Shocking True Story, by Gregg Olsen / *** ½

924159492There’s something inherently fun about the idea of a true crime author like Gregg Olsen writing a fictional novel about a true crime author whose personal life becomes tangled up in the true crime case he’s researching. (Did everyone follow that?) It’s an easy hook for a novel, and a fun one at that – and that’s before Olsen essentially begins writing two books at once, alternating between the story of Kevin Ryan, struggling true crime writer, and the white trash love story turned violent that’s the subject of his latest novel.

And that’s all before the two start overlapping in messy, bloody ways, giving the book a great hook.

For all of that, though, Shocking True Story left me with a sense of “is that all?” by the end of it. That’s not to say that it’s not a fun read – I tore through it, and Olsen’s direct writing style and twisty plotting made that easy. And it’s not that the conceit doesn’t work, because it does, even without Olsen’s clever way of turning Ryan into a self-involved narcissist without ever coming out and being explicit about it. (Such a choice also allows Olsen to lampshade some of the concerns and criticisms of true crime, all while creating a character that represents both the best and worst sides of the genre.)

But ultimately, by the end of it all, Shocking True Story feels empty – as though what plot there was wasn’t enough to sustain the book. Even with essentially two books in one here, neither one ever comes to much of anything; the “true crime” story feels incomplete and insubstantial, and the murder plot that Ryan finds himself part of ultimately comes to a standard (and unsurprising) big reveal that sort of fizzles out. Indeed, even the possibility that Ryan is in danger of losing something or being blamed for it all doesn’t last long, as though the book didn’t have the patience to invest in that storyline. (Incidentally, this is one of the rare books where one of the red herrings Olsen presents would have been a far more interesting payoff than the one we got – always something you have to worry about with those.)

I didn’t hate Shocking True Story – it’s entertaining and fun, and it’s an easy read – but I definitely ended it feeling like what I got could have been a novella and lost nothing, or even better, extended and fleshed out into something much better. As it is, it’s a fine enough read, but one that won’t stick with you in any real way. Ask me in a week, and I’ll struggle to remember all that much about it.


The Outsider, by Stephen King / ****

36124936In some ways, Stephen King’s The Outsider is the logical follow-up and continuation of what he began doing as a writer with Mr. Mercedes. With that book and the rest of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King started writing crime novels – well, crime novels a la King, which aren’t quite the same thing. But what it showed was that King was just as capable of playing in other genres, and in many ways, all the things he does so well – great characterization, superb pacing, excellent tension-building – were things that were also needed for a great thriller.

Now, as the Bill Hodges books continued, King started to bring more of his supernatural and horror elements into the books, with mixed results. The Outsider continues that trend, but by virtue of having been designed as a crime/horror hybrid from the get-go, the resulting novel feels smoother and more cohesive than, say, End of Watch, which felt a bit bumpy.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that The Outsider starts so incredibly well, alternating between the very public arrest of a beloved small town figure with the unquestionable evidence that ties him to the brutal murder of a child. And in that early going, King manages a notable feat, keeping the audience constantly uncertain as to whether what we’re reading is an innocent man being framed or a nightmarish killer’s facade of innocence. By sliding constantly between the police and the accused, doling out information carefully and methodically, King is near the top of his game, giving us one of his most enthralling first halves in a long, long time, all culminating in a setpiece that plays to all of his strengths.

It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the second half of The Outsider doesn’t measure up to the first. That’s not to say that it ever becomes bad, mind you; the introduction of an old friend of Constant Readers gives the book a nice second wind, and there’s something satisfying about how King applies his mystery-writing strategies to a supernatural event (even if that old friend gets used in some deus ex machina ways). But the answers we get are disappointingly bland, especially given King’s unique take on so many horror tropes, and while there are aspects of the finale that are interesting – more the implications and hints conveyed during that sequence than any true revelations – it doesn’t soar in the way that the best King climaxes can.

Mind you, I still absolutely devoured The Outsider, and couldn’t put it down. No, it may not be among the top tier of King novels, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom – for whatever blandness and iffiness along the way, it’s more consistent and focused than End of Watch, and more gripping and propulsive than Sleeping Beauties. And if nothing else, there’s nothing like King for books that are so easily and constantly readable, and allow me to lose myself so deeply in their pages.


Method 15/33, by Shannon Kirk / ** ½

91jyqw6cimlYou can’t deny that Shannon Kirk’s Method 15/33 has a great hook, no matter what else you think about the book. It’s the story of a pregnant teenager who’s been kidnapped for reasons she’s only beginning to understand, but is assuming will end with her death – and the theft of her unborn child. And this teenager will do anything to protect her child. ANYTHING. Because, you see, this teenager seems to have the ability to literally shut down her emotions think incredibly rationally and dispassionately – indeed, one could basically mark her up to be a sociopath, capable of coldly, viciously rational actions without any fear, guilt, or shame. And that makes her a very dangerous “victim” indeed, one that’s only waiting for the right time for some serious payback.

