If Never Never Comes: Shorts on Screen

"If" and "never" are closely related concepts, frequently found in each other's company.  "If" of course, is the ultimate supposition; a key to all that is possible or impossible.  It's really the basis of all fiction.  "Never" is a pretty big supposition as well.  Conservatively used, it tells us that something hasn't happened before.  Less conservatively, it suggests that some won't ever happen, at any time under any circumstance.  That's a pretty drastic form of "if," or anti-if, supposing the limitation of possibilities in an unknown future as opposed to a known (even a poorly known) past.  Now, for us, culturally, we live in a world where "never" has taken on additional context over the past century or so thanks to "Neverland;" a place where impossibilities and never-befores collide into one magnificent "Yes but what IF? Wouldn't that be wondrous?"

The movies and TV show discussed herein do dive into the possibilities.  In some cases, they go no father than personal considerations; choices for possible futures.  In others, they go all the way to their own Neverlands; places that never were, or maybe never should be.


If... - 1968
Written by David Sherwin & John Howlett
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
with Malcolm McDowell, David Wood & Richard Warwick

One of the things I most enjoy about doing these heavily themed groupings is the opportunity to discover some real curveball entries while forcing the theme to work.  If... is a curveball no matter what you're doing.

If you're unfamiliar with British academic traditions and social structures (and I'm no expert, which presents a problem, but more on that later), imagine the house & class structure of Hogwarts, then move it to an all-boys boarding school in the 60s, and remove every scrap of charm.  The film takes a fairly passive approach to narrative, allowing scenes of ordinary, awful daily life at a pent-up school to create an atmosphere and reveal the myriad cracks in its stiff upper lip.  The school seems primarily interested in inculcating its students in the ways of class stratification and the fine traditions of being absolute shitheels to anyone marginally "less" than oneself.

Into this system come Mick Travis (McDowell) and his cohorts. Mick, in particular, is awake to the changing societal ideas of the late 60s, and he doesn't care for the system, or the douchebags who thrill in abusing it for the own personal amusement.  This conflict comes to a head... eventually.

If you add up the elements in your head -- boarding school, England, late 60s social changes, late 60s cinematic experiments and Malcolm McDowell -- your sum should round out pretty close to what you can expect from If...  As such, while I found the film interesting, I have to acknowledge that it really wasn't made for me.  There was a slight sensation of being at the table when someone else's family is having a family meeting.  I didn't feel that I had all the context I required, and much of the gravity was lost on me.  Given our own cultural & historical contexts, we kind of already know the answer to the open-ended "If..." and it's even messier than late 60s cinematic experiments.

What If - 2014
Written by Elan Mastai
from a Play by TJ Dawe & Michael Rinaldi
Directed by Michael Dowse
with Zoe Kazan, Daniel Radcliffe & Adam Driver

You probably don't know this about me, because you probably don't know me, but one of my favorite movie genres is romantic comedy.  Now, that doesn't mean I just go around liking romantic comedies all willy-nilly with no sense of discernment (what do you think I am, a geek or something?) but there are few things that I find more satisfying in a movie than a good romantic comedy, so you can imagine, it's been a frustrating few years for me lately.

The premise is nothing new.  After all, "romantic comedy" does tend to dictate certain parameters in a story arc and where it ends. That doesn't have to be a bad thing if it's done right.  Daniel Radcliffe is Wallace, a mopey and heartbroken young man who gave up on med school and cloaked himself in bitter detachment when he caught his last girlfriend making out with someone else in the supply closet.  He meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator with a similarly awkward and morbid sense of humor at a common friend's party and they hit it off instantly.  Right about the time Chantry gives him her number to hang out sometime, she drops the old "My boyfriend will be worried" bomb.  Wallace "loses" her number and returns to sulking.  After a chance encounter at a revival screening of The Princess Bride, Chantry mourns her diminished ability to make male friends because she's in a relationship and they agree to be friends.  You can guess much of the structure that follows.

We get a lot of conversations that show how well they get along, awkward situations that flirt with temptation and uncomfortable questions from friends.  Wallace's feelings only intensify, leaving him with no good options.  The "valiant gesture" scene plays on our experience with valiant gesture scenes, backfiring drastically, and just when it looks like all is lost, there's the moment that demonstrates how perfect they were for each other all along.  I hope I'm not spoiling anything for you, but let's face it, you knew.

Well, I love this movie.

It has everything I'm looking for.  The romance actually works.  Radcliffe and Kazan play the chemistry well.  I'm actually pretty much in love with Chantry myself, so the extent to which I relate to Wallace is off-the-charts.  The writing is idiosyncratic enough to give them specifically similar off-center personalities rather than the generic ones favored by "aim low; it's just for girls" Hollywood product.  Their shared senses of humor also fulfill the comedy part of the equation, which is nice to find.  In fact, there are a number of funny characters in their circle of friends.  Not only does this keep things bouncy, but it just makes the movie a nice place to go for an hour and a half.  This was, in fact, my third time seeing the movie because I so enjoy the characters.  There are no bad guys, just situations complicated by love's comings and goings.

If I have anything negative to say about What If, it's that it supercharges my yearning for that kind of life-altering connection that I don't actually believe in anymore.

If I Stay - 2014
Written by Shauna Cross
from a Book by Gayle Forman
Directed by RJ Cutler
with Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley & Mirielle Enos

I really wanted to like this one more than I actually did, in the end.

Chloe Grace Moretz is Mia, a Portland teen with ambitions of going to Julliard to pursue her study of the cello.  Her parents and brother are all rockers, and she feels like an oddball (which all teens do in one way or another).  On a snow day, the family sets a course for adventure and ends up in a head-on traffic collision.  Mia finds herself looking on as her family -- including herself -- and shuttled off to the hospital.

Over the next day, Mia's spirit wanders the hospital, learning that her family has died, and shifting back and forth through her own life, observing the moments that have brought her to the uncertain precipice of adulthood, with particular focus on her relationship with her rock-and-roll boyfriend Adam.  Each episode tends to suggest reasons why she may or may not wish to go on living without her family, and with all the fear and uncertainty that plagues her.

Mia, I'm afraid, comes off as a bit of an undefined wuss a lot of the time.  She seldom takes a pro-active role in her own life, and she's over-simplified in her tastes ("I like classical music so how can I fit in with all these rock and rollers in my life?") in the writing.  When she DOES make a proactive personal choice (to pursue Julliard) it's undermined by Adam, who frankly doesn't seem like all that much of a catch.

I initially rankled at the flaky portrayal of alt-rocker Portland parenting, but it was eventually redeemed in the way that it demonstrated a sense of loving community.  Stacy Keach got to throw down with a heartbreaking scene as Mia's grandfather, which is the best acting I've seen him do in decades.

I acknowledge that If I Stay wasn't necessarily designed for someone with my experiences in life and storytelling, but I seems to me that the young people could do better than this kind of cheap and lazy emotionality.  The Fault in Our Stars was better in every way.

