Monday, January 30, 2017

Best of the Year 8!

As we drive a stake through the blackened heart of 2016 (then proceed to tear out the rest of its cuts for a delectable party mix, cut off its head to use as a soccer ball, and set the rest of it on fire that we then use to make s'mores), the time has come to look back at the best offerings we found here at the Doll's House over the past blogging years.
Let's do it.

It should be said that I'm an easy mark for anything post-apocalyptic, but that shouldn't take too much away from the powerful Into the Forest. With outstanding-as-usual performances from Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, this drama/thriller finds a huge source of strength in examining its central relationship: a pair of very different sisters suddenly thrust into adulthood in world devoid of all the comforts and values they once knew.  
Like zombie flicks, slashers, and any other overdone horror subgenre, found footage has gotten a rather rotten wrap over the last few years as more and more budding filmmakers take advantage of its low cost charms. It's not an entirely unfair assessment, since let's face it: a bad handheld camera-filmed cheapie is way more insufferable than your worst dead teenager Halloween knockoff. That being said, when the style works, it can produce something incredibly effective, especially with the urgency that can come with our characters being the ones behind the camera. Matty Beckerman's Alien Abduction isn't the most original tale, but it's well-told. A family's woodsy vacation takes a turn when they come upon the apparent hunting (or abducting) grounds for an extraterrestrial race. Its clever filming gimmick (our main character is an autistic boy who uses his camera as a coping mechanism) is a great start, but the rest of the film's tension and character work is equally smart. This isn't the best of the found footage genre, but it's certainly in the high tiers. 
When two noted science fiction writers (and The Twilight Zone scribes) team up, very good things happen. A tad missold by its leering cover art and title, Burn, Witch Burn! is more supernatural drama than horror, but it's still quite a watch. An all-too-confident college professor rather chauvinistically dismisses his wife's interest in the supernatural, leading to some intense and suggestive comeuppance. The gender politics are subtle but very relevant, and the eagle-heavy finale packs a strangely effective punch nearly 60 years later.
Could the horror anthology finally be worth revisiting again? Following a series of (in my opinion) near offensive missteps (V/H/S, The ABCs of Death), Southbound assembles a team of new and young veteran filmmakers to tell a few loosely connected stories about a highway to hell. The cast is filled with familiar faces to the new horror empire, and the stories range from weirdly unsettling to genuinely scary. It's not a home run (few anthologies ever are) but it's a strong entry into an unnecessarily weak genre.
Speaking of good anthologies, the calendar-spread Holidays is even more delightful. From the truly tense Father's Day to Nicholas (The Pact) McCarthy's blackly comedic Easter, all the short films (made by eight different directors, ranging from first timers to some guy named Kevin Smith) hit their mark to varying degrees. Unlike so many anthologies that have come before (cough cough V/H/S), there's no underlying misogyny or easy targets to be found. The stories here include some truly fresh and unique spins on old tales, plus some of the coolest or most adorable monster makeup I've seen in some time.
Why isn't Pollyanna McIntosh more famous? The actress brings A+ level talent and commitment to every role she takes, whether that's the savage The Woman, corporate Exam applicant, or silent punk replicant-esque supervillain swinging a knife at Hap & Leonard. In the crappily titled Let Us Prey, McIntosh elevates her flawed material to something stunning. As the sole good cop spending a night of terror with corrupt policemen, scoundrelly inmates, and Liam Cunningham's supernatural angel of death (or something), McIntosh makes you so invested in this beautifully shot, somewhat sloppily told massacre that you'll walk away frantically checking the internet to look out for the sequel.

