Tagged 2016

Cell is an Okay Zombie Flick but King Can Do Better

Cell. 2016. Directed by Tod Williams. Screenplay by Adam Alleca & Stephen King, based on King’s novel of the same name.
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacey Keach, Joshua Mikel, Alex ter Avest, Griffin Freeman, E. Roger Mitchell, & Wilbur Fitzgerald. The Genre Co./Benaroya Pictures/Cargo Entertainment.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★
POSTER Cell is one of the few Stephen King novels I’ve not yet read at this stage. He’s one of my favourite writers, as well as a huge influence on me as an author myself. His influence is large and encompasses generations of weird kids who read his work growing up, whose touch made us more confident in mining the darker regions of our minds. Not only does he inspire readers, writers, he further has left a mark on horror directors, many of whom cut their teeth in the genre first by reading his books. Regardless of who you are or what you do, King is able to get to you. My mother was an avid reader. Then she passed his books on down to me, as they always interested me on the shelf and she’d say “Not until you’re a little older” and so eventually I read them all, devouring each page until there was nothing left. Now, 31 at the time of this writing, my bookshelves at the home which I share with my girlfriend are filled with a small library of solely Stephen King books. His writing is almost like a family tradition between myself and my mother. His work transcends genre, which is funny because those only familiar with a few of his stories always peg him as a horror writer, or that guy who writers creepy stories, and other descriptions. But he is capable of crossing genres and while captivating you with scary moments King always has something bigger happening underneath.
With the film adaptation of Cell, King had a hand in the screenplay alongside screenwriter Adam Alleca (wrote the remake of The Last House on the Left). Some King films suffer because his writing isn’t always easy to adapt for the screen, so I’m inclined to give the movies he’s more involved with a better shot. A Good Marriage was, to me, enjoyable even if it wasn’t great. Because the writing was good, even if the casting wasn’t spot on. Here, I can’t judge versus the book. I can only come to this adaptation with fresh eyes. Although it can’t be too bad to take another ride into creepy King territory with the likes of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, right? Add in Isabelle Fuhrman, who was amazing in Orphan, and that’s a solid three leads to keep things grounded.
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One of the more initially unsettling moments is just after the half hour mark. A bunch of the infected people scream in unison, their mouths open, and it’s super eerie to watch and hear at the same time. Quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a nice homage without being a rip-off. A trippy, brief scene that only gets creepier right afterwards. The imagery shows us the horde of people together in a scary huddle, then the shot goes up, fading into the cell tower, and then we cut to a beautiful waterfall. There’s an excellently juxtaposed feeling of nature v. man-made structures, further in that we’ve perverted nature and now this return to a primitive state has thrust people back into a more basic, more savage world. Subtly, the camera work takes us through that amidst the small trio’s efforts to understand the situation around them. Not long after is the terrifying scene where Charles Ardai (Stacey Keach) introduces the stadium full of infected, laying in piles, all lulled by the cellphones. Almost a parallel to those hordes of people out on the sidewalks, walking with their heads down and face, eyes, everything stuck on a screen. That’s the wholly intriguing aspect to this King story, in either form. It takes on our nearly disease-like addiction to technology in an appropriate way. Sure, this takes the form of what we’ve seen many times before, another zombie flick, another form of the same story, the same types of characters. A certain amount of that still applies. Something I dig is that these characters are a little atypical, in that they’ve come together more randomly than other movies – another one I like in that regard is the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you’ve got less of that stale family first ethic, instead focused on just a bunch of people, all with their own fears, emotions, thoughts, plans, hopes, et cetera.
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Another scene that got to me was the nightmare Clay Riddell (Cusack) had – the imagery all around was scary as hell. Loved it. Not only that it leads into them all having a collective dream about the same character, one that Clay drew in his comics previously. But simply that brief scene where Clay finds the red hoodie man getting a blowjob in a decrepit bathroom, the tear in the man’s cheek, the blood, his odd demeanour, everything adds up to be totally unnerving.
I do think Alleca and King wrote a decent screenplay. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. However, disappointingly enough I feel like neither Cusack nor Jackson does anything worthwhile with the characters. You can’t say there’s nothing interesting about the characters themselves. First you’ve got Clay, he’s a guy who draws comics, he has a tough family life with a son he loves, and all kinds of personal stuff. Problem being maybe we’ve seen this character type too many times from Cusack, and no longer is there anything to mine from that starved patch of ground. Secondly, Tom McCourt (Jackson) is a Vietnam veteran, he’s a tough son of a bitch. And maybe again, we’ve seen this style of character from Jackson so often that seeing him in a zombie-type story to boot only makes it more cliché. However, that’s meant to be the power of an actor, if they can make you believe them and their portrayal, over and over. Though I do love both Cusack and Jackson in their own rights, having performed a ton of great characters between them, they don’t give us what we need here.
