Tagged 2015

Psychological Cracks and Shadows of Polanski in Darling

Darling. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, John Speredakos, Brian Morvant, & Al-Nisa Petty. Glass Eye Pix/Alexander Groupe.
Unrated. 78 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER
Mickey Keating is one of my favourite writer-directors over the past few years in indie horror. While the low budget charm of his pictures now and then needs a little boost, most of his work is incredibly engaging because of his willingness to attach a very human element to the themes in which he traffics. His second feature film, Ritual, is what initially drew me to his body of work. That was a great little flick that worked despite any of its flaws. From there he moved on to even bigger dread with the family drama-cum-alien horror Pod – a tight little indie that draws you in then drags you through its terror, including an excellently accomplished alien design that is both eerie and also impressive considering the film’s budget.
This past year Keating released Darling. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the film hinges largely on the central performance of Lauren Ashley Carter, whom many fans of independent horror likely remember from Jug Face, a fun, freaky movie in its own right. Using Carter’s talents, the haunting cinematography of Mac Fisken, and his own horrific screenplay, Keating gives us the hypnotic, savage vision of a woman unraveling, the influences of everything from The Shining to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion to Eraserhead shows. But don’t be fooled – any influence on or homage  by Keating is only aesthetic. This is a terrifying psychological horror crafted around Carter’s performance and a screenplay that facilitates a descent into paranoid madness.
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Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) is a young woman living in New York City. She’s all on her own in the wide city landscape of darkened alleys, crowded streets, neon lights. Soon, she becomes the caretaker for a large, old mansion with a long history of supposedly being haunted. Madame (Sean Young) sets her up with the job, introduces her to the house, and then Darling is left all alone, once more. Except now she’s there with the house, its possible ghostly or demonic presence lurking all around her.
And as the time whittles on, Darling discovers the whispers in the halls follow her outside into the world. When she meets a man at a bar, one whom she recognizes from somewhere, the mansion’s influence begins taking hold. What follows is a dive headlong into the darkness of the human heart, what trauma and mental anguish can do to a person, as Darling fears she may be losing her mind.
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Aside from the obvious black-and-white, the aesthetic of Keating’s film is aided by two major, impressive elements: score and editing.
First, the editing is where I’m reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It doesn’t rip off anything, but Darling captures pieces of the same mental deterioration Lynch had examined in his 1977 midnight movie classic. With completely different subject matter, editor Valerie Krulfeifer (whose other work includes previous films of Keating; so obviously they work well together) conjures up reflections of Lynch, while not directly taking anything from him. Whereas thematically this movie matches up closely to what Polanski did with Repulsion, the actual atmosphere, to me, feels closer in kin with Eraserhead. The editing helps keep us on edge. Nothing is ever certain for a minute of the film’s runtime, and that’s in big part due to the style of editing. It doesn’t always go a mile a minute, but sometimes it does and that creates the frenetic feeling of being stuck inside Darling’s noggin.
Added to that is both sound design and score. Not all movies get it right, and certainly there are many indie horrors which focus too closely on blood, gore, or exploitation to pay any attention to the aspects that help make a film become beyond mediocre. Composer Giona Ostinelli steeps almost every last moment of Darling in tension. The suspense is incredible, and Ostinelli makes you jump more than Keating and the cinematography together. Even the ringing of a phone becomes something nerve jangling, something that unnerves and throws us off balance. Again, in this way we’re placed directly in the mind of Darling, whose reality isn’t particularly stable. So we’re constantly offset by the score, as well as the sound design. Ostinelli’s music is the sort that burrows beneath your skin and totally keeps you imagining something horrible behind every coming corner. There’s even some nice electronic work steeped into the mix that rears its head now and then, above the uneasy string arrangements and the ominous little piano keys banging around.
But the cinematography – oh, it is gorgeous. Mac Fisken helps Keating achieve a really gorgeous to look at black-and-white picture. Even better, between them both there’s such a beautiful symmetry to many of the shots, it’s hard not to also be reminded of The Shining and Kubrick’s attention to symmetrical shot setups. Moreover, Fisken keeps Carter’s face so perfectly close at many moments, which is another way her perspective becomes the audience’s own, further drawing us into her world of paranoia and terror. There’s this one scene after certain things have happened when Darling’s world is literally turned upside down (as seen in the picture above), it completely captivated my soul; Fisken has the world flipped, the city is upside down, in the black-and-white with a fog in its distance it is one of my favourite shots in any film of recent memory. So beautiful and haunting all at once.
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The main performance from Carter is wonderful, delightfully devilish. We disintegrate alongside her character, feeling our brain wash away with hers, too. More and more with each passing scene her grip on what is real and what is not slowly loosens. We’re never sure exactly what has happened, or what is about to happen either. But best of all, Carter genuinely makes the character’s experience one of horrific nature. Seeing her go through the motions of her own mental breakdown helped along by the idea of being caretaker in a haunted mansion is a scary process. Like Polanski’s protagonist in Repulsion or that of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, the boundaries of reality stretch for Darling, opening wide, as we’re tasked with figuring out exactly what’s really happening. Of course those two films are very different, with completely other end results than this one, but their female leads are all highly reminiscent of one another, in an appropriate way. In these movies, Darling included, women are pushed to the brink by the men in their world, or simply the male-dominated world they inhabit. In addition, the main character in Keating’s film contends with a very present ghost story, so the supernatural is an element that can’t totally be written off. It’s up to the audience in the end to decide whether Darling went crazy on her own. Nevertheless, each step on the journey towards the film’s haunting and violent conclusion is paved by a strong, daring performance from Carter.
Another worthwhile film out of Keating. Darling is a 4-star horror. It has a quiet and creepy essence, which at times flares up in horrific, violent ways. But Keating and his band of merry friends create a truly hypnotizing picture with a solid screenplay, black-and-white visuals that will stick with you for days, and a score to compliment all the various macabre scenes to which there will feel there is no end in sight. Definitely my favourite of Keating’s movies so far. Can’t wait for Carnage Park and more of his work.

Put Off Developing The Girl in the Photographs

The Girl in the Photographs. 2015. Directed by Nick Simon. Screenplay by Robert Morast, Osgood Perkins, & Simon.
Starring Christy Carlson Romano, Katharine Isabelle, Claudia Lee, Kal Penn, Mitch Pileggi, Kenny Wormald, Eva Bourne, Toby Hemingway, Miranda Rae Mayo, Toby Levins, Autumn Kendrick, Luke Baines, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Oliver Seitz, & Corey Schmitt. Alghanim Entertainment.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Crime/Horror/Thriller

★★
POSTER
This movie is being touted as something special, simply because it was the last film Wes Craven produced before his passing. But outside of that there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. Even though The Girl in the Photographs has a dark, sleek look with some nice cinematography from the legendary Dean Cundey, along with exceptional music from Nima Fakhrara, ultimately there isn’t anything except style here. The writing is very dull, from a story by director Nick Simon, written by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) and first time writer Robert Morast. I enjoy the premise, however, outside of that the screenplay’s really a boring rehash of typical genre fare, which eventually leads us to a disappointing finish.
All the grim beauty in the world can’t save this one. Too bad, as it would’ve been nice to have a final film produced by Craven worth talking about. Instead, his name is attached to this less than mediocre attempt at making something different within the slasher sub-genre of horror. The ending is a nice touch. Just too little too late.
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When Colleen (Claudia Lee) starts to receive pictures of savage murder scenes, young women brutally killed. Are they real? Are they elaborately staged scenes?
Either way hipster photographer Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn) is interested. He wants to start staging photographs, much like this fellow artist or possible serial killer. Except by doing so he might just have put himself, and everyone around them, right in the way of the one taking those pictures.
And there’s nothing stopping the murders from slowing down.
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So immediately, the fact Dean Cundey is the cinematographer on this movie really attracted me. Because you’ve got a guy who’s done everything from classics such as John Carpenter’s HalloweenThe FogEscape From New YorkThe Thing, and then there’s his work on lesser, underrated pictures like The Witch Who Came From the SeaWithout WarningHalloween IIHalloween III: Season of the Witch, Psycho IIWho Framed Roger Rabbit, plus a ton of others like Jurassic Park and Apollo 13, and more. So naturally, if you know his work, you’ll know Cundey has a lot of talent. His eye for horror particularly is incredible. There are some beautiful bits of Steadicam in here, tracking shots that make scenes stand out from the rest of the film. One of the biggest reasons I liked anything about The Girl in the Photographs is due to Cundey and the look he brings to the picture. Everything is beautifully captured, yet even the enormous talent of a cinematographer such as Cundey cannot fully carry a movie into worthy territory.
In addition to the film’s look, its overall atmosphere is definitely aided by an eerie score from Nima Fakhrara. There were scenes where it actually surprised me, catching me completely off guard, and it weighs down the scene with a real ominous, foreboding air. There was a typical feeling at times that takes you back to the usual style of horror score, but still Fakhrara subverts the horror movie score and gives us an enjoyable bunch of music to go along with Cundey’s slick look.
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Kal Penn is great as Kumar, fairly shit in all other regards, though. He tries, but there’s something about his acting that falls flat. Especially here. The writing isn’t that great to begin with, and then there’s his dialogue. Which, coming from someone else, maybe could’ve been a little better. Penn is meant to be a pretentious-type, a douchebag. Although what comes out is just a dreary and forced performance from him that reeks of trying too hard, giving too little. Outside of him there wasn’t much else in the way of acting that’s bad. Not much good, either.
The screenplay kills everything simply because even the visuals aren’t enough to float the boat. Cundey is awesome, he’s not that awesome. Without anything new or innovative, the visuals are merely nice to look at. So on top of that there’s nothing interesting in the screenplay to lift things any further. What begins as an interesting premise, and ends in a fairly intriguing manner, falls apart in the middle like something only cooked around the edges and not inside. There’s nothing exciting at all about the dialogue, the characters are all flat, one-dimensional people we’re only waiting to watch die. So in many respects it’s the completely typical slasher horror, except it’s nowhere near as good as any of the classics, nor is it anywhere near the other horror movies Cundey’s touched in his career.
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I can give this a 2-star rating with a clean conscience. There are a couple eerie scenes, and the masks worn were unsettling. So it’s enough to watch this once, just to say you’ve honoured Craven’s dear memory. After that you’ll likely never put this on again, unless you’re masochistic and want to endure it another time over. It’s not worth it, though. Again, I do dig the ending, and the photograph in the finale is almost otherworldly, it’s scary. But a decent premise and a fun ending does not a solid horror movie make.

