Monday, October 28, 2019

Legend of the Demon Cat (2017/2019)

Director: Chen Kaige
Notable Cast: Huang Xuan, Shota Sometani, Kitty Zhang, Qin Hao, Hiroshi Abe, Keiko Matsuzaka, Liu Haoran, Oho Ou, Zhang Tianai, Zhang Luyi

When the trailer for Legend of the Demon Cat originally dropped, there was a skepticism that came with it. The film looked to be a strange tonal balance, genre-hopping moment to moment and coming off as more of a gimmick than expected. Of course, this is something of a normal thing for Chinese cinema. When the film started garnering some awards attention, especially from the Asian Film Awards, my interest immediately piqued. Naturally, that excitement faded as the release of the film gestated for a long time before its US release from Well Go USA.  With its Blu Ray release now on store shelves, there is going to be an interesting reaction to Legend of the Demon Cat. It’s a bold classic fantasy tale Chinese mythology, ripe with mystery and some truly poignant imagery, but it’s also a film that often does not pander to more casual film fans. It’s an emotionally powered story first and foremost and will, in a shocking way, actively lean away from its genre conventions. For that choice, the film deserves a lot of respect, even if it ends up being more of a drama with fantasy elements than vice versa. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Gemini Man (2019)

Director: Ang Lee
Notable Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

There are a couple of angles from which to view Gemini Man. As a film, obviously, but also as a technological feat. An average film is shot in, and subsequently released in, 24 – 29 frames per second, with television being shot on video, traditionally, at closer to 60 frames per second. There are both technical and budgetary reasons for this, but that’s beside the point I’m driving at. The point is that this is why soap operas have that “soap opera look” or why motion smoothing on your TV makes movies looks weird (motion smoothing effectively doubles the frame rate of whatever you’re watching), you’re literally seeing twice as much visual information per second. However, what’s interesting is that these numbers are arbitrary. There were technical reasons at some point in history, for all of this of course, that we consider the ‘look’ of a film is 24 frames per second. It’s now ingrained at a near “cultural memory” level. Recently, there is a group of filmmakers that really focused in on where the numbers were technically arbitrary and have been pushing ultra-high frame rates. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was shot in 48fps, for a notable example. Gemini Man is shot at 120 frames per second.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers
Notable Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

There is a certain temptation whenever one sees New England, the late 1800s, and tentacles in a horror movie trailer to assume it’s a Lovecraftian horror. It’s a tendency that makes a certain kind of sense when you have a surface level understanding of HP Lovecraft’s themes. Weird mysteries, madness and aquatic terror. After reading one of his works, let’s take Call of Cthulhu as an example which is a fascinating experience the first time, you realize that the titular creature is barely a factor in the story and the ultimate point was that a ship ramming it at full speed (the era’s equivalent to a nuclear bomb, mind you) wasn’t even enough to warrant the creature’s attention. It drives the narrator mad. That is not the kind of tale Eggers is telling in his follow-up to The Witch. I actually found the story, such as it is, much more Kafkaesque with a healthy portion of David Lynch and modeled on a fisherman’s tale in the way Witch was a dark fairy tale. To extend my comparison to its breaking point, Lovecraft stories tended to be about normal people in impossible, existential crisis, often learning that humanity might not be the biggest baddest thing on the planet, and that our planet is likely insignificant altogether. Kafka’s stories were about ordinary people in extraordinarily mundane situations that almost felt like a cruel punishment, often for no reason or at least inequivalent reasons, and that is more how The Lighthouse feels. The more that is shown the less the film makes sense, which is glorious within the film’s nightmare logic.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: 1BR (2019)

No poster currently available.

Director: David Marmor
Notable Cast: Nicole Brydon Bloom, Taylor Nichols, Giles Matthey, Susan Davis, Celeste Sully, Clayton Hoff, Alan Blumenfeld, Naomi Grossman

One of the best experiences of sitting in a cinema is having a film where the final act completely makes the film. Often times on social media, I’ll use the term #SavedByTheThirdAct, but occasionally it is just a film where the finale is such catharsis and a culmination of everything in such a fantastic manner it executes everything – flaws and all. This was the experience of watching 1BR at Telluride Horror Show this year. The film starts off with a relatively slow pace and loose narrative, but the final 20 minutes is a rip-roaring combination that makes all of the efforts of its ensemble work, it’s sly genre shifts, and slow character development pay off. It’s a solid film throughout, but that ending makes it worth it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: The Lodge (2019)

Directors: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Notable Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

It already seems like ages ago that The Lodge started making the rounds of internet hype. It was finished filming in early 2018 but didn’t receive its big debut until Sundance earlier this year. Since then, the hype around the film has gone strangely quiet despite the fact that it received generally favorable reviews. For this writer, the film was going to be one to see simple to see how directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz would follow up their immensely respected and surprise hit debut, Goodnight Mommy. The Lodge resides very comfortably in that same territory as Goodnight Mommy in a lot of ways – immaculate atmosphere, a plot that revolves around mother and child relationships, and the rather intimate seclusion of its setting. It doesn’t quite have the impact that one might assume from it, based on the hype and the established talent of the directors, but The Lodge still remains and chilling (pun intended) and dread-inducing film that works on the nerves in its own horrifying ways.

