FTP: Redcon-1 (2018)

JULY 18, 2019


I'll give Redcon-1 this much: for an independent zombie movie, it has better production value than I'm used to seeing. The cast is huge, the zombies are plentiful, and the characters are almost constantly on the move, so in terms of scope, it's clearly not a "hey we have this office building and my buddy knows how to do makeup so let's make a zombie movie" kind of deal like you unfortunately can run into in this post-Walking Dead world. Unfortunately that also ties into its most crippling flaw: it's kind of an overlong mess, too - they could have saved some money on the budget AND had a better movie if the script was reigned in a bit.

Coming in just under two hours, the movie is another "there's a scientist who might have the cure for zombieism and we need to rescue them" men on a mission movie that any good zombie movie fan has seen before (possibly seen *enough* by now)... but only for its first half, by which point most of the men (and one woman) are dead. Then it becomes a more "personal stakes" kinda deal, as our hero is trying to save a little girl who might also be the key to the whole thing, but they're both targeted by an evil human (sigh) who wants to wipe them and the rest of the area out to contain it. This is another scenario you've seen countless times, but the two don't blend together as much as director Chee Keong Cheung (who also wrote with two others) probably hoped - it's more like the movie just changes gears entirely.

This means that the rather action-packed first half slows down for flashback scenes (many of which exist to re-contextualize things we have already seen) and an increasing absence of zombies, which is an odd choice for a fairly long film. You'd think they'd want to go the other way, slowly building up to an all-action second half and sending us out pumped (or at least, forgiving of its slower first hour) but instead I found myself getting restless at the point where my investment should be at its highest. It doesn't help that the characters are largely generic stock characters and the constant movement means we're still meeting new people in the 3rd act (a woman who plays a crucial role for the finale is barely seen beforehand; she's like 12th billed but if one were to just watch the final 15 minutes they'd assume she was the 2nd lead). Maybe it was a planned TV show that got scaled down for a movie?

But again, it looks pretty good (save for some bad digital blood - they have a lot of the real kind too thankfully) and was rarely flat out boring, so if you're in the mood for some mid-grade zombie action it should suffice. And if you're a fan of the cinema of 1997, you should be happy as it has what seems to be a direct homage to Con Air as well as "Female of the Species" from Austin Powers over the end credits, for some reason (a song that's most recognizable line is "the female of the species is more deadly than the male" is a weird choice for a movie where a female is the key to humanity's survival and the men do the majority of the ass-kicking). However, this just reminded me of a time when zombie movies were much harder to come by - had it COME OUT in 1997 maybe I would have had more fun with it on novelty alone. Nowadays, there's just not a lot here to separate it from the others.

What say you?


Crawl (2019)

JULY 11, 2019


Remember Burning Bright, the movie about a young woman and her little brother trapped in their house with a tiger during a hurricane? OK, well, Crawl is basically the same thing except it's her injured dad instead of her brother, and it's an alligator instead of a tiger. Actually a few alligators - I can't be sure but I think there's at least four swimming in and around the house that they're trapped in by a massive hurricane that has flooded their cars away and cut off all communications they may use to call for help. Whether it's intentional or not I don't know; it's not like Burning Bright was this huge hit or anything (it went direct to video, in fact), but as a fan of that one I was happy to see the concept play out again, even if it ultimately suffered from a few of the same issues.

And by that I mean it's a bit repetitive, which is the direct result of the otherwise smart choice of keeping things simple. Characters being trapped with a monster is nothing new, but usually they're in a much bigger locale, like the research facility in Deep Blue Sea, or Jurassic Park in Jurassic Park. Here (and in BB), the setting is a pretty ordinary house in Florida - nothing exotic about it, and while sets are probably being used there's only so much they can expand (wider hallways than your or my house, for example) before the direct appeal - "this could be MY house!" - is diluted too much to be effective. And with the minimal cast, the filmmakers can't just off someone else every 10-15 minutes or else the movie would be too short (as is, it's the rare under 90 minute movie playing right now), so you get a lot of scenes of the heroine slowly making her way around the same spots, temporarily escaping danger only to face a new but more or less similar obstacle moments later.

That said, it's a pretty fun ride all the same. Director Alex Aja (making his first fully original movie since High Tension; everything else has been a remake or book adaptation) masterfully offers up a number of terrific jump scares, most of which even made ME jump so it should play like gangbusters for those who are more easily startled anyway. Kaya Scodelario is pretty great in the role of Haley, a would-be champion swimmer who doubts her own abilities despite encouragement from her father (Barry Pepper), a divorcee who has started withdrawing from his children as well. The plot kicks off when her and her sister are unable to get a hold of him, knowing he lives right in the center of the hurricane target, so Haley drives down to check on him and finds him in the basement of the family home he's halfheartedly trying to sell, unconscious from a pretty nasty wound. Guess how he got it?

