Monday, December 28, 2015

Merry Kristy

Back in 2008, Oliver Blackburn brought the world his directorial debut, Donkey Punch. As anyone might guess, such a title prompted a fair amount of attention and reminded me of one of Jeopardy!'s all-time greatest moments.

The film itself Looking back at my 2012 review, I found it to be quite well-made, but overall, a rather unpleasant experience that didn't do anything special with its ripe premise. Still, Blackburn's handle on his camera showed some promise, so it seemed worth a try to watch his followup Kristy, now conveniently streaming on Netflix Instant.

Quick Plot: Justine is a hard-working scholarship-and-mess-hall-employed college student planning to spend Thanksgiving weekend on the deserted campus with her wealthier roommate. Wealthier roommate bails at the last minute to join her family in Aspen (as wealthier roommates are prone to do), leaving Justine all alone with the friendly security guard (Keith from Six Feet Under), gate agent, and frozen turkey pot pie.

The lure of Chunky Monkey calls, and Justine hops in her roommate's BMW to the nearby gas station for a fix. Also shopping the aisles is a mysterious hooded young woman who seems uncomfortably interested in Justine, who she prefers to call "Kristy." 

Justine returns to campus a little shaken, but gets utterly trembly when she realizes her gas station pal has followed her home with three masked men and a whole lot of sharp objects. The hunt is on.

Kristy is a very simple film: four killers chase our heroine. While a brief coda of sorts gives us a tiny bit more information about the nature of our villains, this is a cat and mouse game, grounded very specifically in one place, with limited characters to play. 

It works.

With Donkey Punch, Blackburn showed that he could make a decent technical film. Where that film lost me with its script's lack of complexity, Kristy succeeds with an equally sparse story because we're simply caught up in the chase. Justine (as well-played by Haley Bennett) is easy to root for, both for her establishment as a working class underdog and slowly revealed survival skills. She’s smart, she’s quick, and we want to see her win.

High Points 
Even though Kristy is a fairly sparse and simple tale, Blackburn manages to build just enough depth to his characters to make the “hunting” that much sadder

Much credit goes to Francois-Eudes Chanfrault’s score, which has a great pulsating intensity that keeps the tension high

Low Points
While I was fine with the lack of explanation for our killers, I still would have liked a little more differentiation to them. The three silent masked men display no discernible qualities in terms of strength or skill, and it feels like a little opportunity was lost in that area

Lessons Learned
As far as poets go, Blake's a badass

Know your janitor's closets. Love your janitor's closets

Duct tape really does have endless uses


Considering my lukewarm feelings on Donkey Punch, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Kristy. It's hardly unique or innovative, but the overall film moves well, and I was fully invested from start to finish. At just under 90 minutes long, it's a more than decent way to give yourself a few jumps for a nice evening in. 

Friday, December 25, 2015


Just a little furry message to say happy holidays to you and your Muppets.

Hugs, kisses, smooches, and all the other gooey stuff. 

Well, maybe not ALL the gooey stuff.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Just Following Orders

During my freshman year of college, I took an introduction to psychology class and received the worst grade of my university career (B-, because I'm a NERD). Aside from crushing my self-esteem, this course instilled in me a very, very important rule to live by: 

Never be the subject that proves a terrible truth about humanity.

This class involved watching a few videos about the infamous Milgram experiments and what they might say about our tendency to accept sheep status when a leader has taken control. One of the videos followed a lesser-known and far more relatable study than the "how many electric shocks would you issue if someone in a lab coat told you to?" In this case, two people (one a control and the other the unknowing subject) were led into a room to take a written test. Just outside the door, they passed a man doing maintenance work while standing on a ladder. They were instructed to sit down, write their answers, and not to leave the room or speak with one another until the time was up.
Ten minutes into their "exam," there is a loud sound as if the man on the ladder has fallen and is moaning in pain. The control continues to take the test, making no effort to investigate. The subject seems conflicted, but ultimately follows the lead of the control and continues on course despite the screams coming just outside the door. When the same experiment is run without the control, the subject usually breaks the "rules" and checks on the individual outside.
Rorschach had his Kitty Genovese and I have this educational video to keep me in line when it comes to hive minding. I'm sure I can still be duped into submitting to authority despite my own instincts, but I try to be conscious of what I think is right if it doesn't seem to match instructions. Or maybe I just always make a point of checking on someone if I hear a crash.

My point with this rather overlong intro is not that I'm anywhere close to being a psychology expert (remember: B-) but that it's easy--so easy--to do what we're told without any kind of introspection. Today's film is about such a case, and while it's a horrifying extreme, it also really happened, and could potentially happen to all of us.

