Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Belated Look Back at 2015 (part 2): Choice Cuts and Leftovers



Note: Part One can be found right here.

Rondo Awards
For the second year in a row, the Dark Discussions Podcast has been nominated to receive the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award in the category or Best Horror Multi-Media or Podcast. It was a great honor to be nominated the first time, but now I think they suffer from impaired judgement.




Choice Cuts of 2015



It's Oscar Night again,  so time for my list of awards for last year. Note that the categories and awards are based on whatever I feel like at the moment, and not in any way intended to promote any social agenda or to improve upon society.



(Note: To spread the wealth, a film that wins one Favorite Film award will be bumped from consideration for others, else WWDITS would take horror, comedy and vampire with ease).

Favorite Film, any genre:
This is a tough call, but I'll go with Ex Machina, with What We Do in the Shadows as my runner up.


Favorite Horror Film:
As discussed in Part One, What We Do In the Shadows. 




Favorite SF Film:
The Martian: Word is that volunteers for astronaut training shattered records this year. I'm sure The Martian had something to do with that.

Favorite Action Film:
Mad Max: Fury Road

Favorite Comic Book Film:
Ant-Man almost by default. Age of Ultron came out bloated, and Fantastic Four was just a mess, so the competition was thin, but Ant-Man stood tall regardless. That said, Agent Carter was probably my favorite comic book adaptation, despite being confined to the small screen.

Favorite Comedy:
A lot of options this year, but Zombeavers has to take it.

Favorite Nature Horror:
The Hallow: Might be a stretch to call this nature horror, but it fits for me.

Favorite Zombie Film:
Wyrmwood: It'd make a solid double feature with Dead Alive or Fury Road.

Favorite Vampire Film:
From the Dark, a lean, tense cat and mouse game set on an Irish farm.



Favorite Werewolf Film:
When Animals Dream

Favorite Found Footage Film:
Creep: Despite protests from legions of movie watchers, this sub-genre is still going strong. Creep may be the best in class, but films such as The Visit and Unfriended are keeping it viable.

Movie I am most sorry I missed in theaters:
Hateful Eight: I have heard mixed things, but this is the first Tarantino film I missed in theaters since Death Proof (before that it was Reservoir Dogs).

Film I am going to watch more than any other:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Runner up: Jurassic World



Best Creatures:
Digging Up the Marrow





Cheese of the Year:





Deserved Better Fate:
Han Solo. Runner up: Crimson Peak

Best Kill:
As Abe Spiney called it "the human pistachio" from Bone Tomahawk. Runner up: Creep

Favorite Moment of 2015:




Worst Film:
Jupiter Ascending. And Eddy Redmayne should have his SAG card revoked for his work here.


Best Cameo:
Terry Gilliam, in Jupiter Ascending.


Best Ending:
The Hidden.

Worst Ending:
The Gallows

Most Disturbing Moment:
Tubby time, Creep. Runner up: "Pie" in the face, The Visit.

Quote of the year:
"We are werewolves, not swearwolves."

Best Dick Joke
Zombie dick, Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Runner up: wolf dick, Wolf Cop.

Hero of the Year:
Nux, from Mad Max: Fury Road. Runner up: Finn
http://assets1.ignimgs.com/thumbs/userUploaded/2015/5/14/nicholas-hoult-as-nux-in-mad-max-fury-road-1920x12_1280w.jpg




Villain of the Year:
The Purple Man, from Jessica Jones.  Runners up: Kylo Ren, Immortan Joe

Career Boost:
Oscar Issacs for Ex Machina, Star Wars, and Show Me A Hero

Career Block:
Josh Trank - Fairly or not, the blame for Fantastic Four falls on his shoulders, and then he gets dumped by Star Wars. Ouch.


Leftovers
I mentioned in Part One that I had a number of films that were competing for the final 3 slots in my top 20 horror film list. These are the leftover films, all of which I would recommend. 

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Iranian vampire film. Striking visually, thematically rich and moody, but not exactly a thrill ride. If you liked Only Lovers Left Alive this should work for you.



Alleluia: A fictionalized telling of the Lonely Hearts Killers.

Bloodsucking Bastards: Office Space meets vampires.


Closer to God: A modern Frankenstein tale about the first human clone. Works as horror or SF.


Cub: Discussed on this blog here 


Extinction: Matthew Fox goes to the apocalypse with a unique zombie twist.


From the Dark: Irish vampire film.
  
