Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song / N/A

c26ce0996ccaf71aca521ee2c809c8c0I’m an enthusiastic fan of blaxploitation cinema; even though I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the staples of the genre – ShaftCoffyFoxy BrownBlaculaSuper FlyAcross 110th Street, and more. But one of the big gaps in my blaxploitation knowledge has been Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin van Peebles explosive and controversial film that’s often held up as the originator of the genre. Originally rated X (“by an all-white jury,” as the posters reminded you), Sweetback is “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” and stars “The Black Community.” It’s a defiant, angry film that features corrupt police officers, constant racism, police brutality, and any number of issues that have yet to become less relevant, sadly. And on that level, it’s a completely compelling film.

It’s also, at the same time, an insane mess – badly filmed and edited, haphazardly thrown together, not particularly well-acted, and simultaneously ambitiously avant-garde and incredibly amateurish. It is, in almost no uncertain terms, a bad film – and yet one whose influence and impact can’t be denied, nor can its strangely compelling mood.

You can read all about the film’s many controversies – the way that van Peebles financed the film by claiming that he was making a pornographic movie; the fact that he supposedly contracted an STD from an actress and successfully filed the equivalent of a workman’s comp claim with the DGA, using the money to finance the film; the fact that he had his 14-year-old strip naked and simulate sex with an also naked actress; the use of a then-unknown Earth, Wind, and Fire to create the film’s soundtrack, which he marketed ahead of the film’s release in an unheard-of move at the time – on and on come the stories about Sweetback, to the point where you can’t help but wonder if a movie about the making of Sweetback wouldn’t be more interesting than the movie itself. (There is such a movie, directed by van Peebles’ son, playing his father; I’m very interested to watch it, but have not seen it yet.)

But ultimately, for all of its impact, watching Sweetback today is a strange experience. It doesn’t have anything resembling a clear storyline; apart from the basic hook (a male prostitute kills two policemen to stop them from beating a black suspect, and goes on the run), scenes feel disconnected from each other, dialogue doesn’t clearly advance the story, performances feel either over the top (I’m thinking especially of the chief of police) or non-existent (most notably van Peebles himself), the sex scenes feel uncomfortable…on and on. It’s a film that feels groundbreaking and unique, undeniably, and even today, more than forty years after its release, it still feels like something primal and incredible – a scream of defiance and refusal to play by any sort of rules set up by an establishment run by white men.

And is there something more pure about the fact that this is a movie written and helmed by a black man, while so much blaxploitation was created by white executives? Undeniably. Sweetback feels genuine and never contrived – no matter what else you say about it, it feels like the vision of one man, trying to create the hell that he felt like America had become and using jarring, discomfiting techniques to create a world that doesn’t make much sense and feels terrifying and unreal.

Or maybe I’m giving Melvin van Peebles too much credit. Maybe the movie is just amateurish and cheap, and its bizarre nature is the result of a lack of experience and not conscious choices. (I don’t entirely buy that, but I think it’s part of it.) There’s certainly no denying that the movie is shaggy to an insane degree, that scenes go on forever or add nothing, that it sometimes feels just like a bizarre fever dream that’s not making much sense, or that there’s no sense of escalation or progression. Whether that’s a conscious choice or not, none of it makes for a film that’s “better”.

But it certainly makes for a film that’s fascinating, and I can’t imagine what seeing it was like in 1971 – particularly for a black audience who had never been given a chance like this to see themselves on screen. And if the film is deeply flawed with its sexual politics and fetishization of black sexuality, there’s no denying the impact of the score, or the gutsiness of some of what’s on screen. Is it good? I’m not sure; I don’t think so. But is it fascinating and compelling? Undeniably. And the fact that I’m still wrestling with my feelings about it several days later speaks to that sharp divide in what the film accomplishes versus how well it’s made.

IMDb
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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? / *****

mv5bmjm1ndg1mjuznf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntaxnjizntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has already become a bit notorious for its capability to choke up audience members, even those who didn’t expect to find themselves moved by a documentary about Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And so, it wasn’t like I wasn’t prepared for the chance that the room would get a bit dusty during my screenings; I remember growing up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though I couldn’t remember much of anything about the show. And I knew the reputation of Fred Rogers as a fundamentally decent, caring man.

This brings me to two things.

