Infinity Pool

A ridiculous premise for a film about the consequences of our actions , transforms into an incoherent mess becoming more inconsequential as it goes along. “Infinity Pool” is a horror film with a science fiction conceit that gets completed wasted and turns the story into an examination of unpleasantness for no reason whatsoever. This could have been something interesting and important, and it gets less and less of each of those things the longer it goes on. 

Alexander Skarsgård is  failed novelist James Foster, on holiday at a resort, in a country trapped in poverty and full of the kinds of cultural improprieties that we are supposed to overlook to avoid ethnocentrism. The tribalism and cultural imperative of family honor requires immediate retribution for offenses committed in the nation. So go ahead and trust the people you just met, and venture outside of the resort enclave, meet people from the place you are visiting, and learn their quaint form of justice, except there is a get out of jail card. Maybe the wilder the idea, the more fun we can have with it, after all “Face Off” ,was a blast in spite of being completely bonkers. The problem here is that no one is having fun with the premise, instead there are pretentions of insight into human behavior. That might have also made for a good story, but writer/director Brandon Cronenberg leaves that on the table to wallow in excess revulsion. 

The idea of buying your way out of the consequences of your actions is an interesting one. What does that process do to a persons sense of self. Does guilt linger or vanish? Will your morality disappear entirely? These are great questions that the film asks, but it’s answers are muddled by a series of indulgent episodes that become increasingly boring and irritating. Mia Goth, who gave what I thought was a fantastic performance last year in “Pearl”, at risk of being trapped in the same kind of roles in the future if she keeps getting parts like this. She is great here, but her character is just a slightly different twist on the sick mind that cropped up in that earlier film. Her character Gabi, at first is mysterious, but quickly becomes tritely cruel and less and less interesting. 

A few examples of the pointless excess that Cronenberg has created here might help you understand why this movie is infuriating. Gabi gives James a reach around after a few hours of picnicking with James and his wife? We get to see his seed spilled on the ground. Why? The sense of unearned intimacy is probably what the writer is seeking here, but that is physical rather than emotional, and the emotional is where this movie needs to be working. The best character in the film when it comes to dealing with the questions being raised by the premise, is James’s wife Em,  played by Cleopatra Coleman. Unfortunately, she is removed from the film and the only characters that James has to measure his behavior against, are the ones who are indulging in the reckless excess that will turn off most of the viewers. There is an extended orgy sequence shot as if it is the “stars” sequence from “2001”. It goes on interminably,  the lights flash in different colors, and we see hazy images of people entangled in some sort of sexual behavior, but what it is will never become clear. Obtuse abstractness is supposed to be artistic in these moments, rather, it is pretentious diddling. One last thing to irritate you, there are grotesque masks worn by the characters during many of the scenes of violence and lasciviousness. They were introduced early on, without a clear explanation and the cultural symbolism is completely baffling. The art house sensibility can’t be masked by the fact that this is a horror film, it simply makes the film less frightening and more vaguely symbolic. I call bullshit.

There was another potential direction the film could have gone in, one that the director set up and then completely ignored. How do we know that the doppelganger is the one being executed? Maybe the accused has been replaced by the clone. If that is the case, is there in fact a redemption of guilt because the surviving “person” is in fact, blameless? That is an intriguing thought. Unfortunately, it is not the thought Cronenberg wanted to dwell on. Instead, we get violent and emotional cruelty. Trippy visual interludes don’t make the film deep, they simply fill in the time between unpleasant characters doing more unpleasant things. None of it makes any sense, and the symbolism is too trite to be taken seriously, much less understood. Somewhere some cineaste will write about this and make it sound like an artistic breakthrough, I’m sorry, they will be as full of it as this movie was. 

M3GAN

It is possible to spend several paragraphs explaining how this movie could have been something dramatically deep and thematically significant. Like “A.I.” from 2001 or “Ex Machina” from 2015, this film deals with the question of human interaction with machines of intelligent design. This movie could have explored issues of attachment, grief, co-dependence, a whole variety of human conditions that might be effected by the development of artificial intelligence. Taking that path however, would have eliminated the primary function of the film, which is to scare us. This is a monster movie, like “Frankenstein”, where our own creations turn on us and the audience can at times identify with the monster. 

