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The whole time I was watching Antiviral, the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg-if the last name sounds familiar, it's because Brandon is the son of revered Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg-I was thoroughly enchanted with it. I kept having to remind myself that, yes, the movie does have some shortcomings, and they kept it from rating higher than it did. But the movie's immense style made me want to gloss those shortcomings over. This is definitely a case of form over function, and in that, early Brandon is on the same track as early David was-and by "early" with David Cronenberg I'm talking about his earliest features, 1969's Stereo and 1970's Crimes of the Future, rather than the "early" stuff everyone's seen (Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, by the last of which Cronenberg had already, as far as I'm concerned, reached the heights of body-horror greatness he would plumb until 1999's eXistenZ). When it comes right down to it, you're going to want to say you knew him when.
Plot: Syd March (No Country for Old Men's Caleb Landry Jones) works for a near-future company that specializes in a new form of celebrity-worship; they harvest diseases from celebrities, culture them, and infect paying clients with the same strain of the same disease their heroes have. In any case, supermodel Hannah Geist (Dracula Untold's Sarah Gadon) is rumored to have a brand new disease that no one has ever seen before, and Syd's company is desperate to get their hands on some of it. Syd is on the case-not only because he's good at his job, but because, unknown to his company, he is obsessed with Hannah.
Brandon does things the same way Dad does-build the characters well enough so that no matter how weird the situations, things remain somewhat plausible. Where Brandon differs is that it was pretty rare to find a pre-Spider Cronenberg film that seemed in any way realistic. In the days of ubiquitous reality TV and websites devoted to celebrity gossip seeing millions of hits per day, Brandon's near-future vision seems all too realistic. While there's an obvious body-horror aspect to what goes on here, this is more a movie about atmosphere, tension, and paranoia than it is about gross-out special effects, and it benefits tremendously from this. An tiviral is a touch unformed and maybe could've used one more rewrite to tighten up the plot, but it's stylish, creepy, and excels at portions of the filmmaker's craft that many journeymen have never mastered; a very good debut from a promising filmmaker. Can't wait to see what he does next. *** 1/2
The first half-hour or thereabouts of Comforting Skin is annoying in the extreme. It feels like it's going to be just another mumblecore movie (not even a mumblegore movie because, you know, no violence). You know the drill. Annoying characters you can't stand doing things they couldn't afford in the real world without anything much really going on around them. And then Koffie (Good Luck Chuck's Victoria Bidewell), our main character, gets her tattoo. And everything changes.
At the beginning, Koffie, co-worker Synthia (MVP: Most Valuable Primate's Jane Sowerby), and best-friend-who-Koffie-kind-of-wants-to-date-but-not-really Nathan (Road to Nowhere's Tygh Runyan) are exactly those people you loathe in the movies. Koffie and Synthia drink at the restaurant they both hate working at (they keep working there because, presumably, they can drink free-they certainly can't afford the amount of alcohol they consume on tips), have endless conversations about life, try to decide whether Nathan's hot or not, discuss Synthia's parade of sugar daddies, you get the idea. Those of you who give up on the movie and turn it off during this section are missing out, though. Koffie, feeling insecure, gets a tattoo because she thinks it'll make her look sexy/mysterious/more attractive. And then it starts whispering to her.
NOTE: the rest of this review will reveal, and then talk about, the major spoiler for the film. While you may well have guessed it from the brief synopsis above, if you are sensitive to that sort of thing and plan on seeing the film (you should), stop reading now.
The final hour and change of Comforting Skin is as perfect a depiction of Koffie's descent into delusional anxiety and depression as one could ask for. I speak from experience; I was in the exact place Koffie ends up in the climax of this film a little less than seven months ago. So when I tell you that Franson (who also wrote) knows his stuff, well, it's fresh in my mind, delusions and all. The longer that section of the movie went, the more I could identify with her. While it doesn't allow me to excuse how shallow and horrible a person Koffie is during the first half-hour of the movie, it makes it a little more understandable, and you can put the first bit down to debut-film jitters. Especially since the rest of the movie belies the first part by making it hard to believe this is a first film. Franson seems to go from not knowing where to put a camera, and certainly having no clue when to cut a scene or to stop with the repetition of a theme, to being the guy who gets pace, tension, and the small, subtle points of perfect movie characterization better than at least half the big-name filmmakers working in Hollywood today. If only any character in Interstellar had been half as complex and realistic as Koffie in the last hour of Comforting Skin, it would have been the great film it thought it was.