Landmine Goes Click: Interesting revenge flick that went a bit too far in its final act for my tastes, but the first hour is strong enough to earn a recommend. Also the subject of a recent DDP episode.


The Last Shift: Rookie cop stuck guarding a haunted police station. Discussed in DDP episode 211



Maggie: Surprisingly sentimental Ahnold zombie movie.

Pod: Is-he-crazy-or-are-there-aliens thriller.

Voices: Deadpool plays a lonely man who's talks to his pets.


 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Belated Look Back at 2015 (part 1)



(This article can also be found at http://darkdiscussions.com)

I love lists but I hate making them, so the end of every year brings about a mix of emotions. I love reading the best and worst lists others make as we go ‘round the bend, as it puts a target on those films I should check out (or avoid). On the other hand, I have to pull out my own top 20 list for the Dark Discussions podcast, an exercise that can be frustrating because in service to our two or three listeners, it is something I take seriously. Enjoyment of a film is a fluid thing, and assigning quantitative values to subjective qualitative opinions is a maddening exercise in futility. Just check out Eric Webster’s list (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/article_008.html) to see how wrong a person’s opinion can be.

I kid, of course - Eric is entitled to his opinion, and there is a good deal of overlap on our lists, so clearly he isn’t completely wrong.

I do differ with him in my assessment of horror for this year – I thought it was a very good year for horror, much better than the overwhelming mediocrity of 2014. By comparison, I saw 60-65 horror films in both 2014 and 2015. When it came time to make a top 20 in 2014, I had a hard time finding films after spot 11 (or so). For 2015, I had a list of 17 films, and at least a dozen more I wanted to squeeze into the last 3 slots – and this after ruling out Ex Machina, perhaps my favorite film of the year, for the horror category (other podcasts, such as Bloody Good Horror, made it eligible, but the Dark Discussions hosts agreed it belonged more in science fiction).

A lot of this had to do with the burst of quality horror-comedies released, a favored sub-genre of mine. I could easily have crafted a top 10 just from these films and felt good about those recommendations. It also helped that we had more horror films gain a theatrical release, whether major releases such as The Gift and Crimson Peak, or niche titles like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. While the failure of Crimson Peak at the box office makes it unlikely we’ll see a return to big budget titles any time soon, when you look at the success of The Gift, The Gallows, Goosebumps, The Visit, Krampus and others means that we should continue to get a decent flow of low to micro-budget horror in theaters for the foreseeable future.

That said, the real future of horror lies in the independent releases that won’t get within sniffing distance of a theater (whether they deserve to or not). 15 of my top 20 had no chance at a theatrical release, and it took a minor miracle to get It Follows onto a big screen. There is a huge amount horse crap that gets dumped onto streaming services, and sorting through the hundreds of annual entries would be overwhelming were it not for the online horror community. Podcasts such as Bloody Good Horror, The Last Horror Cast, and (of course) Dark Discussions, plus websites like Bloody Disgusting, Shock ‘Til You Drop, DreadCentral, iHorror, and ModernHorrors do a great job sorting the marrow from the viscera.

Which brings me to the lists. These lists are (I think) as I submitted them prior to our Year In Review episode (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_213.html) but I’m not committed to the order outside the top 4. Regardless, all of them are recommended no matter their ranking, and for the films that didn’t make the cut, come back for part 2 of this article in a couple of days.

Top 20 Horror Films
20. Deathgasm – Kiwi horror comedy channels heavy metal and Buffy to give us a solid dildo-smashing romp through the apocalypse.

19. A Christmas Horror Story – My favorite anthology of the year, this may be a lesser attempt to make a yuletide Trick ‘r Treat, but I found all but one segment effective, and the whole thing is hosted by a drunken William Shatner.

18. We Are Still Here – A winter’s haunted house tale that I was less enthused about than my cohosts (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_194.html), but there are some good scares and a wild ending unlike any I’ve seen in a ghost story before.

17. The Final GirlsPleasantville meets Friday the 13th, this loving spoof of and tribute to 80s slasher films has both genuine laughs and a real heart.

16. Wyrmwood – Another genre mashup, this time Mad Max vs Zombies. The premise that zombies are the new gasoline is preposterous, but the whole thing is wonderfully madcap and should be avoided by those looking for logic. The premise ran out of gas a little bit before the credits rolled, but that’s not enough to overshadow the first hour+.

15. Cooties – I should have liked this more – teachers killing zombie kids is pretty much my dream film, but in hindsight, I don’t think the film was mean spirited enough to sate my blood thirst. That said, this is a solid cast clearly having a good time, and you’ll find plenty of laughs on their playground.

