Archive | August, 2016

Contracted: Phase II (2015)

27 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ½*

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I begin my review of “Contracted: Phase II,” I should clarify something from my review of its predecessor, the 2013 body-horror film “Contracted.” I refrained from using a certain word that other reviewers were using; just one word that gave me a pretty good idea of how the film was going to end. Since this film picks up where the first one left off, I might as well just use said-word now. (And if you’re reading this, chances are you saw the first film to begin with.) The word used by critics was “zombie.” The main character, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), has been going through bizarre, scary changes, including her body falling apart, and guess what—she turns into a zombie. I bet you thought it was just a very messed-up sexually-transmitted disease, didn’t you?

Yes, apparently B.J., the sicko who gave Samantha the sickness to begin with (and is not played by Simon Barrett this time), is the carrier for a would-be zombie apocalypse.

Our hero in this sequel is Riley (Matt Mercer, reprising his role from the original). If you saw the original, you remember him as the guy who barely had a role aside from having a hopeless crush on Samantha, and it led to the point in which Samantha presumably gives him the disease near the end of the film. I remember writing in my review that I didn’t think that was warranted, since we hardly knew anything about him. And it’s amazing to see that even though most of this sequel is centered around him, I still don’t know a damn thing about him, nor do I care. He’s dull, uninteresting, and unsympathetic—he made me wish for the return of the comic-relief druggie from the original film. (That guy, played by Charley Koontz, does come back late in the film—I really wish he took center stage in this one.) I don’t blame Mercer for this; he just has nothing to work with.

Anyway, “Phase II” picks up where “Contracted” left off, with Samantha becoming a zombie and attacking her mother (Caroline Thompson) before being shot dead by police. And like I said, Riley now has the disease Samantha had in the original. His body’s falling apart, he feels a strange sensation despite his doctor saying he’s clean, and he tries to find answers as to what’s happening to him.

There’s really nothing to this movie. It’s pretty pointless, to say the least. The questions raised from the first film are answered, but they were answers most of us have figured out before we saw this second one anyway. There are some disgusting gory moments to gross the audience out, such as when Riley pulls a broken fingernail out of a claw mark on his back or when his nosebleed becomes too messy (and even leaks into cheese dip at a memorial service—blech) or even pulling out a maggot from under his skin…but then what? What else is there to this movie? There’s no mystery to keep us invested, either with Riley or with the police detective, Crystal (Marianna Palka, sporting an on-again/off-again American accent), investigating mysterious dead bodies, because we know what’s happening to Riley and we know what the detective is going to find. If nothing new could be added, why make a sequel at all? The original ended at just the right moment—nothing more was needed.

All the titular “Phase II” turns out to be is spreading the disease around, which was already implied in the original film—we understood that very quickly; B.J. was going to be responsible for creating more (sigh) zombies. (“Mankind is a bacteria that needs to be obliterated,” he says at one point.) The film tries to take a new interesting turn by having Riley attempt to track down B.J. and kill him, but even that doesn’t work because nothing about this development in both the story and the character of Riley turning into a public avenger seems interesting, let alone convincing.

The first “Contracted” worked as a character study with some horrific body-horror elements attached. This second film is not only a retread (minus interesting characters) but also a failed zombie movie—tame, weak, and ironically bloodless (figuratively). Needless to say, “Contracted: Phase II” suffers from the disease shared by most unnecessary horror films—the Pointless Sequel Syndrome.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

27 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wrote in my “Lights Out” review that 2016 was becoming a great year for smart mainstream horror. I also notice it’s been a banner year for confined thrillers—“10 Cloverfield Lane” has a maniac in a basement; “Hush” takes place at one house in which a deaf woman is vulnerable against a psycho (or is she?); the action in “Green Room” mostly takes place in a tight room in the back of a bar; and now, we have “Don’t Breathe,” in which unlucky burglars are trapped in a locked-down house with a blind war vet trained to kill.

“Don’t Breathe” brings a neat twist to the Home-Invasion Thriller. Of course, the particular example I think of is the 1967 thriller, “Wait Until Dark,” in which Audrey Hepburn is a blind woman terrorized by three thieves searching her home for something specific; they underestimate her and she manages to fight back. In this film, however, the thieves are our protagonists. And it’s not sweet Audrey Hepburn’s house they’re burgling—it’s rough-as-sandpaper Stephen Lang. He apparently has a stash of cash hidden somewhere in his house in the middle of a lonely neighborhood. The thieves—three arrogant teenagers (Jane Levy, Dylan Minette, and Daniel Zovatto)—hear about this and figure this will be their last score if they can pull it off. Because Lang is blind, they see this whole idea as an easy task, aside from the pet Rottweiler they have to sedate temporarily.

