Month: February 2020

Movie Review – Horse Girl

Category : Movie Review

Director: Jeff Baena

Starring: Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, John Reynolds

Year: 2020

Straight from Netflix is an odd little drama starring Alison Brie that won’t be widely seen, but might just be wholly undervalued.  Director Jeff Baene deserves a mention from the top, for the films he’s written or directed: I Heart Huckabees, Life After Beth, The Little Hours.  But Brie co-wrote this movie, her first, and that shouldn’t escape mention either, because Horse Girl is surprisingly good, and in very surprising ways.  It’s not just a weird vehicle flick, not just another Duplass Bros. production streamer, it’s somehow more than that, and often has much more to say than what you might hear with half an ear.  Given a compete chance, Horse Girl has a message worth delivering, hidden somewhere beneath The OA-style bizarre-ness, and perhaps saved for those who are emotionally prepared to receive it.

Sarah is an old maid already and she’s only in her 30s.  She works at a craft store, does Zumba, likes to ride horses, volunteers at the stables, walks a young woman with a brain injury, makes lanyards and friendship bracelets in her spare time; she’s really the nicest person, but it’s also a little sad.  She’s never dated, sits alone at home every night, watches a sci-fi/crime show obsessively, and can’t really connect with the real world in a way that would lead to anything more meaningful than a passing hello.  What’s more, her dreams are becoming very strange, and her waking life is becoming more disjointed; sleepwalking, forgetting, losing time, questioning reality, developing conspiracy theories.  Sarah is slipping and there’s no one there to catch her before she falls down into a darkness from which she won’t be able to climb out.

On the surface, and at first glance, this movie is just wacky.  Sarah gets weirder and weirder, there are odd sounds, less makes sense, more goes wrong, and at points audiences will be like, “what the hell?” followed by a “OK umm this is too much.”  There are humorous moments, but mostly the film starts taking a nosedive toward insanity pretty quickly, which is the point where you will either give up or have a eureka moment.  Because the message here is clear if you want to see it; severe mental illness is a disease that is hard to stop from destroying your life.  Sarah is suffering, everything she is experiencing is pain, and that’s because her brain won’t let her live any other way, and that’s simply so very sad.  Seen with that lens, Horse Girl begins to make sense, it’s an exposé on illness, on schizophrenia perhaps, and though I’m not the right person to judge the accuracy, it sure feels like this is what it would look like to start what we used to call “going mad”.  The film itself is a cross between Welcome to Me and Unicorn Store, a deconstruction of a mental state streamed right to Netflix, and starring an actress who isn’t afraid to go literally and figuratively bare.  Brie is solid the entire time, so is the supporting cast, and if the final scene isn’t supposed to be realistic, if it’s also a metaphor, than the film ends in an interesting way, which can’t always be said of every good flick.  The run time might be a little long for a story with one main point, and the ceiling might be a little low considering the ingredients used, but this movie had me thinking, which I’ll take any day and be content with.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆


Movie Review – Slumber Party Massacre II

Category : Movie Review

Director: Deborah Brock

Starring: Crystal Bernard

Year: 1987

Everything that The Slumber Party Massacre did right Slumber Party Massacre II did wrong, the result being one of the worst movies of any genre you will ever see.  I was surprised by how well the first film in the franchise worked, how smartly it balanced genre gore with hidden meaning, even rivaling some of its predecessors in some ways, though it’s never risen to the same level of fame.  It was fun, freaky, bloody, booby, all the things we look for from the slasher style, with subtext that forced us to ask questions about why were were looking for that junk in the first place.  But the sequel could not have been a bigger misstep and mistake; idiotic, trashy, worthless, and wasted, a pure slap in the face to anything cinematic.

When a lunatic escaped from prison and killed a bunch of teenagers in Venice in the early 80s, Courtney was there to witness the carnage.  Her sister had gone to the aid of the house next door, where a young girl was hosting a sleepover that disastrously turned deadly.  Now a young woman herself, Courtney is haunted by the memories of that night, and by the knowledge that her sister never recovered from surviving the massacre.  But hey, there are boys to meet and tunes to play on the electric guitar, so life moves on.  But heading to an abandoned condo development with your mates while having visions of a new power tool killer might not be the best idea, because blood is going to flow; you know the drill.

