGros stands his ground with Perlman quite well. In fact, both actors and Fessenden deserve credit for portraying their rivalry relatively subtly, rather resorting to the tritest red state-blue state clichés.

Fessenden totally nails the kind of frozen, claustrophobic moodiness that made John Carpenter’s The Thing a classic. However, the film suffers from the lack of a proper monster. Winter also commits a minor Chekhov’s Gun infraction, fixating a lot of early attention on the KIK well (it’s right there on the one-sheet) that never appreciably pays off. Last Winter is a mixed bag, but it certainly proves there are auterist level filmmakers working in the contemporary horror genre. Recommended for Fessenden fans who want to see his expansive tundra vistas on the big screen, The Last Winter screens as part of Scary Movies 9 this Tuesday (11/3) at Walter Reade, with Fessenden, Perlman, and LeGros expected for Q&A afterward.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Scary Movies 9: Cherry Tree

There is only one thing trees are good for in horror movies: producing paper. Much like the “Hanging Tree” in Hollow, these titular fruit bearing limbs are decidedly bad news. Unfortunately, people still cling to the Luddite notion deforestation is a bad thing. Otherwise, they might clear out the not-so mythical satanic vegetation of David Keating’s Cherry Tree (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9.

According to legend, the notorious cherry tree was the focal point of a powerful coven of witches’ dark rituals. Of course, the legend is more or less true, as teenaged Faith (at least she’s not named Chastity) is about to find out. Sissy Young, her new, conspicuously evil field hockey coach tells her so, straight out. Faith can save her Leukemia-stricken single father Sean, if she agrees to get pregnant on the coven’s behalf. They have a ritual to perform that requires a very special sacrifice.

Faith accepts out of desperation, but is quickly troubled by the supernatural circumstances of her lightning fast pregnancy. She is also concerned about the disappearance of Brian, the nice chap at school, whom she chose to hold up her end of the bargain with. She is also unnerved to find Young seducing her newly cured father and generally hanging around, acting creepy. As she figures out the full implications of her deal with Young, she comes to understand what makes Faustian bargains so dashed Faustian.

There is definitely a Rosemary’s Baby vibe to Cherry Tree. Keating and screenwriter Brendan McCarthy steadily crank up the paranoia, as Faith discovers how many respected townspeople are in on the occult conspiracy. Yet, they give it a distinctively Pagan flavor all its own. Young’s centipede familiars are also all kinds of creepy, in a slithery, cinematic kind of way.

Arguably, the character of Faith is problematically passive and Naomi Battrick’s portrayal is a bit bland. However, Anna Walton exhibits massive horror movie chops as the slinky, sinister Young. She chews the scenery like an old school Hammer pro and exudes an air of sexual menace. She definitely embraces the Pagan spirit of it all. Although more reserved, Sam Hazeldine is similarly terrific anchoring the film as Faith’s ailing father.

Thanks to the moody cinematography of Eleanor Bowman and some suitably creepy set design, Cherry Tree follows nicely in the tradition of lushly crafted Anglo-Irish supernatural horror films. The final parting shot is a bit of a groaner, but for the most part, it is tight, tense, and evocative of ancient evils that feel disconcertingly real. Highly recommended for horror fans, Cherry Tree screens this coming Wednesday (11/4) at the Walter Reade, as part of Scary Movies 9.

Morbido ’15: Hostile

Whenever you see a reality TV camera crew turn up in a genre film, you know their life expectancy will be severely limited. Such is the case in France as well. Chloé from SOS Adoption was expecting to give frazzled single adoptive mother Meredith Langston her usual pep talk. Instead, she finds two aggressively evil teenaged girls. They were once innocent and respectful, but something changed soon after moving into their new country home. SOS Adoption will permanently jump the shark in fourteen year old filmmaker (yessir, you read that right) Nathan Ambrosioni’s Hostile (trailer here), which screens as part of Mexico’s Morbido Fest 2015.

At first, Langston was deliriously happy to be the mother of fifteen year old Emilie and the fourteen-going-on-fifteen Anna, before they suddenly turned, you know, hostile. That was around the same time they started talking to the sinister “Jefferson,” a bogeyman-ish figure who appears from time to time in the garden. Mother Langston really starts to crack when she sees Jefferson too. Feeling overwhelmed, Langston takes flight, leaving her adopted Bad Seeds in Chloé’s reluctant care.

Frankly, it takes even less time for Chloé to get completely freaked out by the Langston Sisters, so she arranges for them to spend time Jessica Flaminsky and her husband Daniel, Vatican-approved specialists in demonic possession. Ominously, Ms. Flaminsky senses there is something profoundly different about their case, in a very bad way. Nevertheless, her husband leaves her alone with the hellion sisters, to run chores at the most inopportune time. Strangely enough, unsuspecting minders are often left alone with the sinister sisters, which invariably leads to unfortunate consequences.

Ambrosioni’s commitment to transitions and establishing shots is iffy at best, but he maintains an atmosphere of overpowering dread. As a teen himself, he seems to have a firm handle on how horrible girls that age can act. That first-hand knowledge gives Hostile a razor-sharp edge. Despite not always crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of his narrative, Ambrosioni pulls off a significant third act twist that changes everything about our assumptions, but nothing about the film’s menacing essence. Even with its rough edges, Hostile will scare the snot out of you.