Yes even though the house hasn't flooded yet, at least one gator is already inside, so there's minimal waiting for the fun stuff to get going once she arrives at the house (probably 20 minutes into the movie). The various pipes and half-walls in the (seemingly too big, but whatever) basement provide them with spots that are safe from the gators, but the rising water means they can't just sit and wait for the storm to pass and help to arrive, as they will drown first. The dad's injuries keep him from getting too far, so it's all on Haley to move him around, find help, battle the gators, and - when time allows - patch things up with her old man before it's too late.

Without spoiling anyone's fate, I will say this - Aja and the screenwriters (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) improve on Burning Bright's minor issue that the two people in the movie were never in any believable mortal danger - they're not going to kill a little kid, and if Briana Evigan dies at all it won't be until the film's conclusion. Not the case here - Pepper can go at any minute, having fulfilled his 2nd billing status after only about ten minutes (since the other six people in the movie only have a scene or two each, it's not a big task), and as a bonus (for lack of a better word) there's also the family pooch, Sugar, who is big enough to avoid easily drowning or being stepped on but not big enough to help in any meaningful way. There's a bit where Haley tries to escape the basement using an access panel that is unfortunately blocked by a hutch or something on that floor above, and she can only get her hand through - which the dog just sniffs and licks instead of being a superhero movie dog and moving the thing out of the way himself. The realistic approach is most welcome, and with Aja's penchant for surprise attacks, you're worried about the pooch every time he appears.

This sequence unfortunately leads to one of the movie's occasional "the characters have to act stupid for the plot to work" bits, which I always feel can be improved upon with a little bit of effort. Moments after this escape attempt fails, a cop comes by in his boat and starts checking the place out, knowing Haley went there and concerned he didn't hear back from her. She knows he's there, but rather than go back to the hatch that was big enough to fit a hand through, where she could call for help and it would only take him a few seconds to push the thing out of the way, she bangs on pipes and calls for help from her random spot in the basement, prompting further complications. There's also a dumb moment where she gets back to her cell phone (after having dropped it in the open near the gator) and instantly tries to call 911 from there, instead of retreating back to her safe spot first - come on! We know the phone will end up broken/useless anyway, why make your character look like a dummy in the process when there's so many other ways to solve the phone problem?

Otherwise, she's a well written heroine - she's remarkably "quiet" in that she rarely screams or panics - she's able to think quick and be resourceful more often than not. There's a bit where she gets a gun and how she uses it is something I don't know if I've seen before (except in the trailer, which sadly gave it away), but I know it's pretty badass. Aja doesn't indulge in his gore as much as you might expect given his previous adventures with water monsters, but he doesn't hold back when necessary, either - the R rating is justified, but never flaunted, which is an approach I quite liked. There are some gnarly injuries and a pretty glorious death for a supporting character, but it feels like everyone decided to be as realistic as possible, perhaps to balance things out with the kind of ridiculous plot? Though to be fair, there have been reports of gators entering homes even without the aid of flooding waters, so I guess it's not as farfetched as it may seem on paper. The gators look good too - the CGI is never dodgy and animatronics are used when possible, so I was pretty happy with them, and Aja smartly keeps them partially submerged more often than not to minimize any potential fake-looking moments anyway.

Basically, if you liked Burning Bright or The Shallows, you should be pretty satisfied here as the approach seems to be "basic story maximized for scares/suspense", and it works far more often than it doesn't. I believe it's told in real time from the moment she enters the basement to look for her dad, which is always a ballsy tactic that I admire, and it works to the film's advantage more often than not, as we can keep track of where everyone (and everything) is, while also never having time to slow down and forget the various dangers (bleeding out, rising waters, and of course, chompy chomp). It's a shame they didn't hold off release until August, as everyone's still seeing Spider-Man and/or waiting for Lion King, so it's not like the movie's gonna pack every theater this weekend (plus Stuber, pretty much the summer's only other R rated original so far, is opening today as well), because it'll probably be one of those movies people end up wishing they saw on the big screen when they could and it would probably sell more tickets in the less crowded August, but I assume they wanted to stay away from 48 Meters Down (I don't care, that's the title it should be and that's what I'm calling it!), so I get it. Here's hoping it does well enough for Aja to secure another wide release next time (his last two were very limited), now that we know he is capable of delivering more traditional thrills - if Eli Roth can do a kid's movie there's no reason his fellow "splat pack"er can't be trusted to apply his keen eye and craftsmanship to a blockbuster type, if he so desires.

