Dustrunner, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

36592503I’ve been reviewing Dean F. Wilson’s books for a while now – Dean provides them for me to read, and I’m more than happy to accept, because at this point, I’ve come to trust that I’m going to get a great read out of him – engaging and exciting action, solid character work, and great storytelling. That started with The Great Iron War series, continued for me with his high fantasy trilogy The Children of Telm, but for my money, Wilson’s current series, Coilhunter Chronicles, has been his most satisfying, enjoyable, and just plain great series to date.

Essentially a steampunk Western about a bounty hunter (the titular Coilhunter, whose given name is Nox) tracking down criminals, the Coilhunter Chronicles works because it’s all story. Wilson builds rich worlds, and his density of history in them – prophecies and ancient feuds in The Children of Telm, war and grudges in The Great Iron War – can sometimes get overwhelming, forcing the characters to figure out their own place in the world before they can even act. But by creating a character who knows himself so deeply, and who’s opted out of “civilized” society, Wilson has allowed himself to do pure storytelling. From hunting down killers to forays into cybernetic battlefields, this series feels like pure Western pulp with sci-fi trappings, and I’m eating it up.

What’s more, as Wilson gets further into the series, it only gets better. Dustrunner, the third entry in the series, has a simple hook: a village has been slaughtered, and the Coilhunter has been framed. What results from there is all-out war, as every bounty hunter in the Wild North comes after him in the hopes of collecting one of the biggest bounties of all time – well, that and the chance to settle a lot of old scores. And if that’s not enough, the tribes are also uniting against the man who seems to have slaughtered some of their own so coldly and brutally.

Simple hook, sure, but what it leads to is pure action, as Nox fights his way against incredible odds, does his best to investigate the case while keeping himself alive, and struggles to convince even a few people that this is a case of mistaken identity. There’s a slight sense of confusion when we get to the ending – without getting into spoilers, this is less a case where we’re re-meeting some old nemesis of Nox’s, and more that Wilson has created some new character we’ve never heard of to be the Big Bad. But that doesn’t really end up mattering that much; what matters is whether the story works, and does it ever. The action, as always, is crackling, full of devices, feints, gunfights, and clear writing that brings everything to instantly comprehensible and exciting life. And, as ever with this series, there’s Wilson’s great drawling dialect and prose, bringing his landscape to life every bit as well as his characterization.

Dustrunner is the best book of the three Coilhunter books to date, and when you consider that every single entry in this story has been great, that’s no small thing. Jump in here or in any of them – it doesn’t matter. Jump in and have fun with it – I certainly did, and I’ll be glad to do it again when book #4 comes out.


Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Four

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about.

After three days of films – a weak day one, a stronger day two, and a knockout day three – it was about time to wrap things up. But before I did, I had two movies left to see: one of the strangest films I’ve seen in years, and a mainstream-feeling horror film with a wildly unexpected final act.

mv5bnzu0nziwmtc5m15bml5banbnxkftztgwoti0mzi3ndm-_v1_sy1000_cr006831000_al_As of this writing, it’s been a little over a week since I saw November, a truly bewildering – but fascinating! – piece of Estonian cinema that blurs the lines of folklore, mythology, and religion into something wholly indescribable. The fact that the film opens with a creature made of sticks lassoing a cow and then flying away with it should give you a small sense of how completely bizarre the film is, but it really can’t prepare you for November‘s mixture of pagan traditions, werewolves, the Devil, soul-selling, sentient inanimate objects, reincarnated spirits in the form of giant chickens, unusual plague avoidance methods, and so much more. And yet, for all of that, November manages to be a tale of unrequited love, loneliness, and other universal human emotions, even as it’s undeniably one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long time.

It doesn’t hurt, mind you, that November is so beautifully filmed, with some of the most striking and lush black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen. Director Rainer Sarnet’s eye is a great one, and his use of the stark landscapes and the high contrast of his black-and-white film pays off beautifully, giving the film a haunting quality that saturates every second you’re watching it. Yes, the story is bizarre and often surreal (though whether that’s done with intentionality or due to my unfamiliarity with Estonian folklore, I couldn’t tell you); yes, the mix of magic and drama can be jarring and even comical (again, whether by accident or on purpose is beyond my ken); but there’s something remarkable and compelling about the film and the stories of unrequited love, loneliness, and isolation that it crafts around its small village. Not for all tastes, but for those open to its oddities and magic realism, it’s a fascinating watch. Rating: **** ½