But in the middle of the gang’s search, the Blind Man (who’s never given a name) awakens after their chloroform bomb fails and knows there are people in his house. That’s when the teens realize they burgled the wrong house and messed with the wrong guy. And from that point, things go really, really wrong…

From that point, the film turns into a tense, chilling thrill ride that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. From the cinematography to the sound design to the “how-the-hell-are-they-gonna-get-outta-this-one” situations (one after the other), “Don’t Breathe” is a nail-biting experience that hardly lets up once it gets started. When Stephen Lang is walking blindly in his house while looking for these kids, I feel like I should be holding my own breath, making sure I’m not heard either. The suspense is palpable throughout many of these sequences, and you wonder, from one scene to the next, how these kids are going to get out of each tight spot they’re stuck in. You really feel these kids’ mutual fear as they realize too late they made a huge mistake in thinking they could rob a blind person who may in fact be a psychopath, and you do root for them to either find a way out of that house without being caught somehow or even to steal the loot. (How often does a film come along in which you forget stealing money from a blind guy is a bad thing? To be fair, we do get early character-establishment scenes that show why these kids, particularly Levy’s character, need the money; so we at least have some understanding why she takes a chance at times.)

When it comes to messages, we see it mostly done in melodramas which most of us would rather not watch because a lot of them are portrayed in a very manipulative way. I feel with horror films, you can get the message out stronger. It can be summed up like this: “If you do this, you’re screwed.” The best way to sum up “Don’t Breathe” is, “Don’t underestimate the blind, because if you do, you’re screwed!”

OK, OK, so the film tries to stretch it out even longer by giving the Blind Man more psychotic tendencies (to say the least—but I won’t spoil anything here), but the point still remains: don’t underestimate the blind.

“Don’t Breathe” is a well-made, well-acted, exciting hell-ride that helps me further my statement that 2016 is a very good year for horror. We have four months left, so let’s wait and see what else we can get.

V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug



Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As someone who enjoyed the found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” as more-or-less a “guilty pleasure,” I was curious to see what could be done as a follow-up. Would “V/H/S” be a worthy horror franchise or would it wear out quickly after a desperate cash-grab attempt?

“V/H/S/2” (or “S-V/H/S,” as it was originally called) is about on par with “V/H/S” in that it’s uneven yet enjoyable for the best parts (just enough for me to recommend). There is one big difference, however—“V/H/S/2” has a middle segment that is creepier, more outrageous, and more fun than any of the other segments in either of the two “V/H/S” films. It itself is a terrific horror film worthy of a recommendation.

Once again, the wraparound story for the anthology involves people sneaking into a house and watching unsettling VHS tapes. While I thought the previous film’s connective tissue had some chilling subtle moments, I felt it was weak overall with a lack of clever resolution. But with this one (directed by Simon Barrett), I surprisingly found myself more involved in what was happening, as once again, little things change here and there that had me edgy—the surprise was I thought the twist was actually unique and well-done. My only problem with it is after the characters watch the segments in between. The things they see don’t seem to faze them very much; they just seem to shrug it off and continue to the next one each time.

The first segment (“Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard) is shown through a man’s ocular implant with a camera. The doctors warn him that the implant is experimental (hence the camera, to see how things go at first). Shortly after he gets it, he starts seeing visions of people who shouldn’t be there. It’s an unsettling, effectively done chiller with an ending that made me look away.

The second segment (“A Ride in the Park,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale) is shown mostly from the POV of a Go-Pro attached to a bicyclist’s helmet. The bicyclist is attacked by a zombie and soon becomes one himself. He turns others into zombies and they set off in search for fresh meat. This is a neat twist on the zombie-movie, with enough visceral gore to appease genre fans.

The third segment is the aforementioned best: “Safe Haven,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. The narrative here is more intricate than any of the previous segments, and it definitely works as its own short horror film. It involves a news crew getting the scoop on a cult run by an Indonesian deportee (played chillingly by Epy Kusnandar) who promises immortality to his followers. I could tell where this was going as soon as I knew a cult was involved, and it seemed to lead to where I thought it would. But after that, there was still about 15 minutes left to go…and man, I was way off! Would you believe me if I said Kool-Aid was the least of the worries here? This segment has a ton of surprises, neatly horrific developments, and unforgettable additional elements that make it worth recommending for all genre fans, if they can take it.