Never Let Me Go - 2010
Written by Alex Garland
from a Book by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek
with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan & Andrew Garfield

Kathy, Tommy & Ruth are students in a strange sort of boarding school.  They're shielded from the outside world, but their lessons tend to center on ways of behaving there, with academics being a low priority.  In fact, docile behavior and physical health seem to be the central focus of the institute.  As it turns out, they're not exactly expected to become productive members of society, but they do have a purpose, and I'd prefer not to spoil what that purpose is.

If this were an American movie, it would go all Hunger Games in the second or third acts, and in fact, the premise underlying Never Let Me Go has been used in several movies that end with much more explosive conflicts.  But this is a British film adapted from a novel, so nothing explodes.

Now, I make a general habit of criticizing Hollywood for thinking 'splody-'splody-boom-boom rather than taking a break for story and humanity now and then, but this is one case where a lack of reaction on the parts of the characters really made it difficult for me to care what happened to them.  The film is a really slow-paced exploration of love, loss, life -- all things that I enjoy having explored in film -- but their situation plainly called for a bomb in the end after all.

It was well done, but I really can't recommend it due to the overbearing weakness of the characters in the face of great injustice.

Never on Sunday - 1960
Written & Directed by Jules Dassin
with Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin &

Ilya (Mercouri) is the most popular girl in town, and it's not hard to see why.  She's the only independent prostitute in the Greek coastal town of Piraeus, and the joy she gains in freedom is something she shares with her many clients and admirers.

American philosopher Homer Thrace comes to town with an overly idealized image of the early Greek philosophers to seek out the answers to where the world has gone wrong since their blissful days.  He finds himself instantly drawn to Ilya (who doesn't?) but then balks when he learns what she does for a living.  He determines to educate her, to save her from her happy life.

The "never" title refers to Ilya's work schedule, but the story is still concerned with possibilities and fantasies.  It functions, in many regards, as a parable for the way which the United States took it upon itself to tell the rest of the world what was of value and what wasn't in the post WWII era.  How could anyone possibly be happy without the awesomeness of America in their lives?  Remember folks, you can't have a Coke and a smile unless you have a Coke first.  On a more personal level, it raises some interesting questions about what it truly means to be morally compromised, to give oneself away.

Melina Mercouri has bee called the Last Greek Goddess, and Never On Sunday is a large part of her mystique.  Ilya's is the embattled soul of Greece, tugged this way and that, seeking it's own place of belonging.  If you think I'm overstating, allow me to inform you that Mercouri would go on to be elected to Greek parliament and later serve as a minister of culture in the country's cabinet.  That was after she was barred from Greece by dictatorial rule.  She is a Greek statue of liberty.

Neverlake - 2013
Written by Carlo Longo & Manuela Cacciamani
Directed by Ricardo Paoletti
with Daisy Keeping, David Brandon & Martin Kashirokov

Neverlake is a surprisingly effective little horror thriller with a little bit of everything, which is maybe one thing more than it needs.

College student Jenny is in Tuscany to visit the father she's had very little relationship with.  He remains there to study the history of the Etruscan civilization and their relationship to the nearby lake.  The lake is said to have healing powers, and it's an archaeological site containing the figurines of people and organs that the Etruscans wanted to cure.  There's mystery almost instantly, springing from her father's evasiveness, and Olga, his assistant is immediately identifiable as something more.

While exploring the lake, shortly after her arrival, Jenny encounters a blind girl who conveniently speaks English.  The girl takes her back to the hospital where she lives with other children, all of them sickly and seemingly neglected.  It seems fairly obviously that they are somehow connected to the film's overarching mystery, but the story really does a good job at keeping things obscured until the appropriate time to start revealing things.

I felt like there were some Neverland elements that existed primarily for the sake of misdirection.  There's a boy named Peter.  Jenny's mother's tombstone reveals that her last name was Darling.  Jenny reads Peter Pan to the kids.  Ultimately, the story had other places to go and things to do; many of them creepy.

Neverwas - 2005
Written & Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
with Aaron Eckhart, Ian KcKellan & Brittany Murphy

What the hell, Hollywood?

You had a completely charming movie with a stellar cast and you sat on it for two years then unceremoniously pushed out on on video two years later.  Jerks.

The rest of us are unlikely to have heard of Neverwas, thanks to the aforementioned jerks, and that's really a shame.  In short, AARON ECKHART plays Zach, an accomplished psychiatrist moves back to the town in which he grew up, seeking a position from WILLIAM HURT at the local mental hospital, where ALAN CUMMING, VERA FARMIGA and others are patients.  One of the patients is IAN MC-freaking-KELLAN who immediately recognizes Zach, though at first, we're not clear how or why.

Meanwhile, Zach reconnects with a former childhood friend, BRITTANY MURPHY (in one of her most adorable performances) who is fascinated with the book Zach's father, NICK NOLTE wrote when Zach was a child.  Owing to his father's suicide, Zach has negative feelings about the book and his father, as well as his mother, JESSICA LANGE.

As Zach works with the patient Gabriel (MC-freaking-KELLAN), he finds that his delusions are connected to the children's book his father wrote, Neverwas.  What do those connections mean?  Is there really a kingdom of Neverwas?  Is Zach truly destined to save it?  Hey, isn't that MICHAEL MORIARTY, CYNTHIA STEVENSON and BILL BELLAMY in that hospital scene?  And dammit, WHAT THE HELL, HOLLYWOOD?

Beautifully shot, well acted, with a PHILLIP GLASS soundtrack that doesn't grate, and built upon a touching story that will only disappoint the studio execs who didn't read the whole script and thought they were going to get a special effects fantasy bonanza for the price of a thoughtful drama.


Neverwhere -1996
Written by Neil Gaiman & Lenny Henry
Directed by Dewi Humphreys
with Laura Fraser, Gary Bakewell & Paterson Joseph

I read a book a couple years ago called Un Lun Dun by China Mieville which, at the time, I felt was best described as a grimy Wonderland/Narnia story underneath London as conceived by Neil Gaiman.  As it turns out, there actually IS a grimy Wonderland/Narnia story underneath London as conceived by Neil Gaiman, only instead of a book, it was a BBC miniseries called Neverwhere.

Over six rather economically paced half-hour episodes, "regular guy" and Paul McCartney body-double Richard (Bakewell) becomes our eyes and ears (and ultimately our conduit for heroic fantasy) in the London under London, where the forgotten people go.  It fairly boilerplate fantasy in the Wonderland/Narnia vein.  Richard tags along with Door (Fraser) a girl he rescued on the surface, and various cohorts as they seek out a series of people and things that will solve the mystery of Door's parents' murder, resolve a threat to the unincorporated realms of Neverwhere, and quite possibly help Richard to get back to his real life -- all while dodging a pair of ruthless assassins.  Naturally, the adventures range throughout their world, serving as a sort of travelogue of Neverwhere and/or Gaiman's cleverness.  "Oh, you've never heard of [that place, those people, this thing]? Gosh, you really ARE from London-above. It's a wonder you're not dead yet," and so on.

It's effective storytelling, if not particularly fresh.  Bear in mind, this is a BBC TV production from the 90s and the production values are, shall we say, limited.  While they do manage to use a lot of locations, they still end up seeming stagey owing to them shooting on video which gives everything a strong sense of artifice.  I had a hard time forgetting that I was watching not-terribly-good acting taking place among art projects in the sewer.  There's a particular moment at the climax of the series where an ancient and magical stone door is finally opened, and the ancient and magical stone door wobbled just like plywood and plaster.  I had to groan.  It really undermined the death defying challenges that had gone into getting that door open.