  1. I didn’t remember much about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood until about 30 seconds into the documentary, when memories came flooding back to me – the voice of Daniel Tiger, the trips on the trolley, the way he’d take his shoes off, his calming voice, and so much more.
  2. This movie destroyed me at points. Absolutely wrecked me…but in a good way.

Because here’s the thing: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t a sad film in any way. If you’re worried that there’s some scandal about Fred Rogers, some sort of shadow that’s going to ruin this show for you or the memory of the man, rest assured, there’s nothing here. And it’s not as though the movie is skirting some unpleasant secret or anything; it’s just that Fred Rogers was who he appeared to be – every bit as decent and kind and warm as he seemed to be on television.

No, the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so tear-inducing is because of its genuine heart and kindness. In an age so drenched in irony, cruelty, anger, and misunderstandings, here is a portrait of a man who genuinely loved children and treated them with respect and kindness; who truly believed that every person was special and deserved to know that about themselves; who saw the importance of quiet and calm in the hectic nature of the modern world; who believed that we should spend as much time listening to other people as we do talking, if not more so; and who truly lived out a life not only of service to others, but a life in which he tried to be kind and respectful and warm to every single person. And there’s little way to watch all of this and not be moved by the earnest, true humanity on display.

Now, if that’s all there was to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, that would be enough. But what elevates the film is the way it subtly but undeniably sets itself up as a response to our modern world – not just our hectic pace, but the tenor of the times. Only directly referencing the modern world in the last bit of the film, Neighbor nonetheless constantly reminds us of the importance of earnestness and kindness, especially in a world that never has much time for it. The film makes its case not by hammering home its points, but by showing us the impact that kindness can have on the world – the way that treating human beings with respect, listening to them, treating everyone with patience and earnestness, can lead to positive change in the world. And though the film shows Rogers himself struggling with that message at times (most heartbreakingly, in response to 9/11), the film nevertheless makes clear that this is something that the world would benefit from, if we could only learn from that example.

That’s no small message to teach, and one that’s maybe more important in our toxic times than ever. That director Morgan Neville does it while never letting the message overcome this portrait of a fundamentally good man is what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only so great, but also so necessary in our modern world. I defy you to watch it and not come away wanting to make the world a better place – and anything that can do that is worth seeing.

IMDb

On Dracula 3D, Solo, and the Power of Expectations

argentodracAbout a week ago, I endured the roughly 18-hour ordeal that was Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D. (IMDb says the movie is less than two hours, but I can tell you, it feels infinitely longer than that.) Bringing almost nothing new whatsoever to the classic Dracula story, and telling it without any sort of visual style, inventiveness, humor, new angle, or any sort of compelling performances, Argento brings Dracula 3D to the screen as if he was dared that he couldn’t strip every bit of life and originality out of Stoker’s tale. (There is, admittedly, a single moment that’s unexpected in the movie, but is so gloriously badly executed and bizarre that it inspired not joy but absolute bewilderment and some sustained laughter in the theater. Three words: giant praying mantis.)

Now, the thing is, Dracula 3D isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen in recent memory – it doesn’t compare to a low-budget freak show movie called Side Sho that I saw a few weeks ago, which couldn’t even light its shots correctly. And yet, Dracula 3D undeniably feels like the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and inspired more vitriol and anger from me than any number of demonstrably worse low-budget slashers I’ve seen. But why is that? Why did I hate this movie so much more than low-budget trash without any redeeming qualities whatsoever?

It all comes down, I think, to expectations. Dracula 3D was helmed by the legendary Dario Argento, responsible for any number of essential horror films, not least of which is the original Suspiria. Now, admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Argento fan – it’s only recently that I even came around on Suspiria. Nevertheless, even the Argento movies I disliked always had style and color to spare. Sure, they’d make no sense and have mediocre performances, but I could never deny just how gorgeous his movies were. Say what you would about Argento, but his motto so often seemed to be “style above substance,” and I could enjoy that at least on one level.