If SPM 1 was a nod to Halloween, then SPM 2 was a copy of Nightmare on Elm Street, and while you can’t blame filmmakers with flowing toward trends, you can call them out on reproducing content because they didn’t have any original ideas to share.  So what we get is a slasher that’s supposed to be a continuation of the first in the series, but really is a vehicle of its own that borrows to much from a popular style, and then runs headlong into a tree, taking us unwillingly along with it.  This movie is among the worst you will ever see, from start to finish, from musical numbers to drill bits through torsos.  It’s an insult to the eye and to the ear, a nightmare of nothingness that makes no sense, goes nowhere, and has not one ounce of talent behind it.  The lead is the girl from Wings, for Christ’s sake, and she’s got a Texas accent now, what’s more.  Awful, awful, and then awful some extra, this isn’t film, it’s more like torture, and I wonder if it was designed for just that reason, because nothing else can explain why it exists.

My rating: ☆



Movie Review – The Slumber Party Massacre

Category : Movie Review

Director: Amy Holden Jones

Starring: Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, Michael Villella

Year: 1982

For an obviously terrible 80s slasher flick that’s basically just a ripoff of Halloween, Slumber Party Massacre is surprisingly solid, because it does two things very well: it gives a laudable nod to the genre and it delivers an underlying message that knocks you back a step when you finally understand what’s being said.  And the great thing is, while the positives exist if you dig for them, the film also revels in its own negatives, giving audiences what they have to come to expect from horror movies where a killer is on the loose and a bunch of teenagers have decided to raid their parents liquor cabinet.  SPM might be one of the lesser known psycho slasher franchises, but it’s still a ton of fun, and, as a bonus, comes complete with subtext.

In Venice, California, life is one big party; well, once the parents head out of town, and I guess until a murderer escapes from prison, finds a power drill, and starts putting holes in every one of your buddies.  That’s the story for Trish, a popular girl with a lot of friends, who just wants to host a sleepover while the parental units are away, unaware that a lunatic is on the loose until he starts his grizzly business in her house.  First he’s after the kids at school, then the guys who show up that night for a little action, and by that point he’s just whirring his drill at anything that moves and splashing blood all over the expensive carpeting.  Trish will have to fight to stay alive, with a little help from the new girl Valerie, who lives next door, didn’t come to the party, but won’t be able to stay away from the aftermath.

Slumber Party Massacre gets a lot right, and that’s a nice surprise.  Because, I mean, it’s still awful, it’s still insane, no one can act, no one knows what the hell they are doing, the effects are hilarious, this isn’t really a movie I wouldn’t say, it’s more an experimental haunted hay ride that’s basically copying off other, more successful haunted houses.  BUT, those of us who enjoy the genre despite and/or because of its deficiencies know that all this bad can somehow make a good, if the film is done properly, and I really think this one was.  Yes it recycles a lot of Halloween, but that’s OK, that’s the gold standard, it’s not a shock to see 80s flicks using that as a springboard.  What Jones did right though was jump high, show something original, and land solidly, for which she deserves all the credit in the world.  What’s going unsaid between the drillings is pretty interesting; unwanted sexual attention, abuse culture, male aggression, female objectification, all wrapped up in the metaphor of a lethal power tool.  So come for the boobs and the blood, that’s what the genre offers us, but stay for the questioning of your own desire to see those things, and walk away wondering if you just watched something special.  Then again, maybe not, maybe this franchise was begun to have fun, kill some co-eds, and say goodnight, which is fine too.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆



Movie Review – Nights and Weekends

Category : Movie Review

Director: Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg

Year: 2008

Gerwig, Swanberg, and the Duplass Bros. have been connected since the beginning, and it’s been nice to see them all find success in different ways.  Gerwig is a big-time director now (Lady Bird, Little Women), Swanberg had a whole slew of organic features (Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas, Digging for Fire, Win It All, Easy (TV series)), and the Duplass Duo has done too much to list; indie films, TV, producing, directing, writing, starring.  This is a super-talented team, I hope they are all still friends, and it’s nice whenever two or more of them come together.  Nights and Weekends features Gerwig & Swanberg collaborating in every way, this is their co-project from every angle, and, considering how young and inexperienced they were at the time, it’s wonderful how well it all works.