Some Kind of Hate: A Ghostly, Savage Bullying Tale

Some Kind of Hate. 2015. Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. Screenplay by Brian DeLeeuw & Mortimer.
Starring Grace Phipps, Spencer Breslin, Andrew Bryniarski, Sierra McCormick, Lexi Atkins, Brando Eaton, Ronen Rubinstein, Maestro Harrell, Noah Segan, Michael Polish, Justin Prentice, & Jasper Polish. Caliber Media Company/Revek Entertainment.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Horror

★★★1/2
POSTER
Low budget indies can go many ways, from weird and wild, to impressive, to downright pieces of trash. I’ve seen a bunch of reviews saying Some Kind of Hate falls into the last of those categories, not many giving it any praise. And while there are some places where the movie could use a huge tweak, namely some of the acting and parts of the screenplay, this is a decent indie horror. It is at times gory, serving up more than a fair share of blood, and others it comes off as a tense, brutal horror with teeth.
Part of the movie, a large part, plays on the collective knowledge, and for some experience, of bullying. It’s not hard to fall into enjoying this if you’ve been a victim yourself, or even if you’re someone who bullied others in high school then changed years later for the better. The story of Lincoln, our main protagonist, is a tough one at times. Just watching him be pushed to the brink, even those first few minutes of the film is harrowing. But on top of everything else there’s a supernatural aspect to Some Kind of Hate. While director Adam Egypt Mortimer and his writing partner (on this picture) Brian DeLeeuw could take a typical revenge-type route with this story, they instead opt to turn it into an entirely different picture. The savagery ultimately makes things intense, but Ronen Rubinstein does a fantastic job in the central role, and the plot keeps everything pretty damn interesting.
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Lincoln Taggert (Ronen Rubinstein) has been bullied for years, by the people at school who call him a faggot, push him around, and even at home where his father (Andrew Bryniarski) drinks and yells at him for no reason. One day, Lincoln finally steps up and protects himself. Except for the fact he stabs his bully in the face with a fork.
This brings Lincoln to a camp for… wayward teens, such as himself. There he meets a few people, such as Isaac (Spencer Breslin), some of whom seem overly interested in his past. Problem is that the abuse Lincoln suffered only starts all over again when a teen at the camp named Willie (Maestro Harrell) bullies him. It’s as if nothing will ever change for Lincoln. This time, though, there’s someone watching, someone who cares and understands exactly what he’s going through. A girl named Moira (Sierra McCormick) was driven to kill herself there years ago. And after Lincoln summons her still angry spirit to help avenge him, she unleashes hell upon the camp and anyone who falls into her path.
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Even though the budget of the film is small, I love the look. Not simply the choices in direction and cinematography in general, but also how they use anamorphic lenses which gives it a throwback feel. Most of all this aesthetic makes everything seem natural – the daytime sunny scenes feel very light, very beautiful, whereas the darker moments look even more grim. The camera work at times is a little unsteady, yet it works. Because during most scenes there’s a steady and framed flow. Then once Lincoln gets agitated and thrown into a situation where he either must fight or run, the handheld camera comes into play, throwing us off balance and unnerving our senses. This isn’t a film that relies totally on a shaky cam aesthetic, it employs the technique where appropriate. When used correctly, it’s a solid way to express the raging emotions of teenagers, specifically Lincoln in his world of near constant abuse and ridicule.
Added to the look, Some Kind of Hate has a great soundtrack filled with hard metal. More than that, I love the sound design and the score. There’s this ambient, haunting sound floating through certain scenes, which again amplifies into a heavier distorted noise when the stress on Lincoln gets heavier. These are excellent moves that, along with acting, help emphasize how Lincoln loses control. Composer Robert Allaire (I know him from his additional music credits on American Horror Story) does an impressive bit of work, and his score combines with the sound design to create a general air of uneasiness at so many different points. With such good sound design, score, and cinematography, Some Kind of Hate does better things than so many other indie flicks of its type.
Ronen Rubinstein and Sierra McCormick are both excellent here. Can’t say the others are all as good, but these two make up for any shortcomings the film has in the end. Rubinstein is dark and brooding, he truly captures the emotion of a person who’s been beaten down hard by the people around him, even his own family. As the time goes on, he comes out of his shell slightly, goaded by a girl who seems to understand him. There’s a totally different quality to the Lincoln character, which is great because revenge-styled films are usually starkly contrasted; here, Lincoln becomes different, but not completely. He sort of glides in his transition, eventually becoming someone a little different than he was in the beginning. Rubinstein can be loud and boisterous when needed, in those angst-y scenes, then there’s the quiet, subdued nature of Lincoln he brings out in other moments. With McCormick playing the Moira character, their chemistry is unbelievable. And the contrast between Lincoln and Moira is huge, as it turns out. At least once the plot progresses and we come further towards the end. McCormick is filled with anger, she expresses it perfectly without always having to resort to a yell or a scream, though, she certainly does give us those now and then. But it’s her emotive abilities, the way she conveys things with her eyes that give her performance more intensity. She’s able to be both coy and smug, as well as vengeful and nasty. A proper combination of talented actors in McCormick and Rubinstein. I guess Grace Phipps isn’t bad, either. Nothing compared to those two.
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Without hesitation, Some Kind of Hate gets 3&1/2 stars. There are plenty of other similarly styled horrors out there, lower budget indie flicks, which try hard and never hit the mark. Meanwhile, this film has a nice little plot, a couple solid lead actors, and then lots of nasty blood and gore. Even with the gory bits, I’ve seen much more vicious films in that regard. But this one brings it to an acceptable level, one we’d expect with a spirit coming back after her terrible suicide to take vengeance for another fellow victim of bullying. Every element here does well to create an atmospheric horror. There are times I wish the script were tighter, and others I hoped for better acting (nice to see Noah Segan in there even if in a small role; he is a treat, always!). Overall, I’ve seen much worse. It’s refreshing to see revenge switched up now and then from the cliche plotlines we expect. The supernatural stuff adds a twist that I found plenty enjoyable as a lover of horror. Check it out and give it a chance. Don’t listen to all the negatives, judge for yourself.

Secret Rural Lives: Uncle John the Protector

Uncle John. 2015. Directed by Steven Piet. Screenplay by Erik Crary & Piet.
Starring John Ashton, Alex Moffat, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Andy Cameron, Adria Dawn, Tim Decker, Don Forston, Janet Gilmme, Gary Houston Matt Kozlowski, & Ashleigh LaThrop. Uncle John Productions.
Not Rated. 113 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
Digital editing technician, cinematographer and first time director Steven Piet has really done a fascinating job with the double-plotted Uncle John – a true slow burning mystery with doses of both the thriller genre, as well as, surprisingly enough, some romance. Strangely, these two pieces of the puzzle weave together into what becomes a veritable creepy thrill ride, mysterious and murky. With high praise from one of my favourite directors, David Lynch (he says it stuck with him days after watching), this was a film I knew needed to be seen.
But not only is this a smoldering mystery-thriller with some romance mixed in, Uncle John has a psychological angle, a strange unsettling feeling almost from the beginning. Piet and cinematographer Mike Bove create a natural looking movie that has an undercurrent of tension running through every last frame. Added to that, Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta bring a beautiful score to the table, which gives certain scenes a dreamy, lighter-than-air feeling. All the pieces mould together into a near perfect pastiche of paranoia, rural life, secrets, and plenty emotion.
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In a little rural town, John (John Ashton) is a very well-liked older man whose carpentry skills are much appreciated. Except when we first meet John, he’s just killed a man named Dutch (Laurent Soucie). Dutch was a terrible, mean sort of fella. Nobody in town went untouched by his trouble. But nobody would suspect John of murdering the man. That is, nobody except for Dutch’s crazy, drunk brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins); he seems to believe John, or someone close to him, has done the deed. As time goes by, Danny becomes more and more convinced it was John, and only John.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, John’s nephew Ben (Alex Moffat), whom he raised after his mother died/father split, works at a 3D design company. He meets a co-worker named Kate (Jenna Lyng) and falls for her. Only she isn’t keen on dating co-workers.
One day, after an impromptu trip back to the country for Ben’s favourite donuts, he and Kate show up to see Uncle John. With so much going on in John’s head and around him, trying to keep out of hot water for the murder of Dutch, the trip becomes something more than any of them could’ve expected. And with Danny lurking around, it’s only a matter of time before something tragic will happen.
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The bridging of a romantic subplot with the main plot of the murder, which precipitates a thriller, is incredibly interesting. When the film starts out you imagine it’s going to take on the trappings of any other mysterious thriller. However, woven between everything is this plot involving Uncle John’s nephew, who happens to meet a lovely woman at his office and starts falling for her. This converges with John’s predicament – the murder we witness at the outset of the story – and everything becomes connected, in a violently tragic sense. Some reviews have lambasted Piet’s film as taking too long for the double plots to join up, but I found the slow build-up works incredibly well. The plots play out at a steady pace, taking their time to open up and bloom. Then finally, they merge to make things even more thrilling than before.
Particularly, I’m a fan of movies that don’t have to throw everything out at you through expository dialogue. Whereas the romance plot with Ben and Kate is fairly straightforward, the plot involving John, Dutch, their history and the murder all comes out in cryptic portions, casually through conversation everything gets revealed. Even the romantic scenes with Ben and Kate are subtle, as it isn’t the typical ‘two people immediately fall in bed together’ sort of relationship; it takes on the form of a true-to-life situation instead of the wildly unrealistic dating in so many movies. So it’s nice to see writing that isn’t so typical and cliche in that sense, plus the main chunk of the film’s mystery-thriller aspects are subdued and their impact is much more profound than if things were laid out on the table plainly.
Note: the last few minutes of the film have a wonderfully written parallel between John and the people in Kate’s family whom she describes as crazy, which is some of the best writing in any finale of any movie I’ve seen in a long time. Just so well-written that it’s undeniably awesome.
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Best of all are the actors involved. All four of the main characters we spend time with are performed to perfection. Both Alex Moffat as Ben and Jenna Lyng as Kate provide the necessary chemistry for their onscreen relationship, as they’re co-workers and friends but obviously something more will likely come out of it – even if we don’t see their complete story by the end of the film, you can imagine them developing a strong, lasting relationship together. The way they speak to one another, especially on the part of Ben who has the strongest feelings, we gain such an emotional connection to them. So much so that once things get real thrilling and tense in the final half hour everything feels massively heightened.
Furthermore, Ronnie Gene Blevins as Danny is quietly menacing, a troubled man with a paranoid mind, but really not all that paranoid – mostly, he’s a suspicious character. And rightfully so. Although, the complexities of the situation involving his brother and John make it difficult to fully side with him in any way. Blevins is a solid actor, and he was the perfect choice for the role of Danny. He brings that quiet nature to the character and it makes him more threatening, right up to the point where we realize exactly what he’s up to.
Finally, John Ashton gives a thoughtful, subdued performance as the titular John. From the first time we see him there is a nervous tension about his neck, which obviously stems from those initial scenes where he kills Dutch, gets rid of the body and so on. These quiet performances, like that of Blevins as well, they help the story and the subplots get into our head in such a visceral way. John’s pensive behaviour is extremely watchable, as his face almost emotes everything we need to know about the character. The looks off to one side where he’s running through every scenario in his head, trying to make sure he’ll make it out of suspicion, and the way he stares off at his darkened barn, Ashton draws us towards the character he plays and keeps us interested at every turn.


