Movie Review ~ The Rental (2020)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister.

Stars: Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I love to travel but I’m kinda weird about it.  Here’s the thing, when I go on vacation I want to feel like I’m away from home and want the place I stay to feel special and not like…well, my home.  That’s why I’ve always found the Airbnb craze to be a little whack-a-doo because who would want to stay in a person’s house (or even a place someone else decorated or, shudder, put their bare feet on the pillows?) when you could get pampered at a hotel for sometimes half the cost?  I know that for large parties it may work out better but there’s just something a little creepy to me about the entire set-up.  After watching The Rental, I’m even more convinced I’m right to be worried.

The first feature film directed by Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), The Rental could have easily gone in another direction that was more cliché and expected and that would have been a gigantic and exasperating disappointment.  Thankfully, Dave seems to have learned from the strange misfires his older brother James made as both a director and star and kept his debut tight.  He also wisely hasn’t made it more difficult on himself by starring in the film as well but instead remains behind the camera as director and co-writer with indie favorite Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) who knows his way around these types of slow-dread genre films.  The result should have audiences ready to check-in and hunker down for a corker of a chiller.

Excited for a weekend away from their busy city lives, Charlie (Dan Stevens, Lucy in the Sky), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement), his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Viena and the Fantomes) and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) book a beach house in the woods that’s just secluded enough to help them unwind  and party without disruption.  Things get off to a jittery start when Mina, who is Middle Eastern, requests to book the house and is denied but Charlie, who is white, is accepted immediately.  Arriving to find the owner (Toby Huss, Halloween) affable at first but vague when questioned about the perceived racism in the booking snafu, the foursome shake off any lingering bad feelings and try to enjoy their first night at the spacious house.

The calm doesn’t last long though as a night of partying leads to the first of a number of secrets that are eventually exposed, along with a danger that none of them could have ever predicted.  Situations go from bad to worse when a split-second decision changes the course of their weekend plans from a fun retreat with family/friends to a downward spiral of mayhem.  As miscommunication, distrust, fear, and anger start to take hold of the group, what starts as a weekend to relax quickly devolves into a surprisingly effective fight for survival stemming from a mystery they are racing to unravel.  To reveal more would not be playing fair and Franco/Swanberg largely stick to realistic developments that rely on spur of the moment choices and their devastatingly quick consequences.

I was genuinely impressed with the acumen Franco shows for maneuvering his small troupe of actors around and the way he works with Swanberg to keep us on our toes throughout.  The twists and turns presented in The Rental are often unpredictable and you’ll lose valuable time the more you try to figure out what’s happening or where the action will go next.  Leaving little room for extra fat to weigh things down, the 80 or so minutes are free from the normal pitfalls of first time filmmaking, suggesting again that Franco has been paying attention when he’s been on sets these past years as an actor.

Frustrating though they all may be at times and not without blame for much of what happens during this weekend from hell, the characters are all appealing in some fashion.  I’m usually not a fan of Brie (Franco’s real life wife) but she’s quite fun here and despite a slow start where her character is a bit more passive than we’re used to seeing from Brie she revs up and gets a few good zingers in during the second half.  Every time Stevens pops up in a movie my partner notes that ever since he left Downton Abbey the actor seems totally averse to speaking in his native UK accent and here again he’s not wholly successful in showing off his elocution.  Stevens hasn’t quite found his footing, post-Downton and while he’s been well-reviewed in a number of films he continues to come up lacking for me…but in The Rental that cool from a distance feel actually works for his often compromised pseudo-nice guy.  As Charlie’s screw-up brother, White is fine in a role that gradually gets aggravating but it’s Vand’s commanding presence that is the real find here.  Taking the role as serious as it needs to be, Vand handles some character developments and choices that could be poison with an unusual amount of grace, keeping us oddly on her side.

Franco has said the idea for The Rental came from his caution about staying in an Airbnb property and his trepidation shows with an end product that’s drenched in paranoia.  Building to a sharp sting around the halfway mark before rising to a spine-tingling crescendo that’s sustained through the credits, The Rental is a four-star winner for the weary traveler wary of where they lay their head at night.