That task is left to Isabelle Fuhrman. Her portrayal of Alice Maxwell is really good. She doesn’t always get the right amount of time to do her thing, but when she does it’s solid work. If only her character were given more then it’s possible that could have made the movie better than it comes off. She’s a talented actor who I hope will get some bigger, better roles. Here, she’s able to root us emotionally before destroying us after the arc of her character breaks your heart.
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Ultimately, I’ll say Cell is about a 3-star zombie flick. There are a couple elements that make it less typical, mainly in its approach to the entire infection sub-genre of horror. Stephen King and Adam Alleca adapt King’s novel into a decently creepy piece of work. Plenty of flaws to boot and there are definitely lacklustre performances out of Cusack and Jackson. At the same time, I found myself creeped out at times. More would be better, but the terror King’s story is able to bring out makes this better than most low budget zombie movies floating around out there. In addition to the writing, there’s great atmosphere; some nice cinematography, as well as a score that’ll keep you on edge while it swells and falls and sucks you in.
Some scenes will stick out, from the one in the bar to a short time later when Clay unmasks an infected man he – for a moment – believes to be his son. There’s enough to enjoy and to make this worth watching. Plus, I really enjoyed the ending. Not near one of my favourite King stories adapted to film, though. Perhaps I’ll enjoy the novel more once I get around to giving it a read because the premise alone is horrifying. The execution of the film is what leaves much to be desired.

Hush: Flanagan and Siegel Offer a Quietly Unnerving Horror

Hush. 2016. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Screenplay by Flanagan & Kate Siegel.
Starring John Gallagher Jr, Kate Siegel, Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan, & Emma Graves. Intrepid Pictures/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER I’m unabashedly a fan of Mike Flanagan. While a lot of people were blown away by his horror Oculus, as well as the short film which preceded it, my favourite of his work has been the smaller, even more independent feature Absentia – a story of grief, loss, tragedy, and ghosts. Flanagan is capable of capturing terror in a way that doesn’t necessarily require the typical jump scares or other cliches expected from the horror genre. Not saying he doesn’t go for them now and then. Rather, he doesn’t rely on it as a technique to gain him the audience’s terror.
So, once Hush came along – premiering worldwide today on Netflix – the premise alone guarantees there’ll be a few interesting tweaks to the horror sub-genre of home invasion. What might, at the hands of a lesser director, be a generically tedious slasher-like horror becomes a nicely crafted work of tension and suspense that delivers more than just creeps around the corner and a few mild frights. A quiet, unnerving piece of cinema, Hush is another proper notch on the terrifying belt of Flanagan.
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Living in a house in the woods, Maddie (Kate Siegel) – a deaf woman – spends her days in virtual isolation. Although, she does have friends nearby who check on her, come to visit, as well as read her work, as she is a budding author.
But one evening, as the sun starts to go down, she finds herself being stalked by a masked man (John Gallagher Jr). Once things take a turn for the worse and the man unmasks himself, Maddie realizes there may only be one way out: kill, or be killed. As the night progresses, she has to fight for her life if making it out alive will ever be an option.
Will Maddie’s deafness spell her murder? Or will she defend herself and her home from the unknown assailant?
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Dig the way Flanagan gives us the inner world of Maddie. Early on, she writes in her novel and her inner voice rattles through variant sentences, different thoughts, et cetera. So there’s this incredible effect of her being deaf, though, still being able to hear her own voice in her head. And that’s juxtaposed with the fact things can happen around her without being noticed. Quickly after we watch her writing the novel, a masked man kills her friend right outside, banging her against the doors. Immediately, we’re setup with the premise, all it entails. Going forward, Flanagan uses all this in order to play on our emotions, to set up tense situations, and to draw out every bit of suspense possible.