An absolute 5-star film. The directorial choices by Piet and the cinematography of Bove are an excellent pairing, as even in the most mundane of scenes we’re caught on their hooks, they draw us along through the motions and around the next corner it always seems as if there’ll be something devastating. So that eventually, once the devastation rears its head, the way it crashes into the viewer makes for a bigger splash. I was never entirely sure how the film would end, which is great because I kept on guessing. Even more, the guessing lingers with you, as the outcome of the events in the finale aren’t clear to us, so anything could happen in this story after the credits finish rolling. But the juxtaposition of two vastly different actions in the last 15 minutes is so heavy, so beautiful in a twisted sense, that it rocked my world. Absolutely one of the greatest films of 2015. Currently, as of this writing, it’s on Netflix Canada. Check it out while you still can, and stick with it all the way. The reward is beyond worth the time.

Indie Horror House Arrest Makes for a Dark Summer

Dark Summer. 2015. Directed by Paul Solet. Screenplay by Mike Le.
Starring Keir Gilchrist, Stella Maeve, Maestro Harrell, Grace Phipps, Dinora Walcott, and Peter Stormare. Campfire/ContentFilm International/Preferred Film & TV.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER
After the excellent little 2009 film Grace, I imagined director Paul Solet might go on to do other exciting things in the horror genre. There was a tender quality even to that nasty gem, which I found impressive. When a director can take a story that is truly horrifying and add in dashes of pure, raw emotion, it’s always a treat.
When I heard of Dark Summer, my first thought was Disturbia – the Shia LaBeouf film they actually reference early in this one. But quickly, after I got into the plot and the story started pulling me in the realization that Solet and writer Mike Le were doing something much different. Using a similar setup, with some changes of course, Le’s screenplay takes us into a much more supernatural and frightening space. Even while not everything is as good as it could be, this is a fairly solid indie horror-thriller. Particularly, I enjoy both Keir Gilchrist and Stella Maeve, who ultimately hold up a lot of the film. Add in an amazing score, the ever interesting Peter Stormare in a small supporting role, a few wild bits of horror, and Dark Summer is definitely worth a watch.
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Daniel (Keir Gilchrist) has been sentenced to house arrest over the summer. The young man evidently cyber-stalked and harassed a girl named Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps). The terms of his arrest: no visits from unaccompanied minors, no computer access or internet, the last of which are monitored by the police. Parole officer Stoke (Peter Stormare) keeps an eye on Daniel and explains how the house arrest works.
However, Daniel’s closest friends Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (Maestro Harrell) come by with a tablet so he can connect to a nearby internet source, and bring him a little weed, bit of Ambien. Later on when Daniel tries to call his mom – the reason for the tablet – Abby calls. And a minute later, Mona Wilson; with whom Daniel is not supposed to have any contact. In a terrible twist of fate, Mona shoots herself in the head on camera while Daniel watches.
As things become more and more sinister, Daniel becomes aware that perhaps his harassment of Mona was not entirely his fault. Once Abby, Kevin and Daniel dig deeper into the mystery, black magic works its way into the equation, and anything they believed before goes out the window.Pic2
Immediately I was aware of the incredible music in Dark Summer. The score swells into a pounding rhythm in certain scenes, which holds us in excitement and suspense at various points. Other moments contain a score that stays just below the exterior, pulsing with the slow and steady feel of a current taking us along for the ride. Composer Austin Wintory is prolific, even if he isn’t well known. His music spans short films, video games (including the 2012 Journey and most recently Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate), television, and of course, feature films; he worked on Solet’s previous film Grace, as well. I can’t speak for all his other titles, but the work he does with Solet is truly exceptional. If anything, you’ll enjoy the creepy, slow burning feel of his score in this movie because it perfectly compliments what Solet was attempting to do. Part of the film’s charm is, no doubt, the music; undeniable.
Some of what Solet did was frightening. For instance, the quieter and more subtle moments where Daniel wanders his empty, dark home are tense, and these contributed to that overall slow burn of the film. Not everything needs to be a jump out and scare you scene, or jump-scare imagery. Solet does include some of that. Mostly, though, he sticks with the creeping feeling of these low-key moments, and the majority of them work. The horror got better as time went by. Above all else, it’s the thriller aspect of Dark Summer which works. As we follow along with Abby, Daniel and Kevin sussing out the mystery of Mona’s suicide, there’s a lot of macabre excitement. Following along with all the steps of what we later figure out is an elaborate dark spell, this makes up for any of those brief points where Solet doesn’t hit the mark exactly with other aspects. Furthermore, I liked the makeup and special effects, as everything fit the tone and atmosphere Solet was striving to achieve.
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As I mentioned, Gilchrist and Maeve each put in terrific performances, as did Stormare in his smaller role and also Harrell.
Gilchrist is a quiet type whose brooding nature comes across easily. He fits the bill of a young man who is withdrawn, not able to outright talk to girls and impress them. At the same time, he has an emotional side that is clear once we get to know the character of Daniel. I really enjoyed Gilchrist in It Follows, and here he impressed once more. The guy is a talented actor with range, which hopefully will get him more work as time goes on. He is certainly cut out for indie films with good talent and a unique sort of look; he isn’t weird looking, but has a look that sets him apart from so many other young male actors out there today.
I found Maeve did the best job of all in this film. She has a quiet disposition, which again fits her character well, too. She and Gilchrist have proper chemistry, and that helped on two fronts: the relationship of these two characters as friends, as well as Abby’s little crush on Daniel. There is an intensity to Maeve that comes across easily without her having to throw every bit of her acting arsenal at us constantly. Sometimes an actor can give the right looks, move the right way, and generally take on the right air of attitude, which Maeve does constantly here. Her caring nature helps to bring the character of Abby closer to Daniel, then as the film’s suspense and horror become more prevalent her performance goes with the flow accordingly, her character darkens and deepens. I’d love to see her do another horror, something even more solid than this, because there is a lot behind her eyes.
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With a few missteps, I still give Paul Solet’s Dark Summer a 3.5 out of 5 star rating. There could’ve been more intense sequences, but many of them present still affect the viewer. In a few scenes, the horror jumps out at us and takes on a life of its own. Most importantly, the drama and thriller portions of the movie are incredibly solid. Within a dark story we find many moments of tenderness, either from Daniel or Abby, or both, and this makes some of the more disturbing, terrifying scenes less shocking; not that this is needed, but it puts an interesting spin on the other elements when a morbid plot has linings of beauty. Regardless, Dark Summer holds it own in enough places that I enjoyed it, and would likely watch it again down the road. I’m interested to see what Solet does in the future, as he’s already put in a segment called “The Weak and The Wicked” for Tales of Halloween this past year. He is a uniquely talented director who will, hopefully, go on to more exciting, frightening, wild projects soon enough. Check this out and if you like slow burn indie thrillers, you’ll probably find surprise in these 81 minutes.

Beasts of No Nation & the Horror of War

Beasts of No Nation. 2015. Directed & Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Andrew Adote, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Ama K. Abebrese, Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Kobina Amissah-Sam, and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. The Princess Grace Foundation/Red Crown Productions/Participant Media/Come What May Productions/Mammoth Entertainment/New Balloon.
Not Rated. 137 minutes.
Drama/War