Mattie and James are in a long-distance relationship, and it’s not going very well.  She lives in New York, he lives in Chicago, she flies out to see him, they spend some weekends together every few months, but it’s getting harder and harder to be apart, as their lives pull them in different directions and the miles become much longer than they used to seem.  Mattie is fun-loving, talkative, flippant at times, James is sensitive, more reserved, and thinks love is fragile; in many ways they aren’t suited for each other, but they are drawn to each other nonetheless.  Breaking up might be even harder than staying together, because seeing themselves as anything other than boyfriend and girlfriend might be too much to ask, as they attempt to go their separate ways but find themselves right back in each other’s arms.

Greta Gerwig is the radiant star of this off-beat rom/com, and that’s fine by me.  She’s lovable, relatable, goofy, and then surprisingly deep, like she can turn in on in an instant and you’re like “hahaha oh no wait”.  She’s got a gift, for acting and for storytelling, and they both are on display here, though the amateur/indie/low-budget/improv-y feel may make audiences assume that the content will be much less exciting than I am building it up to be.  In fairness, this is an odd movie, nothing really happens, there aren’t really other character in it, it’s just two souls who’ve met, we get to watch them, they move apart, we get sad, and that’s about it.  But in between the lines is a fair amount of being-said-without-saying-a-thing, and Gerwig is good enough to get us to watch her just sit there and stare dreamily out a window; I would pay to see that.  Swanberg isn’t a terrific actor, but even his role grows on you after a while, and you start to feel invested in this doomed couple, you begin to hope that something might work out.  The production value is low, the sex is pretty voyeuristic, there are parts to this film that the average movie-goer isn’t going to like, but I think if you can peel back the outer layer there’s something sweet inside this story that deserves our attention.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆



Movie Review – 101 Dalmatians

Category : Movie Review

Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman

Starring: Rod Taylor, Betty Lou Gerson, Ben Wright, Martha Wentworth

Year: 1961

Disney has always known what they were doing; back in the 30s & 40s when they were just starting out but already making magic, even during WWII when production wasn’t the same but they gave us some music instead, and then in the 50s & 60s when the classics really started pumping out.  101 Dalmatians is among the best that the animation studio ever created, a highlight of family fun and animal action that still holds up all these years later.  I recently rewatched it with my kids and it’s still so lovely; the music, the dogs, the love, the drawings, all wrapped up in a pleasant package, hand delivered to audiences 60 years ago but still resonating today.

Pongo is a Dalmatian dog living with his “pet” Roger in London, and they’re happy, but their love life isn’t exactly hoppin’.  So Pongo takes matters into his own hands, walks Roger to the park, and has him literally run into a lovely local lady named Anita, who just happens to have a female Dalmatian of her own, a pretty lass called Perdita.  Roger & Anita fall in love, so do Pongo & Perdita, and soon a litter of 15 puppies arrive, blessing the household with their rambunctious joy.  But danger lurks on the horizon; a woman named Cruella De Vil wants the entire littler once they’ve grown their spots, in order or make them all into a dog-skin coat, and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she desires.

What a wonderful, magical, pleasantly-animated film, a Disney classic if ever there was one.  I’m so glad my family can appreciate these older, more muted, hand-drawn movies, because they have a real gift to give us, and they were made with such painstaking work, it’s so great to watch them over & over again, reliving how much effort and time was put into giving us something so great.  101 Dalmatians has a little music, a historic villain, the cutest dogs ever, and an entire cast of intelligently-made characters that will all delight.  Because it isn’t a Disney Princess flick or a regular musical I think we can sometimes forget about this little gem, but we should definitely be giving it the love it’s surely due.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆



Book Review – The Stand

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1978

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it one more time; Stephen King is my favorite author, and I will defend that seemingly unexciting choice by protesting once again that he’s a master of layers, of writing horror for the masses that contains depths for the discerning, which is why the guy is a genius.  There, I’m done, moving on, but it needed said; he’s so much more than simple scares, he’s got real talent that buries itself deep and demands that you work to truly appreciate it, and that’s something I’ve obsessively enjoyed doing over the years.  The Stand was one of the first King books I read, after coveting it on my dad’s shelf before I was old enough, finally getting my hands on it and falling completely in love.