Luna-Miti Belan and Julie Venturelli are frighteningly credible as the twisted sisters, while Magali Gouyon and Julien Croquet play the Flaminskys with the sort of sophisticated eccentricity and cerebral arrogance you find in the very best horror movie protagonists, going back to the legendary Peter Cushing. Ambrosioni also contributes a great Hitchcockian cameo.

Hostile is not a gimmick. If you saw it cold, with no foreknowledge of Ambrosioni’s identity, you would assume it was helmed by a veteran French genre director. It is just all kinds of eerie. Highly recommended for fans of occult horror, Hostile screens this Sunday (11/1) , as part of this year’s Morbido.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Scary Movies 9: Shrew’s Nest

Montse lives in 1950s Madrid, but she shares a close kinship with the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? You could say Montse has issues. Oh my, does she ever. Unfortunately, that means everyone around her also has issues. At least as a shut-in seamstress, she has a limited social circle, but she still manages to do extensive damage in Jaunfer Andrés & Esteban Roel’s Shrew’s Nest (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9.

It is pretty obvious Montse’s abusive father is to blame for her dysfunctional state of mind. He has been dead for years, but she is still tormented by hallucinations of the sanctimonious hypocrite. The film hints darkly at what may have transpired between them, eventually confirming everything. Montse largely shielded her younger sister, known simply as “La Niña” from their father, but she became problematically controlling and sometimes even frightening in her own way. The two grown sisters still live together in their family’s flat, but Montse’s chronic agoraphobia prevents her from stepping outside. As a result, she relies on La Niña to be her connection the outside world.

One day, Montse discovers the playboy from the upstairs flat is lying wounded on their landing. Somehow she skootches him inside and starts nursing Carlos. Rather taken with the handsome ladies’ man, Montse decides to keep him. At first, she tries to hide his presence from her sister and their clients, but that simply is not realistic. At first, Hugo is grateful for Montse’s care and the haven she provides from his pregnant lover and her unamused father. However, as his broken leg turns black and festering, he will look to La Niña for help.

Yes, Nest is more than a little Misery-like, except Montse might just top Annie Wilkes’ hobbling scene. Yet, we also understand the twitchy, bug-eyed, morphine-addicted Montse is the film’s original victim, who is still be victimized by her father, from beyond the grave. Frankly, it is absolutely amazing how much compassion Andrés & Roel preserve for Montse, because great gosh almighty, can she dish out the pain.

Whether you love Nest or utterly despise it, you will never forget Macarena Gomez’s performance as Montse. It is one for the ages. She manages to do acutely subtle bits of character-establishing business, as well as wildly over the top scenery chewing, often simultaneously. In contrast, Nadia de Santiago is a paragon of sensitivity and reserve as La Niña, but there is no way she can avoid the gargantuan shadow cast by Gomez’s Montse.

Nest is another fine example of the meticulous care given to set dressing and general mise-en-scène in Spanish horror films. The fact that this Grand Guignol of domestic carnage is set foursquare in the Franco era is hardly accidental either, especially with Álex de la Iglesia on board as a producer. Regardless, as a claustrophobic Iberian psycho-thriller, it is pretty darn effective. Recommended for fans of Spanish horror movies, Shrew’s Nest screens this coming Monday (11/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of Scary Movies 9.

Scary Movies 9: Summer Camp

Before the kids arrive, Antonio always has the counselors at Camp El Buho perform trust exercises, so he basically deserves to die. He is also a real cad, but he is not the only staffer hoping for extracurricular hook-ups. Unfortunately, they instead get a major dose of pathogen-based infection horror in Alberto Marini’s Summer Camp (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9.

El Buho is an English immersion camp, so Antonio only hires native speakers. That means we are off the hook for subtitles. Both he and Will have eyes for the adventurous Michelle and Christy, the spoiled princess. Unfortunately, one of them goes stark raving nuts before they can put the moves on anyone. And then there were three.

However, they learn too late the ill effects of the infection are only temporary. In fact, this becomes a major source of confusion for the surviving trio, as each counselor goes through periods of enraged zombie-like infection and subsequent recovery, forcing them to constantly shift their alliances, usually at the most awkward times. Frankly, this macabre partner swapping gets down right inspired, as Marini maniacally cranks up the paranoia.

Previously known for writing Sleep Tight and co-producing films in the [REC] franchise, Marini shows wicked talent for helming outrageous bedlam in his feature directorial debut. Early on, he pulls off a devilish bit of misdirection and he keeps the panic-driven narrative hurtling along at warp speed. He has an instinctive sense of when to tease and when to payoff prior foreshadowing. He and co-screenwriter Danielle Schleif have penned a delightfully slick and twisted narrative that pays homage to 1980s dead camper horror films, but gives the genre a series of new and fresh spins.

Arguably, the cast is not so much acting as they are running like mad or ferociously tearing each other apart. Still, Diego Boneta has his moments as his character, Will, takes one almighty beating. He also foams at the mouth quite well, as do Jocelin Donahue and Maiara Walsh. They are all well-served by the creepy old converted mansion that now serves as Camp El Buho.

It is hard to find fault with a film that suggests druggie squatters are major bad news (like they didn’t have enough problems already). Although it is almost entirely in English, Summer Camp might be the best Spanish horror film since the second [REC] installment. Gleefully dark and grisly, it is the sort of film that reminds fans why they dug the genre in the first place. Highly recommended for midnight movie patrons, Summer Camp screens this coming Monday (11/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of Scary Movies 9.