★★★★★
POSTERCary Fukunaga is destined to be a classic director of this generation. His first feature, Sin Nombre, embraced a similar danger to the terrifying things Beasts of No Nation explores, and right away that initial debut showed both his skill as a director, as well as his impressive abilities as a writer. From there, he directed an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and later graced HBO (and us) with one of the greatest debuts of any television series in True Detective alongside the acting talents of many including Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Now, Beasts of No Nation comes to us, amazingly as the first full-length feature from Netflix. And it is every bit what I expected.
Fukunaga – perhaps due to his father being born in an American camp where the Japanese were held after the Imperial Japan bombing of Pearl Harbour – has a soft spot, so to speak, for stories concerning children, the young, and generally anyone drawn into the internal conflicts of where they live. Even in True Detective, the less obvious of his work in this respect, there are many instances of people torn apart by the changes in New Orleans. Of course there’s Sin Nombre, which tracks two young people mired in the world of MS-13 and all its death, gang violence, drugs and more. In Beasts of No Nation we watch an even sadder tale, if that’s actually possible. Here we have the story of a young boy indoctrinated into a rebel army while trying to survive in the African wilderness, all after his father and others are unfairly executed by a group of military men. With the adapted screenplay by Fukunaga carrying tons of emotional weight and tons of questions about morality, how we view child soldiers and the nations which produce them, as well as the acting talent of young Abraham Attah and a powerhouse performance from Idris Elba, this is one gripping and ultimately brutal look at the desperate lives which some are forced to live in this world.
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The debilitating wars of Africa come to us quickly, as the character of Agu (Abraham Attah) is thrust into it. His father and others are executed in his village, but Agu gets away. He runs into the wilderness and crawls through the forest, feeding off what he can, even getting sick at times because of not knowing which plants to eat or not. Struggling on his own, Agu comes across the NDF – a rising rebel army in the African jungle. Running this faction is a man known only as Commandant (Idris Elba). He takes the young boy under his wing almost immediately. But soon, we discover it is not of the goodness in his heart. He recruits child soldiers, those who must survive and will do anything for their chance to do so.
Not long after Commandant takes Agu in, the man asks the boy to initiate himself into the NDF. His task: kill a man with a machete. After he does, Agu is changed. Completely. To his core now he has become someone else. Though he knows murder is “the worst thing“, Agu is unable to turn and run.
For the time being, the boy must survive the war. By any means necessary.
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For the entire film I found myself thinking: how is Abraham Attah this god damn good? Honestly, I love to experience a great performance from a child. There are a ton of amazing young actors out there who put in solid performances, which continually surprises me because especially when they’re very young it’s impressive they can even reach the depth needed to play certain characters. Such is the case with Attah here. There’s an aged quality to his eyes, to the way which he delivers lines: “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.” Scene after scene, revving up in the last hour, Attah shows us the range he can attain. There are subtle moments, many of them, where the character of Agu and his pain comes through. Others, the youthful childishness still inside him is very evident. Yet all the time you’re aware that this young boy is acting circles around some of the adult performances in 2015. Attah truly blew me away with this role and I do hope he’ll continue to take roles as tough and as intense as this one down the road. He deserves to be a star.
Then there is Idris Elba. He has always interested me because of his quiet nature. Even in roles where he’s required to be loud and brash at times, there’s some sly quality about his performances which always stick out. From Stringer Bell to the titular character of the Luther series, I’m more often than not sucked into the world of a film or television series by his acting. As Commandant, in this film Elba brings out a monster of a man. There are several very excitable and near deafening moments where he shows Commandant as a vicious, brutal and inexplicable type of individual. We also find Elba capable of extremely low-key, subtle scenes which express how vile and morally corrupt Commandant is, without having to resort to anything too graphic or explicit; for instance, there is a dark and quiet scene between Commandant and Agu a little past the hour mark where we finally see how despicably sick the man is, and it doesn’t require anything overtly nasty, still getting its point across with force. Part of the impact isn’t only from Fukunaga’s cinematography and the editing from Pete Beaudreau/Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, it comes from the way Elba talks, the way his eyes move under the slight darkness, how he moves slow and steady. He is worthy of every bit of praise that comes his way.
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A full-on 5-star experience. Some were supposedly disappointed with the ending, as if it weren’t dramatic or exciting enough. But why must it be either of those things? Beasts of No Nation is about the perpetual cycle of abuse, rape, violence and war which African countries are facing on a daily basis in certain areas. The ending only goes to show that while there are glimmers of hope now and then, the wars rage on, the children are forever thrust into a warring life from day one and it’s only luck which ones end up holding an Ak-47 with a machete, and which ones either die or somehow escape.
Agu and Commandant represent two sides of one situation – the former is the child soldier brought into a way of life by older and more cynical men, the latter a molder of boys who turns them into killing machines in order to further his own cause and line his own pockets. This story is one of devastation and of a viciousness many of us will never ever know. I left the film changed slightly, seeing the conflicting view of child soldiers through the eyes of the character Agu, and I also felt the emotional weight of what these boys go through lie heavy on my chest for days. It isn’t easy to ignore how powerful Beasts of No Nation can get. This boasts excellent cinematography, direction and a tight screenplay from Cary Fukunaga, plus a solid and exciting score by Dan Romer, as well as the foundational performances of Attah and Elba, which comes together to make one of the best feature films out of 2015. Hands down.

The Hateful Eight: Tarantino & Race Relations in America

The Hateful Eight. 2015. Directed & Written by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoë Bell, and Gene Jones. The Weinstein Company.
Rated 18A. 187 minutes.
Comedy/Drama/Mystery

★★★★★
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For me, when I first got interested in film Quentin Tarantino was sort of the guy whose movies everyone talked about. Pulp Fiction was out a couple years before I saw it, then I went back to watch Reservoir Dogs, which blew me away almost even more. Later on I came to love Jackie Brown most of all his work. But Tarantino continually pumps out solid movies, his writing is consistently interesting and full of his charisma. And you can give me all the “Tarantino steals” nonsense you want, ain’t gonna change my mind, gals and goons! Heard it all before. To me, Quentin is the ultimate film lover. Someone I understand. As a fellow cinephile, I see him as a master of the homage and a connoisseur of the world of movies.
The Hateful Eight sees him a little ways down the road from the world of Django Unchained, directing a film filled with exciting Western charm and boasting an interesting ensemble cast with standout performances by Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve seen plenty of other reviews with their nitpicks, their bore with Tarantino’s style. Not me. I loved it. Let me tell you why.
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As a white man, I can’t tell you how it feels for black men and women to watch this or Django Unchained. The word ‘nigger’ only gets used about half as much in this film as it does in Django, but god damn if it isn’t a lot. Now, at the same time, this is set in an era just after the end of the American Civil War; a bloody, heated time in U.S. history. Naturally, there were many, many people out there dropping that word on black people ALL THE TIME. I’m not saying it has to be like that on film, but isn’t a huge part of the story about Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and his feelings about being black in a hellish white world? Come to think of it, isn’t a blizzard such a great metaphor for the type of white trouble at which Marquis finds himself the center? So naturally in an honest, brutal film tackling some racist issues, we’re going to hear the word. Again, I can’t possibly understand how it is for black people when they watch this.
My feeling is this – without spoiling anything for those who’ve yet to see it, The Hateful Eight wraps mystery around a main plot, while we also end up with Major Marquis getting trapped at Minnie’s Haberdashery with guys like Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an avowed racist who served in his father’s small but hateful troops, and also the older much more sternly racist former Confederate General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern). So a good portion of what happens has to do with Warren and his confrontation with these racists in such close quarters. In fact, we find out Warren and Sanders fought at a battle in Baton Rouge, so it’s almost more intimate with them stuck in a cabin during a raging blizzard than they ever got on the battlefield. I understand it can’t be easy for anyone black to hear the word ‘nigger’.
Although, here’s to hoping bits of Major Marquis and his story help to patch those wounds. He is a great character, a strong, intelligent black man in a vicious time. Jackson plays him to perfection, which is no surprise. A role clearly written with him in mind, but in the best way possible. Lots of typical Samuel L., and at the same time there are extremely subtle moments where his small gestures and pensive attitude make things interesting, as well as tense. Great character, great performance.
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Speaking of performances, both Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh complete an excellent triple threat of actors at the forefront of The Hateful Eight. Leigh is one of the few women in the movie, but is in the middle of every last portion. Her character is wild, outspoken, she is a woman in a man’s world. Not only is she feisty, she’s tough as hell. Daisy Domergue, Leigh’s character, takes a beating from start to finish, in so many ways. Brutal at times to see a woman receive such violence; then again, Daisy happens to be a murderer. Either way, Leigh was the perfect fit for this role. A mixture of genuine crazy, humour, and plenty of strength.
Perhaps my favourite in the film, even above the amazing performances of Jackson and Leigh, is Kurt Russell as John “The Hangman” Ruth. Everything from his miraculously beautiful facial hair, fitting in with the period piece, to the delivery of his lines, his screen presence. He fills the frame, even when he’s only taking up a third of it. Russell’s a solid actor who brings his talents to The Hateful Eight, in a role that could’ve easily been played by others. Though, no one else would have brought what Russell did. The Hangman is a fun character, he’s a laugh at times, but don’t fuck with him. Russell and Leigh have incredible chemistry, plus he and Jackson do, too.
As an ensemble you’d be hard pressed to find many films rivaling the performance in this one. Tarantino usually brings together an interesting collective on each of his productions. This may be favourite, honestly. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demián Bichir who was lots of fun. Above anyone else, I have to say Walton Goggins knocks the character of Mannix out the park. I’ve loved him since The Shield. Here, he takes his career to another level. Difficult character to tackle, but when he and Samuel L. Jackson share the screen at various points it is true gold. Great casting, even better performance from Goggins whose abilities are on display over and over here.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

The look of the film is magnificent. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has done a TON of amazing work, from Oliver Stone’s Salvador and Platoon, as well as Natural Born Killers and the criminally under appreciated Nixon, the fascinatingly weird U Turn to work with Scorsese on Casino and Bringing Out the Dead and later The AviatorShutter Island and Hugo. He’s worked with Tarantino already on Kill Bill and Django Unchained.
Richardson brings his brilliant eye to The Hateful Eight making the Wyoming winter come to us in vivid white, the stark mountains sitting among it all, capturing the characters and the stagecoach at the start with such a raw beauty. Then after Tarantino’s tight screenplay moves into the cabin of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the way Richardson brings to life the spirit of the Western all while staying within those four walls, rarely stepping back outside at all, it’s genuine cinematic magic. Love the way everything looks and feels.
Add to that Ennio Morricone’s score, and things become classic. There is plenty of that good old Western feel we expect to come from Morricone, then there are bits and pieces of other scores he’s done – for instance, parts from Exorcist II are dropped in, as well as unused score Morricone did for John Carpenter’s The Thing (which Tarantino admittedly modeled this film after). Even further, Morricone gives us these foreboding pieces that rock us, right from the beginning as the stagecoach toughs through the Wyoming wilderness, a half snow covered Jesus on the cross at the fore of the shot, right in our faces. Plenty of great moments where Morricone’s music lifts Tarantino to that otherworldly place many classic Westerns now exist.
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A 5-star film. At three hours and seven minutes, The Hateful Eight was fun from beginning to end. There were parts I expected, which were still great, and others I did not expect, even greater. Quentin Tarantino brings to life a universe he similarly existed in with his last film, only this time a little past the Civil War and the end of slavery. Though, as we see and know already slavery was almost only the beginning of America’s race issues and thoroughly awful problems. With a bunch of stellar performances, the characters of Tarantino come alive in their own ways, each with their particular quirks and personalities. Further than that, the way this story ends up is surprising, and extremely enjoyable. With all the talk of race in the U.S. today, especially with a rash of terrible killings by the police in America this past year or more, The Hateful Eight may or may not have things to say; you’ll have to ask a smarter, more qualified person than myself, an African American man or woman who knows what it’s like to be black in America, as Major Marquis does.
Nevertheless, I loved this movie. I’ll see it again, maybe in theatre. Definitely snatching this up on Blu ray when it’s released, adding to my complete collection of Tarantino directed and written films. See it on the big screen – the visuals and the sound are out of this world.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens & a Return to Form

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 2015. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay by Abrams/Michael Arndt/Lawrence Kasdan.
Starring Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max Von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, and Mark Hamill. Lucasfilm Ltd./Bad Robot/Truenorth Productions. Rated PG. 135 minutes.
Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Sci-Fi