It began with a malfunction at a military base, and ended with the destruction of modern society.  A virus created in an underground lab somehow found its way out, and immediately began spreading across the United States, killing more than 99% of the population, and most likely spreading across the globe as well.  The result is isolated pockets of people in small groups surviving as they can, coalescing to share their stories, and to talk about their dreams.  It seems that good and evil have begun a battle for the soul of the planet, an old black woman calling the righteous to her in Nebraska, an evil smiling man calling the black of heart to Las Vegas.  The line in the sand has been drawn, sides have been chosen, and a battle will be waged for the future of mankind, as a small band of heroes head west across the Rockies to face, if not the Devil, his chosen prophet.

This time around I read the extended edition, which I wouldn’t recommend, because writers have editors for a reason.  It’s true, and the same goes for directors; editors have a huge impact on art, and it is usually their hand that perfects the beautiful.  Without a good edit, so much wonderful content would be bloated beyond recognition, and even though that’s not exactly the case here, I think it’s apparent that King’s book needed a little trimming.  So read the regular cut, and enjoy one of the best epic tales ever written.  Good vs evil, man vs annihilation, the very soul of each human on the edge between hope and hell; powerful stuff.  And the characters are so great: Stu & Frannie, Nick & Tom, Larry & Glen, Harold & Lloyd.  They each are given their time, among so many others, nothing is sped through, you literally live among the plague and make choices along with the rest of the survivors, and by the end you feel like you’re walked every mile with those who sacrifice themselves for the fate of man.  I even like The Stand miniseries, it’s solid, if dated and little too clean, and it’s pretty incredible to think that this was only King’s fifth book, that his whole career was ahead of him, but that he might have already written his most important work.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆



Movie Review – Pandorum

Category : Movie Review

Director: Christian Alvart

Starring: Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, Antje Traue

Year: 2009

After watching it again 10 years later, I moved Pandorum down a star, and I think that’s being generous.  Its director is German, has dabbled in Hollywood, but hasn’t ever created anything that stuck, and I’m surprised that I thought Pandorum was a success when I first saw it, because it’s clear now that it never could have been.  I was impressed by the backstory, which I thought was solid, and the twist, which I thought was cool, and definitely by Ben Foster’s acting, because he’s a little genius.  But seeing the movie now, even taking that all into account, it’s obvious that the project as a whole is an amateur one, and has more problems than it does reasons to watch.

The spacecraft Elysium is transporting thousands of humans to their new home, an Earth-like planet discovered in the hour of mankind’s greatest need, as food and water become scarce and population becomes a cataclysmic problem.  This new home will be our saving grace, but only if we can get there; the crew sleeps most of a journey that takes years, waking in shifts as they approach the planet.  At least that’s the plan, but something goes wrong, and when Bower wakes, his only companion is Payton, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else around.  When he goes exploring to save the ship from a power surge that threatens its survival, Bower finds that two kinds of passengers are indeed on board: those fighting individually to stay alive and a group of creatures that may be from outer space, or may have originated withing the doomed ship itself.

