Monday, August 14, 2017

Without Name (2016)

directed by Lorcan Finnegan
Ireland
93 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5
----

So this is something I had been excited about because the director also made a short film that came out in 2011 to a decent amount of praise called Foxes. For something that was only a scant handful of minutes long, it had an excellent sense of the uncanny and from that short I could tell that this director had a great full-length horror film in him.

For a while at the beginning of Without Name, we get to know the main character only through observing that he leads a bog-standard life: wife, child, car, house, job, et cetera. The compulsion placed on people by modern society to assimilate a certain way and lead your life according to a set of social expectations is half of the horror in this thing, honestly. I almost began to feel like it was taking a route to introducing our protagonist that was too generic, but I think that feeling of complete mundanity was what was intended to come through.

The main theme of this whole affair is that we've been away from nature for so long that it's started to feel uncomfortably foreign to the majority of us. The contrast between urban and rural living is such that the paltry amount of flora and fauna the average person might see in a day (trees and shrubs in traffic circles/roundabouts, the occasional deer or rabbit if you live in a greener part of the suburbs) is no comparison to what's truly out there, I.E. the forest that the main character in Without Name works in as a land surveyor. The film itself all but states outright that this feeling of cognitive dissonance in city-bred humans is what it was going for.

Despite its success in being atmospheric and immersive, Without Name is not quite without flaws. There were times when I felt that the narrative was taking a route that was obvious and easy, and there's no shame in doing something easy as long as you do it well, but for a film that had a lot of complex layering, it felt out of place. The shroom-tripping sequences in particular, while relevant to the plot, were used as a quick way to get the main character into an altered state of consciousness wherein there would be context for his seeing and feeling bizarre, supernatural things. And the romance between the main character and a younger woman he worked with was painfully obvious, and I had to commend both of them for wonderful acting all around, but it still felt like that affair was an artifact from a lesser movie that didn't have any place there.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Probably shouldn't have to be said.

...but with recent events.

If you support anything remotely related to white supremacy or white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, Donald Trump, the "alt-right", or any ideology that seeks to exterminate any race or other group of people, this blog isn't a safe space for you, and I personally do not want you here. I don't make posts specifically about politics because this is a film review blog, but this sort of thing transcends politics, I think, and I felt the need to make a post about it.

Regularly scheduled Monday review coming at you tomorrow morning. Stay safe out there.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner
France
80 minutes
5 stars out of 5
----

I probably don't need to explain too much about Ernest & Celestine because it's already a fairly popular movie. I probably also don't need to mention that the animation is flawless, fluid, inventive and generally a treat to look at. But mention it I will, because watching something like this where the characters are rendered in a fantastical yet structured style makes you realize that animated films that use computer-generated imagery (like most of Disney's modern films) are, though probably still as time-intensive as this, somehow lacking in the same level of warmth.

I actually love the inconsistency of proportions in this. For example, one of the larger plot points is that there's a thriving mouse dentistry industry that profits off of pilfering teeth from bears and putting them in mice's mouths. Ernest the bear also makes an excursion into mouse territory, which is ostensibly small enough as to have been established in little hidden places like storm drains; and compared to Ernest, Celestine the mouse is more like the size of a large rat or perhaps even a weasel, owing to the difficulty that would arise from needing to draw an actual mouse-sized mouse and a bear in the same frame.

Besides being an absolute treat visually, this has some unexpected things to say about capitalism as well. There's a surprising amount of focus on having and not-having, profiteering and class lines, things of that nature. A daddy bear selling candy to other bear children with glee and disregard for the fact that their teeth will rot while steadfastly keeping his own son from having one gram of sugar. Making money off the misfortune of others to the point of relying on it for the prosperity of your business. Also it covers taking back that which is unfairly held from you by capitalism- stealing food that exists in abundance when your own lack of money precludes you from getting even one decent meal.