The dark side of getting it that right is, well, you get it that right. A lot of the last hour of this movie is going to be very awkward to sit through if you're normal. (To be fair, it's just as awkward if you get it, but at least you can vouch for its veracity.) And while I understand where Franson was going in one particular scene-without it being a major spoiler for one character, a lot of people had the same problem with Eric England going there in Contracted, though he knew what he was doing more-he may have been setting himself up for a lot of righteous anger from some people who will see that scene as marginalizing. Take it as you will; be warned you might be offended by it. Me, I was riveted to the screen the entire last hour of the film. Your mileage may vary. *** 1/2
Despite only giving Emily Hagins' first feature, Pathogen, three stars (but let's remember, three is still "above average" on a five-star scale), I unhesitatingly recommended it in my review because, well, it's a zombie movie that was made by a twelve-year-old and, aside from having basically no budget and some problems with acting ability, was a clever, fun take on the genre. Hagins returned five years later with her third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance, a teen vampire comedy whose purpose is to make fun of teen vampire comedies. And my favorite thing about it is that in every way, it's obvious Emily Hagins took Pathogen as a learning experience. My Sucky Teen Romance is a much better movie technically, with much more solid acting and a clever script (written by Hagins). In short: if you like your teen comedies with more romance than raunch, My Sucky Teen Romance is for you.
Plot: Kate (the gorgeous Elaine Hurt in her screen debut) is a shy teen with a hefty crush on comic-book-store employee Paul (Belleflower's Patrick Delgado). Kate convinces her best friend, society girl Allison (The Retelling's Lauren Lee), to go to a comic convention with her and a couple of nerdy friends, intending to run into Paul. What she doesn't know is that a few days beforehand, Paul was bitten by a vampire (Supernatural Activity's Devin Bonnée) and is in the process of changing. She also doesn't know that he feels the same way about her, but when the two of them are about to confess their feelings for one another, they're jostled in a hallway, and Paul's new fangs get jammed into Kate's neck. Which is all well and good, except that (a) they don't want to be vampires and (b) Kate's friends are all about staking the two of them before they turn for good. The two of them frantically try to hunt down the vampire that bit Paul before the process is irreversible.
I'm not going to try and convince you that there's any boundary-pushing to be done here or anything like that. This is a genre movie that revels in its genre movie-ness. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, a genre movie that delivers on the promises of the genre is a success on most levels you could care to mention. You could probably make the argument that I'm cutting Hagins some slack, and I wouldn't argue with you, but in all fairness, I've probably given more positive reviews to comedies in the past year than I did in the decade before that. Maybe I'm just getting softer in my old age, but I had a very good time with this one. *** 1/2
There a number of directors who have become canonical over the years whose films I have simply never gotten. Woody Allen. Mario Bava. Sam Fuller. Every time I dig into a Fuller movie I try and see what it is that sets him apart, and every time I fail. My most recent attempt was with the 1982 racism melodrama White Dog, and I think that perhaps I've figured out what the canon sees in him. I still didn't get to the "all that and a bag of racists" point with this one, but it's starting to make sense. The thing about Sam Fuller's strain of melodrama, if I'm right in my hypothesizing, is that in movies like Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street, both of which left me kind of cold, Fuller was doing that gig first; Douglas Sirk and Grace Metalious and Russ Meyer and all that lot would come after and hone the genre, so that when Fuller returned to the fold in the eighties, he not only had his own base to work from, he had everyone else's, too. And I think that, more than anything, may be what impressed me about White Dog: Fuller wasn't afraid to build on the work of others, rather than focusing obsessively upon his own corpus.