Unfortunately, after that, we get to the weakest segment in the series: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” from Jason Eisener (best-known for “Hobo With a Shotgun”). With a goofy fun-sounding title like that, I expected much more than what I got. Maybe it was because nothing could top “Safe Haven,” but I just wasn’t interested in this part at all. It’s fairly straightforward—teens have a sleepover, aliens invade, they try to get away, they get abducted, the end. Oh, and there’s a camera attached to a dog. It might be enjoyable for some, and it may not be fair comparing it to “Safe Haven” after all, but I expected a better end portion than this.

I recommend the film overall, but it really comes down to “Safe Haven.” It’s worth seeing just for its own insanely entertaining bit of craziness.

But then we take a step down in quality and quantity; the ultimate end of a promising horror franchise; the final nail in the coffin…


V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“V/H/S: Viral” is not merely bad—it’s obnoxious. With the previous films, you could tell they were labors of love from indie filmmakers having fun with this style of “hyper-realistic” horror. But with this, you can tell it’s a feeble cash-grab attempt. I don’t feel any passion put into this at all, and everyone else seemed to agree with me, as no future “V/H/S” films were planned since this film’s release.

I think what this film is trying to say is that we’re all obsessed with viral videos and many members of our generation are looking to capture the next best online hit. I think (but I’m not sure, as the motivations are muddled at best) that was the intention of the wraparound story to present that message. But the result is so confused and baffling that it’s hard to find the sense in it. Even the ending, which should spell out what it means, left me scratching my head. But on the plus side, it made me feel better to know it was over and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

From what I could gather, it’s about teens trying to make their own viral videos and weird things happen that endanger their lives…and that’s all I got.

There’s no structure of people finding VHS tapes and watching horrific shorts. It’s just a bunch of random shorts thrown in between this strange supposed-wraparound.

(Just to state up front—I won’t list any names of the directors of these segments. I like to think I’m doing them a favor.)

The first random short is “Dante the Great,” which is about a magician who obtains a mystical cloak that truly is magic and gives him unbelievable power, which goes to his head. His assistant has to confront him and fight him one-on-one and somehow gain the upper hand against his real magic. This actually would be a neat idea and the effects are decent, but its execution is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s shown as a documentary. But then there’s hidden camera footage that no one could have gotten. There’s cheating in “found-footage,” and then there’s this.

The second segment is “Parallel Monsters” is a little better. It has an intriguing concept of a guy unlocking a portal to another dimension and switching places with his counterpart, only to find that it’s not what he expected at all. What he finds is creepy enough and it leads to some effective imagery. But unfortunately, it ends on a disappointing note.

After the passable “Parallel Monsters,” we are then cursed with the most detestable part of the film: “Bonestorm,” about a bunch of loud, rude, crude, vulgar, obnoxious, detestable skateboarders who go to Mexico and fight off a bunch of cult members looking for a sacrifice (I think; it was hard to tell exactly what was happening). This is what got me over the edge, as I facepalmed myself and wondered if it was even worth sitting through the rest of this thing. But I faced it head-on, as painful as it was. “Bonestorm” was such an aggressively bad short. Its shot choices are repetitive and with no style put into it, making it painful to look at—even skateboard videos and video games have more style than this thing.

Even the message of the film makes no sense! I just realized that even though there’s this stupid wraparound story that’s supposed to talk about young people and their obsession with “going viral,” neither of these three segments have ANYTHING to do with that in the slightest! They’re just random shorts trying to recapture that spirit of the previous films and failing miserably. No thought went into this at all. “V/H/S: Viral” is a lazy, badly-done conclusion of a “trilogy” made by people who I would guess didn’t care for what it was going to be as much as how quickly they could turn it in. I hated this movie.

V/H/S (2012)

27 Aug

VHS - Lily I Like You.png

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “found-footage horror” genre is very hit-and-miss. It’s an excuse for filmmakers to turn out a product with a shoestring budget. Some of them do it well, bringing viewers into the hyper-realism style of execution. Others do it horribly, just using it as an attempt to cover up that they have very little to offer in terms of story, characters, or even scares. “V/H/S” is a found-footage horror anthology that is very hit-and-miss, in that some chapters in the saga are effective while some are…well, not as much.

