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

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

Chattanooga Film Festival 2017

cff-logo-17-01-emI’m a big fan of the Chattanooga Film Festival, which has been going now for four years, and has yet to really let me down. Maybe it’s just a case where I’m in line with the tastes of the festival runners; maybe it’s just that their love of cinema in every form, from music videos to trashy exploitation, shines through in the festival programming. But whatever the case, the Chattanooga Film Festival has quickly become something I always look forward to, giving me the chance to see a lot of great films that I might never otherwise get the chance to see, to say nothing of exposing me to things that I’d never heard of. And while this year only found me able to attend for two days (really, one and a half), I still managed to fill my time with a lot of great movies – a couple of knockouts, a bunch that were all mostly good, and only one that sort of missed the mark – and even that one wasn’t without its moments. Not a bad streak at all.

Saturday kicked off with the animated film My Life as a Zucchini, which tells the story of a young boy who finds himself in a foster home after the accidental death of his alcoholic, abusive mother. my_life_as_a_zucchini_posterThat sounds like it’s setting you up for a grim experience, but Zucchini nicely walks a difficult, narrow line, managing to make a warm, joyous experience that simultaneously deals with the awful circumstances that brought each of these children to this house. My Life as a Zucchini isn’t a film about foster care reform; indeed, the house here is a good one, and the children thrive under the loving care they receive. More to the point, the film generally avoids easy characterizations, letting even its bully character evolve into something funnier and more interesting very quickly. At its core, this is a film about finding a family, like so many other children’s films; for all of that, there’s a warmth and kindness here, and a willingness to face up not only to the darker sides of childhood, but also of the weird edges (lots of conversations between young boys trying to figure out sex) that give it a rich, honest feel. Not a film for young kids, but a charming film nonetheless, and one that won me over quickly. Rating: ****

The next film may also have been animated, but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different in pretty much every way. Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a silly mock epic, the story of a high school that, we1032268-hssposterwebll, is literally sinking into the sea. In theory, this allows the film to trade on the sort of apocalyptic adolescent imagery that made Donnie Darko or The Age of Miracles so effective, turning a coming of age into a literal end of the world. In practice, though, My Entire High School is a bit of a mess, with low-tech animation that doesn’t add much to the story, a decent voice cast that doesn’t get to do much, and a jumbled plot that feels sort of cobbled together. For all of that, it’s still often very funny – Shaw has a knack for absurdity, and brings out some great details, including a Lord of the Flies riff where the senior athletes set up their own society, or the weird backstory of a hardcore cafeteria worker. The absurdity works better than the film, though, resulting in something that feels like it wouldn’t be out of place as an Adult Swim series, but doesn’t have enough meat to work as a film. Rating: ** ½

Luckily, I followed the weakest film of my festival run with one of the best. Liam Davis’s A Dark Song is a haunting, deeply unsettling film – adark_song_poster_final horror film more concerned with psychological dread and unease than it is with scares, though it more than provides those. It’s the story of a woman who has decided to engage in a dark ritual, one that can last up to eight months, and once started, forbids the participants from leaving the salt circle which sets the boundaries of the ritual. What that means is that, for the vast majority of its running time, this is a film about two people, in a closed-off house, and the stresses of their occult ritual. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, both unknown to me before this, play their parts incredibly, with Walker slowly revealing the trauma that led her to request this dark rite, and Oram playing the part of an expert whose experiences have helped him to understand what he calls the “architecture” of this world. Davis, not content to let A Dark Song simply be a horror film, lets his characters breathe and converse freely, becoming more than just archetypes, and grappling with questions ranging from grief and coping with loss to metaphysical, religious questions raised by the nature of the rites they’re engaging in. And if that’s not enough, it’s also beautifully shot, whether in our brief glances at the Welsh environs or the shadowy interiors of the house. But at its core, this is a horror film, even if it’s one with more on its mind than simple scares. And it builds to one of the most memorable images I’ve ever seen in a horror film, one that elevates A Dark Song to nearly a whole different genre in its final moments, and creating an instantly iconic moment. I truly loved this film; it’s not like much else out there (the closest thing I could compare it to would be The Witch, with its lived-in feel and low-key approach to its horrors, as well as its fascination with ritual and religion; nonetheless, this is too modern and minimalistic to make a perfect comparison there), has some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, and tells a wholly unique, strange story that I loved. Rating: *****

