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Housebound (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Because the judge believes that she needs a bit of stability in her life, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is sentenced to spend eight months on house arrest after she is caught stealing from an ATM. However, it isn’t going to be a walk in the park because she does not get along with Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), her mother, and Graeme (Ross Harper), her stepfather. Graeme is not much of a conversationalist while Miriam is convinced that the house is haunted. Kylie does not believe in ghosts. That is, until she starts to hear strange noises at night and often feels that someone—or something—is watching her.

Written and directed by Gerard Johnstone, “Housebound” is horror-comedy-thriller that often transforms which makes it exciting and alive. It is difficult to predict whether a scene being set up will have a funny, suspenseful, or downright horrifying punchline. And because it embraces the disparate genres from which it draws inspiration instead of subverting or satirizing them, it is a consistently good time throughout.

I enjoyed that it is uncertain, at least initially, whether we are supposed to like Kylie. She is disrespectful, vulgar, a menace to society. We do not pity her for a second when she gets her sentence. In fact, some might argue she got off too easily. She thinks she’s so tough and so we are amused when that toughness is tested against a potential paranormal phenomenon.

After all, how can you fight something that you can hear, see, and haunt your mind but cannot touch? We want her to investigate the sounds she hears coming from the basement. We want her to get scared because she puts on an act of fearlessness. We want her to try to explain to others who might not believe what she has experienced. And yet we do not want to see her harmed. That is a difficult challenge that the screenplay has managed to overcome.

The bump-in-the-night scenes are effective because these are inspired by old-school horror. No CGI is employed. The camera tends to take its time to slither from one part of the room to another. The score is minimal. The lighting creates shadows in all the right places. Remove the comedic sections of the film and what remains is a good horror picture. The comedy is certainly most welcome when the tension becomes almost unbearable.

O’Reilly and Wiata are good casting choices. They may not look alike and the personalities of their characters are complete opposites but we believe Kylie and Miriam are related. They key is the latter section of the story in which the two are forced to work together in order to overcome the challenge and survive. The script is wise to allow us to feel that there is love shared between the two even though they may not get along most of the time. Thus, we care about their fates and we wonder whether the experience would force them to feel more connected to each other before the end credits.

“Housebound” is highly likely to exceed the expectations of those who go into it blind. What I admired most about it is its willingness to not just become another horror-comedy filled with gross-out scenes coupled with a joke or two. Its contemporaries often rely on this formula because that fits most people’s definition of a horror-comedy. Suspense and creativity can be found here, too.


Monsters: Dark Continent

Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Wanting to make something of their lives, Mike (Sam Keleey) and his friends sign up for the military to be deployed in the Middle East where insurgents and giant extraterrestrials reside. Twelve weeks into their first tour, the team receives a seemingly straightforward mission in which they are to rescue four soldiers. Everything starts to go wrong, however, when their convoy hits a bomb, instantly killing members of the team, and insurgents send a rain of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

“Monsters: Dark Continent,” written by Tom Green and Jay Basu, is essentially three pictures put into a blender without any additional flavor added to it. What results is a confusing, misleading, bland miscalculation; it is standard a war picture one minute, a would-be thoughtful rumination about the horrors of war the next, and then just as suddenly it turns into a fight against aliens. Little connective tissue is shared among the strands and so the film is almost unbearable to sit through.

An early mistake is the failure to establish one perspective that we will follow and eventually sympathize with. Perhaps the most interesting character is Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris), having done seven tours in the Middle East and is increasingly worried that his daughter back home no longer recognizes him. Instead, the writers divide the film’s time between Mike and Frater, but the former is so boring that even when he is showing rage, frustration or regret, I felt no connection to his plight. It is a stark contrast against Frater. The sergeant can just sit still and his eyes reveal it all.

The massive aliens remain in the background throughout which is unforgivable. We see giant tentacles writhing in the desert as they are being shot but we learn nothing new or exciting about them. Why are they releasing spores? Why are the baby aliens burying themselves in the desert sand? I think the most exciting bit involves a fight between a dog and an alien about the size of a hog—which happens very early in the movie. There is not enough alien interest generated for those hoping to see these creatures in action.

