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It isn’t easy to tell old stories in new ways.

Tackling genre fare is tricky business; it’s no longer enough to simply follow in the footsteps of those who came before you. You have to use that template to do something different, and when you’re talking about treading a trail as well-worn as that of the zombie movie, well … you’d better bring something special to the table.

That’s what makes “Blood Quantum,” the second feature from Canadian writer/director Jeff Barnaby now streaming on Shudder, so interesting. It’s a marriage of B-movie viscera and social commentary that captures an energy reminiscent of the work of the best-known names in the genre, though the execution perhaps doesn’t quite ascend to the same heights.

Even with that degree of unevenness, however, “Blood Quantum” is a success. It spatters and sprays the screen with buckets upon buckets of blood, unleashing some solid (and unsettling) practical effects work. And it offers a thoughtful, if occasionally on the nose exploration of colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples.

If all that has you thinking about George Romero, rest assured that you’re not alone.

Published in Movies

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds” (Scribner, $30), the latest in his every decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

Published in Buzz
Friday, 20 March 2020 16:30

Food for thought - ‘The Platform’

Sometimes, films choose to utilize subtlety when it comes to presenting underlying messages and themes. They gently and delicately weave their ideas into the fabric of the story, leaving the viewers to work things out for themselves.

Other times, films are brutally overt with their messaging. These are films that wield their meanings with loud impunity, performing their ideological surgery with an axe as opposed to a scalpel. They are conceptual blunt force trauma.

“The Platform” – Spanish title “El Hoyo” – is new to streaming on Netflix; the film marks the feature debut of director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. It’s a bleak and compelling piece of genre fare, one that uses its limited but undeniably effective dystopian setting to deliver some far-from-subtle thoughts on the nature of class divide and a powerful condemnation of the top-down economic model that dominates the world today.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 03 March 2020 12:41

Out of sight – ‘The Invisible Man’

It’s one of the most traditional truisms in horror cinema: sometimes the biggest scares come from what you don’t see.

“The Invisible Man” – written and directed by Leigh Whannell – takes that notion to heart both literally and figuratively. It is a daring and inspired take on the classic tale, one that captures the unsettling energy of the classic character while also viewing it through a different lens. That shift in perspective – from the terrorizer to the terrorized – results in a thought-provoking and compelling experience.

This film marks the first revisiting of Universal’s classic movie monsters since the aborted “Dark Universe” experiment began and ended with 2017’s abysmal “The Mummy.” The studio pivoted to a different idea, one that focuses more on the characters rather than worrying about a shared universe. It’s a smart play, made all the smarter by teaming up with genre producer extraordinaire Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions.

In the end, what we get is a film guided by an auteur’s singular vision and headlined by an absolutely dynamite lead performer. It is smart and evocative and scary as hell.

(Note: There’s a real chance that survivors of abuse will find many aspects of this movie triggering. Be aware.)

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 26 February 2020 12:55

‘Brahms: The Boy II’ will put you to sleep

Fun fact: I really enjoy going to see sequels to movies I never saw in the first place.

Now, I’ve been reviewing films for over a decade, so the opportunity to do so has become an increasingly rare thing. Hence, when it comes along, I eagerly embrace it – even if (or perhaps especially) when the reason I never saw the initial offering is because of how terrible I perceived it to be.

So let’s talk about “Brahms: The Boy II.” Serving as a sequel to 2016’s “The Boy,” this new film – directed by William Brent Bell and written by Stacey Menear, returning to their respective roles from the first film – is an effort to expand upon the creepy doll mythos established the last time out.

You might think it would be difficult to follow “The Boy II” without having seen the first film. Rest assured, it is not. There’s nothing difficult about following this story because, well … there’s not really much in the way of story. It’s a slow-moving slog of a story where very little happens; it’s your standard atmospheric horror, only there’s no real atmosphere to speak of. Even the efforts to tie in to the first film are perfunctory.

Basically, I can say with all confidence that you do not need to see the first film to watch this one. In fact, I would advise against it. Actually – I’d advise against seeing either one.

Published in Movies

Anyone who watched the campy classic Ricardo Montalbon-starring ‘70s TV show “Fantasy Island” or the short-lived two-decades-later Malcolm McDowell reboot has to recognize the creepy potential of the conceit. A place where fantasies come true, only in unexpected ways? There’s so much there with which to work.

Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse certainly thought so. Hence, we get “Fantasy Island,” a horror exploration of that classic concept. It’s a natural fit – Blum and his crew have proven time and again that they are capable of turning these sorts of ideas into quality genre fare. Unfortunately, no one bats 1.000; this latest film is one of the rare misfires from the production company.