This movie was made in a time when Ben Foster was still breaking out of his Flash Forward mold, trying to become a legitimate adult actor, which 3:10 to Yuma helped with, and with audiences ultimately understanding that what we had on our hands was a tremendous talent that we needed to take seriously.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lone Survivor, Hell or High Water, Hostiles, Leave No Trace, Galveston; we get it now, he’s incredible, we just needed time to see it, and Pandorum was an experiment with some high points, I don’t blame him for being a part of it, especially when he was by far the best piece.  Like I said, the set up was really fun, the space adventure feel was genuine, the monsters look like examples that Fury Road took off running with, so there are sections to applaud.  But taken as a whole, the film feels amateur and shaky, like it could fall apart at any second, especially when Dannis Quaid is attempting to act, because he’s bad at it.  The horror half of the sci-fi/horror genre takes over a bit too much near the end, and the action gets silly, as does the direction, but I hold that there are strong nuggets along the way if you really look for them; just don’t look too hard at all the rest.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆



Movie Review – Clash of the Titans (1981)

Category : Movie Review

Director: Desmond Davis

Starring: Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker

Year: 1981

The only reason I don’t give Clash of the Titans zero stars is because I’m a hopeless nostalgic.  Back in the 80s and 90s when I was building my taste baseline, I loved catching movies on TV, commercials and all, because that was the only real way to expand outside of the local theatre every once in a while or the neighborhood rental place on a Friday night.  Clash of the Titans always seemed to be on, I think it was TBS, and I watched it in bits & pieces many times over the years.  I was captivated by the unusual fantasy element, like Excalibur, and the creative animation, like Jason and the Argonauts.  My mistake was watching it back in its entirety, because, basically, it’s ridiculous and bad and I’m shocked they got away with it.

This is the legend of Perseus, the young hero and romantic whose story holds a place among the stars.  Before Perseus’ birth, the king of Argos was told that his daughter would have a son, and that the son would kill the grandfather.  To protect himself, the king put his daughter in a room with only an open ceiling, where she grew to be a beauty unlike any other.  Zeus visited her one night, she had a child, Perseus, and the king knew he was once again in danger.  He abandoned the mother and child to the sea, thinking they would die, but they were carried to an island, where Perseus grew to be a strong man.  Attempting to reclaim his throne, and under Zeus’ protection, Perseus began many adventures, including taming the wild Pegasus, defeating the misshapen Calibos, confronting the Gorgon Medusa, and saving a princess from a mighty beast, becoming a renowned warrior and a future constellation in the process.

Most of this movie is “accurate” to the mythology, although we don’t see Perseus eventually killing his grandfather and becoming a king, that part of the story isn’t important to this film.  We’re more focused on his exploits as a young hero, his saving Andromeda, his killing of Medusa, all that jazz, and in that manner we get what we paid for.  There are a lot of monsters, battles, destructions, magical items, it’s all in good fun, and I can see why I liked it when I was younger.  But, my god, the production value, even for something from the early 80s, is atrocious.  The stop-motion stuff is hideous, the characters are wonky, the dialogue is abysmal, Harry Hamlin is a joke, and even real stars in the cast couldn’t salvage what is ultimately a very weak attempt at fantasy fiction: Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith.  Clash of the Titans is best left where it lies in the past, not resurrected, because it in no way holds up under scrutiny, and I only lend it some leniency out of loyalty.

My rating: ☆ ☆



Movie Review – Ophelia

Category : Movie Review

Director: Claire McCarthy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay

Year: 2018

Ophelia starts out well enough, for a from-another-point-of-view film, which I can’t imagine is a genre that’s easy to work in.  And Daisy Ridley is a good enough lead character at first as well, which couldn’t be taken for granted, since we haven’t seen a whole lot from her other than her work in a galaxy far, far away.  But towards the end of the film, once audiences have settled in, the movie jumps the curb like a runaway car, we scream something stupid out of surprise like “oh geez what”, we spin around, slam to a stop, bump our heads, and forget what it was we were even watching.  Ophelia is a blow to the temple that you didn’t see coming, and although you liked some of what happened before, you’re not sure you’d do that again.

This is the story of Hamlet but told from Ophelia’s perspective, with a few twists tossed in for good measure.  Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, who is the advisor to the King and Queen of Denmark, who have a son named Hamlet.  The King’s brother, Claudius, takes the throne when the elder dies, and also takes his wife, which makes him Hamlet’s step-father.  Ophelia is not high born, but she’s smart as a whip, and soon both falls in love with Hamlet and discovers that Claudius killed the king.  Hamlet begins to go mad with rage and vengeance, while Ophelia tries to find a way to be with the man she loves, protecting him from harm when she can, protecting herself from the choices of others when she must.

