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When a film trots out the phrase “based on a true story,” that can mean a lot of things, from a meticulous recreation of well-documented events (albeit with some dramatic license) to a largely constructed fiction that borrows a couple of ostensibly true elements from a preexisting story. But if the “true story” in question already has a complicated relationship with veracity?

Well … then you get “The Conjuring” films.

The latest installment in the increasingly sprawling horror franchise is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” It’s the third “Conjuring” film proper, though there have been a number of spin-off/tangentially connected movies as well. Directed by Michael Chaves from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, it’s a continuation of the supernatural adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

As with any franchise, the law of diminishing returns is in play; this one is no exception. While it does feature some solid performances and a couple of decent jump scares, the truth is that this new offering doesn’t reach the level of the previous two films in the series.

Published in Movies

The cinematic landscape is littered with unnecessary sequels.

The reality is that in this time of IP franchise building, any original film that achieves box office success is almost certainly going to receive the sequel treatment, regardless of whether the story actually lends itself to continuation.

Often, that leads to sequels that bear only tangential connection to their predecessors, both in terms of commercial and critical success. To wit – they’re worse and fewer people see them.

However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a filmmaker is able to craft an addition to their initial story that contributes something more to the story being told while also maintaining the spirit of the original, even if that original seemingly concluded satisfactorily.

“A Quiet Place Part II” – writer-director John Krasinski’s follow-up to his excellent 2018 “A Quiet Place” – falls into that latter category. While that first film didn’t necessarily seem to cry out for a sequel, its success ensured that it would get one nevertheless. And while I think one can argue that this new film is in fact largely unnecessary, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

Quite the opposite, really.

Now, it doesn’t clear the high bar set by the first movie, whose surprising and innovative craftsmanship made it one of the best horror movies of recent years. But it does have plenty to offer, and with Emily Blunt to lead the cast and Krasinski steering the ship, it proves to be quite a successful film.

It’s bigger and louder than the first film – sometimes to its detriment – but it still manages to expand upon that film’s world, both in terms of the apocalyptic present day and, through flashback, the horrifying swiftness of society’s collapse beneath the weight of an attack by a seemingly invincible enemy.

Published in Movies
Monday, 17 May 2021 11:28

‘Spiral’ spins its wheels

Sure, I’ll ask the question: did we really need another “Saw” movie?

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really – we live in a world of sequels and reboots and franchises, and with the horror genre being one of the few generally reliable box office draws, it makes sense that we’d see a horror film or three kicking off what appears to be a wider reopening of movie theaters.

But the truth is that while these movies have been undeniable commercial successes – even the “Jigsaw” reboot from a couple of years ago did nine figures at the box office – the transgressive nature of the earlier installments has definitely been backlined in favor of more and gorier action. So it was interesting to see the latest incarnation at least make the effort to try and say something beyond “Look how gross this is!”

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is effectively the first spinoff from the series. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (his fourth go at the series) from a script by Josh Stoolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the film adds some unanticipated star power with star Chris Rock (who also executive produced) and tries to use its still-effective gory torture devices to say something about the wider world – in this case, police corruption and by extension systemic racism.

No, you’re not going to get a lot of nuanced commentary from a “Saw” movie – no one is showing up to one of these to get a lecture on world affairs; they’re here to see people die in horrible ways – but at least it allows the film to feel like it’s about something, rather than just an excuse for inventive torture devices.

But the truth is that while the filmmakers seem well-intentioned, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While there are some solid performances here – Rock in particular is quite good – the story is scattered and haphazard, with questionable decisions regarding the pacing. The result is a horror movie with plenty of gore that is never fully able to articulate what it wants to convey.

Published in Movies
Monday, 22 March 2021 15:24

‘Happily’ never after

Most of the time, the media we consume – movies, books, TV, music – fits comfortably within the confines of description. That is, we can pretty easily define what kind of film or book or show or song we’re experiencing; even the stuff built on genre cross-pollination can be described reasonably succinctly.