Morbido ’15: Honeymoon

“My husband, the doctor” might sound like a good happily ever prospect, but not to Isabel Herrera. That is because she is already married, but not to Jorge Toledo. Nevertheless, the medically trained psychopath is determined they can be happy together in Diego Cohen’s Honeymoon (trailer here), which screens as part of Mexico’s Morbido Fest 2015.

Herrera always thought Toledo was a friendly neighbor, but he was actually dangerously obsessed. After a tireless study of her habits, he finally strikes. Having inherited a house that takes up most of the block across the street from her, Toledo has plenty of room to set up her dungeon. With the use of an electric shock dispensing dog collar, Toledo will try to condition her into accepting their so-called “marriage.”  Yet, as one can well imagine, Herrera remains resentful and troublesome.

Man, this is a tough film to watch at times. However, in Cohen’s defense, it must be said Cohen gives himself one heck of a Hitchcockian cameo. You will know it when you see it. There is also a monster third act twist that will leave your faith in humanity even further depleted. On the other hand, it is hard to fathom how anyone could forget about the shocking dog collar after enduring one or two zaps to the nervous system. Yet, somehow Herrera inevitably does just that.

Regardless, Hector Kotsifakis is absolutely chilling as Toledo and Paulina Ahmed plays each of Herrera’s harrowing scenes with admirable conviction. Alberto Agnesi also hits the precise right notes as her husband, Pablo, but the film is essentially a two-hander—and what bitter, grueling company the two of them make.

Sensitive viewers cannot be cautioned enough: there is some really tough stuff in this film. Still, real craftsmanship went into the production. Like many baroquely styled Spanish horror films, Honeymoon represents quite a feat of mise en scène. Art director Pablo Garcia and his team clearly have a knack for ominous bric-a-brac. Of course, that hardly makes it more pleasant to spend time watching Toledo’s horrors unfold. It is too sophisticated and artfully rendered to dismiss Honeymoon as torture porn horror, but if that is your bag, you will be able to relate. Cohen has all kids of talent, but this is not the film to break him out. For Mexican horror fans looking to support, it screens on Halloween (10/31), as part of this year’s Morbido.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Horror? Its an Age-Old Question

Finally, horror movie writer and fan Tal Zimerman answers the question us genre fans get all the time. Basically, that would be “wtf?” To put it in other words, why do we watch such outrageous and often horrific images for our own amusement? Zimerman puts fandom on the couch and pronounces it of sound mind in Nicolas Kleiman & Rob Lindsay’s documentary, Why Horror? (trailer here), which airs this Friday on Showtime.

Zimerman started as a fan and collector, eventually evolving into a magazine writer. However, when he became a new father, he took a harder look at all the spectacularly gruesome DVDs, books, and posters that gave his home such a distinct identity. Obviously, this was the time to re-examine his lifestyle, so he might as well do it with a film crew in tow.

Starting with his family, Zimerman traces the development of his fandom. He had one good friend and fellow horror compadre in high school, who is now a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, so the whole fandom thing clearly worked out for them. He also takes a wider cultural-historical view of the genre, eliciting analysis from art historians, literature professors, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. By widening the cultural focus, Zimerman also gets to travel to Japan to discuss horror manga and Kaidan Kabuki Theater, as well as celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Still, he is a good sport for allowing several research scientists hook him up to various monitors while he watches some blood and guts.

The big takeaways probably will not be especially shocking to anyone. A case is made horror fans live more fruitfully because they are more fully aware of man’s mortality and they are better suited to deal with the darker manifestations of human nature. It also turns out guys are more likely to score if they take their dates to a horror movie, provided they act appropriately stoic and manly.

They also legitimately argue there is no better way of studying a society or country’s fears and hang-ups at a given time than through its horror flicks. People’s collective Freudian baggage comes out embarrassingly plain as day. A cigar to an eyeball is never just a cigar to an eyeball. It represents the threat of nuclear weapons, modernity, globalization or what-have-you.

However, Zimerman and company miss part of the appeal of these films. Nothing sharpens your sense of humor like a horror movie. We’re not talking about campy Roger Corman mutant-monster movies here. The more perverse and extreme a film might be, the more your inner comic sensibility looks for an opening to score a laugh—at least that is our personal experience.

Regardless, Zimerman and the gang cover a lot of ground, touching base with most of the acknowledged classics, but also squeezing into plenty of 1980s VHS rarities. He talks to a veritable who’s who of horror filmmakers, including masters like George Romero, Don Coscarelli, Takashi (The Grudge) Shimizu, and John Carpenter, up-and-comers like Karen Lam and the Soska Sisters, and figures in between, like Eli Roth and Ben Wheatley. It is breezily entertaining, but with enough substance to make you feel like you partook of some serious cultural criticism rather than just gawking at some gory clips. Recommended for genre fans, Why Horror? premieres this Friday (10/30) on Showtime, with subsequent broadcasts scheduled on the related Showtime networks.

Scary Movies 9: Emelie

The sooner kids learn to booby-trap their home with paint cans on string, the sooner they will be prepared for life’s challenges. That was the takeaway from the Home Alone franchise and it was a good one. Unfortunately, it is never really embraced in Michael Thelin’s Emelie (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9.

