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.

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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.