For a story so rooted in the "wonder" of discovering its "land," it was frequently negated by the lack of actual wonder brought about by its discount treatment.  Then again, if you still get into old-school Dr. Who, hey, this might be right up your alley.  It's not necessarily Gaiman's best work either, but it's got all the flavors.  As soon as they meet the bad-guy-pretending-to-be-a-good-guy, I knew the rest of the story, but then I've been reading Gaiman for 25 years now, give or take, and I've become pretty familiar with his standard bag of tricks.  Gaiman has adapted the story for a novelization, a graphic novel and a radio play.  It was in development as a film, but it seems that plans fell through and it was... nevermade.

Come On, Get Happy


Charles Spearin
The Happiness Project - 2009

The Happiness Project is just about as high-concept as an album gets, with this concept extending both to the thematic content as well as the musical execution.  Spearin interviewed people in his Toronto neighborhood of Seaton Village on the subject of happiness.  He then took portions of those interviews that stood out both in terms of content and vocal quality -- interesting cadence and tone -- and developed those portions into the bases for fully developed pieces of music.  The result is jazzy, uplifting, and totally unique.

Some of the interviewees take the subject on directly.  Others address a single aspect, something experienced.  A few go off the rails altogether, but Spearin isolates a piece of vocal cadence that explodes the character of the speaker and makes the sensation of happiness universal and immediately personal.  My personal favorite is "Vanessa," in which a woman, born deaf, talks about her experiences before and after receiving a cochlear implant.  The sound of her voice changes when she talks about the experience, and the music evokes the sensation of that change.  It's a stunningly beautiful communication of the experience that reaches the listener in a very direct and personal way.  It's not just about a feeling, it is a feeling.  It's like... documusic.

It's a little hard to wax eloquent about The Happiness Project because it's so directly experienced.  Because the tunes aren't constructed the way one would ordinarily create music, they aren't necessarily catchy in the way you'd expect from other music, although there certainly is one that comes back to me in the days after I listen to the album, and that's the raucous careening of a child's activity as expressed through the rhythm of her voice and related through the bouncing tones of a baritone saxophone.  Vittoria's "like"ing and "um"ing creates a sort of swinging drunken jazz that's both fitting and catchy.

The album won a Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2010, but let's face it, how often do you hear about jazz awards, much less Canadian ones?  It's still pretty niche, but I think the cross-sectio of people who would enjoy it goes far beyond those who are likely to have heard of it.  Spearin is involved in a number of musical projects including Toronto alt-rock band/musical collective Broken Social Scene, but I really hope that he doesn't leave this concept as a one-off.  It's an idea that could be dramatically expanded through subsequent "projects."  I just love this music, and like Spearin's neighbor Mrs. Morris who opens and closes the album, I have to say "Yes! I'm feelin' happy!"

Feel & Screen: Shorts on Screen

Wow, hardly any horror this week.  It really seems, at times, like I've seen most of what's worth seeing.  Instead, I caught up with some embarrassing gaps in my viewing history, which delivered some truly wonderful cinematic experiences.  We have such unprecedented access to treasures old and new, what a shame it is that so many people are so committed to responding in anger, even to marvels.


Network - 1976
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Sidney Lumet
with Faye Dunaway, William Holden & Peter Finch

It feels trite to declare that Network is an appropriate fable for our times.  Darkly satirical in its own time, it's become prescient of things to come which have now passed.  It's not the shocking to consider a network putting a mentally ill man on the wai under the guise of news.  There's an entire notwork based on precisely that premise.  It's easy to imagine a world in which networks parade the worst or authentic human behavior past the camera; we live in a world where "reality" TV has been cheap fodder for the lowest common denominator for give-or-take 20 years now.  It's no longer a scandal when Saudi royals buy out cherished American institutions.  It's just Tuesday.  So, no, Network is no longer quite so biting as a cautionary satire of things that might become.

It's Howard Beale incarnate.  It's the angry old man who still remembers when decency had value, before concepts such as decency, morality a values were thoroughly DEVALUED by their relentless abuse at the hands of hypocrites.  Network doesn't tell us what to fear anymore.  It shows us what we've lost.  It delivers unto us the moral of the story.  Nearly 40 years ago, it warned us, "Don't become this. It would be a horrible thing to be."  We went and became that that horrible thing, but we did it day by day, bullshit rationalization by bullshit rationalization.  But Network is still there, like a friend-who-knew-us-when, or a sad-eyed parent, to remind of of what we have lost, and what we have become.

Altered States - 1980
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Ken Russell
with William Hurt, Blair Brown & Bob Balaban

My decisions to watch Network and Altered States were entirely independent and not a conscious effort to watch two films written by Paddy Chayefsky, but as long as we have serendipity working for us, let's take a look at these two screenplays.  Both stories concern men who may or may not be losing their minds while attempting to open themselves to elevated truths and secret knowledge.  Howard Beale turned on to the angry zeitgeist of a world powerless against its corporate masters, while in Altered States, William Hurt's Eddie Jessup is turning on (via some intense hallucinogens) to the evolutionary secrets hidden within his own DNA.

What I found more interesting, however, was the way that these stories are presented.  We have gotten so used to the most economic storytelling possible.  Characters are only defined enough to given them exactly what they need to get to the end point of the story.  Not so, here.  Characters consider things, and many of those things they're considering are big ideas.  We hardly ever see movies anymore that are interested in ideas, much less considering them.  Chayefsky's characters are talking about their process in places where there would be a car chase if they were remade for today's audiences.  Howard Beale doesn't do a lot of considering of things, but we have a whole seemingly irrelevant relationship between Faye Dunaway and William Holden doing that.  In Altered States, we have Hurt talking about all the things that he's going through, but then we also have Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid talking about what he's going through and offering their own input based on a variety of potential perspectives on the situation.

Thought... on film.  What a concept!

Oh yeah, it's also a fantastic film.  Russell employs a series of practical and optical effects that no one would use today, giving the more supernatural events an entirely unique texture and aesthetic befitting its strangeness.  William Hurt is just great.  It's a shame we haven't seen him in a real plum role in so long.

The Elephant Man - 1980
Written by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
Based on the writings of Frederick Treves & Ashley Montagu
Directed by David Lynch
with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins & John Gielgud

It seems like a lot of people forget that The Elephant Man was a David Lynch movie, but then I kind of get the impression that a lot of people locked down their impression of what constitutes "a David Lynch movie" somewhere in the span between Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and just left it there.  Lynch has dealt with themes of alienation over and over throughout his career, but nowhere quite so obviously as in The Elephant Man, where John Merrick's differences are unavoidably vivid.  I was never able to sit through Eraserhead, but even with my limited memory of it, it's clear that The Elephant Man shares many of the thrumming industrial sights and sounds with it.  It also shares a particular emotional gravity with another film that people often forget when they're talking about Lynch; The Straight Story, a film so gentle and true that I watched it with my grandmother.