Occasionally, though, we get something that doesn’t quite fit into one or two categories. Something that is many different things at once while also being essentially its own thing.

“Happily,” written and directed by BenDavid Grabinski, checks a LOT of different genre boxes, but does so in a way that is appealingly messy. There’s a fundamental shagginess to the film, born of the filmmaker’s clear desire to take a kitchen sink approach to tone and type. And the film really does have it all – romance and dark comedy and speculative undertones and relationship drama – but in the course of doing so, it sometimes loses its way.

That said, we’ve got a dynamite cast, some killer aesthetic choices and visual styling and an obvious willingness to let things get weird. It’s a film where you might THINK you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t. Not really. And that’s (mostly) a good thing.

Published in Movies

Those of us of a certain age will remember Friday night strolls through the horror aisle at our local video store. There were the known quantities, of course, but mixed in among the higher-end Hollywood scares was a vast and seemingly unending universe of straight-to-video schlock, sporting lurid, garish box artwork that often had little or no connection to the film that made up its contents.

If you loved those movies then and miss them now, then I might have something for you.

“Hawk & Rev: Vampire Slayers,” written and directed by Ryan Barton-Grimley (he also stars), is an attempt to recapture the energy of those late-night late-80s jaunts through Blockbuster. It is low-budget lunacy, a ludicrous and lively homage to the horror filler of the home video explosion, a story of mismatched buddies devoted to doing whatever it takes to protect their town from the evil lurking all about.

This is a movie that revels in its limitations, celebrating the obstacles to be overcome. This movie winks and nods its way through its brisk 85 minutes; it’s the kind of viewing experience rendered all the more entertaining by the sheer delight being felt by all involved. We’re talking the finest kind of dorky DIY horror filmmaking here, all informed by a love of STV trash masterpieces of the past.

Published in Movies
Friday, 19 March 2021 11:34

One leg at a time – ‘Slaxx’

Sometimes, you just know. You read a brief description and are instantly certain that, come what may, you will 100% be seeing that movie. A handful of words gives you all the motivation you require to check it out. Maybe you check out the trailer, but you already know – this movie is for you.

Take “Slaxx,” directed by Canadian filmmaker Elza Kephart and co-written by Kephart and Patricia Gomez and currently available to stream on Shudder. All it took for me to know, deep within my heart, was one descriptive sentence:

“A possessed pair of jeans is brought to life to punish the unscrupulous practices of a trendy clothing company.”

Boom. I’m in. Just like that. Give it to me.

Of course, just because the film has the sort of weirdo high-concept premise that hits me where I live doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to be, you know … good.

But that’s the thing: “Slaxx” IS good. Really good, in fact – the sort of movie that knows precisely what it is, crafted by filmmakers who understand how to maximize relatively limited resources to accomplish their goals. It is a smart, slyly subversive film, one that revels in the fundamental absurdity of its premise while also treating it with face-value seriousness. That blend of attitudes gives you a movie that is campy and gory and ridiculous and hilarious, rendered all the more effective by resisting the temptation to wink; the filmmakers trust the audience to get it in all its over-the-top lunacy.

Published in Movies

Last year, I watched and reviewed over 150 films. That’s a LOT of movies. And yet, I barely scratched the surface of what was available; last year saw hundreds of new releases that I not only didn’t see, but quite likely never even heard about. Making a movie is hard, but getting it seen is in many cases even harder.

No one understands that exponential increase in difficulty like an independent filmmaker, someone who has to constantly hustle to make even incremental advances with their projects. There are so many aspects of the movie business; the creative process is just one small facet of the overall machine.

In the documentary “Clapboard Jungle,” currently available on demand, director Justin McConnell takes the viewer on a five-year journey through the life of an indie filmmaker: namely, one Justin McConnell. Through a combination of recording his own experiences trying to get projects made and interviews with a number of successful industry folks with indie connections, McConnell seeks to break down for us just how difficult it all can be for those operating outside the traditional studio system.