After thirteen exhausting years of marriage, Joyce and Dan are sneaking off for their anniversary dinner, leaving their three spirit-crushing children in the care of a sitter. Since their regular was ill, they opted for her well-vouched for friend, Anna instead. Unfortunately, the young woman who turned up on their doorstep was not the (now deceased) Anna. She is the highly disturbed Emelie.

At first, “Anna” seems like one of those cool sitters, but Jacob, the oldest son, starts to have his doubts when she forces his sister Sally to feed her hamster to his pet snake. When she insists they watch their parents’ sex tape, he becomes convinced something is awry. After a little snooping in her purse confirms her name does not match her assumed identity, the cat-and-mouse game commences in earnest.

Emelie has been widely programmed as a horror movie, but it is really more of a home invasion-violation thriller in the tradition of the early 1990s Ray Liotta thriller Unlawful Entry. For a while, it holds out promise of becoming a dark, subversive midnight movie version of Home Alone, but it never fulfills that potential. Basically, Jacob is just proactive enough to keep his head above water waiting for the cavalry to arrive. That is definitely a missed opportunity.

Frankly, Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck’s screenplay seriously tries our patience each time Emelie manages to stymie Jacob at the very last second. Honestly, she must have more clutch saves than Mariano Rivera. There is certainly suspense involved, because young lead actor Joshua Rush is too engaging to give up on. However, much of the film’s psychological torments of the children makes you feel uncomfortable, just for knowing you watched them.

Rush is terrific, as is Carly Adams as Sally. However, the waifish Sarah Bolger might be able to pass for a twentysomething passing for a teen, but she does not have the big villainous presence this role requires. However, Dante Hoagland makes a strong impression as Jacob’s best bud Howie, the film’s best realized supporting character.

Parents are sure to find its premise horrifying, but Emelie still never feels like a proper horror film, as compared to the original When a Stranger Calls, for instance. After all, most horror movies are more fun than this, but Thelin find little room in the proceedings for black humor. Not exactly a priority, Emelie screens this Saturday (10/31) as part of Scary Movies 9. Families should note James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein also screens on Halloween afternoon—and it’s a free show, so no sitter required.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hard Labor: This Store is Cursed

There is one cursed shop in every neighborhood. Despite an apparently prime location, nobody can make a go of it there. In the case of this Brazilian grocery, it is not just bad Feng shui. There is a sinister air hanging over the place. Unfortunately, the global recession raises the stakes of failure for the would-be grocer and her suddenly unemployed husband in Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra’s Hard Labor (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Frankly, Helena should have started walking after taking one gander at grim, long shuttered store. It looks like a perfect location to film torture porn. Yet, she has her heart set on transforming it into a mid-sized neighborhood supermarket. She really should have let the idea go once she learned her middle-management husband Octavio was just downsized. Plus, she is about to hire Paula as their live-in maid—off the books, of course. Nevertheless, she is convinced this is the perfect opportunity for them.

Needless to say, there are problems right from the start, like mysterious foul stenches and black viscous ooze flowing up from cracks in the floor. The snarling dog often prowling about around closing time is also a tad ominous. There is just something supernaturally wrong about the place. Whatever it is, it causes bad vibes that threaten to undermine Helena’s business.

Four or five years ago, condescending filmmakers discovered this bizarre phenomenon called “unemployment,” in which people want to work (can you imagine?), but can’t find jobs. To distinguish Labor from the field of austerity and downsizing films, Rojas & Dutra add legit horror movie elements, but they never really let them loose to play. In fact, they have a maddening habit of cutting away from all the payoff scenes, just before they get good (from a fan’s perspective).

As her namesake, Helena Albergaria is frighteningly single-minded in her pursuit of green grocer success, but after a while we just so get her dual role as exploiter and exploited. Marat Descartes also does a nice job expressing Octavio’s insecurity and rage. However, the whole time we just want to see the secret behind the grocery walls.

Without question, Helena’s store is a wildly eerie setting, perfectly appointed by production designer-art director Fernando Zuccolotto. It is just a shame Rojas & Dutra do not let more things go bump there, especially considering how primed we are from Matheus Rocha’s moody cinematography. Yet, they refuse to indulge in much genre business. Ironically, this results in more unanswered questions rather than less. Regardless, we have been down this road before, with better films (like Kiyoshi Kursawa’s Tokyo Sonata) and worse (such as Álex de la Iglesia’s As Luck Would Have It). Stylish but ultimately an in-between puzzler, Hard Labor opens this Friday (10/30) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Nightmare Code: It’s Worse than Windows Vista

What do you get when you combine Big Brother with the Singularity? A nasty collection of code called ROPER. At least, the program is hopelessly buggy, or is it? The more he understands the surveillance and behavioral prediction program, the more uncomfortable Brett Desmond gets. One way or another, he has some hardcore coding ahead of him in Mark Netter’s Nightmare Code (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Normally, Desmond would not take a gig that wasn’t certifiably cool, but he is caught between a rock and a hard place. On his last government job, he had tried to pull a Snowden, but he was caught and prosecuted. So far, the court rulings have not gone his way, but his new employers promise to make everything go away if he can get their roll out back on track. Unfortunately, they were thrown considerably off schedule by the recent “incident.” That is how they refer to the shooting spree and suicide of Foster Cotton, the lead software developer.