I'd like to offer this simple piece of advice to anyone who might be making a movie.  John Hurt will make any movie better.  He won't turn a crap movie into a good one, but he'll make it better than it would otherwise have been.  Even if it's a crap movie, the parts when he's on screen will at least be more interesting crap.  In his career he's played good and evil, stern and tender, grim and jolly, engaging and distancing men.  He makes iconic characters more human and human characters more iconic.  I've seen him seem so frail in roles that I worried about his health and was then astonished at how robust he seemed in the next film in which I saw him.  If you're looking at your movie and asking yourself if it needs a little something more, it's him, John Hurt; that's what you're looking for.  As John Merrick, a single sucking inhalation could make you cringe at the sound of his saliva, and yet make you want to hug him.  What a magnificent portrayal.

And a magnificent film.  It feels like a much older film than it is.  Not just because of the stunning black-and-white photography, but from its embrace of classical storytelling; unspooling a really very simple tale of a man who appeared hideous and was treated even more hideously, yet possessed great beauty within him.  That's a highly magnified version of something that any decent human being must feel at some time or another in their lives, that alienation and misunderstanding, that hope and yearning.  The performances have an older style of delivery as well, and their scale serves to make it not dated, but timeless; not specific to a particular place and time the way current tastes in drama prefer, but universal, a parable for all places and times, speaking to the grace of the pure human spirit that unites us all in the solitary places in our hopeful hearts.

The Shawshank Redemption - 1994
Written & Directed by Frank Darabont
from a short story by Stephen King
with Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman & Bob Gunton

It's long been one of my greatest cinematic shames that I hadn't really seen this.  As it turns out, I really only missed about 10 to 20 minutes on the front end, so my guilt has been both rectified and assuaged.

It really is one hell of a movie.

Pitch Perfect - 2012
Written by Kay Cannon
from the Book by Mickey Rapkin
Directed by Jason Moore
with Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow & Rebel Wilson

On the one hand, I knew that people had enjoyed the movie and I've enjoyed Anna Kendrick in everything in which I've seen her, even the things that I didn't like.  On the other hand, a film about a collegiate acapella competition sounded both predictable and twee.  Also on that hand, it's not that I have a problem with female-led comedy, but I don't trust Hollywood's very uneven record when it comes to female-led comedies, and frankly, I haven't gotten over how creepy Rebel Wilson was in Bridesmaids, even though I can acknowledge that that could be the result of her just doing a really good job.  So, taking both hands into account, I'd been pretty reluctant about seeing Pitch Perfect.

I needn't have worried quite so much.  Was it predictable and twee?  Heck yeah it was, but it was also aware that it was and winked from time to time about it  It took the formula for [scholastic competition of your choice] and semi-satirized it, showing us a bizarre parallel world where the Big Men on Campus are the men's acapella choir.  It is aware of the eye-rolling nature of our expectations for acapella chorale, and plays along, saddling the women's group with the kind of turgid, stale and self-satisfied saccharine that is exactly what we feared.  It gives us a leading lady who is on our side of the mocking, only to be won over in her level of commitment as the group is won over to her idea of doing something different with the concept, and we are won over because we're just having too much damn fun to remember that we're too cool for all of this.

Despite my reservations, Pitch Perfect says something I've been trying to say for a while.  You're going to have a LOT more fun the more you get over trying to be cool and caring what others think all the gawdam time.  Pitch Perfect is a hoot and a half.

At Middleton - 2013
Written by Glenn German & Adam Rogers
Directed by Adam Rogers
with Vera Farmiga, Andy Garcia & Taissa Farmiga

A really charming sort-of-romantic sort-of-comedy about an unlikely duo of characters.

Ordinarily, you'd expect a romantic comedy about a college tour to center on the two young and attractive students, and while they certainly do get their own (underdeveloped) sub-plots, the focus here is on their parents, played by Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia.  Now, don't let me suggest that it's entirely fresh.  Naturally they still grate on each other when they first meet, and then somehow grow on each other after they've ditched the tour and set about discovering the campus (and themselves, and each other) in unexpected ways.  I don't want to suggest that it's in quite the same class as Before Sunrise and the like, but it has a lot of that kind of walking-and-talking and taking a look at one's life sort of content.  Unlike a romantic comedy about thoughtful and available young people, our starry-eyed duo here are both in unsatisfying marriages, in the middle of lives that aren't exactly begging to be thrown into the air over a single chance meeting.  This weaves a thread of tension throughout much of the film, because once they get over their conflicts with each other, they find themselves in conflict with themselves.

The obligatory (if unlikely) "Hey let's get the old people stoned" scene doesn't appear to have been written by anyone with any experience with marijuana (which I find hard to believe of a Hollywood screenwriter), but overall the film strikes far more resonant tones than the few flat, clanging ones that pop up.  It's really nice to see a romantic comedy about grown ups... even if they're only sort-of-grown ups.

Frank - 2014
Written by Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
with Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson

Jon finds himself pulled into the gravity of an odd and enigmatic bandleader who wears a big papier mache head night and day.  The bandleader, Frank, is curiously charismatic and everyone associated with the band feels compelled to make him happy.  Whether it's something in his personality, or simply the way his giant wide-eyed head affects them is part of his mysterious charm.  As the new guy in the band, Jon is confronted with a great deal of suspicion from other band mates who are unclear (even to themselves) about whether they're more interested in protecting Frank, or protecting their closeness to Frank.  For his own part, Jon wants to make Frank happy by driving the band to succeed, and getting them a berth at South by Southwest; a gig far bigger than the band has ever played.

I found the film to be just charming as all hell.  I really enjoyed the explosive nature of the characters' chemistry.  No one was all bad, and no one was heroic, but as their individual agendas for doing good things, particularly making Frank happy agreed or opposed, it altered how they saw each other, themselves and Frank, without necessarily being clear about how Frank actually felt behind his facade.  A lot of people won't understand Frank, but then a lot of people don't understand a lot of people.

St. Vincent - 2014
Written & Directed by Theodore Melfi
with Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy & Naomi Watts

Here's the thing about St. Vincent; it's not really fresh or original, but it's well played by skilled artisans.  It could easily be named "Bad Neighbor" or something along those lines.  It's an entirely familiar "mean old man's heart is eventually warmed (a little bit) by a plucky youngster" story, so if you rankle at the thought of having your heart warmed in the third act, best steer clear.  I just want to be clear about what it is before I explain how it works anyway.

Bill Murray is Vincent, the mean old man, and his portrayal is one of the most vivid combinations ever of Early Bill Murray, the anti-establishment nutty cut-up, and Latter Day Bill Murray, the subtle and human Ac-Tor.  I suppose if there are any surprises, they're in the performances.  Melissa McCarthy takes it down a few notches as the newly single mother next door.  By playing her nervous talkativity much more realistically than she does in her broader comic roles (not necessarily realistic, but more so), she comes across much more sympathetically than usual.  Naomi Watts is most commonly known as a dramatic actress, but the plays arguably the most consistently comedic role in the film as the pregnant Russian hooker with whom Vincent maintains a working relationship.  Like a jazz show; no one goes to hear a specific old standard, but to enjoy the performances.