And so, I think much of my anger and frustration with Dracula 3D – and much of my hatred – came from the fact that I went in expecting, at the very least, something to look at. What I got wasn’t just dull and overlong and uninteresting – it was framed without any sense of style or visual acuity whatsoever. Shots featured the blandest backgrounds possible, weren’t even framed well, used almost no color, and just generally felt as lazy and weak as possible – and Argento, whatever his faults, should be better than that. In other words, sure, Side Sho sucked, but it seemed like everyone was doing more or less their best. This, however? This was a phoned-in film by someone who couldn’t care less about his audience or anyone who paid for it, and who could undeniably do something better. In other words, my expectations – even mild ones, like “this is what makes a typical Argento film” – shaped how I felt about the finished product, and inspired my hatred and anger.

soloThe opposite, though, could also be true – that a lack of interest and an assumption of awfulness can so often work in a film’s favor. Take, for example, the new standalone Star Wars film, Solo. Here’s a film I had basically no interest in seeing – was there anything we really had to know about Han Solo that we didn’t already know from the film’s and Harrison Ford’s performance? Add to that the middling to weak reviews that confirmed my worst fears, the behind the scenes drama that ejected the interesting directorial duo Chris Lord and Phil Miller for the bland, generic Ron Howard, and my general irritation at fan-service, and here was a movie that I couldn’t care less about seeing.

And yet, I have a son who’s getting older and older, and who loves Star Wars films, and I’m not going to miss chances to do something together that means something to him. So, off we went to see Solo today, and to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I had any expectation of doing.

Now, that’s not to say that Solo is a great film, or even more than “not too bad/pretty good.” It’s a film that’s far too indebted to fan-service and to franchise-building, and in spending so much time belaboring every connection to the past and bludgeoning home every signpost for the future, the film so often forgets to ever exist in the here and now. Worse still are the brief glimpses here and there of the lighter, sillier version of the movie Lord and Miller would have given us; while there can’t be much of their footage left in the final cut, there are moments here and there that feel funny, deft, and enjoyable in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.

For all of that, though, I ended up enjoying Solo far more than I thought I would, and I think that’s due in no small part to the fact that I went in expecting a tedious chore that would never really work for me. Yes, what I got is the dictionary definition of “inessential,” and it feels a bit weak at more than a few points (most notably with the pointless, glossed-over death of a major character). But as the film opened with a fun chase across a grimy Star Wars city, and then gave me a spectacular train heist, before leading to another great heist effort that ends up leading to cries for revolution, well, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun, because I didn’t expect those parts. So much of what I expected about Solo was the stuff that fell flat for me – the ridiculous explanations for things we never cared about (how Han got his blaster! how Han got his last name! what the deal with the Kessel Run was!), or the absurd markers that might as well have come with giant blinking subtitles reading “THIS IS FOR THE SEQUEL”.

And so, every time the film came to life and gave me what I wanted originally – a fun, lighthearted space romp without much debt to the rest of the Star Wars universe – well, I enjoyed it a lot more than I would have going in cold, because I was coming out ahead of what I assumed I was getting. Does it change the overall quality of the film? No more than my knowledge of Argento’s filmography changes the quality of Dracula 3DSolo is still pretty fun, but inessential and weighed down by its inability to stand on its own; Dracula is still bland, awful, and completely turgid, so much so that even a late-film appearance by Rutger Hauer can’t save the film.

But all of this goes to show how subjective a medium film really is, and how silly these reviews I write really are. I can’t tell you what you’ll think of a film, and the idea that there’s some “objective” scale of quality is silly. All I can do is tell you how I reacted, and that includes the way my expectations affected the viewing experience. And the more you have invested in a film, the more able it is to let you down; just the same, the lower your expectations, the more it might surprise you.

(Dracula 3D still sucked, though. No matter what you expect, it’s going to be bad. Except for that praying mantis scene, which rules, although I couldn’t tell you if it does so ironically or unironically.)

IMDb: Dracula 3D | Solo

Incredibles 2 / ****

i2Pixar has, in recent years, been a victim of its own success, to no small degree. When your studio launches with a nearly uninterrupted streak of greatness, and then takes a break from some (pretty good but not great) sequels to release Inside Out…well, you’re not making things easy for yourself. And then Incredibles 2 makes things even harder, by being a very long-awaited (14 years!) sequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved films. In other words, there’s almost no way it could possibly live up to the expectations set for it.

And in some ways, Incredibles 2 definitely suffers from the comparison. From a plot perspective, Incredibles 2 is functional, but not much more, following Helen/Elastigirl as she gets the chance to fly solo as a hero for a bit, while dad Mr. Incredible has to take care of the kids. Are you thinking, “wait, did they really revisit one of the most hoary and painful tropes of an 80’s sitcom?” Oh yes, they did, and does it feel weirdly dated and out of touch with anything approaching modernity? Most definitely. (Yes, The Incredibles is clearly set in an alternate 60’s era, but that doesn’t make this plot thread any better.)