Besides all of these important teachings about the nature of capitalism and profit, the message at the heart of Ernest & Celestine is not to listen to those who seek to categorize certain people as all being the same: Celestine and the rest of the mice are taught from infancy that bears are all murderous and scary, and the bears detest the possibility of something so pestilent as a mouse coming into their home. And in addition to this, the thing at the heart of it all is loving. The importance of finding someone who'll care for you and who you can provide happiness to in return. No matter what imaginary divides that relationship might happen to go across.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Tripper (2006)

directed by David Arquette
USA
96 minutes
3 stars out of 5
----

"That's Reagan's skeleton, marching our way/Sentimental violence/Leading his zombies in the fog eternally..."
-from "Reagan's Skeleton", Yeasayer

I'm surprised that a Ronald Reagan-themed slasher directed by David Arquette of "Scream" fame is not more popular, even in cult circles. In my opinion it's far from what I would call "bad"... corny, yes, but not terrible. I appreciate the concept a great deal: instead of being inspired by those who are universally reviled, like serial killers or people he saw in gory movies, the villain in The Tripper is inspired by an American president. Despite being primarily a comedic film, the role of the United States government in doing evil is something that's excluded from the pool of things to joke about here, which I was thankful for. 

The presence of the serial killer in disguise as Reagan actually comes from a little ways out of left field, because there's a moment or two when you're lead to believe the culprit is somebody other than who it really was- and then when the moment comes in where you finally do see him, there's a sense of revulsion and a strong uncanny valley effect created by that disturbingly realistic, yet severely off mask the killer wears. 

I felt like this movie sometimes couldn't figure out what direction to take in terms of seriousness versus non-seriousness, because there's moments where the acting is as serious as acting would be in any other movie with less Reagan in it, but... Paz de la Huerta is there. I guess it comes down to the wide variation in how seriously the actors seemed to take their individual roles. Some of them phone it in, some do deliberate scenery-chewing, and some of them just seem to treat it like any other gig.

For the most part I thought this had good things to say about US imperialism and whatnot, but there were a couple places where I was disappointed that it couldn't have been better. For a movie that should have been aware of injustices it doesn't even stop for a moment before blatantly making the only black person in the group of main characters also the first of that group to die. And there are also some weird vague anti-Semitic stereotypes that are probably present in an overwhelming amount of other media as well, but this doesn't make it okay for them to be there in the first place.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Ghostkeeper (1981)

directed by Jim Makichuk
Canada
87 minutes
4 stars out of 5
----

While it's true that it falls victim to a lot of the usual cliches of 80s slashers, there's also something in the mix with Ghostkeeper that makes it some small measure stranger. I'm not talking strange as in surreal or unexpected, but strange as in there's a feeling to it that I'm unused to seeing in films from its era; a vibe that comes across as a solid, palpable sense of foreboding. I think this is due to the fact that it doesn't put such an excess of panty shots and frivolous sexy dialogue in, although there are one or two bits of flirtatiousness that felt out of place. Those bits don't come in until a while into the film, so for a while we just watch some people get further and further away from civilization in a snowstorm and know there's something coming for them. There's a quietness to it that pervades everything and that quiet is incredibly important in establishing a haunting atmosphere.

Unfortunately what that quiet and lack of sensationalism also means is that it's very, very boring. The characters speak softly and the landscape seems to drown them out, and that makes for a good and creepy overall vibe, but it doesn't do much to keep your attention. I had some trouble motivating myself to continue watching it, but in the end I did, because I could tell how it would have felt to watch this in the 80s- probably like how watching something tense and unsettling like The Witch is going to be in 36 years. I'm not saying Ghostkeeper holds a candle to The Witch, but I could feel its authenticity, and that factor sets it apart from the rest of its ilk.

I also greatly appreciated the performance of the woman playing the creepy old innkeeper as well as the writing that saved her from being the "sinister old lady" cliche I've seen a thousand times already. That performance alone had a lot to do with why I found this to be a respectable film as well: she's not the witchy, "eeeeeh heh heh heh come in dearie" type or the sugary-sweet, feeding-people-cookies type; she's an old mountain woman, and while she is murderous, she's played with a sense of intelligence and formidability that was much better than what most writers and directors go for when creating an old lady in a horror film. It was great seeing a character made for a specific role who had facets to them that didn't concern that role, like real-life people do.