I was worried about following up A Dark Song with Lake Bodom, simply for fear that it wouldn’t be able to hold up against the comparison; when you follow one horror movie with another, you can’t help but make comparisons. bodom-posterFortunately, Lake Bodom couldn’t be more different from A Dark Song, preferring gore, violence, and old-fashioned slasher atmosphere over A Dark Song‘s headier fare. But don’t hold that against Lake Bodom, because it does all of that stuff incredibly well, delivering a stylish, fun movie that wears its influences on its sleeve (a bit of Carrie here, a bit of High Tension there, a lot of Friday the 13th throughout) and just encourages you to have a darkly violent time. Based on a real incident in Finland, in which a group of teenagers were butchered at a lake as they camped by a still unknown suspect, Lake Bodom follows a group of teenagers as they go to camp at the killing spot in order to check out some theories. But there are other tensions here, even apart from the constant sexual tension between two guys and two girls out in the woods apart from parents; there are hints of a deep disgrace that’s led to one of the girls becoming a social pariah, and then there’s that one kid who just seems super obsessed with the murders…you get the idea. Lake Bodom isn’t anything groundbreaking, but what it does, it does well, delivering several big twists and reveals that keep the movie transforming before your eyes into something else, all before ending with a frustrating epilogue that I kind of hated, but whose purpose I understood more after reading up on the original events and realizing what they were trying to do. More than that, though, Lake Bodom has style to spare, using its shadows and darkness with art and style (there’s an underwater shot late in the film that I absolutely adored), and doling out its scares and violence nicely. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well, with style, grit, and relentlessness, and the constant shifts in the story keep it moving like a sick, bleak rocket ride to hell. Rating: ****

What came next couldn’t have been more different – and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The closest way I can possibly describe the joyous, funny, wonderful Dave Made a Mazeposter is to tell you to imagine that Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry got together to watch Labyrinth and thought, “I bet we could do something even more fun than this.” Because how else can I describe a movie in which a struggling artist builds a cardboard labyrinth in his house, only to find that it’s much bigger on the inside, and he may have gotten lost…oh, and there may be traps that are killing people. If that sounds dark, it shouldn’t; Dave Made a Maze is an absolute joy, delivering laugh-out-loud dialogue, boundless imagination, and even staging the deaths with a burst of inspired lunacy. Director Bill Watterson, who makes his debut here (and that is insane, given how inspired this film is), stages the action wonderfully, never missing the chance to go both for a joke and a bit of incredible imagination, and using cardboard and household craft supplies to incredible effect. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly great (or that I will never not enjoy James Urbaniak in things, and letting him play a documentary filmmaker who’s directing all of the action around him only gives him more to do), but more than anything, this is just pure fun, with enough emotional heft to keep you invested, and more than enough imagination, style, and joy to keep you smiling throughout. It’s maybe my favorite movie from the whole festival, and I can’t wait for it to open wide so it can become the cult hit it’s destined to be. Rating: *****

Mind you, as imaginative and wonderful as Dave Made a Maze was, it doesn’t even begin to approach the sheer insane weirdness of Angieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which is almost definitely the best Polish disco musical about murderous, man-eating mermaids ever made. lure_poster_900Words can’t possibly do justice to the insanity of this movie, which is – naturally, as you’ve assumed by now – a super loose retelling of The Little Mermaid, which follows two young mermaids as they make a name for themselves into a disco nightclub, find romance, and struggle to figure out their place in the world. How this results in bizarre surgeries, full-on musical numbers, massively uncomfortable sexual imagery, and more – well, it should really be experienced, rather than explained, because there’s no way I can convey what it’s like to watch this movie. (I feel like critic David Ehrlich saying that he watched the movie on Ambien, and had to go and rewatch it to confirm that he didn’t hallucinate some of it, makes good sense.) The Lure doesn’t always work; its weirdness can be a bit much at times, and you’ll start to see that, underneath it all, it’s a story you kind of know already, and it’s going about like you think it will. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing, though; whatever else you may think of The Lure, it’s astonishing to watch, with some absolutely incredible sequences that hold their own against the numbers of La La Land, some surreal comedy that never failed to crack me up, and just the sheer insanity of it. Just, you know. Brace yourself. Rating: **** ½