★★★★★

I’ve always been a big Star Wars fan. The originals, Episodes IV-VI obviously are the ones I love. Not going to waste time hating the others, there were some good ideas, but mostly it was a failure, all three; other than acting and some of the writing, in terms of plot, everything else was dismal, to me anyways. But A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and yes Return of the Jedi though it’s not as great as the other two, they’re amazingly solid works of cinema. With bits of everything from action to fantasy bred with science fiction, George Lucas really had something going in that initial trilogy. Obviously. If not, we’d never make it to this moment.
Three decades since Return of the Jedi, finally one of the greatest franchises to ever grace the screen comes back. J.J. Abrams, of whom I’m personally a fan and have been since Lost, along with the help of many others including Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back+ a bunch of other awesome things), an amazing crew including the young stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, the returning John Williams with iconic and new music, as well as people like cinematographer Daniel Mindel (whose credits as D.P. include Enemy of the StateThe Skeleton KeyMI:III, & Abrams’ Star Trek 2009 reboot) and a boat load of special effects wizards to long to name individually.
Did they deliver? I’m inclined to believe they did, and then some. Seeing The Force Awakens brought me back to being a kid and seeing the original three films. Only thirty, but I’ve been an avid film fan since an early age, so it’s probably been 22 years since I first watched them. Well sitting in the theatre – which for a cinephile I actually hate because of my anxiety – watching this movie in 3D – another thing I’m not huge on – I was beyond blown away. The effects, the dialogue, the blend of fun new things and a healthy dose of tribute to the old, it all made the wait worth it. Maybe others feel differently, I’m positive they do. But me? I could’ve sat down and watched The Force Awakens a second time, back-to-back.
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I don’t personally want to spoil anything, so I’ll only say a little about the plot. Little as possible, spoiler-free.
Initially, I went in sceptical about this film. Excited as anyone, I worried the writers might not use this opportunity to introduce some new blood into the plot and overall story of the Star Wars universe. Episodes I-III had good stories, or good bits of story in them at least, but it felt there was too much rattling around; parts that should’ve been added were there, alongside others things that felt disconnected with Episodes IV-VI. But Lawrence Kasdan came back to help Abrams and Michael Arndt craft a script that felt organic coming out of the three originally released films. For instance, I thought Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was an amazing character. The story behind him, which I won’t reveal obviously, is very intriguing. We get lots about his backstory, though, it doesn’t come through a ton of exposition right away. Slowly we piece together bits and pieces. Driver makes Ren a foreboding presence in almost every single scene in which he’s captured. Then there’s Rey (Daisy Ridley): an excellent addition. Not only is she a solid female character, she’s just solid all around. The whole introduction her character was great fun and immediately I knew I’d like her. More than that, Rey and Finn (John Boyega) had good chemistry. NOTE: some reviews, albeit amateur ones, claim there’s a forced romantic angle in this film, but certainly not between Rey and Finn; while it may be hinted at slightly, there’s nothing overt. Mostly they seem like friends, bound together because of life threatening circumstances.
Not only the leads are incredible. Domhnall Gleeson does a fine job with his brief scenes as General Hux. Under cover of CGI and motion capture, as usual, Andy Serkis was killer as Supreme Leader Snoke, whose menace and intimidating features + stature are impressive. And there are more; lots of tight roles played even tighter by the actors. Oscar Isaac is another classic, a talented actor who brings his talents to this film with a solid performance.
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Even more than that, the aesthetic of the original movies wasn’t present in the prequels, which is what hurt them in part. Here, The Force Awakens preserves some of the gritty, grimy feel of A New Hope/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi. The special effects are beyond impressive: I saw it in 3D, and I don’t even like 3D, yet it made everything that much more wild. But it’s the way things look dirty and worn: the design of the sets especially on Jakku and then later in the big place where Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) lives, and so on. Even the Millenium Falcon – it was fairly rough back in Episodes IV, V, and VI, so here they made it even better, more rundown and dusty, rusty, et cetera. This just connects the films more closely, it doesn’t put a big disparity between the look and feel of the three episodes right before it. Part of why I didn’t like the prequels is the look – I know that things on other planets are different, yadda yadda, and then all the destruction the Empire brought upon so many different places, but the look of the first three episodes ended up feeling SO FAR from where we pick up in A New Hope, that it all throws me off. I understand there’s reasoning for it, I just find the whole aesthetic problem troubling. With a massive team, Abrams makes The Force Awakens feel like “coming home”, as a friend of mine said after seeing it twice.


Without spoiling any plot, the big shock nearing the end was incredible. Fits perfect into the story. Not just that, the entire world of the characters is shaken up. Some say they saw it coming. Others were pissed about it. But why? I saw it coming a little while before the event in question happened, and still found it powerful. Everyone in my theatre, including myself and my partner, sort of gasped. Very good move.
Aside from the big things, I thought Rey and Finn coming together randomly, with BB-8 at the center of it all, was lots of fun. It gave things action and adventure from the start. In the opening Stormtroopers sequence, including Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the ever epic Max Von Sydow, John Boyega did so well with his character. Even underneath all the Stormtrooper gear. But the shots of the troopers together on their way down to the planet, the white helmets and the bits of black here and there rocking from side to side, then the KICKER which gets things moving fast plot-wise: a perfect way to begin the film. From there, Rey and Finn end up in the same place eventually making things very action oriented. And later the return of Han Solo and Chewbacca brings more adventure their way. In fact, the combination of these four is something to behold. A ton of chemistry, lots of wit. To say anything further would do an injustice to anyone reading, and the film itself. See it.
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All in all, I have to give Star Wars: The Force Awakens a 5-star rating. Not a moment went by I wasn’t fixated on the screen. It even made me love the whole thing in 3D, that’s saying something. But above all else, I found the writing fun, exciting, and it brought the new together with the old, fusing them in the right places. Plus, it also sets things up nicely for Episode VIII from Rian Johnson, which I am looking forward to like you wouldn’t believe.
Here, you’ll find lots of action, tons of adventure, and that wonderful fantasy/science fiction hybrid the Star Wars universe provides. Maybe you can pick apart bits and pieces. Me, I dig every last frame, every bit of dialogue. I’m not even the most hardcore fan out there, not by a long shot. Yet this new film does justice to the originals. It also carves out a new niche for talented directors of this day and age to explore territory so many of them grew up admiring, daydreaming in and imagining themselves as characters in. Abrams did a great job in my mind and I think he should walk away satisfied with his contribution. Get out and watch this in the theatre because it’s a truly special experience, a one in a lifetime thing. Plus, you’ll probably have a ridiuclous amount of fun.

Keanu Takes the Brunt for All Men in Knock Knock

Knock Knock. 2015. Directed by Eli Roth. Screenplay by Guillermo Amoedo/Nicolás López/Eli Roth; based on the 1977 film Death Game, story by Anthony Overman & Michael Ronald Ross.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns, and Colleen Camp. Black Bear Pictures/Camp Grey/Dragonfly Entertainment/Elevated Films/Sobras International Pictures. Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★
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I’ve been a fan of Eli Roth ever since Cabin Fever. Say what you want about that movie, it’s a fun little modern horror; not for everyone, but it isn’t bad. Not in my mind, anyways. Then when Roth came out with Hostel, the game changed and I realized his brand of horror was the shocking sort – yet not for shock’s sake, rather it engages you viscerally to a point, mostly, where you find yourself immersed in the experiences of the characters. Every one of his feature films I’ve enjoyed so far – waiting patiently in my little nook of Easter Canada to see The Green Inferno – and even more so, I think Roth has great talent as a producer, having helped films like The Last ExorcismAftershockThe Sacrament, as well as most recently The Stranger and Clown each of which were pretty fun indie horror movies.
With his latest, Knock Knock, Roth takes the 1977 horror Death Game from director Peter S. Traynor and modernizes things slightly, giving our latest generation (of which I’m near the tail end) a home invasion film with plenty of sharp teeth and even one sassy, satirical tongue.
15347-2-1100There are plenty of differing opinions on Keanu Reeves and his merit as an actor. Honestly, from a completely personal point of view, I’ve always loved him. Partly that stems from my childhood love of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure/Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. But seriously, River’s EdgePoint Break (it’s not a great film but a solid action effort), My Own Private Idaho, these alone impress me enough to say Reeves is a quality actor when given the right material; then there’s The Matrix, to which I’d argue I honestly don’t know if anyone else could’ve done Neo in the cool, at times disaffected, and slick way Reeves pulled it off.
But right from the beginning of Knock Knock, I found myself drawn into his character, Evan Webber. In particular, the relationship between Evan and his wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand) feels so natural, very real. The way they acted with the kids, their little moments together alone, it was all great writing fused with proper acting from Allamand and Reeves.
Then once the girls show up, things get super interesting. At first I didn’t get into their performances, honestly. After a little while, Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas began to impress me, bit by bit. They really keep things feeling off-kilter, in a truly proper way. Both of them are creepy almost from the get go, though, subtly, not at all in an outright sense. Furthermore, the chemistry with Reeves and the girls is electrifying in certain scenes – the way his thumb shakes, hovering around his phone as he nervously checks to see how close the Uber ride is to the house, it’s just about perfect. Lots of good stuff in the little gestures.
knock-knock-keanu-reevesUltimately, Evan Webber brings dangerous and the unpredictable into his life. He could have thrown those girls out of his house once they started coming onto him. He could have walked away. So, in the end, Evan doesn’t deserve the extent of what comes to pass, however, he absolutely could have made sure he didn’t end up in the situation he did. When he wakes up into the madness of his infidelity’s aftermath, there’s part of me that feels bad because you can see, immediately, his regret is vicious. At the same time, most of me says “fuck him”.
And this is part of why Knock Knock is interesting and unnerving. Roth places us in the uncomfortable position of hating what Evan has done to his wife and family by cheating, while also not being able to reconcile his stupid act of infidelity with what these two girls inflict upon him. Things get even worse when the girls reveal they’re underage, threatening Evan with revealing his statutory rape; sure, he didn’t know, but Mr. Webber also made no attempt to stop what was happening, not knowing these girls, not knowing how old they were, what kind of people they are, et cetera. One reason I do enjoy this movie is because Roth plays with us, much like how the girls play with Evan.