The trailer will give you the set up, but it comes down to this, an artificial person starts acting in ways that are not socially or morally acceptable. There is little doubt as to what is going to happen, this story has been around for a couple hundred years. The thing that makes it a little different is that the monster in in the form of a little girl doll and the person she has been created to assist is herself a little girl. Even though there was a possibility that the story line could turn to end of the world scenarios, it stays a little more grounded and the threats are immediate and localized.

Does it work? As a scare generator it is effective. We get a couple of jump scares but mostly there is a steady build up of tension and the creep factor which keeps us engaged. Dolls seem to be by definition a little disturbing, acting as substitutes for humans, typically in play situations. In this situation the doll is acting as playmate rather than plaything, and has the additional plot of replacing a human component with one that is generated through artificial intelligence. If that replacement of human contact had been followed, you would have a psychological horror film, but not a thriller. This movie goes the thriller route with mysterious deaths and ominous looks from the mechanical star. 

Other than the doll itself, the two main characters are played by Allison Williams as Gemma, the aunt who takes in her orphaned niece, and who also happens to be a cutting edge toy designer, and Violet McGraw as Cady, the nine year old with a deep psychological scar from her parents death. The least realistic part of the film is the way these two manage to be around each other before the introduction of the doll. Aunt Gemma acts as if she has never encountered a child before, was detached from her dead sister, and only overcomes professional setbacks by using shortcuts that no legal department would ever really allow. Cady gets a little more leeway, after all she is a kid suffering a great loss, but her character is more truculent than sympathetic. Only a few times, planned to make the other parts of the plot work, does she let her emotional guard down. They are better written characters once the plot kicks in.

M3GAN, is the doll at the center of the story, and she is played by a combination of a young actress in costume and a variety of puppets,and some CGI. The actress/puppet element makes the movie so much more effective because the creepy doll looks like a child sized version of those adult rubber dolls that are sold as sex toys. The element of the story that is helpful in engaging us is how young Cady bonds with Megan and Megan seems to be providing comfort that the Aunt is incapable of. If you watch the demo scene played out where Megan comforts Cady while an audience of executives look on, you can see some to the places that this film could go. It doesn’t go there however, it becomes a straight up horror picture,like “Child’s Play” but without any supernatural element. 

Ever since “2001” let loose an AI that we could not control, there have been a string of horror films that follow the same path. “Skynet” is not that far off my friends. The more we turn our lives over to “Siri”, “Alexa” and Bixby”, the more vulnerable we will be. Maybe we don’t really need to worry about malevolent machines, but we should be worried about the unintended consequences of giving technology increasing control of our daily lives. That’s not what this movie is about, but it could have been. This is a solid January horror film, but it will be forgotten when the next scary movie comes out. 

The Menu

Part social satire, part morality tale and part horror film, “The Menu” mixes it’s ingredients in the right proportions to set a satisfying movie meal before you. If you think too hard about what it all means, you are probably committing some of the same offenses as one of the lead characters in this film. Be careful, you could end up in the sequel called “The Screening”. If you can just sit back and savor what is in front of you, you will enjoy it so much more. Then you can digest it for hours afterwards and come up with all the right adjectives to make your own dessert.

The trailer for the film seems to suggest that this is a variation of the Hunger Games with guests being hunted down by the staff. That scenario does occur for about three minutes of the film, but it is mostly misdirection. This is a story about a group of zealots, taking out their frustrations on what they see as deserving targets, before they themselves participate in their own version of the “Heaven’s Gate” event from nearly twenty five years ago. This time, the cult leader “Do” is replaced with the star Chef played by Ralph Fiennes. Chef Slowik is a lot more charismatic than the befuddled Marshall Applewhite, but he is no less deadly and utterly fierce in his convictions. There is an incident in the story to demonstrate how he feels no compunction over what he is planning, because he is taking blame for his faults as well. This scene helps set up the twist at the end because we learn that in spite of the narcissism that he is guilt of, he wants to reject the label of being “special”.  A chink in the armor is revealed.

With flashes of brilliant absurdism, the conceit of an exclusive dining establishment, imposing a menu on the guests that reflect their vapidity works very well at providing opportunities for surprise. A gourmet  take down of the guests with the denial of a standard part of the meal, provokes laughter at the haughty way it is imposed and the deconstructionist baloney that lets the guests accept it. This is followed by a true reveal of how insidious the evening is going to be with a shocking swipe at mere excellence, in a ugly joke perpetuated as a lost soul dies. The nature of the cultish thought process sinks in at this point and that is where the real horror begins.

