Saturday, August 31, 2019

Itsy Bitsy: Actually, These Spiders are Pretty Big

There is a long but inconsistent tradition of killer spider movies. The diverse ranks of mutant arachnid fighters include William Shatner in Kingdom of Spiders, Barbara “Perry Mason” Hale and Alan “Skipper” Hale Jr. in The Giant Spider Invasion, Scarlett Johansson in Eight Legged Freaks, and Godzilla in Son of Godzilla. This is the latest one. There is also a bit of antiquity plundering and some House M.D.-style Vicodin-popping in Micah Gallo’s Itsy Bitsy, which is now playing in Los Angeles.

Ever since the death of her middle child, Kara Spencer has been on a downward spiral. She self-medicates and has trouble holding nursing gigs. She has just uprooted her surviving children, 13-year-old Jesse and 8-year-old Cambria, so she can serve as the live-in caregiver for Walter Clark, a wealthy collector of dubiously acquired antiquities.

Frankly, Clark did not even ask for the latest addition to his holdings. That big black egg was given to him by Ahkeeba, his former expedition leader, who insists Clark offer it a “sacrifice.” Clark does not believe in mumbo jumbo, so Ahkeeba tries to steal it back, but he breaks the relic in the process, releasing a strain of highly potent mutant spider larvae. Soon, the eight-legged monsters are crawling all over the place.

There are some amusingly goey spider effects, which makes sense, considering Gallo cut his teeth doing post work on films like the Hatchet franchise. However, it feels like there is considerably more family melodrama that most genre fans could really do without. Frankly, the spiders could do their worst to virtually all the human characters and we wouldn’t care.

Still, it is worth watching Oscar-nominated (for Longtime Companion) Bruce Davison bring another intriguing screen persona to life as crusty old Clark. He has his moments, but he is not the focus of the film (and it is debatable whether the spiders are either). Denise Crosby adds further genre interest playing Sheriff Jane Dunne, but she is stuck with some strangely corny dialogue.

Believe it not, the best killer spider movie of the decade might just be Jaime Dezcallar’s Spanish short film, The Bird Spider. Arguably, Itsy Bitsy is only a bit of an improvement over low budget knock-offs like the pedestrianly named Spiders. Not recommended, Itsy Bitsy is now screening in Greater LA County at the Laemmle Glendale.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Don’t Let Go (a.k.a. Relive, from Blumhouse)

It is rather fittingly ironic when a film about communicating in the present back into the past to prevent tragic mistakes is substantially re-edited. Supposedly, that was the case for the film previously known as Relive, which I reviewed for Criminal Element, as part of my exclusive Sundance coverage. The latest version of the film sure seems a lot like what screened in Park City, but that was actually quite a good movie, so there really wasn’t any call to run it through a Soderberghian blender. As a result, Jacob Estes’ Blumhouse-produced Don’t Let Go is still recommended when it opens today in New York.

Det. Jack Radcliffe is a good cop and a good uncle. His brother is a bit of an irresponsible flake, so he often picks up the slack with his bright teen niece Ashley. As a result, he is completely devastated when she is brutally murdered, along with her parents and the family dog, presumably the victims of the sort of violent drug-dealers her father was supposedly no longer associating with. He prays for chance to somehow turn back time and save her—and then he gets a mysterious call from Ashley, originating a week before the murders will be committed.

With the clock ticking in the earlier timeline, Radcliffe will guide Ashley’s investigation over the phone, while trying not to freak her out with the prospect of her looming murder. There is indeed some rather clever time-bending material in DLG, which distinguishes it from similarly themed films (particularly the sadly under-seen Cryptic).

David Oyelowo still deserves genuine breakout stardom for the smart intensity of his performance as Radcliffe. His chemistry with Storm Reid (as Ashley) also holds up well during a second viewing. Plus, it is still a pleasure to watch veteran character actors like Mykelti Williamson, Alfred Molina, and Bryon Mann dig into their characters and Estes’ well-written dialogue as Radcliffe’s partner, their captain, and a rather insensitive Internal Affairs detective, respectively.

We liked this film enough to write an entirely new review (albeit a tad shorter), which should say a lot, considering how many releases clamor for our attention every week. This is a good one, so genre fans really ought to give it a chance. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of time-warping movies (but not necessarily for devotees of the Blumhouse horror brand, which does not really apply here), Don’t Let Go opens today (8/30) in theaters around the City, including the AMC Empire.

Riklis’s Spider in the Web

For years, Israel has tried to alert the world to the threat Syria poses to human rights and regional stability. They ought to know, since they have been attacked by Syria in numerous wars (the Arab-Israeli, Six-Day, Yom Kippur, War of Attrition, etc.). However, the world only started to protest when the Assad regime employed chemical weapons against its own people. We were warned—and Adereth, a veteran Israeli spy did a lot of the warning. He hopes to expose a Euro chemical company’s links to the terrorist-sponsoring nation in Eran Riklis’s English language production Spider in the Web, which opens today in Los Angeles.

Admittedly, Adereth is not the best representative of Syria hawks. For years, he has been “sexing up” the meager intel supplied by a formerly high-ranking Syria defector, to justify the continuing stream of payments to him and also to protect his own position. Just as the Mossad launches an internal investigation into his handling of Nader Khadir, his old friend passes along something urgent and actionable: details on the Virobe company’s dealings with the Syrian government.

Facing the likely prospect of prosecution, Adereth scrambles to mount an operation to obtain proof against Virobe. He going under cover as an environmental activist, he seduces Angela Caroni, an executive who might also have a social conscience. Daniel, the son of his late partner will serve as his back-up, but he is also there to keep Adereth in line and make sure he eventually faces the music, if he survives.