mv5bmta4owq0ngytndgxnc00mzi4ltgznzktyzaxmdcymgi3otfmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntiyodmzmza-_v1_sy1000_sx675_al_For most of its running time, Ghost Stories (directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the latter of whom also stars) is a fairly conventional, if well-made, mainstream horror film. The film’s conceit is simple: a noted supernatural skeptic (Nyman) gets a chance to meet with one of his heroes in the field, who hands over three cases that he could never quite figure out. And over the course of most of the film, we go through these three cases, following Nyman as he interviews the three subjects (Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, and the always welcome and scene-stealing Martin Freeman) of the cases. Each case gives the directors a chance to take on a new variation on horror films – the abandoned mental hospital, the shadowy forest, the isolated high-tech but sterile house – and in each, Nyman and Dyson show themselves to be capable of delivering solid, if somewhat unremarkable, scares. It’s all about what you expect – some jump scares, lots of long takes, glimpses of things in the darkness, heavy makeup close ups shots of our ghosts, etc. – but it’s all done well, with some nice craft to it, and some nice lived in details that help the film along a bit.

And then comes Ghost Stories‘ final act, where everything goes nuts.

I won’t spoil the intricacies of that final act here; suffice to say, I don’t think it all really hangs together very well, and the longer I think on it, the more arbitrarily tacked on it feels to me. And yet, for all of that, I still love the sheer gutsiness of it, where the film finds a new gear you didn’t know they had and absolutely guns it as soon as it clicks into place. If the film’s main triptych feels a little safe and formulaic, that’s definitely not true for the last act, which gives you some wild images and surreal touches, takes the film a lot of places I didn’t expect in the least (the cynic in me would point out that it’s because the film gives you no way to even guess at it, and that it’s not quite playing fair with its audience), and kept me far more engaged and surprised – and off-balance – than I suspected it could. Yes, it’s a film that’s less than the sum of its parts – and yes, that final act feels more and more like a cheap screenwriting trick rather than a good reveal – but that doesn’t keep it from being incredibly well-made and generally quite entertaining. Rating: *** ½

All in all, a great year at CFF. Yes, this year’s festival featured maybe the worst film I’ve seen since I started attending (Downrange), but setting that aside, most of what I watched was fascinating in some way or another, and the best of the festival – The EndlessTigers Are Not AfraidNovember, to name the main ones – remind me of what draws me here every year. The selections are eclectic, the love of cinema evident, and the diversity of options always satisfying. Bring on year six, and bring it on soon.

IMDb: November | Ghost Stories

Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Three

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about.

Day one wasn’t that great. Day two was a lot better. But day three? Best day of the festival, with solid film after solid film, and my personal pick for Best of Fest.

the-big-bad-fox-and-other-tales-124523One thing I’ve always loved about CFF is the fact that Saturday morning always holds a family-friendly free screening that’s both in keeping with the film fest sensibilities and yet wholly appropriate for young audiences. That’s led to some great watches in years past, including Song of the SeaErnest and Celestine, and My Life as a Zucchini, all of which married lush/imaginative animation with rich storytelling and surprising amounts of depth and heart.

This year’s selection, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, wasn’t quite as heavy on the heart and emotion. What it more than made up for that with, though, was its anarchic, absurdist streak of humor, lending a much needed comedic break to the film festival’s otherwise very dark offerings. A trio of tales put on as “plays” by the inhabitants of a barnyard, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is about nothing so much as it’s about rampant silliness and ridiculousness – and that’s far from a bad thing. One tale  involves some animals attempting to deliver a stork’s neglected charge to its family; the second, a fox that ends up raising some baby chickens in the hopes of turning them into dinner one day; the third, meanwhile, finds our cast from the first story attempting to play Santa Claus for the year. In all three cases, there’s a little bit of sweetness at the core, but largely, all three mainly function as joke delivery systems. Luckily, they more than succeed, leaving me cracking up and thinking about how much my two kids will love this one when they get a chance to see it. Rating: ****

mv5bndliztc3ogetzjgwny00otuwltkxmjmtmze1zwe2yjg2mzi5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxodk2otu-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_One of the great joys of horror and exploitation film over the decades is the way that it’s allowed films to take the side of the marginalized and the victimized in the guise of “revenge” or horror films. Sometimes that comes in the form of films made by the oppressed; sometimes, it’s filmmakers smuggling in the subtext; but whatever the case, it allows for a richness to the films that gives them an added punch. Such in the case with Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk, which takes place during the War of 1812 and follows a small group of Mohawk tribespeople caught between the British and the Americans. The British are attempting to arm the Mohawks and encourage them to fight the Americans; meanwhile, Manifest Destiny seems to be in full swing just under the surface of the colonial soldiers.