If you’re feeling like there’s a lot of style in these films, there undeniably is, making for a rich theme for the weekend. Nowhere was there more style – but sadly, less substance – than in The Void, voida piece of cosmic horror that gave me some incredible images and moments, but falls apart in its weak final act. Set almost entirely in a rural hospital that’s only a few days away from shutting down completely, The Void follows a small group of survivors – some medical personnel, a local sheriff, a few assorted patients, and a couple of others – as they find themselves under siege by a strange, cloak-wearing cult that seems to have surrounded the hospital out there in the darkness. With some fantastic creature design, and glimpses of a nightmarish cosmology, it doesn’t take The Void long to show its true colors – this is horror in the vein of Lovecraft and Barker, and its dark themes are pretty gripping and interesting ones. However, the film feels about thirty minutes longer than it is, and that’s before the never-ending “bad guy monologue” that starts to close out of the film. I liked The Void more than most of the people I saw it with, but I’m not going to deny that it’s got some big problems with regard to pacing and storytelling. (There are two characters whose involvement in the story never ends up making much sense, once you learn why they’re there.) Still, if you can give yourself over to its style, there’s a lot there to love, with some fantastic images and some truly disturbing moments. But it feels like the first work of a directorial team whose best work is still ahead of them. Rating: *** ½

The final film of my film fest experience was one I was looking forward to, mainly because of a film I had seen at an earlier Chattanooga Film Festival. A couple of years ago, I saw E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a gleefully nasty, darkly comedic little thriller that followed a pair of friends who found themselves squaring off in a visceral competition of wills. It was an absolute blast, and made Katz someone to watch. With his second film, the great Small Crimes, screen-shot-2016-05-05-at-9-26-11-amhe goes from “a director of interest” to “man, this guy is fantastic.” Co-written by Macon Blair (who’s worked with Jeremy Saulnier on his films), Small Crimes follows a convict named Joe Denton (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as he’s released from prison and tries to figure out what to do next. Small Crimes feels like a 70’s noir in many ways, complete with a dark antihero who uses just about anyone in his path, lies constantly, and is capable of horrifying actions; more than that, though, it’s also a story about the way we struggle to redeem ourselves, and to escape our pasts. How that escalates into an increasingly violent series of events should be seen rather than told; suffice to say, there’s a noir-like sensibility to the film that I loved, with bad men doing bad things in a bad time. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the film has a knockout cast, with supporting roles by Blair, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Jacki Weaver, and best of all, Robert Forster as Denton’s father, trying to understand how his son came out this way. Small Crimes is gritty stuff, with a rich, lived-in feel, a complicated take on morality, and a nicely complex plot that keeps you gripped throughout (though there’s one big exception in the end, with a single plot thread that feels a bit arbitrarily ended). It’s great stuff, and I hope it picks up an audience; it’s fantastic work, and even better than Cheap ThrillsRating: **** ½

IMDb: My Life as a Zucchini | My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea | A Dark Song | Lake Bodom | Dave Made a Maze | The Lure | The Void | Small Crimes

Chattanooga Film Festival 2016: Day 4 and Wrap-Up

the_boy_and_the_world_-_p_-_2014_0And so we came to the end. After three days of non-stop cinema, it was time to head back home, but not before catching two more movies, each of which managed to earn an Oscar nomination this past year. The first, Boy and the World, is a Portuguese animated film that ended up getting the nomination for Best Animated Film. Of course, you could argue that just about any animated film has a chance at that nomination with so few in the running, but to assume that is to severely underestimate Boy and the WorldBoy‘s art is deceptively simple, looking near the film’s beginning like nothing so much as a child’s crayon drawings, a choice that fits the mood in the early going. It’s the story of Boy, whose father takes a job in a distant city and leaves he and his mother behind on their own. At least, that’s how the film starts. But as Boy goes exploring and looking for his father, the film gets more and more complicated, until it becomes a sprawling story about modern society, global industrialization, fear of oppressive government, the power of youth, and so much more, all without speaking more than a few words. Yes, Boy is a foreign film, but the few lines of dialogue – maybe 6 or 7 – are in an intentional gibberish language, and mostly the film relies on its staggering visuals and its wonderful music to convey its story and themes. It’s an abstract film in many ways, of course, but it’s hard not to enjoy its simple charm and style in the early going, and then get swept up as the film evolves into something more complex and profound along the way. It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of animation to tell wholly original tales that don’t have to just be kids’ films (this could easily be enjoyed by any age, but I think it resonates more with older audiences than younger), as well as a reminder of how rich visual and sonic storytelling can be. Rating: **** ½

