Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"...AND TWINS!" - Ancient Chinese Beer Commercials

One of the great pleasures I experienced back when I had more free time to write and a semi-functional blog was the chance to check out unreleased genre flicks from a lot of young and talented filmmakers. Two of the most memorable talents I came across were Jen and Sylvia Soska, the twisted twins who started their rise to cult stardom with a little film called Dead Hooker in a Trunk.
"Wait, did he just say DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK?" - My mother
Yes, it's one of the most attention grabbing titles that I've ever encountered too. And in the summer of 2010, when a friend offered to share my address with them so I could check out a screener of a film by that title I couldn't resist the opportunity. Did I really expect anything from the movie, though? Not really. I mean, how good can a movie called Dead Hooker in a Trunk really be? You know that part of your brain that always doubts things it shouldn't doubt? That part of your brain can be super wrong sometimes.

So Dead Hooker in a Trunk showed up on my doorstep - not literally, don't freak out FBI - and it's safe to say I loved it from the minute I saw it. It was as raw and as brutal as you would expect a film from two young filmmakers on no budget, but it had this strange poetry to its ridiculous plot. I feel weird when I say that it played out like some kind of psychotic fairy tale, but that's the way the film felt to me. There's a heart underneath it.
Isn't the hooker supposed to be dead? YOU HAD ONE JOB!
There are a select few truly independent movies - in other words, ones made for no budget by everyday people, not "independent" movies A-list stars do to pad their resume - that I saw during my early blogging days that inspired me to change the way I approach independent cinema. Despite its ridiculous title and plot, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is one of them. And it inspired me to keep my eye on these talented filmmakers as they move forward.

(Cheap plug for three other indie flicks that fit the above criteria: Gregg Holtgrewe's Dawning, Mike Flanagan's Absentia, and Elisabeth Fies' The Commune. The first two are on Instant Netflix, the latter is worth finding. There are so many great films that most people never know about, you guys. Go find them.)
The Soskas rose in popularity after Dead Hooker in a Trunk was picked up for DVD by the great folks at IFC Midnight, and their follow up film was an even bigger success. American Mary was teased by the Sisters in late 2010 and released to much fanfare in 2012 thanks to the casting of horror favorite Katharine Isabelle and its unique look at the strange world of body modification. I really didn't know what to expect from the film, but I felt pretty sure I was willing to buy whatever these directors were offering as film number two. Blind faith can hurt a film fan, but it's still pretty great most of the time.
I will never understand why Katharine Isabelle is not in everything. The girl is fantastic.
I finally caught up with that film last summer when it was released on home video, and once again found myself impressed by the depth that the filmmakers brought to their subject. There's plenty of splatter once again, but Isabelle - a criminally underused talent - brings such presence to the lead role and the sisters surround her with so many fascinating and bizarrely unique characters that the film becomes instantly memorable. It's a darker tale than their debut film was, but it still has that surprising power in it that made Dead Hooker in a Trunk rise above being just a splatter fest.

The announcement of the Soskas' third film was another surprise. This time, the sisters were picked to direct the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 for WWE Studios. If you don't remember See No Evil - a theatrically released horror film starring "The Big Red Monster" Kane, you're probably better off than most people who saw it. I hate it when I have to say that a film was no good - but See No Evil was pretty much no good. It's hard to make a slasher film that's no fun at all - but the folks at WWE Studios did it with that film.

Which brings us to the reason I'm writing this all down (and I'm sure some jackass in the peanut gallery just shouted "FINALLY!" - Today's release of See No Evil 2 on home video. I've been too impressed with the Soskas for too long - both by their films and their endless charms on social media - to not check this one out. And there's nowhere to go but up, right? I mean, it can't be worse than See No Evil, right?
No, it can't.
Ohhhh, Kane. I see what you did there. You rascal.
I just finished watching that film, and I feel comfortable saying the Soskas have another success on their hands. This is surely a safer film than their previous efforts - with WWE paying the bills some of the more risque parts of their style have been left out of the film - but it's still got more than enough blood to keep slasher fans happy. Isabelle is once again perfectly cast - the showdown involving her character, a surely doomed boyfriend (Lee Majdoub), and Kane's Jacob Goodnight is probably my favorite sequence in the film - and Danielle Harris, another horror fan favorite, uses her slasher film experience to carry the picture from the lead.