5. Insidious Chapter 3
Considering my disappointment with Insidious: Chapter 2, I didn't enter the third installment with high hopes. Thankfully, longtime screenwriter and first time director Leigh Whannell looked at what worked in the series and rather skillfully crafted the best installment yet. Much credit goes to unsung genre film hero Lin Shaye (and Whannell for recognizing her character's potential) who transcends the throne of scream queens to rule as a true horror empress.
Easily the most polarizing pick on my list, but damnit: I loved it. Writer/director Tara Subkoff holds nothing back in taking the worst of teenage girldom and igniting it with over-the-top visuals that remind you just how awful those years can be. I've found that more female viewers appreciated this film than male, probably because they felt Subkoff tapping in to that dark, confusing, maddening place that is the soul of a middle school girl group. I fully understand anyone who saw this film and wanted to turn it off after five minutes, but in terms of my experiences, this was a brilliantly told horror story about something rarely examined with so much pop.
3. Goodnight Mommy
Admittedly, this is a film that suffers greatly on second viewing due to some of its surprises, but that doesn't take away from the fact that on first watch, Goodnight Mommy is uniquely unsettling. After a presumed trip to a plastic surgeon, a pair of close twins begin to suspect their once loving mother has been replaced by an imposter. The film toys artfully with perception while balancing its point of view with austere visuals and sound. You won't forget it anytime soon.

2. Messiah of Evil
How did it take so long for me to discover this strange, special cult classic? A strange movie weirdly aided by its messiness, Messiah of Evil follows a young woman through a seaside European town as she looks for answers for why her artist father vanished. Along the way, we get swingers, drunken harbingers (the best kind), eerie modern art, cannibalism, and some of the tensest foot chase scenes in cinema. The low budget limitations lend a wonderfully odd flavor to the final product, and while nobody would call accuse this film of having the genre's best screenplay, all of the ingredients somehow combine to form something so oddly eerie that the final product is far more than a combination of its parts.  

Oh Karyn Kusama, what a gift you are. An indie that landed on several mainstream "best-of-the-year" lists, The Invitation is a thriller unlike anything else I can think of in terms of how it operates. The story follows an awkward dinner party attended by various college pals, exes, and possibly unstable new members of the hostess's new circle. It's a film that explores grief, trust, friendship, perspective, and so many more broad ideas in such a nuanced, edge-of-your-seat manner that no description can really do it justice. Carve out 100 minutes, sit down, pour some wine, and queue it up on Netflix Instant. It will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Ineligible Winner
I hesitate topping my list with this gonzo 1980 evil kid flick because 2016 was not my first (ice) dance  with it. But if you missed it, guys, The Visitor is everything I want in a movie: gymnastics, figure skating, birdings, lasers, ping pong, little blond sociopaths, and Shelley Winters. It's almost unreasonable for a movie to be this catered to me. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lessons Learned, Year 8

When done right, tradition is a beautiful thing. 

When done at the Doll's House, it's an educational thing. 

That's right: another year (number 8!!!) has ended, and while the official celebration happens next week with my look back at the best films I reviewed here this year, our preamble begins as always with a cumulative list of some of the most important, life-saving lessons amassed over the last 365 days.

As always, links to original review (and additional lessons) included.

Recent History
In the early 2000s, going to New Orleans was considered retro --Dark Ride

In the 1970s, it was totally acceptable for a nurse to seduce a mental patient providing foreplay involved a two-hour bath and extended dance party--Slaughter Hotel  


Around the House
Never store your sunscreen in a junk drawer --The Tortured

Candles are great props for home theater, but safety rules about keeping them away from curtains should still apply--After

Iron bars might not be the most inviting way to decorate your windows, but if they keep the evil wood monsters away from your baby, perhaps you should get over your HGTV snobbery and deal with it --The Hallow 

Never put your head under a window that doesn’t have a stopper, particularly if said window is in a room with sticky evil mirror fragments--The Boogey Man 

Behind the Wheel
The friendlier the cab driver, the higher the probability that he’s a satanist--Devil's Due

Don’t drive like an idiot and you won’t have to butterfly effect your life into a boring mess--The Butterfly Effect 2

The Laws of Modern Relationships
When parents get divorced, daddies move to Oregon--
Daddy's Girl

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

Getting your intended's parents to like you is a key element in the courting ritual--Homecoming