It peaks too early. It can be argued that the climax of the picture is when Mike’s friends begin to meet their respective deaths. There are a lot of manly screaming, crying, blood, and missing limbs, but it all comes across as fake because we learn close to nothing about the young men. For instance, during the narration in the beginning, Mike claims that Frankie (Joe Dempsie) is his best friend. Not once do we ever feel the emotions behind that claim during their interactions in the field.

Directed by Tom Green, “Monsters: Dark Continent” is neither about the humans nor the aliens that the title promises. In the end, it becomes about the filmmakers’ mediocrity, their inability to construct and execute a two-hour story that is worth telling. It is another one of those terrible movies where I would like to sit down with the filmmakers and ask them personally what they were thinking while creating this disappointment.


Bite Size

Bite Size (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

There is something about a child diagnosed with diabetes by twelve years of age telling the camera that he is probably not expecting to live very long because of his condition. Weighing over two hundred thirty pounds, Davion hopes to become a football player one day. “Bite Size,” directed by Corbin Billings, is documentary about childhood obesity in America and it focuses on four subjects stemming from different racial and economic backgrounds. It is a well-intentioned work but one that is limited in scope.

It gets a few things exactly right. For example, emphasis is placed on the importance of support, whether it be a parent, friend, or a school counselor, when it comes to continuing to choose the right foods to eat and participating in an exercise regime. It is especially critical for children because they look up to the adults to set an example. At some point in each one of the four strands, there is a lack of guidance and a set of rules to be followed. It comes to no surprise that although the children are educated about the importance of eating healthy and being physically active, they still continue to gain weight.

There are no charts and graphs to show us the statistics and trends of childhood obesity—and it doesn’t need to. These things are not needed when we see the subjects’ overweight bodies as they walk toward the camera, how regretful they sound when speaking about the concerns and fears of possibly being diagnosed with diabetes, and the shame of recollecting memories from school when they are bullied by their peers. The lack of mathematics and colorful figures makes the documentary feel more personal.

I wished, however, that the picture had asked the parents the tough questions. Yes, they come to recognize their responsibilities toward their children’s health eventually. However, a lot of the time the material gives the impression that the parents are left to their own devices and not really knowing what to say to the camera. There is a disruption in the flow and the topic’s sense of urgency. Clocking in at just about ninety minutes, the film, however, feels like two hours long. This is particularly noticeable in Moy’s story—his household torn between recklessness (his father) and responsibility (his mother).

Most compelling to me is KeAnna’s segment—not because of KeAnna herself but because of the school counselor named Lisa who tries to help her and her friends to lose weight. The counselor, who also has weight issues, wishes to help so much that she makes an effort to learn how to dance—an activity that her students love. Lisa even starts a weight loss program called “Si Se Puede” so that they can lose weight together. What starts as a weight loss program turns into a program of self-love and learning to take responsibility for oneself. It is not something that Lisa—nor I—expected.

The documentary should have spent more time with Emily, a twelve-year-old who once weighted two hundred and thirteen pounds. She lost over eighty pounds during her time in a weight loss camp but when she left, she began to gain weight again. Emily claims she is determined never to become the size that she once was. I think that this is a very important piece of the puzzle, one that is worth exploring deeply because it has some psychological implications, but the material insists on spending equal time with its four subjects.


Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Director Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” is one of the most original biographies to date because not only does it not cover its subject’s life from birth to death, it also manages to incorporate some of the content of its subject’s books into curious and fascinating dramatizations. It is our job, if we choose, to dissect which bits come directly off the private life of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the twentieth century.

Although the picture is structured into four chapters, there is a theme that percolates through their cytoskeleton. Notice that the varying characters from the novels that represent Mishima end up destroying themselves. Most interesting is that the writers—Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Chieko Schrader—place particular emphasis on the characters’ vulnerability. In “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion,” the protagonist has a stutter; in “Kyoko’s House,” the subject suffers from narcissism; and in “Runaway Horses,” the main character plans to execute an assassination no matter what the cost.