Anya Taylor-Joy as the last minute replacement on the guest list, matches words with the Chef  in an assertive manner that gets slapped down, at least until she discovers the way to a man’s heart is through his choice of cuisine. Nicholas Hoult as a preening foodie who laps up all of the experience as a member of a very different cult, also provides a huge amount of amusement by his words and actions. It is the early relationship between Hoult and Taylor-Joy that makes the set up so intriguing and at first funny. In the end though, It is her manipulation of inside knowledge and her understanding of the Chef, that makes the story soar at the end.

“The Menu” has plenty of other characters but they are used for very brief bits of business. The three corporate stooges who feel entitled by their positions, each offer a moment of levity, but the story never takes any of them seriously. The same is true of the other guests. They have some chances to get a laugh out of us, or joust unsuccessfully with the staff, but in the long run they are background for the main relationship of the film. The devious menu is capped off with a dessert that mocks the gourmet spirit of the guests and celebrates the mendacity of the Chef and his crew. It will also provide you  with an hysterical visual joke to finish your meal with. “Bon appetite!”

Smile

October has arrived, and with it, the start of the spooky season on-screen. We get a pretty good one to lead off in “Smile”. Basically, this is a contagion story, like “The Ring” or “IT Follows”. Some mysterious force is passing along a curse that is leading to the death of those who end up in it’s path. For ninety percent of the film, it sticks to this concept and the horror is based on creeping psychological moments and disturbing deaths that follow those moments. It is only in the last few minutes that it turns into a creature feature and loses track of what was working so well up to then.

The cast is made up of familiar faces from television, and they all do a credible job selling their moments. Sosie Bacon comes across as a sincere therapist who has the job of trying to help a disturbed young woman who is having bizarre  paranoid vision. Her early calm demeanor and sympathetic face make what happens in the course of the film more horrifying. We know that this is a good person who is having something terrible take over her life. The fact that what happens is largely depicted as her own psyche falling to pieces is what makes the story compelling. It is a trope in these kinds of movies, that the victims come across as disturbed, which is why their explanations of supernatural origin are dismissed. You would think that a psychology professional would be able to get around that and speak to others in a way that is more rational and convincing. When the patient is yourself, it is not so easy.

There are a few death scenes that account for part of the horror in the film. The initial suicide is plenty disturbing, although the medical professional’s call for help should have been responded to quicker, the slow execution of the moment makes it visually compelling. Other deaths are mostly suggested and displayed in brief forms. The truth is that this film gets most of it’s horror impulse from jump scares, scattered throughout the movie. The jump scare is a cheap tactic but when it works, the impact on the audience can be quite chilling. There were two that worked on me, and one of them gave me the kind of shiver deep down that we really want from a horror film. 

An important component of the plot is that the witness to the death must be traumatized by it for the contagion to take hold. We know from early on that Dr. Cotter, the character played by Bacon, witnessed her own Mother’s suicide after having been neglected as a child. She is in essence suffering from a survivor’s form of PTSD. The interactions with her sister and fiance are good opportunities for us to have insight into how the long term suffering is masking the current crisis. We know also, that she has had a failed relationship in the past because of these issues. The best parts of the movie deal with the tender way she is trying to hold it together in the current situation, and how she is failing at doing so. 

Because it is a movie and not just a play, we are going to get some visual representations of those inner thoughts, and that is a tip off from early on that we cannot trust the things that we are seeing. Sometimes they are presented as nightmares, or daydreams, but there are a couple of extended points that are fake outs and undermine the audience’s ability to identify with the character. In the climax, we get a visualization of the traumatic id that turns the end of the movie into a monster story rather than a psychological thriller. It’s a pretty good visualization but it feels unnecessary and I thought it detracted from the ultimate finishing moment.

In spite of a few missteps, the movie largely succeeds at being frightening, thoughtful and entertaining. There were some nice scary moments and the film takes the time to let the pressure build. I’d say it is a reasonably good start to the Halloween onslaught of  horror. Enjoy your goosebumps this month.  

NOPE

I was a big fan of “Get Out“, Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut. His second film “Us“, however, was maybe the most laughably bad movie I saw in 2019. So I was worried about which way this film was going to go. The original trailer was intriguing, but not convincing on it’s own. The subsequent trailers were less inspiring and I started having big doubts about how this would all work out. I am relieved to say that the film is solid, with a good deal of suspense, a couple of good scares and some humor. The action based last act seems to come out of nowhere and it feels like a slightly different movie at that point, but not a bad different movie, just not one that feels closely tied to what came before. 