“V/H/S” tells six stories (each told from a different director), neither of which ties in at all to anything except for the wraparound story which is mostly composed of people watching the other segments anyway. (That’s a clumsy tie-in, but whatever.) The wraparound story (or “Tape 56,” director by Adam Wingard, whose film “The Guest” I really enjoyed) involves a criminal gang (who film their activities for some reason—not a smart idea, guys) as they break into a house in search of a special videotape. While searching, they find a body seated in front of a TV set with a VCR and many unlabeled tapes. So they watch the tapes…

The first tape (“Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner) shows three guys out on the town, one of whom has a hidden camera on his glasses with which they hope to make an amateur porn video. They manage to pick up a particularly strange young woman who turns out to be a succubus with a taste for human blood. This is one of the two most effective segments in the series, as well as the most fun. Its ability to hold the action in one shot (from the POV of the character wearing the camera-glasses) is impressive, the ultimate make-up on the succubus in monster/humanoid form is well-done, and the gore was enough to make me wince/cringe (that’s no small feat).

Side-note: This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the casting for the succubus was very effective. The actress, Hannah Fierman, has a great blend of adorableness and uneasiness (and her wide-eyed stare is unsettling as well).

The next tape (“Second Honeymoon,” from one of this generation’s most promising horror filmmakers, Ti West) shows a couple on their second honeymoon. They film themselves doing silly things, but things get creepy when someone breaks into their hotel room (in a genuinely disturbing scene). This segment is one of the weakest, as it leads to an unsatisfying payoff. A disappointment from West. (OK, not “Cabin Fever 2”-disappointing, but still disappointing.)

The third tape (“Tuesday the 17th,” by Glenn McQuaid) has an interesting idea but isn’t portrayed in an interesting-enough way. It features a group of obnoxious teens exploring some woods which supposedly have a horrific history to them, when it turns out the killer is only able to attack when there’s a camera on him. One girl knows about it and tries to prove it by…filming her friends being killed by this digital slasher. (Not a great plan.) I like the idea of the killer only being seen through the interference in the camera’s viewfinder, but it’s just not enough to be exciting or scary.

The fourth tape (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” by mumblecore-protégé Joe Swanberg) is my favorite. It’s told entirely through Skype, as a scared woman believes her house is haunted and tries to convince her boyfriend of what’s going on. I won’t reveal the twists here, but I found them chilling and even fascinating.

Finally, we get the final entry (“10/31/98,” by Radio Silence), in which four guys in search of a Halloween party find themselves in a haunted house, where a Satanist ritual seems to be happening. When they realize it’s not a joke and they’re at the wrong party, they find themselves in a terrifying situation. To put it in the best, most positive way, the ending of this segment is the film’s mike-drop.

The wraparound story has its chilling little touches when the film cuts back to it, such as things that weren’t there before but are suddenly there or the other way around. But unfortunately, its resolution is weak at best. In fact, I would barely even call it a “resolution.”

As a whole, “V/H/S” is half-intriguing and half-annoying. Three segments are unnerving and enjoyable in their way, while the other three have their scary moments at times while each of them don’t necessarily satisfy as its own piece. They all barely connect. They just have one thing in common—they were made by promising horror filmmakers who pride themselves in visceral shocks and scares. Not that I would say these short segments show the best of their craftsmanship, but I appreciate the effort given with their limitations of the “found-footage” genre. So, in a way, I would recommend “V/H/S” as a fun thrill ride if you and your friends are bored and feel like checking out an ambitious horror film with good scares to offer. That’s about as high a recommendation as I can give without necessarily letting it slide with a “mixed review.”

Tallulah (2016)

23 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I must confess, when I started watching Sian Heder’s Netflix Original film “Tallulah,” I had no idea what it was about. I knew it starred Ellen Page and Allison Janney…and that was it. As it was establishing the main character, I was invested. She’s a drifter named Tallulah aka Lu (played by Page) who lives in a van and roams from place to place. Where’s her family? I don’t know. Where was she from? I don’t know. How does she get by? I don’t really know that either. She has a boyfriend in tow, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), who tires of her lifestyle and ends up abandoning her, causing her to feel more alone (and it’s to Page’s credit as an actress that she can really show that in a scene in which she has very little dialogue). As the film continued for another 15 minutes or so, I was still curious where this person (along with the film) was going. Then it got to the point (which isn’t a spoiler, because it’s more or less the film’s “hook”) in which she snatches a baby from its mother and tries to care for it. That’s when I thought to myself, “Oh no, you’re not really going here, are you?” I worried maybe this was going the clichéd melodramatic path I expect from a premise like this.