Plot: Julie Sawyer (Little Darlings' Kristy McNichol) finds what she believes to be a stray dog. Very attractive beast, if a little scraggly, so she takes him home, shows him a little TLC, and everything seems great-until all the sudden he attacks someone out of nowhere while she's walking him. Eventually, a pattern of behavior is established, and she comes to realize that he's not called a "white dog" because of the color of his coat-this is a dog who has been trained to attack black people. Believing that this behavior can be unlearned, she enlists the help of Hollywood animal trainer Keys (Terminator's late, great Paul Winfield) in retraining him. Keys, upon finding out (firsthand) the dog's conditioning, is reluctant to accept the job, but eventually becomes as obsessed as Julie with the idea that racism can be cured.
These days, in hindsight, when we think of Kristy McNichol, we think about her memoir and the horrible things that happened to her and, tangentially at best, Empty Nest. She didn't make a huge number of features over the course of her career, and Two Moon Junction was a horrible choice for everyone involved, but if you go back farther than that, McNichol was very good at what she did. Pair her with a guy like Winfield, who could take a dead guy on a table and give a compelling performance, and you've got some bones to hang a movie on. A maudlin movie to be sure, nakedly manipulative and full of the kinds of characters who have all the depth of a Phoenix snowstorm, but every once in a while there are good guys, there are bad guys, and we're not supposed to disagree. Fuller's got himself a ready-made villain-I mean, who trains a dog to attack black people?-and from there, your hero being a black dog trainer is obvious. That their characters have all the shade of a Joshua tree is kind of irrelevant.
Not a bad little movie at all; my favorite of the Fullers I've seen by a pretty wide margin. Expect something closer to a disease-of-the-week TV movie than Kurosawa and you'll have a grand time with it. *** 1/2
There are a whole lot of directors at work in America today who should be sat down-with as much force as necessary-and made to watch The Evictors, which is an excellent example of how to make a stylish, effective thriller on a basement budget. But since that's not going to happen, I can distill what they need to learn from this movie into a single sentence: look backward, not forward. Look, if you dare, at the plague of Asylum pictures and Syfy Original Movies and all that sort of dreck, and one thing you will likely notice is that everyone's waving around CGI like it's a brand-new toy they can't get enough of. It's a very loud, flashy toy, and it annoys the hell out of mom and dad five minutes after the box is opened. Now watch the opening sequence of The Evictors, which is filmed in sepia-tone; the sequence takes place in the thirties, and Pierce was going for that kind of look. It's very well-shot, it's obviously out of place, and it does what it sets out to do. If this movie was made in 2013, that sequence would probably be CGIed to death, and the movie would be the worse for it. This is not to say that The Evictors is a perfect film, not by any stretch of the imagination, but for what it is, it is a very good one.
Ben and Ruth Watkins (Kill Bill's Michael Parks and Suspiria's Jessica Harper) are a newly-married couple who get transferred to a little town in the sticks for Ben's job. They're still not rolling in cash, so the local realtor, Jake Rudd (The Bad News Bears' Vic Morrow), shows them a cheap house not far outside of town. You've seen this movie before. As soon as they move in, the townsfolk start treating them oddly, and soon they begin hearing rumors that awful things have happened in that house. With most of the town unwilling to help them, can they figure out what's going on with their erstwhile dream home before they end up being another story the locals tell their kids to keep them from going out at night?
A number of reviews I've read of the movie have as their main criticism that it isn't actually a horror movie. Compared to most of today's horror films, especially in America, it's easy to understand why people might raise this as an issue. Even something like the first half of The Descent, which has as its main fear-inducer simple claustrophobia, has a grittier, scarier feel to it than The Evictors. This is much more an exercise in atmosphere, tension, and suspense than it is horror. I do not in any way consider that a bad thing; quite the opposite. This is a horror film for people who appreciate Bèla Tarr and Krzyzstof Kieslowski movies. Better, then, to bring up some wooden acting-the more I see of Jessica Harper, the more I wonder why she continued getting roles in movies-and some set decoration that was kind of silly even for a zero-budget movie. (Just wait till you get a load of the neighbor's sitting room.) Still, despite problems, there is a great deal about The Evictors to like. ***