Movie Review ~ Relic

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman links her mother’s increasingly volatile behavior to an evil presence at their family’s decaying country home.

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Director: Natalie Erika James

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  If you look back over the history of the horror genre you see it developing with the time.  Early entries from the black and white era largely suggested danger without showing it, much like audiences were unsure what was really happening overseas in WWII.  As the counterculture was brought from the shadows to the mainstream in the late 60s and 70s, so too did the genre give way to boundary pushing fright cinema that stylishly developed a look all its own.  The 80s slasher craze and endless sequels/copycats went well with the mall obsessed teen moviegoers that loved to dress like their favorite celebrity.  When the hammer of reality came down in the 90s and 2000s, horror pivoted again with self-aware work that was as snarky as its target audience.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen another seismic shift in nightmare cinema, and it’s been a return to a desire for intelligent scares and less on quick terror.  Movie going isn’t cheap so audiences want to spend their money attending entertainment that is going to give them the best return on their investment…and they don’t want to be treated to another cookie cutter slasher film heavy on blood, guts, boobs, and butts.  Films like The Conjuring and Hereditary have left a lasting impression because they’ve scared the beejebus out of audiences but have more up their sleeves than just mere frights.

You can add the new Australian film Relic to that list of successful genre offerings too and even place it fairly high on the list.  With its small cast and confined setting, it works wonders with the limitations it places on itself and never lets the viewer get too far ahead of the characters experiencing some perplexing behavior of a loved one.  Working from her own script, Natalie Erika James directs the mostly three-person film with a sure hand and only rarely lets the standard tropes of horror films get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

Concerned for the well-being of her mother Edna who hasn’t been seen by her neighbors in several days, Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) drive up from Melbourne to Edna’s home in the woods.  Arriving to find Edna gone but evidence that she’s likely suffering from dementia, the two begin to search through the house for clues as to her whereabouts while joining with the locals to find their matriarch.  When Edna (Robyn Nevin) does eventually return in the middle of the night, something is off and while we get the impression she was never the warmest of maternal figures she has an especially sharp bite to her when provoked in the slightest.

Sticking around to ensure Edna is settled back in while also planning to move her into a facility that can care for her future needs, Kay begins to notice strange indicators around the house that something worse may have infiltrated the premises.  Edna’s increasingly detached behavior and wild mood swings wreak havoc on the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter, prompting both to dig further not just into Edna’s condition but into the house and surrounding woods which seems to hold more secrets the family will need to face together.  With Edna’s condition worsening rapidly and the unexplained incidents becoming more violent, the three women all face a challenging evening in a house that might have its own agenda.

It’s not hard to pick up the metaphor Relic is laying down but even if you do catch on what’s happening you’ll likely be thrown for a loop in the film’s final act which trades the quieter, slow burn moments of the previous 70 minutes for a genuinely worrisome finale.  It’s not just that James delivers some serious scary sequences and arresting visual imagery as the three women face some frightening happenings, but that all of it feels…personal.  Couple that with an unexpectedly moving (for a horror film) ending and you have a memorable and highly recommendable feature.

I can see why Relic wouldn’t quite land for everyone and it’s worth noting that much of the success of the film relies on our emotional connection to the characters and story.  If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t latch on like that, the movie may not hold the same lasting impact I felt.  It’s a tricky ending and it could have easily gone wrong, but I think it’s extraordinary.  For me, I thought about the movie and it’s bracing ending for days afterward and was impressed all over again at the delicacy with which James chose to end her film and the chutzpah it must have taken to do it herway.

Movie Review ~ The Wretched


The Facts
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Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley

Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It was all the way back in 1991 when I was first introduced to the novels of Christopher Pike with the classic, Whisper of Death.  The pseudonym of Kevin Christopher McFadden, writing as Pike he gave teens a boatload of thrills tinged with some mature themes and I just couldn’t get enough of them.  Pike is going to have a bit of a resurgence now that it’s been announced super-hot director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) is adapting his novel The Midnight Club (and interweaving a few others) into a new series for Netflix.  I also couldn’t quite get Pike’s prose out of my mind while watching The Wretched, a new indie horror flick released on streaming that’s better than you think even if it plays like a really strong YA novel adaptation.

