Tag Archives: sundance 2015

The Witch (2015 Sundance)

18 Feb

Zombies and Vampires may come close, but no horror archetype has been represented and caricatured in cinema quite like that of a witch. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, to Monty Python, we have been enchanted by the mysterious figure. I walked into the “The Witch” thinking I had seen just about every form of witches out there. I was so wrong.

Directed by Robert Eggers, and based of the real-life accounts of 16th century New England puritans, The Witch tells the story of a small puritan family who have recently been banished from their immigrant village on account of religious blasphemy.  William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy must now fend for themselves by raising a farm in the middle of a forsaken (and possibly haunted) swampland. Without the aid of any nearby villagers, the family is faced with a terrifying ultimatum: either grow food or starve to death.  When crops fail to sprout however, William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, suspects his children have been involved with witchcraft and dabbling in occult affairs. Members of the family then begin one by one to descend into a terrifying spiral of religiously-fuelled madness and savagery.

Part supernatural horror, part paranoid thriller, The Witch is a genuinely spooky take on the occult and the terrorizing effects religious devotion can have on one’s psyche. Thankfully, it is a meticulously crafted as it is terrifying, making The Witch the most artistically minded horror since 2014’s Under The Skin.

The Witch is one of those rare films you just don’t watch but experience; you can feel the sense of impending dread seeping out from the screen as you watch characters slowly peel back the mystery and evil that exists within the nearby woods. Boasting an immaculate production design that effectively recalls the early 1600’s, the film accurately recalls a time and place when religious paranoia fueled all aspects of life.  The film’s dialogue is even written word-by-word from historical transcripts and rendered by the actors in heavy, old-english accents. This kind of attention to detail might throw some viewers off (especially those with an aversion to period pieces) and the slow timing during the film’s first act ensures only those with a bit a patience will brave the film’s nightmarish climax.

This film is dark – extremely dark – figuratively and literally, (I doubt some scenes will even be visible when screened in a lightened room) which adds immensely to its haunting quality. Dimly lit landscapes covered in impenetrable greys add a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With one hell of an unsettling score, The Witch creates subtle psychological tension from the things we don’t see onscreen rather than relying on tiring jump scares.

 

Bottom Line: The Witch is a throwback to the great horror films of the 70’s, but delivered in such a visceral fashion that the ultimate effect is hard to shake off; I literally had dreams (nightmares?) about this thing weeks after seeing it.

 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The Wicker Man (1973) + The Shining (1980) + The Exorcist (1973)

The Nightmare (2015 Documentary)

30 Oct

The most universal aspect of horror is its power to make us realize that evil might be a lot closer – and a lot more unpredictable – than we want to acknowledge.

Few films have tapped into that mysterious and terrorizing aspect of the great unknown. Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it with the masterful Psycho. In the 70’s, William Friedkin and Tobe Hooper did it with The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the late 90’s a group of students were able to tap into that primal fear on a fraction of the budget with The Blair Witch ProjectAnd now in 2015, director Rodney Ascher (The ABC’s of Death, Room 237) taps into that same terrorizing instinct (this time in documentary format) with The Nightmare. 

The documentary consists of eight interviews with people who suffer from a bizarre condition known as sleep paralysis. This night time phenomenon literally forces its victims to be lucid and awake while experiencing an unconscious nightmare – without the ability to speak or move a muscle.  Personal accounts have described a sort of demonic figure or unwelcome intruder entering the room and peering over the side of the bed, conveying thoughts and feelings of death, hell, and pain. It’s literally the stuff of nightmares, and so far modern science has shown no lasting treatment or cure.

Through a combination of Q&A sessions, dramatic recreations, surreal computer imagery and voiceover narration, Ascher creates a mesmerizing, want-to-close-your-eyes-but-can’t look into this rare but troubling phenomenon. Somehow The Nightmare summons that banal and instinctive fear of the unknown better than any other film this year – if not this decade – providing a conduit for audiences to conjure up their own demons and proving that the scariest things in life are indeed those things we create out of our own head.