Mohawk feels like a film made in our modern era – there’s a lot of anger under its surface at how we treated the indigenous people of the land, of how white men treat everyone who’s not a white man, and how the fight for our own survival can tear apart our lives. It’s more of a thriller than an all-out horror film – though it comes close, especially in the great final act – but more than that, it’s a generally tense and intense affair. Geoghegan generally uses his low budget well, losing the viewer in the sprawling and unfelled forests and mining that lack of civilization for all the uncertainty he can. And when Mohawk gets violent – and it does – there’s no escaping the way that Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix are mining America’s fraught racial history – and present – for material. It’s an angry, nasty film, and there’s no denying that it lays it on a little thick at times (I honestly did think a character might say that we could “make this land great again,” but it never does happen). But sometimes, a bit of cathartic anger – and some historical revisionism – can make for a satisfying time at the movies. Rating: ****

mv5bnja5oti1mjgwml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdu2nzy2ndm-_v1_sy999_cr00676999_al_The only real problem I have about The Endless, the latest film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (the duo behind Resolution and Spring, both of which I want to see but haven’t), is that it’s incredibly hard to describe, because you should really go into it as cold as possible. So all I’ll say is that The Endless is the story of two brothers (Benson and Moorhead) who, when they were much younger, escaped from what they describe as “a UFO death cult”. But now it’s years later, and they’re both in dead-end jobs, and the youngest brother, Aaron, asks if they can go back, just for a day. After all, he says, they never did kill themselves or anything. And maybe it would help him get out of this slump, and feel better about the choice they made to leave.

And so, they go back. And then things get…well…

Look: plain and simple, The Endless was my favorite film of Chattanooga Film Fest 2018, and it’s not even a contest. Part sibling relationship drama, part indie-feeling comedy, part suspense tale, part Lovecraft-inspired horror story, The Endless is completely wild in every imaginable way – it’s the kind of film that you could never be prepared for where it’s going to take you if I gave you hours to take your guesses. But what’s all the more remarkable is how well it handles all of the various genres above and more, shifting between them effortlessly – and sometimes, even within the same season. Low-key banter gives way to unease; horror gives way to heartfelt moments; quiet drama gives way to the utterly alien. And somehow, a) it all works incredibly well, b) it’s filmed beautifully, and c) it’s incredibly acted, grounding the story in the characters and their relationships, even as it gets wilder and wilder.

The Endless is the kind of movie that keeps me coming back to the movies year after year, because I always hope to find something like this waiting for me. Never playing it safe, never following any easy rules, never falling into the slightest chance of being predictable, The Endless glides in and out of every genre effortlessly, but somehow does it all while telling an honest, heartfelt, and strong story about siblings and how they so often work to help – and harm – each other’s lives. I loved every second of it, and can’t wait to start hearing from the many, many people I’m going to make watch it. Rating: *****

mv5bzmnmnwi4ndqtmdyyzi00mmq2ltliztatywi0mgmzmjk2otg5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjg5otixmji-_v1_sy1000_cr007061000_al_Filmed in black and white that feels like it’s being used to cover up the low budget, often coming across like it’s little more than a talky play turned into a claustrophobic film, sometimes relying on cheap CGI that turns the movie into a bad FMV game from the 90’s – to put it simply, there are all kinds of reasons that The Laplace’s Demon shouldn’t work. A low budget Italian thriller that feels a bit like a Twilight Zone episode or Philip K. Dick novel turned into a movie, The Laplace’s Demon is about a team of researchers who’ve been working on predictive software – that is, software that can help to predict even the most chaotic of variables in any situation. But when they’re called to a small, isolated island to meet with a mysterious professor, the team begins to realize that they’re being used as pawns in an experiment themselves – one with much farther reaching implications than they would have guessed.

The movie I found myself thinking of often as I watched The Laplace’s Demon was The Man from Earth, another film that’s more successful because of its ideas and conversations than it is for its filmic qualities. Mind you, Laplace has some great visual moments that I loved, and its black and white noir style is pretty great, but there’s no way that what you remember about this film is the way it’s made. No, what makes Laplace so gripping is the conversations it follows – about free will, about mathematics, about the nature of the universe and our choices, about whether we have any true agency in the world. Laplace is one of those films that truly finds itself in conversations like this, and enjoys letting its characters be intelligent and speak intelligently, expecting that that’s enough for the audience. And while there are some thriller elements in there, this is definitely a film of ideas, for better or for worse; what’s gripping about it is not necessarily how it’s being told, but what it’s telling. Is it a great movie? Definitely not. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting or fascinating to watch play out, even if you wish it was more of a movie in the process. Rating: *** ½