In contradiction of all the team’s expectations, ROPER seems to be acting deliberately perverse. Bugs that were presumed fixed several iterations ago start reappearing. Perhaps most ominously, the program’s video analysis starts playing back violent events that never happened. Looking for possible insights, Desmond starts watching Cotton’s journal entries, but what he sees only prompts more questions, as well as the outlandish suspicion Cotton may have transferred his consciousness into ROPER.

As Desmond, The Walking Dead’s Andrew J. West certainly looks like someone who has spent a great deal of time writing code. Mei Melançon (Psylocke in X-Men: the Last Stand) is refreshingly smart and down-to-earth as Desmond’s co-worker and object of adulterous temptation, Nora Huntsman. Alex Cho also perfectly nails the persona and attitudes of stock-optioned Silicon Valley yuppies, but the rest of the tech firm personnel are just standard issue geeks or villains.

What Nightmare Code lacks in logic it makes up in paranoia. “You do not find the bug in the code, the code finds the bug in you,” sounds like a Yakov Smirnov joke, but it is pretty close to where we are now. Sadly, in commercial terms, it probably comes too late. With the only presidential candidate committed to curtailing domestic snooping, Rand Paul, mired at the bottom of the pack, it is pretty clear the professional activist class no longer cares about privacy. Maybe Code will remind a few viewers of their forgotten principles, because the implications of ROPER are pretty terrifying.

On the other hand, Code is about as technically sound as Electric Dreams from the mid-1980s. Seriously, usually one outbreak of mass murder is sufficient to delay a product launch. When the freaky mishaps keep on coming, you have to wonder why anyone still works for this company. On the other hand, Netter’s visual style, especially his use of split screens, nicely reflects Desmond’s increasingly disoriented and distrustful state of mind.

Essentially, Netter takes a shot at turning the NSA’s PRISM system into a horror movie bogeyman. The results are mixed, but provocative. Recommended for lapsed civil libertarians in need of a cerebral scare, Nightmare Code releases today (10/27) on DVD.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Korla: Godfather of Exotica, Man of Mystery

Korla Pandit’s stage persona was sort of a weird combination of Sun Ra and Liberace, but he predated them both. In fact, Pandit somewhat resented the latter for moving in on his act, with some justification. He was the musical prodigy son of a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer, who found fame on American television combining his keyboard wizardry with his seductive stare—except, maybe he wasn’t. So who the heck was he? The truth will be revealed in John Turner & Eric Christensen’s Korla (trailer here), which screens this Thursday and Saturday at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

Even if you know Pandit’s secret, it is still fascinating to watch Turner & Christensen chronicle his career and competing narratives. The story is already in the public record thanks to journalist RJ Smith, who covered Pandit extensively in the Los Angeles press and touched on his strange but true biography in the terrific book The Great Black Way, a history of the Central Avenue music scene. Smith will be our primary guide through this tale, but we will not spoil it prematurely for those uninitiated in Panditry.

Frankly, it seems astounding today that LA’s KTLA would program fifteen minutes of music from Pandit every weekday afternoon, with absolutely no talking. Apparently, the station manager lacked confidence in Pandit’s voice, so he had to do all his talking with his eyes. Clearly, it worked, because Pandit became a major celebrity. Unfortunately, that Liberace kid eventually took over his time slot, thus commencing the classic show business cycle of ups and downs.

Still, Pandit hung on pretty darn well. He recorded extensively for Fantasy Records during its Dave Brubeck-Cal Tjader glory years and became something of a spiritual guru in his own right. In fact, one can easily imagine how his slightly World Music-ish keyboard stylings might have contributed to the rise of the various New Age movements that took root in California (and were so memorably parodied in Serial). Yet, there is much, much more to the story.

To their credit, Turner & Christensen understand Pandit’s assumed backstory is just as important as his true history. After all, he clearly did his best to become the Korla Pandit we thought we knew. However, they also fully explore the significance of who he really was and why he felt compelled to make certain choices. Despite his Indian identity, there is indeed something classically American about his drive to reinvent himself. They also give his music all due respect, celebrating the “exotic” in exotica, rather than trying to score snarky points at his expense.

Pandit’s story is absolutely fascinating and the assembled archival film clips, audio recordings, and still photos of the unclassifiable musician represent the essence of retro-cool. Any documentary about Pandit would be wildly cinematic, because how could it not be? However, Turner & Christensen and Smith tell his narratives with appropriate sensitivity and rigorously researched authority. They did right by their subject, because viewers will come to understand where he came from and want to hear more of his unique sound. Enthusiastically recommended, Korla screens this Thursday (10/29) and Saturday (10/31) at the Smith Rafael Film Center, with further screenings scheduled across the country, including the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 15th.

Submitted by Spain: Flowers

Floral bouquets are associated love and death. They are the tools of both courtship and mourning. That Ying and Yang can clearly be seen in Spain’s official foreign language submission to the 88th Academy Awards, Basque filmmakers Jon Garaño & Jose Mari Goenaga’s Flowers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ane Goñi has just been diagnosed with menopause, but she takes it rather stoically. It is just one more disappointment in life, like her husband Ander, to whom she will not bother passing on the news. However, shortly thereafter a big extravagant floral arrangement is delivered—and it is not from Ander. Every week, a new bouquet arrives, vexing her suddenly jealous husband.