As in the Stanley Kubrick tribute/conspiracy film Room 237, Ascher is most interested in hearing what other people have to say, and the personal retellings of sleep paralysis from those who have suffered through it make up the backbone for the film. Without much of a story or dramatic arc to follow, The Nightmare often ends up repeating itself more than once, though it avoids anything close to boredom by adding a new and visceral layer of terror with each person’s story. The Nightmare might seem repetitive on the surface, but always terrifying nevertheless while in the moment (and the film does an excellent job of making sure those moments of terror make a lasting impression on its audience).

Once you’re under it’s spell, The Nightmare becomes absolutely enchanting, horrifying, and captivating in equal measure. With superb attention to rhythm, the editing cuts in and out between recreations and talking heads relating first hand experiences. Ascher avoids most of the medical and scientific explanations behind sleep paralysis, instead focusing on each person’s accounts of terror. The end result is a numbing but deeply personal shock to the system, which gains tremendous authenticity due to the fact that we are watching a documentary and not a work of fiction. Though having a more solid narrative trajectory would have been welcome, The Nightmare adequately describes the horror of being paralyzed during your most fearful moment, doubting whether or not you will ever make it back to real life again.

Bottom Line: By digging straight through the psyche and exploiting each fearful moment to the limit, The Nightmare is an authentically terrorizing, hypnotic documentary – one that’s best experienced rather than watched. 

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Room 237 + Nightmare on Elm Street + a bad acid trip 

Cop Car (2015)

2 Sep

“This is our cop car!” ten-year-old Harrison (Hays Wellford) yells, as he and his best friend Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), take off with a newly carjacked police vehicle. The aptly-titled film Cop Car follows these two boys as they begin their rebellious journey by committing grand theft auto in a midwest rural town. Of course, the local Sheriff  Kretzer (a wonderful Kevin Bacon) isn’t game to just let a couple of hoodlums escape with his car, especially when it contains important contraband connected with a crime of Kretzer’s own doing…

Directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Watts and Chris D. Ford, Cop Car starts out as standard teenage, lighthearted fare. The first opening lines feature Harrison and Wellford alone in a wheatfield spewing a string of curse words for the sheer thrill of it. Boys will be boys after all. As the film slowly starts to shed light on the repercussions of messing with law enforcement, it becomes obvious to the children, and to the audience, that things have gotten WAY out of control. This is when the film thematically exhausts itself, as it tries too hard to straddle the lines between 1) exploiting the jokes and fun of having a pair of innocent kids take on the cops, and 2) showing just how serious (read: deadly) the situation has become.  It’s a tough line to straddle, and there are moments in the film (like when the children try to figure out how to handle a police pistol, for example) where I wasn’t sure if I should be laughing or terrified.  It’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.

Story-wise though, there is enough going on to make up for the film’s self-confusion. Watts and Ford have written a fairly solid film, especially in its latter half. And the execution – from the cinematography to the editing to the action scenes – is equally solid. In a film like this though, the children obviously take in the spotlight. Wellford and Freedson-Jackson make an adorable on screen presence, but unfortunately their lack of acting experience shines right through. Of course child actors are usually tricky, and make for an easy critical targets when discussing performances, but in a film like Cop Car, so much is weighing on the kids and it’s absolutely critical to have believable young actors who can pull the whole thing off. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.

The vast majority of Cop Car however, is as entertaining as its premise would suggest. Watts cleverly weaves multiple storylines and points of view together to create a fulfilling and suspenseful narrative, complete with an incredible third act. Some of the scenes are flat out brilliant (the final 5 minutes might be one of the best cinematic moments of the year), but others feel mismatched and inconsistent. Clocking in at a nice and neat 86 minutes doesn’t give me too much to complain about.

Bottom Line: Missed opportunities and bland child acting zap Cop Car of it’s potential, making the film a bit of an inconsistent – but always enjoyable – mixed bag. 

 

Rating: 6/10 

The Recipe: Coen Bros + Home Alone (1990) + Young Anakin from The Phantom Menace 

Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sundance 2015)

25 Aug

Very few themes have been examined more in teen cinema than that of sexual maturation and puberty. From classic films like Stand By Meto contemporary ones like Superbad or last year’s Boyhood, film culture seems to be obsessed with capturing that moment where children start see the opposite sex in a different light. Rarely though, are they done so skillfully through the eyes of a female protagonist, which is what makes Sundance Film Festival entry Diary of a Teenage Girl such a refreshing delight.

