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Hypnotic visuals govern the chasms in this weird and wonderful thriller, 15 April 2014

"Under the Skin" quietly follows Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial being in the form of a beautiful woman across Scotland's town and country as she preys upon viable men who fall under her allure.

Jonathan Glazer's first feature since 2004's underrated "Birth", "Under the Skin" has him orchestrating every fiber of the film under the dominion of the visual. Where "Birth" was very much narrative-driven, "Under the Skin" is anything but, and rather has Glazer hearkening back to his history as a video director where he lets his dazzling visuals speak for themselves. Had one not read a plot summary of "Under the Skin", it would be difficult to decipher a narrative while watching it, perhaps until the final act. That's not to say the film does not have clear or cohesive scenes— it does— but the first three quarters of the film do not add up to a self-governing narrative; they are rather a series of repetitive events in which Johansson inexplicably tours rural and urban Scotland in a mini-van, picking up random men and bringing them back to a farmhouse where they are plunged into a tar-black goo and apparently harvested for reasons that remain unknown to us.

This vague sketching based on Michel Faber's novel of the same name is actually rather ingenious, as I'm not sure how else one would be able to approach an adaptation of the material without edging into the realm of Syfy TV-movie-of-the-week. The skeletal presentation of the novel's events avoids taking the film into kitschy territory, and, though some may find it a bit tedious or too indistinct, it allows room for Glazer's hypnotic, intense visuals that would otherwise seem out of place or intrusive. The film is beautifully shot, capturing the gloom of Scotand's countryside as well as the foreboding of the city nightlife, as Johansson aimlessly searches for her next victim; in-between, an ominous motorcyclist who seems to be crucial to her mission trails behind her, though his intentions nor his identity ever come to light. Johansson's performance is astounding, especially so when considering the film's sparse dialogue. She is able to convey her extraterrestrial naiveté to human affairs with the blink of an eye, or the aimlessness of her gaze, and we are able to identify with her— or rather, through her— as she navigates the nature of human desire and loneliness.

The film's final act is particularly tense, which leads me to brand the film as a thriller of sorts, albeit an extremely quiet, understated one that burns slowly, and only moderately as it nears its unexpectedly grim conclusion. Praise is also deserved to composer Mica Levi for his haunting score, which successfully bolsters the film's desolate tone while incorporating sonic elements that recall 1940s creature features.

Overall, "Under the Skin" is one of the weirdest but most memorable cinema experiences I've had this year. While the component of the visual takes huge precedence over the film's skeletal narrative, I'd say it's a fair trade-off, because it is not often (if ever) that a sci-fi film comes along that is able to intuitively speak to an audience on multiple levels oh-so-quietly. 9/10.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Walks the line between made-for-TV movie and first-rate thriller; irresistibly fun, 14 April 2014

I have a soft spot for B-horror films— it's not just that I am usually very entertained by them, but I really just find them charming. Maybe I have an underdog complex. Regardless, I'm not even sure why I am dispensing this information, because I don't know if I can classify "Something Wicked" as a B-movie completely, given the relatively high production values and moderately well-known cast (including the late and great Brittany Murphy). Even if "Something Wicked" isn't a B-movie entirely, it feels like one, and works within this framework. The plot follows a young woman, Christine (Shantel VanSanten) who loses her parents in an accident; she survives, however, as does her boyfriend, James (John Robinson). Christine moves in with her older brother, Bill (James Patrick Stuart), a local cop, and his wife, psychologist Susan (Brittany Murphy), and attends the local university. She and James begin to plan a future together beginning with a marriage, but Christine begins experiencing personal attacks and believes herself to be haunted by demons of the past and stalked by a real-life attacker. Where does Christine's truth lie?