Then one day, they suddenly stop, simultaneously with the death of Beñat, a crane operator with the construction company, where she works in clerical support. Of course, it takes a while for Goñi to figure out the connection, but when she does, she starts leaving weekly bouquets at the site of Beñat’s auto accident, even though she hardly knew the man. Eventually, Beñat’s widow Lourdes (now remarried) and his mother Tere discover Goñi’s weekly devotion, but their resulting reactions and assumptions are drastically different.

Rarely, has a film about love and loss ever been so rigorously unsentimental. Frankly, Beñat’s anonymous flower deliveries were more than a little stalkerish, yet they did bring some color into Ane’s relentlessly drab life. Indeed, all the character are acutely human, living in a world largely indifferent to their existence. Garaño & Goenaga even mark the passage of time through the disposition of Beñat’s body, which he donated to science, without consulting with his family. While this is a rather morbid strategy at times, it still heightens the sense of grand tragedy, somewhat in the tradition of the Japanese Oscar winner, Departures.

Granted, Flowers weaves together many tentative, almost fragmentary relationships, but Nagore Aranburu’s wonderfully subtle and complex performance as Goñi helps sell most of them. (The truth is, people can become preoccupied or even obsessed on the basis of very little.) Itziar Aizpuru is also terrific—and ultimately heartbreaking—as Tere, the dreaded mother-in-law who repents too late. However, the standoffish Lourdes is never fully fleshed out, leaving only bitterness for the valiant Itziar Ituno to work with. Generally, men do not get the prime cuts in Flowers, but as Ander, Egoitz Lasa has at least one well-turned scene that challenges many audience preconceptions.

As a Basque language production, Flowers might sound exotic, but the freeway interchanges and construction sites are as hum drum as any other western urban environment. Yet, they often look arresting thanks to Garaño & Goenaga’s dramatically cinematic sense of visual composition. Cinematographer Javier Aggire’s work is also truly awards caliber, using reflections, hazy precipitation, and the colorful contrast of the many titular flowers for striking impact. This is a mature and worldly film, in a scrupulously chaste way. It is also deeply humanistic, profoundly indulgent of human foibles, and unexpectedly moving at the most unlikeliest times. Highly recommended for sophisticated viewers, Flowers opens this Friday (10/30) in New York, as a bit of counter-programming for Halloween, at the Paris Theatre.

The London Firm: Two Hitman and a Lorry Full of Trouble

They will be known as “A” and “B,” which is much simpler than Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink. They are still just as lethal, if not more so. They are straight-up hitmen, but their latest job was a set-up from the get-go. The question will be who is playing whom in Neil Horner’s The London Firm (trailer here), which releases today in the UK on DVD and VOD.

A has one rule: no killing women or children. Usually, that leaves him plenty of scummy targets to safely accept, but it complicated his last job for the Laurence Tierney-esque Mr. Fines. However, all will be forgiven if he takes an extra special assignment. The first drawback will be working with the young and brash B, whose style rubs A the wrong way. The second drawback is the required transportation: the back of mini tractor-lorry. This turns out to be a real downside when A and B wake up in the back of the truck to find their employment broker murdered with B’s glossy magazine. It seems someone wants something from one of the hitmen—and they aim to get it.

Of course, multiple twists ensue, some of which are fairly clever. It also takes some surprisingly dark turns, but that is sort of necessary to force certain characters’ hands. The confined lorry setting creates a real rats-in-a-trap kind of atmosphere, but Horner cuts away to the femme fatale henchwoman in charge of the operation frequently enough so the audience does not feel trapped with them. In fact, the jumping around is a little herky-jerky in spots, but not overly distractingly so.

Frankly, it all works pretty well as a gritty noir, in good measure thanks to the under-heralded Vincent Regan. He is the sort of actor’s actor you will see in big films like 300, but then goes back to punching the clock with recurring or guest-starring work on British television. He has the perfect bloodshot look and world-weary bearing for a principled antihero like A. Stephen Marcus and Robert Cavanah chew all kinds of scenery as Mr. Fines, and his poker rival, Mr. Hyde. Seb Castang is pretty dashed annoying as B, but that is how he is supposed to be. However, the absence of Mem Ferda in a gangster film like this is absolutely baffling.

If you enjoy gritty London-based noirs, like London Boulevard, 44 Inch Chest, and the Pusher remake, than London Firm delivers more of what you like. It is also a good example why Regan has worked so steadily since the early 1990s. A pleasantly overachieving little hitman morality play, The London Firm is recommended for thriller fans who happen to be in the UK, where it releases today (10/26) on DVD and VOD.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

NewFest ’15: Girls Lost

This seed is nothing like Jack’s magic beans. It grows a flower that causes body switching, but not the kind you saw in Big or Freaky Friday. Three bullied girls of ambiguous sexuality will have the opportunity to experience life as the opposite sex in Alexandre-Therese Keining’s Girls Lost (trailer here), an adaptation of Jessica Schiefauer’s award-winning Swedish YA novel, which screens as the closing night selection of this year’s NewFest.

Kim, Momo, and Bella have always been bullied by classmates who assume they are lesbians. Naturally, the teachers look the other way, because they are bitter, low-level civil servants. The girls’ homes share a common backyard, so Bella’s greenhouse serves as their clubhouse. In her recent online nursery order she was surprised to find an exotic bonus seed, but being a teenager she plants anyway. The next day, it fully sprouts into a slightly sinister looking black flower. Juice from its buds will indeed produce the gender switch effect, but it is only temporary—and each usage clearly depletes the flower’s vitality.