Let's see if they start showing this in intro psychology classrooms.

Quick Plot: Sarah is the manager at a ChickWich, a fast food joint filled with your typical fry grease and unmotivated minimum wage employees. Just before her Friday night shift gets busy, she receives a phone call from a policeman named Officer Daniels informing her that Becky, the pretty young cashier, has been caught stealing money from a customer's purse. Because there's more to this case than petty theft, Sarah is advised to bring Becky to the backroom and keep her in holding until the matter can be resolved.

It doesn't exactly end there. Daniels convinces Sarah that finding the stolen money will make things easier all around, leading to a strip search and confiscation of Becky's clothing. As the restaurant gets busier and busier, Sarah is forced to bring in her almost-fiance Van to help supervise Becky, something made more than a little uncomfortable by the fact that Van may have had a few beers on the way. Daniels asks a little more of Van. Since Becky fears Daniels is mounting a bigger case against her brother (who was casually mentioned on the phone call), she continues to comply with the increasingly odd demands.

Written and directed by Craig Zobel, Compliance is very closely taken from a real event that occurred in a Kentucky McDonald's a few years back (you might even remember the Law & Order: SVU episode on it, wherein Robin Williams advised 30 Rock's Pete to do some very bad things). As much as I typically cringe at an "inspired by real events" tagline, it's actually vital in this case because otherwise, it would be so easy for the audience to judge the characters and wonder why they're so accepting of the situation. It's not really any kind of a spoiler to say that Officer Daniels is no cop, that Becky never stole any money, and that Sarah is not about to be named employee of the month.

Daniels (played by the wonderful Pat Healy) is a master manipulator, and while his targets aren't necessarily the sharpest tools in the burger industry, it's completely believable to see them buy his persona without too much questioning. When you know the truth, it's easy to realize that he never names names or gives any real specifics. But every fast food joint has a 19ish year old working the counter, and if you ask her about a family member that might have trouble with the law, there's a good chance that every 19ish year old will have one of those too. That middle-aged restaurant manager will of course be incredibly cooperative if she thinks she's speaking to a policeman with her regional manager on the other line. We're eager to please those in charge. It's human nature.

Compliance is a horror movie, one that will make you cringe. It's also an incredibly important reminder that doing the right thing isn't always the same as doing what we're told. You won't feel good watching it.

High Points
There's such a mastery in Daniels' manipulation of the situation, but it's most horrific in how he's able to immediately shut Becky's protestations down and continuously make her feel small. The worst thing you can ever say to a woman is "calm down" when she's not actually overreacting, and the writing and performances so perfectly nail how such an instruction would work

I'm not in any way the first person to say this, but Ann Dowd's performance as Sarah is so achingly real that it goes a long way in making Compliance work as well as it does

Low Points
The last ten minutes or so deal a little with the aftermath, and while Sarah's arc continues to be fascinating, it feels as though the film stalls a bit in understanding how Becky has come to process the experience

Lessons Learned
You're fucked without bacon

Skinnies don't have pockets
Always check your minutes before using that calling card

Compliance is an incredibly uncomfortable film to sit through. Much like a similarly morally muddy indie gem Scalene, it presents its case and characters with such a believable realness that the entire experience is that much harder to take. This is definitely worth seeing (and is currently streaming on Instant Watch) but remember that it's not an easy ride. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Seasons Greetings

As anyone who reads this site should know, nothing pleases me more than discovering new filmmakers with original takes on the genre. The team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead impressed me for a lot of reasons with their festival favorite Resolution. The film (which you can find streaming on Instant Watch) took a typical cabin-in-the-woods setup and approached it from a different angle, keeping such a strong focus on it all by centering the film on a pleasant, normal lead. It wasn't a perfect film, but it was fresh and moving.

Their followup feature, Spring, has been getting a lot more press and is now available on Amazon Prime. 

Let's do this. 

Quick Plot: Evan (the very natural Lou Taylor Pucci from the wonderfully underrated Carriers) is a nice but aimless twentysomething whose life goes into a tailspin following the death of his mother. With no job, a possible arrest warrant for a bar fight, and a best friend who spends the majority of his time so inebriated that he barely knows Evan is alive, our unhappy young man heads to Italy for a break.

After a few rounds of drunken nights out with fellow hostel travelers, Evan takes a job helping out an elderly farmer in a small and picturesque seaside town. He also meets a beautiful, well-traveled medical student named Louise (Nadia Hilker) and instantly falls in love, unprotected sex style.

Everything is all wine and espresso until Louise reveals (first to the audience) a very strange, rather gross secret. I won't spoil the details, but let's just say it's a little Cat People, a little American Werewolf, and a whole lot of skin peeling. 