Yet, I didn’t turn the film off. I was curious to see where it might be going, just in case it surprised me. And surely enough, it did. “Tallulah” turned to be one of the most moving films I’ve seen in quite a while. Much of that has to do with how this material was handled. It could have easily been bland, overwrought melodrama, but thanks to a carefully fashioned script, its grounded sense of direction, and brilliant performances by Page and Janney, it instead became something special.

The conflict begins as Lu goes to New York City, in search of Nico. All she has to go on is his mother, a divorcee author named Margo (Janney) who has enough problems in her life without a strange young woman asking for help. Lu steals room-service food from a nearby hotel and is mistaken for housekeeping by a young mother named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard). While tipsy and preparing to go out on a date, she asks Lu to look after her one-year-old daughter Madison. Carolyn comes off to Lu like an irresponsible mess, so Lu, even though she has no experience in caring for children let alone babies, decides to take the gig of babysitting. But when Carolyn returns drunk and passes out, Lu is concerned for Madison’s wellbeing and takes her away with her. Not knowing what to do, Lu takes Madison to Margo’s apartment, claiming the child is Nico’s and is her granddaughter. Margo reluctantly lets them stay for a little while.

From that point starts a bond that gradually forges the more time these people spend together. Lu continues to look after the child while Margo finds Lu is a bit of a handful as well. But Lu and Margo find ways to relate to one another that neither of them would have expected. This is where the film really shines: the development of the relationship between Lu and Margo. Both Page and Janney do extraordinary work and play off each other wonderfully. And this growth is important to the story, because it plays on the theme of motherhood and what it means to truly care for someone. Neither of these two have definite answers to questions of sacrifice and stress, but through each other, maybe they can find them together.

Of course, you know the truth about the child has to be revealed to Margo near the end of the film. While I was dreading that moment, I had hope in how it would play out, given how good everything was turning out so far. But thankfully, even though the moment does come, it’s surprisingly underplayed, allowing the characters to progressively think things through before they can really talk about the issue at hand. Sian Heder, who also penned the script, knows what we’re tired of seeing and has done something with tired material that feels fresh.

And that surprisingly also includes the subplot involving the child’s worrying mother! I was shocked to find how heartbreaking and compelling Carolyn’s story was turning out, given how we started seeing her as a caricature of an irresponsible mother. But you see how she feels throughout this turmoil of missing her baby and how she could’ve prevented something like this from happening eats her up inside. I truly felt for her.

The film isn’t entirely successful, however. A subplot involving the doorman (Felix Solis) of Margo’s apartment building goes nowhere. (Even if his exit from the film was the punchline to a joke…I didn’t get it.) Take that part out of the film, and I don’t think anything would have been missed.

By the end of “Tallulah” comes much warranted and appreciated character development from the title character. She learns what it means to be responsible for someone else after spending so much time looking after herself, and it turns out she may even be a little better looking out for someone else than she has for herself. When the film was over, I felt glad to be in the company of good people who I felt grew through difficult circumstances. “Tallulah” isn’t a film I’ll forget anytime soon.

Devil (2010)

21 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

God works in mysterious ways. But so does the Devil. From what I’ve heard in Sunday school growing up, the Devil is cold, calculating, seductive, ruthless, and very subtle in his schemes of drawing people over to the dark side before consuming their souls in hell. This supernatural thriller, “Devil,” does not represent him well, for reasons I’ll go into shortly. But to be fair, it is kind of fun. This is a “guilty pleasure” for me, to say the least (or the most).

Based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, “Devil” is as much “Shyamalan” as you could expect. It has a spiritual message, it has tormented characters finding redemption after going through a paranormal occurrence, and you may recognize a few silly elements he used in “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” (to be fair, those are two of my guilty pleasures too). Just to get this out of the way, I don’t hate M. Night Shyamalan. I love “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” “Unbreakable” gets better and better each time I see it, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” are too goofy for me to hate, and he came back from a career slump in a major way last year with “The Visit.” I didn’t see the critically panned “After Earth,” but I despise “The Last Airbender,” which seemed to make even his defenders turn their backs on him. “Devil” came out the same year as “The Last Airbender,” and there was a hate train chugging along because even though it wasn’t directed by Shyamalan (it was directed by John Erick Dowdle), it had his fingerprints all over it. But I can’t hate it—like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” it’s too goofy for me to hate.