I wasn't sold on See No Evil 2 for much of its run time, but there are some genuine surprises in the final act of the film to go a long with a lot of good slashing, and a few truly humorous moments. It takes a special filmmaker (or two, in this case) to make the viewer laugh out loud shortly after a surprising kill, but the Soskas pull it off in their solid finale. It's not a top-of-the-line slasher by any means, but it's a lot of fun and I'll surely watch it again when I need a bloody fix.

It's that balance between their macabre sensibilities and their gleeful exuberance about having fun with the audience that has made it such a unique treat to witness the Soskas' path through genre cinema over the last four years. Their path isn't stopping here - WWE Studios has brought them back to make an action film called Vendetta - starring another gigantic in-ring star, The Big Show - and they're next slated to adapt girl-power comic heroine Painkiller Jane. I'm excited to see what happens next. I'm pretty sure it'll be extremely entertaining. (And if they can keep casting Katharine Isabelle it'll be a major win too.)

Jen and Sylvia, I salute you for a successful trio of films. Keep making us horror fans proud!

Thursday, October 09, 2014

"I'm not exactly a guy who makes new friends easily." - Tom Petty

(Man, I feel like everybody would want to be friends with Tom Petty. He's a cool dude. But that's not what we're here to talk about. I just felt like saying it.)

New Friends: The Mike's Five Favorite Movies of the 2010s 
(So Far) (Plus A Lot More Movies)

When it comes to movies, I'm a lot like Mr. Petty's quote above. I like lots and lots and lots of movies - probably far too many movies - but very few new movies replace my older, more established favorite films in my heart. But recently I was reading about some peoples' favorite movies of the last five-ish years and it got me thinking about the movies I'd pick to be my favorites of that time span. And the more I thought about, the more it surprised me and became something I think I should write about. So that's what I'm doing.

Before we get to that arbitrary five - because lists pretty much have to go in fives and tens, you know - I'm gonna rattle off some honorable mentions and runners-up, naturally. Asking me to only mention five movies is not a realistic suggestion. Not one bit.  
Honorable Mentions (aka, movies I like a ton):
(in alphabetical order) (release year and director following each title) (extra set of parentheses to make things weird)
The Aggression Scale (2012, Steven C. Miller), Black Death (2010, Christopher Smith), Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky), Blue Caprice (2013, Alexandre Moors), Cheap Thrills (2013, E.L. Katz), Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino), Drinking Buddies (2013, Joe Swanberg), A Horrible Way To Die (2010, Adam Wingard), Joe (2013, David Gordon Green), Kill List (2011, Ben Wheatley), Need for Speed (2014, Scott Waugh), Our Idiot Brother (2011, Jesse Peretz), Rubber (2010, Quentin Dupieux), Some Guy Who Kills People (2011, Jack Perez), Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010, Eli Craig), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsey), Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)

A few comments I feel I need to make:
  • Yeah, that's lots of horror.
  • Need For Speed is on the list. Yeah, I said it. I had a lot of fun watching it a couple of weeks ago and I threw it in now. Maybe I'm riding the adrenaline high still, or maybe I'm just high.
  • Had to throw some Nic Cage on the list. Joe rocks.
  • Most atypical film for me on the list? Drinking Buddies. Not something I thought I'd like, but Joe Swanberg's story is so well drawn and the actors make it feel real. Great stuff.
Runners-Up (aka, movies I like a ton, and also a little more than the last set of movies)
(same rules as above)
Absentia (2011, Mike Flanagan), The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon), Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Doug Liman), Evil Dead (2013, Fede Alvarez), Godzilla (2014, Gareth Edwards), Mud (2012, Jeff Nichols), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt), The Social Network (2010, David Fincher), Stake Land (2010, Jim Mickle), Stoker (2013, Chan-wook Park), Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols), Your Sister's Sister (2011, Lynn Shelton).