You don’t just unzip a man and say good night--Messiah of Evil

If you feel guilty about almost killing your girlfriend with your careless driving, the best way of showing it is to simply ignore her. She'll get the message -- Stalked By My Doctor

International Relations
In Austria, an unlocked door is an open invitation for Red Cross volunteers to enter your home--Good Night Mommy

Hell hath no fury like a li'l Canadian with an evil doll--Friday the 13th: The Series


Anthology Truths
Sigh. The usual. If you have boobs, a V/H/S camera will ogle them. If you have a vagina, you won't be allowed to do anything behind the camera. If you have motion sickness, a V/H/S camera will jam its fingers down your throat and vomit you. You get it.  --V/H/S Viral

For the Ladies
Edward Furlong is really good at naked cuddling - Awaken

A man who cries is a man who cannot haggle--Pompeii

A real man knows how to pick any lock, particularly one sealing a chastity belt --The Black Plague


Chat Roulette can be a surprisingly useful resource for potentially protecting yourself from vengeful ghosts -- Unfriended 


Antisocial Behavior Made Easy
Cottages are a great way to avoid committees and teas--Burn Witch Burn 

Apocalyptic Predictions  
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

Many things will be extinct should the earth experience a devastating drought in the future, but none more missed than hair ties--The Last Survivors


Insulting Etiquette
Never call a psychotic repressed Christian homosexual “old”--Let Us Prey

Encyclopedias may seem like ancient relics on your bookshelves, but take away the internet and how else are you going to learn which berries won't kill you? --Into the Forest

In addition to sex and fighting, cyborgs are also very talented at knitting scarves--Cyborg 2


Law Enforcement
The physics of explosions are beyond mere cop comprehension--No Man's Land 

Real friendship means shaving you pal's upper back and letting him pour acid on your face--They Look Like People 


The Teenage Female

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--Insidious: Chapter 3

Nothing celebrates turning 15 better than a murder confession and bouncy house--Besties

Eating a lot of chicken may bring on early menstruation--#Horror 


Self Help
One reason for not being happy all the time is that you're just not drinking all the time--

You know, don't kill innocent people and you won't go to hell or be forced to relieve a horrible monster chase for eternity--Southbound 


Fashion Tips
Never trust a man who wears a sports jacket to the beach (or a man who's Eric Roberts)--Stalked by My Doctor: The Return

Childcare Basics
If a conversation continues so long that it turns into a montage, it just may give a kidnapper enough time to swipe a child right out from under you--Kruel

Medical Emergency 101
The cure for a gushing stab wound is boiled water--Most Likely to Die 

Self-Defense Tips
Never bring a broken bicycle to a pitchfork fight--The Forest

Dining Out
Every town has a diner known for its pancakes--Creep 


Beverage Fun FactsNothing celebrates being demon-free better than an ice cold glass of Orange Crush--Ava's Possessions 

Drinking Fosters in a gay club will make you incredibly desirable to evil mummies--The Tale of the Mummy 

The Feminine MystiqueShockingly, women aren't thrilled when you announce your engagement to them before actually asking if they want to get married --The Visitor

A woman's heart does not have enough room for both prayer and creative writing--Ungodly Acts

Home Security 101
Butterflies make excellent guard dogs when it comes to backwoods cults--Bleed

As any rule of horror cinema goes, the cooler the house, the bloodier the party--The Invitation


When you meet a group of self-aware white twentysomethings, always assume they're filming you. Trust me: they are--The Houses October Built


Ranting Lesson to Male Directors

Look guys, I get it. Hot chicks wearing bras are hot. You know what hot chicks in bras are not? SLEEPING. Women. Don't. Sleep. In. Bras. Male directors who don't wear bras, talk to the women in your life or the actresses in your movie and ask them what they wear to bed. Trust me, it's not a piece of clothing with wires that dig into your sternum designed to keep your breasts in place when being active during the day. Do you wear a tie to bed? EXACTLY. --Leprechaun: Origins 


Monday, January 16, 2017

RSVP Affirmatively

Karyn Kusama is a filmmaker I will always root for. The studio interference riddled Aeon Flux aisde, her filmography (the brilliant real and insightful Girlfight and the woefully mismarketed clever bite of Jennifer's Body) demonstrates that she has a fantastically smart cinematic voice that should be heard more. This is generally reinforced when you read interviews where she discusses both her work and the pretty crappy way the Hollywood has treated her in comparison to her male peers.