The premise sounds fantastic until it gets to the fine print. Five strangers are trapped in a broken-down elevator. But one of them is a killer. The power is faulty, and the killer strikes whenever the lights go out. Police and maintenance race to save the remaining bunch of claustrophobic people before they too are killed off one by one. Sounds like a Hitchcock or an Agatha Christie scenario, doesn’t it? Well…I don’t think Hitchcock or Christie would’ve made the killer the Devil.

And yes, the hook is that the Devil is one of the people trapped in the elevator, and that’s where the horror is supposed to come from, I suppose—not just that there’s a sadistic killer on board, but that person must also be the Devil come to take the rest to hell. How do we know this? Well, one of the building’s security guards (Jacob Vargas), a highly religious type, points out the signs that direct to the situation due to a story told to him as a child by his grandmother. But that’s not all—what else does he have to prove the Devil is near? He takes a piece of toast with jelly on it and throws it up in the air, and it lands jelly-side down. “When he is near,” he shakily concludes, “Toast falls jelly-side down.” I get what the writer is trying to do—use mundane materials to point toward the supernatural (like in “Signs,” with the baby monitor picking up an otherworldly signal)—but some ways of doing it are more lame than others (remember the Simon game in the fifth “Paranormal Activity” movie?).

As I said before, five people (Logan Marshall-Green as a mechanic, Jenny O’Hara as a crabby old lady, Geoffrey Arend as an unctuous salesman, Bokee, Woodbine as a temp security guard, and Bojana Novakovic as a manipulative woman) are trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high rise. Working on the problem are two security guards (Vargas and Matt Craven) and police detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who can see them via security cam. After a while, one of them is murdered, with no telling of whom of the remaining four did it. Every time the lights go out due to defective power, one of them ends up dead. While the race is on to get the elevator working again and save whoever is left, Vargas gives Bowden his conclusion that the killer is the Devil in disguise. Naturally, Bowden doesn’t believe him at first, but the further things escalate, the less he can deny the truth.

It turns out to be true—the Devil has decided to send some people to hell today and, for some reason, it takes him all day to do it, and it’s not even in a secretive way, seeing as how it’s all happening on closed-circuit cameras. When you really think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. And it gets sillier from there, with images of monstrous faces showing up in the surveillance monitor, one of the women being “bitten” by the Devil, and even a preposterous, laughable death by hanging. And with the security guard constantly speaking script-talk for “the Devil is near,” we get an angel in disguise, just so we can have an understanding of what we’re dealing with here.

To the film’s credit, all of the actors are uniformly good and Shyamalan-regular Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is well-done. And even some of the spiritual elements are surprisingly interesting, despite them being too convenient especially in the film’s climax.

Despite this missed opportunity to create a truly chilling, claustrophobic thriller, I find myself enjoying “Devil,” mainly for the things I laugh at, in addition to the things in it that are consistently good. It just so happens the laughable things are consistently laughable, so it all balances out. Like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” “Devil” is a guilty pleasure I can’t help but enjoy each time.

A Girl Like Her (2015)

15 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Afterschool Specials. Lifetime movies. ABC Family (er, sorry—Freeform) Original Movies. Some of the films in either of these categories are well-done. But they have a reputation among many for throwing out several manipulative, bland, not-especially-well-made films that tell stories that deal with important issues that aren’t as effective they should be, as a result of being insipid. How do you make a film that tackles an important issue while making it well?

Simplest answer: make it well. Focus on the writing, the characters, the direction. Take the issue from a clear-eyed point-of-view. Write people who could be you or people you know. Don’t just base it on what you see/hear; base it on what others see/hear too, maybe. Hell, take risks. Think outside the box (the box within which most of the offenders continue to think).

Take school-hallway bullying. This is still a big problem in society, and for as long as it’s been around, I’m sorry to say it shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Making a film about bullying and the tragedies that result from it is not an easy task, as most films that try to tackle the issue end up being either wishy-washy or flat-out ordinary. Not that any film is going to make something go away, no matter what it is, but there needs to be some good attempts.

Amy S. Weber’s “A Girl Like Her” is a very good attempt. This is the kind of film teachers should show their students that just could maybe—maybe—raise a few eyebrows.

“A Girl Like Her” is a “mockumentary” (a fictional story told in documentary-style fashion), but it might as well be real; its emotional honesty about an important subject made me forget that everything was scripted and actors were playing roles (even though I’d seen one of them—Jimmy Bennett—in many other movies before, like “Orphan” and “Trucker”). The high school portrayed in the film could be any high school. The students feel real. And so on. Even if it doesn’t entirely work (I mean, it is possible some people would forget cameras are rolling on them and say certain things, but it is unlikely), I praise it for attempting to understand the mindset of both of the school bully and the bully’s victim.