mv5bmti5yjzmyjytyzdkyi00nmnilwi3ngitzmexmza5ztyzztjixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndm1nzc0mti-_v1_I’ll admit that, by the time I saw Let the Corpses Tan, it was very late at night on the third day straight of watching movies, and I was more than a little tired. And I definitely spent a little bit of the film’s running time fading in and out of sleep. That all being said, in some ways, I can’t help but think that that’s the best way to see Corpses – a little tired, a little bit out of it, and just able to soak in the film’s glorious visuals and atmosphere and not worry about that pesky plot – because, trust me, I’m not sure filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani worried about it at all. In theory, Let the Corpses Tan is the story of a criminal gang hanging out at a abandoned Mediterranean hamlet as they prep for a gold heist. But not long after the heist, the gang finds themselves in a violent shootout back at the house when the cops show up. And then…well, no. That’s really it, in terms of plot, because Corpses isn’t that concerned with what’s happening; it’s concerned with how stylish it can make it all look.

And my god, does it ever look stylish and then some. The closest I can come to conveying what Corpses looks like is that if you imagined someone threw Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and pretty much every iconic Italian genre director into a blender, you might get something like this. There’s not a shot that’s not calibrated for maximum “cool” – from slow motion to color correction, from Morricone-style music to saturated palettes, Cattet and Forzani are incapable of just giving you a standard medium shot – not when they can go showy.

And, look, there’s no denying: it looks incredible. But it’s all style and basically no substance, and at a certain point, it definitely begins to drag and leave you feeling the empty calories. It looks amazing, but I can’t help but feel that Corpses is one of those movies that would be best served playing without sound on the screens in a trendy club, whether the visuals could be their own attraction. Yes, I may have been drifting off a bit, but honestly, I don’t think I was missing anything along the way – apart from more astonishing visuals. Rating: ***

Also on Day Three: I have yet to read Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, in which the horror author gives an overview of the horror boom of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, as well as the lurid pulp covers of the period. What I have done, though, is gotten to see Hendrix’s presentation form of the book, which is an absolute treat – it’s funny, engaging, wildly silly, and also done with a lot of love for the era. Hendrix’s presentation follows the horror boom from the big three books that kicked it off – The ExorcistRosemary’s Baby, and The Other – and follows it through the folding of some of the big horror publishers. But rather than giving a dry recapping of publishers and business, he covers Nazi leprechauns, the horrors of self-pleasing women, vermin storms in England, and so much more. I had a blast with it – I laughed throughout the entire thing, but also came away impressed with Hendrix’s affection and knowledge. Highly recommended if you get a chance; in the meantime, Hendrix’s fiction and Paperbacks have moved quickly up my “to read” list.

IMDb: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales | Mohawk | The Endless | The Laplace’s Demon | Let the Corpses Tan

This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki / *****

1845874338In 2010, a group of authors published a collection called Machine of Death, all of which revolved around a simple premise: what if there was a machine that told you, with 100% accuracy, how you would die? And it did so in simple little phrases…but maybe they weren’t always literal. For instance, “OLD AGE” could mean the obvious, or it could mean you got hit by a car driven by a senior citizen whose senility should have kept them from driving. You get the idea. The collection was fantastic – I was a big fan – and even if some of the stories got a little redundant (there are definitely a few too many takes on the origin of the machine), it was still a great idea.

Even so, I wasn’t sure we really needed a second collection, which kept me from jumping into This is How You Die for a while. I loved the first, but couldn’t we be running this into the ground? And could the collection really improve on the first?

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes“. This is How You Die looks at the original collection, thinks “What could we do better?”, and then does it, delivering a wildly ambitious follow-up that stretched the boundaries of the theme as far as they could go. No more origin stories; no more redundancy. Instead, the editors challenged the authors to really take the concept and run with it, and what you get is an incredibly diverse selection. One story, John and Bill Chernega’s “Meat Eater”, takes the form of a government pamphlet designed to help children understand the Machine before their required testing. Another, Ed Turner’s “In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten,” gives us a fantasy story, telling the story of a young orc who’s tired of being cannon fodder for evil wizards, and wants to be so much more in life. Then there’s “Apitoxin,” by John Takis, who gives us a true Sherlock Holmes story using the Machine.

And that doesn’t even begin to really touch on some of the variety that remains. “La Mort d’un Roturier,” by Martin Livings, gives us a period piece with a brutally dark historical twist I didn’t foresee. Ada Hoffman’s “Blue Fever” gives us a high fantasy feel, telling the story of a court musician who sings about her lord’s death for his glory. Tom Francis gives us the perspective of a supervillain’s henchman who has to find a way to accommodate the death sentences of those fighting his master in “Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence”. And, of course, there’s Richard Salter’s incredible “Your Choice,” which gives us a Choose Your Own Adventure story that manages to be both incredibly gripping, well written, and also conveys the power of the Machine in a way that’s hard to describe.