maxresdefaultBoy and the World screened with a short film named The Maltese Guinea Pig, a 15-minute film about a 4th grader investigating the disappearance of the class pet. It’s all done in the style of classic noir, down to some unexpected black and white shots, hard-boiled dialogue, and some wonderful nods to the tics and styles of the genre. It’s a bit amateurish from an acting perspective, and it definitely leans pretty heavy on the fact that much of the appeal comes from watching little kids deliver noir dialogue…but that appeal really never lessens for any of those 15 minutes. It’s a lot of fun, and worth checking out. Rating: ****

embrace-of-the-serpent-poster-lgThe final film of my festival marathon was one of the ones I was most interested to see, and thankfully, it more than lived up to my expectations. Embrace of the Serpent was nominated for Best Foreign Film last year at the Oscars, and rightfully so; it’s a phenomenal, fascinating film, one that looks and feels like little else out there. Embrace tells the story of two journeys down the Amazon River in search of a specific plant with legendary healing properties. The first takes place in 1909, when a German scientist takes shaman Karamakate down the river in search of the yakruna plant; the second occurs in 1940, as an American researcher asks Karamakate to take him down the river in search of the same plant as he retraces the steps of that first expedition. Embrace is a haunting, beautiful film, one filmed in stark, stunning black and white that unfolds like a strange dream. Karamakate is in both stories, of course, but played by two different actors to represent his different ages; nonetheless, the stories blend together, with our focus changing between the story effortlessly and without clear segues, making it clear that this is not two separate stories, but rather one rich and complex one. And while it would be easy for Embrace of the Serpent to be the story of how these white men learned from these noble savage natives, or how the jungle drives men to their most bestial side, Embrace is something wholly different from either of those archetypes. It’s very much the story of Karamakate, a man who is the last survivor of his tribe, and his effort to make peace not only with the changes taking place in his land, but the legacy he will – or will not – leave behind. It’s a rich, hypnotic film, and one filled with fascinating incidents, including a pair of surreal, disturbing sequences that unfold in each story at an old mission outpost (a pairing that raises the question about whether one is connected to the other), as well as numerous other pieces along the way. It’s a beautiful, moving film, one that manages to stand out from AguirreHeart of Darkness, and so other films/stories that it could have simply aped. It’s remarkable, powerful cinema. Rating: *****

So, that’s my 2016 Chattanooga Film Fest experience. 17 movies, four days, and almost all of them worth seeing in some way or another. Were there some issues? Undoubtedly, especially from a technical and scheduling standpoint; I had numerous films start late, and more than one with technical problems, which often led to those aforementioned late starts. And yet, I still can’t wait until the festival next year. The selection at the CFF is second to none, delivering eclectic, exciting, interesting choices that couldn’t align more closely with my own tastes. The crew is professional, helpful, outgoing, and engaged; the selections are interesting and carefully curated; and the events and guests exciting. More than that, the whole thing just emits a love of cinema, whether it’s grungy 70’s exploitation, low-budget personal projects, epic documentaries, or unclassifiable journeys. In short, it’s a festival made by omnivorous, unpretentious cinephiles for omnivorous, unpretentious cinephiles, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of the year. Bring on 2017!

But after I catch up on some sleep first.