That’s a bit of a creaky foundation on which to build a movie, and while the rest of Incredibles 2 works and holds together, there’s just not much there. Incredibles 2 so often feels like a bunch of half-constructed threads and ideas tossed together to make something that works and delivers a movie, there’s no substance to grab onto. Every time the movie seems to be coming up on some central thesis, some universal theme, it gets distracted and wanders off. There’s a central villain called the ScreenSlaver who worries about people living through their devices and screens; there’s Bob and Helen’s marriage adjusting to the shifting roles they each have; there’s the change in society as supers fight for recognition; there’s Violet’s efforts to date…on and on, and none of it ever coalesces into something focused and trenchant.

But for all of that, you can see the rating I gave Incredibles 2, and that’s because as empty as it might be, none of that keeps it from being as much fun as it is. Oozing style in every frame (Bird’s embrace of the 60’s retro, mod style is a joy, and suffuses the whole movie), anchored by great vocal performances, and delivering action sequences to die for (more on those in a moment), Incredibles 2 is a popcorn movie done right; there’s not much to chew on, but there’s no big flaws, and style to spare.

And, oh man, are there those action sequences. Brad Bird has long had an eye for fluid, inventive action sequences that leave your jaw dropped – look, for instance, at his incredible (heh) work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, especially that closing parking garage sequence. Bird’s mind incorporates all of the moving parts in a scene, all of the abilities, and weaves them together in dazzling, creative ways that are a joy to watch. In an era saturated by superhero movies that shoot every fight the exact same way, Incredibles 2 reminds you that superhero fights should never be the same, and can flow together in mind-bending, wild ways. (The best aspect may be Bird’s use of a minor superhero who can create dimensional portals, an ability that Bird finds new uses for constantly and inventively, leaving me in awe of how creatively he paired them against each new opponent.) More than that, there’s the way Bird helms them, giving us long, fluid, moving shots that follow the action seamlessly, allowing the audience to take it all in and just keep up with it.

Look, Incredibles 2 isn’t the original, and it’s not going to be in the top tier of Pixar films. It’s a bit empty, from any thematic perspective, and under the surface, it does its job and not much more. But as stylish summer spectacle, it’s a joy to watch, and reminds you of what a gifted director Brad Bird is when it comes to giving us that spectacle. Set your expectations right, and you’ll have a blast.

The short film: As per tradition, there’s a short film attached to Incredibles 2; this time, it’s the beautiful and heartfelt Bao, about a Chinese woman who’s surprised when one of her dumplings comes to life as a little baby. Bao is incredibly sweet and simple; without a line of dialogue, it tells a story of parenting and motherhood that both draws on Chinese tradition and taps into something universal and beautiful. There’s a sharp swerve about 2/3 of the way through the film, and one that hit me hard in the heart for a variety of reasons. I loved it; it’s sweet, funny, and gets at something that hits a bit close to home these days.

IMDb: Incredibles 2 | Bao

Terrifier / ****

terrifier-posterA bit of context is probably worth noting, before I jump into my review of Terrifier: I saw Terrifier as part of a double feature with a movie called Side Sho. Side Sho was, to put it plainly, truly horrible on almost every level – badly lit, badly acted, badly written, badly staged…well, you get the idea. And so there’s some chance that my enjoyment of Terrifier could well be a rebound situation – where I was just so happily surprised to see a competently-made movie that I enjoyed it more than it deserved.

But really, that same idea could go for most of Terrifier, which has no real right to be as entertaining as it is. The premise couldn’t be more hackneyed: college girls out for a Halloween night’s fun end up stalked and attacked by a sadistic clown. Blood and gore and suspense follow. You get the idea. There aren’t any real surprises here in plot terms, other than a general nastiness of tone that pushes it beyond a more traditional slasher into something grimier and a bit meaner. Writer-director Damien Leone isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; he knows what his audience is looking for and delivers the goods, providing all of the requisite scares, stalks, and kills.