I don't know, y'all... I think I really liked this one. I'm not used to watching 80s movies where I can see how they would have looked to audiences back then through their patina of outdated fashion and hairstyles. If somebody did it right, a remake of this could be fantastic.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Possessed (1999)

directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund
Denmark
96 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5
----

It's a very appropriate coincidence that this movie's original title (Besat) should be so close to the English word "beast".

If you're into despairing over how much time has passed since 1999 and how movies from the late 90s and early 2000s all seem like relics of a more distant time, then Possessed is for you. Apparently Denmark was also fascinated with the amped-up neon lights and dark, gritty, steamy noir that much of US cinema had been infatuated with at that time because this movie has that sort of aesthetic that only really specific crime shows tend to have. I actually started thinking at length about what the meaning of those distinctive neon colors was, because it seems like it was a color palette that only existed in the popular view for a short period of time but was nevertheless bonded to crime flicks like leaves are bonded to a tree- for a brief period this was the new noir, this was the trademark of a crime film. Then we moved on, and we stopped overusing neon solids in every scene.

But to me it looks like in this film those neons are meant to represent environs that are as far from nature as possible. The effect is obviously toned down outdoors as it's difficult to find plant life that fits the striking color palette in an urban environment, but when something happens that we're meant to perceive as being unnatural- moments of high tension, the committing of the central crime, or a scene that's supposed to convey the mental state of a criminal- the neon is brighter than at any other time. It's interesting to me how this hearkens back to the early days of cinema when the only way to color a film was to either color a scene in one single color or not color it at all. The directors are picking and choosing which single colors best represent the emotional content of a scene just like directors in the first decades of the 1900s did.

So how is the movie in general, aside from its aesthetic? Pretty generic, honestly. It reminds me a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn's very early films in both style and content, but it's a little more coherent, at least for a while. It starts out looking like a tense drama involving epidemiologists, police, and several people both living and dead who are connected to a rash of bizarre, fire-related disease outbreaks. All the while there's something shifting through the background, a vague looming that gives you a sense of everything not being out on the table at first glance. As far as slow reveals go, this one is pretty good at doing both paranormal and normal well and not losing anything in the transition between one or the other.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

directed by Justin Barber
USA
87 minutes
4.5 stars out of 5
----

Phoenix Forgotten is a sci-fi/horror hybrid in the found-footage format that may otherwise have disappeared among the miscellaneous sci-fi/horror movies released every year had it not been for Ridley Scott's name as a producer (and really, I have no idea where he came from). Despite there being several other movies about the Phoenix lights, I think this is a solid film and maybe the best one about the phenomena. So just a warning: This review may contain some unpopular opinions.

One of the things I actually didn't like was that it's one of those things that's only found-footage when it wants to be. It switches back and forth from a traditional style to home videos recorded by three missing persons whom the movie centers around. It seemed like there was a heavy emphasis on the nostalgia element; the home videos were made during the late 90s and there's a lot of hallmarks of the era present in them as well as an overall atmosphere of family and especially of family disrupted- the three people on the tapes are the people whom the main character in the present day is investigating, mainly because one of them was her brother. 

But outside of that my feelings towards this were overwhelmingly positive. I don't ever, and I mean ever get scared by alien movies, they're like zombie movies in that I can recognize their value but I don't think they're something I could ever be afraid of. But there's something in Phoenix Forgotten that makes the presence of aliens altogether more foreboding. This is the ultimate in alien non-appearances, we only ever see hints of the ship from afar and occasional horrifying, lightning-bolt-throwing glimpses of things in the "eye of the storm" at the end of the film. The lack of a concrete agenda, along with the lack of visual reference that would have allowed viewers to get used to the UFOs, goes towards making this feel mature and restrained, two things that I almost never see in found-footage.

Whatever else may have happened along the way, the scares are all there. In the pivotal scenes towards the end, as much of the horror comes from being a teenager alone in the desert in the freezing dead of night as it does from the presence of UFOs. This is a movie that uses unconventional ideas about what an alien encounter looks like and I'm totally willing to defend my opinion that it was excellent.