IMDb: The Maltese Guinea Pig | Boy and the World | Embrace of the Serpent

Chattanooga Film Festival 2016: Day 3

aipposterBy and large, the third day of the festival (see here for all my Chattanooga Film Festival posts) was a more subdued affair, with less horror and less intensity across the board. In fact, most of our day today ended up in documentaries, starting off with It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine!, which discussed the rise and fall of AIP, a famous – or infamous – studio responsible for a slew of B-movies ranging from I Was a Teenage Werewolf to Frankie Valli beach party movies to Roger Corman’s Poe pictures. By and large, I is a talking head documentary, letting various people narrate the story of the studio and its various players, but it’s all done in a great style and with an energy that both fits the material and keeps the film moving at a rapid pace. It doesn’t hurt that the film has access to such a great selection of archives – when you can illustrate all of your points with footage from films like this, you’re going to have good results. The end product is a lot of fun; it’s nice to see a documentary that has its own sense of style and a good pace, and while there’s not a lot of new information here if you know much about the studio, it’s still well-told and has a lot of great stories. Moreover, as the director pointed out, it’s nice to have a film that tries to look at both men in the partnership and, in his words, “right a historical wrong” and give one some of the credit he deserves. If you’re not into the B-movie and exploitation scene, though, your mileage may vary. Rating: ****

too-muchNext up was Too Late, a neo-noir film with one heck of a gimmick: it’s told in five 22-minute acts, each composed of a single, unbroken take. (The reason for 22 minutes, by the way: it’s the length of a reel of 35mm film, a medium director Dennis Hauck truly loves, to the point where he’s not even releasing the film to theaters in a digital format.) Of course, even without that gimmick, the cast of the film is a big draw: John Hawkes as a private detective, and Natalie Zea, Robert Forster, and more in supporting roles. The biggest issue with Too Late, though, isn’t whether the gimmick succeeds – it’s fascinating to watch the scenes unfold, and the unbroken shots leads to some amazing tension – but whether it’s really necessary or adds much to the film. The choice to do five acts works well from a plot perspective, allowing the film to play out in non-chronological order, and giving some reveals an effective punch. But it also makes for an uneven film, one with a few great acts and a few much weaker ones, a connection that often depends on which characters are featured in each act, since Hawkes is the only constant. Luckily, he’s fantastic, delivering some great hard-boiled banter and bringing a lot of depth to every scene he’s in. That particularly pays off in the second act, which in some ways is the climax of the plot, and features some of the best dialogue, pacing, and acting of the film. Too Late is uneven (and it doesn’t help that the first act is definitely the weakest), and ultimately feels like it could lose one plot thread and be even better (I’m looking at you, pair of local “colorful” drug dealers); for all of that, though, the parts of the film that work are really, really solid, engaging, and fantastic. And I can’t really fault a film too much for being as confident and ambitious as this one tries to be on a technical level. Rating: *** ½

the_invitation_poster-final-691x1024Meanwhile, The Invitation, a suspense/horror/drama hybrid, could do with being a little more ambitious – or maybe just more inventive in the end. Opening with a group of friends reuniting for a dinner party after what seems to be a lengthy time apart, The Invitation plays its cards close to its chest for most of its running time, letting the characters breathe and talk for a long time before starting to turn the screws. It helps that that talk is so interesting and engaging, and so thematically rich; ultimately, The Invitation is a film about grief and loss, and it’s to the film’s credit that it engages with that theme seriously, thoughtfully,  and with nuance. Indeed, much of the film’s drama – and unease – comes as people question the ways in which other people are choosing to grieve and move on (or not) from a deep trauma. And as the dinner party continues, people start acting more and more strangely, allowing the film to mine tension from a simple question: is what we’re seeing the result of trauma, or is it something more sinister? As with so many films, though, the question ends up being far less interesting than the answer, which ends up being a) unsurprising and b) unfolds in a way that feels a bit bland and uninvolving (though there’s a hint of the much weirder film that could have been near the very end). That final act aside, though, The Invitation is surprisingly complex and emotionally rich, and the suspense it builds is pretty great; that final act is such a whimper, though, that the film as a whole feels less successful than it should. Rating: *** ½