There’s literally – and this is an incredible rarity – not a bad story in this collection, and what’s more notable, not a one that’s like any of the others. From fantasy to science-fiction, from steampunk to high school drama, from animal violence to heartbreaking relationships, from love letter to science to military combat, every story finds not just a new angle on the Machine of Death, but a whole new approach, period. It’s the best possible outcome of a collection like this – it gives you more range and variety, and shows you just how far you can take a single premise and what you can do with it. I absolutely loved it, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but it’s head and shoulders above even the great original collection.


Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Two

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about. After a lackluster first day, day two was a move back in the right direction, full of generally interesting – if flawed – films, as well as the first real knockout of the festival.

mv5bmjixmtuynjq2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdi0otg5ndm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_The idea of William Friedkin making a documentary about exorcism is an obvious one, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. After all, here’s the director responsible for the definitive film about exorcism, responsible in no small way for the fact that the practice has found its way into mainstream knowledge. So when The Devil and Father Amorth is sold under a) the promise of a Friedkin documentary about exorcism, and b) reveals that Friedkin was given the chance to film an actual exorcism, performed by Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic church’s leading exorcist…well, you can imagine why that’s instantly compelling.

But even at a mere 68 minutes, The Devil and Father Amorth feels overlong and draggy, spending far too long navel-gazing and discussing the impact of The Exorcist on popular culture and exploring Friedkin’s personal beliefs on whether or not demon possession is a true phenomenon. Rather than becoming an engrossing documentary about exorcism and its place in modern times, Friedkin turns the film into either a glorified DVD extra for The Exorcist or, as my friend Adam put it, “the most overqualified episode of Unsolved Mysteries ever filmed.” By the time the film finally (and, again, when you’re using the word “finally” in regard to a 68 minute film, well, that’s something) gets to Amorth and the exorcism, you can forgive viewers for wondering what the point of all this is.

None of that keeps the actual exorcism footage from being less than fascinating, and although I have some questions about the unaltered nature of the footage (mainly with regard to the audio, which felt tweaked to me), it’s gripping and compelling stuff – less showy and Hollywood-like than anything we’ve ever seen, but no less strange and uncomfortable. It’s a shame, then, that Friedkin’s efforts to lead a debate about the footage afterward end up feeling so much like he’s steamrolling any interview subject; this is less a discussion and more of a chance for Friedkin to explain that he’s the smartest guy in the room, and to ask everyone else to confirm it. There’s some fascinating elements of this film, but you can’t help but wish it had been given to someone less interested in turning it into a film about themselves. Rating: ** ½

mv5bmtg5mtgxodixnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwntuwnti4mje-_v1_sy1000_cr007381000_al_Trying to describe why I liked Borley Rectory is going to be a little tough in a verbal medium like a review, since so many of its pleasures come from its style and the experience of how it’s being told. As a documentary, Borley Rectory does its best to recount the fabled history of the titular house, often held up as the “most haunted house in England.” Writer/director Ashley Thorpe gives us a pretty straightforward accounting of events for the most part, tracing the house through its various owners and attempting to figure out some pattern to the sightings and hauntings…at least, until near the end, when the documentary seems to go about dismantling and disproving half of what it’s been claiming this whole time. (The willingness to look at both sides of the house is interesting; the out-of-nowhere swerve in tone at the end is less so, and ends up feeling jarring and disruptive.)

But what makes Borley Rectory worth seeing is less what it’s about, and more how it goes about it. The best way to approach this, I think, is to show you a clip, and I really recommend you pause in this review and take a couple of minutes to watch this brief excerpt, which gives you a sense of the film’s style and method. Mixing animation, re-enactments, old photographs, and a bit of stop-motion animation, Borley Rectory creates a fascinating, compelling atmosphere that’s hard to shake off, often giving you the feeling that you’re watching old photographs come to life. (Less so when original dialogue is introduced, though; the film does best when it’s quoting verbatim from primary sources.) Taken out of context, Borley Rectory could easily come across as little more than an old FMV game with a bit better technology, but when watched as an experience, it’s immersive and strange, plunging you into the supposed unreality of the house in a fascinating way. The result isn’t perfect, but it kept me pretty riveting and in love with its odd, unsettling atmosphere, and its sheer novelty and ambition alone makes it worth watching and seeking out. Rating: ****

mv5bmjm0mdu1mdayml5bml5banbnxkftztgwntkynza2ndm-_v1_(Before I go any further, I need to say: yes, the poster you see to the right of these words is really the poster for this film. Yes, it’s really that bad. No, I hadn’t seen it before I picked the film to see, or honestly, I might not have gone. Lord, what a nightmare that is.)