These strands are told with poetic elegance. It is apparent that they are shot in the studio—particularly the first two—but the material’s power is not at all diminished. On the contrary, the impact is amplified because the stories work on a symbolic level. Together, the images feel dream-like but never opaque, they inspire questions but are never frustrating. As someone who did not know much about the author, I felt I learned about him—the important parts of him anyway—and yet by the end he remains an enigma. The film made me want to look into his work.

The flashbacks in black-and-white are raw and worthy of analysis. The one that stood out to me is Mishima’s relationship with his grandmother when he was a boy. We get the impression that his grandmother raised him in a strict environment with defined rules and perhaps impossibly high expectations. Because her values have become ingrained in him, as an adult, it appears as though he is not well-adjusted, so willing to go to the extremes to convey a message. I found a great sadness in the film’s fourth chapter because in front of us is a man who is way out of his depth, a person who is clearly intelligent and talented but one who is left behind by the times.

Mishima’s homosexuality is diluted for the most part which is appropriate because he—and his countrymen, maybe to this day still—are ashamed of it. One may be able to create a case that if the author had been able to live his life without having to constantly strive to walk the line of what is expected of him, he would have made different choices. Another theme is one’s struggle to always be in control. Leading a healthy life is balancing control and letting go. He seems incapable of the latter.

“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” engages because it is like learning about a particular person through the way he treats his pets, the people around him, and his possessions. By giving us an indirect way of gathering information, the filmmakers open up the final product for contemplation and discussion. Similar movies of its type are so busy plotting Point A to Point B that the flavor, the drama, and the sense of urgency have been siphoned off by the time the third act comes around.


Project Almanac

Project Almanac (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Fourth year high school student David (Jonny Weston) receives a big envelope from MIT which means he has been accepted to the university. But there is a problem: Instead of getting a full scholarship as he had hoped—after all, he did send a compelling video which shows his raw potential as an aspiring inventor—he had been bestowed only a small fraction. With no way of paying for his education, it appears most opportune that David and his sister (Virginia Gardner) find a key part of a time machine in a secret compartment in the basement. They can go back in time and “win” the lottery.

Written by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, “Project Alamanac” is enjoyable enough to warrant a marginal recommendation. It is very good up until about two-thirds of the way through because it shows what real teenagers would likely do if they were to have access to a time machine: ace a chemistry class, get revenge on bullies, try to win the lottery, attend a music festival. A lot of it is fun and games—until it isn’t. This is where the picture struggles with creativity.

It uses a potential romantic connection between David the brainiac and Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia) the popular girl as the heart of the picture. It does not work for several reasons. First, there is little physical chemistry between Weston and Black-D’Elia. Neither performers are particularly gifted at emoting deep and subtle emotions and so the characters, when flirting, come across as disingenuous, the lines sounding very script-like and cheesy. Third, we do not learn enough about either characters when separated or together. Thus, their possible relationship does not have meat or dimension.

I argue that David could have been a more interesting character if he had been written as someone who did not mind being single. Why would he? He has great friends he’s known since childhood (Allen Evangelista, Sam Lerner), a pretty cool sister, and a very bright future ahead of him. I admired his intelligence, creativity, and fire so I wanted to know more about who is—or who he thinks he is.

Maybe the story would have been more interesting if its emphasis was on the protagonist recognizing his true potential, that if he chooses to, he can make a lasting contribution to the world. In other words, it is unfortunate that the writers did not have more ambition to make this science fiction story about self-discovery. No, eventually it had to be about getting or rescuing a girl. The problem is, every other movie is like that.