A documentary is being filmed at a high school that is being proclaimed as one of the top 10 in America. The documentary’s director (played by the director herself, Weber) finds an interesting angle after student Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) attempts suicide and rumors indicate that the harassment she received from popular girl Avery Keller (Hunter King) might be responsible.

The film constantly switches points of view by showing additional footage from time to time—footage recorded by Jessica, her best friend & video geek Brian (Bennett), and even Avery herself, as she’s asked by the director to show what her life is like. We learn that Avery has in fact harassed Jessica countless times in the halls and even through text messaging and email. Brian gave Jessica a secret camera hidden in a necklace (and he filmed some things with his own camera as well), because he felt this behavior had to be exposed somehow. We also learn that Jessica didn’t want it brought to light, because she thought things would only get worse rather than better. And more importantly, we see what Avery’s home life is like: she comes from a dysfunctional family with an overbearing mother who demands too much, and she tries to hide it as best as she can. And of course, when more and more rumors pile on about her part that led to Jessica’s attempted suicide, she’s in denial, claiming she couldn’t have done that much damage.

Anyone remember the 2012 documentary “Bully?” (You know, the one that caused that ridiculous MPAA rating controversy?) Anyone else think that should have been called “Bullied” instead? After all, it didn’t focus on any of the bullies; just the victims of bullying. What did the bullies go through in their lives? What caused them to inflict harm onto others? “A Girl Like Her” mercilessly shows a lot of the physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Avery onto Jessica (and it’s pretty hard to watch—the movie doesn’t shy away from it, which is another honorable element to its success), but then in the last third, it pulls off an incredibly surprising trick: making us empathize with the bully too, as the gravity of the true hurt Avery caused comes crashing down on her, internally and externally. It leads to an ending that may be a little too immaculate, but it is very effective nonetheless and adds to the cautionary-tale aspect. And Hunter King portrays the part extraordinarily well in a final monologue that led to chills running down my spine.

“A Girl Like Her” is a powerful film with three winning performances (King, Ainsworth, and Bennett) and a careful examination about a problem still being faced today. Will it change the way things are? Probably not. But as I said before, it’s a real good attempt.

Left Behind (2014)

15 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: 1/2*

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The End is near.

That’s what I had to remind myself every few minutes as I was watching this film—“The end [of the movie] is near, the end [of the movie] is near…”

You would think that a disaster movie in which the priceless enigma known as Nicolas Cage (who can either be a very gripping actor or a wacky presence that brings most bad movies up a notch) desperately tries to find his family while also trying to land an airplane when the world is in shambles would at least be entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. But this re-adaptation of the popular “Left Behind” Christian book series is so lifeless and boring that it makes the original 2000 adaptation (starring Kirk Cameron) look like “Casablanca.” And unfortunately, Cage doesn’t help—he seems half-asleep throughout the entire movie, when all that could be done to raise this movie to entertaining levels is a trademark Cage freak-out performance.

It shocks me that this remake was directed by the director of the previous version, Vic Armstrong. It’s almost as if he was wondering how he could possibly make it even worse than before. Give the original film some credit—the political intrigue presented in the dawn-of-the-Antichrist story gave some indication that there was some effort to make it thought-provoking. This remake is just throwing “Airport”-type clichés in with fundamentalist Christian theologies repeated over and over to make sure we get the point.

And I’m not kidding—much of this movie consists of spelling out the evangelical Christian message that the Rapture is coming, the End is near, etc. and so on. It’s like the makers of this film want to remind us who made this piece of uninspired propaganda.

Oh, and there are a few car crashes, a prop plane crash, and a big explosion thrown in just to try and wake up the small audience outside its target demographic.

Oh right, the story. Well, Nicolas Cage is a pilot named Ray Steele, who is called into work on his birthday, just as his adult daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), arrives in town. Chloe believes her father is having an affair with a flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan), and tries to reconnect with her newly religious mother (Lea Thompson), but differing beliefs (and ignored warnings from mother to unaffiliated daughter) cause more friction between the two. The Rapture occurs while Cage’s plane is in mid-air and Chloe is taking her little brother to the mall. The brother is gone (in fact, all the children are gone all over), many passengers on the plane are gone, much of the townspeople have vanished as well, and it becomes clear to many that these disappearances have happened all over the world. Cage’s co-pilot has gone as well. With help from investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, who I’ll give credit to for trying to make something out of a nothing role), Cage tries to land the plane safely before the remaining, scared passengers go even crazier with paranoia.