For Momo and Bella, it is an interesting experience, but it does not hold deep psychological significance for them. In contrast, the transitory periods confirm Kim’s suspicions she is really meant to be a boy. Despite the pain it causes her friends, she spends more and more time in her altered state, so she can get close to Tony, their bad boy classmate, whom she suspects is also deeply closeted.

The ensuing complications regarding gender and sexuality get wickedly thorny. However, that complex rat’s nest of passions and resentments is what gives Lost so much power. This is not your average high school coming-of-age or coming-out story, but rather a supernaturally zeitgeisty love triangle. The young cast does some remarkable work selling the intricate and conflicting series of relationships, especially Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, and Wilma Hollmen as Kim, Momo, and Bella in their original female selves. Emrik Ohlander, Alexander Gustavsson, and Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund look like perfect male analogs, but only Gustavsson displays a similarly forceful screen presence.

Keining does not chicken out of showing the transition process, but the special effects team renders them in a way that is wonderfully subtle and evocative. Likewise, Ragna Jorming’s rich chiaroscuro-like cinematography and Sophia Ersson’s electro-soundscape score work perfectly in tandem to create an eerie mood. While the teen angst approaches melodramatic levels from time to time, Keining explores the emotional implications of the fantastical premise with brutal honesty. Obviously, it is an appropriate fit for NewFest audiences, but the characters’ insecurities should resonate for a wide range of “outsider” teens. Recommended for fans of teen urban fantasy, Girls Lost closes the 2015 NewFest this Tuesday night (10/27) at the Bow Tie Chelsea.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

NewFest ’15: Sisters of the Plague

There is no shortage of locations for Jo’s haunted French Quarter tours. Unfortunately, she can’t stop bringing her work home each night. Lately, she has been beset by weird visions and feelings of dread. She suspects it all has something to do with her mother’s premature death. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain murky, but that is true of much that you will find in Jorge Torres-Torres’s Sisters of the Plague (trailer here), which screens as part of the inaugural Queer Horror Night at this year’s NewFest.

In retrospect, Jo was probably asking for trouble when she participated in staged “witchcraft” shows for her tour patrons. Rather than cheesy shtick for the tourists, they look pretty real, but perhaps that is a bad thing. Although her mother has been dead for a while now, Jo still has unanswered questions. She was hoping her formerly-estranged drunkard father Bob would have some answers when she let him move in, but they are still rather standoffish around each other.

For obvious reasons, Jo’s girlfriend Kate is less than thrilled to have the constantly hacking, hard drinking Bob in such close proximity. Jo’s increasingly erratic behavior gives her further reason to conclude this family just isn’t cute anymore. Yet, Jo is sufficiently lucid to recognize she has a problem. Proactively, she seeks help from an old school psychic in some of the film’s best sequences.

In Plague, Josephine Decker and her Butter on the Latch co-star Isolde Chae-Lawrence reunite under the direction of Torres-Torres, the editor and associate producer of Toad Road, so it is hardly surprising this outing feels like an unholy marriage of those two hipster films. At least Plague is long on atmosphere, as you would jolly well hope from a movie set in New Orleans. There are a handful of eerily suggestive scenes, but Jo’s connective drama gets downright laborious.

Despite her bold extremes, there is something oddly distancing about Decker’s performance. Chae-Lawrence gives viewers somewhat more accessible energy and attitude to work with, but it is still hard to fathom why she sticks around as long as she does. However, Thomas Francis Murphy deserves all kinds of credit for his uncomfortably gross work as Bob.

Of course, it is hard to go too far wrong when using New Orleans as the backdrop for a ghost story involving long buried secrets. In fact, there is something impressive about its rigid aesthetic, not unlike Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim, but it wouldn’t have killed anyone to embrace a few more genre indulgences. It is an intriguing film to parse and dissect, but most cult film fans will prefer something a little more fun. Recommended almost exclusively for fans of Decker and producer-co-writer Jason Banker, Sisters of the Plague screens this Sunday (10/25) at the Chelsea Bowtie, as part of NewFest 2015.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Crumbs: Allegorical Ethiopian Science Fiction

Eventually, your Michael Jackson records will finally be worth something on the collectors market. You will just have to survive at least one apocalypse, maybe two. This post-post-apocalyptic Ethiopia might look like a strange land to us, but the diminutive, stoop-shouldered Candy is not particular comfortable with it either in Miguel Llansó’s evocative DIY SF minimalist epic Crumbs (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

This is a post-industrial, post-everything world, but there are still flashes of power thanks to occasional electromagnetic pulses emanating from the dead-or-hibernating space craft hovering overhead. It happens quite frequently in the abandoned bowling alley, where Candy lives with his beloved Birdy. He is convinced the hulking mothership is rebooting and will soon be leaving for its home planet. Candy wants a seat on that flight, so he will embark on a cross-country quest to find the man who can fulfill his wish: Santa Claus.

It is easy to get distracted by Llansó’s clever cultural anachronisms, like Candy’s talisman, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine and the Michel Jordan altar Birdy worships at. However, Crumbs is thoroughly marinated in Joseph Campbell. It is absolutely a hero’s journey in the Pilgrim’s Progress tradition. Sometimes it does not make ironclad logical sense, but the background for Candy’s quest is truly stunning. Although it was shot in the Northern Ethiopian ghost town of Dallol and the surrounding terrain of salt marshes and lava formations, Llansó could claim he filmed on Mars and most people would believe him.