In terms of tone, Web is somewhat similar to Fred Schepsi’s The Russia House, in which smoldering seduction and elegiac catharsis trumped the espionage business. Sir Ben Kingsley romancing Monica Bellucci also parallels the Sean Connery-Michelle Pfeiffer sexual dynamic, but in this case, there are probably fewer years separating the lovers.

In fact, it is rather refreshing to see a complex relationship between mature adult lovers on screen, even if it is all undercover play-acting—or is it? Regardless, Kingsley and Bellucci generate a great deal of heat together, but the tension and rapport he shares with Daniel is even more compelling. As Daniel, Itay Tiran is quite the quiet cat, but he expresses a lot. Plus, Itzik Cohen adds some grit and color as the pear-shaped but hard-nosed Mossad boss, Samuel. It is a good thing the inter-personal stuff works so well, because screenwriters Gidon Maron & Emmanuel Naccache’s actual espionage plotting is frustratingly elliptical and excessively complicated.

Nevertheless, it is a treat to watch a somewhat unlikely pairing of two charismatic professionals, like Kingsley and Bellucci. Despite the somewhat le Carré-esque tone, the film also delivers a timely warning regarding Syria’s support for terrorism and its dismal human rights record. It is not quite as stylish and suspenseful as Riklis’s own Shelter, but it is still a solid international thriller. Recommended for fans of spy movies and the prestigious co-leads, Spider in the Web opens today (8/30) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Shudder Exclusive: Belzebuth

Mexico is a very Catholic country, but also one that is plagued with violence. There are plenty of fears and anxieties rattling around their national collective subconscious. However, the shocking crimes Det. Emmanuel Ritter will investigate are far worse than anything committed by the cartels. Things get downright satanic in Emilio Portes’s Belzebuth, which premieres today, exclusively on Shudder.

Ritter’s involvement in this whole evil affair began when his family was the victim of an unspeakable atrocity. He is still haunted by the death of new-born infant son, who was mercilessly bludgeoned by a nurse, along with the rest of the maternity ward. Of course, we can guess she was in fact possessed by a demon, because we are watching Belzebuth on Shudder. Five years later, the bitterly widowed Ritter is called to investigate the mass murder-suicide of an elementary school class. Although it seems open and shut, Ivan Franco, a Vatican-trained FBI pathologist soon finds links between the school massacre and the hospital infanticide, as well as a subsequent case of mass murder at a public swimming pool.

Initially, Ritter scoffs at the supernatural, but he soon sees some freaky things he cannot dismiss. He also starts pursuing Father Vasilio Canetti, an excommunicated priest rumored to conduct black masses. Both his spooky facial tattoos and eye witness accounts placing him at the scene of the crimes a few days prior make the defrocked Father a highly suspicious person-of-interest. However, Ritter and Franco will have to contend with genuinely demonic perils when they discover the true purpose of the horrific crimes.

It is hard to believe Portes was previously known primarily as a director of comedies. Even though his debut, Meet the Head of Juan Perez, had some morbid elements, it is still a world removed from the soul-choking tension of Belzebuth. Frankly, this film is terrifying. The public atrocities it depicts might be too much for some viewers, especially in light of real-life tragedies, but the tone is never exploitative. Instead, it considers issues of good and evil with all due seriousness and urgency.

Father Canetti is also one of the most intriguing and unsettling horror movie characters of the decade. Tobin Bell (best known as Jigsaw in the Saw franchise) will make your blood run cold and your head spin before upending all your assumptions with his unforgettable performance. Frankly, his work as Canetti is a prime example of why there is a need for more prominent horror movie awards.

Joaquin Cosio is almost as memorable portraying Ritter, covering a considerable emotional spectrum, under extreme circumstances. He also develops some solid cop-buddy chemistry with his long-suffering partner Demetrio, nicely played by Jose Sefami. Tate Ellington rounds out the strong ensemble, handling all the investigative and religious business quite convincingly as the virtuous Franco.

It is hard to scoff at the term “Satanic Panic” after watching Belzebuth. It is worth repeating: this is a very scary film. Highly recommended for fans of supernatural horror, Belzebuth starts streaming today (8/29), exclusively on Shudder.

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Tutorial

It is the twenty-teens, well into the internet age. Many people would prefer to cocoon rather than explore the world. For those media consumers, home invasion horror hits them where they live and breathe—literally. There will be another breach of home and hearth, the second of the current season of Vera Miao’s anthology series Two Sentence Horror Stories, but there will be at least one big sinister twist in store for viewers of Tutorial, which premieres tonight on the CW.

The home in question belongs to a beauty vlogger, who probably represents some of the worst aspects of online culture. As she gushes over makeup, reasonably observant viewers will notice an intruder slinking through her house. It is all being broadcast over the internet, but apparently her followers are content to watch it unfold.

Initially, Tutorial is very much in keeping with the style and vibe of Blumhouse’s Unfriended franchise, but it suddenly swerves into some pretty shocking territory. However, it still presents a dark, pessimistic view of the internet and its impact on human psychology. Be that as it may, Tutorial is definitely scary. In fact, it could deeply disturb sensitive viewers (whoever they might be).

Regardless, Tutorial represents a radical and impressive change of pace for director Tayarisha Poe, whose debut feature Selah and the Spades did not sound particularly frightening when it screened at this year’s Sundance. It turns out she can crank up the tension and drop a surprising plot reversal quite adroitly.