That’s a great hook for a novel, right? So why did Method 15/33 leave me so bored so quickly, after a relatively solid start?

Part of it has to boil down to Kirk’s first-person narration, which is so excessively “rational” as to become cartoonish. I love the idea of a kidnapper grabbing what amounts to a pregnant, teenage Hannibal Lecter, and watching as the tables get turned, but our narrator here is basically a robot superhero, to the point where the things she “deduces” become laughably over the top. What should be fun about this is the suspense between getting caught and getting payback, but the scales are so tilted here as to be ridiculously obvious; there’s never any sense that these kidnappers have the slightest chance of winning, and that makes the long wait for her plan(s) to go into motion a bit dull and overlong. Worse – and more importantly – there’s never a sense of a “person” underneath all of this for us to root for; all we get is this mechanized revenge machine, with no personality or traits to hook onto and invest us in her fate. (The fact that Kirk’s writing is pretty blah doesn’t help anything here; it only adds to the sense that this isn’t a character or a person so much as it’s an authorial construction of tropes shoved into this world.)

That last word – “overlong” – gets to the other big issue with the book. Even at only 245 pages, Method 15/33 drags. There’s a secondary plot line about FBI agents working to track the kidnappers that never really becomes much more than padding for the novel – a plot thread that could easily have been excised. And then there’s the last few chapters; without getting spoilery, there’s definitely a sense that the book goes on longer than it needs to, hitting a big climax and then just continuing on for far longer than you’d like it to before just sort of sliding to a stop.

Method 15/33 is a great pulp hook for a novel, and there are some fun ideas at play in here. I don’t even doubt that one day, someone will turn this into a really fun movie. But as it stands now, the middling writing, overly contrived and constructed characters, and dull padding all pretty much left me pretty unimpressed with what I got.


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

Brawl in Cell Block 99 / *****

7801760-5With his first movie, Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself, creating a compelling vision of the Old West before turning his True Grit-flavor abruptly into brutal and violent horror. It was a movie I liked a lot, even if at times I made the comment that it felt a little overlong and shaggy at times. And, to be sure, the comment could easily be made that the film feels intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but it still makes for an odd viewing experience.

But with his second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler makes a huge step forward, creating something tonally unified, unfiltered, and absolutely effective. It’s unmistakably a 1970’s grindhouse revenge film tribute, but one that makes use of Zahler’s willingness to take his time in his films, letting the characters develop to make the payoffs all the more effective. And please trust me when I tell you that  the payoffs here are effective – but they are also brutal. At times, this makes the violence of Bone Tomahawk seem like a dry run; it’s shocking, horrifying, and undeniably disturbing.

But that’s fitting for Brawl, which takes the form of a 1970’s revenge film, more or less. It’s the tale of Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a man trying to get his life on track, but struggling to stay employed. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Bradley finds himself going to a minimum security prison, when something happens that changes his whole plan. (If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s intentional; while this isn’t a plot heavy film, it’s best enjoyed relatively cold, to savor Zahler’s brutal and unexpected machinations.) That, of course, leads to the titular brawl…which lives up to expectations and then some.

But as much as the film’s violence is effective, jarring, and nightmarish, what lingers more than anything else is the mood of the film, which gives even the happiest scenes a feeling of dread and inevitability, and makes the film’s slow progression to its looming conclusion all the more intense. From the blue-tinted lens work to the lived-in feel of the dialogue, it’s not hard to feel that Zahler’s work has stepped up another notch from his already outstanding work in Bone Tomahawk, creating something even more intense and gripping.

For all of that, there’s no way to talk about the film without talking about Vince Vaughn, who may have never been better in a film than he is here. Gone is Vaughn’s usual swagger and ironic charm; his Bradley is a hard man, shaped by a troubled past that we only get hints of and the vagaries of a difficult daily life. There’s none of Vaughn’s usual motormouth tendencies, none of his ability to talk his way out of situations. His Bradley is all physicality – tense, dangerous, coiled. (It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn bulked up so much for the role; he’s big enough to seem like a threat that’s ready to pop at any moment.) And yet, we get glimpses of the man underneath it all; even as he’s doing horrifying things, there’s no joy in it, no savage delight – it’s just survival. That’s especially relevant, given how much Zahler turns the plot on Bradley’s need to protect his family; for all of Bradley’s physicality and violence, he’s a deeply loving man whose only priority is to provide for those he loves.

There are other great performances here – Don Johnson makes the best of a small role as a prison warden, turning a role that could easily turn into camp into something more threatening and hard – but truly, Brawl works so well due largely to Vaughn’s incredible performance here, one in which he fully commits to the part. That he’s matched – or forced into stepping up his game – by Zahler’s outstanding direction…well, that combo makes Brawl as good as it is, turning pulpy revenge into something more gripping, effective, and tense than it might be on paper. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those up for it, Brawl is an absolute knockout of tension, mood, and performance. Just be prepared for what you’re getting into.