It is without question that the main reason "Something Wicked" is even seeing the light of day at Regal Cinemas right now is because it marks Brittany Murphy's final performance before her untimely death. Had Murphy not passed away, the film would likely have been relegated to the land of straight-to-DVD Redbox specials, but it is currently having an extremely limited theatrical run in the Pacific Northwest, and is one of the few indie films to surface in quite some time from my beautiful home state of Oregon (it was filmed in Eugene, a college town about three hours south of Portland, where I am from). And you know what? I'm glad the film is playing in a mainstream cinema, no matter how limited. It's just a shame that it took Murphy's death to get it there.

The reasons behind the film's delay are ambiguous (it was filmed in 2009), but regardless, what we have here is a no-holds-barred indie horror thriller that is not quite serious enough to be taken at face value, but classy enough that it cannot be dismissed by genre fans. The script plays with genre setups and conventions galore, but they don't appear as clichés because the film refuses to let them be— it walks the line between a made-for-TV movie and a first-rate thriller, which is bizarre, but also extremely absorbing for people who are into this kind of thing. As someone who watches these films all the time, I should have seen the plot twists coming, but I didn't— the script quickly throws the audience into a disorienting snake pit of red-herrings and spends the rest of its time clawing its way out to the conclusion. The performances in the film are also worth taking note of; Shantel VanSanten leads the film and is vulnerable and believable, paired with John Robinson ("Elephant") as her husband-to-be. James Patrick Stewart plays her (perhaps too) protective cop brother quite believably, and Julian Morris ("Cry_Wolf") appears as the ominous and sexy stalker boy on campus— and then of course there is Murphy, who is completely alive and engaging in all of her scenes, her range oscillating between upper-class psychologist and prescription-addled madwoman.

All this said, I don't know who the audience for "Something Wicked" is, as it's not flashy enough to attract a mainstream horror audience, and it is not something that has enough draw for the general public either. It perhaps has a niche market of diehards and B-horror fans like myself, as well as those who are ardent fans of Murphy's and want to see her last hurrah. At its heart, "Something Wicked" is nothing more than a self-aware indie horror flick with a series of twists and turns that aren't particularly profound, but I'll be damned if they don't make for an enjoyable and entertaining ninety minutes. If Murphy's untimely death gave us anything, it was the chance for an earnest and underrepresented indie horror film such as this to see the light of day— no matter how small or large that may be. 7/10.

Oculus (2013/I)
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, 14 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

For a relatively low-budget picture that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, "Oculus" surprises with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The film focuses on two adult siblings, Kaylie and Tim; Tim has been incarcerated since childhood for murdering their father in a bizarre event, and is finally released by his doctors. What should be a quiet and slow assimilation back into society is anything but, however, as Kaylie has set up an elaborate plan hoping to capture evidence that an antique mirror which once hung in the family home possesses otherworldly powers, and was responsible for the tragedy that befell their family.

I went into this film with an open mind and didn't know anything about it aside from the fact that it had to do with a mirror, and boy was I pleasantly surprised. It's rare for me to see a horror film in theaters often that is at least somewhat daring, or even a half-step in the right direction. The amount of derivation in the genre has doomed it to be uninteresting. That's not to say that "Oculus" doesn't borrow from a plethora of conventions or other ideas, but its framing of them around a bizarre childhood event (and the distorted narrative construction that present its) makes this film unlike any horror movie I've seen in a long while.

The film has solid performances from Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, and the child actors who play their counterparts are astoundingly believable. Finally, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane round out the central roles as the children's dysfunctional parents under the mirror's dominion. Enlivened by the performances is the film's creative writing; while I'm sure there are some plot holes to be found if one digs far enough, it is actually rather solid, conceptually speaking, and the fragmented narrative that builds on itself through flashbacks and present-time not only generates a good deal of tension, but the intercutting between the two pits the narrative strands against one another as mirrored images. This culminates into a complete arena of chaos and terror in the final act, in which the reflections between the past and present become unclear and commingle, until the jarring and disturbing conclusion. The film leaves its viewer a sort of freedom in deciphering the events depicted, which have the double-edged-sword-effect of the unreliable narrator without falling into a cliché or being too obvious— no, it's not one of those "it was all in their head films". If anything, it's much more complicated and nuanced. There is virtually no way of telling what exactly happened, just as the mirror intended. 7/10.