“Left Behind” feels so proud of its portrayal of the first stage of the End (first is the Rapture, next is the Tribulation, and on and on until finally, Judgment Day) that it ends on a blatant cliffhanger. How blatant? Well, it ends with this exchange—“Looks like the end of the world.” “No. I’m afraid this is just the beginning.” I don’t think so. I sat through this thing, I don’t intend on sitting through it again, and I definitely don’t intend on seeing this story continue any further.

And to think this thing came out the same year as “Joe,” the film that reminded us how good of an actor Cage can be.

Lights Out (2016)

15 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’re in the light, you’re safe. But when the lights are off, you’re doomed. It’s a gimmick, of course; one that can generate some good scares in a horror film. But if that were all “Lights Out” had to offer, the gimmick would probably wear out quickly. Thankfully, while this is a very effective scare-fest with neat ways of showing both how easy and how hard it is to escape the mysterious entity that lurks in the dark, there’s more to the film than just scares. Surprisingly, it has a family-drama story to tell also, and Swedish director David F. Sandberg (making his feature debut based on his popular short film of the same name) does a good balancing out the family dilemmas and the supernatural terror.

“Lights Out” lets us know right away what kind of terror we’re up against, in a chilling prologue in which the husband (Billy Burke) of a mentally unstable woman (Maria Bello) falls victim to some form of creature or other, which kills him in the dark, as it can’t come into the light. His wife, now a widow, apparently knows this thing and often talks to it in the shadows, which seriously unnerves her pre-teenage stepson, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). (By the way, that’s a great twist to the “imaginary friend” horror-movie trope: instead of the child befriending a supernatural threat, it’s the child’s parent this time.) Too scared to sleep at night, Martin approaches his grown-up stepsister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), for help. Rebecca doesn’t feel fit to handle responsibility as a surrogate parent and she doesn’t know what to do about her mother’s erratic behavior which she’s been trying to avoid since she left home, but she knows she has to try and do something. Then she and her boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), encounter the shadow figure and find themselves not only fighting for the wellbeing of Rebecca’s mother and Martin but also their own lives.

2016 has been a pretty good year for smart horror so far. From Netflix treats such as “Stranger Things” and “Hush” to sleeper hits such as “10 Cloverfield Lane” and “The Witch,” not to mention the exceptional sequel “The Conjuring 2,” we’ve had smart filmmakers tell us gripping, well-written stories with well-established characters to go along with well-executed terror. “Lights Out” is no exception. We gradually get an interesting explanation about the monster as the film continues and we get to know the characters through it all as well. The more we learn about them, the more empathetic they become. Even the mother isn’t as antagonistic as she seems; she’s merely a pawn being used in a deadly game. We also see an interesting growth from the character of Rebecca as she learns the importance of family she wishes she learned before. I even cared for Bret, who could’ve been just the throwaway boyfriend character in another movie. But I liked this guy; he’s supportive and reliable, but also surprisingly bright and resourceful. That’s another thing I liked about this movie—these characters are smart. They don’t make the dumb mistakes most horror-movie characters make. I especially like the moments in which they need to get light quickly before they’re caught by the monster. The film is also well-made, with ominous atmosphere adding on to the creepy tone.

And on top of that, the film is short—it barely makes it to the 80-minute mark. That’s because the makers of this film knew to keep the film simple and tight.

Problems I have with “Lights Out” are minor. Teresa Palmer’s performance started out a little stiff to me, but I think maybe that was intended to show how lost she is as a character, having no idea what’s going on with her family and being pressured by her boyfriend to commit to a relationship. (She does get better as the film goes on, even if that wasn’t the case.) As far as horror aspects go, I sort of question how this thing is able to move around when the lights are off, since it can appear just about anywhere. But I think the biggest problem I have with the film is the reveal of the monster. Not that it was bad, but it looked like the typical decrepit, decaying old-age makeup job we’ve seen in several recent horror films already. I would’ve preferred not to see the monster up close; my imagination through the buildup was enough to give me the chills.

Fear of the dark is a very common phobia indeed, and “Lights Out” plays with it in a very neat way. Those expecting a scary movie will definitely get it, but they’ll probably get something more from it too. This is a creepshow with actual story and characters, and it really works.