To touch upon the issues right away is not necessarily how I like to approach a review, but it’s the best way to dig into The Lodge. This is because the lingering nag of the film comes from the methodical, slow-burn pacing. The film clocks in at a rather reasonable 100 minutes, but the film takes a glacial pace to work through all of the necessary plot and narrative beats to get to the main conflict. Most of these feelings of meandering come in the second act, once the family gets to the titular remote cabin and the film starts to establish the “new girlfriend stuck with her potential stepchildren in a snowed in house” dynamic. With some thoughtful trimming, The Lodge might have been an even leaner and meaner film, but alas, it chooses to draw out the tension and suspense rather than run with the energetic momentum it builds in key sequences.  

To set that up that long narrative though, The Lodge has to jump through a lot of hoops to establish motive and character choices as a tactic to draw out the tension of its mood and tone. The setups in the first act and the payoffs in the third act work in some astonishingly effective ways. Much of the film’s success rides on the nuanced performances from its principle (and very intimate) cast as they ably leap through the hoops. A surprisingly small but an incredibly powerful role for Alicia Silverstone in the opening sequences sets up much of the style that directors Fiala and Franz will utilize. A dense cloud of distrust for all of the characters partnered with a penchant for some popping jump scares make the atmosphere and tonal dissonance palpable. Slick use of the settings, in particular, The Lodge which is shot in the same cold and calculated manner that Kubrick shot the Outlook in The Shining, adds to this sense of an unwelcome place – which is replicated as the kids and future stepmother start to question if their own tension is being manipulated by the other.

Once the tension is established, the film does start to meander as previously mentioned, but it’s the third act that sells the entire film. As the various pieces of the puzzle are laid out it becomes obvious that, while occasionally predictable, The Lodge has laid some impressive groundwork to make sure that even the most asinine leaps of logic or character choices pay off in the emotional terror and streams of darkness (and infrequent and surprising violence.) The Lodge packs one hell of a wallop in the final 20 minutes and it’s some of the best and most atmospheric material that horror has produced this year.

All in all, The Lodge is a step down from their impressive debut, but Fiala and Franz prove once again that they are a powerful voice in horror cinema at this time. The film is shot with an intense precision that maximizes a plethora of fantastic visuals, suffocating atmospheric tension, and a third act that will hang on its viewer like an emotional eulogy. It’s one flaw is its length and rather meandering second act, but the rest is worthy of the praise it has received thus far. The only real question remains is how the directors will follow this up.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: After Midnight (2019)

Director: Jeremy Gardner
Notable Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski, Ashley Song, Nicola Masciotra

Any self-respecting cinephile that cares about films gets excited when two creative forces team up on a new film. Whether it’s actors and actresses, directors, cinematographers, or any other namesake, the idea of the “supergroup” collaborating on a film is incredibly enticing. This is why After Midnight was a must-see film for me at Telluride Horror Show. Although I am not a particular fan of horror-comedy in general, the combination of writer/director Jeremy Gardner (this time co-directing with Christian Stella) and the producing duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (directors of the phenomenal The Endless and Spring) was too salivating to pass up. The results are After Midnight, a dramedy with a penchant for some horror set pieces to parallel the emotional state of our lead couple. The film is a sure-fire crowd pleaser and the audience that I saw it with was eating the comedy, drama, and horror up enthusiastically. With a heartfelt relationship to ground the film, some remarkably charming secondary characters, and a silly horror premise that could have worked on its own, After Midnight is a strange buffet of genre and execution – that could only be pulled off by the talent behind it.