Aleyse Shannon shows considerable range before engaging in some good old-fashioned scenery chewing as the materialistic vlogger. Mercifully, Poe and series cinematographer Paul Yee do not hand-cuff themselves with a strict lap-top’s eye view of the proceedings. In fact, he rather brilliantly frames two or three scenes. As a result, Two Sentence Horror Stories continues to be some of the scariest stuff on network television or commercial cable (while they last). Highly recommended for horror fans, Tutorial airs tonight (8/29) on the CW (but be wary of the constant commercials that intrusively interrupt viewing on the network’s app).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Animaze ’19: Spirit of the Drowning Girls (short)

A quarterstaff is a fine weapon for an itinerant hero. Just ask Friar Tuck. Our silent protagonist will have plenty of uses for it when his wuxia wanderings take a sinister turn. Cao Runze’s action packed short film returns to Montreal, following its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, with a screening (sometime soon, the schedule is still a little vague) during the 2019 Animaze Montreal International Animation Festival.

When a brave warrior chances across two little girls in distress, he immediately comes to their aid, because that is what he does. Unfortunately, a sinister magical being of great power anticipated his heroics and has a nasty surprise waiting for him. It will be a hard day on the road for the stoic martial artist, but is far more resilient than she expected.

Spirit is a wildly enjoyable short film that we can only hope Cao and the Mainland-based Escape Velocity Animation Studio intend to expand into a full-fledged franchise. The animation is appealingly colorful and dramatic and Cao’s martial arts action sequences are pretty dazzling. Plus, there are some legitimately creepy bits.

However, the greatest surprise is the note of poignancy Cao manages to hit with ringing eloquence. Perhaps we are imposing our own meaning on the film, but it is not hard to see the titular drowned girls as an analogy for all the girls tragically aborted, abandoned, or killed out of dubious mercy because of the notorious One Child Policy, the malignant effects of which still continue to corrode Chinese society.

Regardless, Spirit is a righteous film in every sense. Anyone who enjoys wuxia or Chanbara-style anime will flip over it. Enthusiastically recommended, Spirit of Drowning Girls screens sometime during this year’s Animaze (8/29-9/1).

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Mission Mangal: Reaching Mars on the First Try

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing—still the greatest achievement in human history. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) also celebrated its 50th anniversary. Although its finest hour cannot compare with the successful exploration of the Moon, it has the considerable advantage of being much more recent. ISRO’s successful launch of the Mars Orbital Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan “Mars Craft” probe is dramatized and romanticized in Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal, which is now playing in New York.

The unsuccessful launch of the GSLV-F06 (a.k.a. “Fat Boy”) was not ISRO’s finest hour. Perhaps a nickname that evokes memories of one of the original Manhattan Project atomic bombs was bad karma. Regardless, mildly eccentric mission director Rakesh Dhawan takes the fall, even though it was his senior subordinate, Tara Shinde, who made the bad call. Hoping to encourage his resignation, ISRO ostensibly promotes him to director of the Mars Probe Mission, which is universally considered a futile dead-end.

However, Dhawan stars believing when Shinde devises a method to reach Mars with preexisting light rockets, through fuel conservation, inertia, and Mars’ own gravitational pull. Although Dhawan’s inter-agency rival, former NASA scientist Rupert Desai pooh-poohs the idea, the agency director is intrigued enough to give them some budget—but of course, not quite enough. Dhawan will also have to make do with the hand-picked agency cast-offs Desai assigns to him. Most of them are women, but there is also an old dude and a sad sack, whose hopes of marriage have been undermined by bad astrology charts. Think of the second act as Hidden Figures, with a cup of 40-Year-Old Virgin mixed in.

Unlike Chazelle’s First Man, Shakti is not shy about flying the Indian flag—and why should he be? Still, it is a little odd when the film ends with a triumphant speech from Modi, especially since the MOM Probe launched before he was elected. On the other hand, it is nice to see stills of the real-life ISRO scientists, none of whom are as photogenic as their cinematic analogs, especially not Sonakshi Sinha as propulsion expert Eka Gandhi, who would be comfortable as a cast-member of Sex in the City.

Be that as it may, there is no denying how much fun it is to watch Akshay Kumar somewhat play against his action-romance type as Dhawan. Think of him as seven parts Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 and three parts Fred MacMurray in The Absent-Minded Professor. Frankly, most of the supporting ensemble largely represents stock characters, but Sanjay Kapoor adds some interesting wrinkles as Shinde’s more-complex-than-we-initially-assume husband, Sunil, who also has a chance to get down on the dance floor. Remember, this is a Bollywood movie.

Mission Mangal is big, rousing, and patriotic, but most importantly, it is refreshingly idealistic about the possibilities for space exploration. Sure, it was nice to celebrate Apollo 11, but now what? Maybe the scrappiness of the MOM Mission isn’t such a bad example to emulate. Recommended for fans of Kumar and space program boosters, Mission Mangal is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Vicious: Dutch Teen Horror

Every junior high student should be forced to watch slasher films, because bullies would be scared into nicer behavior. Carrie would be the classic case, but in scores of vintage 1980s horror movies, the killer is inevitably out to avenge a fatal case of bullying, as in the original Prom Night. Evidently, the new girl has a mysterious history of bullying that she could very well pay the ultimate price for—unless she is just escalating her tormenting ways in Dennis Bots’ Vicious, which is now available on VOD.

“What happens in the Ardennes, stays in the Ardennes,” Kim’s friends say. They think they’re joking. For some unfathomable reason, they have set off on a girl’s weekend at a classic “cabin in the woods” right when a blizzard is expected to dump on the mountains. Supposedly, it is their last chance to celebrate their friendship before finals, college, and real life happen, but the truth is they really far from being four Musketeers.

Pippa is the newcomer to the group. She also happens to be a trampy mean girl, who is determined to undermine Kim’s friendship with Abby, so she can become her new bestie. Feline is biding her time to come out of the closet, while Abby obsesses over Casper, her new boyfriend, whose family cabin they are borrowing. As for Kim, she is the sensitive one—and the claustrophobic one. Basically, Abby and Feline walk on eggshells around her, whereas Pippa goes out of her way to play with Kim’s head. It all sounds like typical teen angst, especially when a group of boys come over for a night of drinking, but then strange things start happening.