Meanwhile, he also juxtaposes that difficulty with the fact that there are more films being made now than ever before. Of course, that explosive growth in content doesn’t necessarily mean a corresponding growth in audiences, resulting in circumstances where someone could watch a hundred movies in a year and not see a quarter of the new work available.

Published in Movies
Monday, 23 November 2020 16:48

Mommy fearest - ‘Run’

Most of us have a pretty good understanding of the power of a mother’s love. Heaven knows we’ve seen it portrayed enough times on page, stage and screen. The majority of the time, we’re given a sense of not just the power, but the purity of that power. A mother’s love is meaningful and unconditional.

But when that love turns toxic, when it becomes all-consuming? That’s when we bear witness to the darkness, for there can be no light without shadow.

“Run,” the new movie from Hulu, offers us a look at that toxic darkness. Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, the talented filmmaker behind 2018’s excellent “Searching,” this is a chilling and emotionally charged dive into the circumstances of one mother’s love and how fear and delusion can twist that relationship into something dark and hurtful.

We’ve seen variations on the “mother from hell” formula before, but few have achieved this level of genuine scares. Sure, there are a couple of moments that threaten to teeter over the edge into camp – always a concern with these kinds of movies – but Chaganty’s steady hand and a pair of dynamite performances keep things on the rails. That barely-restrained sense of impending lunacy contributes greatly to what is ultimately a top-notch viewing experience.

Published in Movies

There’s a turn of phrase that has been floating around out there in the zeitgeist for a few years about which I have conflicted feelings. “Elevated horror” is a term that is being used to describe movies that incorporate horror elements and tropes while ostensibly being above the genre itself.

Honestly – I don’t care for it.

Those films and filmmakers – the Ari Asters and Jordan Peeles and Robert Eggers – don’t need any qualifiers; the notion that a horror movie is somehow unable to also be an artistically impactful film is foolish on its face. I respect the desire for a shorthand, but come on – great horror is great art, full stop.

This brings us to “His House,” a new film streaming on Netflix. Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker Remi Weekes, it’s a movie that invites that sort of cinephile labeling, bringing together exceptionally executed scares with engaging ideas and social commentary. It invites it, but it doesn’t need it.

It doesn’t need it because “His House” succeeds on its merits. It is a taut, tense haunted house horror thriller, packed with unsettling images and some incredible scares. It is also a sharp and incisive deconstructive commentary on the dehumanizing nature of the refugee experience. And it is wildly effective from both perspectives. This is a bordering-on-brilliant work of horror filmmaking, marrying the trappings of the genre with nuanced messaging regarding a very complex issue.

So yeah – it’s REALLY good.

Published in Movies

Producer Jason Blum has long been a champion of rising filmmakers. Through his Blumhouse production company, he has built a reputation for low-cost high-reward genre filmmaking that allows budding writers and directors to gain access to a larger audience.

His latest project is “Welcome to the Blumhouse,” an anthology film series developed in partnership with Amazon. All told, this series will consist of eight feature-length films, with four being released this October and the other four released sometime in 2021.

The first two in the series – “Black Box” and “The Lie” – dropped on October 6. One week later, on October 13, we got two more: “Evil Eye,” directed by Elan and Rajeev Dassani from a screenplay by Madhuri Shekar (based on her own Audible original), and “Nocturne,” written and directed by Zu Quirke. Much like the previous two offerings, these films aren’t necessarily the sort of straightforward horror offerings that audiences might expect from Blumhouse, there’s still plenty here worth seeing.

Again, these movies may not be quite ready to work as standalone offerings, but as part of the grander picture under the anthology umbrella, they’re certainly sufficient. Each has its flaws, to be sure, but they also put the considerable talents of their respective makers on full display, which is a big part of the point. Yes, if you’re here for “Paranormal Activity” and the like, you might be left wanting, but there’s a lot more to Jason Blum’s shop. And like the first two films, these latest works are worth checking out.

Published in Movies
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