I laughed, I cried, I wasn't particularly surprised.  What do you want from me?  Get offa my lawn!

Asylum - 2014
Written by Chris Mancini & Tex Wall
Directed by Chris Mancini & Todor Chapkanov
with Stephen Rea, Caroline Ford & a bunch of bald Bulgarians

Asylum is a nonsensical, low budget turdburger shot on-the-cheap in Bulgaria... and someone at After Dark Films recognized that.  They beat the rush of disparagement destined to be thrown at the movie (if anyone paid attention to it at all), and decided to make fun of it themselves (while saving themselves their post-production effects budget).  Imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000 getting their hands on the rough cut of a crappy horror movie before it was even finished, and you'll have a pretty good impression of Asylum.  There's the movie they shot, but then it's framed and voiced-over by the guys who are supposedly editing this stink-pile.  The horror part is bad, but the comedy redeems it.  The comedy is actually pretty good -- not quite MST3K good, but with its own voice.  DON'T hold out for the director's cut.

As Above, So Below - 2014
Written by Drew & John Erick Dowdle
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
with Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman & Edwin Hodge

A found footage horror film that works!

Think "Lara Croft and the Gates of Hell."  A young English scholar is determined to finish her father's quest for the Philosopher's Stone.  In the opening, we see her raiding an underground chamber in Iran for a codex that leads her back to the gravestone of Nicholas Flammel in Paris.  The information she finally gains suggests a chamber buried deep below Paris, through ancient catacombs (AKA tombs), far beyond the bounds of the usual tourist sites.  She enlists a camera man, a fellow scholar with whom she shares a history, and a team of Parisian urban explorers to find the chamber.

Things go from weird to spooky to creepy to SOOPER CREEPY to "RUN, DAMMIT, WHY AREN'T YOU FASTER?"  The creepy elements are really well done and I definitely caught a few distinct chills.  It doesn't over explain or go too big.  Where a lot of found footage horror involves a bunch of assholes wandering around the [woods, factory, asylum, mansion, carnival, etc.] just bitching at each other in generic locales of low-budget decay, the Dowdle brothers plotted this much more conscientiously, moving from creepy set piece to creepy set piece, deepening the mystery and mixing it up with claustrophobia, fear and panic.

It's not exactly an fresh, new take on the found footage approach, but it does what it does rather well, and it avoids a lot of the common pitfalls.  Most importantly, the characters are interesting enough that I cared what happened to them, and it creates a palpable sensation of fear.

Friended to Death - 2014
Written by Sarah Smick & Ian Michaels
Directed by Sarah Smick
with Ryan Hansen, James Immekus & Sarah Smick

Some of the things I was reading about this movie before I watched it threw around terms like "dark comedy" and "satire."  That's pretty misleading.  It's pretty screwball, using the social media aspect of modern culture as a conduit, but that doesn't really make it a satire.  There ARE points made about the ways that people use social media, and they'll grind on you like a 400 lb lap dancer.

Really though, it's more screwball, slapstick hijinks when (obnoxious-overlapping-cruel) social media junkie and (freshly fired) ex-parking enforcement officer Michael Harris (Hansen) gets the idea to fake his death to see how his Facebook "friends" respond and who will show up to his memorial.  Much of the comedy is based on the lengths that he and his sidekick Emile will go to keep the secret and pull off the prank/experiment/obsessive-compulsion.  Matters are complicated significantly when the woman who has been revenge-stalking Michael threatens to expose his secret.

It's a light, silly comedy, and feels a lot more like television than a movie.  As such, it also felt like it should have wrapped things up a little sooner.  That's not a complaint; just an observation.  There are worse ways of spending 90 minutes and there are better.  I didn't regret this 90.  It was nice to see a little more range from Ryan Hansen (formerly of Veronica Mars and Party Down) and I expect Sarah Smick to have an interesting career as things progress for her.


Play It Again, Dick - 2014
Written by Rob Thomas & Bob Dearden
Directed by Rob Thomas & Viet Nguyen
with Ryan Hansen, Jason Dohring & Kristen Bell

Play It Again, Dick is a spin-off to the fan-favorite series Veronica Mars about a spin-off from Veronica Mars, which isn't really a spin-off to Veronica Mars.  Allow me to explain.  So, on the original fan-favorite series, Veronica Mars, there was a one-line character that turned into the fan-favorite character Dick Casablancas played by Ryan Hansen.  Play It Again, Dick, is about the actor, Ryan Hansen, pitching a spin-off series starring Dick to the CW network.  They give him the go-ahead for a low-budget microseries called Play It Again, Dick, but THIS Play It Again, Dick is about the actors making THAT Play It Again, Dick.  Wait, now I'm lost.

Oh, also, this TV series is not a TV series, but is, in fact, a web series on CW Seed, which I guess is the CW's attempt to Hulu.  Because you're already on the internet RIGHT DAMN NOW, you can go watch this series RIGHT DAMN HERE.

Oh, wait, I didn't tell you why you'd want to.  Well, if you're a favoring fan of Veronica Mars, you already know you want to.  If you've seen the show Party Down, also by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, then you should likewise be interested.  Party Down was a comedy unrelated to the other show, although several actors appeared in both series, including Ryan Hansen.  The humor of Party Down should give you a good idea what to expect in Play It Again, Dick.  If, somehow, you have no idea what the downtown funk I've been talking about for the last 3 paragraphs, BUT you have a keen interest in Hollywood inside-baseball humor, or heck, if you just enjoy seeing a self-absorbed nitwit embarrassing himself, then Play It Again, Dick just might have something to offer you.  Also, it's free and the episodes are short so you really have nothing to lose but that stick up your butt.

The Restless Spirits of The West


I always knew that this blogazine would favor film and television, but I really have meant to write more about music and books than I have.  I guess they just digest differently.  After several months of enjoying this particular album, I'm finally inspired to say a few things about it.

The Handsome Family
Singing Bones - 2003

If you're anything like me (and God help you if you are), since DVD and digital viewing has become more common (if not standard) for you over the past decade, you will have found that there are two kind of TV shows; those whose opening theme songs you skip, and those whose opening theme songs you watch every single time, even when you're binging hard.  One of those theme songs that has most consistently thrilled me is "Far from Any Road" by the Handsome Family, used in the first season of True Detective.  Once the season ended and I wanted to keep hearing the song, I went and sought out the source; the Handsome Family's 2003 album, Singing Bones.  Since that time, I've listened to three of their other albums as well, but Singing Bones is still the one I come back to.

I'm not going to go into any particular detail about the band as though I know what I'm talking about.  I know that they're a married couple, Brett & Rennie Sparks and they do a lot of this moody alt-country that some people call Gothic Country or other varied terms to that effect.  Whatever.  I'm not here to front as an expert like the douche-kabobs on Pitchfork.  I just really love this album.