“A theater director’s latest project takes on a life of its own when her young star takes her performance too seriously.” So goes the logline for Madeline’s Madeline, a drama about an unstable young actress (Helena Howard, whose performance here is an absolute knockout) whose fractured perspective infects the film, turning it into a disjointed, uncomfortable, sometime surreal affair. There’s a lot to unpack here, from the film’s compelling and nuanced depiction of a deeply dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Howard’s mother is played by indie darling Miranda July, and her terror and unease at her unbalanced daughter is played perfectly) to the way it blurs the line between art and madness, between psychosis and coming of age. And there’s little denying that, from a technical and filmmaking perspective, or from an acting vantage, Madeline’s Madeline is pretty incredibly done – the performances are outstanding, and the film’s ambition and desire to push the envelope is mostly matched by the talent behind the camera (director Josephine Decker).

At the same time, I can’t lie to you: I ended up finding Madeline’s Madeline incredibly pretentious and more than a bit dull along the way, and I can’t help but feel that it falls in that category of “well, it may be a ‘good’ movie, but I didn’t really like it at all”. Part of that comes from my natural antipathy towards from about the “powerful inner struggle of art,” where navel-gazing becomes the rule and self-importance can’t be overstated, and there’s definitely a sense that this film is about The Power of Art and how Art Truly Can Change Your Life in a way that gets eye-rolling. More than that, by a certain point, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from the film; yes, Madeline is a broken girl, one whose unpredictable and explosive actions are both riveting and dangerous, but I can’t see what Decker or the film wants us to take away from it beyond simply depicting it. I’m sure that this will end up being beloved by a lot of people, and I can’t entirely fault anyone for that – I can imagine this being the kind of movie that a lot of film people will really embrace and run with. But for me, the self-importance, weirdness for its own sake, pretension, and lack of purpose just left me admiring the craft but bored by the film. YMMV, though. Rating: ***

mv5bmtmyn2q5odytmwi3oc00njbjlwiyytitnge5ngjiyzi4njnjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndc3mzm3mq-_v1_It’s hard not to think of the works of Guillermo del Toro when talking about Tigers Are Not Afraid, from Mexican director Issa López. Like del Toro’s films – especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth -López’s film deals with the harsh realities of a child’s life against a harsh backdrop by using fairy tales and fantastical elements to offset them. In Tigers, that backdrop takes the form of warring cartels that have left whole communities of orphaned children in their wake. Following Estrella, a young girl whose mother disappears, Tigers tells the story of how she falls in with a group of young boys and they build a community together, only to find themselves attracting the attention of cartels – cartels that have no problem murdering children to maintain their position.

That’s dark fare, to put it mildly, but somehow López keeps it from being overwhelming, due in no small part to the way he lets his young cast act like, well, young boys and girls. They’re silly, they’re needy, they’re immature, and they’re fun to be around. At times, Tigers is a testament to the resiliency of youth in much the same way that The Florida Project was – a reminder that children can be children, and even in the face of trauma, there’s something wonderfully innocent about them. But also like Sean baker did in The Florida Project, López never lets us forget what growing up in this world can do to someone, or the emotional toll it takes. There’s a lot involved in protecting young ones from the world, and there’s a lot that happens when you can’t get away from the darkest parts of the world around you.

What that doesn’t even get into is the way the film uses fairy tales and the supernatural as a framework to understand the world, as well as to touch on justice beyond the realm of this world. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a dark film, but there’s a sense that the scales may balance, if not in this world, then in the next. López uses his supernatural elements perfectly, creating a sense of unease and constantly leaving us largely uncertain if the things we are seeing are real or only in Estrella’s head. But, like in del Toro’s films, at a certain point, does it even matter, if she believes it?

Tigers Are Not Afraid was the first real masterpiece of the festival for me; it’s a film I hope gets widespread recognition in America and a wider release. It’s a tough watch at times, but hauntingly so, and the execution across the board – from the use of the slums as backdrop to the heartbreakingly good performances by the child actors – is nearly flawless. It’s the kind of film I come to CFF hoping to see every year, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Rating: *****

revenge2018One of my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips involves Calvin creating a fantasy that ends with the most dangerous threat of all: tyrannosaurs in F-14s. “This is so cool,” says Calvin, while Hobbes simultaneous comments, “This is so stupid.”