Upon the discovery of the critical piece, it is pointed out that the technology is owned by the U.S. government. This sounds like an avenue worth further exploration and it is surprising that the screenplay never gets back to this point again. Instead, the idea that going back in time creates unpredictable rippling effects is hammered into our brains multiple times. Smart screenplays make the point once or twice and expands until full capacity. Here, the story likens that of a balloon only halfway filled with gas—not enough to let the story go somewhere really exciting.

“Project Almanac,” directed by Dean Israelite, need not embody a found-footage style. The shaking of the camera distracts more than amplifying tension. There is no need for unstable camerawork because the material is suppose to inspire a sense of curiosity or wonder. How can we find ourselves in awe when there are very few moments of stillness?


While We’re Young

While We’re Young (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) meet a couple in their mid-twenties, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), an aspiring documentarian and an ice cream maker, respectively, and the former are reminded of their age—how they have lost track of the many things they wanted to accomplish because life had gotten in the way. Hoping to relive the spirit of their youth, the middle-aged couple spends more time with Jamie and Darby, unaware that these two are not exactly what they seem.

“While We’re Young,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a struggle to sit through not only because of its standard, dull storyline but also because of its sluggish pacing. At one point there is a scene in the film where Stiller’s character is pitching a documentary—one that is charmless, dry, and convoluted—to a potential financial backer (Ryan Servant) and the latter just sits there feeling bored and wanting to play around with his cell phone. I imagine that the audience, including myself, is that man personified on film.

A few bits are amusing. Cornelia and Josh trying so hard to be young again is shot and performed with effervescence and a bona fide sense of humor. I never knew that Watts has a knack for physical comedy, especially the scene when her character tries hip-hop dancing. I can’t wait to YouTube that scene again. However, there are not enough of these surprising moments dispersed throughout the picture.

Pretty clever is the sequence that highlights the disparity between the two couples. For instance, Josh and Cornelia play games on their iPad while Jamie and Darby play board games. Jamie and Darby listen to records, Josh and Cornelia listen to CDs. The comedy works because we expect for the younger couple to lean toward technology while the other is more into “old-fashioned” things like reading an actual book than on a screen.

What does not work entirely is the forced drama between Josh and Cornelia. Just about every time they get into an argument, I noticed myself becoming increasingly frustrated because it almost always comes down to them not having much success with having a baby. Although Stiller and Watts try the best they can with the material, the lines often feel too script-like—which is not at all foreign to a Baumbach film but it is very jarring in this movie because the story is supposed to be a convincing comedy-drama.

Jamie and Darby not given depth prior to the turning point is a miscalculation. I was never convinced that they were as interesting a couple as Josh and Cornelia thought they were. This disconnect is a problem because the screenplay attempts to make them more human or relatable toward the end, but the entire thing comes across as disingenuous, all too convenient for the plot. These characters needed to be rewritten.

“While We’re Young” is likely to impress those who have not seen very many films— dramatic, comedic, or a mix of both—about aging as well as the concerns and awkwardness that come with it. The picture is not without good ideas but the execution lacks heft and power. Clearly this work is not made by Baumbach at the top of his form.


Anatomie de l’enfer

Anatomie de l’enfer (2004)
★★ / ★★★★

A woman (Amira Casar) is discovered by a man (Rocco Siffredi) cutting her wrists in the restroom of a gay bar. After he takes her to a clinic to get her self-inflicted wounds taken care of, she expresses her opinion that men hold a great fear and hatred of female sexuality. She wishes to explore this matter. She tells the stranger that she is willing to pay him to watch her during her most private moments. There is no need to touch her; he only has to observe. If he likes what he sees, he is welcome to join her in bed.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Catherine Breillat, “Anatomie de l’enfer” is not an easy film to digest given some of its undercurrents, like hatred of men and male homosexuals, as well as sexual images that really push the boundary between art and pornography so it is a bit of a surprise to me that I was able to stick with it.

Perhaps it is because, to me, its thesis is clear: the woman of interest considers gay males as being a part of an elite brotherhood that detests women, thereby only engaging with other males sexually—what they consider to be their equal—and so she takes the man through a sort-of experiment where she can “prove” that a woman’s sexuality is so powerful, it can turn male fear or resentment, homosexual or heterosexual, toward women into something positive.