Proxy (2013/I)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Uneven but sometimes compelling, 11 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Proxy" gets off to a really gruesome start— a very pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) is knocked out in an alleyway and has her stomach beaten with a brick. Esther loses the baby, and afterward seems to lose her sanity— or did she ever really have any to begin with?

I had the privilege of attending a midnight screening of "Proxy" at the Portland International Film Festival with the director in attendance. The film, as others have mentioned quite often, gets off to a really intriguing start. As Esther's character begins to unravel before our eyes, we begin to see that she's a bit more than a lonely pregnant woman. The same goes for Melanie (Alexa Havens), a friend whom she meets at a support group for women who have lost children.

What begins as a psychological horror character study on these two women shifts gears about halfway through the film, and in doing so loses some of the intrigue that permeated the first half (largely due to Alexia Rasumussen's stellar performance as the awkward and perhaps sociopathic Esther). It begins to delve into the territory of social satire on the nature of sympathy and publicity, which is appropriate to the film's build-up to that point, but also leaves the rest of it to play out somewhat awkwardly in comparison. References to Hitchcock are well-deserved, as the film does have a Hitchcockian bent to it, though it lacks the cohesion of his films and at times is somewhat choppy, and at others, incomprehensibly disjointed.

Overall, I had mixed feelings toward this film. I enjoyed the first half, but the shift the film makes midway through almost derails the entire thing. Beautifully shot no less, and the performances are truly great from relatively unknown actors. It's at times gruesome, mostly utterly mind boggling, but it's worth a watch, or maybe two. I feel like it demands a second viewing to try and tease out all of the intricacies at its core. 6/10.

Zombies afoot in a Northern England village., 24 March 2014

"Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" haphazardly follows George and Edna, two strangers who are united on a trip to a small English village. Little do they know, they are about to become implicated in a series of apparent murders that are a result of zombies who are being revived through an experimental pesticide operation being used on local farms.

The film opens with a montage of pollution, dead animals, and industrial wasteland from Northern England, which sets in place the film's overarching ecological subtext, but "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" is a through-and-through zombie flick that makes no bones about it. The film is interesting in the sense that it rests on eerie imagery and soundtrack to make for horrific zombie encounters, while divvying in a good deal of zombie gore that is appalling but not overtly gratuitous. The narrative is a bit wonky in terms of trajectory and character relations, but it has a weird '70s charm to it that allows me to forgo criticizing it.

What makes the film stand out among all else, however, is the somber landscapes and the wide shots in which they are photographed, which accentuate the isolation and atmospheric disconsolation of Northern England. The photography of the village and surrounding land is what really makes this film stand out— it's beautiful but haunting, and is an entirely unique (and strangely appropriate) setting for zombies to roam.

Key scene: the first zombie encounter at the river with Edna. Absolutely terrifying, and perhaps one of my favorite scenes in any horror film ever— that's saying something too, especially since I am not one who typically enjoys zombie films. 9/10.

10 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Hand-held horror fare without pretensions., 22 January 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Devil's Due" follows a young newlywed couple who find out they're expecting a child after returning home from their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. Shortly into the pregnancy, mother-to-be Allison begins having unusual symptoms, and it appears that she and her husband are being watched by some sort of secret society who are awaiting the birth of one of the "many" antichrists.

Cleverly prefaced with scripture from John, "Devil's Due" sets out on a road oft-followed in the found footage sub genre of horror films, charting terrorized couples and Satanic magic wreaking havoc on suburbia. That said, the film has a few interesting aspects; first off, it's not really a "found footage" film. Although much of the narrative is dispensed through home video footage which is recorded by the couple themselves, the film also utilizes surveillance footage from public spaces as well as the cameras secretly placed in their home to help tell the story. In other words, it is not a film claiming to be a "true story" "discovered" as a cohesive piece of found footage. It's in all actuality a fairly standard horror movie that is told through the medium of hand-held video and surveillance without the claims of being real or "found", and for that, I found the film mildly refreshing. I roll my eyes every time I see a found footage horror film claiming to be reality ("The Devil Inside" comes to mind), but "Devil's Due" makes no bones about anything of the sort, and in that sense is very much aware of itself and doesn't rest solely on its pretensions.