That dichotomy nicely applies to Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, a truly dumb movie that I kind of enjoyed anyways. A Kill Bill-style female empowerment revenge film, Revenge follows the story of Jen, the mistress of a powerful businessman who is left for dead after a sexual assault by one of the man’s friends. When Jen realizes she’s not dead, however, it’s time to get some payback on these guys for what they’ve done.

I spent an awful long time in Revenge trying to decide if the film was accidentally stupid or knowingly stupid, and even at the end, I’m not entirely sure (although I’ll admit that the film’s wonderfully excessive and blood-soaked ending felt just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek for me). What I can’t argue is that it’s beautifully shot across the board, and finds a flair and style pretty much every chance it gets. More than that, especially in contrast to day one’s dire DownrangeRevenge knows how to bring out the suspense in a scene, taking its time and using pacing and quiet breaks in the action to fill the frame with unease and uncertainty. More than that, the film is gorgeously crafted, with some exquisite long takes and some great use of the desert backdrops.

And, of course, there’s the film’s gender politics, which manage the non-insignificant feat of having an incredibly attractive woman running around largely in her underwear and somehow never feeling leering or ogling. That’s no small thing, and it’s to Fargeat’s credit that she manages to turn that most disreputable of genres – the rape revenge film – into something that comments on women’s subservience to men, social conditioning, male gaze and expectations, and more, all while still never backing away from the demands of the genre. Does it hold together as a story or a plot? Nah, not really. But it’s still more fun than you’d expect. Rating: *** ½

Also on Day Two: I finally got to catch one of the CFF seminars hosted by famed B-movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs, and it was every bit worth the wait. Giving an overview of exploitation film, with a focus on how the genre used sex as a selling point, giving us a fantastic overview ranging from silent films to “educational” roadshows, and still finding a way to turn the last act into a tribute to Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was a love letter to trash cinema from a man who adores it and knows his history, and I both learned a lot and just generally enjoyed myself.

IMDb: The Devil and Father Amorth | Borley Rectory | Madeline’s Madeline | Tigers Are Not Afraid| Revenge

Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day One

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s kick it off with the first day, which featured an entertaining low-budget effort and then hit me with the low point of the festival, if not my moviegoing year. 

mv5botkyotezytytmjc5nc00mwe3ltgwmdktn2e3ntg4yjnkyzy0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndawmze4nq-_v1_sy1000_cr007141000_al_One of the great joys of walking into movies at CFF is the fact that it’s one of the only times I ever get to walk into movies almost absolutely cold. Apart from the brief capsule synopsis provided by the festival, I almost never watch trailers, and don’t know much beyond the premise and some of the cast and crew. So when I read that Rock Steady Row was a story about fraternities that basically riffed off of Yojimbo with hints of Mad Max, that was enough to get me into the theater.

What I didn’t really realize about Rock Steady Row, though, was just how low-budget of a film I was getting into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – there’s a lot to be said for making the most of a low budget and turning out something that feels bigger and more ambitious than you have any right to be pulling off, and Rock Steady comes close to pulling it off sometimes. Essentially feeling like a feature-length student film, Rock Steady Row makes fun of fraternity culture, college tuition costs, the importance of bikes on college campuses, fraught gender relations/slut shaming, and all sorts of other issues that are almost always in the forefront on a college campus, often giving the film the feel of a bunch of in-jokes and pet peeves. The story of a freshman whose stolen bike leads him to play two fraternities against each other against what feels like a post-apocalyptic college campus, Rock Steady Row really just feels like a movie made to entertain your friends and make fun of the college where you all go.

And yet, none of that means that it’s not fun, even if it’s wildly uneven and its reach exceeds its grasp a lot. From pencil-throwing frat brothers to black market bike shops, it’s a film full of great moments that don’t quite cohere into anything that works. It’s often funny, packs in the enthusiasm, and you can’t fault it for being wonderfully, weirdly ambitious. Does it always work? Oh, definitely not. But it’s a pretty fun little movie nonetheless, if you take it for what it is. Rating: ***

mv5bmtk0mtyynjiwof5bml5banbnxkftztgwnjgwmjmyntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006781000_al_A group of friends gets pinned down by a sniper on an isolated desert road, doing their best to survive against an unseen foe. And it’s all helmed by a cult favorite Japanese director. Great setup, right?

Well, you haven’t seen Downrange yet, because, wow, can you ever screw that up.

