Sunday, December 25, 2016

All the Best

Whatever your holiday of choice is this season, I hope you have a grand one.

Back soon!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mark Your Calendar

How has nobody ever thought of this before? A horror anthology composed of shorts set on the calendar’s major holidays. It’s a no-brainer.

And, much like Southbound, a pretty pleasant surprise.

Valentine’s Day
Written and directed by the team behind Starry Eyes, the first segment follows a teenage outcast named Maxine (unfortunately nicknamed Maxi Pad) as she nurses an intense crush on her gym teacher while her classmates brutally tease her. There's nothing overly revolutionary about the story or execution, but it's a well-told tale that's perfectly satisfying in its brief running time.

St Patrick's Day
Set in Ireland, this one follows a pleasant schoolteacher who tries to welcome a mysteriously moody new student into her class, only to have, well, a very unpleasant but somewhat welcomed surprise pregnancy via a Danny Zuko-esque snake worshipper. Directed by Gary Hore (Dracula Untold), this is a grotesquely funny and weirdly sweet horror comedy of sorts. Lead Ruth Bradley (wonderful in Grabbers) plays it perfectly, and the final reveal is one of the most adorably weird things I’ve seen in a while.

Easily my favorite, Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) spins a bizarre little yarn about how a curious young girl (the delightful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Ava Acres)’s questions about the specifics the Easter Bunny and Jesus’s resurrection leads to meeting a truly inspired and gross monster creation. The writing is on point here, as the little girl’s conversation with her exasperated mother is funny, smart, and wonderfully disturbing. That’s not even mentioning the odd background decision to decorate the home with an impressive collection of creepy clown art.

Mother’s Day
Kate has a problem: every time she has sex, no matter how many preventative measures she takes, she ends up pregnant. After two dozen abortions, she agrees to visit her gynecologist’s off-the-beaten-path spiritual retreat where a batch of infertile baby-hungry women see Kate as something very, very important. Directed by The Midnight Swim’s Sarah Adina Smith, this is probably the story that most felt like it should have been a full feature. There’s plenty of potential in exploring what it means for a woman to have or not want to have a baby, and while the ending has a nice kick, the story feels almost trapped in the short format. 

Father’s Day
A young woman named Carol (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) receives a cassette tape with a recording made by her presumed dead father with instructions on how she can see him again. Carol smacks on her headphones and follows his lead, walking through a beach as she listens to her dad’s intensifying guide recorded on the last day she ever saw him. Newcomer Anthony Scott Burns builds tension with incredible skill, making this, for me, the scariest of all the stories. It doesn’t quite make good on its promise, but it still manages to be a unique spin on the typical anthology tale.

Kevin Smith--yes, that Kevin Smith--tells this revenge tale of a trio of webcam performers who finally take control over their gross and abusive boss. This will probably be the most polarizing of the bunch (as Kevin Smith fare tends to do to an audience) but I enjoyed it well enough. There’s a nice girl power vibe and a satisfying comeuppance, and perhaps most importantly, a short running time that doesn’t let anything out live its entertainment value. 

Legion’s Scott Stewart directs Seth Green as Pete, a nice, but unexceptional dad trying to get the latest new technology toy for his son on Christmas Eve. When the customer who snagged the last one has a heart attack on an otherwise unoccupied street, Pete grabs the gadget and guiltily leaves the man to die alone. Naturally, this decision haunts him, especially when the gift in question (a pair of virtual reality goggles designed to show each wearer his or her own personal fantasies) keeps reminding him of his crime. This is a fun segment, aided a lot by Green’s take on a schlubby dad and some genuine surprises along the way. The ending is a bit abrupt, but again: this is an anthology. We don’t need codas.

New Year’s Eve
An awkward and dentally challenged killer meets women online, kidnaps them, and murders them when he loses patience with their inability to love him. On New Year’s Eve, he scores a date with an attractive younger lady with her own crappy dating history and, well, twists ensue. Made by Adam Egypt Mortimer, this is a fun tale and appropriate way to end the film, as the tone is somehow both lighthearted and appropriately violent. Mortimer also deserves credit for staging a wonderfully realistic, painfully uncomfortable first date.