raidersFrom there, it was onto a pair of documentaries. Back in 2008, I got the chance to see a rare screening of Raider of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-for-shot remake of the classic Steven Spielberg film done by a group of kids over the series of several summer vacations. Now comes Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which tells the story not only of the making of the film, but also of the choice by the group to reunite in the present to film the one sequence they never completed: the Flying V fight. It’s hard to imagine Raiders! being more of a crowd-pleaser, even given that most people haven’t had the chance to see the adaptation; it’s got a great hook, incorporates enough footage to hook you, tells an inspiring (and wonderfully odd) story, and moves along quickly. (Mind you, given how much I really loved that adaptation, I was on board from the get-go.) The packed house I saw it with was absolutely into it, laughing at the antics of the kids and getting genuinely engaged in the effort to finally finish the film all these years later. As a piece of filmmaking, Raiders! is no great shakes, but the story is an absolute joy, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the story of friendship, cinemania, humor, and dreams that the film spins out. And if the room doesn’t get dusty for you when one of the guys talks about his son saying “how proud he is of his daddy for following his dreams,” well, you got no soul, buddy. It’s a blast of a documentary, and if you like it, make the effort to find the adaptation – you won’t be disappointed. Rating: ****

here-come-videofreexOn the other hand, Here Come the Videofreex is a story I knew nothing about: a filmmaking collective from the 1960’s who latched onto video cameras right away and documented the world around them before starting a pirate TV station. As a documentary, Videofreex has a ton of issues – it’s incredibly slow-paced and lethargic, rambles along, loses its threads a few times, and just sort of fizzles out, leaving you with a ton of questions unanswered. And yet, it’s an absolutely fascinating, compelling piece of work as a historical document. Conversations with doctors at Woodstock, giving one of the final interviews with Fred Hampton before his death, debating politics with Abbie Hoffman, watching (and joining) equal rights marches and protests – the Videofreex are there, documenting it all, and the footage remains every bit as vivid, honest, and potent now as it was all those years ago. More than that, it’s honest and unfiltered, wearing its politics on its sleeve but never looking away, giving you a sense of history both as those who lived it and those who lived through it. And by the time the crew sets up their pirate TV station, what I expected to be a fierce act of rebellion turns out to be genuinely sweet, charming, and just wonderful, and reminds you of the ways that people can come together, as the Videofreex end up bonding with a community that wanted no part of a bunch of “dirty hippies.” As a film, Here Come the Videofreex has a ton of issues, but I’m going to be honest and tell you I couldn’t stop watching it, couldn’t be more fascinated by it, and really recommend it, even with its flaws, as a social document and a genuinely heartfelt film. Rating: *** ½ (more or less)

poor_pretty_eddie_posterFinally, we come to the late night screening of a truly scuzzy (and weird) piece of exploitation, Poor Pretty Eddie. A good piece of exploitation has a way of making you feel like you need a shower afterward, and rarely has that been more the case than with Poor Pretty Eddie. Sort of a rape-revenge film, sort of blaxploitation, sort of hixploitation – Poor Pretty Eddie is a little bit of everything and a little bit all its own. Some of the weirdness makes sense as you dig into the film’s backstory – suffice to say that the film was primarily being used as a money laundering scheme for a massive pornographer who also made money with the Mafia – but even that doesn’t explain how weird this thing gets. It starts simply enough, with an African-American singer whose car breaks down in a tiny, backwoods Southern town, and who soon finds herself the unwilling companion of a deranged, violent Elvis impersonator. Oh, and that impersonator already has a wife, played by Oscar-winning actress Shelley Winters. And did I mention that the town sheriff is played by Slim Pickens? And if you think that’s weird, man, just buckle up for a sexual assault intercut with dog mating, or quease-inducing racial politics, or brutal violence out of nowhere…and on and on. Even by 1970’s exploitation standards, this thing is grimy, but it’s also just plain weird, with touches that wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Lynch film. (I’m thinking here of the wedding overseen by a country band that stands mutely in the background as things become a trial before…well, you’ll see.) I certainly can’t say it was good by any means (though I wasn’t one of the several people to walk out), but if you’re a fan of this kind of thing, it’s worth seeing at least once, just for the bizarre experience of it all. (For maximum impact, watch it and then read about the alternate version they made, which makes the psychotic Elvis into a romantic hero and gives him a happy ending.) Rating: “Man, I don’t even have an opinion.”

IMDb: It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine! | Too Late | The Invitation | Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made | Here Come the Videofreex | Poor Pretty Eddie