Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Wraith / **1/2 (1986)

In the annals of absurd action films that dominated the public’s awareness during the 80s, “The Wraith” may hold special distinction as the silliest of them all. How else would one describe the very idea of this film? Could it be done with a straight face, or some semblance of seriousness? Here is a premise that seems as if it were pulled right out of farce: a gang of car thieves murder a man, and then said victim is reincarnated from above so that he can exact his revenge by, well, racing them all to their deaths inside a mysterious black car. But wait, it gets better: when he is not inside said vehicle, he appears as an enigmatic drifter played by Charlie Sheen, who comes into town and interacts will all the same people who were once part of his previous life, including those who killed him. How do they not recognize him? Because, rather conveniently, his face has been changed. Furthermore, none of those observers suspect who he really is, although chance encounters eventually create enough of a sense of déjà vu to inspire all the obligatory inquiries (“have we met before?”). If you’re still paying attention, congratulate yourself: you may have actually thought more thoroughly about this setup than Mike Marvin, whose screenplay might as well have been assembled out of remnants of shorthand notes from an etch-a-sketch.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Unfriended: Dark Web / ***1/2 (2018)

No single idea in the found footage horror subgenre has been as inconclusive as that of the one first observed in “Unfriended.” Consider the concept: for 83 minutes, characters remain static in a world of pixelated webcam images and cluttered desktop screens while a malevolent force somewhere in their chat boxes taunts them. Gradually, they are ambushed by something outside the periphery of the Skype window, until a lone person is left to answer for crimes that all present may have once participated in. Is this an idea full of potential, or one where the gimmick is destined to fade from novelty after the initial experience has worn off? Our fascination was certainly enough to inspire a single sit-through of the first attempt, although that movie sees little in the way of ongoing value; once the ploy is understood, the antics play like a wind-up toy instead of a plausible tool to modulate tension, especially in repeat viewings. Yet here we are again for a sequel, titled “Dark Web,” which utilizes the exact same format and implores the spontaneous hysteria of the same sorts of young actors, who balance their running commentary with all the perfunctory inquiries – like, “what’s that noise?” or “please don’t hurt me!” The irony of most new approaches in horror is how thoroughly familiar all the tricks seem, even as they are repackaged to avoid more obvious giveaways.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Miranda Murders: Lost Tapes of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng / * (2017)

A movie like this is almost unbearable without a coherent running dialogue. “The Miranda Murders” belongs primarily to that ever-so-volatile subgenre of found footage horror films, but must be prefaced with an even graver emphasis: all the footage functions as a reenactment of an actual killing spree that took place in California during the mid-80s. For those well-versed in serial killer psychology, the names will be familiar: Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were like blood brothers destined for infamy, linked by the nihilistic world view that innocent young women were meant to be abducted and then molded into submissive sex slaves for their own perverse pleasures, often in front of a camcorder. When they acted out or misbehaved, the punishment would be severe – sometimes violent, sometimes intimidating, always ending in their untimely demises. Now comes this strange concoction of a film that attempts to fill a great void: namely, what exactly transpired in those turbulent months between 1983 and 85 when they lured victims to their compound, filmed them in fearful protest and then disposed of their remains throughout the property? Though some of the actual footage of their exploits survives, the gaps were apparently intriguing enough to inspire Matthew Rosvally to interpret the unknown on old-fashioned analogue tape. The result is one of the most poorly realized ideas of recent memory.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Hatchet / *** (2006)

A convoluted legend is never far from the fabric of an original horror film, and Adam Green’s deliriously violent “Hatchet” discovers one of the more interesting of recent memory. Somewhere in the haunted bayous of New Orleans exists the image of a monstrous force, a disfigured man who died long ago in a terrible accident and returns, each night, to stalk the woods in search of his lost father. Unfortunate bystanders who wander nearby are destined to become victims of his murderous rampage, but so rare has their obligatory fate been this ambitiously macabre: in the course of just 85 minutes, the villain is seen prying a skull off someone by the upper jaw, cutting through a man’s spinal column with a machete, beheading countless screaming teenagers and even dismembering one with a belt sander. In the murky depths of Crystal Lake, Jason Vorhees must be sick with envy. But the terror of one Victor Crowley a cause of some deeply established voodoo curse, or did the poor boy really survive his ordeal in order to carry out his angry mission? That riddle is at the center of an otherwise superfluous mystery, in a movie that has the distinction of being relentlessly delightful while it is inspiring our pained winces.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Cats / 1/2* (2019)