More comments:
  • A lot of personal nerdy favorites here. Despite the dissenters, no one will convince me Evil Dead or Godzilla aren't great additions to their franchises. And The Avengers is just swell.
  • Edge of Tomorrow just hit home video and if you didn't see it - odds are you didn't, considering its box office failure - you need to do so now. It's such a wonderfully fun movie.
  • I doubled down on Jeff Nichols, and rightfully so. Both Take Shelter and Mud are powerhouse flicks led by actors at the top of their game.
  • Emily Blunt is a recurring theme on this list as we keep going. Not ashamed. I lurve her soooooooo much.
First Runners-Up (aka, movies I like a ton, and also movies that I seriously thought should be in the Top 5)
  •  The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Drew Goddard) - Is this the most fun movie of the last five years? For me, it might be. Such a fantastic twist on horror cliches, played with a perfect dose of comedy by Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon. The perfect movie for horror fans who loved Whedon's work on Angel, which I certainly did.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Joe & Anthony Russo) - I'm still shocked by how much I like this movie. The first Captain flick was fun, but it might have been my least favorite film in Marvel's recent run. And then this sequel showed up, helmed by unheralded comedy writers, and became the most thrilling action movie in a long time. Robert Redford adds instant credibility to the film, and Chris Evans is just such a perfect choice to play Cap. The effects are amazing, the pace never lets up, and it feels like one of those '90s action movies I love so much. That's a big compliment coming from me.
  • Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach) - I want my own Greta Gerwig. Is that weird? That's probably weird. My point is that she's a true star in Baumbach's black-and-white coming of age story, which highlights the life of a young woman who's just trying to make it through life and hits on a lot of truths about growing up. It's infectious and sweet, and just makes me smile a lot.
  • I Saw the Devil (2010, Kim Jee-woon) - Man, this movie is brutal. Revenge has rarely seemed as personal as it does in this one, where Byung Hun-lee tracks and brutalizes a sociopathic serial killer played by Oldboy's Min-sik Choi. It's one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed, and can't be unseen once it's been seen. That sounds ridiculous, but in the case of this movie it's 100% true.
  • Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller) - Brad Pitt in the front office of a baseball team with Jonah Hill as his plucky assistant shouldn't be really great, but this movie is really great. Pitt can carry any kind of film, but his quirky personality comes off genuine here and the details of the story are handled deftly by Miller. Plus there's some Aaron Sorkin in the script, and Aaron Sorkin is an instant win in my book. This flick just pops off the screen.
  • Pacific Rim (2013, Guillermo del Toro) - Remember earlier when I got really nerdy excited about Godzilla and The Avengers and Evil Dead? This movie makes me even more nerdy excited. It's not for fans of acting or conventional drama, but it is a larger than life spectacle that had me drooling all over myself for more than two hours the first time I saw it. My first experience with this kaiju epic will surely be one of the great memories of my film-going life.
  •  You're Next (2011, Adam Wingard) - Another movie that's here mostly because it's just more fun than other movies. It's the best of several horror film worlds put together - home invasion, slasher, and splatterfest; to name a few - with a ton of indie talent coming together for a movie that I can watch on repeat that keeps a smile on my face every time.
 OK, so are you ready for the five I picked as my top five? I sure am. This list turned into something entirely different, didn't it?
The Mike's Five Favorite Movies of the 2010s (So Far)
(we're sticking with alphabetical order, rankings are far too difficult)

(2012, Rian Johnson)

A sci-fi/action/drama that's surprisingly poignant, Looper is one of those movies that looked too good to be true. Miraculously, writer/director Rian Johnson avoided several potential snags that can derail this kind of film- too much romance, bad child acting, gimmicky plot twists - and created one of the most heartfelt sci-fi films I've ever seen.

Looper is carried by strong lead performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, yet the surprising star of the film is young Pierce Gagnon as the child at the center of the film's generation spanning plot. His role is the most crucial piece of the film, and any slight slips could have knocked the wind out of the whole show. Johnson, who had deftly maneuvered through the neo-noir Brick with Gordon-Levitt a few years earlier, has shown a skill for getting the best out of his cast and putting them in the right spot, and what the filmmaker and crew do to help this youngster in such a significant role is amazing.

Looper has just the right mix of all of its parts - there's enough action to keep the pace racing, enough drama to keep us on the hook and even a little romance to keep the characters' lives interesting. It's a perfectly drawn film that belongs with the best Earthbound sci-fi films of all-time.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
(2011, Sean Durkin)

Elizabeth Olsen - younger sister of the infamous Olsen twins - is the best young actress in the world today.