No, what made Terrifier so much fun wasn’t what it was about; it was the way it went about it all. Much of the credit has to be given David Howard Thornton, who plays the malicious, psychopathic Art the Clown. Thornton is a professionally trained mime, and his training shows through, allowing Art to express himself at all times without ever saying a word. It doesn’t hurt that Thornton’s default face for Art is so unsettling and angry, but it’s the overemphasized emotions that make Art really engaging to watch – and even (very) darkly funny. Thornton made me laugh during Terrifier, and what’s more, did it so that my laughs felt effortless, and nonetheless came with a sense of guilt about laughing at these horrible moments. It all makes Art a compelling villain, something all slashers need, and something all the more difficult to do when you’re just giving the audience a silent malevolence without explanation. That Art pulls it off, injecting the whole film with a black comedy that works and never feels forced – well, that went a long way towards making Terrifier as enjoyable as it was.

The rest goes to Leone, who does great work on a limited budget, giving everything a sharp visual flair, bringing out great performances that feel natural, and pacing his film perfectly, giving the audience what they want without ever turning overly nasty. (There’s one major exception to this, and you’ll know it when you see it; it’s a scene that feels much, much nastier than the film around it, and ends up feeling a bit excessive and out of place from the final product.) The whole thing ends up being a gem of a modern slasher. No, it won’t change your life, and it doesn’t do much new, but it does the genre right, bringing out a sense of dark humor and a lot of style, and that’s more than enough.

IMDb

Dark Night of the Scarecrow / **** ½

dark night of the scarecrow LargeOne of my recent pleasures in life has been frequent attendance at Full Moon Cineplex, a local independent movie theater that tends to show horror movies from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a fun way to spend Friday nights, and although I attend fairly regularly, I don’t always feel the need to write reviews of what I see there – after all, what do I really have to say about another Friday the 13th movie, or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, or the bizarre but deeply inept sort-of slasher Tourist Trap? Besides, part of the fun of these movies is that I can enjoy them on whatever terms I want – sometimes, just as forgotten trash cinema – and not feel the need to discuss them.

But sometimes, something sneaks up on me and surprises me wonderfully, and such was the case with the 1981 TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I knew Scarecrow had a solid cult following, but it would be far from the first time a cult 80’s movie turned out to have a reputation fueled more by nostalgia than anything to do with quality. Add to that the fact that it was a made-for-TV movie…well, I was curious, but didn’t expect anything all that great.

Instead, though, I got something really solid – nothing groundbreaking or all that inventive, mind you, but solid, engaging, well-made, surprisingly nicely shot and acted, and genuinely moody in a satisfying way. At its best, Dark Night of the Scarecrow feels like the kind of movie that 80’s Stephen King would have loved and drawn off of – pulpy and unoriginal, maybe, but lived-in and fleshed out in all the right ways.

It doesn’t hurt that the film’s cast is largely character actors who know how to make the most of small roles – while the always welcome Charles Durning is the lead of the movie, there’s no small amount of “that guy” actors here, including Larry Drake (Darkman) and Lane Smith (My Cousin Vinny). But it’s Durning who carries the weight of the movie, and makes it work, injecting a real darkness and malevolence to his small town mail carrier who leads a posse to hunt down a wrongfully accused mentally challenged man after a young girl is attacked by a dog. After Durning and the men dole out “justice,” they start suspecting that they’re being hunted down by some larger force – and from there, things go about like you’d expect.

In most cases, “things go about like you’d expect” would be a slam, but Dark Night of the Scarecrow makes it all work, doing lots of little things right and pretty much avoiding any major missteps along the way. Rather than trying to hide its low budget, Scarecrow uses it to its advantage, using shadows and tension rather than gore effects and relying on suggestion and implication (and some truly spectacular match cuts) to build the mood and scares. More than that, it’s surprisingly well made and shot; director Frank De Felitta and cinematographer Vincent A. Martinelli work wonders on a tight budget and short shoot length (17 days, apparently), doing better work than you’d expect from a TV movie. And, as mentioned, there’s Durning, who turns down his garrulous charm in favor of something more seething and angry – and maybe even darker, as the film hints. (And “hints” is the key word – more than once, the film manages to hint at things more than hammer them home like a lesser movie would do, giving the movie more ambiguity and uncertainty than you’d expect it to have.)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow isn’t going to blow your mind. There aren’t surprises here, or big shocks – this is a pulpy, no-frills movie that’s just trying to tell a classic spooky story. But somehow, it does things so much better than you’d expect – and with more effort – that the result is genuinely engaging, intriguing, and compelling. I dug it a lot; you can add me confidently to the cult following the movie’s earned.

IMDb

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