Sent to live with his dad in a sleepy resort town on the coast of Michigan for the summer after a bit of wild teenage fun got out of hand (and left him in a cast), Ben (John-Paul Howard, Hell or High Water) is all angst and over-it attitude.  However, he starts to come around when he is coaxed out of his shell by Mallory (Piper Curda), a co-worker at the marina his dad oversees.  The fun doesn’t last long, though, because Ben’s neighbors with two small children are starting to act funny…perhaps it’s because of the grotesque creature we saw crawl out of a deer carcass and hide in their basement or the strange markings on their front porch.  When their children vanish and no one claims to remember them, Ben becomes convinced something strange is happening…and it all seems to center on a tree in the woods that hides a terrifying creature.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in The Wretched, starting with a spooky prologue set 35 years ago and writer/directors Brett and Drew Pierce keep things moving at a decent clip for the first hour or so.  While the territory is familiar with no one believing the already troubled teenager, there’s a particular comfort in watching it play out so by-the-numbers.  Maybe it’s because the cast is so benignly appealing and the production values are a step-up from the normal indie schlock-fest.  The make-up effects (by a dude named Erik Porn, no joke) are aces and much of the work is practical with CGI used sparingly, at least as far as I could tell.  Genre fans will have fun picking out the influences on hand, from Rear Window to Fright Night to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…heck, even to William Friedkin’s much maligned 1990 movie The Guardian…but instead of leaving feeling that the movie lifted the best bits I got the impression the filmmakers had a deep affinity for those movies they wanted to emulate and they succeed with that.

Where The Wretched gets into some trouble is not being able to connect the dots to its ideas at the end of the day.  Like that spooky prologue I mentioned before.  It sets a nice tone but unfortunately (and this isn’t a total spoiler) it doesn’t truly come back in a meaningful way later in the film.  Even the most strident of television movies would have at least find a way to bring that back but the Pierce brothers seem to have forgotten about furthering their mythology about whatever wicked presence has long been feeding in the area.  Also, I have to say the doozy of a ending didn’t work for me…like, at all.  It’s one of those rug-pulling twists that could have worked but it doesn’t have the logic (or running time) to back it up.

Even if it falters toward the end, I found The Wretched be a far above average entry in the genre film that pops up on my recommended list.  It’s scary but not aggressively so, one of those weeknight watches you won’t feel too bad about spending time with

Movie Review ~ Knives and Skin


The Facts
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Synopsis: In the wake of a high school student’s mysterious disappearance, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls — gathering in force until it can no longer be contained.

Stars: Marika Engelhardt, Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Tim Hopper, Kate Arrington, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith

Director: Jennifer Reeder

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As I approach a milestone birthday in 2020, I’m wondering if I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man.  I see the signs all around me to suggest the transition is beginning.  I get annoyed when whippersnappers play their music too loud on the train, wondering at the same time what happened to good tunes.  No one has manners anymore, people leave their garbage anywhere they want and feel they are entitled to do what they want when they want to, regardless of anyone else in the room.  There’s no respect for authority or leadership.  Plus, I just really look forward to the bran muffin my work offers up every Friday.  I’m one cardigan and a couple of belt loops away from being ready to go ice fishing with Walter Matthau.

Reading the synopsis for Knives and Skin, I found a great deal of promise.  A modern noir mystery written and directed by feminist filmmaker Jennifer Reeder that would have its own voice could be just what this era of filmmaking needed.  A genre dominated by males and male-appealing storylines was due for a little shake-up, why not start at the indie roots and work our way up into the mainstream?  Sounds like a winner, right?  I thought so too but watching the film is a different experience entirely and this blossoming grumpy old man wasn’t having it.  Despite some intriguing interludes, a welcome all-inclusive vibe, and a keen visual eye, Reeder’s teen noir isn’t some revolutionary piece of cinema like I was hoping it would be.