Lessons Learned
Vets don't get things wrong

Jesus and ET do indeed have a lot in common

If a man doesn’t think you’re worth brand name candy, that is not a man for you


I had heard mixed reactions to Holidays, so my expectations were fairly low going in, but man...I kind of loved this movie. Some stories were certainly stronger than others, but none wore out their welcome (the kiss of death for many a short film). The fairly organic mix of offbeat comedy and genuine horror made for a refreshingly diverse mix of tone that kept me invested throughout. Like any good multi-filmmaker anthology, all the stories have their own identity but never seem to clash. Not to always bring up my favorite punching bag, but I’d take the weakest installment here (probably Halloween) over all of the first V/H/S, and most of the other segments in the more decent sequels. The film is streaming on Netflix and can make a satisfying watch for any season.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Not a Gentle Probe

If you had told me that someone basically made a feature length film adaptation of the final installment of V/H/S 2, the last thing I would probably say is “that sounds great!”

I can admit when I’m wrong.

Quick Plot: A family of five embarks upon an unassuming camping trip through rural North Carolina, an area apparently known for its mysterious Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon that some have suspected may be caused by something not of this world. When they take a wrong turn and come upon a pileup of abandoned vehicles, they realize that they just may have stumbled on some extraterrestrial hunting grounds.

Let's start by acknowledging that Alien Abduction makes one of the best decisions I've ever seen in justifying its found footage approach. Riley, the youngest child, is autistic and, as his sister explains to the first stranger they meet, relies on seeing things through his video camera. It's a brilliant choice that pre-answers the question we always ask in this genre.

Thankfully, that isn't the only good trick up director Matty Beckerman's sleeve. Initially, I was far from pleased to have a bland, somewhat bickering all-American family of unimpressive people as my leads, but the film manages to deepen most of them simply by how they react to the jarring experience of, well, running away from aliens. Oldest son Corey doesn't necessarily register in the film's first half as anyone of interest, but once he loses an important member of his family, his reaction to it is sad, admirable, and believable. 

Similarly, the introduction of an off-the-grid mountain man named Shawn first reads as a typical foray into modern horror's impressions of redneck America at its most obvious. Thankfully, that's not the case. Shawn may live in a cabin in the woods and carry a shotgun, but he quickly shows he's far smarter than the immediate impression given off by his accent and trucker hat. 

In barely 85 minutes, Beckerman managed to do quite a bit. Perhaps most importantly, Alien Abduction packs a few actual scares. The design of the creatures, filled with odd clicks and buzzes, isn’t the most revolutionary, but it’s effective and eerie. The filming style feels real and not TOO nausea-inducing, and the complete lack of information or explanation about what these things are or want adds to the terror our characters have of not knowing what to do. It’s exactly what a low budget found footage horror movie should be. 

High Points
As noted above, there are a lot of things that work about Alien Abduction, but I think what really sells the bulk of it is how the film realizes that lack of explanation is a scary, scary thing

Low Points

Lessons Learned
If the 2016 presidential election hadn’t already established this, I’ll just go ahead and say it: North Carolina may be the beginning of the end


My expectations were on the low end for Alien Abduction, so it’s certainly possible that I was just thrilled to get more than I anticipated. But hey, that doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely enjoy this. The film is streaming on Netflix and should effectively scratch any alien/horror/found footage itch you might need a solution for. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Insidiousest

The general consensus at the announcement of 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3 was an apathetic “oh, they made another Insidious movie.” As we’ve learned from American politics, much of humanity is horrible and awful and is often completely wrong.

Quick Plot: A few years before the actions of the first Insidious, other ghostly happenings occur. Quinn Brenner is a nice young high school senior hoping to make it into college on an acting scholarship. This will take her far away from her well-meaning but typically overbearing dad (Dermot Mulroney) who has put her in charge of the home and her younger brother following the death of his wife.