Regular visitors know that I do not regurgitate the plot of the film in these reviews and I avoid as much as possible spoiler material. I am going to share something with you however that may be interpreted as a spoiler by some, so be aware…this movie is filled with red herrings and when it is done, you may very well wonder why they were all there. This is especially true with the flashback sequences to a different horror story that is told in the movie. There is no logical reason for it’s presence except as a story telling piece of legerdemain, designed to distract us at times from things that are goin on in the main plot.  It is a well told story with it’s own elements of suspense and horror, but it has no relationship to the events that happen here, except both stories take place in the entertainment industry.

Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings who are part of a show business group that provide horses and wrangle them on Hollywood productions. After the mysterious death of their father (an underused Keith David), they are struggling to keep their ranch together and selling off horses that are part of the family legacy. Kaluuya plays OJ, a man who has a hard time making himself heard on set and off. Keke Palmer is his sister Emerald, who has trouble in the opposite direction, she can’t turn it off most of the time. When they discover something unusual taking place in the gulch where their ranch is located, they try to find a way to use that discovery to save them from financial ruin. Down the dirt road is Ricky “Jupe” Park, played by Steven Yuen, a former child star with his foot in a different branch of the entertainment industry, and he too has plans to use the discovery to his advantage. It is the convergence of these two stories that is the only thread which brings the horror elements we are shown together. 

Because OJ is so quiet, his character starts off without much relatability. I did feel that his character grew as a presence in the story and by the end, he had earned a heroic plotline. In one of those red herring sequences in the film, he gets to play against the hard type that he is shown as, and it works as a moment of humor.  Another character, Angel, Brandon Perra, is added to the mix and he also jukes the story humor up a bit while still keeping the suspense going. The slow build first act of the film sets us up really well for the edge of our seats fear and terror of the second act. There are some big unexpected moments, and the twist of the horror/sci-fi concept is revealed and sort of interesting. Michael Wincott joins the group as a mysterious cinematographer, and I don’t quite get what his actions at the end are supposed to mean, but he does tend to add a little gravitas to the last section of the film. 

So not everything in the story comes together, and the resolution feels like it came out of left field, but it was fun anyway. I think the movie does mostly what you want a horror film to do. It creates a creepy atmosphere, it tells us enough about the characters to make us care and enjoy being in their company, and it ultimately produces some thrills that are fear based and suspenseful. It’s nice when a movie offers you things that you were not expecting, it just odd when those things are disconnected from the plot. Enjoy going down a few dead ends, but you will get a fine amount of entertainment from everything else. 

Becky

Hallelujah, the drought is broken, at least for a bit.  It has been 87 days since I saw a movie in a theater, and it was driving me a little mad. I know others have sacrificed so much more than I in this pandemic, but I can only speak to my pain, and not going to the movies was incredibly painful to me. Sure, it’s not like a disease, but ask anyone who gives up those things they love, it means something to them. Fortunately my addition is relatively innocuous so there was no physical danger, just mental anguish. How did this dam finally burst, especially since movie theaters are still not open? It’s simple, there is an nearly outdated concept called a “Drive-In”. It’e been twenty years since I went to a “Drive-In” theater, and that was for a special event for a local radio program at Halloween. It was twelve years prior to that when I last saw a regular feature at a drive-in. Yesterday, I saw a post while I happened to be on Facebook, and when I clicked the link, there was a trailer and information about where the movie was playing locally. That is if you think of 20 miles away as being local. I will get to the review in just a minute but a few more words about the Drive-In first.

The show was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm, so I left the house at &;30, and arrived at the destination pretty much ten before 8. The line of cars was four lanes wide, and backed up a block. It took twenty-five minutes to pay and get into the screening area. This complex had four screens, every screen had a full lot under the social distancing rules of one empty space on each side. So they could only be at 1/3 of their capacity. The line for the bathroom was slow and longer than most lines at Disneyland. The concession stand was also a long line, so I skipped both. I missed having popcorn more than trying to relieve myself, fortunately I was not in need as many others were.