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Sator (2019)

Director: Jordan Graham
Notable Cast: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson

With the advent of various technologies that allow filmmakers to do things quicker, cheaper, and on their own laptops, perhaps it’s not surprising that the man behind Sator, Jordan Graham, essentially made the film on his own. Director, writer, music, production, and in a relatively candid interview after the first screening of the film at the Telluride Horror Show film festival, he casually mentioned that he built the cabin set of the film with his friend. To say that this film is, at its core, the result of one man's pure will power might be an understatement. The fact that it’s a rather impressive display of arthouse horror is what makes all of the mentioned work by Mr. Graham even more fantastical. Playing with naturalistic horror in a way that begs the question on why A24 hasn’t picked up the film yet is par for the course. The minimalistic approach to most of its plot and narrative can be both frustrating and fascinating. Sator is an intimate film with visual style seeping off the screen and an up-for-interpretation through-line that will certainly appease the horror fans looking for one of those slow burn arthouse horror flicks.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Bliss (2019)

Director: Joe Begos
Notable Cast: Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Rhys Wakefield, Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Chris McKenna, Rachel Avery, Mark Beltzman, George Wendt, Abraham Benrubi, Jesse Merlin

As a horror film fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for director Joe Begos. He has a phenomenal knack for creating throwback horror cinema in a way that is not playing its style as a gimmick as much as a love letter to the bygone eras of classic horror. When a debut is pure John Carpenter meets early David Cronenberg, as is the case with his film Almost Human, the filmmaker will end up on our list of people to watch. Although it seemed like his career had stalled out for a hot minute after his sophomore effort, Begos is back with TWO films this year. Both films immediately made my list as ‘must-see’ for the year and the first of the two, Bliss, finally dropped on VOD for consumption. Bliss is an intriguing film. It’s incredibly low budget, but it’s obvious how much Begos has grown as a filmmaker. The film certainly pulls from the past, once again as a stylistic choice, but Bliss is exactly the horror experience that its title would indicate - it’s fuckin’ Blissful in its drug-fueled, fever dream analysis of the grimy subsect of Los Angeles. It delivers on that experience with the gusto of an artist looking to capture the angst and intimacy of creating art and, while the film goes to some wild places, features a rather personal tone to it that uplifts the entire event.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Kung Fu Monster (2019)

Director: Andrew Lau
Notable Cast: Louis Koo, Zhou Dongyu, Haden Kuo, Cheney Chen, Bao Beier

Foreign cinema can always have a feeling of being off-kilter for those not used to the style, tropes, or storytelling techniques of different industries from various eras. Initial trailers made Kung Fu Monster look scattered and perplexing, despite some talent and intriguing elements to it. However, as a wuxia fan and being open to the tonal whiplash that Chinese cinema occasionally uses as a narrative identity, I was happy to see what this film had to offer. With that in mind, it’s best to know that Kung Fu Monster is fuckin’ weird. It’s a genre-bending exercise in being a comedy first and a fantasy wuxia second with some other elements tossed in for good measure. When the tones and styles are working in conjunction, the film can be relatively enjoyable and highly entertaining. When they don’t, it’s as scattershot and perplexing as my initial fears for the film would indicate. Judging from the family comedy element meets fantasy wuxia from the director of The Guillotines, I probably should have known it was going to be a wild card. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Climbers (2019)

Director: Daniel Lee
Notable Cast: Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yi, Jing Boran, Hu Ge, Wang Jingchun, Chen Long, He Lin, Choenyi Tsering, Jackie Chan

China’s attempts to be the next Hollywood are only getting larger. Whether it’s big-time disaster films, comedies, or science fiction (and to some extent all three at once in the blockbuster The Wandering Earth) the industry is hellbent on taking inspiration and attempting to out-Hollywood Hollywood at its own game. The Climbers is a product of this mindset. This film exists to a) be a huge action-packed and dramatic blockbuster to draw in audiences with its stars and big-name talent and b) as continued jingoistic propaganda for China. For all of the hype around Wu Jing teaming up with director Daniel Lee to tell the story of the Chinese expedition in 1975 to crest Mt. Everest, it’s almost fitting that the film ends up as a gigantic mess. It tries incredibly hard to be everything a major blockbuster film needs to be as a huge four-quadrant success and, unfortunately, lacks the balance of pacing and tonality to fit it all in there. There are a handful of things to respect in how The Climbers approaches its material, but for everything it does right, it makes a half dozen choices that don’t work in obscenely baffling ways.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joker (2019)

Director: Todd Phillips
Notable cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Brett Cullen

In the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, based on a Victor Hugo novel, Gwynplaine is a man whose face is disfigured into a permanent smile, so that he would always laugh at his fool of a father (executed via iron maiden by a political rival). This is a tragic romance and a drama, but the horrifying idea and image of a man who smiles no matter what was a major inspiration to Bob Kane and Bill Finger when they created the character of The Clown Prince Of Crime, Joker. The Joker has a famously ambiguous character history. In film and animation, he has always been something of an actor’s role, since by definition there is no wrong way to play it (Jared Leto’s take notwithstanding). The reason I mention the classic Paul Leni film is that in a way, I feel like Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character is the first time I’ve ever blatantly felt The Man Who Laugh’s DNA in the character. This is also, largely, the only reference to the comic or any source material of The Joker’s though, because in all other ways this ostensibly plays out like a lost mid-70s Scorsese film, down to using the classic Warner Media logo.