The only thing Quinn wants more than a killer monologue is to reconnect with her mother, who she believes to be present in her life in ghost form. Quinn reaches out to familiar face Elise Rainier (the one and only Lin Shaye), but the Insidious veteran has been having some problems of her own when it comes to entering The Further.

Elise, you see, recently lost her beloved husband. In trying to reach him, she has instead bumped into that familiar black-veiled senior citizen that once (and in the future) tortured two generations of the Lambert boys. As a result, Elise is a tad gun-shy when it comes to connecting with that other plain of existence.

Quinn, however, doesn’t really have a choice, as she’s somehow awakened an angry, homicidal spirit who’s trying to take her down into his hellish version of limbo. 

Insidious: Chapter 3 is written and directed by new wave horror veteran Leigh Whannell, who’s served as a screenwriter for most of James Wan’s projects. Whannell (who also shows up onscreen as the divisive pre-tie wearing ghostbuster Specs) clearly learned a whole lot from shadowing Wan over the last few years. Chapter 3 fits right into the series, and even offers some improvements.

While I enjoyed Insidious, the first sequel left me fairly disappointed, with the convoluted story getting in the way of the actual horror. Chapter 3 wisely simplifies things. Quinn’s haunting is straightforward and as a result, the film’s jump scares and visual chills hit quite well. We don’t have to know every detail about Quinn’s stalker. He’s just creepy.

The key ingredient in making this film work, however, is something far more special. Lin Shaye is the definition of a veteran character actor. She’s been in the business for decades but rarely seemed to get the spotlight. How nice is it that Leigh Whannell seemed to decide her time had finally come?

Shaye is wonderful in Insidious: Chapter 3, and more importantly, the movie pops because it has her at its center. Quinn’s story is fine on its own and young actress Stefanie Scott connects well, but around the halfway mark, Elise gets to take over and kick ass. It helps that the film develops her story, introducing the tragedy of her husband’s suicide (plus an adorably loyal golden retriever sidekick) to add weight to her psychic visits to The Further. 
This isn’t a game changer for horror, but it’s a solid, enjoyable, and whaddya know, actually scary entry into a successful franchise. This makes me eager to see more Whannell behind the camera, and equally eager to see the upcoming fourth film directed by The Taking of Deborah Logan’s Adam Robitel. 

High Points
34 years of watching horror movies has made me fairly immune to typical jump scares, but dangit, I gasped at least twice at simple scares that just worked exactly as they were designed to. Well done Mr. Whannell

As I said about the first Insidious’s devotion to having its characters NOT make the token cliched mistakes found in every haunted house flick of years past (not moving, not turning on the lights) it’s also refreshing to see Chapter 3 make a clear point of NOT having Quinn’s dad waste screentime doubting his daughter’s hauntings. 

Low Points
Much in the way the first Insidious included a baby sibling purely for the convenience of using a creepy baby monitor, this one seems to include a younger brother just for, well, help with the internet?

Lessons Learned
If you’re food shopping for a teenage girl in any movie made after 1995, always assume she’s a vegetarian to avoid the well-meaning offering of jerky only to have her tell you what I just did

Save the word "literally" for when you're literally being literal (thanks, millennial best friend character who cements her status as the secret mini-MVP of this movie)

You might think you’re tough, but trust me: you’re not as tough as Lin Shaye

Look! It’s--
James Wan cameoing as the director overseeing Quinn’s audition. That’s cute.


I’m genuinely shocked by how much I enjoyed Insidious: Chapter 3. It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s familiar in some ways and incredibly fresh in others. I found the film via HBO Go, but if it turns up near you, give it a go. You don’t necessarily have to watch the first two (and certainly not the second) to enjoy this one. Just enjoy it as a strong little ghost story. I think you’ll be pleased. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Different Kinds of Holiday Horrors

Throw away your high heels and work cell phone, put on your dangerously oversized earrings, and add some whipped cream to your cocoa. It's Cozy Cardigan Christmas Movie Time, and I've got BIG things planned.