However, it sure takes long enough. It feels like forever before Vicious finally get going. Frankly, the film’s origins as a teen novel written by Mel Wallis de Vries are always conspicuous, because the violence is never worthy of a R-rating and the suspense is not very intense. Maybe it works better on the printed page, but on film, it is pretty easy to guess what is coming down the pike. Even more problematic, the not so surprising twist will leave most genre fans feeling colder than the frosty winds blowing around the Ardennes.

It is a shame Vicious is so by-the-numbers predictable, because Olivia Lonsdale as a real kick as the nasty scheming Pippa. You would never want to know her socially, but it is rather fun to watch her sneer and connive. Romy Gevers is quite a neurotic worrywart as Kim, but she also has her more forceful moments. Unfortunately, Abbey Hoes is rather dull and staggeringly unintuitive as her near-namesake Abby.

The truth is Vicious’s title promises more than it delivers. This film is about on par with Ten: Murder Island, Lifetime’s riff on And Then There Were None. It is certainly watchable, but not particularly memorable. A time killer at best for fans of teen horror, Vicious is now available on select VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Fanatic: Travolta is the Moose

Typically, horror movies reflect the fears of society, but occasionally they express the peculiar anxieties of the people who make movies. Seriously, who else would be worried about obsessive fans whose fandom crosses over to the dark side of stalkerdom? It happened to Lauren Bacall in The Fan (1981), Morgan Fairchild in The Seduction, Wesley Snipes in The Fan (1996) and now it happens to the ridiculously bland object of John Travolta’s adulation in Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst’s The Fanatic, which opens this Friday in New York.

Moose means well and he fans hard, but he is definitely on the spectrum, so he is often misunderstood. For reasons we cannot fathom, he is a big fan of Hunter Dunbar, who made his name as the star of action-driven horror movies. Unfortunately, Dumb-bar bolts from a signing event to deal with some personal issues just as Moose was about to have his turn. Of course, the socially clumsy Moose follows Dunbar out into the street, where he makes a terrible impression. Wanting to try again, the poor fan turns up at Dunbar’s home, thanks to some of the tricks of the trade he learned from Leah, a paparazzi friend. Dunbar reacts even worse than we might expect—and so the cycle of misunderstanding keeps repeating, making conflict inevitable.

In all honesty, The Fanatic is pretty mediocre in nearly every way, but Travolta really goes all in as the Moose. He even has a meltdown worthy of Nic Cage—and we mean that as a compliment. It is frankly a pretty brave performance for someone like Travolta, who is probably more used to identifying with Dunbar’s position. Regardless, he makes Moose acutely human and ultimately quite tragic.

On the other hand, it is impossible to understand why anyone would be a fan of the charisma-less Dunbar or Devon Sawa, who plays him almost entirely without any redeeming attributes. As a result, the weird upshot of The Fanatic is that it makes us sympathize with stalkers. In fact, Leah the paparazzi (nicely portrayed by Ana Golja) is probably the film’s most intriguing character, even though it leaves us wondering how she ever connected with Moose in the first place.

Durst and co-screenwriter Dave Bekerman rely on a lot of stupid decision-making to advance the plot, which is definitely problematic. However, cinematographer Conrad W. Hall gives it an impressively stylish Hollywood Boulevard-by-night look and vibe. It is nice to know Travolta can still crank it up when he wants to, but his efforts mostly go for naught here. Not recommended, The Fanatic opens this Friday (8/30) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Scary Movies XII: Villains

There is no “Make My Day” law in the nation that would cover the actions of respectable-looking George and Gloria when dim-witted Mickey and Jules break into their upscale exurban home. They could have just shot the moronic home invaders, but instead they try to scratch their psychotic itches in Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s dark comedy, Villains, which screened during Scary Movies XII.

Only Mickey and Jules would knock-over a gas station, but forget to fill up the tank first. As a result, they find themselves broken-down near George and Gloria’s secluded home. Their original plan was to steal the car in the garage, but they get side-tracked when they discover a little girl chained up in the basement. At this point, their hosts walk in. Even though Mickey has the gun, George is the one in control of the situation.

Things get awkward quickly for Mickey and Jules. At least the little girl starts to warm to Jules. Frankly, she is probably smarter than the young crooks, who are definitely out of their league playing cat-and-mouse games with their nutty captors.

Villains basically shares the fundamental premise of Bad Samaritan, Monster Party, and to an extent, Don’t Breathe, but those films do their best to maintain a tone that is consistently tense and serious as a heart attack. Berk & Olsen’s game plan to extract laughs and suspense from the circumstances surrounding a child held captive in a basement is definitely gutsy, but the results are hit-or-miss in the extreme.

Nobody can blame the principal cast members, who are obviously working overtime to pull off the comedy and the horror scenery chewing. Maika Monroe is quite endearingly sweet and naïve as Jules, while Bill Skarsgård energetically plays against his It-type as big, dopey Mickey. Kyra Sedgwick is really weird and almost unrecognizable as the dangerously neurotic Gloria, but Jeffrey Donovan might even be more impressive, going all in and somehow pulling off all of George’s over-written dialogue with sinister verve.

The problem is we’ve been here before. The American movie business’s war on suburban normalcy is getting predictable. At this point, it would be more surprising if characters like George and Gloria were stable and decent. Not recommended, Villains opens September 20th nationwide, following its New York premiere at Scary Movies XII.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Tone-Deaf: Baby Boomer vs. Millennial

Conflict is inevitable between Millennials and Baby-Boomers, because both generations grew up believing they were the center of the universe. That natural hostility will ignite some bloody mayhem in this exercise in suburban horror. However, most viewers will equally root against the two anti-social antagonists of Richard Bates Jr.’s Tone-Deaf, which opens today in New York.