14. The Visit – M. Night returns. Not a homerun but a solid double. Most of his pretentious equine excrement gets left at the door to tell a simple, scary story, with one of the grosser moments in film this year.

13. Goodnight Mommy – At first I disliked the film, because the twist is both badly telegraphy, and at this point a hoary cliché. As the film progressed, I realized the director needs you to know the twist, else you won’t feel the full impact of the final act.

12. Blood Punch – Another horror-comedy from New Zealand starring Deathgasm’s Milo Cawthorne as a 20-something Walter White caught in his own Groundhog’s Day.

11.  Krampus – Michael Dougherty’s follow-up and spiritual successor to Trick ‘r Treat, this is a visual feast that should satisfy most fans of creature features and holiday horror. Covered in episode 212 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_212.html).

10. The Gift – Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut would be right at home with the better suspense-thrillers of the 1990s. A solid showing in almost every way, this should lead to bigger things for Edgerton. Hear us unwrap the film in episode 198 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_198.html).

9. Bone Tomahawk – Taking full advantage of Kurt Russell’s Hateful Eight facial hair, Bone Tomahawk nabbed a unanimous DDP “best kill” award for the “human pistachio” at the end. A bit slow and overlong, but held up by good writing and performances by veteran actors.

8. The Hallow – Fungus fairies terrorize a couple in an Irish forest. Cabin in the woods stories are nothing new, but this is one of the better entries in the subgenre.

7. The Hidden – An apocalypse film starring True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard. Focusing mostly on a family of three’s struggles to survive in a bomb shelter, the film works because of the strong performances of the three leads. The empathy they evoke raises the stakes when the shit hits the fan in the final act.

6. Crimson Peak – A throwback gothic ghost story, Crimson Peak offers nothing veteran fans haven’t seen before, but the film is so visually and thematically rich, and the central performances so enchanting, that I can forgive its lack of true scares. Listen to co-host Phil try to pretend he doesn’t hate the movie in episode 206 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_206.html).

5. Zombeavers – An absurd premise gives a wonderfully absurd and clever film. Most call it stupid, but I think they confuse silly for stupid. At the very least, it deserves an Oscar for the closing song. Discussed in episode 180 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_180.html)

4. Digging Up the Marrow – Adam Green’s love letters to monsters immediately clawed its way into my heart. A faux-documentary that exploits Green’s connections in the horror community, the real stars are Alex Pardee’s unique designs, which gave me a rare pants soiling scare near the end.

3. Creep – Proving that there is still life in the found footage genre, the title pretty much sums up the film. The less you know going in the better. Watch it, then listen to the podcast (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_195.html).

2. It Follows – The horror community’s consensus pick for best film of the year, it takes chances that rewards some viewers while frustrating others. Kudos for the way the director actively engages the viewer during the film, and crafting a thematically rich story. Strongly recommend checking out the critic commentary on the disc. Listen to Phil gush in episode 179 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_179.html).

1. What We Do in the Shadows – Not just horror-comedy of the year, but he best comedy I’ve seen in many years. Spinal Tap meets vampires, in lesser hands this could have been painful, but instead we get a genre homage that is both heartwarming and sidesplitting. Genre fans will be quote-mining this film for years to come.

Top 10 Non-Horror Genre Films
10. Predestination – I’m loving Ethan Hawke’s genre work in recent years, and he shines here in an adaptation of a Heinlein’s time-travel puzzle box, “All You Zombies.” Travel back in time to hear episode 176 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_176.html).

9. Ant-Man­ – A light year for comic book films, and with Fantastic Four DOA, and Age of Ultron disappointing, Ant-Man would be my comic book pick by default, but thankfully the film earns its place as one of the better Marvel films. Paul Rudd overcomes the naysayers to give us a fun, creative caper flick.

8. Circle – A small SF thought exercise, this feels so very much like an internet comment thread brought to life. See who we sided with in episode 209 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_209.html).

7. Jurassic World – Not brilliant, but far and away better than the other Jurassic sequels. Had a blast seeing this in theaters, and I’ll be sure to revisit any film that feeds people to archosaurs. List to Eric complain about high heels in episode 189 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_188.html) , and Kristi and myself flummox Phil with paleontology in episode 188 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_188.html).

6. Kingsman: The Secret Service – The first 2015 spy film to beat Bond at his own game, Kingsman embraces the more fun of 60s spy films that the Craig films discarded, while still updating it for a 21st century audience. 

5. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – And this is the second film, handily outperforming Spectre despite an eerily similar plot. It is amazing to me that this film franchise not only survives, but continues to improve, seemingly through Tom Cruise’s force of will.

4. The Martian – A film that will inspire a new generation of science nerds, it immediately endeared itself to science teachers everywhere. Ridley Scott’s best film in a long time. Found out why I was confounded by the opening in episode 208 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_208.html).

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Not fantastic, but better than good enough. For a first generation Star Wars devotee like myself, it did more than enough right to overshadow its shortcomings. Dark Discussions may be the only podcast not to devote an episode to it.

2. Mad Max Fury Road – All the praise is well deserved and for me played better the second time around. People complained about the lack of story, but it is there in between the crashes and explosions. You just have to look for it. Listen to us gush in episode 185 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_185.html), or relive the original trilogy in 184 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_184.html).

1. Ex Machina – A smart SF thriller, and probably closer to a future truth than I am comfortable with. Effects are more subtle than showy, but as effective as anything else this year. Brilliant script and award worthy performances all around, this is a close contender with What We Do in the Shadows for favorite film of the year. Hear effusive praise in episode 182 (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_182.html).

Come back for part 2 for more!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cub (2015) and the Perils of Pretentions



I have once again been binging on movies in preparation for Dark Discussions annual year in review episode. The last film I watched before compiling my “best of” list was the Belgian horror film Cub.
 
Sam, a boy somewhere on the autism spectrum, is part of a scout troop on a weekend camping trip. The scout masters spin tales of Kai the werewolf boy to entertain and frighten their charges, unaware there is a real wild child watching over them.

Simple enough, but what follows definitely goes in unexpected directions. The real “Kai” causes only minor mischief among the campers, and only Sam knows that he exists. The real threat comes from a serial killer (I assume) who has seeded the woods with elaborate traps.

Cub is a film that seems to have divided audiences. It generated very strong word of mouth on the festival circuit, but now sits in the mid 30’s on Rotten Tomatoes. The kills are fun, director Joas Govaerts presents solid visuals, and I enjoy Steve Moore’s throwback synth score. The film’s characters are believable – the kids act as kids do, and the counselors are typical 20 somethings caught between wanting to teach the kids and entertain themselves – and the performances (as best as I can tell given the language barrier) are solid. This is especially noteworthy as the 12 year old boys are players by actual 12 year olds. In particular I liked Gil Eeckelaert's Kai, being able to convey a variety of emotions in addition to the menace the role requires.

For all these reasons, I find myself landing on the slight disappointed “pro” side, but I can’t help but wonder if I would be as supporting if the film was in English instead of Belgonian*.

Obviously, it is hard to rate performances if you don’t speak the language. Most 12 year old actors come across poorly in English, and it may be that the reason I so liked Eeckelaert’s performance so much is because Kai is the one character who speaks only through body language.

More of an issue though is the plot. Now, this is a straight up horror film, and as such the story matters much less than the kills, the scares and the atmosphere, but there are glaringly obvious issues that should bug me more.

The serial killer has no motivation except that he’s unemployed. His traps are absurdly elaborate, and it is implausible that any one man would be able to set them up, let alone wire them to a switchboard in an underground lair. For that matter, just how many victims does he expect to come through in the middle of a forest that is mostly prohibited to people? We get no backstory for Kai, which would not be a problem except that we eventually learn he has a connection to the serial killer, but we have no idea why that connection exists. There are at least 3 characters who are left just standing in the woods alone, their fates never resolved. This is not a city park – this is a murder forest, and dead or alive we should know their fates.Lastly, the final act includes a twist that I don’t think is earned, mostly because we don’t know enough about Sam to understand it.

And all of this would almost certainly bug the heck out of me. If it was in English.
For some reason, most Americans think of foreign language films, particular European films, as more sophisticated. It is a long ingrained prejudice and I can be just as susceptible to it as anyone. So I think on some level, these significant gaps to me come across not as sloppiness or poor editing, but as intentional ambiguity that makes the film deeper (something both praised and damned in It Follows). I wonder if there is some inner bias, my inner pretentious douchebag, afraid of lacking the sophistication to grasp the nuance of sublime European cinema, that wants to the film to be more than it is, rather that it in with American retro-slashers like Lost After Dark (which is a perfectly fine film itself).

PS: The fine folks at The Last Horrorcast did an episode on Cub that well mirrors my thoughts.  Give them a listen!

*That’s a joke. Unbunch your linguistic undies.