sundance_knockknock2The film takes it turn from erotic thriller to dark horror once Evan drops the girls off and they eventually make their way back to his place, sneaking in, then knocking him out. I found the following scene immediately brings a sneaky, creepy factor, more than any point before, with Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) sitting at the vanity putting on dark makeup around her eyes while Evan struggles tied up on the bed in the background. Things get rottenly disturbing, in such a perfect way, after this point. Bel (Ana de Armas) strolls in and psychologically tortures Evan, wearing his daughter’s schoolgirl uniform, her panties, and calling him Daddy. It’s so perverse, so unnerving, it works wonders. All the while Genesis is still in the background, trying on makeup and jewelry, writing on Evan’s wife’s vanity mirror with lipstick (aptly she prints “It was not a dream!“). This entire sequence is great, it destabilizes the viewer and takes us into scary territory. One of my favourite small moments is when Genesis walks through the dark hallway, running her finger along the wall and slightly tipping the pictures, they swing back and forth a little and she walks on; something weirdly chilling about this brief shot.
knock.knock_.sundance.inside1Genesis: “How many family men have survived this game?
Evan: “None
Genesis: “What was that?
Evan: “None
Genesis: “Correct!
MruB_There’s not as much outright bloody and gore as you might expect for an Eli Roth horror film. While the disturbing, nerve wracking aspect of Knock Knock is almost perpetually present from the moment Bel and Genesis show up to the finale, there isn’t a ton of that Roth nastiness.
Although, I did find SPOILER ALERT how poor Louis (Aaron Burns) went out/how the girls papier-mâchéd his corpse was pretty raw! I’m not saying there isn’t any of that archetypal Roth style here, there certainly is. I’m just surprised. I honestly thought this would be another full-on bloodfest. Even during the finale, with all the psychological horror mixed with a few bits of very physical violence, I expected gore to start pouring out, and still Roth restrained himself from devolving into that sort of horror. Instead, I feel like the psychosexual nature of the plot, all the terrorizing of Evan, it made things more devastating than if Roth and his fellow writers had gone for something more vile, more “torture porn” (boy do I hate that label but it works). Because again, in the end, I didn’t want to see Evan be killed or even tortured. As much as what he did was wrong, his infidelity is awful, there’s still that part of me, of us hopefully, which does not want to condemn him to death; his situation is murky, full of all sorts of twisty, turning, messy bits.
Death, though? I don’t believe, despite all his flaws, his terrible mistakes, that’s the most fitting punishment. Having his infidelity revealed, even having him arrested and his wife leaving him, taking the family, et cetera – those are are appropriate. But death, no. In the process of Knock Knock, I think the film will reveal the sickness in the viewer: did you want him to die for cheating on his wife with two underage girls, or were you conflicted yet didn’t want to see Evan murdered? Very telling film, which dives into many aspects including how we as an audience judge the characters and their decisions within a filmic space.
I won’t reveal the revelations in the last ten minutes. Some of what I’ve said will change with those pieces, some won’t all the same. Find out for yourself and let me know what you think/feel!
maxresdefaultAll in all, I’m giving Eli Roth’s latest psychological horror-thriller a 4 out of 5 stars. This is a heavy, brutal piece of cinema, which is a remake of Death Game and also its own film. There’s something different about this movie than the other horror movies Roth has done. Bits of Knock Knock are straight up erotic thriller, while so much of the rest is downright disturbing horror. Most of all, Roth taps deep, far into extremely uncomfortable aspects of humanity, from sexuality to infidelity to the judgement we place on others before knowing all the facts, and more. The ending works so incredibly well, the last lines are perfection, and I can’t imagine this finishing in any other way.
My verdict is that Knock Knock is well crafted, it subverts expectations wildly despite other reviews and online comments telling you the movie follows a formulaic technique used by other horror-thrillers; it certainly does not. A few times I found myself genuinely surprised. Check this out for a good dose of steamy thriller and lots of psychological horror, terror, and straight up madness!

Cooties: It’s Okay to Kill the Children

Cooties. 2015. Directed by Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan.
Starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, and Armani Jackson. Glacier Films/SpectreVision.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Action/Comedy/Horror

★★★★
2490326_bigOfficially out now on iTunes, Cooties was announced a little over two years ago. I remember seeing the premise alone and thinking this would be, at the very least, a bit of a good laugh. Admittedly, I’m not actually huge on horror-comedies. Funny that I love comedy and I am way in love with horror, yet the combination of both isn’t something that immediately appeals to me.
That being said, there are definitely instances of horror-comedy I’ve loved. Like Shaun of the Dead, which is almost the pinnacle to me of the sub-genre. There’s also Dead Alive, Gremlins, pieces of An American Werewolf in London are definitely full of comedy, Return of the Living Dead, House (a favourite of mine), and many more.
Cooties isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best horror-comedy films to come out in awhile. There are lots of good laughs, solidly executed horror, and a pretty excellent script. This movie never takes itself too seriously; not to a fault, but enough to make it feel genuine. Some good performances help the whole film succeed, even in its slower moments. Rainn Wilson, of whom I’m not a fan, actually is pretty awesome. Not just him: Elijah Wood is great, Alison Pill cracked me up almost constantly, Nasim Pedrad played such an amazingly satirical character and proves she’s a real good comedian, and even the other much smaller roles had me in stitches.
But it’s the horror I love – the sweet, sweet horror.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.25.24 PMThe opening sequence of the film is pretty spooky, as well as nasty. Like churn your stomach nasty. Tainted nuggets… need I say more?
After this opener, Cooties shifts into comedy/dark comedy mode for a little portion. Which works extremely well. From a screenplay by Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell, the comedy is genuine. It’s not awkward comedy, as some might expect seeing Rainn Wilson, however, it isn’t at all. There are some hilarious moments, especially from Elijah Wood whose character has a boyish charm while carrying the weight of the adult world on his shoulders; a writer trying hard to be whats he wants, stuck teaching when he’d rather be writing a novel as he says he is.
Still, things get intense fairly quick once the horror rears its fierce head. What I love is that the movie is only an hour and a half, not even, so the plot kicks in and runs wild without enough preamble to numb you. For a horror-comedy, this is an efficient technique and certainly made me enjoy Cooties even more than I might normally enjoy other movies in the sub-genre.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.17 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.35 PMKiller kid movies always freak me out. Something about the innocence of children combined with evil – and in this case an illness/virus – really just gets to me, in an awfully heavy way.
The kids in Cooties are creepy. Plain and simple. One of the first intense scenes is when Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson) finds himself trapped on the basketball court, surrounded by a bunch of the kids; they’re hissing, snarling, growls and blood and pus come out of them.
Something I enjoy about the killer kid sub-genre is how it subverts how we feel about children. You don’t feel any fear from them. When you see a kid, as an adult, there’s nothing threatening about them. Even when it comes to really messed up kids who might talk a good tough game, worst comes to worst you can pick a kid up and throw them if necessary. However, when the evil aspect comes into play – in film – there’s something in that subversion, something about how the children suddenly become threatening, which unsettles me at the core. It’s the innocence coming back into play, in a very sinister sense.
Even more so, Cooties pits school teachers against the kids they’re meant to be teaching, caring for, moulding into responsible young adults. There’s something even more wrenching about seeing these educators forced to kill the ones they’ve protected so long, similar to zombie films where we see parents have to kill their children or children forced to kill their parents. Something about this whole idea eats away at me. And even though there’s plenty of comedy peppered in throughout, I think there’s an absolutely relentless sense of dread happening from start to finish which never ever lets go.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.47 PMWhat I enjoy so much about this movie is the fact it balances so well the aspects of horror and comedy. This is the strength of any solid horror-comedy, if they can find a balance somehow that ultimately works equally on both fronts. What I found worked, for me, is that Cooties teeters back and forth between riotous moments and nasty horror. I mean, there’s a genuine dose of R-rated horror here a lot of other filmmakers would be too afraid to include in their own films.
When Johnson (Wilson) kills the first kid with a fire extinguisher, I knew it was coming but there’s still an effective scare in that moment. Particularly I love the makeup special effects, the blood spray all over Johnson and the wall behind him, speckled red dots everywhere. A true horror scene. Often times there’s a comedic aspect to kills in horror-comedy; this is not one of those kills. In the midst of the comedy comes a brutal, vicious scene. Not only that, the weight is evident on the character of Wade Johnson, as he sorts of loses his fun loving attitude afterwards and takes a bit of time alone.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.27.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.00 PMThe cinematography all around is pretty awesome. There’s a genuine atmosphere from start to finish, which sort of evolves from section to section. Lyle Vincent is the one responsible for the camerawork here – he also did 2012’s Devoured, a decent little indie horror with some teeth, and also the downright fantastic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (you can see a marquee poster for this movie at around the 1 hour 17 minute mark, or a little after, as the survivors pass a theatre). So knowing those two pieces – liking the latter more than the former – it’s no surprise Vincent is able to give Cooties an interesting look and feel. At the start, even in the creepy/nauseating opening sequence, there’s this real bright, shiny type of aesthetic happening – this leads through a bit to when the darkness comes into play. Following the “turn” of the children, a more gritty yet still colourful scheme begins. The vividness of colour persists, only darker now, along with the shadowy halls of the school, lit here and there with neon Exit signs, and the dull, sickly makeup of the kids, bloody and diseased looking. Tons of great visual stuff happening in terms of how the cinematography is both bright and gritty.
Also, there’s a rocking score from Kreng (Pepijn Caudron) – lots of cool electronic stuff happening. Unlike many modern horror movies trying to evoke a retro 1980s style soundtrack, I found this goes for the electronic sound while not necessarily trying to riff off the ’80s particularly. It might have that type of vibe, but for me it’s not the typical modern horror score. Helps the different aspects of Cooties become more intense, along with Vincent’s cinematography, whether it be the action-horror scenes near the end or the plain creepy horror moments throughout. A great horror score, definitely a bit different than some of the other stuff as of late from the indie horror scene.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.24 PMI have to mention one of my favourite scenes. It’s very close to the end, so without spoiling anything, the group of teachers trying to fend off all the infected/zombie children wander into a sort of McDonalds PlayPlace type of building. They find the PlayPlace itself, a massive jungle gym full of infected kids, frothing at the mouth, hissing and screaming, laughing like maniacs. The part I love is the lead-up, where first the group comes inside and the dark closes everything in, the flashlights give us enough to see bright party decorations, half eaten cake and nuggets; there’s this eerie quality to the scene I found incredible. Then when the lights go up, a neon multicoloured disco light ball turns, there’s this WHOA second where you can’t get over how wildly creepy the scene has become.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.47 PMWith a decent ending, that doesn’t try to wrap things up cleanly and to a precise point, I think Cooties overall gets a 4 out of 5 star rating. I loved the excellent mix of horror (good dose of blood/gore) and comedy. Plenty of good laughs, but horror wins out above anything else. There’s a lot of great intense kid-centric horror. This doesn’t shy away from showing any kids infected, bleeding, or straight up being killed. Though it isn’t malicious in the sense of useless violence. Mostly, as I said before, the subversion of the roles of the teachers in this film really makes things interesting, and horrific at various times for both the audience and the characters.
This is out now via iTunes, so get a copy! Maybe not everyone will love it like I did, but as someone not often drawn into horror-comedies, I’d at least suggest you give it a try.