What say you?


FTP: Imitiation Girl (2017)

JULY 10, 2019


Some folks complained that Imitation Girl was a knockoff of Under the Skin, but I didn't see the latter so I can't support/refute those claims - I only bring it up so that you, internet commenter, don't bother to make the same comparison. Even if it was intentional... so what? Friday the 13th was an admitted attempt to cash in on Halloween, and both of those are loved by horror fans, so I think we can accept two movies about aliens taking the form of a human woman. And from what little I know of the other film, I can tell they have different plots entirely - while that one had a rising body count and a sole performance for its lead, Imitation Girl has no violence and is more of a drama about the alien woman and the regular human whose form she clones.

Both roles are played by Lauren Ashley Carter, who was so good in Jug Face and is even more impressive here playing the two roles. As the alien one, she spends the movie adapting to a human life, seemingly not possessing any traditional movie alien traits (i.e. she doesn't want to kill everyone) and making her way around the southwestern US - Starman may come to mind, and that's probably fine with writer/director Natasha Kermani, since it's similarly about what it means to be human and also reaffirming that maybe not every alien that comes to earth wants to kill us. The other character is Julianna, an model/adult film actress whose magazine spread gives "Imitation" her inspiration for human form (the alien is seemingly made of black goo otherwise). Her life, as we quickly learn, kind of sucks - she's doing films that are bad even by porn standards, selling drugs to make ends meet, and basically having trouble making one meaningful connection with another person.

It only takes about a half hour (if that) of the film cutting back and forth between their day to day life to see where it's going - they're going to meet up and fill in the missing pieces for the other. So it's unfortunate that (SPOILER!) the movie is practically over by the time this actually happens, as I could have happily watched another movie of them palling around or doing... well, anything really. The film ends so abruptly after their first encounter that it's not even clear what either of them might have done with the other had they any time to do so. Carter's dual performances are so good that I never minded when it would cut from one to the other, as I was equally compelled by both of their single storylines, but part of it was my excitement for what would happen when they finally met, and the payoff for that wasn't as fulfilling.

Until then, good stuff. Kermani's got a great eye, and her music elevates many of these scenes to boot. There's one around the halfway point (if that) where Imitation is learning to cook and learn Farsi (an Iranian man finds her in the desert and lets her stay at the home he shares with his sister) that I found quite moving, completely forgetting that I actually started watching this thinking it was about an alien woman presumably doing movie alien things (i.e. TENTACLE MURDERS!), and by the end I actually forgot the character started off as a puddle of black goo. The filmmaker also does a fine job balancing the two narratives; the risk of tonal shifts is quite high since Imitation's scenes are generally uplifting while Julianna's life continually gets worse, but it never feels that way at all. If one character's path wasn't interesting, the movie as a whole wouldn't work - thankfully it's not an issue.

I should be clear that this isn't even remotely a horror movie - no one is trying to harm anyone, nothing is particularly scary, etc. It's a straight up character drama with an unusual premise involving an alien. But it's part of Dread Central's label, and while the movies have been hit or miss, I do like what they're doing and wanted to make sure horror fans are aware of the steadily increasing line of titles (most of which are indeed full blown horror). The discs all have extensive bonus features and there's a healthy variety of sub-genres being represented (including documentaries - they put out the one about Kane Hodder that I quite liked), plus reversible art for those who like to have options. I assume it's Carter's experience with the genre and the keyword "alien" that got it on their radar, but I'm glad they branched out of their comfort zone to present it as I might not have seen it otherwise - which is really the main draw of these specialty lines, far as I'm concerned. If this came out from IFC or A24 or whatever I probably wouldn't have seen it, but being part of a budding line that I'm naturally inclined to take an interest in meant it got to my eyeballs. And hopefully yours too, if it sounds up your "not in the mood for traditional horror" alley.

What say you?


Midsommar (2019)

JULY 5, 2019


One of the most trying things about doing this every day (when I did) was when I'd watch a movie that demanded or at least deserved a few days' thought before writing a review, something the "A Day" part of the concept didn't really allow for. Sure, I'd get backed up with reviews every now and then (usually on vacation, when I'd be watching every day but not finding time to write) but I would find it difficult to write about, say, Monday's movie on Friday, with three or four other movies watched in between, so I avoided it whenever possible. That's a thing of the past now, and so I'm glad I had a few days to think about Midsommar before writing about it, because I find I liked it more after chewing on some of its ideas, whereas if I wrote a review on Friday after watching it the tone would be less positive.