What’s even more interesting is how Flanagan and star Siegel, also co-writer and life partner to the director, have crafted 80-odd minutes of film, only about 15 of which actually has any dialogue. So around 70 minutes of Hush goes by with the natural sounds of Maddie breathing, moving around the house, as the man stalking her is silent most of the time, too. To create an atmosphere of palpable dread, and also uncertainty, out of a film that spends so much time in quietude, Flanagan really does get to show off his chops. Above the horror and thriller elements, this home invasion flick tries to give us a central character whose trajectory is not solely defined by helplessness. Yes, Maddie is helpless in that she’s both deaf and lives in an isolated area. Although that does not define who she comes to be over the course of the film. In fact, she’s actually defined by her power, the fact she actively fights back and takes a proactive role in her own defense. Despite her disability, Maddie does not fail herself, she doesn’t make a ton of idiotic decisions like so many “Final Girls” and other similar characters typical of the horror genre. There’s no reinvented wheel here. Simply, Flanagan and Siegel aim to try and do something different, unusual with a cliche home invasion sub-genre setup.
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In part, the sound design is a major aspect to the film’s mood. Obviously in a story that centers on a deaf woman there’s going to be some type of effort on part of the director to bring us into her world. For instance, right off the bat Maddie is cooking – the audience hears everything loud, boisterous, the water bubbling, the garlic getting crushed, vegetables chopped. The sound design is heavy and almost abrasive. Then quickly, Flanagan takes us inside Maddie’s brain. The room becomes silent, airtight, not a single sound escapes. Frequently, we’re taken back into her head, as a space that sort of closes us off from the sound design. Even then, we hear the dull thump of sounds around her, the slight sounds in the environment, though, she hears absolutely nothing. This does heighten the suspense and tension. Then when a scene comes where there’s dialogue, it almost feels foreign, and the entire time you’re feeling unnerved, uneasy about what may happen. There comes a point the audience is almost more comfortable in the silence than they are with normal sounds. Furthermore, Maddie speaks to herself, in her head. So because of the amount of time we’re treated to what’s happening inside her mind, Maddie’s perspective feels like our own. This could be accomplished just by spending the entire film with her. At the same time, allowing us access to her inner sanctum, while also getting the perspective outside her head, this really cements the feeling as a first-person perspective that sometimes allows us third-person insight.
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What could have easily been typical, drawn out, boring, becomes exciting material at the hands of director Mike Flanagan. Along with Kate Siegel, both star and writer, this story evolves into a nice treat for fans of the horror genre, as well as the home invasion sub-genre. Absolutely, Hush is a 4-star affair. Flanagan knows how to work with dread. Here, he allows us over 80 minutes to become emotionally attached to Maddie, to understand her, and mostly, root for her survival. With perfect sound design, a very fun score by The Newton Brothers, plus a knockout performance from Siegel and John Gallagher Jr giving us his ghoulish best as the man after her, Hush is jam packed with enjoyable, nail-biting moments.
Available as of today on Netflix, you really should check this out and see what it has to offer. Here’s to hoping Flanagan keeps making more solid horror movies, and that his adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game actually comes to life, because this setup was a great way to start exploring some of the techniques which might be useful in filming that.

Bleed is Never Better Than the Sum of its Parts

Bleed. 2016. Directed by Tripp Rhame. Screenplay by Ben Jacoby from a story by Rhame.
Starring Chelsey Crisp, Riley Smith, Michael Steger, Lyndon Smith, Brittany Ishibashi, Elimu Nelson, & David Yow.
Spitfire Studios.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
POSTER Tripp Rhame’s debut feature Bleed, also known as The Circle, is a mixed-bag of tricks. Some of those tricks work wonders. Some of them are better left in the bag.
There are absolutely a few great aspects to this film. It goes for broke instead of skirting around the edges like some indie horror-thrillers. While it borrows heftily from fare such as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and others, Bleed has its own energy. There are flaws, there are mistakes and bad choices, but it’s still a decent little flick that has a few scares, a few surprises. The biggest problem with Rhame’s film is that there are too many sub-genres jammed into one, and I can’t help but feel that if the screenplay stuck with trying to put less into one story there would’ve been more coherence all around. Nevertheless, if you want a decent, at times horrifically fun indie horror romp, there are far worse out there and this one will at least creep you out a couple times.
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When Sarah (Chelsey Crisp) and husband Matt (Michael Steger) head to their new house out in the backwoods, ready to have a baby, start a new life, they invite some friends out for a getaway. Dave (Elimu Nelson) and Bree (Brittany Ishibashi) arrive for some fun with the couple, as well as Sarah’s brother Eric (Riley Smith) turns up with his new girlfriend Skye (Lyndon Smith).