Eschewing the hard-boiled grit of an East coast setting or the sinister sunny skies of the West coast scene, Knives and Skin centers on the residents of a small Midwestern township that could be called Anytown U.S.A.  It’s here that Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing after being left in the middle of nowhere by school crush Andy (Ty Olwin) when she rebuffs his advances.  Carolyn’s already slightly on the edge mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), teeters further on the brink when her daughter vanishes, resorting to wearing her clothes to feel closer to her child.  Her friends think she’ll show up soon and aren’t too worried, though.

Lisa’s also the music teacher at the town’s high school and Reeder has stuffed the gymatorioum full of hyped up, highly emotional teens that struggle with the disappearance of a classmate at the same time their hormones are raging at a fever pitch.  Juggling these kids as well as a healthy stable of adults showing up as predatory teachers and troubled parents presents the viewer with a lot of plotlines and perverse people to keep track of.  While the town goes about their business, Reeder also presents Carolyn (or Carolyn’s lifeless body) to us at several points, blurring the lines of reality further so we aren’t sure if this is meant to be real, taken as a dream of the filmmaker, the dream of a character, or merely symbolic of something else entirely.

Bravo to a few performers here, namely Engelhardt, who are asked to go above and beyond for their performance.  Most of the actors are entirely forgettable, hindered by clumsy, babbling brook-ish dialogue and some truly heinous line deliveries but there are several standouts.  As an avant-garde student that catches the eye of a popular football star, Ireon Roach is the most interesting one of the lot and I longed to see her in a remake of Pretty in Pink, which is kinda the point Reeder is making.  The parents/adults are the true duds here, each performing like this is their big Hollywood break.  Every emotion is huge, each word of dialogue is barked out with eyes bulged to the back of the theater.

I’d read some critics kindly compare this film to the work of David Lynch and more power to them.  I found this to be an extremely unpleasant movie on the whole, even considering there are some strong performances and there’s true technique involved in the production design and cinematography.  It’s fine to create a work that has some characters audiences are repelled by but Reeder has found a way to make almost every person that shows up on screen so obnoxious and repulsive in their own way that for the first time in a long while I almost gave up on this entirely.  If there’s truly one thing that saves the film from being a total waste, is Reeder’s inclusion of several ‘80s tunes sung by the school choir or as musical interludes, artfully edited.  They’re hopelessly emo but well performed and they stuck with me much more than any one person did.

There’s clearly a strong voice in Reeder and I’m going to keep my eye on what the filmmaker does in the future – I’m hoping there’s more focus into the plot (oh, you forgot this was a mystery, didn’t you?  So did I at times) and less on exposing the sordid side of a small town.  What Reeder uncovers here isn’t anything new or exciting, nor is her delivery as audacious as it could have been.  It’s less knives on skin and more nails on a chalkboard.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.

Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Catherine Kelly, Michael McElhatton, Jane Perry

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Based on the recommendation of a trusted source, I fired up The Autopsy of Jane Doe a while back on a cold evening when I had the apartment to myself. I turned off all the lights and settled in to see if the good buzz from my friend was real. 86 minutes later the lights had been turned on (and stayed on for the better part of the night) and my nerves were downright rattled. A rare jewel in a sometimes-tarnished crown of low-budget horror films, The Autopsy of Jane Doe has some smarts behind it, not to mention a fair share of goosebump-inducing passages.

Proving once again why you should just close up shop when the day is done, a father-son set of coroners answer a late-night call from the police to start an autopsy of a young woman found buried in a neighboring town. Though she’s been hidden in the dirt for an indeterminate amount of time, her alabaster skin doesn’t show any decay nor is there any sign of immediate trauma. As the two men work into the night in their shadowy underground funeral home, they begin to believe not only that there’s spooky forces at play surrounding Jane Doe…but that the body might not be dead enough for burial just yet.

As the family members plunged into a frightful night of terror, Brian Cox (Pixels) and Emile Hirsch (Lone Survivor) play well off each other, mostly because they treat the material with the right amount of growing warines. The father is more trusting of history and science while the son is willing to suspend his disbelief and consider that what’s happening to this body can’t be explained away by documented medical cases. Writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s plot will keep you guessing and their script is aided by André Øvredal’s measured direction. Special mention must be made to the actress playing Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) who has to do a helluva lot lying full naked on a cold metal slab.