Our lead girl is Minnie (played by Bel Powley), a 15 year-old girl raised in the hippie culture of 70’s San Francisco. Raised by her single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) who has since divorced Minnie’s father and is seeing a new man by the name of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). The film quickly establishes that Minnie has just lost her virginity to Monroe, and the two form an unconventional and highly toxic relationship that fuels the drama for most of the film. Minnie’s newfound sexuality serves as her inspiration to start an audio journal, wherein she chronicles her sexual exploits and thoughts about life in general. As you can imagine, dating a man 20 years older has its share of compilations, especially when he is also dating your mom and you are still in high school.

While intensely uncomfortable at some moments, Minnie’s adventure is told so delicately and expertly by writer/director Marielle Heller (who, up to this point has been mostly known for her acting work in the underrated Liam Neeson vehicle A Walk Among The Tombstones) that it becomes hard not to fall in line with Minnie’s innocent view of what a romantic fling entitles her to. In her mind, dating her soon-to-be stepdad is perfectly natural because the two genuinely love each other, and according to Minnie “loving someone means you touch them all over”.  In the film’s first act Heller is arguably justifying a pedophilliac relationship, and we see how idealistic and good Minnie and Monroe are for each other. Later on however, Heller expertly shows us the complexity and devastation that comes with heartbreak.

The film’s plot does get weighed down a bit in the third act by a few unnecessary moments which tragically put the brakes on the free flowing and enthusiastic pace of the first half. Heller knows she has a great story on her hands, but perhaps she became a little too enthused about telling us how it ends. There is also a lot of crude animation that some people will really fall for, but I thought it was just a distraction.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is a superbly crafted and deeply affectionate film; you get a sense the story is intensely personal to Heller but still conveyed well enough so it’s instantly relatable to a wide array of viewers. Soft lighting and incredible production design reflect the youthful optimism and rebellious independent spirit of the 70’s.  It’s easy to see how this film took the Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Awards Ceremony – every frame is overflowing with a romantic and dreamlike idealism. Bel Powley, a British theater actress, is absolutely fantastic in one of 2015’s biggest breakthrough performances.

Bottom Line: While a widespread theatrical run might not be on the horizon (I can’t imagine many megaplexes are looking for a film this unrelinquishing about such a taboo topic), Diary of a Teenage Girl deserves to be seen by many though VOD or some other platform where it will resonate with a large audience.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fish Tank (2010), +  It Felt Like Love (2014),  + Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013) 

It Follows (Sundance 2015)

28 Mar

Playing in the Sundance Film Festival‘s Midnight selection after it premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Critic’s Week, It Follows provides audiences with effective thrills in the form of a morality fable. Indie newcomer Maika Monroe stars in this sex-themed horrorshow as Jay, a high school graduate preparing for college in the fall. After a recent sexual encounter with a new date Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay begins to suspect that some sort of paranormal entity is following her, and she soon learns about the one STI not found in your standard health textbook. Like some sort of supernatural STI, a mysterious curse begins following you (quite literally following you) around after you have sex with another infected host, and will only subside after passing the curse along to another victim.

Despite it’s silly premise, It Follows is a very skillfully crafted and creepy teen horror. Taking influences from teen slashers like Halloween to suburbian melodramas like Donnie Darkothe film has a unique atmosphere that is perfectly reflected in its outstanding cinematography (the film’s opening shot of a 360 panorama is sure to infect paranoia from the onslaught), and a killer soundtrack from electronic outfit Disasterpeace. Not nearly as scary (or sexy) as it would seem, the horror derives from the talented crew of mostly-unknown actors who convince us there is a real unknown presence to be afraid of. This is a concept thriller that rides heavily on one’s suspension of disbelief to make impact. Though there is a lot of skill on display here (especially with the direction and cinematography again) the story itself wears a little thin, and relies too much on the film’s tone to carry the suspense.

Bottom Line: Though it might play a little too juvenile for some, It Follows is a fun ride into horror territory and should sit extremely well with genre fans and the teenage crowd.

Rating: 6/10 

Film Recipe: an M83 Music Video + You’re Next! (2011) + In Fear (2013) + Nightmare on Elm Street

 

Entertainment (Sundance 2015)

7 Feb

What is the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?