Hence, there was no question that I was not going to give her latest, the well-received thriller The Invitation, a go, especially when it landed on Netflix Instant. I had previously avoided reading anything about it because other viewers had led me to believe it was an easily spoiled twisty tale. While it's not quite the mind flip I wax expecting, please see that I'm proceeding cautiously in my review, giving only the basic roundup before delving into full spoiler territory. Those who haven't seen the film should feel safe reading until the warning.

Quick Plot: Will and his new girlfriend Kira are reluctantly attending a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden in her gorgeous, secluded LA home with her own new beau Daario N--

I mean, David. 

Eden and Will lost their young son to a terrible tragedy, and while Will is still constantly suffering from the memory, Eden seems to have dealt with it in a more zen (and obviously, creepy) manner. She and David explain this to Will, Kira, and a few other old friends by showing them a video introduction to their "support group", which Will (and the audience) immediately pinpoints as a cult. Is it the kind of murder-heavy/wallet-gouging cult we tend to think of when we hear the very word, or just a peaceful, open-minded way of living and learning to forgive yourself?

The Invitation is a tricky film to discuss, because part of its power comes from the audience not quite knowing what to expect, who to trust, or even what kind of movie you're actually watching. On that note, I'll give a hearty recommendation right here, and delve into the burning intensity of SPOILER territory below.

From the opening moment where Will hits a roving coyote with his car, there's a quiet sense of dread simmering underneath the surface of The Invitation. The beauty of the film lies, in part, in how Kusama makes us question whether it's something truly dangerous or just the awkward nerves that come standard with these kinds of social gatherings. 

It's an incredibly tense mood that helps to keep the audience on constant edge. The idea of Will being a possible unreliable narrator certainly doesn't hurt, and as much as I was mostly convinced that Eden and her crew were up to something sinister, I also felt myself let out a strained sigh when it truly seemed as if Will was just misinterpreting social cues. Naturally, this makes the actual reveal that much more effective.

I loved The Invitation, and not just because of my weird obsession with any cult-based horror. Kusama's staging could have satisfied me even if it turned out that Eden and David WERE just overly friendly hippie party hosts and that Will was reading far too much into everything. The tension Kusama creates is something very skilled and incredibly intense. Perhaps more importantly, there's subtext and depth underneath it. This isn't just a horror movie about trying to dodge your cyanide-and-knife-wielding-friends. It's also a meditation on dealing with grief and  fascinating probe into the nightmare of socializing.

It's a good one.

High Points
Much should be said for the screenplay (by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) and Kusama's decisions to not force introductions and explanations, bot of the characters' relationships to one another and the actual big picture reveal of sorts at the end. The audience is never fumbling to figure out who's who because the script and direction guides you well enough along that you can figure it out as if you were just another guest at the party

Low Points
Much like I said about American Mary, I could have taken another hour of this film (especially with its fairly brief 100 minute run time). If that doesn't speak highly about a movie, what does?

Lessons Learned
As any rule of horror cinema goes, the cooler the house, the bloodier the party

If your ex-wife's new boyfriend seems way too comfortable with you, you should indeed be suspicious and expecting him to attempt to murder you

Never be the first to toast. Ever.

While I enjoyed watching The Invitation, this was one of those films that improved in my estimation the more I thought about it after the fact. From the way the film plays with who to trust to the skillful way it establishes the setting's geography, this is an incredibly well-crafted movie well worth a lights-out phone-away watch. Dig it.