Aside from the tension between slacker brother and husband, there are other things going on. Eric’s actually a bit of an amateur ghost hunter. So Dave brings up a story about the area; a local legend of a preacher, some sort of Satanic-like believer named Kane (Rajinder Kala). Apparently, he died in a prison fire out in the woods.
After Matt wants to disprove Eric’s nonsense, they all head out to the location of the old prison. This puts them directly in the path of a supernatural entity, the remnants of Kane’s savage spirit, and the halls of the old prison, the woods, they become a possible tomb. Unless the group can somehow manage to survive and find their way out of the darkened woods.
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I’m always into any Satanic cult-ish type plots. One of the biggest things I enjoyed during Bleed were the early, brief views of Kane, the horrific preacher. Especially when Eric and Skye are having sex, then all of a sudden she starts seeing Kane thrusting at her, his terrifying face going back and forth. It’s a genuinely eerie moment that unsettled me to the core. Even earlier, when Bree – who suffers from schizophrenia – sees a glance of him sitting in a chair, there’s a definitively strange, scary look to him.
That brings me to another aspect I loved: Bree’s mental illness. Whereas some elements of the screenplay feel too jammed in, not organically grown out of the story or the plot, Bree having schizophrenia added an extra dimension to the ghostly supernatural stuff happening around the group. Because it plays against the mind, making her more susceptible to the ghosts, as she chants to herself – “Its not real” – and wanders around the dark hallways of the prison. To be honest, more could’ve been done with this character angle, though, what was done works proper. Earlier in the film, I actually expected she was going to play a larger part in what happens later, so it’s a nice tough in that sense. Keeps you guessing, and definitely make you fearful of what will come next.
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On the one hand, I enjoyed Kane, as a character, as a creepy addition to the plot. On the other hand, there were a couple scenes I hated. When Dave comes across Kane in an isolated little room, instead of a vicious kill, something to up the intensity, there’s this very anti-climactic death via supernatural means that I found really took me out of the scene. I would’ve much preferred Kane slaughter him, or even something a bit less cheesy.
Some of my problem with the movie is the pacing. There are times it felt like things were going much too fast. Added to that, the pacing doesn’t help anything when there are too many mixed pieces. The backstory of the town, Sarah, so much of it is ham fisted into the final twenty minutes. Makes a mess of things. Sarah’s entire plot as a character needed more care. They set her up as a main character, but don’t afford her and the plot surrounding her enough time to justify everything in the finale. The end is grim, macabre, though, its impact isn’t enough because of the entire setup, from characters to the story. If things were jammed into 82 minutes, maybe the story would get stretched out appropriately. Instead, there’s like a log jam of ideas and madness near the end that never fully fits in.
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This is at beast a 2&1/2 star film. There are too many threads not correctly stitched through Bleed which, in the end, hurt it overall. A few moments are downright creepy, truly scary. At times I was reminded of the recent Last Shift, a flawed film but intensely odd and with great frights. But this was even more flawed, and the end result is too much a mixed-bag to be anything more than mediocre. Hopefully Tripp Rhame continues, he definitely had some working material here, and the Kane story was excellently unnerving. If only the screenplay were tighter. Nonetheless, check it out. It’s a decent little indie, that could certainly have turned out worse. Don’t hold all its messiness against it, still worth watching once.

Martyrs 2.0 – The Little Remake That Shouldn’t

Martyrs. 2016. Directed by Kevin & Michael Goetz. Screenplay by Mark L. Smith; based on the original characters from Pascal Laugier’s film.
Starring Troian Bellisario, Caitlin Carmichael, Kate Burton, Bailey Noble, Toby Huss, Diana Hopper, Lexi DiBenedetto, Taylor John Smith, Peter Michael Goetz, and DaJuan Johnson. Blumhouse Productions/The Safran Company/Temple Hill Entertainment.
Unrated. 81 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★1/2
COVERI always try to give remakes a fair shake. Slightly different story when you have to push through a favourite film being remade, especially if it comes out poorly. Though I love Spike Lee, as a filmmaker, his remake of Oldboy is one of the worst in recent memory. And that’s been a favourite of mine for years. When I heard Pascal Laugier’s frantic, bloody, wild movie Martyrs was being remade, it didn’t exactly excite me. Sure, I love when a fresh take or update can be done on a film, such as Alexandre Aja and his efforts on The Hills Have Eyes. But more often than not, an excellent foreign language film gets turned into nonsense by way of North American directors and writers.