The Baby-Boomers brought us Woodstock, the New Left, disco, and a president who “didn’t inhale,” but Bates presents the widowed Harvey as the youngest and angriest member of the “Greatest Generation.” Thanks to Airbnb (or a similar site), he meets and instantly dislikes the nauseatingly entitled Olive, who will rent his large but creepy Ventura County home for the weekend. She hopes to unwind for the weekend, after breaking up with her deadbeat boyfriend and getting herself fired through her snarky, passive-aggressive work-place behavior. Unfortunately, Harvey’s malicious mischief will ruin the plan.

For reasons never really explained, Harvey is suddenly obsessed by the idea of taking a human life. His first try is pretty sloppy, but he will get better as he practices on minor characters. Of course, Olive will be the main event, unless Crystal, her self-absorbed commune-dwelling mother, suddenly starts acting responsible and assertive.

There are a few clever lines in Tone-Deaf, but the jokes mostly fall flat. It has none of the razor-sharp wit of Bates’ Trash Fire—just the caustic attitude. Frankly, Bates doesn’t even seem to understand what the Baby-Boomers represent. Instead, he just falls back on grouchy old-timer gags, like Grumpy Old Men with a body-count.

Nevertheless, it should be readily stipulated Robert Patrick can still play a genre heavy like nobody’s business. In fact, he out Nic Cages Nic Cage, in a good way, as the wildly unstable, sometime delusional, and possibly dementia-addled Harvey. Patrick has yet to get the post-T2 credit he deserves, but this is not the film that will usher in his renaissance.

As Olive, Amanda Crew mostly hits the same one-note of flippant disdain for the world over and over, which is probably appropriate for her character, but it quickly grows old and tiresome for the audience. It is sort of mind-blowing to see Kim Delaney playing her mom, but she creates a reasonably credible hippy persona.

The title is a reference to Olive’s dreadful piano stylings, but it suits the film perfectly. Frankly, it is unclear whether the film really understands the generational differences it tries to skewer. Of course, if you identify with Generation X, you can just say a plague on both your houses. Regardless, viewers of all ages can safely take a pass when Tone-Deaf opens today (8/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Fright Fest UK ’19: The Deeper You Dig

Burying a body is a lot like cat-sitting or implementing wage and price controls. It sounds easy, but it always turns out to be messier and more destructive than you expected. Kurt Miller is about to learn that lesson the super hard way when an accident leads to murder and a subsequent haunting in the Adams Filmmaking Family (John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughter Zelda Adams)’s The Deeper You Dig, which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Echo Allen is a goth kid and an accomplished deer hunter. Her mother Ivy was a natural psychic. They would be quite the formidable horror movie duo, if it were not for the crisis of faith Ivy suffered several years ago. Lately, she has been faking readings for money, at the risk of generating bad karma for herself. Regardless, she still senses the physical and metaphysical peril that befalls Echo.

Tragically, a somewhat inebriated Miller ran down Echo while she was walking by the side of the road late at night. Instead of rushing her to the hospital, he finishes her off, with the intention of covering-up the incident. Yet, despite burying her body in the woods, Echo’s spirit starts haunting him and also reaching out to her formerly sensitive mother. Although not certain of Miller’s guilt, Allen finds pretexts for visiting the ramshackle farmhouse he is trying to fix up and flip, sort of like a maternal Columbo.

Deeper is about as DIY as you can get, but that rather suits this austere tale of existential guilt and supernatural dread. It shares the sensibilities of Dostoyevsky and Poe, but its heart and soul is buried in the backwoods hill country, where Americana is at its weirdest. The Adams-Posers are addressing some big themes, but they have crafted an intensely intimidate morality play. They also come up with some fresh and original ways to use Tarot cards.

John Adams (not the classical-minimalist composer, but he did write the film’s score) is riveting as Miller. He smoothly shifts from sinister to a guilt-wracked basket case from scene to scene. As thesp and co-writer-co-director, he makes Miller one of the most complex and fully developed genre bad guys in recent memory. Zelda Adams has a blast chewing the scenery as the spectral Echo, but she also develops enough chemistry with her mom, aptly playing her mom, to make their psychic link believable. Shawn Wilson also adds some memorable flair and heavy attitude as Ivy Allen’s psychic protégé, Del, in a pivotal scene.

This is our kind of independent filmmaking, because it is genuinely independent and refreshingly inventive. There is plenty of woo-woo creepiness, but it is firmly grounded in the Catskills region—so much so, you can practically feel the soil under your nails. Very highly recommended, The Deeper You Dig screens tomorrow (8/23), at this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Scion

Most insurance companies probably would not cover the treatment offered by this radical cancer clinic, but patients are better off that way. Skeptical patient Noah Ingraham suspects the cure could be even worse than the life-threatening disease in Scion, which premieres tonight on the CW, as the latest creepy tale in the current season of Vera Miao’s Two Sentence Horror Stories.

Ingraham has held up pretty well thanks to the support of his boyfriend Isaac, but his elitist parents are not so warm and fuzzy. It was their idea to check Ingraham into Dr. Lucie’s exclusive clinic, but there is something about the place that rubs him the wrong way. Maybe it is the janitor who looks and acts like he was lobotomized.

Of course, Ingraham initially hopes for the best, but his doubts and suspicions are quickly fueled by Izzy, a fellow patient, who happens to be the black sheep of a fabulously wealthy blue-blooded clan. Soon, Ingraham is experiencing vivid nightmares and losing time. According to Dr. Lucie, these are common side effects of the treatment, but that is not very reassuring, is it?