This is one of the many questions comedian Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington) asks his audience in the anti-humor film Entertainment. Written by Tim Heidecker from The Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Joband directed by Rick Alverson (The Comedy), the film follows an aging comedian as he stumbles his way across an increasingly surreal landscape. He crosses paths with a number of bizarre characters played by Michael Cera, Tye Sheridan, and John C. Reilly.

Entertainment as a film acts a metaphor for Hamburger’s comedic routine, which is ironic considering the film defies every single notion its title implies. The audience is forced to watch Hamburger perform his off-color and sad jokes in front of an unimpressed audience at a series of late-night bar shows. The pain and awkwardness of these shows only becomes subsided by incredibly lengthy takes of Hamburger wandering around some deadbeat tourist attraction or making creepy phone calls in an effort to reconnect with his estranged daughter. It’s as if Alverson and Heidecker were purposefully trying to make something that would not only offend their audience, but drive them to a near-maddening boredom as well.  If so, they completely succeeded; I counted 28 walkouts within the first hour of Entertainment’s running time – and this was at a private screening reserved for the press.

Despite what some reviewers will say, I don’t believe there is a such thing as a “good B movie”.  A film is a terrible one regardless of what the artists’ intentions may be. So what if they succeeded in making a bad film? it’s still just a bad film. The characters here are so excruciatingly annoying and the narrative is so bizarrely infuriating that it’s hard to see any redeeming qualities in Entertainment at all. While general audiences should loath this film with disdain, those few individuals familiar with and fans of Neil Hamburger’s style will surely have a new cult favorite on their hands. Heaven help them.

Rating: 1/10 

Similar to: Gummo (1997), Escape From Tomorrow (2013), The Comedy (2012)

Digging For Fire (2015 Sundance)

4 Feb

Joe Swanberg is a bit of an enigma. On one hand, he is known for his nasty bad-guy characters from recent horror films like V.H.S., Proxy and You’re Next! On the other hand, his work as a director fits nicely into the mumblecore fare, with films like Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies about as far away from the horror genre as you can get. When I first read the discription for his latest Sundance Film Festival entry Digging For Fire, I was expecting something with a bit more thrills (after all, the film’s premise revolves around a man digging up a bone and a gun from someone’s backyard), but I left feeling uplifted but slightly underwhelmed.

The main protagonists here are Lee (played by an always enjoyable Rosemarie DeWitt) who is married to slacker husband Tim (Jake Johnson doing his thing). Lee is a yoga instructor who is trusted by her boss to watch an expensive house while she is away. While Lee is out doing business, Tim takes up the responsibility of preparing the couple’s tax returns with their toddler son (played by Joe Swanberg’s real life son Jude) to keep him company. Of course Tim does what any good slacker husband would do and invites his buddies over for a few drinks and to enjoy their host’s expensive swimming pool. Thier drunken night together leads to a discovery of certain artifacts buried deep under the earth, and this soon starts an obsessive Tim on a journey to solve the mystery.

Aesthetically, Digging For Fire is pretty solid thanks to a wonderful soundtrack from Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and cinematography from Ben Richardson (The Fault in our Stars); together, they create a distinct tone for the film that is situated somewhere between romance, adventure and cynicism. Like many films of his contemporaries (the Duplass brothers or Andrew Bujalski come to mind), Swanberg’s narrative fits into the no-man’s-land between comedy, romance, and family drama. Unlike other mumblecore stories however, Digging For Fire is tragically missing the charming spark that keeps the sub-genre feeling fresh and interesting. Most of the supporting cast (several of whom are big-name indie personalities like Sam Rockwell, Jenny Slate, Anna Kendrick, or Brie Larson) feel unnecessarily invented as a way to show off a clever cameo, and the backbone of the story is revealed to be a simple mcguffin plot device. DeWitt and Johnson have a cool chemistry between them, and a few good laughs are in store, but it simply isn’t enough to carry the entirety of film. While Digging For Fire doesn’t quite have the substance that I was looking for, it still provides another light-hearted and intriguing filmic experience.

Rating: 6/10 

Similar to: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), Greenberg (2010), Men, Women and Children (2014)