Month: March 2019

Starfish

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After losing her best friend, Aubrey secludes herself in her friend’s apartment. She awakes the next day to discover the world as she knows it is coming to an end. People have disappeared and there are strange creatures lurking outside the door. Aubrey finds a mix tape made by her deceased friend with clues as to how to survive this strange new world, and perhaps even save it.

A.T. White brings a powerful story to the screen in his first feature-length film, Starfish. The focus of the plot is grief. Aubrey loses her friend and from that moment her life is changed forever. The film includes elements of a dramatic character study, a Lovecraftian apocalypse, and fantastic music. Each aspect is integral to the film. White takes the audience on a journey through Aubrey’s grief, going through each of the traditional five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are emphasized by the end of the world happening all around Aubrey and the strange beings that have crossed into our world. Her complete isolation from the rest of the world allows the audience to focus on Aubrey as she goes on her emotional and sometimes dangerous journey in which reality bends, breaks, and unravels.

Music plays a vital role in her journey as well in the form of tapes hidden by her deceased friend. Each tape contains a song with an embedded signal that has something to do with what is happening to the world. This gives Aubrey a goal to work towards and a mystery to solve. It propels forward, forcing her to face her grief and things she has done that she feels guilty about. The tapes could even save Aubrey’s life. All of these elements combine in perfect symphony.

The plot alone is haunting, beautiful, and fascinating, but what makes it even more compelling is White’s inspiration for it. White has said that he lost a friend to cancer and experienced grief like what we see Aubrey go through. The film allowed him to visually work through that grief. What’s even more amazing is that White intends to donate all the money he makes from Starfish to Cancer Research. It shows the passion he has for both his film and the cause. That passion can also easily be seen in every last detail in the film’s plot, character, and music.

In a film that focuses entirely on one character, casting is vital. Virginia Gardner (Halloween, Runaways) stars as Aubrey. The pain, loss, and guilt Aubrey experiences is the catalyst for the entire film. Gardner truly dazzles in the role. She is able to grab the attention and the hearts of the audience and hold on tight. The way Gardner portrays Aubrey as she mourns is complicated, relatable, and incredibly raw. This performance alone makes me excited to see what Gardner does in the future.

The many artistic elements of Starfish also bring a lot to the film. The filmmakers used CGI to create the Lovecraftian creatures from another world, as well as the rips in our reality they traveled through. These effects are relatively subtle. The CGI works especially well with the various sets. The film takes place in a landscape that looks very remote and snowy, which offers a beautiful contrast with the effects. There is also a distinct lack of modern technology throughout the film. This allows for the film to exist in a space without a specific time and could have been made in the 80’s as easily as today. Of course, the music is probably the most important artistic element because of how engrained it is in the plot. The score was composed by none other than White himself and he selected the music for the soundtrack as well. Both the score and soundtrack are a focal point of the film and I found myself trying to find the soundtrack online as soon as I finished the film.

Starfish is a stunning and raw journey through the grieving process as the world ends. White beautifully uses his own experience to take the audience through the stages of grief. He also incorporates music and the collision of different worlds to convey the end of Aubrey’s world. It seems to be left up to the audience whether this is a literal or metaphorical apocalypse, but the story is haunting either way. The weight of the film is carried on Gardner’s capable shoulders as she portrays Aubrey as a complicated heroine.  Add the various visual and musical elements, and you have a must-watch film. If that isn’t enough to convince you to see Starfish, see it so you can support a great cause and have your sale go toward Cancer Research.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

 

Dead Ant

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80’s metal band Sonic Grave is trying to make its big comeback. In a desperate attempt to write a brand new hit song, the band buys some special peyote called “the Sun” and heads out to Joshua Tree in hopes of getting inspired. There is just one catch to the drug: the band can do no harm to a living thing while on the Sun, otherwise there will be dire consequences. Of course, they do not heed the warning.

Writer and director Ron Carlson (All American Christmas Carol) shows he knows how to bring the rock and the laughs in Dead Ant. The film manages to successfully make fun of and pay homage to 80’s glam rock at the same time. These guys are washed up, but they can’t seem to accept it. They are so desperate to make a big comeback they resort to taking drugs in the middle of nowhere, hoping the psychedelic visions will lead to their next hit song. The band definitely fulfills the stereotype of a once famous glam rock band that is trying to relive the glory days; the outfits, the hair, the makeup, the drugs and alcohol use, the hook-ups. The addition of a horror element, in the form of ever-growing giant killer ants, adds to the humor of the film. There is a combination of mysticism with the “do no harm” condition of doing the special drug and creature feature as the band members are hunted down by giant ants. They start out on the small side, but as the film progresses the ants get bigger and bigger. Turning a creature that is generally looked at as small and harmless and turning it into a massive killing machine is a nice comedic touch.