In some ways, Scion parallels Alice Waddington’s soon-to-be-released Paradise Hills, but director Natalia Iyudin and screenwriter Sehaj Sethi do not let the foreboding and dread get lost amid the woke statement-making. Iyudin deftly capitalizes on the claustrophobic setting and Ingraham’s very relatable position of vulnerability to build tension. It maintains the season’s impressive style and production standards, especially the work of cinematographer Guy Poole and the design team, who greatly contribute to the eerie mood. 

As Dr. Lucie, Kate Jennings is entertainingly sinister and arrogant, in the best tradition of horror movie doctors. Most of the waspy characters are rather bland and perhaps logically so, but Stanley Simmons chews the scenery with admirable zeal as the rebellious Izzy. Plus, the facility itself could pass for a tony clinic near the Bramford Building (a.k.a. The Dakota), as seen in Rosemary’s Baby.

Scion is another above average example of anthology television, but the heavy-handed conclusion also shows the risks of prioritizing message over story and character. Fortunately, it is outweighed by the ominous vibe and mounting paranoia so nicely realized by Iyudin and company. Still recommended for horror fans, Scion premieres tonight (8/22), as part of the second season of Two Sentence Horror Stories, on the CW.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fright Fest UK ’19: Blood & Flesh

If you were acting in an Al Adamson movie, your career was probably in trouble. However, he somehow arranged for Nelson Riddle to pen the theme song to Hell’s Bloody Devils (it was originally conceived as a spy caper titled The Fakers) and Charles Earland composed a wonderfully funky soundtrack for his blaxploitation film The Dynamite Brothers. Adamson prided himself on his films’ profitability, but he never claimed they were great art. Regardless, he was mostly well-liked by his colleagues, so it is a shame he met a tragic end worthy of his exploitation films. Adamson’s career and premature demise are chronicled in David Gregory’s entertaining documentary, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Adamson was the son Victor Adamson, who at one-time had quite a career going as an actor and director of silent and early talkie westerns under the name Denver Dixon. His son Al took a shot at following in his footsteps, but quickly changed courses, believing he had an aptitude for helming horror and other assorted genres that featured gratuitous nudity and violence. The early years were a little rocky, but he had a great deal of success selling his biker and stewardess movies to drive-ins and grindhouses.

Along the way, Adamson employed a number of faded Hollywood stars, who had fallen on rough times. The great John Carradine was an Adamson regular, but even two of the surviving Ritz Brothers turned up in one of his later films. Unfortunately, he met a rather violent end. At this point, Flesh & Blood veers into true crime territory as it follows the investigation into Adamson’s disappearance and the grisly discovery of his body.

Frankly, it is impossible for a film to be dull when it can cherry-pick choice clips from the Adamson filmography. His co-stars included Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Russ Tamblyn (of West Side Story and Twin Peaks fame), Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones), Angelo Rossitto (the diminutive actor best known for Tod Browning’s Freaks and schlocky Lugosi movies like Scared to Death), adult film star Georgina Spelvin, and Gary Graver (who was Orson Welles’s loyal cinematographer during his final years).

So yes, there are plenty of exploitation elements in Gregory’s film, but it also provides a fascinating perspective on the exploitation movie business, at its peak. Yet, it is really all about Adamson the man and filmmaker, who emerges as a sympathetic (if somewhat roguish) figure well worthy of our time and attention. In fact, the film gets rather poignant during the third act, especially when covering Adamson’s devotion to his late wife and his own violent fate.

Adamson’s story is definitely worth telling, especially when it comes liberally illustrated by clips of such eccentric and outrageous cinema. It is just a shame he cannot enjoy the overdue ovation. Very highly recommended for grindhouse fans, Blood & Flesh screens this Friday (8/23) during FrightFest 2019, in the UK.

Radio Silence’s Ready or Not

Downton Abbey fans definitely remember how difficult the entail inheritance scheme made life for the Crawley family (who only had daughters instead of sons). However, it seems happily progressive compared to the circumstances of the Le Domas family legacy. Their fortune is tied up in a Faustian bargain that is truly Faustian. Grace learns the shocking truth when she marries into the wealthy clan, but she might not live long enough to enjoy her honeymoon in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not, executive produced Chad Villella, the third member of their Radio Silence filmmaking combo, which opens today in New York.

Dirt-poor Grace grew up in foster-care, so she is thrilled to finally have a family—even one as intimidatingly dysfunctional as Alex Le Domas’s clan. Their fabulous fortune does not hurt either. They made their money through games, like a sinister Parker Brothers, so it is a mandatory tradition for brides or grooms joining the family to play a randomly chosen game on their wedding night. It is usually just an eccentric quirk, unless Hide-and-Seek comes up through the luck of the draw. They play that game by a decidedly nontraditional set of rules.

The last time there was a nuptial game of Hide-and-Seek was played, Alex was child. He has been semi-estranged from the estranged from the family ever since. However, he still has to play—because there are fatal penalties for elopement. Of course, he is horrified at the prospect of his family hunting Grace Most Dangerous Game-style. He tries to help her, even though the Le Domases believe they will face serious karmic consequences if they do not hunt her down by dawn. Right, the game’s afoot.

The film’s basic premise is pretty clear from trailers and promo material, but the details of the full backstory are devilishly gothic. The entire creepy mansion setting is a triumph of art direction worthy of vintage Hammer Horror. There are plenty of subversive class-conscious implications, but fortunately Radio Silence does not let that get in the way of the bloody lunacy that erupts.

It hardly seems like a coincidence that Henry Czerny and Andie McDowell somewhat resemble Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern from Downton. Regardless, they are both terrific as the witheringly snobby patriarch Tony, and Becky, the matriarch, who is deceptively warm and welcoming on the outside, but ruthlessly steely at her core.