Despite his delicate appearance, Daniel Tadesse is a powerful presence as Candy. He is an everyman’s underdog, yet he forges some acutely sensitive romantic chemistry with Selam Tesfaye’s Birdy. Frankly, it is pretty impressive they can withstand Llansó’s awesomely surreal visuals.

Even at its economical sixty-minute running time, Crumbs’ narrative still manages to get confusingly oblique at times. However, the fantastical dreamscapes (dramatically framed by cinematographer Israel Seooane) and Tadesse’s quiet intensity always hold our attention. It might be premature to herald the golden age of Ethiopian science fiction, but Crumbs and Andy Siege’s Beti and Amare suggest there is a promising genre zeitgeist brewing there. Recommended for fans of Jodorowsky and Tarkovsky, Crumbs opens today (10/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

CIFF ’15: Bite

Oozing pus is generally white, so it should be perfectly fine for a wedding. Casey sure has a lot of it going on, but if truth be told, the bride-to-be already had serious cold feet before leaving on her bachelorette getaway. Unfortunately, she came back with a nasty case of body horror in Chad Archibald’s Bite (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival.

While carousing in Costa Rica, Jill constantly films everything, but not because this is a found footage movie. She is just annoying. However, the source of her passive aggression quickly becomes apparent. She has long carried a torch for Jared Kennedy, the fiancé Casey is considering jilting. Still, they have plenty of Latin American fun, despite the mysterious whatever that bit Casey while she was bobbing in a secluded swimming hole. In fact, she had so much fun, she even lost her wedding ring.

Obviously, things are awkward for Casey when she gets home, especially since she feels like death warmed over. She comes close to breaking it off, which seems like an even better idea after a frosty encounter with her prospective mother-in-law, who also happens to be her landlord. However, her body starts to change before she can do anything decisive. Her bite wound festers something fierce, leaking grossness everywhere. Her skin gets scaly and her behavior takes a belligerent, anti-social turn. Suddenly, there are red mutant caviar eggs from Hell all over the apartment. Yet, we are told the smell is the worst of all.

So yeah, body horror. Yet, Bite is way grabbier than most Kafka knockoffs because of Casey’s sharply drawn relationships with her friends, “cool chick” Kirsten and uber-bitch Jill. In fact, Archibald and screenwriter Jayme LaForest depict their conversations and interactions with a lot of truth and attitude.

Of course Bite is first and foremost about goo and disturbingly colored bodily fluids. Clearly, special makeup artist Jason Derushie had a field day crafting one freaky effect after another, the grossness of each should well please genre fans. Still, Elma Begovic gives a really solid performance under all that gook. Denise Yuen is also refreshingly down-to-earth and sensitively engaging as Kirsten. On the other hand, it is hard to understand why anyone would be interested in a shrinking violet like Jordan Gray’s Kennedy, with his anemic Justin Bieber facial hair.

Although Bite does not reinvent body horror, it executes the Cronenbergian subgenre with superior characterization and gross-out effects. Frankly, it might be Archibald’s best film to date, representing a major improvement over Ejecta and The Drownsman. Recommended for horror fans in the mood for some claustrophobic grotesqueness, Bite screens tonight (10/23) and tomorrow night (10/24), as part of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Margaret Mead ’15: Matria

They were spryer, but the 100,000 man-strong volunteer defense force of traditional Mexican charro rodeo riders were about as unlikely a fighting force as Dad’s Army. Of course, it was all for show. Oaxaca Congressman and National Charro Association president Antolin Jimenez was the showman behind it. He was also filmmaker Fernando Llanos’s grandfather. Despite his prominence, Llanos’s family never really talked about the old man, so he conducts a personal investigation into his family history in Matria (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

Jimenez was about as colorful as you can get. As a young man, he quickly rose to become one of Pancho Villa’s most trusted lieutenants. However, he could see the writing on the wall and therefore proactively planned his exit strategy. Basically, he sold out for a government position and gold. He did well for himself, eventually representing Oaxaca in congress on three separate occasions. He also became the leader of the charros, even though he was personally all hat and no cattle. However, he was a cold, distant person, so many in his family still have trouble dealing with his legacy. In fact, that is true of both his families.

Regardless of Llanos’s personal issues (Jimenez died soon after his birth), it is impossible to get bored with his grandfather’s roguishly eventful life. Considering the film really started as his journey of discovery, Llanos mostly takes himself out of the picture, rather conscientiously. Viewers certainly get a sense of what opportunities were available for an ethically flexible adventurer in early Twentieth Century Mexico. Llanos even finds a way to shoehorn in a performance from Lila Downs (a veteran of the Oaxaca music scene), who sounds lovely as ever.

Llanos balances the tension between the angst of his family drama and the Flashman-like appeal of Jimenez’s exploits relatively well. In the process, he gives us a perspective on bourgeoisie Mexico that we rarely get to see. Along with Llanos, we do come to appreciate Jimenez for all his flaws. In fact, it is easy to believe things would be better if he were still representing Oaxaca and cutting political deals. Even though it is just over an hour in length, the pacing is a tad inconsistent (and Llanos is bizarrely preoccupied with Jimenez’s Masonic membership), but the charro leader’s story is still intriguing enough to pull viewers through. Recommended for those fascinated by strange but true history, Matria screens this Sunday (10/25), as part of the AMNH’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.