Yeah, you read that right. I said it. I mean it.

You might not have seen it yet in her mainstream roles - she's most known to the masses for her thankless role in last summer's Godzilla reboot (I loved the movie as a G-fan, but was disappointed that she was given little to do) - but Martha Marcy May Marlene shows off one of the most intense and wonderful performances by an actress that I've seen.

This certainly isn't a film for everyone - it's a brutal depiction of what time in a cult can do to someone - but it's filled with strong performances by talents like John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson and does a great job of working its story between the main character's time in the cult and her attempts to reenter the real world.

At the center of it all is Olsen, who gives a heartbreaking performance as this truly tortured character. I think she's more than enough to make this movie engrossing, and it's been stuck in my head since the first time I laid eyes on it. This is an intense dramatic masterpiece.

(2010, Gareth Edwards)

Gareth Edwards was dream choice for the new Godzilla film for me after this poetic sci-fi film about two Americans making their way through an alien infested Latin America while giant freakin' monsters roamed around. Despite the title and the presence of said monsters, Edwards showed off a skill for making us feel like there are big things around while focusing in on the personal moments between characters.

(One could argue that the lack of those personal moments - or at least personal moments that felt genuine - was a problem with Edwards' Godzilla. I can see that point. I still love it and am gonna keep loving it.)

Monsters isn't really the kind of movie that most fans of old-school kaiju films like the Godzilla series are looking for. I think it's more of a road movie in which two characters come to know each other while dealing with the fate that surrounds them. Kind of like Titanic, but with amazing scenery and huge monsters. And that's way better than anything with Celine Dion on the soundtrack in my book.

Safety Not Guaranteed 
(2012, Colin Trevorrow)

We move from the guy who moved on to direct to Godzilla to the guy who has moved on to direct the upcoming Jurassic Park sequel - which proves unequivocally that these are my kinds of filmmakers.

Safety Not Guaranteed is another time travel movie, but this one's all about a guy (The League's Mark Duplass) who claims he has a time machine and the reporters (Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza, New Girl's Jake Johnson, all those funny cell phone commercials with nerds' Karan Soni) who try to investigate his strange classified ad.

The cast of people who are all over your TV sets (none of whom I really knew anything about when I first saw the film, coincidentally) are fantastic together, with Johnson showing off the comedic skills that have made him a breakout star and Duplass and Plaza working well together in a mismatched romance. Like Monsters, this is a movie about relationships that puts its characters in a "what if?" situation. The questions that the film asks - What if the time machine works? What if the guy's completely crazy  What if the government is really chasing this guy? - and the approach Colin Trevorrow and his cast use make Safety Not Guaranteed a heartwarming movie with some beautiful moments of pure humanity. The ending will make you pump your fist in appreciation too.

Sleepwalk With Me
(2012, Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish)

Probably the most personal pick on this list for me, even though I'm not really sure why I identify with this film so well. Comedian Mike Birbiglia tells a fictional accounting of his own life - which he also stars in - and does an amazing job of weaving this film together.

A large part of the film is of course filled with Birbiglia's journey to becoming one of the most known comedians in the world, but along the ride we also get a look at his perspective on relationships and his personal problems - including the sleep disorder that is referenced in the title - and everything comes together and just feels honest and touching.

Sleepwalk With Me is a rare film because it feels like this man is baring himself for the camera and airing all his dirty laundry in public. The ability to do that and keep the crowd not only laughing at what you're saying but also caring about what you're saying is certainly important when you're a comedian, but I think the introspective approach we see from this character is a key to success in any walk of life. I'm not sure how much of Mike Birbiglia's story here is true, but it feels true. And that's a feat that lots of accomplished filmmakers can't achieve.

So that's the list. It went on too long and it might have gotten boring at times, but I'm a film nerd and I can't not be a film nerd. I hope you'll check out some of these films if you think they seem interesting, there's nothing better to a film nerd than spreading the love to your favorite films. It feels weird to call these some of my favorite films - like Petty said way back at the beginning, I'm not much for new relationships - but writing about them sure makes me feel like these are some movies that just might stand the test of time. Writing about them has me ready to start watching them all again.