As with Ari Aster's previous movie Hereditary, the last act of Midsommar kind of lost me after pulling me in so deftly for its first hour or so, though here he (mostly) got me back. The plot is completely different (and easier to discuss without getting into spoiler territory, yay!) but the general tone of almost unbearable dread mixed with dark humor and surprisingly gruesome violence is very much in line with that one, so it's a fair comparison to make I think. Both films work best before their narratives start coming to a resolution, and while he has improved on it (in my opinion) here, I once again walked out thinking that if the back half was as strong as the front, we'd have an undeniable classic as opposed to a solid movie hampered by some hard to ignore missteps. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

The biggest difference between the two is that he is making it very clear who the "bad guy" is in this movie, before we even meet them in fact. The film opens on some establishing shots with a lovely choral hymn playing under it, which is interrupted by a ringing telephone - in other words, modern technology and those who use it are a disruption to the natural beauty of "the old ways". The plot concerns a man named Pelle who invites three of his fellow anthropology majors (slash bros) to visit his Swedish commune during a nine day annual festival that they hold there, and how one of them (Christian, played by Jack Treynor) has his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) tag along. Christian actually wants to break up with her, but after she suffers a horrific family tragedy feels he can't do that to her just yet, and invites her mostly as a sort of polite gesture, assuming she won't actually go. Alas, she does, much to the dismay of his buds.

I found this conflict and awkward tension to be more compelling than the horror stuff, to be honest - and ultimately I realized that was the point, which I assume was missed by some of the film's detractors. After a million love triangle subplots in horror movies (particularly those in the "doomed vacationers" sub-genre), I was kind of blown away by how invested I got in their dysfunctional relationship, where Christian doesn't want to be with Dani anymore but feels like he can't actually be the one to break it off due to her recent tragedy. In turn, she knows that he isn't exactly fulfilling her needs but thinks it's something she needs to fix within herself; a pre-tragedy phone call to her otherwise unseen friend tells us that she worries she's too clingy for him, ignoring her friend's insistence that she should be able to find someone who gladly gives her that security. Be it a spouse or a platonic friend (or even a family member), we've all been in a situation where we keep a relationship on life support out of what remains of our affection for the other, rather than just let it die and use that energy elsewhere - Aster's script and the two actors' performances really nail that uncomfortable situation.

Now, would I watch a movie about that sans any horror stuff whatsoever? Maybe, but I probably wouldn't have chosen it over Toy Story 4 (or Dark Phoenix, which I suspect I have lost my last chance to see theatrically). Luckily, the plot practically guaranteed that their relationship issues would be the least of their worries, and here Aster makes the smart choice of practically spelling out that these Swedish folks who live in the middle of the woods, closed off from the rest of the world, might... well, sacrifice them at some point. Murals depicting their violent customs are in plain sight of both us and the main characters, they have buildings that no one can enter, photos are not allowed... and the locals make no effort to explain these things away as benign. So if you saw the trailer and (as I did) assumed it was all building toward a Wicker Man kind of thing - the good news is Aster knows you know that and doesn't bother to hide it, and then uses your familiarity with this sort of thing in amusing and unexpected ways.

Instead, the real mystery is whether or not Dani will finally realize Christian sucks and muster up the strength to dump him herself, or if he will start to genuinely appreciate her and rekindle their relationship (thanks or no thanks to the potential death of their friends and/or their own immediate danger). It's a long movie (2:27!) so it shouldn't surprise you that it takes a while for any traditional horror stuff to happen, save for a voluntary suicide of two town elders (they believe life ends at 72 and there's no point in slowly dying in a nursing home when you can choose to go out and help bring new life about with the sacrifice of your blood), so if you don't care about their relationship and bought your ticket hoping someone ends up being immolated to improve their crops, you're gonna be bored out of your mind. But as with his earlier film, Aster is able to convey a sense of dread almost immediately, thanks to the editing, music (Bobby Krlic's score accompanies my writing of this review, in fact), and production design - if you're the type that equates horror with lengthy chase scenes and jump sacres then you'll check out, but if "I am uncomfortable because I know something awful is going to happen" is your bag, the length shouldn't be much of an issue, and the payoffs are mostly worth it.