However, it is Samara Weaving who is destined to become famous for her work as Grace. It might not happen immediately, but the scenes of her wielding a shotgun while wearing a blood-stained wedding gown are just too perfect not get absorbed into the pop culture consciousness. The same could be true for Nicky Guadagni, who is spectacularly unhinged as battle-axe-wielding Aunt Helene. In fact, it is quite a colorful supporting cast, with Kristian Bruun scoring big laughs as “Fitch,” the pompous son-in-law and John Ralston handily taking care of horror movie business as Stevens, the Lurch-from-Hell butler.

Ready or Not represents a gruesome shot of paranoia, but it is also quite a jolly bit of fun. Come for the undermining of traditional family and marital structures, but stay for the social Darwinism. Enthusiastically recommended for horror fans, Ready or Not opens today (8/21) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Hoax: The Fur is Out There

Honestly, the one-minute Patterson-Gimlin film supposedly capturing Bigfoot out for a stroll ought to be in the National Film Registry, even though it is undoubtedly bogus. The salient point is how influential it has been. Decades later, it is still the best thing going for Sasquatch hunters, but a disgraced reality TV producer hopes to score a more conclusive scoop. Of course, he has no qualms about exploiting the mysterious disappearance of a group of horny teens in Matt Allen’s Hoax, which releases today on VOD.

Seriously, as soon as you start camping in the woods, horror movie rules immediately apply, so wandering off for a quick hook-up will get you killed every time. Unfortunately, the more responsible Alex Barnes vanished along with her randy friends, but her rugged outdoorsman father Cooper hasn’t given up looking for her. However, his resources are limited, so he accepts an offer to join the cast of Rick Paxton’s Bigfooting hunting series.

Primate vet Dr. Ellen Freese is also a little embarrassed to be part of the team, but she needed the money. John Singer is literally there for mercenary reasons, having been hired to protect the shows airhead host (and fiancée of the network president’s son), Bridgette Powers. As the party settles in, it becomes clear Cooper, Singer, and Freese are the three we have confidence in, whereas Paxton is absolute pond scum. They start to suspect the dirtbag producer is faking the weirdness in the woods, but we saw the opening prologue, so we know the danger is real.

The awkward truth is Bigfoot/Sasquatch movies are very much a hot-or-miss deal. The best of the lot approach the hairy beast in a decidedly idiosyncratic manner, like The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot and Stomping Ground, whereas more straight forward horror takes, such as Exists are rather mediocre. This is a case in point.

For the most part, Hoax is bland and unremarkable, but it has one thing going for it: considerable screen time for genre character actor Brian Thompson (who you might recognize as the head cultist in Cobra and the Alien Bounty Hunter on The X-Files). He is terrific as the steely, hardnosed Singer. Fans will also enjoy seeing Adrienne Barbeau pop up as Dr. Freese’s medical technician Wilma, even though it is a completely inconsequential role.

It is worth noting there is not much gore in first and second acts, but there is a sudden deluge in the last twenty minutes or so. Arguably, that is sign the film’s balance is off. Hoax earns some goodwill by reminding us of what a genre stalwart Thompson has been over the years, but then fritters it away with an ending that appears to be designed to incorporate as many unsatisfying horror clichés as was humanly possible. Not recommended, Hoax releases today on VOD.

Nuptial Horror: Camp Wedding

How does the prospect of spending a weekend with Bridezilla and a pack of serial hash-taggers sound? Do the words “kill me now” come to mind? Unfortunately, that is the whole idea. A destination wedding runs completely off the rails in Greg Emetaz’s Camp Wedding, which releases today on VOD, its natural home.

Camp Pocumtuck is like Camp Crystal Lake on bad karma steroids. It is built over a Native burial ground, near the site of historic witch burning. When it was last functioning as a proper summer camp, a little girl died because of the counselor’s abuse and negligence. However, it was available cheap, so Mia booked it for her destination wedding.

Her idea was to have a camp-themed wedding, with activities and a talent show. It all sounds truly awful, but it probably isn’t happening, because some strange unseen force starts luring members of the wedding party out into the dark. Once they are disposed of, the mystery grudge-holding power will post grotesque selfies of them on the social media feed for Mia’s wedding. If Mia, her groom Dalvero, and their friends could work together, they might have a prayer of surviving. Alas, that is highly unlikely, especially after Mia lets it slip that she only invited her old childhood chum Eileen by mistake.

Camp Wedding is funnier than most alleged horror comedies, but its skewering of the hyper-online Twitter generation is often a little too on-target. For the most part, these characters are unremittingly shallow and abrasive, but at least this way we really won’t mind when they wind up hanging from a tree.

Of course, the more outrageous their behavior, the better the scattergun humor works. Morgan McGuire and Adam Santos-Coy score a lot of laughs as Paulette, the groom’s misanthropic platonic bestie and Trask, a horndog groomsman. Frankly, David Pegram is a bit too normal as Dalvero and Kelly Gates is too realistically annoying as Mia. However, Wendy Jung upstages everyone and even manages to eke out some character development as the socially awkward but surprisingly resourceful Eileen.