Over at my podcast, The Feminine Critique, I'm shooting out mini-episodes faster than a strict career woman can change her ways and save Christmas in a charming small town. On deck is a whole bunch of Hallmark, Lifetime, UP, and FreeForm originals wherein, well, a strict career woman changes her ways and saves Christmas in a charming small town. There's also one about Nick Lachey's younger brother as a rock star who, well, saves Christmas in a charming small town. Oh! And Daphne Zuniga saves Thanksgiving in a charming small town AND she starts as, you know, a strict career woman. 

I have a lot to say about these movies. You can download at iTunes or figure it out here.

If you prefer to SEE me when I talk about Candace Cameron Bure saving Christmas in a charming small town AND you're in the New York area on Friday, December 9th, then come on down to Brooklyn's Alamo Drafthouse. I'll be participating in a very special Kevin Geeks Out comedy show about, you guessed it, holiday specials. You can get all the details here

Hope to see you there!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Lightly Toasted

Amazon Prime’s streaming is an odd duck of a service. There are some fantastic popular and rare titles available to watch, but the one sentence synopsis and lack of listing a director OR year of release makes it rather challenging to have any clue what you may be watching. 

Such was the case with today’s feature, a classy little drama with genre touches that seems, based on the title and poster Amazon went with, to instead be a bloody period tale of witchcraft and fire.

Quick Plot: Norman Taylor is a successful college professor with high ambitions of chairing his department. Back home, his wife Tansy has some trouble interacting with his colleagues in social settings, preferring to spend her time alone at their secluded beach cottage. Could it be because it's a safer place to practice THE BLACK ARTS?

Well, yes, actually, and who can blame her when the alternative is playing bridge with stuffy academics? Tansy, you see, has picked up some witchcraft skills after a trip to Jamaica. Though her skeptic of a husband doesn't believe her, she insists that she's been using her spells to help his career advance. Offended by her silly beliefs (Norman, in case you haven't guessed, is a jerk), he forces Tansy to burn all of her occult items. Included in that stash is a locket that just so happens to have a picture of Norman inside.

Naturally--or SUPERnaturally, if you will--the Taylors have to pay. Norman is accused of raping one of his female students, then barely escapes being shot by her jealous boyfriend. Tansy decides the only way to save her husband is to sacrifice herself in his place, but Norman isn’t quite willing to let that happen, nor is the mysterious REAL villain who has been manipulating forces from the very beginning.

Based on the title and poster, I was expecting Burn, Witch, Burn (aka The Night of the Eagle, which makes a lot of sense in the final act) to be more along the Hammer-y lines of a Mark of the Devil or other often Vincent Price-filled classics. In other words, burnings at stakes, dunkings, stocks, bad wigs, and lots of pointed fingers. 

That is not this film.

That’s a good and bad thing. The bad because, hey, I love me a good inquisition exploitation flick. Good because, well, Burn, Witch, Burn is actually quite a strong film. Director Sidney Hayers worked primarily in television, and the style feels almost Twilight Zone-esque in terms of staging and performances. Co-written by, whaddya know, Twilight Zone scribes (and sci-fi icons) Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, Burn, Witch, Burn ultimately plays out like a feature adaptation of a Rod Serling classic. The climax is surprisingly unnerving, even with its 60+ year limitations of aging special effects. 

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a good old-fashioned birding. 

High Points
Though I wish it had been pushed further, it’s clear that the film is acknowledging some interesting gender issues in terms of its Lady MacBeth-like details. The women in this film will fiercely work towards pushing their men into success, while the partners in question seem to barely deserve their bedside company. 