A lot of what makes this film so enjoyable is the performances. Each actor gives a memorable performance in their own way and they all are able to make the audience laugh. One of my favorite performances comes from Jake Busey (The Frighteners, Starship Troopers) as the lead singer, Merrick. Merrick looks a lot like a Bret Michaels impersonator, and he is all about the rock and roll lifestyle. Busey truly commits to the role and ends up delivering some of the most hilarious lines. The band’s guitarist, Pager, is played by Rhys Coiro (Entourage, Straw Dogs). Pager is the most desperate to regain fame, and that leads to some very funny hijinks as music remains the focus even as the ants are on the attack. One of my favorite performances comes from Leisha Hailey (Fertile Ground, The L Word) as the band’s drummer, Stevie. She comes across as the most grounded and the most intelligent of the group. Stevie doesn’t take shit from anyone and Hailey brings some sass to the character. Honorable mention goes to Michael Horse (Twin Peaks), Danny Woodbury (Mirror Mirror), Sean Astin (The Goonies), and Tom Arnold (True Lies).

There are definitely some low-budget style effects in Dead Ant, but they don’t detract from the film at all. If anything they might add a bit of charm to the indie B-movie plot. The ants are all created with CGI. The filmmakers had an understandably low budget to create these big bugs, but the CGI looks no better or worse than many of the films shown on the Syfy Channel. The practical effects are slightly less successful. Although they are used sparingly, there is one effect in the climax of the film that is very cheesy looking. This may have been an intentional choice as the scene is also very comical, but it is hard not to cringe at it. When it comes to the band members, the costume design is spot on for what you would imagine a glam metal band would wear. Each actor also wears a wig to enhance the look of their characters. Although, the wig worn by Astin is absolutely atrocious and is very distracting every time he is on screen.

Dead Ant is a somewhat cheesy, but delightfully funny film that shows a has-been band pitted against giant killer ants. Carlson does a great job of showing his love for 80’s glam metal, while also making fun of the band members as they attempt to make their comeback. He is great at conveying that duality, the same way he is able to combine comedy and horror into one film. The performances are surprisingly entertaining and the big name actors who appear are even more surprising. The effects aren’t particularly amazing, but they are good enough to keep me entertained. Dead Ant is definitely campy and satirical, resulting in a fun popcorn flick that captures the spirit of 80’s horror/music in a modern day film.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Between the Trees

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Dealing with the stress of a failing marriage, Steve arranges a getaway with his three best friends. Together they rent a remote cabin in the hopes of having a nice quiet hunting trip. It doesn’t take long for these friends to realize they are not alone in those woods. With no cell service and nothing but miles of forest around them, it will be a fight for survival. Only the fittest will escape with their lives.

Directed by Brad Douglas (Besetment) and written by first-time screenwriter Sam Klarreich, Between the Trees is a horror film that combines different subgenres. On the one hand the film is a suspenseful thriller as it follows Steve. He appears to be obsessed with his marriage falling apart and makes a point of asking his two married friends how their marriages are, while also telling them about his own failing marriage. Steve is clearly unstable, and the isolation only seems to exacerbate his deteriorating state of mind. On the other hand, this film is a creature feature. There is something else in the woods with the friends. They kill the offspring of the creature in self-defense, and then the creature tries to hunt them down one by one.

While individually these two premises could be great, and there are some areas of overlap that are quite interesting, they ultimately don’t fit together very well. With how the plot is revealed, it seems that the filmmakers were trying to use the creature aspect as a way to emphasize the tension between the four friends. Instead, the film comes across as two entirely different films, both in content and tone, rammed together like two puzzle pieces that don’t fit. Between the Trees is only an hour and 14 minutes long, but even with that short run time it feels too long. It would have worked so much better as two separate short films. At times the film becomes especially convoluted, mostly when it focuses on the creature aspect. It is the least developed subplot, and as a result viewers will likely be left wondering what this thing is supposed to be, among other questions.

Each performance in Between the Trees is fine, but the characters are all very one-note and lack any depth. Greg James (Wild) plays Steve. The character is written in such a way that leaves little room for James to bring a powerful performance. Steve is quiet, brooding, and only really cares to talk about his marriage. James tries his hardest to push beyond the character created for him, and has a few moments where he is able to show some real intensity, but the writing holds him back. This is a pattern with all the characters. Jonny Lee (Hacked) plays the drunken lady’s man, Mack. Again, Lee’s performance is fine, but there isn’t much more to the character than what I just described. Dan Kyle (Combat Report) portrays manly-man Dave. Dave is the big, tough guy who is the most capable hunter and woodsman of the group. Kyle manages to bring the slightest bit of depth to this character in the way he talks about his wife, albeit very briefly. Finally there is Michael Draper (The Competition) as Josh. This character is another stereotype; he is the most sensitive of the group, loves his wife, and dresses a bit too nicely for a weekend in a cabin so of course that means he is often called “gay” by the unsavory locals. Draper’s performance often goes into the realm of caricature, which doesn’t fit well with the rest of the film, but he at least is able to give us a few surprises with his character.