Quick Reading Roundup

28965131Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was exactly what I wanted: a pulpy, twisty read more interested in delivering thrills and keeping you off balance than in worrying about exploring deep thematic resonance. That may sound like a slam, but it certainly isn’t intended as one; after diving through His Dark Materials and dealing with holiday stresses, there was something great about having a book about nothing more than playing games with the reader. The plot starts simply enough, following two women as they go through their lives. One is a doctor’s wife, struggling with some mental health issues and dealing with a tense, fraught marriage; the other is the secretary where the doctor has recently been hired, who has started up a flirtation with the doctor while unaware of his marriage status. Flicking back and forth between the two perspectives, Pinborough lets us think that this is merely going to be a story about two women and the tensions between them, only to drop the rug out from under us with a casual aside that reveals that there’s a much more devious game going on, and one of our narrators isn’t as innocent as she seems. What follows from there is a gleefully twisty read, one that rapidly chews through being a Gone Girl-esque mindgame before evolving into something even wilder (an evolution that will no doubt either make or break the book for some people, depending on how open they are to books that gearshift into a whole other novel at some point). And it all leads up to a series of wild twists that managed to fool me, and I think I’m a pretty seasoned thriller reader; every time I thought I was getting ahead of the book, it managed to trick me again. I had a blast with it, and while I have a couple of minor misgivings related to the very end of the book, all in all, it’s a blast of a read – a wonderful little piece of pulpy psychological manipulation. Rating: **** ½

32796253Any serious horror fan will probably be intrigued by the title of Final Girls, Riley Sager’s debut thriller novel that toys with elements of slasher films. In horror parlance, a “final girl” is the one girl who survives a slasher movie, usually getting the best of the killer by the end; there’s a lot more to it than that (especially in more critical analysis, where the “final girl” trope has some sexual and moral connotations), but in the end, it’s about a survivor – the one who outlasts Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, or whoever. Sager’s novel is a play on that trope, following the story of Quincy Carpenter, the sole survivor of a lakeside cabin killing spree that left her alone, scarred (both mentally and physically), but alive. Over the years, the media has linked Quincy with two other girls who survived similar events, dubbing them the “Final Girls” – which means that, when one of them is found dead, Quincy finds all of her old trauma resurrected. Sager cuts back and forth between Quincy’s modern day life, with all of the emotional trauma and baggage left behind from that horrific night, and flashbacks to the night itself, gradually revealing what happened as Quincy herself slowly remembers and clears out the fog of traumatic amnesia. Meanwhile, a long lost Final Girl shows up at her house, forcing Quincy to deal with her trauma in, let’s say, a more direct and dramatic fashion than she’s used to, and things start going very, very bad. Final Girls is generally a lot of fun, riffing on the “final girl” trope while treating the events with every bit of the horror that would result if they really happened; even so, Sager gets to have her cake and eat it too, staging the actual massacre with a lot of love for 80’s slasher flicks. The ending of Final Girls sank it a bit for me, though; as much as I was enjoying it, the end felt far weaker and more contrived than the rest of the book, scrapping all of the things I was enjoying about the book in favor of a lot of labored plot twists that feel a bit forced and shoved in. For all of that, it’s a fun read, and I’d still like to read more from Sager; there’s a lot of promise here, and a lot to enjoy. It just doesn’t pay off well in the end. Rating: *** ½


Joe Hill made his name in comic books, so it’s no surprise that Wraith plays so well, giving us a nightmarish side story set in the world of NOS4A2, Hill’s horror novel about a vampire that feeds off of the emotions of children. Serving as a sort of prequel to that book, Wraith gives us a glimpse of the origins of Charlie Manx before following an escaped group of convicts who find their way into Manx’s dream-constructed Christmasland, an amusement park where it’s always Christmas, and a happily smiling moon lays overhead. That all sounds great, but as anyone who’s read NOS4A2 knows, the reality is far more twisted and disturbing. And as drawn by Charles Paul Wilson III, Christmasland is the stuff of nightmares. Wilson mixes just the right amount of surrealism and unreality into Manx’s “happy” place, making everything just the right amount of uncomfortably unreal, and keeping the reader off balance until the horror elements truly turn loose. And trust me, turn loose they do; Wraith is truly a horror comic, maybe even more so than Hill’s justly revered Locke & Key series – there’s violence, horrific characters, but more than that, there is some truly unsettling nightmare fuel in here, as Wilson finds a way to put Hill’s boundless imagination on paper and bringing Charlie Manx’s thoughtscape to life. From a plot perspective, fans of NOS4A2 will enjoy finding out about Manx’s backstory, as well as truly seeing Hill’s conception of his characters, but even the uninitiated will find this a wild ride – the plotting isn’t anything truly rich, but the experience works like gangbusters. Just remember, it’s not for the faint of heart. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Behind Her Eyes | Final Girls | Wraith