There is definitely a ceiling on Camp Wedding’s commercial appeal, but it is tailor-made for the digital VOD market, after having enjoyed a credible run on the horror festival circuit. It lacks the in-your-face gore and subversiveness of the upcoming Ready or Not (apparently, this is a golden age for wedding horror movies), but if you think you will find it amusing, chances are your expectations will be satisfied. Recommended for genre fans who enjoy caustic attitudes as much as bloody mayhem, Camp Wedding releases today (8/20), on VOD platforms.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Guangzhou Ballet: Goddess of the Luo River & Carmina Burana

You could say the Guangzhou Ballet’s very existence is a case of East meets West. For the program of Western-style ballet presented by the Chinese company this weekend at the David H Koch Theater, it was a case of West meets East and East meets West yet again. Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s adaptation of Chinese composer Du Mingxin’s violin concerto Goddess of Luo River and Chinese-American choreographer Jiang Qi’s transformation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was based on the bawdy song of poems of medieval monks) into something contemporary and Chinese proves the universality of music and dance. They also provided quite a striking program that showcased the artistry and athleticism of the Guangzhou Ballet of China in their New York City debut, made possible by the China Arts and Entertainment Group.

The original Goddess of Luo River written by poet Cao Zhi chronicled the tragic romance between said goddess and a mortal man. However, Quanz and the Guangzhou company reinterpret it as a much more upbeat affair. Of course, there is still plenty of dramatic pairings of the prima and secondary leads. In fact, even the small “chorus” section gets plenty of impressive choreography to show off their chops, which is true of Burana as well.

Thoughout Goddess, the leads practically seem to bounce off the stage, almost like they have springs in the soles of their feet. That high energy level definitely makes it an attention-grabbing ice-breaker. Plus, Anne Armit’s striking backdrop, evoking the look and texture of Chinese scroll painting, provides the sort of class and sophistication you would hope for from an afternoon at the ballet.

While Goddess ran for about a concerto-long half-hour, the three-part Carmina Burana lasts well over an hour. Based on the secular songs composed by 11th and 12th Century Bavarian monks on subjects they should not have known very much about, including boozing, carousing, love-making, and war-fighting, Carmina Barana inspired Orff’s cantata. You might not know it by title, but you will recognize the “O Fortuna” intro and reprise, which is often used in films whenever they need a really thunderous piece of music

The Guangzhou company and Jiang use the star-crossed romance of Helena and Bolanzifaluo as a through-line, but it is not really a narrative-driven piece. Instead, it is more a collection of impressionistic vignettes that illustrate love, loss, and the power of nature. Indeed, there is a good deal of striking moon and sun imagery.

Just as in Goddess, the Guangzhou company dazzles. Arguably, Carmina Burana is a better vehicle for traditional ballet grace, rather than the demanding physicality of Goddess. Regardless, everyone on stage gets their share of lifts and releases, so it is fair to say the entire company distinguish themselves with their individual talents. Yet, it is arguably the second lead (in the floral tunic) who most wows and charms the audience.

The choreography is dramatic, the production is classically handsome, and the dancers are like finely tuned instruments. It is everything people go to the ballet for, yet it is also a refreshingly different program than the five or six old standards that get re-staged season after season after season. The Guangzhou company and their choreographers, Quanz and Jiang, deserve credit for giving patrons something new, but in a way that feels both exotic and welcoming. The Guangzhou Ballet’s production of Goddess of Luo River and Carmina Burana is highly recommended for refined and adventurous patrons as their tour continues, following their NYC debut engagement, at the David H Koch Theater, on the Lincoln Center Plaza.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Scary Movies XII: Black Circle

By now, the booming market for audiophile vinyl should have everyone convinced of the LP’s superior sound quality. That is great when you are listening to vintage Blue Note jazz, but not so hot in the case of a creepy 1970s self-help album with the dangerous power to mesmerize listeners. At first, two sisters feel empowered by the record, but the experience takes a dark turn in Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s Black Circle, which screens during Scary Movies XII.

You could think of the Stockholm Center for Magnetic Research as the Swedish equivalent of Tony Robbin and other such self-help gurus, who initially seem beneficial, but soon drag the unwary into a state of abject horror. To be fair, the now-defunct Institute tried to recall their LP, but somehow Isa found one among the possessions of a distant relative who recently passed away. After experiencing sudden success at work after listening, she passes it on to her slacker grad student sister Celeste.

After duly spinning the B-side before falling asleep, she is suddenly able to whip out her thesis. However, her second listening is interrupted by a stoned friend. As a result, Celeste sees something pretty disturbing that scares off spinning the record any further. Unfortunately, the dark, otherworldly process unleashed by the record has progressed much further in Isa’s case. To save her sanity and possibly her life, the sisters seek help from the people who created it, Lena Carlsson, a “master magnetizer” and daughter of the institute’s founder and Mårten, her late father’s surviving right-hand man. Of course, the process will be fraught with peril, but two young psychics happen to show up just in time to help, as if they were compelled to be there.

Black Circle is a triumph of genre art direction, cinematography, and mise-en-scene that brilliantly recreates the look and tone of 1970s Euro-horror movies. Every detail is perfectly rendered. Yet, the narrative is still wholly original and completely engrossing. Frankly, this is the best horror or horror-ish film to play with doppelganger themes since maybe the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, far-eclipsing Jordan Peele’s Us (which was admittedly pretty good).

Without question, Circle’s MVP is Christina Lindberg, the Swedish 1970s exploitation star, who plays Carlsson like the daughter of Peter Cushing and Lin Shaye. She basically magnetizes viewers with her commanding presence. Hans Sandqvist is also appropriately Nordic and reserved as old Mårten, while Erica and Hanna Midfjäll really keep the audience off balance, as Isa and her double.

Spanish-born Bogliano has steadily built an international reputation as a horror master, but his best films, the English language Night of the Wolf (a.k.a. Late Phases) and now the Swedish-set Circle, have been produced outside the Iberian sphere of influence. In terms of the constituent elements, Circle is almost as much science fiction as horror, but Bogliano creates an unsettling sense of foreboding and cranks up the tension to wickedly high levels. This is definitely auteurist genre filmmaking. Very enthusiastically recommended, Black Circle screens Monday (8/19), as part of Scary Movies XII.