What’s remarkable about Downrange is how free it is of nearly every single redeemable quality a film can have. I get flak from a friend of mine that I’m often easier on films than I should be, and that I tend to be a “glass half full” kind of person when it comes to movies. But Downrange manages to rob me even of that pleasure. Acting? Well, nearly non-existent, although one actor brings enough for everyone with a gloriously absurd performance. Tension? Non-existent; the film is so badly framed, staged, and filmed that there’s never any sense of the geography of the area, and the pacing is so erratic that tension is never really allowed to build up or exist. Plotting? Oh, good god, no; the action here is absolutely ludicrous, with character motivations bewildering (and not conveyed by any sort of “acting”) or nonexistent and clarity baffling, and that doesn’t even get into the hilariously stupid and tacked-on ending. And even the action is horrible; setting aside the most ridiculous car crash I’ve seen in years, there’s never any sort of impact or craft present in any of the shootouts.

Downrange is the kind of movie that’s not just bad; it’s actively infuriating, and by the time it ended, I wasn’t just disappointed that I saw a bad movie, I was angry that I had wasted my time, angry that someone wasted money on it, angry that the festival booked it, and angry that anyone spent any time and effort attempting to make this sorry excuse for a “movie”. The one good thing? At least I hit the low point of the festival early – although, given that this may be the worst thing I’ve ever seen at the CFF, you could argue that the five-year wait for this bottoming out is too long. Whatever the case, it was an awful, excruciating experience. Rating: ½ (mainly because I can’t go negative on this scale)

IMDb: Rock Steady Row | Downrange

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisen / *****

19161852I’ve been hearing for a while now about N.K. Jemisen’s writing, with most recommendations orbiting around her novel The Fifth Season, the first volume in a (blessedly already completed) trilogy named “The Broken Earth.” And with an itch to get back into reading fantasy lately, I was hoping that The Fifth Season would rekindle my love for a genre that has been letting me down a bit lately.

Man, did it ever work, because I loved this book a lot. From the rich worldbuilding to the compelling characters, from the focus on marginalized and damaged protagonists to the thematic richness of its ideas, The Fifth Season gripped me early and never let go.

It doesn’t hurt that The Fifth Season has such a bold, unusual structure. Unfolding across three stories that we alternate between, the story opens with its boldest narration structure: a second-person voice that places the reader in the position of Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered her son and run away with their daughter in tow. That this murder becomes almost understandable in the world Jemisen has created doesn’t make the crime any less horrifying, or the emotions any less powerful, and Jemisen’s unusual second-person narration has a way of making the book hit home in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that this story begins with the ending of the world – the unleashing of another Fifth Season across the globe: a catastrophe that may wipe out all life on The Stillness, a mass continent wracked by constant tremors and instability. (Jemisen’s small but subtle implications that this is not fantasy, but distant science-fiction set in a far-off future, make the world all the more fascinating.) This is a quest for justice set against the collapse of society, and that makes it all the more haunting to watch unfold.

That would be enough story for most authors. But Jemisen mixes in two other stories, each set in what appears to be a time before this apocalypse has been unleashed. In one, we meet a young girl named Damaya, whose magical powers – known as “orogeny” in the novel – lead her parents to give her to a man who can keep her safe. It’s the flip side of what happened to Essun’s son; in the world of The Stillness, orogenes – who can both control and unleash the destructive powers of the earth – are both needed and feared, and often killed as soon as their powers begin to manifest in uncontrollable ways. That Jemisen so neatly intertwines power and control, safety and destruction, makes for compelling reading; that we become so invested in Damaya’s survival, training, and learning who she is makes the story all the richer.

And then there’s Syenite, a grown orogene sent on a mission with Alabaster, one of the most powerful male orogenes alive, both to train and to provide him a chance to procreate. It’s this relationship that’s most fascinating and complex in the book; with the mixture of Alabaster’s anger and rage at the ways in which he’s forced to use his powers, Syen’s desire to prove herself and establish who she is, and the way this third of the novel finds Jemisen diving into the nuance of her world and peeling away the simple rules that Damaya is learning, it’s by far the most complex part of the book, and maybe the most satisfying.

Any of these three stories could be a great book on their own, but Jemisen’s gift for interweaving them is what makes them truly fascinating, as each story comments on the others in small ways and enriches the text we’re reading, giving the reader more information than the characters and allowing us to see what’s going on beyond the surface. Add to that Jemisen’s desire to focus on diverse, complex characters beyond the basic archetypes (I can’t think offhand of a fantasy novel that’s more diverse in terms of gender and race, much less one that incorporates those aspects so well), and you have a knockout voice in fantasy that’s giving me a fresh love for the genre that means so much to me. It won’t be long until I’m jumping into volume two, and I really can’t wait to get there.