Secondly, I can't not praise the acting in this film. The other downfall of most "found footage" films is that they star unknown actors who often have little experience and/or talent, and thus tend to have less-than-stellar acting, which just cheapens films that are already cheap to begin with. That's not the case with "Devil's Due". Zach Gilford plays the concerned husband role both behind and in front of the camera, and is convincing in the role; however, Allison Miller is the one who really carries the film. Her performance in this was wonderful in general, and especially wonderful in a film of this type. Very naturalistic and totally believable. My praise even goes for the minor roles; all of the acting in the film does feel genuine, which really elevates this above other hand-held horror fare.

Narratively, the film is definitely imperfect. Some people have claimed the film is boring, which, while it does take time to get going, the slow burn nature of it allows for some subtle scares to creep in over an extended period (also, there isn't much for jump scares here either, which I was really surprised by). That said, the film does lack steam at times, and propels itself into a conclusion that doesn't reveal as much excitement or surprise as the preceding 80 minutes would lead you to believe is coming. The finale is pretty weak, and follows a pattern that's been done before in other found footage genre films. That's not to say that a horror film requires a twist ending to be worthy (which this film surprisingly doesn't have), but there's not a whole lot of payoff in terms of anything truly shocking or nuanced occurring in the film's final act, and for that, it is predictable. There's a lot of build-up for a pretty mediocre ending.

All things considered, "Devil's Due" is an oddball in the sub genre in which it's been placed. The film doesn't make any claims to reality, doesn't ascribe to jump scares or a surprise ending, has shockingly worthwhile performances, and, most importantly, isn't actually a "found footage" movie at all. The references to "Paranormal Activity" and "Rosemary's Baby" are indubitable, and despite the film's burnout ending, I still was mildly happy with it, probably because it did the opposite of what I expected it to do in a lot of ways. The flip side of that is that the film doesn't have much in way of surprises, but the above-average performances and a handful of crafty scenes elevated it above any other hand-held and/or found footage horror film to come out in the past five years. 6/10.

Notorious (1946)
Suspense, romance, and Nazis galore; in all of it, Ingrid Bergman shines., 25 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Notorious" plays out like many of Hitchcock's earlier films, treading the line between romance and full-blown espionage chaos. Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia, the daughter of a German man convicted of treason, who is asked by a government agent, Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a group of Nazis with connection to her father; specifically Alexander Sebsatian (Claude Rains), who had a romantic interest in her years before.

One of Hitchcock's more superior thrillers, "Notorious" takes the archetype of the reckless boozy débutante with a dark past, and places her in a series of dire and often frightening circumstances. But, as with many of Hitchcock's films, it treads the line between dark film-noir thriller and unabashed romance film. In fact, when stripped down, what we have here is quite plainly a romance tale dressed in the clothes of an unhinged thriller full of governmental cover-ups and Nazis galore.

As far as performances go, Ingrid Bergman was made for this film, and the film was made for her. Her stoic yet vulnerable performance contains a breathtaking duality, and Cary Grant counters her as the kind government agent whom she quickly falls in love with. Claude Rains perhaps turns in his most disturbing performance here as the smarmy Nazi leader of the secret society, whose obsession with Alicia goes back to their original acquaintance years before.

Stylistically, Hitchcock delivers on all accounts; to say the film is beautifully shot would be a horrible understatement. Rich in tone, shadows, and colors, it delivers some particularly memorable shots, including the POV silhouette scene, the tracking shot to Bergman's hand clutching the wine cellar key during the party scene, and the unusually confrontational long take of Mme. Sebastian descending the staircase and coming face-to-face with Bergman's character; It is small touches like these that really shine in Hitchcock's work, and are on full display in "Notorious".