Low Points
It’s a product of its time, but I can’t help to feel like the happy, Hayes Code-friendly ending feels like a disappointment

Lessons Learned
You can hypnotize the bad, but you can't hypnotize the cards

Cottages are a great way to avoid committees and teas 

Lounging wear for women in the early 1960s was the equivalent of church or campaign-wear in the 21st century

Burn, Witch, Burn is streaming via Amazon Prime, and it’s certainly a strong way to pass 90 minutes. If you’re looking for a quality extended episode of The Twilight Zone, this is certainly your answer. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Roman Holiday

Maybe it all began with Sonic the Hedgehog, but I've always found volcanoes to be, rather naturally, absolutely horrific. The Pompeii eruption that destroyed an entire city way back when is certainly good fodder for the big budget treatment. All it needed, apparently, was a lot of abs.

Quick Plot: It's 500 A.D., and unless you're a miscast Kiefer Sutherland playing a Roman senator, life sucks.

Slaves are sent to the gladiator arenas to die in forgettable glory.

Business folks are forced to make bad deals to secure some kind of stability.

Hot daughters of business people must marry miscast Kiefer Sutherlands.

Oh, and there's a massive volcano set to destroy the entire city via lava, tidal waves, earth fractures, fireballs, rubble collapses, and unhinged miscast Kiefer Sutherlands.

Can anyone catch a break?

Pompeii is a big budget disaster pic that basically asks the question, how can we squeeze a PG-13 rated Gladiator into 100 minutes of Independence Day (or 2012, or whatever your modern CGI-infused apocalypse is of choice). Directed by Resident Evil godfather Paul W.S. Anderson, it tells an extremely familiar story with streamlined efficiency. Consider the cast of characters:
Handsome hero with a childhood grudge, insanely chiseled physique, and secret heart of gold

Lovable sidekick who will start out as our handsome hero's rival before accepting a supporting role and sacrificing himself for the whiter handsome hero he recently befriended

Beautiful poor little rich girl with a conscience and amazing ability to keep her pre-Cover Girl makeup perfectly smudge-proof

Evil, just unrepentant evil villain and his taller right hand man

Everyone's mostly British, because, you know, OLD TIMES. All the villains get their comeuppance, all the helpful but less white supporting cast member die semi-heroically, and the booming soundtrack pauses not once but TWICE when our handsome hero upon his horse has to leap over what could be certain death, only to land safely and cue up the horn section with his triumph.

You don't go into Pompeii expecting innovation. You expect, and receive, all the grape-chewing baddie sneers, the impossible combat scenes that only our hero and sidekick can survive, and computer printed lava raining down upon scores of extras wearing recycled garbs from Rome. To its credit, the movie doesn't really wimp out on delivering the complete wipe-out of a city and its people. There's no Pierce Brosnan or Tommy Lee Jones dispatched to evacuate a plucky band of deserving survivors. This is a historic volcano that annihilated everything in its path.

But hey, the people are still really, really pretty. And the not-quite Spartacus gladiator scenes are sort of the equivalent of saying, "I love a fine boiled lobster served with garlic mashed potatoes in a five-star restaurant but can also enjoy Long John Silver's deep fried cod and basic french fries." This movie isn't better than it could have been, but it's as good as it should have been for being, you know, a mid-big budget PG-13 historical action romp about a volcano.

High Points
Considering the bulk of IMDB's trivia section focuses on it, I don't see why I shouldn't: Kit Harington is typically weighed down by furs and Night's Watch robes on Game of Thrones, so while it may sound crass and shallow to compliment his inhuman 12-pack of a stomach, Pompeii's lingering camera gaze practically begs anyone watching with eyes to say, "wow, that dude really worked out for this movie."

Low Points
It seems like there should be an edict against casting Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss and not giving either anything interesting to do

Lessons Learned
It is shockingly possible to pick a lock with a splinter while chained to a carriage going at least 35 MPH

A man who cries is a man who cannot haggle

Ravenousing (i.e., acting dead when mistakenly tossed in a giant pile of corpses and waiting hours to emerge) is a time honored tactic for surviving massacres

Look, Pompeii isn't a good film, but it's fun and knows exactly what its audience wants. The DVD includes a bevvy of deleted scenes, so a cheap or rented copy won't bore you too badly.

Plus, this: