Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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What Metal Girls Are Into

Three women staying in a remote rental unit in the desert for a heavy metal festival make a gruesome discovery in the freezer, and find that the landlord and his friends have decidedly uncool intentions.

Fast, funny, and furious, with a good soundtrack and some crunchy kills. It delivers exactly what it promises on the box, in about 15 minutes, with wit and moxie.

The Battery

Mickey and Ben, a pitcher and catcher roaming through a post-apocalyptic New England landscape populated by slow-moving zombies, catch a hint of a possible haven over some purloined walkie-talkies. The mysterious voices they hear, though, don’t lead to salvation.

This 100 minute movie was about 80 minutes too long; I imagine that the world after a zombie apocalypse would indeed be incredibly dull, and that the survivors would tend to get on each others’ nerves, but one doesn’t watch a zombie apocalypse movie expecting the experience to be quite so tedious. I thought that the movie would finally pick up after an hour, when three additional living characters are introduced, but after a few minutes of real drama we get locked into an even more claustrophobic space with Mickey and Ben. I was rooting for the zombies toward the end, and even then was disappointed by a lackluster conclusion with a zombie hoard that can’t even catch a man who has been shot in the leg.

The Silence

Cave explorers unleash a hidden species of blind, ravenous, and accutely-hearing bat-like creatures, which wreak havoc on humankind. A family in New Jersey seeks to escape the noise of civilization, which attracts the flying monsters, and discover that sometimes humans can be just as dangerous.

This is “A Quiet Place” meets “The Birds” meets “Children of the Corn,” with a couple scenes of “The Strangers” and “Hunger Games” tossed in. The script telegraphs its intentions well in advance–not only Chekhov’s gun, but Chekhov’s drain pipe, rattle snake, inhaler, cigarette lighter, iPhone, and fire alarm; surprise is not the plan, I suppose. The cinematography is lovely, though, and the performances, particularly by Tucci and Shipka, are solid. Had it narrowed down its focus and not tried to toss in everything all at once, this could have been a good movie.

Ghost Stories

A professional psychic debunker is invited by his hero, a skeptic who disappeared years ago, to investigate three cases of the supernatural that appear to be inexplicable. He finds that it is the connection between the cases, rather than the facts themselves, that is the most disturbing.

This started off strong; I liked the windswept beach scene of the meeting between Goodman and Cameron, it looked very much like the setting of “I’ll Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the classic tale of a skeptic’s comeuppance; and the first story, in a haunted abandoned asylum, had some jump scares that made me jump. The next two stories, though, didn’t grab me in the same way, and as the framing story took center stage and began to look like a setup to an allegorical lesson I was disappointed. But in the last five or ten minutes, all the strands are pulled together in an interesting, if not surprising, way, and I came away liking it a bit more than I thought I would at the 45 minute mark, though still a bit less than I thought I would 30 minutes in.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

Four college boys — Eli, the scholarly Jew; Timothy, the debauched WASP; Oliver, the ambitious Kansas farmboy; and Ned, the wanton homosexual — travel Arizona over Easter break to visit a mysterious monastery that promises the gift of eternal life. Such a gift can only come at a terrible price.

The first two-thirds of this book are a bit of a slog; the characters are all pretty despicable, with casual misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism sprinkled through their alternating first-person narrative chapters. The trip from their unnamed prestigious East Coast school to Arizona, by way of New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, is a dull procession of sexual escapades and hours on the road, with bits of their personal histories told in flashback. Spending so much time inside the heads of these characters, particularly Timothy, is grueling.

Once at the House of Skulls, things pick up a bit. The monastery is indeed mysterious, and their days are spent learning to meditate, working in the fields that provide food to the isolated house, and listening to the history of the order, which may derive from some ancient Atlantean cult, or may simply be a mad undertaking by men whose brains have been addled by too much desert sun. The inevitable conclusion, which has been hinted at since the beginning, comes abruptly and violently, and the mysteries of the Book of Skulls remain mysterious.

There are certainly rich and intriguing ideas scattered throughout “The Book of Skulls,” though maybe not quite enough to sustain a novel with the kinds of characters we’re given. I’m happy to leave Eli, Timothy, Oliver, and Ned to their desert fates, having spent a bit too much time rattling around in their unremarkable heads.

Starry Eyes

Sarah is a struggling Hollywood actress, going to degrading auditions while holding down a fast food job, until she gets a callback for a role that will come at a very steep price, both for herself and for her friends.