The film ends in a rather abrupt but positive fashion, and at the end of the day, all is well for the sobered Alicia; but the trials and tribulations of this 'notorious' woman in the film do not go unremembered, and the sense of danger still lurks behind all of the preceding frames. 9/10.

Tasteful implosion of the contemporary slasher film, 23 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It is beyond me why this film was shelved for over seven years in America. It's actually kind of appalling, especially because I feel like it would have been dubbed a contemporary cult classic had it been released in 2006. Unfortunately, due to distribution issues, "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" has only now seen the light of day in the United States, although on a very, very limited release— only one theater in my entire city is screening it.

"All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" focuses on the shy orphan of a rural Texas high school, Mandy Lane (Amber Heard), who is invited by her new group of friends to spend the weekend at one of the boys' family's ranch house. Miles from civilization, the teenage festivities began almost immediately: swimming, booze, drugs, and general southern rowdiness. All three males in the group are intent on bedding the elusive Mandy Lane, while her two girlfriends are quietly jealous of her effortless beauty. Unfortunately, an uninvited guest has followed them to the ranch, and they want Mandy Lane more than anyone.

Based upon the plot summary I provided, "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" may sound like a redolent and tired mashup of classic genre films like "Friday the 13th" and "My Bloody Valentine", and, while the film does reap the fruits of the genre's backlog, it does so in such an unusual way that its secondary sources become almost negligible influences. In fact, it's actually quite difficult to classify "Mandy Lane" as a slasher film at all; at times it borders on just being an unrestrainedly violent teenage drama.

It all begins in a rather standard fashion, and the first forty-five minutes or so focus almost entirely on the sexual pressure forced upon Mandy Lane by the fawning, hormonal teenage boys who surround her; even then, she doesn't budge. It's not until the first event of inflicted violence graces the screen that it truly feels like a horror film— in fact, if you excise the murder plot entirely, the film becomes a study in the ways which male and female sexuality collide in youth. While teen sexuality has existed as a periphery element in nearly all slasher films, the topic as a sole point of focus has never really been explored in horror; writer Jacob Forman knows this, and thus in "Mandy Lane", it becomes a primary subtext. And although the script halfway reveals its secrets midway into the film, it ends on a grim and bittersweet note, and the confused focused of the narrative essentially implodes the slasher conventions within the film.

The performances are surprisingly decent here; Amber Heard articulates Mandy Lane's reserved, fleeting nature extremely well; her performance relies largely on expression, body language, and good looks, and Heard nails the mystique that is necessary to her character. The supporting cast is made up of Anson Mount, the stoic ranch hand, and several other twenty-somethings who play out slasher character archetypes in funny and surprisingly sometimes poignant ways.

Finally, I have to praise the cinematography of the film, which is perhaps its most admirable feature. It draws on the grittiness of grindhouse cinema, and its focus and attention to the rural landscapes which surround the characters is absolutely influenced by Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre". Foreground and backgrounds are used to alienate the characters, and, in doing so, provide a sense of foreboding and abdication. In "Mandy Lane", the vast Texas landscapes act as a stage for teenage anxieties, fears, and sexual tensions to let loose and shed copious amounts of blood. Old-school zooms and panning shots only add to the retro charm of it all.

Ultimately, I was, needless to say, very surprised by this film. It takes the conventions of slasher films and runs with them, but in some ways deconstructs its script enough to make room for subtexts that connect the bloodshed to the characters' individual flaws and insecurities. It is director Jonathan Levine's debut, and he has gone on to be known for more mainstream hits (such as "50/50" and "The Wackness", both of which are far cries from teenage Texas slaughter), but his attention to detail and his employment of Darren Genet's skilled and artful cinematography display a budding talent. While the general moviegoer may find "Mandy Lane" tedious, horror enthusiasts will likely appreciate its slowburn approach and nods to the past, as well as its modern portrayal of hormonal quandary and the potential depravity and violence lurking just under the surface of that. 9/10.