Think of a large wad of cash being doused in gasoline, immediately followed by a lit match tossed into the pile. Picture, with some forlorn amazement, a machine that rapidly prints dollar bills as they are guided on a conveyor belt that empties into the mouth of a giant shredder. Fathom the idea that someone, somewhere, could make “Cats” with a straight face, and you get an impression of how deep these thoughts must run as they regard their own endeavor with some level of regret. So much money went into this ambitiously misfired movie that every scene must play like a eulogy for all their future endeavors. If it is true, as reports suggest, that the film adaptation of the famous Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber was financed to be made with over $100 million in assets, it is worth lamenting the high cost of modern Hollywood trash. Yet those unlucky enough to find themselves at a screening of said result will most likely be concerned with more direct notions: namely, how such an expensive commodity like this could be released in such an unfinished state, much less be considered salvageable in the first place. Take away all of that, and what remains is a who’s-who of actors who look as if they might be occupied by thoughts of exile from the medium.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Pompeii / **1/2 (2014)

Had I still been a naïve teenager obsessed with the mythos of ancient volcanic disasters, a movie like “Pompeii” would have provided one hell of a visual wet dream. Here is an ambitious production mounted in the tradition of old Hollywood epics, stretched beyond the scale of a mere screen, and hitched to that dependable staple of disaster films that seek to show us an array of grandiose visions that are both terrible and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, time and experience often separates us from simpler pleasures, relegating our measurements of entertainment to comparisons of other, more sophisticated endeavors. A read-through of the premise immediately conjures up all those conventional comparisons: among other things, the story contains a main character obsessed with revenge while fighting for his own life in public arenas (“Gladiator”), ancient roman political intrigue (“Troy”) and a blossoming romance between young faces that are separated by class divides (“Titanic”), all set in the foreground of a catastrophe looming in the distance (any number of well-known blockbusters of the past thirty years). Take away all those call-backs, and what you are left with is basically a competent action picture that retreads to the safety of its formulas, primarily because it doesn’t have the desire, much less the thought, to pursue more challenging avenues.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Dirty Love / zero stars (2005)

During a schmaltzy greeting card monologue in the opening scenes of “Dirty Love,” the heroine informs us that “love is unreal,” before launching into a scene of hysteria after she has discovered the love of her life in bed with another woman. Most people scarred by that sort of discovery, at least in a comedy, would usually plot some sort of devious revenge. Rebecca (Jenny McCarthy) opts to make her grief an incompetent public spectacle, which will include her approaching sex workers for job applications, showing up to public gatherings on the arms of awkward losers, and avoiding run-ins with her ex in various locales, like a grocery store while she is tripping over her own menstrual blood. Are you still listening to this? These are the sight gags of a filmmaker who has watched a plethora of outrageous comedies but has only memorized out-of-context punchlines, relegating everything that he does to a one-note show of languid showmanship. Even then, most narrow concepts could be forgiven if they produce laughs, however shallow. John Asher’s junkyard of a film, unfortunately, only inspires the sorts of groans usually reserved for painful indigestion.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Lonely Lady / 1/2* (1983)

Forget, for a moment, all the dreadful things you have heard about “The Lonely Lady.” Dismiss the conventional criticisms that peg it as one of the more pronounced turkeys of its time, ranging from the shoddy acting to the implausible premise. Absolve yourself of any knowledge of Pia Zadora’s strange rise to fame, or how her entire participation in this mess came to be. Resist the urge to read through some of the cringe-inducing dialogue, avoid the temptation to blame shoddy makeup or inept scene staging, and ignore all attempts at understanding the long and notorious back-story. Those notions will only color your view. Oh, an exhaustive list of problems could be assembled about the movie in question, and few of them would be arguable, but those traits in themselves do not quantify all the reasons this film endures so vividly. Something more precise, more glaring, had to be wrong with what was on screen. After lumbering through a recent viewing, I believe I finally deciphered the key distinction: that this may be the most shamelessly evasive drama ever written.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Summer of 84 / *** (2018)