The picture is anything but conventional. The two characters do not even have names. They are as detached from one another as we are to them. Despite this, there are plenty of contrasting elements worth looking into. For instance, although penis, vagina, breasts, and anus are shown generously on screen, I did not find them erotic. These body parts are often accompanied by images that can be considered disgusting or disturbing. The way a gardening tool is used quickly comes to mind. Even more shocking is the woman’s reaction to it. Another example involves the disparity between the seemingly rich ideas inside the woman’s mind and the sparseness of her cottage house. It can be interpreted that although her thoughts are aplenty, they hold very little meaning.

At times the material attempts to reach at anything in the dark. About halfway through, it is mentioned that an ocean is both a male and female image but its elucidation is more confusing than thought-provoking. When this sort of thing happens, which occurs more than half a dozen times, it feels like the screenplay is trying too hard to come off as meaningful. There is a self-consciousness in the bold script.

Most importantly, I did not buy into the man’s newfound feelings toward the woman. What he considers to be a profound realization in terms of his relationship with women (or just the woman he spent bizarre four nights with), I interpreted as trauma. I was neither moved intellectually or emotionally nor did I feel like it was a worthwhile experience as art or pornography. Although it is propelled by extreme elements on outside, “Anatomy of Hell” seems to just coast among them.


The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The real-life grizzly murders began in Texarkana on February 1946 and although there were speculations, it was believed that the real killer was never caught. Jami (Addison Timlin) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) decide to leave the annual drive-in showing of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and find a secluded spot where they can be alone. During a kiss, Jami notices someone watching them from a couple of feet away—a man wearing a sack over his head, very reminiscent of The Phantom, the killer inspired by the picture they did not see through the end. One of them will not make it through the night.

“The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is gory, beautifully shot and sometimes thrilling, but it is let down by a mediocre screenplay. It is a meta-horror film but it seems reluctant to brace that self-awareness. So, when it becomes obvious to us that the killer is following the patterns of the murders that took place in the 1976 picture, it becomes increasingly frustrating that the heroine and her friend, Nick (Travis Hope), do not focus on the events that happen in the movie. It is only practical that they do so—that is, if they really wanted to survive.

There is a small town feel to this story that the filmmakers manage to capture. So when the young characters talk about their lives, I was very interested in what they had to say. For example, Jami admits to a counselor that she is the kind of girl who doesn’t get asked out on dates. Simply looking at her, this is difficult to believe because she’s beautiful. However, getting to know her a bit further, she is a bit shy, soft-spoken at times, probably a person who would rather read books on a Friday night than attend parties. Nick, too, has a story. They are, in a way, bound by a childhood that is not exactly a walk in the park. We enjoy these two being together.

The killings offer variability. Some happen instantaneously while others are drawn-out to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. Both are gruesome in their own way. It is always bloody and messy. Having seen over two hundred hours of “Criminal Minds,” I was curious about the methods employed and the nature of how the murders were executed.

I took notice of the kinds of victims and the places they are killed. I thought the monster must be a familiar face. I wondered why the killings began again after over thirty years. So there must be some sort of recent stressor. If you like this sort of thing, this movie is for you. But despite the clues in my brain—clues that I thought fit perfectly with my hypothesis—I still failed to guess the identity of the killer correctly.

I was disappointed. Not because I did not get it right but because the final answer does not make much sense. The writing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa could have use a bit more intelligence, psychology, subtlety, pragmatism—rather than someone having to explain why he did what he did. One is reminded of ‘90s slasher flicks—the good, the bad, and very bad that they best be forgotten.

“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is interesting to an extent, mainly its look and feel as well as the setup of the story, and that is why I give it a mild recommendation. But it does not command a satisfying payoff. The ‘90s meta-horror flicks are memorable not only because they embrace the sub-genre but they are also willing to embody the extremes both on the level of violence as well as new twists from what we come to expect.


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