In a way, this really isn't all that far outside the purview of the kinds of things I've been writing about here for the past year.  Singing Bones is effectively an horror anthology in musical form.  Far from Any Road is about a cactus that blooms once in 10,000 years; the sight of which causes madness and death.  The Forgotten Lake seems to be about the outlet of the mythic river Lethe, or at the very least, some haunted place.  24 Hour Store is about a guy working in the titular market, either haunted by ghosts or slipping into madness; a vague overlapping of possibilities that lays at the heart of so many or our best horror films as well.  The Bottomless Hole is about a farmer who found, well, a seemingly bottomless hole out behind his barn and can't accept that it could possible be truly bottomless until he proves it to himself.  You get the idea.  Obsessive behavior is a common theme, which is a true form of haunting, even removed from supernatural inferences.

The music is equally moody and haunting.  They really carve out a niche of unique sensations that film has poorly explored.  The twangy country music evokes wide open spaces, which are not what we're used to seeing in film, but are nonetheless haunting.  It's possible that dark and narrow places work better visually, and it took musicians to explore these other kinds of hauntings removed from the visual cues that so dominate our other senses in film.  By doing it musically, I find that they're able to evoke  other sensations, like reading, but bypassing a certain conscious awareness through the music.  The songs remain spooky through repeated listenings, which isn't something I can say about a lot of movies.

I don't mean to suggest that this is the soundtrack for your next haunted house.  This is beautiful music with deep roots in old school country music.  It's a damn shame they never got to work with Johnny Cash because he would have been right at home with these tunes.  Brett Sparks sings in an unaffected baritone (thus the evocation of the Man in Black) that is readily believable as, say, that farmer with the bottomless pit out back the barn.  Rennie has the kind of airy tone that would have suggested a ghost girl in the Badlands no matter what she was singing, so it's her good fortune that she found such a suitable haunted crossroads for her voice and lyrics to come together.

I know a lot of people who say "Oh I like all kinds of music, just, you know, the good stuff."  They're often talking about country when they throw that qualifier about "the good stuff" in.  If you let them go into detail, they'll tell you how they like old school country but not "that radio stuff."  Well folks, this is "the good stuff."  It's not just the lyrics that summon the spirits of things that we've lost.  The music itself echoes from out of the past, a ghost of the American west, calling out to us over the plains.

Rock the Belles, and Bills, and Beavers - Shorts on Screen


Time once again to round up some of my recent viewing. 31 Nights of Halloween was intended to clean out a lot of my backlog, but I think I actually finished the month with more things to watch, so now I'm REALLY clearing things out.  It still skews strongly to horror and I'm heading into a trend where I'm going to be watching a lot of old school stuff from the 80s (thanks largely to Call Girl of Cthulhu), but I am starting to get back into comedy and drama.

Once I'd watched Annabelle and Jessabelle, I felt obligated to watch Belle, which had been sitting in my backlog for some time.  Glad I did.  It was easily the best of the three (which really isn't a fair comparison), although the other two are perfectly serviceable horror movies as long as you go into them with restrained expectations.

Annabelle -2014
Written by Gary Dauberman
Directed by John R Leonetti
with Annabelle Wallis & Alfre Woodard

This film is marginally related to The Conjuring, but in no way a sequel or prequel or anything but a side-story that tangentially exists in the same universe.  The connection is the creepy-faced doll that the exorcists from The Conjuring keep in their Closet of Doom, and the main similarities are the themes of possession and the startling effect of loud noises.  Where The Conjuring was a recent high watermark for scary movies, Annabelle is more of an also-ran.  I admit, I got a few chills, but they were melted by the heat of my frustration when the characters did predictably stupid things that trumped normal human behavior.  It's actually not a bad story with some distinctly creepy elements despite feeling pretty predictable and having some major logic challenges.  A pivotal sacrifice in the climax  simply isn't credibly supported by the narrative.  Of course the biggest bafflement is that ANYONE, EVER thought that that was an appealing doll design.

Jessabelle - 2014
Written by Robert Ben Garant
Directed by Kevin Greutert
with Sarah Snook & Joelle Carter

An erratically paced bayou haunting.  It spends a lot of time trying to nurse the slow burn, which results in some rushed business once Jessabelle finally gets closer to the center of the mystery.  Good creepy elements, mixing a haunted house, videotapes from beyond the grave, voodoo, a wheelchair-bound protagonist and family secrets rising from the swamp.  Wastes a lot of time on a peripheral relationship that viewers are sure not to care about and introduces aspects central to the mystery far too late in the film, and without establishing their relationship to the climax.  As such, the climax is burdened with the jobs of explaining and thrilling at the same time, resulting in it doing neither satisfactorily.  As with Annabelle, there's a lot of good stuff here, but it could have used another pass at the script stage and a more conscientious director..

Belle - 2013
Written by Misan Sagay
Directed by Amma Assante
with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon & Tom Wilkinson

Only part way through Belle did I begin to expect that it was based on a true story.  That's a compliment as far as I'm concerned, since so many "true stories" fail to have as engaging a structure as the other kind.  Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of a West Indie slave woman and an officer in the British Royal Navy.  He takes her home to England to be raised by his aunt and uncle before returning to the naval career from which he will never return.  Think Guess Who's Coming to Pride & Prejudice.  It combines all of the fussy English manners of one's place in society and what constitutes "marrying well" for women of a certain class in Georgian England with the added element of racial politics and identity.  Dido is heir to a noble father, but being black, occupies a virtually unique and confusing societal position, and this was a society that didn't tend to like piece that didn't fit neatly into their place.

Now me, I can't freakin' stand all that Jane Austen "marrying well" bullshit, so parts of this really grated on me, although that was kind of the point.  All of the courting practices that Dido and her cousin had to go through with a bunch of douchebaggy wanna-nobles filled me with some serious loathing.  It got much more interesting when Dido began to take an interest in a case before her great-uncle, who also happened to be Lord Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  The case involved the Zong massacre, in which a shipload of slaves were cast overboard and their owners tried to collect on the insurance.  This was a real case that led fairly directly to abolition in England.  Once that plot thread and the accompanying romance took the fore, it became a much more enjoyable film with less sense of hopelessness.

The Legend of Hell House - 1973
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by John Hough
with Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin & Clive Revill

I was under the impression that The Legend of Hill House was based on The Haunting from 1963 which was adapted from a book called The Haunting of Hill House.  The thing is, even after watching The Legend of Hell House, I still thought it was based on The Haunting, but evidently it's adapted from a book (by the screenwriter) called Hell House, which is NOT based on the Haunting.  Well, you could have fooled me.

Both movies are based on the same premise; a wealthy benefactor pays a group of experts to discover proof of the afterlife in a notoriously haunted mansion.  The scientifically oriented team leader takes his wife along, and the other characters essentially fill the roles, albeit slightly shuffled around in terms of talent or demeanor.  House is super haunted and bad juju goes down.

I'll get right to the point.  The Haunting is in every way the better picture.  Legend of Hell House is ridiculously slow and far stingier with the haunting.  It's not even the slow pacing that drags it down but the huge stretches utterly bereft of energy.  Pamela Franklin, as the team's mental medium (Excuse me waiter, I ordered a mental large) brings some enthusiasm, but Clive Revill as the snotty scientist is like a human speed-bump for movie momentum and even Roddy McDowell who brings some serious spookiness to his role sucks the viewer into his creepy pathos, and then never really delivers on it.  He needed to get possessed or turn out to be a secret killer or discover his own body in a closet or something.

Anyway, see The Haunting instead.