Any teenage boy who owns a pair of binoculars is destined to see himself as a private investigator. He uses them like an infallible window into the unknown, a dagger that pierces a hole through comfortable exteriors to study the inner workings of people with seedy private lives. Hitchcock used this ideology to fuel the voyeuristic tendencies of his hero in “Rear Window,” and now young Davey Armstrong adopts it while he spies shamelessly on his neighbors during the warm nights in “Summer of 84.” His first glimpse is innocent: harboring a crush on the girl next door, the lenses provide him a bird’s eye view of her upstairs bedroom, usually while she is in various stages of undress. Later, after news breaks that the disappearance of a dozen young boys in the county is linked to a single culprit, they become the instrument that will guide his quest against the cop across the street, whom he suspects may be the serial killer in question. The key difference, perhaps, is that voyeurs are content to watch without involvement., whereas Davey turns his endeavor into a quest that includes stalking the outer perimeter of a man’s house, going through the trashcans and even digging up a backyard in search of corpses.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Marriage Story / ** (2019)

Aficionados of Noah Baumbach’s eccentric brand of hard-hitting family comedies will find themselves right at home in “Marriage Story,” the latest in his resume of accessible mainstream opuses. The rest of us would argue it could have used three key additives: a better script, more focus on the pain, and less insufferable leads. That is not to discredit or undermine the abilities of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are competent in the material, but to emphasize the corner they are painted into. Here are two likable actors swimming upstream in a current that wants to drown them in detestable melodrama, and for nearly every scene they occupy shared space, we find ourselves praying for psychological intervention. They are cloying, arrogant, and deluded. Towards the middle act, well before the two come to a head in a heated exchange about unresolved feelings, they are offered advice from brutally honest lawyers as to what steps to take in maintaining custody of their young son. The more proactive argument ought to have been obvious: why do either of them deserve to supervise a goldfish, much less an impressionable kid?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

THE TEN BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE

I began the 2010s uncertain of my place in the slipstream of film criticism, and closed it out firmly lodged somewhere between enthusiastic and mystified. Whatever emotion I experienced sitting in a theater, be it involved in something celebratory or a feeling of total despair, the movies never abandoned me; they persisted like stubborn reminders of what is important about the art form, whether it was in a literal sense or in some twisted ironic way, even as some might have represented everything wrong about this strange little industry.

The decade supplied ammunition for both arguments. It was the time of new and exciting voices like Yorgos Lanthimos and Christian Petzold, and of lazy underachievers like Uwe Boll. It was the age of billion-dollar blockbusters, and tiresome trends yielding colossal flops. Established filmmakers plodded along in a career trajectory that allowed for new and exciting ventures. Some promising newcomers like David Robert Mitchell, meanwhile, diversified their portfolio between solid entertainments (“It Follows”) and disastrous aberrations (“Under the Silver Lake”). But all the same we showed up, watched, and responded with our constant passion as moviegoers. A great film was never far from grasp at local art-house movie houses; so, too, was a bad one inevitably playing in the mainstream chains, where it stood a better chance of rising to notoriety, unintentional or otherwise. The common bond among all of them, you could say, was their ability to remind us that there is a bigger world outside of the Walt Disney brand, whose choke-hold on the financial market of moviegoing has cast an impenetrable shadow going into the next decade.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Hell House, LLC 3: Lake of Fire / **1/2 (2019)