This version is pretty weird, but it doesn’t start out that way.  In the beginning, a lot of the dialogue you can recognize as slightly modernized Shakespeare, the story unfolds comfortably, we’re just seeing a woman’s side of things, which is cool and pretty forward-thinking.  Ridley’s acting is surprisingly good early on too, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she convinced me, and I was enjoying the story.  Then there are decisions made that throw a wrench in the works, and things go downhill from there.  The story becomes almost too much like Snow White and the Huntsman or something, not classic literature, and the acting takes a turn for the worse too, led by Ridley and Watts.  In the end, it’s all the women who make the power moves and are revealed as powerful or clever, which is fine, I get the statement, but that’s not how the play was written.  I’m no purist, bend what you want to bend, but it didn’t sit right with me, at least the end of the film didn’t, and the positives were mostly lost in that final shuffle.  No one saw this movie this year and no one will remember it was made, which is partly too bad because it wasn’t awful, and partly OK because it wasn’t special either.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆



Book Review – Rose Madder

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1995

I’m gonna have to do something sacrilegious here and disagree with my favorite author; Steven King thinks that he was trying too hard with Rose Madder and with Insomnia, that they are stiff novels, and most readers agree with him, but I can’t.  At least not fully, because I do think Insomnia is one of his weakest books, even with its ties to The Dark Tower, but I can’t say the same about Rose Madder, even if it’s generally considered Lesser King.  I consider myself an amateur expert, I’ve read enough to say that, and I’ve re-read enough, I’ve connected enough, I’ve dived in deep enough, King is the author I know best, for sure.  And while this book is very different from his others, it also takes the time to paint a very clear picture, one that unsettles more than entertains, which may be, for some, part of the problem.

Rose Daniels is being abused constantly, so much so that she’s begun to retreat within her own head, to stop thoughts of leaving from forming before they even have the chance to emerge, which is part self-preservation and part burgeoning insanity.  Her husband Norman is a cop, a vicious man, a trained dog, always on the edge of violence, and Rose feels fear for her life every day, when she hasn’t shut her mind so completely that she can’t feel a thing.  One day, almost ridiculously spontaneously, Rose decides to leave, walks out the door, and doesn’t look back.  Her new life as Rosie McLendon in a big city hundreds of miles away is moving in the right direction, thanks to a battered women’s group and a young man named Bill, who is everything she never dreamed she’d find, but the happy times are cursed from the start.  Norman is on the hunt, he will run down his Rose, and she will have to face him eventually.  A painting that Rosie finds at a pawn shop and feels a strong connection to will strangely become the weapon to defeat her husband, and the tool to find the strength she always had inside.

So many things.  First, I understand why this isn’t a popular King book, and I can even understand why King himself doesn’t love it; it’s his book, I guess if he says it’s no good, it’s no good.  But I can’t help feeling like there’s a way to “enjoy” this story, that others maybe didn’t find that door, and that that’s the problem.  The abuse story is shockingly unsettling, some won’t even be able to make it past that, and perhaps they shouldn’t try if it all feels too personal and too real.  It’s hard to stomach, painted brightly with no blurry edges around the evil character of Norman, but I think that’s the way it needs to be.  Also, the connection to The Dark Tower is nice, though small, as is the fantasy element of the painting, which is vitally important to the action and I think handled really smartly.  Rose and Bill are awesome, I was rooting for them, and there are so many chapters that are just Norman creeping closer, losing control of himself more and more, until by the end he’s a raving lunatic, and I loved watching that devolution.  Lastly, I think I read this book like I was watching it as a movie instead, and I think that’s why I liked it so much.  It would look amazing on screen, the other-wordly elements would play beautifully, and I know that most King stuff doesn’t adapt well, but I feel like Rose Madder could, maybe in part because it’s not your average reader’s favorite book to curl up with.  It’s uncomfortable, it’s disturbing, but it has real heart and something really important to say, which is why I wish more people would give it more of a chance.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