Normally creature design and practical effects are aspects of a horror film I look forward to most, but they are not great selling points of this film. Before we even see the creatures they are described in terms audiences are familiar with such as “Bigfoot” and “Sasquatch.” These words automatically conjure up visions of large, hairy ape-like beasts roaming the forests. When you finally see the creatures in Between the Trees, you get almost the exact opposite. The adult creature is definitely tall, but other than that these beings are hairless, have pale greyish skin, use bows and arrows, and wear human clothing. It comes across as though very little effort was put into the creature design, and the execution looks like a rubber Halloween mask. They are simply too human and it leaves a lot of lingering questions in the end about how these things could exist without the locals knowing about them.

Between the Trees can’t seem to decide what kind of film it wants to be. It tries very hard to marry two different stories into one plot, but it results in a confusing jumble. There are too many unanswered questions, especially when it comes to the creatures in the film. The archetypes for the four characters are fairly bland and leave little room for the actors to bring any tension or dimension to their performances. Most of the issues with the film can be chalked up to how the film was written and the unfortunate creature design. I appreciate the attempt at doing something different, but as a whole it is not a film I would recommend.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/10

The Cannibal Club

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A wealthy Brazilian couple live in the lap of luxury. While on the outside they appear to live a typical rich lifestyle, behind closed doors they get up to some eccentric activities. One of those activities is killing and eating young men. The husband is even part of a cannibal club that is exclusive to rich men. When the wife catches the leader of the club in a compromising position, the couple find themselves in a dangerous position that could cost them their lives.

Brazilian writer/director Guto Parente (The Mysterious Death of Pérola) takes his audience on a strange journey with The Cannibal Club. The plot overall follows a specific pattern. We see the two leads, Otavio and Gilda, as they go through a bizarre mating ritual that also involves them killing their next human meal. Then there is a small amount of intrigue as the audience learns about the cannibal club and the various wealthy and powerful men who are apart of it, including Otavio. This allows the audience to meet the leader of the group, and the one who Gilda catches in a compromising position. There is a bit of excitement as Gilda and Otavio try to find a way out of their precarious position without losing their lives, and in the process they recruit a new employee to help them. Then the film reverts back to Gilda and Otavio’s typical mating dance, but with slightly different results.

The Cannibal Club almost comes across as a combination of Eyes Wide Shut and Hostel, but it lacks the true intrigue and thrills of those films. There is a lot of opportunity to build in various twists to add to the suspense, but unfortunately the film feels rather monotone. There are a couple minor moments that might elicit a gasp, but they are mostly there simply for shock value and don’t add anything to the plot. There is also not a lot of focus on the cannibal club itself, despite the title of the film, and instead the focus is on Gilda and Otavio’s strange relationship. This is fine, except it leads to a rather lackluster subplot about the club and a bit of a missed opportunity for more tension and thrills. It also leads to a plot that at times is quite predictable.

One of the stronger parts of this film are the performances. A highlight for me was Ana Luiza Rios (The Last Breath) as Gilda. She is equal parts charming and sinister. It is amazing to watch her be confident and seductive only to then eat a human being with a smile, and Rios portrays her very well. Her husband, Otavio, is played by Tavinho Teixeira (Batguano). Otavio is as cold-hearted as they come, yet he has a soft spot for Gilda. Teixeira does a great job of portraying the two sides of Otavio and his on-screen chemistry with Rios. These two breathe some life into the film that is often times on the dull side.

Another aspect of The Cannibal Club that adds some interest is the visuals. The cinematography alone is very beautiful and enhances the idea of Gilda and Otavio’s opulent, wealthy lifestyle. Especially with how the various locations are filmed, everything looks incredibly expensive, shiny, and unattainable. While they are used at a minimum, the practical effects are also very well done. In one specific scene at the beginning of the film the audience is shown a victim getting butchered and chopped into prime cuts of meat. Not only are the practical effects in this scene frighteningly realistic, they also stand out in the lavish home the scene is set in.

The Cannibal Club has some successful elements, the lack of tension in the plot results in a rather forgettable film. Many parts of the film will feel reminiscent to similar films that came before it, all of them focusing on wealthy clubs who prey on the less fortunate, yet this film doesn’t carry the suspense or excitement of its predecessors. The performances by the two leads are enough to hold my interest and the stunning sets, cinematography, and effects give the audience something to catch the eye. Despite these more successful features, the film will likely be forgotten by the time people pick their “best of 2019” films.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10