Two-thirds of the newest “Hell House” picture is the work of a man who is intrigued by the undiscovered. After finding comfort in the throes of low-tech visual manipulation and nuanced camerawork to achieve great thrills in the middle of a haunted hotel, he comes to “Lake of Fire” energized by what felt missing: the very need to expand on the possibilities of his great source. A brief confessional on camera emphasizes this urge: a cable show host, Vanessa Shepherd, contemplates the strange nature of Abaddon, New York, and how unsolved supernatural events have apparently extended beyond the hotel itself. Why are they are never covered in the local press? Because, of course, they aren’t as glamorous or sensational. Unfortunately, her reveal is interrupted by a bystander while on location and she is never able to finish the thought. But the seed is firmly planted in the audience, who watches on patiently while a business tycoon invests money and resources into turning the former hotel into a seasonal theater. The goal: to create an interactive Halloween performance of “Faust” inside a building rich in supernatural history. Perhaps “Faust,” about a struggle of a man’s temptations between God and Satan, ought to have been the key warning. Wouldn’t the many deaths and disappearances have been enough to sway away most sensible people from participating here?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parasite / **** (2019)

The vicious cycle coalescing beneath class systems is a detail that draws much ire out of Bong Joon-ho, whose films all suggest a world where life and routine is usually mandated by where you fall in the system privilege. Not content to simply show sides of the structure clashing, he abandons them into a philosophical clarity that sees rot and cynicism as shared values; just as the wealthy are set in the method of clinging to their narrow vision, so do the impoverished embrace the seedy underbelly to propel their obligatory agendas. Both, perhaps, are what contribute to the ambiguous implication supplied by the title of “Parasite,” where a filmmaker never quite indicts a single target. Yet the argument inspires all the expected questions without direct answers. Are the characters in a wealthy family the victims of what will eventually transpire, or are they inconsolable leeches of an imbalanced society? Are we expected to see the poverty-stricken Kim family as sponges for all the trouble they are dealt, or as survivors adapting rapidly to the unpredictable whims of the hierarchy? The challenge offered in this audacious and engrossing little film barely reflects its deeper nature, which plays less like a standard narrative and more like a living organism adapting scene after scene to a volatile habitat of strange and mystifying nightmares.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Psycho" Revisited


Abnormal even among the more challenging horror films of today, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” abandons its central character arc for a much more unexpected second just as the plot begins to wade deeper waters. There is an observation made in the preceding scenes that suggest that possibility – namely, a moment when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) realizes almost prematurely that she must return home and give up the money she stole from her employer – but our wildest notions of the conflict could scarcely predict the outcome of her abrupt escape down a rainy highway. Most of the familiar rules in horror were far from being accepted as part of the formula handbook, but a constant among the early prototypes was the use of one primary character as a source of study. Yet here she was, a mere 48 minutes into a film, showering at a rundown motel owned by an eccentric loner, and being snuck up on by a shadowy figure destined to stab her to death. If the shock of the incident remains startling for its perfect technical modulation – meticulous edits, a piercing soundtrack, out-of-focus details that obscured the numerous wounds – then its broader effect came entirely down to audacity. No other mainstream film up to that point committed itself to such nerve to shatter the comfortable borders of a story, and to this day it remains peerless among a growing arsenal of broadening genre standards.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Lighthouse / ***1/2 (2019)

On the edge of a rock hugging the violent sea, a weathered lighthouse affirms the mission of two men stalled on a mental tightrope. They plod day and night through a routine that always leads to one outcome: ensuring the illuminating glow of the tower never dims, even as the most turbulent storms loom relentlessly overhead. But a day comes when the winds shift, casting doubt on their own perseverance; a nor’easter draws down like a force of punishment, until their demeanors – one sardonic, the other silent and morose – collide on each other with disturbing gravitas. On the other side of the struggle is only more of the same: a cycle without relief or certainty, unless the primary conviction is to stilt the moods of those eager viewers watching below the projector’s light. Their feelings, I reckon, might parallel what some of the early audiences thought upon first seeing “The Shining,” also about people who were driven mad by isolation. Did the slow plod through a tonal labyrinth, too, undermine their defenses enough to amplify the horror of the climax? Were they submissive to the visual attack, and did it negate any questions of logic they might have had? Robert Egger’s eerie, hypnotic new film mirrors many of those possibilities and finds something rather interesting buried beneath: an imagination that escalates its visions into the fantastical and absurd.