Lake Mungo (2008)
Works its way under your skin, 14 August 2013

"Lake Mungo" is filmed in a documentary format— compiled of interviews, video and news footage, and photographs, it details the story of an Australian family who fall victim to disturbing supernatural events after the drowning death of their teenage daughter.

"Lake Mungo" is a slow goer, perhaps slower than most horror audiences would expect, but I'm not even sure I'd categorize this as a horror film; maybe a supernatural mystery or something along those lines, rather. The film utilizes its documentary format to build a disturbing portrait of a family and the secrets that emerge regarding their deceased daughter; in some ways, the secrets themselves are more disturbing than the manner in which they are delivered to the family (via increasingly eerie supernatural events), and that inversion alone makes this an interesting film.

Surprisingly, the acting in the film is wildly believable, and the presentation is eerily realistic. In spite of the fact that the film is obviously fiction, the convincing replication of the interviews, news footage, and family archives makes it easy to fall into the world of the movie. At times, it almost has the feel of an "Unsolved Mysteries" segment, and, unlike the gamut of mockumentary horror films, it actually manages to portray a 'documentary' with palpability and authenticity.

As I mentioned before, the narrative progression is slow, and the film doesn't necessarily wrap itself up cleanly, but the way it works its way under your skin without straightforwardly grabbing your attention is what's most applaud-worthy about it. The revelations increase in darkness as the film lurches toward a conclusion, and it's not until after the credits roll that you actually feel the effects of the film. While mildly spooky in viewing, "Lake Mungo" sits with you after it's over for longer than most people would be comfortable with. 8/10.

Dreamy and tantalizing, like a restless poolside nap, 2 August 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Swimming Pool" focuses on Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a British crime novelist who takes a vacation at her publisher's luxurious summer house in a small villa in Southern France to unwind and write her next book, which she seeks to aim in a different direction from her standard crime stories. Unfortunately for Sarah, after only a few days in the house, she is invaded by her publisher's troubled adult daughter who comes to stay there unannounced; what ensues is a rise in tension between the two, and a potential murder mystery that begins to unravel.

Francois Ozon's dreamy thriller is not for the fast-paced crowd; it's a consciously slow film, meandering through a seemingly straightforward narrative that turns everything the audience knows (or thinks they know) on its head. Some have complained that nothing "happens" in the film, which is ridiculous; plenty happens. A lot of it is rather mundane, yes, but what's happening behind the mundane and the way in which Ozon crafts this layering is what's special about this film.

Charlotte Rampling's performance as the stern and sexually frustrated writer is rich and impressive, and Ludivine Sagnier rises to the challenge, playing the damaged and troublesome young daughter of her publisher in a way that is both irritating and mysterious. The quality of these performances is vital to the success of the film, as the narrative progression (and unraveling) hinges entirely on their interactions, and both actresses deliver with a unique and appropriate chemistry.

It's an ambiguous film that leaves a lot of loose ends, although, unlike some suggest, it does point to a clear conclusion. No less, the ninety minutes that precede the finale of the film are puzzling and haunting in spite of the apparent lack of anything frightening or wildly unusual. The possibility of Sarah's paranoia and mental state are worked into this, and her reliability as a narrator lends the film even more layers to sift through, but that's where its charm lies. The perhaps ordinary reckless teenage antics of Julie are framed by Ozone as disturbed and dangerous, and her intentions consistently laden with potential ulterior motives. The dreamy cinematography and lush filming locations add a thick atmosphere that makes this already bizarre film a complete treat for anyone who enjoys off-kilter cinema.

"Swimming Pool" is a film whose strength lies in everything that's unsaid, and this unusual dynamic is accentuated by solid performances and a finely-tuned script with a surprising and yet not-so-surprising conclusion. It's a film that relies on nuance and strangeness to propel it to its conclusion, but it's up to the viewer to decide what ultimately is more important— the truth, or the pretense that preceded it. 9/10.

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