The final 1/3 of the movie is loads of fun with many developments happening in quick succession. You’ll never get too far ahead of the characters, thereby enjoying each twist as it develops in front of you. There’s a fair amount of autopsy gore but the other violence is handled with just the right quantity of blood and guts. I hesitate to call the film classy because then we get into a different type of horror film that this one just doesn’t have any aspiration to be. It knows what it is and is highly effective in its mission to freak you out. Watch it alone if you must but try and rope a friend in to share the love.

Movie Review ~ The Babadook

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

Stars: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman,Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear

Director: Jennifer Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’d like to let you in on a little secret the marketing team for The Babadook probably doesn’t want you to know: it’s not an Insidious/Sinister/The Conjuring-like scare fest that derives its shocks and jolts from loud music stings and icky ghouls that peek out from under the bed.

That’s not to say The Babadook doesn’t have a treasure trove worth of frights at the ready for audiences but to truly feel the effect of director Jennifer Kent’s slow burn horror film you need to be patient, listen, and invest yourself in the characters and situations presented to you.

Drawing parallels between unexpressed grief and horror manifested as a boogey-man type specter, Kent’s tale unspools at its own pace, thankfully taking the time to introduce us to the mother and son that are haunted by a malevolent force inside their creaky old manse.  Still grieving the loss of her husband killed the day their son was born, Amelia (Essie Davis) is barely keeping it together between her demanding job as a caregiver and fulfilling her motherly duties to her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman).

Plagued by night terrors, Samuel acts out at school and when he’s removed from class it’s not long before mother and son find themselves cooped up in their house with little to keep them company but television and bedtime stories.  Pulling a new book from the shelf, Amelia reads the tale of The Babadook, a menacing creature with a presence that is seemingly inescapable.  When the book and its titular character start to take on a life of its own, Amelia and Samuel face their fears as the lines between reality and fiction become ever harder to decipher.

There’s some marvelously rewarding sequences here, whether you are a horror aficionado or a scaredy-cat that burrows under the covers when the scares get too overwhelming.  Kent wisely keeps the performances small while showing how many dark corners this house has for evil to lurk.  Bolstered by a creepy performance from Wiseman and a heroically tremendous one from Davis, the film has more intensely dramatic scenes than it does outright terror (fear not you scare hounds, several deviously executed bits will provide you with your goosebump quota for 2014 and 2015),  providing the kind of balance that many similar films struggle to find.

Watching this film at home, I can imagine the experience to be slightly different in a movie theater seeing that you always have the safety of your home to retreat to.  Since The Babadook is all about the fear that you may just be manifesting on our own, conjuring those images while in a space you consider safe may not be the wisest choice either if you have any hope of getting a decent night’s rest.

Worthy of the good buzz and accolades it’s receiving, The Babadook is a smart, skilled film that heralds the arrival of a significant writer-director in Kent.  Seek it out, but beware that you may not be able to get rid of The Babadook once you’ve let it in.

The Silver Bullet ~ Raze

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Synopsis: Focuses on two abducted women & 48 others who are forced to fight each other using their bare hands.

Release Date:  January 10, 2014 (limited)

Thoughts: Stunt woman Zoë Bell (Oblivion, Django Unchained, Iron Man 3) leads a cast of buffed up broads in Raze, a grindhouse-style film that looks to be a slice of retro heaven.  The women behind bars exploitation film fell out of fashion in the early 90’s once the “there’s just no good parts for women” quote became the standard response from many of the Hollywood elite who crooked their noses up at these low budget efforts.  Turns out that all the genre needed for a revival was a game group of women that could believably kick ass and take names of their male counterparts.  I’ll expect some hard-wired groups will be aghast at the film’s extreme violence and women battling women for survival but the filmmakers behind Raze seem to have made their intentions clear that they aren’t remaking the wheel…they’re just redefining it.