Once you get past the very stonercentric opening (which borders on dangerous levels of hip and beard length), Spring opens up into a rather sweet love story. Pucci and Hilker have a strong chemistry and find the lightness in their (maybe) doomed romance, while the actual design of Louise’s condition feels quite new and surprising. The final act lingers a tad too long, but there’s something fresh in how Benson and Moorhead let their characters take time in determining their end. 

High Points
As I said with Resolution, directors Benson and Moorhead seem to have an outstanding talent when it comes to getting incredibly likable, low-key performances from very natural actors. Both Pucci and Hilker are both fantastic and do an incredible job of grounding the story in a very real relationship

Low Points
I deduct at least 10 points from any film that dares to blind me with a closeup of a caterpillar

Much has been discussed about Spring's use of drone footage camerawork. While it didn't bother me, I did find that the film overall seemed to lack a real visual style. Considering Spring is filmed in this gorgeous Italian landscape, it feels as though the photography should be...well, prettier? Whether that has anything to do with the new style, I'm not sure

Lessons Learned
The real problem with Americans is that they don't play rugby

Fear of the unknown has produced some very pretty stuff

It only takes a few days to become fairly conversational in Italian

By the time it's over, Spring feels a tad overlong, but remains a fresh, well-told tale that takes a simple story and treats it with such affection and care. Benson and Moorhead continue to be one of the most promising filmmaking teams in the genre, and it will be exciting to see them continue to grow. You can find Spring streaming at Amazon Prime. It's certainly worth a gander. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

I Hope They Use Folding Chairs In Hell

If an intriguing plot synopsis comes my way on Netflix Instant, I see little reason to not give it a go. Especially if said film is a mere 90 minutes long. 

Quick Plot: Edgar is a pretty miserable fellow. Though married to a beautiful younger woman named Maylon, it’s clear that his wife would be far happier just about anywhere else, especially the Philippines where she lived with her teenage son before the tubby ESL teacher whisked them away for a better life. 

That better life has proven to be filled with suspicion and jealousy. A breaking point is reached and the next thing Edgar knows, he’s wandering a large prison-like facility and being herded into group therapy sessions where a televised headmistress of sorts insists he has killed his wife. His fellow group members include a sullen prep school reject who fully admits to murdering his parents, a bitter loner who drowned his children, and a damaged mother ruing her suicide since the 1970s. 

They do not make a fun Charades team.

Instead, Edgar’s fellow “prisoners” are forced to relive their final day over and over again in the attempt to accept what they’ve done in order to, in the words of their tormenters, “move on to a better place.” At first, Edgar refuses to believe he could have hurt Maylon, later coming to accuse her of trying to murder him.  Think of it as Groundhog Day with hints of Cube.

Made in Canada on a fairly small budget, Cruel & Unusual focuses most of its energy exploring David Richmond-Peck’s Edgar. This isn’t the typical center of your genre film, and it’s certainly the film’s biggest strength. We’ve all known Edgars in our lives. This is the kind of lonely man who believes the world is out to get him, that he’s entitled to far more happiness than he’s ever actually earned. 

Putting such a person in purgatory (or whatever you want to call it, since the film doesn’t officially give it a label) is a great move. Writers Merlin Dervisevic and Claudia Morris could easily have gone a different route with their central character, but the specificity of Edgar, this unmemorable loner who had to go across the world to find a woman who needed him, works so well in grounding the film. This is a smartly crafted film that finds its resources in character. 

Cruel & Unusual isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a very different little film that shows a lot of promise for director Dervisevic. Think of it as a philosophical thriller with a solid human being at its center. The end result works well.

High Points
David Richmond-Peck is truly committed to playing Edgar as a such a non-self-aware, pathetic mass of a man who sees himself as a nice guy but is actually far meaner and uglier than his self-imposed victim status would have you believe

Low Points
It could very well have been budgetary, but the look of Cruel & Unusual never really says much. It makes sense that the facility would be so drab (and even Soviet-era gray), but considering we’re essentially exploring an afterlife, it feels as though we should have a little more visual differentiation to define the present, past, and fantasy

Lessons Learned
Menudo isn't very good for those suffering ulcers

Hell is filled with surly strangers and very uncomfortable chairs

Before suicide or murder, try to make a point of wearing comfortable clothes


Cruel & Unusual is a very strong debut for director Merlin Dervisevic, one that makes me eager to see more from him and co-writer Claudia Morris. With its fresh premise and fairly brief running time, this is certainly a recommend for those looking to watch something new and original. Much like the recent Circle, Cruel & Unusual has a Twilight Zone-ish feel and explores it well.