This incarnation of “Fantasy Island” – directed by Jeff Wadlow from a script he co-wrote with Jillian Jacobs and Christopher Roach – never manages to develop anything worthwhile from the rich soil of the source material. Instead, we get a bunch of recycled tropes and cheap scares, a low-rent mélange of monkey’s paw clichés and lazy storytelling. There are a few brief glimpses of the film this could have been, but for the most part, there’s nothing here – filmmaking fantasy meeting cold, stark mismanaged reality.

Published in Movies

There’s a reason that Grimm’s Fairy Tales remain embedded in the cultural consciousness even now, over two centuries since their appearance on the literary scene. So many of those stories, while collected in the early 19th century, sported origins much older – ancient even. They are archetypal and allegorical, framing the good and evil of the world in a manner both fantastical and mundane.

It doesn’t hurt that a lot of them are scary as s—t.

So it makes sense that we would see adaptations of these tales – some direct, some loose, some tangential – for the big screen. There’s a universality to them that appeals, and they lend themselves quite well to cinematic translation. But that same universality also means that it can be hard to figure out what’s going too far and what’s not going far enough.

The new film “Gretel and Hansel,” directed by Oz Perkins from a screenplay by Rob Hayes, suffers from that particular problem – it seems as though the filmmakers are never sure just how far they want to push the envelope, which means that for every challenging, provocative moment, there’s another bit of formulaic boilerplate. The result is a movie that is wildly uneven and never settles into any kind of real groove.

It’s a shame, because there are some good things here. The performances are solid, while the establishing of atmosphere is spot-on. There are a couple of good slow-burn scares as well. Unfortunately, that’s all wound up in a too-thin plot that feels empty despite a sub-90-minute runtime; far too little actually happens here.

Again – moments of excellence, but sadly not enough of them.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 January 2020 14:04

‘The Turning’ screws up a classic

Adapting a literary classic for film is always a fraught proposition. Making the transition from page to screen is a delicate, tricky process. Sometimes, it is wildly successful and we get a film that not only represents the source material, but transcends it, becoming a classic in its own right.

Other times, we get “The Turning.”

Based on the 1898 Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” this film is intended to be a modern update of that classic Gothic ghost story. A tale of psychological intrigue, it’s an atmospheric and insular work, one that relies heavily on the creepiness inherent to its setting and circumstances for its fright factor. It is a slow-moving, slow-developing work; the glacial nature of its pacing can present a challenge to a reader.

Now imagine that same glacial pacing unfolding on screen. It simply doesn’t play, despite the best efforts of those involved. But there are only so many rea/not-real jump scares that we can take before it all starts to blend together into rote repetition. And that’s all we get from director Floria Sigismondi, working from a screenplay by twin brother writing team Carey and Chad Hayes. It’s a meandering, unfocused ramble that doesn’t seem to understand what made the original work scary in the first place.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 15 January 2020 14:09

Depth charge - ‘Underwater’

The ocean can be scary.

Specifically, the deep ocean. We’re talking Mariana Trench deep. Challenger Deep deep. Miles down where the pressure is so intense that only particular brands of strange and strong life can exist. In many ways, the ocean floor is as alien to mankind as the moon. Perhaps more so.

As such, it makes sense that such a place would inspire some sci-fi/horror storytelling. The latest offering in that vein is “Underwater,” directed by William Eubank and starring Kristen Stewart. One might suspect that it’s your usual mid-January fare, but don’t be fooled by the release date – it isn’t a great movie, but there’s enough here to warrant a look from sci-fi fans.

There are shades of other, better films here – classics like “The Abyss” and the very obvious influence of the first two “Alien” movies – and “Underwater” occasionally wanders into the realm of the derivative. Still, the film is stylistically interesting, and Stewart is surprisingly engaging in a role that’s a bit of a departure for her. Again, not great, but not terrible either.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:42

Holding a grudge against ‘The Grudge’

It’s never a good sign when a movie is released in early January. Traditionally, that stretch of the calendar is reserved for the films that, for whatever reason, studios have decided to abandon. They’re done, so they might as well be released; however, they drop with little fanfare, abandoned to fend for themselves against the remaining December blockbusters and the expanded releases of late-season prestige fare.

On a related note, I saw “The Grudge.”

This film – a remake of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle of the same name, which was itself a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 original – is the epitome of an early January release. It’s an unnecessary remake of a mid-00s ripoff of an excellent Japanese horror film; a copy of a copy of a copy means we’re losing a little coherence.

Or a lot of coherence, because there certainly isn’t much in this new movie, written and directed by the much-better-than-this Nicholas Pesce. The story exists only to prop up a bunch of stitched-together jump scares. There’s little in the way of thoughtfulness, just a formulaic paint-by-numbers meander through the narrative; there’s an attempt to disguise the rudimentary nature of the plot via back-and-forth timeline jumping, but that only serves to further obscure any possibility of the audience engaging.

Published in Movies
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