The Gate - 1987
Written by Michael Nankin
Directed by Tibor Takacs
with Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton & Louis Tripp

The 80s were much more willing to blue the line between horror and juvenile adventure, which makes perfect sense to me given the interests of juveniles, but which sometimes looks startling in our modern context.

Two middle school age boys go digging for thunder eggs in the back yard, and discover a gateway to Hell.  While the parents are away for the weekend, leaving teenage sister in charge, a number of freak events occur that just happen to fulfill the requirements of the spell that will open that gateway, releasing all kinds of stop-motion beasties upon the world.  Fortunately, heavy metal has all the answers!

I watched it for the old-school special effects and the retro camp value, and I got what I wanted.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -1989
Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Directed by Stephen Herek
with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter & George Carlin

And old favorite.  I always remember that it's fun, but I also always forget that it's actually pretty good.  It's like the dream that guys like Bill & Ted would have, only much better structured.  It's certainly picked up a sheen of irony now that the 80s version of the future it presents looks so dated and quaint, but that also gave it a certain poignancy when one considers the hopefulness that we've lost.  Yeah, think about it... we were actually more hopeful about the future in the EIGHTIES than we are now.  We have not been very excellent to each other.

Nightbreed: Director's Cut -1990/2014
Written & Directed by Clive Barker from his novel
with Craig Sheffer, Ann Bobby & David Cronenberg

Nightbreed originally came out when I was going through my Clive Barker phase, so I saw it in theaters and generally liked it.  It was full of interesting monsters, and not-so-interesting protagonists.  Over the years, I almost completely forgot about the serial-killer psychiatrist who manipulated the situation to serve his murderous agenda.  I watched the original theatrical cut again earlier this year and I was really impressed.  It would be an incredible pilot for a cable series about a bunch of monsters as they try to create a new home, or better yet, expanded into a full first season which then continues into seasons about searching and building.  The new Director's Cut doesn't make a lot of changes that are obvious to me, but it conveys an overall sense of being more itself.  The role of Cronenberg as the psycho psychologist is smaller in relative terms, containing him more within the role of troublemaker than sinister leading character.  The role of Boone is given a little more context in terms of his relationship with the Nightbreed, giving his leadership role more weight.  The actor is still terrible (as is his girlfriend, "We were lovers."), but the role is a little bit better defined.  If anyone ever made a series, they would definitely want to start fresh, and here's hoping that the Director's Cut can stimulate some interest in such a project.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey -1991
Written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson
Directed by Pete Hewitt
with Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves & William Sadler

The rushed-feeling sequel presents a mixed bag of elements.  On the obvious side, the performances are down a couple notches from Adventure (yeah, even KEANU'S performance is down -- whoa), the story is all over the place and the jokes just aren't as funny.  On the other hand, it introduces a lot of great elements like Evil Bill & Ted robots, Good Bill & Ted funky robots, a Bergman-esque personification of Death and the Martian inventor Station.  It was interesting to revisit, but it was never as good as Adventure and it doesn't hold up as well.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare - 1994
Written & Directed by Wes Craven
with Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund & Wes Craven

When is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie not a Nightmare on Elm Street movie?

Wes Craven's New Nightmare both is and is not a Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  Following the "Death of Freddy," I'm sure that New Line was humping Craven's leg to get him to think of a way to renew the series and keep the money trains rolling in.  Craven, looking at the disjointed nature of the sequels after his creation of the original saw something without continuity and wasn't interested in just doing "another" one.  So what he did was to jump totally outside of the established world of the series... into ours.

Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy, the heroine in the original Nightmare is back as Heather Langenkamp, the actress.  She's having nightmares about Freddy, only a darker, more real Freddy, and her nightmares are starting to be reflected by reality.  It turns out that Wes Craven is working on a new script for a new "Nightmare" based on his real nightmares, which have a way of sneaking into real reality.  It's all very meta like that, which I absolutely loved.  It creates a level of psychological surrealism that augments the visual surrealism that was always Nightmare's stock in trade.

It's no coincidence that Wes Craven's New Nightmare (and yes, I believe it's essential to include "Wes Craven's" in the title, as it is indeed HIS nightmare) falls between his films The People Under the Stairs and Scream (we're ignoring Vampire in Brooklyn which has "work for hire" written all over it).  It's a developmentally apt position for it, showing the evolution of the artist and his exploration of self-aware horror craft.

Urban Legend -1998
Written by Silvio Horta
Directed by Jamie Blanks
with Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayeheart, Robert Englund & really a lot more!

From the post-Scream (but less self-aware) I Know What You Did/Final Destination class, this college campus slasher comes with the twist that the murders reflect various urban myths, which, conveniently, is the subject of a class that everyone in the school is taking.  In retrospect, I realize that the mystery was completely irrelevant.  The motive is exposed about midway through the film, but virtually anyone could have been the killer based on the motive and the absence of character histories.  There IS an interesting twist to who it is, and I must admit that, even when it became evident that there weren't any other main characters left alive, I still didn't quite see it due to preconceived expectations.  I wouldn't use the word "good" to describe it, but I was definitely entertained.

Feast -2005
Written by Martin Dunstan & Patrick Melton
Directed by John Gulager
with Navi Rawat, Krista Allen & Balthazar Getty

A bunch of people are trapped in a bar while some kind of ravenous creatures attack them, intent on eating them.  And that it pretty much the whole story.

It reminded me a lot of Tales from the Crypt presents: Demon Knight.  We've got a bar full of people who do and do not know each other defending themselves from the onslaught of evil creatures.  The evil creatures get far less (read: no) story of their own, and that turns out to be perfectly okay.  It's kind of a drag, however, that in addition to being undefined contextually, they're poorly defined visually too.  I couldn't draw one of them if you paid me.  We have more bar patrons with more specified personalities, and that works pretty well too.  In fact, the film really has its most fun introducing these personalities, acknowledging that they're character "types" and then toying around with our expectations for each type.

Some nasty gore, some tense moments, some brutal action, and a lot of laughs.

Inside - 2007
AKA A L'interieur
Written & Directed by Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
with Alysson Paradis & Beatrice Dalle

Ugh, I hated this thing like Illinois Nazis.

The idea didn't appeal to me, but it kept popping up on lists of well-regarded horror and "People Who Liked This..." suggestions.  I am nothing if not fair, so I finally decided to give it a chance.  Why don't I listen to myself?  I am so rarely wrong about my impressions of things.

Part slasher, part torture porn, all ugly.  A pregnant woman is stalked and attacked by another woman with the intention of stealing her baby by any means necessary -- but scissors seem to be the means of choice.  Throughout the Christmas Eve siege at her home, various other people stop by to get murdered horribly, pointlessly, and all too easily.  The cops acted like fucking Shaggy & Scooby, wetting themselves and getting killed quickly and with little meaningful resistance.  Meanwhile, the crazy woman is pretty much indestructible and has mad ninja skills.  Being all po-faced or po-mo or just French about it doesn't make it anything other than what it is; a nihilistic gore-fest.  Fuck this movie and fuck the trash-humpers who keep calling it good.  By definition, it is not.