This movie starts off a little slow and slightly off kilter, with a very strange sequence of audition scenes and a very creepy producer whose intentions are far beyond merely “inappropriate.” It picks up steam, though, as Sarah starts to literally fall apart. The last twenty minutes or so are absolutely bonkers insane, with giallo-level gore, gruesome body horror as Sarah decays before our eyes, and a terrifying death and rebirth arc.

Mercy Black

As children, Marina and her friend Rebecca stabbed their friend Lily as an offering to “Mercy Black,” a mysterious creature that promises to take away their and their families’ pain. 15 years later, Marina has returned home from the psychiatric hospital, and so, it appears, has Mercy.

This is pretty clearly inspired by the 2014 Slender Man case, and (from what I’ve heard, as I haven’t suffered through it personally …) better than the “Slender Man” movie. There are some interesting ideas about belief explored, and about the spread of urban myths, and there’s good atmosphere, tension, and scares. The ending is a little loose, with a couple of surprising twists, and it ends on a much more nihilistic note than I expected.

I didn’t go into this movie with very high expectations – it’s a Blumhouse straight-to-streaming release – but I came away enjoying it quite a bit more than I expected to. Maybe not destined to be a classic, but definitely a fun rainy-day movie.

Vacancy

A couple leaves the interstate to avoid a backup, run into car problems after a racoon encounter, and end up at a seedy motel for the night. Then things get unpleasant.

This is very much in the same vein as “The Strangers,” if a little less nihilistic (the villains in this case at least have a major snuff film operation, whereas the villains in “The Strangers” are just in it for the LOLs). Lots of tension, quite a few jumps, surprisingly little by way of on-screen gore and violence but a terribly dark premise. While not technically a “home invasion” movie, it definitely has all the tropes, and would stand up well in a double bill with “The Strangers,” “Better Watch Out,” and “Hush.” Highly recommended for fans of killers trying to barge through locked doors.

Love, Death, and Robots

“Love, Death, and Robots” consists of 18 unrelated short science fiction and fantasy films, all under 20 minutes and most animated rather than live action. Their quality varies wildly, from sublime to ridiculous; most look and feel like the video game trailers that sometimes pop up in the advertisements of the ridiculous CW superhero shows that I love to watch.

There were seven that I really liked–“Three Robots,” “Helping Hand,” “Ice Age,” “Sonnie’s Edge,” “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” “Good Hunting,” and “The Witness.” These had interesting stories, characters, and animation styles, and seemed to be more than just video game trailers. And there were a couple–“Shape-Shifters” and “The Secret War”–that I thought were just abysmal, with no effort to rise above the genre. The rest might have had a few interesting aspects–for example, Samira Wiley’s performance in “Lucky 13,” and the animation in “Fish Night”–but were mostly predictable and frankly dull.

Most also had gratuitous nudity to make them seem more “edgy” than they really were. Nudity was appropriate and used well in “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Witness,” but in the rest it seemed to be there mostly for the “NSFW” vibe. The violence was pretty much over the top, too, but not really out of place given the subject matter; some of it, particularly in “Sonnie’s Edge,” was grueling and effective.

Overall, this series reminded a lot of “Heavy Metal,” though without the loose unifying structure that the orb provided in that movie. I haven’t seen “Heavy Metal” in years, and I suspect that on re-watching it I’d find the same things to criticize, though it was a pretty awesome movie for a 14-year-old boy’s tastes; which seems to be the audience most of “Love, Death, and Rockets” was targeting as well.

Sacrifice

After suffering a series of miscarriages, an American doctor moves to her husband’s family’s estate on a remote Scottish island, with plans to adopt a child from a yet-more-remote island equipped with a state-of-the-art obstetric hospital for unwed mothers. When she discovers a bog body on her property, though, a grim mystery involving matricide and a patriarchal cult begins to unravel.

There are a lot of silly things about this movie that even the most intentional suspension of disbelief cannot overcome. I can accept that the doctor is good at detective work, but her handling of both a backhoe and a boat on a choppy North Sea channel are a bit hard to take. And I completely missed how the police sergeant who helps her with her investigation went from six weeks pregnant to giving birth to a pretty large baby in what seemed no more than a day or two in movie time. Based on a novel, it would seem that the film had to do some major time dilation to get its story to fit into an hour and a half.

Still, I enjoyed this movie more than I disliked it. Radha Mitchell, as the doctor, and Joanne Crawford, as the police sergeant, both give solid performances; the scenery is starkly beautiful; and the last 15 minutes is pretty awesomely unhinged, with more tension and drama than I anticipated. It’s not a complete waste of 90 minutes, and if you’ve already seen “The Wicker Man,” “The Apostle,” and “Harvest Home,” you might as well watch this take on creepy-fertility-rites-in-an-isolated-community tale.

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