Beauty in the Breakdown: Alex Ross Perry’s Perfectly Uncomfortable Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth. 2015. Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Washington Square Films.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
queen_of_earth_ver2_xlgOpening with such a tightly framed shot of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, Alex Ross Perry completely submerges us immediately into her world. Not to mention she’s in an absolute state of disarray and her temper is flaring, her makeup smeared and running. There are plenty of tight close-ups on Catherine moving on through the film, but it’s this almost shocking, jarring opener of her face, in our face, vulnerable and weeping, angry, emotional, which sets the tone of the film. Furthermore, I love how Perry has the title card come up in a hot pink colouring, as it sort of gives things an interesting little twist – as if everything’s fine on top, the pink like the makeup, yet underneath things are wrecked. A nice start to an oddly beautiful film.
From there, Queen of Earth descends into a spiral of broken friendship, jealousy, treacherous relationships, and a general atmosphere of dread and madness. For a movie that isn’t horror, it’s awfully scary. A lot of filmgoers seem to see this is as partly a comedy, though, for the life of me I cannot figure that one out. There’s nothing funny to me here. Not even in the darkly comic sense, which is the type of comedy I personally love most. Mostly this is full of terrifying reality, perched upon two vastly different but equally impressive performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Above all else Perry crafted an excellent and classic style thriller out of a mess of emotions and psychological torment.
10293697.0A big problem I have is that I see so many people online bashing this movie because, supposedly, nothing happens. First of all, it troubles me how many of these same people also admitted they’d pirated it. So right away, I honestly have no regard for that opinion; you stole it, didn’t enjoy it, well fuck off. Honestly, if you can’t shell out a couple bucks to watch a movie online as opposed to going to theatre, which yes is damn expensive these days, well why should I care what your opinion is? It’s the same as if you start to heed the opinions of people who don’t actually pay to go to art galleries but rather they look at Polaroids of the artwork and then critique it. Regardless of what you thought about this film, a lot of people worked on it, just as you work at your job, and then people go ahead and pirate that hard work, giving nothing back, what does that say? It’s sad, whatever it says.
Secondly, I have to say that it’s fine if you don’t dig this type of film – the quiet, slow burning style that’s more focused on dialogue and character than action, whether big or small. Queen of Earth is more like a play, as we’re focused mainly on two characters – a couple others sort of in the wings in smaller supporting roles – and the bulk of the plot takes place in a single claustrophobic type of location. That’s part of what I love, as those who say “nothing happens” are SO WRONG. You really think nothing at all happens? Maybe you didn’t listen to all the fascinating dialogue between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, or did you miss all the palpable tension going on during scenes with Moss and Patrick Fugit? I don’t know. Might do well with seeing the film again. Because for me, a ton happens in this movie and the plot pops right out of the frame, grips ahold of your neck, and refuses to let go until the very last shot. A movie doesn’t have to have a ton of action – by action, I don’t solely mean car crashes and explosions, I mean action as in big sequences – and I think Alex Ross Perry knows that, more than well. I’ve not actually seen any of his other films, but now I’m determined to go back and watch them. They’re surely not all like this, as there’s a genuine air of old school psychological thriller throughout Queen of Earth, but it’s obvious in this one film alone he knows how to focus in on character, as well as relationships between characters, and how to draw out the tension in normal, everyday type situations; so much of that happens here from beginning to end.
IMG_1976I’ll get to Elisabeth Moss and her performance as Catherine afterwards. I’d like to talk about Virginia to begin; the character wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston. While clearly, painfully obvious that Catherine has some deep issues, it seems to me certain filmgoers are ignoring altogether how damaged Virginia is in her own right. Starting out early on, within the first 15 minutes, there’s a flashback scene between Virginia and Catherine, the latter with her saccharinely sweet boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) around – they talk about codependency, needing the other person in a relationship and what would happen if there was a breakup, et cetera. This is very telling. What we come to see is that not only does Catherine seem to be highly codependent
One way we can see the already glaringly obvious parallel in the situations of Catherine and Virginia is the boyfriends. Though the Kentucker Audley and Patrick Fugit characters are vastly different, the obviousness lies in the women themselves. They’re like a figurative tennis match, each of them batting the ball with equal force, mirroring the charge of the other. For instance, at the beginning we see James (Audley) calling Virginia ‘Ginny’, which she continually says is what close friends call her and advises him not to; not long after, James again calls her Ginny, she once more chastises him for it. A year later, once the situations have been reversed, Rich (Fugit) does the exact same thing to Catherine that James did – he calls her ‘Kay’, over and over despite the fact she tells him not to. What’s most interesting is that it’s not something initiated by either of the women, it’s something springing organically from these people, as if Catherine and Virginia are somehow willing it out of the universe.
Or is it? I also wonder if Virginia provoked Rich into taunting Catherine with the ‘Kay’ nickname in retaliation for how she perceived her friend to have treated her that year before. Because something strikes me as highly childish about Virginia. Each of these women are somewhat spoiled in terms of money – both of them have/had parents you’d most likely classify as rich – and so I think they’ve got their individual tendencies. But what’s telling in terms of why I think Virginia is especially childish is a scene where she and her boyfriend Rich (Fugit) are laughing in their room – when Catherine comes up quietly towards the door, Virginia won’t look at her and Rich goes to the door, without a word, closing it in Catherine’s face. Virginia and Rich giggle behind the door like two children, as Catherine stands for a moment outside, hurt, confused, then walks away. I thought this moment spoke VOLUMES in regards to Virginia particularly.
Because essentially, we’re seeing a back and forth duel between these two, supposedly, best friends who wound one another like a violently psychological and emotionally unstable game of tag. Instead of standing together, they fall harder and harder apart as the scant 90 minute runtime of Queen of Earth rolls on. This relationship is what sets up so much of the incredible tension within. Bottom line it comes down to the fact these two women are more interested in boosting their own egos than helping each other, neither wanting to be the bigger person and instead tearing their friend apart even worse at the seams.
IMG_1974 IMG_1973 IMG_1975Not only is the perpetually depressed and anxious character of Catherine written well by Perry, the way in which Elisabeth Moss inhabits the character is out of this world. I’m not a fan of Mad Men. However, after I saw Moss in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I became really impressed with her abilities as an actor. She has this very quiet and subtle presence about her, yet there are scenes where she has the ability to take hold of everything near, hauling the scenes down around her and just scorching the earth; I mean this, if it’s not clear, in a hugely positive way. I’ll say it: my top favourite performance of 2015. There is no doubt about it. Starting at the first frame, closed in tight on her weepy, angry face, I was utterly taken with Moss and her portrayal of Catherine. There’s a feeling going into this film you might be expecting something big, loud, brash, yet she surprises by keeping things low-key. Still, there is always a gripping sense of tone when she’s onscreen, whether she is being emotionally intense or quiet and withdrawn. I do love Waterston in this movie. There’s simply an undeniably awesome quality to Moss and her performance, throughout every last scene; not once did I find myself watching her and wanting more, or feeling there ought to be less, rather I continually felt impressed with everything she did.
IMG_1977The score from Keegan DeWitt lays just beneath the surface, like a thin layer of skin beneath the outer edges. At times the pieces are genuinely unsettling, others it’s like a swell is happening and at any moment things might burst, shattering the world in Queen of Earth to pieces. Most of all, the music fits so well in every scene of the film. For me, it’s DeWitt who adds so much of the uneasiness and terrible feeling inherent in the atmosphere of the film, he gives the screenplay and Perry’s direction a dream-like and also nightmarish quality. It’s amazing, really. Even in one scene as Virginia is out running, faded into a scene of Catherine generally not taking care of herself (eating crackers/chips and drinking pop in the morning), there’s a haunting piece with a flute riff on top of some electronic style sounds which sucks you into a weird state and kind of sticks to your skin a while. Great, great score. I think my favourite bits are the extremely foreboding pieces – you’ll know which ones – full of the horns and low woodwinds, then undercut with these deep and growling electronic rumbles.
Music and cinematography can go together hand in hand as lovers if the work is done correctly. Queen of Earth has that with DeWitt’s compositions pairing together with the camerawork of Sean Price Williams. One thing I love in terms of Williams’ cinematography here is how the close-ups really pull the viewer directly into this world. In particular, there’s a great scene with Catherine and Virginia where they’re recounting past relationships, bad ones, and there’s this great profile-like set of shots of the two talking, listening; reminds me very much of an Ingmar Bergman film at times, honestly. These perfect shots, peppered everywhere throughout the film, make the emotional and psychological weight of the screenplay resonate long and wide. Without such gorgeous looking visuals, I don’t think the film would have near as much depth, so I’m glad the look of the movie fits so well with the screenplay and its themes.
IMG_1979One of the 5 star films of 2015 and one of my favourites. It’s hard to talk about Queen of Earth without giving away the ending, even though some will still bark “nothing happens”. To them I say, go watch something else. Lots happens, it’s just not full of big sequences where a ton of characters are jumping about, each spewing expository dialogue to further the story. Instead, Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is a deeply unnerving and raw snapshot of the nervous breakdown of one woman, as well as the breakdown of a long relationship between two old friends, accompanied by an astounding score composed by Keegan DeWitt and the lush visuals of Sean Price Williams.
If you’re not into slowly paced pieces of film with all its focus centred on character and emotionality, then I suggest to not even bother. Really. Because if not, you’re only going to find yourself bored. However, if you can handle a slower pace for 90 minutes, and you’re able to sit through the brutish reality of two friends falling to pieces, one far worse than the other, then this is for you! It can get tough to watch at times if you let the plot and story sink into you, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This film brought me back to some of Bergman’s work, even one of my favourite movies of all time Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet it’s a completely separate and unique masterpiece all on its own.
The ending has stuck with me. Even the entire final half hour is UNBELIEVABLE and at times intensely creepy, as well; that whole party sequence calls back to Polanski in a way which left me jaw dropped for a second or two. The last two shots, switching between an astounded Virginia and a scarily ecstatic, laughing Catherine, they’ve still not washed off me. I watched Queen of Earth, after picking it up through iTunes, twice in the matter of about 12 hours. Each time I was floored beyond belief and those final moments will not find their way out of my head.