Hick -2011
Written by Andrea Portes from her novel
Directed by Derick Martini
with Chloe Grace Moretz, Blake Lively & Eddie Redmayne

Luli (Moretz) is a 13 year old girl from Nebraska who just up and runs away from her fairly shitty home one day. It's not hard to imagine why she would run away; her parents are train wrecks, but the character's motivations and intentions are poorly established.  She just decides she's going to Las Vegas and starts hitching.

On the road, she gets rides from a sort-of sweet, sort-of creepy cowboy named Eddie and a sassy-sign-of-things-to-come-if-she's-not-careful, Glenda.  It turns out that Eddie and Glenda both know each other and have a history as well.  Luli gets caught between the sides of that history and the creepy side of Eddie and becomes an example of why it's really gawdam stupid for 13 year old girls to go hitchhiking.  In the end, I guess she learned a lesson, and I guess there's a hopeful edge to it?

The performances are fine, but there's just a lot of meat on this one, and the persistence of illogic becomes wearying.  It's like an After School Special written by someone who's given up on life.

The Beaver - 2011
Written by Kyle Killen
Directed by Jodie Foster
with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin & Jennifer Lawrence

At first I wasn't sure why this was in my inbox.  I've pretty much washed my hands of Mel Gibson at this point in both of our lives, but when I was looking for something to watch and I came across The Beaver, I decided to go ahead and watch it, of for no other reason than to have two "beaver" movies in this round-up.  Then, when I saw the cheerleader that made me say "Hey, is that Jennifer Lawrence?" I remembered why I had planned to watch it in the first place.  It's hard to believe that it's really only been within the past two years that she's become our ubiquitous "It" girl.

So, The Beaver...  presents a series of mixed impressions for me.  In one respect, it's a totally transparent effort at image rehabilitation for Gibson following some pretty appalling behavioral episodes.  It's directed by his personal friend and public defender, Jodie Foster, and it's about a man who goes into and epic depression and after he fails to commit suicide, experiences a psychotic break wherein he communicates through a hand puppet, the eponymous Beaver.  "Aw, he went crazy but he means well! We should forgive him!"

Gibson IS still a good actor, mind you, and his commitment to the role does sell concept to a large degree, although not to the degree to which it overreached.  The thing is, once he starts acting through the Beaver, the Beaver becomes some kind of miracle worker, instantly drawing his younger son out of his shell, re-endearing him to his wife and making him the superstar of the toy industry in which he works.  Too much, too fast.  The film works better when it stays small.  On the less convoluted side of things, there's a whole subplot between his older son (Yelchin), who hates his father and has a knack for writing term papers for other students, believably in their voices, and the valedictorian/cheerleader (Lawrence) who has her own family issues and wants him to write her commencement speech.  This part of the story, while certainly less grandly dramatic, I felt to be more satisfying with less straining of credulity.  it's not a bad movie.  Heck, it might even be a reasonably good one, but it would have been a better one if it hadn't tried quite so hard to make you like it quite so much.

Zombeavers -2014
see link for writing team
Directed by Jordan Rubin
with Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins & Cortney Palm

Exactly what it sounds like, and it knows it, which is what made it startlingly fun and funny.  Does spilled toxic waste turn beavers into zombies?  Does a group of young people go to cabin on the lake?  Does some creepy old man warn them at some point?  Do the zombeavers gnaw down trees to block the road and chew through the cabin's barricaded windows?  Do the infected humans grow beaver teeth when they turn into zombies themselves?  Do the film makers totally set up a sequel called Zombees?

You're god damned right they do.

Guardians of the Galaxy - 2014
Written by James Gunn & Nicole Perlman
Directed by James Gunn
with Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana & Dave Bautista

Okay, NOW I get what all the excitement is about.

Sure, if you hold it up to the light, you'll see the exact same structure as every other action movie they make these days, but once you put it back down and let it run around on its own, it has a bunch of fun characters and action set-pieces, plus quite a few actual jokes!  That's all we're askin' for... although one of these days we really ought to ask for a little bit more on the story end.

Dracula Untold - 2014
Written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless
Directed by Gary Shore
with Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper & Sarah Gadon

Let us be 100% clear about something.  Dracula Untold IS NOT HORROR.

What it IS, is just another action movie, and by "just another" I mean "cookie cutter."  For being "untold" is was entirely predictable.  It has been referenced by some (including people behind it) as a "dark superhero" movie, but even compared to superhero movies, it's way, way behind the curve.

Purporting to be the origin story wherein Prince Vlad becomes a vampire, it follows a completely paint-by-numbers formula that first establishes him as a badass with a heart who stands up to the Turkish bullies.  When they threaten to drop the hammer on his people, he seeks out a cave-bound vampire to gain the power he needs to defend his people.  The vampire gives him 3 days' worth of powers OR ELSE.  "Gosh, I wonder what will happen" said absolutely no one who saw this movie.

He then proceeds to piss around and pout when he should be killing Turks, allowing them to get the drop on his people, thus necessitating a "last second" crisis that didn't need to be telegraphed because you could see it clearly from space.  Oh, also, all of the people for whom he sacrifice himself got killed.  Ace job, champ!

The action simply wasn't that engaging, so even the one thing it decided that it could do, it couldn't.  It certainly didn't help things that Luke Evans, who pretty much always looks like a greasy creep to me, was at his greasy creepiest with his thin & patchy beard, hair so limp and manky that Severus Snape would say "Damn, dude, get some Prell up in that shit," beady eyes and all.

Dracula Untold should damn well have stayed that way.

Come Back to Me - 2014
Written & Directed by Paul Leyden
from the book "The Resurrectionist" by Wrath James Wright
with Katie Walder, Nathan Keyes & Matt Passmore

This one really came out of left field.  I had almost no idea what to expect, and what I had read was fairly misleading in the way it represented the story.

Josh and Sarah, a young couple in Las Vegas is going through some of the difficulties that young couples do; he works odd hours as a croupier, she's working on her thesis about the effects of internet porn, they're rarely on the same page when it comes to gettin' it on.  Dale, an awkward-bordering-on-creepy new neighbor moves in across the street and Sarah starts having night terrors; waking up in places she hadn't gone to bed and wearing different clothing.

The film is a surprisingly slow burn, and during the part when you think that it's just a stalker thriller, that slow burn gets a little frustrating, but there are a couple major twists in the third act that really make Come Back to Me startling and unique.

The Devil's Hand -2014
AKA Where the Devil Hides
Written by Karl Mueller
Directed by Christian E Christiansen
with Alycia Debnam Carey, Rufus Sewell & Colm Meaney

Mostly dumb.

Some religious cult with their own community and backward ways (but they're totally not Amish, you guys!) has their own version of Christianity with some random-ass prophecy about six girls born on the sixth day of the sixth month leading to doomsday, and sure enough, they're all born within about six minutes of each other.  The father of one keeps the preacher from murdering them all in their mothers' arms, and now, almost 18 years later (you know, because the devil cares about age of consent, I guess), someone is determined to take care of some unfinished business.  The funny thing about a movie like this is that you can tell all along that there's going to be a "twist" ending that ends up not being a twist at all.  Halfway-decent pacing, but really nothing much of a story or a reason to care.