Sadly, this new version of Martyrs is not up to the task of making things fresh, exciting, or even much different. It is definitely not a shot-for-shot remake, but it also doesn’t have a lot of what made the original French film so impressively visceral and continually interesting. This re-imagining, remake, or whatever word you choose to employ, didn’t have to go for big gore and get as graphic as Laugier. What it did need, though, is the emotional resonance, the quality techniques of Laugier and the original team, and generally a better screenplay if it were meant for glory. Not near being one of my favourite remakes. Another great film gets an unjust treatment for North American audiences, many of whom are probably too lazy to read subtitles and watch the original, evident by how many foreign films get remade here in the West. If that weren’t the case, if the demand weren’t so high, I’d assume people were seeking out the original pieces of work. In this case, I certainly suggest you watch Laugier’s movie. It’s leaps and bounds better than this mediocre, run of the mill dishwater.
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Two young girls come together as orphans at a young age, Lucie (Troian Bellisario) and Anna (Bailey Noble). Lucie escaped from a terrifying, abusive situation of captivity, which Anna helped her get past.
Cut to years later. They’re grown young women. Lucie finds the family who supposedly held her captive, then shotguns them all, including the kids, to death. She calls Anna frantically, telling her what happened. Her friend arrives to try and help things go smoother, as far as is possible. But Lucie spirals out of control. Soon, Anna is in the house, bodies everywhere, and a group of armed people take over.
Brought to room and tortured, Anna discovers what Lucie went through. The two girls are pitted against their captors. Although, the past comes back to bear on their present situation. As things are revealed the capture of Lucie as a young girl becomes more clear, the movie behind it all unearthed. Can they survive this? Will Lucie be able to make it out of the horror a second time?
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*SPOILER ALERT: TURN BACK OR THOU SHALT FOREVER BE SPOILED!*
One thing I quickly disliked about this version is that the screenplay from Mark L. Smith (The RevenantVacancy) decides to keep both of the main women alive. Whereas in the Laugier original, the Lucie character dies. What I love about that original screenplay is that the Anna character is then forced to deal with the aftermath of the situation, as well as the group who come to find her, forcing her to also suffer the torture her friend once did years ago. In this film there’s this sense of a bunch of subjects captured at once, while Anna and Lucie then also find themselves captives. Part of why I enjoyed the original French film is that Laugier went for a definitively tragic and truly epic plot. Smith, though he did amazing stuff with The Revenant, makes the mistake of going for something more hopeful. Realistically you have to look at the group doing these experiments; they are obviously massive, a solid organization, so to just do another escape thriller with this setup is wasting a lot of potential. The original capitalized on all its brutality, as well as emotions, and went for a dark ending. Without spoiling anything, this remake cops out. Some say the original was all nihilistic. Except for the fact the people torturing the hopeful martyrs, for all their faults and bloody terror, are seeking a way to discover what makes someone into such a portal to view what’s in their eyes, seeing beyond life and into the chasm of death. So, it’s not really nihilistic, not in true terms. But any of the impact of the film is taken away in this screenplay. Not at all impressed with Smith’s choices.
The execution isn’t a whole lot helpful either. Tons of exposition that the original never needed, as well as so much sanitized horror. It all combines into a real mess. There are, yes, several moments of decent blood, and also several intense sequences. Yet none of this adds up to even half the impact Laugier came off with, which does nothing to make me enjoy this needless remake. There was a grim, moody atmosphere and a gritty tone to the original. Here, most of the movie feels glossy, bright even in the darkness, and overall there is nothing technique-wise that ever grabs me. Kevin and Michael Goetz did 2013’s Scenic Route and I actually enjoyed that a good deal. It was entertaining, gritty at times, funny even. Lots of good stuff. Their follow-up film is nowhere near as good. Hopefully next they’ll go with an original film with a better story because they’ve proved themselves on the previous movie. Martyrs is a step backward.
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I’ll give the film a 1&1/2 star rating, solely because I did enjoy aspects of Bailey Noble’s performance, even if I wasn’t a fan of the plot. Likewise, Troian Bellisario is decent enough to keep your attention particularly later when the torture commences once more. But this is an unnecessary remake. Honestly, I try to give these remade films a chance, however, they more often than not let me down big time. This one is no different. Over the past few years this is one of the worst. Again, I hope the Goetz brothers go forward and make something better. As I hope Mark Smith pushes on and finds better success with another movie. These are better artists than the movie suggests. Martyrs, the original, is worth your time. Despite what others say about a totally boring, gory film, Laugier made an impact with that one, which I will never forget. Skip this, see his original. You’ll thank me.