Pod: Backwoods Indie Alien Horror with Teeth

Pod. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Larry Fessenden, Lauren Ashley Carter, Brian Morvant, Dean Cates, John Weselcouch, and Forrest McClain. High Window Films.
Rated R. 76 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★1/2
podv3-681x1024If any of you may have read my reviews before, you might know that I’m a big fan of films which are of a specific genre and still they have the ability to cross over genres. The classic example is Alfred Hitchock’s adaptation of Psycho by Robert Bloch – the way we think the story is all about Marion Crane, but then Norman Bates shows up and the story takes on a different air. Same goes for Proxy, a viscerally intense horror thriller from Zack Parker, which I believe took much inspiration from Hitchcock and his classic horror film and seems to move between genres in a similar fashion.
So, for all its faults, I do like the way Pod starts out with an opening scene that’s very horror-ish, or at least highly suspenseful, then moves for a while into an extremely serious, often dour family drama before coming back to its horror elements.

Pod tells the story of Ed (Dean Cates) and his sister Lyla (Laurence Ashley Carter) who are heading up to a cabin in the winter in order to retrieve their out of control brother Martin (Brian Morvant). He needs an intervention of some sort. When they arrive, though, things are far worse than they’d ever anticipated. Ed is already worried, having received a frantic and terrifying call from Martin.
Once there, Martin tells his siblings he has something trapped in the basement, that there is a “pod”. He reveals scratches all over his body, infected and sore.
But after the worst happens, Ed and Lyla must confront what really is down in the basement. It most certainly is not of this world. Suddenly everything their crazy brother Martin had told them seems to be horrifying true.
IMG_1848I’ve been a huge fan of Larry Fessenden now for a good 14 years probably. I remember I saw his film Wendigo, an eerily low budget psychological horror, on some television channel late at night. Totally floored by it, I sought out anything he’d done before then kept my eyes on him afterwards.
What’s great about Larry is that he’s a fun horror director, while also popping up in the films of others as an actor. I think he likes to take on roles with young filmmakers he finds interesting, or just any filmmakers in general, young or old, he thinks has some talent. So to see him in this film is pretty great. He was in Mickey Keating’s previous directorial effort Ritual, which I’m planning to see soon, so I gather Fessenden must enjoy Keating and his filmmaking to have signed on for another of his films. He isn’t in this one much at all, though, to see him show up a little is enough for me most times.
IMG_1846Then there’s also the talented Lauren Ashley Carter who I’d first seen in The Woman and enjoyed. Then I caught her on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in a decent role. However, it wasn’t until the film Jug Face, which I own and love, that I saw what Carter is really made of. She has great range, as is evidenced by watching her across a couple films.
Here she plays a young woman whose family clearly has issues. She’s an alcoholic, her brother Martin (Brian Morvant) is most obviously a man with drug problems and all sorts of other compounded issues. It’s intriguing to watch her here, as opposed to Jug Face in particular, because this character is even more complex.
I really found the chemistry between Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her brother Ed (Dean Cates) worked very well. The beginning of the film for the first 10-15 minutes is a lot of them, alone together as they travel to give Martin a sort of impromptu intervention. It’s definitely a rocky relationship, though, we’re able to glean a sense of their family, their past, and it doesn’t require a huge amount of expository dialogue. There’s definitely some of it, but we get tons simply from how Ed and Lyla interact with one another. Once Martin actually comes into the picture, there’s plenty more family tension and further dynamics at work.
We get bunches of history about the family, especially Martin. Turns out he did something pretty terrible to a woman named Edith – flashes of a couple Polaroids with a VICIOUS BLOODY injury to her face come up really quick – he thought she was feeding him arsenic, that she was a spy of some sort. So it’s obvious why Ed, and to a lesser extent Lyla, is reluctant to initially believe anything Martin is saying. No matter what horror may come later, at the time it’s certainly relatable and understandable; Martin’s got psychological issues, plus the fact he was in the military and who knows what he truly saw, but it’s affected him in some highly real ways due to delusional thought.
A while later, Ed reveals to Lyla that the woman named Edith was a nurse. Martin tried to essentially rip her face off and escape from the hospital. So again, we see more of why the siblings – mostly Ed as Lyla seems to believe Martin slightly – have a tough time trying to trust anything Martin might say.
This all sets up the drama of the family, but what that serves to do is make all the thriller and horror aspects of the script come out even more intensely, as we’re sort of riding alongside Ed and Lyla listening to the insanity of Martin before – BAM! – everything kicks in.
IMG_1847Loved the style of how the film was shot. Not only that, the sound design and the score helps the suspense and tension of so many scenes. One awesome bit is just before the 30 minute mark, as Martin retells the story of waking up in a government lab; he’s a soldier who’s clearly seen some SHIT. But what I love is the score, the sound design with its crackling fuzzy noises slamming loud with the music at the right intervals, and all the while we’re closing in on the door of the cabin Martin has locked. There are scratches around the door, near the locks, it’s clear something is in there whether brother Ed wants to believe it or not. Definitely creepy style.
This sets up a really great atmosphere, another aspect of what I love about good horrors and thrillers; any films really. If a nice atmosphere and tone can keep up throughout a movie, then there’s a good chance no matter what I’ll walk away with something positive to think and feel about it, even if not every aspect is great. What Pod absolutely has going for it is a tense atmosphere throughout, a dark and sketchy tone.
One amazing, brief shot is after Ed pulls Lyla off to talk in private. There’s an excellent slow motion style shot, as Lyla stares wide-eyed at Martin while heading upstairs; she sees her brother grabbing his head, like a million voices are pounding his brain, and he looks so tortured you can almost feel his pain.
IMG_1845There’s a genuinely shocking moment near the 50 minute mark. I knew Martin was pretty crazy, despite the obvious weird happenings at the cabin, however I couldn’t see what he did coming. Not by a long shot. I don’t want to spoil anything too much, so I won’t say exactly what it was, but be prepared! It’s not vicious, definitely gory though. Mostly it’s just a good, solid shock that puts the final half hour into a really thrilling frame.
Once Ed and Lyla open up the padlocked door in the cabin, I thought the room itself was superbly creepy. It’s cast in this reddish light, there are drawings and doodles everywhere, writing on pages just tacked to every open space on the wall – the set design and anyone who worked on the room sure spent a nice bit of time making the place look like the stronghold of an insane man. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the way Keating directs these scenes it’s definitely tense and has a spooky air of mystery.
My most exciting moment, personally, during the film is when we get the first bits in the basement. Ed is walking around with a flashlight, and at first it seems like we’re simply watching an angled shot of him, when in reality it’s a view from the eye of the pod, or whatever it is hiding down there. VERY VERY EFFECTIVE! I loved this moment because it was a nice touch, unexpected and a little unnerving at the same time, too.
IMG_1844I’m not saying that Pod is a perfect movie, not at all. My problem is that when I went online to see what people were saying, so many moviegoers – likely many of whom pirated the film instead of paying for the pleasure – seem to say “Oh it’s like an hour of arguing and screaming”. There is plenty of arguing, definitely some screaming at points, but what did you expect? This is a riveting family drama for the first quarter or so, then it plunges into a mystery thriller before hitting the horror stride full-on within the last half hour. I mean, there’s no real doubt Ed and Martin would be yelling at one another. First of all, Martin’s psychologically damaged, he’s probably taking some drugs, Ed is completely fed up with his brother. Naturally there will be some fighting. So I just can’t agree with anybody saying this is ALL arguing and yelling. It’s not. Plus, this is a horror film and there are intense scenes of – you guessed it – horror. So I don’t see it as totally unrealistic that maybe people would be yelling at certain points. You don’t think you’d be frightened? Not even when a hideous, terrifying creature of some sort is coming up the stairs out of the dark after you? I call bullshit.
IMG_1842 IMG_1843With one whopper of a final 20 minutes, I can’t say that Pod is a bad film. Honestly when I go on IMDB and I see that a good indie horror film, with sci-fi elements, has a low rating like 4.5 (which would equate to about a 2 out of 5 star rating by my site’s terms), I’m consistently amazed at how lame a lot of people rating online have become. What’s so bad about this movie you’ve got to rate it THAT low? The acting isn’t bad. Lauren Ashley Carter does a great job as Lyla, Dean Cates is solid in his role as the caring and serious brother Ed, but can you really deny that Brian Morvant did a terrific job with the character of Martin? If you say he’s no good, I just feel you’re kidding yourself. It was a frenetic performance and it came off well.
I did love the inclusion of Fessenden, at the same time his character and how quick that aspect lurches into the film is one of my only big problems with Pod. I’m fine with the whole angle of someone protecting the pod, or having a part in the pod being there – whatever. The part I cannot abide is how swift that part came on, there’s no real buildup to this scene. I’m not asking to have things spelled out for me, though, there’s no way I can jive with how suddenly Fessenden’s character showed up and what he’s done (I won’t spoil it fully).
Ultimately, I’ve got to say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star film. There’s an intensely horrific final 30 minutes, beginning with a gory throat cut then introducing the alien/pod in the basement, which all ramps up to the creepy and messy finale as Ed faces off against whatever the thing is Martin had been warning him of all along. The effects are KILLER here and I thought the pod/alien design all around was so perfect! The sounds it makes at the end while fighting with Ed are outrageous, I loved it. Unsettling piece of horror with that small sci-fi twist.
See this and absolutely DO NOT pay attention to all the slagging going on over at IMDB and other online sources. People who probably don’t appreciate film are the ones commenting, I see many of them brag they’ve not paid for it in any way and downloaded it for free, so honestly I don’t take people that seriously if they’re not willing to pay for films. Just sours my view on someone’s perspective when they’re robbing filmmakers then shitting all over their movies.
So get a copy legally, watch it, then tell me how you feel. I’m not saying everyone will love it, merely I believe this deserves more attention than the people online are giving it. They’ve clearly not paid attention to the worthy aspects of Mickey Keating’s film because there are likeable elements which I enjoyed a great deal. Nice little indie horror film for a rainy day when you want to get creeped out.