I say mostly because, well, it's still a long movie, and unless I am missing something, it could have easily been shorter. After a few days in the community (and having already seen some weird things), Christian decides he will focus his thesis project on the town and the festival, which rightfully angers his buddy Josh (William Jackson Harper) who was already using it as the topic for his own thesis and thinks Christian is simply piggybacking on the work he had already done. Not a bad subplot on its own, perhaps, but it isn't introduced until past the film's halfway point, and doesn't really serve any purpose beyond reminding us that Christian is a selfish ass. This results in a couple of scenes where both men talk to Pelle about how much/little they can write about, if the town elders will allow them access to things, etc - and there's no real payoff for it whatsoever. Josh's dedication to his project was well established before they even got there, whereas they barely even mention that Christian was on the same track, so why Aster chose to focus on this almost at the exact point where the average audience member might start getting restless just baffles me. Worse, it comes at the expense of time that could be spent on him and Dani (who have remarkably few moments together alone once they're at the commune), if not cut entirely to get them to their conclusion before we actually start forgetting about their troubles in the first place.

Also (minor spoiler, but I'll be vague with the details) after a week there, you'd think Dani and the others would be used to strange things and also that more often than not they're not too thrilled about what they see when they participate, so it doesn't really work at all when she insists on looking at what's going on behind closed doors out of nowhere. The place has like a dozen buildings that they rarely enter, so why she would hear some chanting coming from one of them and think anything of it doesn't quite track - it's just a quick/lazy way to get her some information she will need in the long run. Due to its importance I can't help but wish the script got her to that place in a more organic (or even accidental) way, instead of using an out of character moment to kick it off. The film's terrific closing sequence brings it back and makes it a win, but as I said, the movie would have been a total knockout if Aster had tightened and refined the things that built up to it.

Everything else works good to great though. The all daylight approach (the town only gets somewhat dark for a few hours at night) was an inspired choice, better to show off the (once again) terrific production design, particularly on the creepy-ass murals and odd buildings (the room they all sleep in is Suspiria-esque in blending fairy-tale aesthetics with unsettling oversized construction). The actors are also doing standout work; Pugh has some really tough moments to play and nails them all (her howls upon hearing the news about her family in the film's pre-title sequence are downright bone-chilling), and I must take a moment to appreciate Will Poulter's Mark, the most "bro"-y of the four men whose (often off-screen while the camera tracks someone else) remarks about their hosts and setting give the film most of its overt humor. He's just hoping to get laid in Sweden, and this along with his disregard for their customs (sometimes accidentally; of all the trees he could have used to pee on, he chose their sacred one) has him fulfilling a sort of horror movie cliche (someone even remarked he might be a misplaced Hostel franchise character), but he never crosses the line into being an insufferable asshole, which is important. Even Christian has his strong points; he's not a full blown "bad guy", he's just bad FOR HER, though your own history with such types will naturally have you judging him accordingly.

Once again, Aster has made a film that combines parts of many of the genre's classics while creating something very unique; there it was Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, and Carrie, here it's Wicker Man*, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a dash of The Shining. It's similar to what Tarantino does; walking a careful line of wearing influences on the sleeve without ever really feeling like a "ripoff" of any of those films, but they're serving very different masters. The frequent complaint about Hereditary (and now this one, though I've tuned out a lot so far as I didn't want my own thoughts clouded) is that the films aren't "scary" in the traditional sense, and I think that his influences - all of which are often featured on "scariest movie ever" kind of lists - make that distinction all the more apparent. I've said time and time again that I don't really get scared by horror movies anyway and just enjoy them for what they are, but I can recognize the moments that are meant to frighten the crowd, and these two films have those in very short supply (if anything, Hereditary might have more traditional scares).

But that's OK by me! Whereas in the earlier film I found it hard to connect to the family unit, I quickly got invested in Dani and Christian's unfortunate but common predicament (perhaps because a good friend of mine was in that kind of relationship for years and only recently got out of it - less dramatically than presented here I should stress), and thus didn't mind or really even notice that outside of the occasional burst of shocking/gruesome violence, it "wasn't scary". My few complaints about the film concern the script (or at least, the finished edit) forgetting about its central conflict to focus on a pointless one at an inopportune time and subsequent clumsy method of getting it back on track - not because of a lack of chase scenes or whatever. It will be a polarizing film, I think, but not for the reasons I initially suspected. And even if I hated it, the fact something so weird is once again being given a wide release (in the middle of the summer no less) makes me hopeful about the future of big screen horror. Aster has mentioned Blood on Satan's Claw as one of his folk horror influences - that's a pretty obscure movie to be a major inspiration for something playing next door to Spider-Man 7, so here's hoping A24 keeps taking these chances instead of sending them off to VOD.

What say you?

*Both of them, I think! I won't spoil any particulars but a certain animal plays a part in the 2006 version (not in the original) and is used for one of this film's most striking moments.


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