Okay, enough about the experience, let’s talk about the movie. “Becky” is perfect Drive-In fare. It reminded me of some of the grindhouse style films that I did see in those venues when I was young and went to Drive-Ins regularly. It is a nasty piece of survival/revenge porn, that finds the most awful ideas, shows them to you, slathers on some blood, and then serves it up with enough inventiveness to make you cheer when the bad guys get their comeuppance. The premise is simple, a thirteen year old girl has to fight back against neo-Nazi escaped convicts. It is exploitation material, but it was not as lurid as many things you may have seen.

The cast features comedic actor  Joel McHale, best known for the TV series “Community” , in a straight dramatic part as the father of 13 year old Becky. The two of them have been struggling since the death of her Mother, and he is trying to move on to a new relationship but Becky is having none of it. They cross paths with the ruthless Dominick, an Aryan Brotherhood type who has lead a band of four escaped prisoners to the cabin of Becky and her dad, They are seeking a key, which turns out to be a McGuffin, simply used to bring the victims into the sights of the predators. Dominick is played by another comedic actor form TV, Kevin James. The two sitcom actors acquit themselves fairly well in the dramatic roles, though James gets the meatier part and has a chance to ham it up a little bit.

The star of the film is Lulu Wilson, who I did not know but I have seen in “The Haunting of Hill House” net series. The character of Becky is traumatized from the death of her Mom, she is in rage at the choices her father is making about her life and his own, and finally, she has reached puberty and at the age of 13 has all the resentment and anger that that stage in life often brings. When you couple that with the traumas she witnesses on this weekend visit to the family cabin, you can begin to believe she is capable of doing some of the things that the story has her executing. Imagine Kevin McCallister, only without the comedy and you will get the idea. I poke in the eye in this film does not result in three stooges guffaws, but rather dangling eyeballs that will have to be operated on with blunt instruments in the kitchen. Motorboating will not be a sex game played between a woman’s breasts. Plowing the field is also not going to feel the same after witnessing this. Maybe the Joker can make a pencil disappear without all the blood, but Becky can get a lot of blood from pencils and especially a ruler.

Sure there are a few things that don’t make much sense. For instance, the movie starts like so many films do these days, at the epilogue instead of the beginning of the narration. We never know why the key is supposed to be in the house, or how Becky came to have it. It is also hard to believe that the little girl is strong enough to overcome at least some of the men in this film. The one sympathetic bad guy, played by wrestler turned actor Robert Maillet. Frankly, if I saw that guy coming for me, I’d lose it instantly, he is a monster. Surprisingly, he is a somewhat sympathetic character in the film. Ultimately, no one gets out of the scenario unscarred, and I guess that is the point. Well not really, the point is to take pleasure in the horrible things that happen to the horrible people. Some of the films playing on the other screens were comedies or Academy quality dramas. I was happy to be enjoying an exploitation film in its natural habitat. I almost felt like I was back in mine. Hopefully soon, but till then, all hail the drive in.

Underwater

If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. “Underwater” was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So “Underwater” has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.

On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect.  I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned “Rotten Tomatoes” as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but “Underwater” was rated “Fresh” on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said “Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.” My dinner this evening was not very good. I can’t say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.

To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn’t work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. “Underwater” eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can’t really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.

When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years.  I’ll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with “Alien” we got to care about those characters before their demise.

The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel’s accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don’t all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in “Cloverfield”. When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.

One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can’t just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense.   Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let’s see how it all pans out when “Dolittle” arrives in a week.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Eight Legged Freaks

[Originally Published on Fog’s Movie Reviews, Fall 2013]

Here is a Halloween Special for you all.

There is a long history of movies where nature strikes back at the human world. From the “Island of Lost Souls” to “The Happening”, Mother Nature proves that she is not someone to be messed with. (Although running away from the wind may just be the one way to mess with her that would cause her to crack up and just stop trying to wipe us out). The most fertile period of time for these far fetched stories was the post war atomic age when exposure to radiation causes giant ants, killer rabbits, and irritated amphibians. In the lengthy annals of horror films featuring monsters that are simply real creatures pushed to the brink, no animal, fish or insect has been more widely used to terrify us than the spider. Most people instinctively withdraw their hands from proximity to a spider. The hair on the back of our necks raises at the thought of one normal spider crawling across our flesh. It is therefore no surprise that out sized spiders have been a go-to critter whenever a film maker is looking for a way to scare us. Our fear of spiders is also something that is regularly mocked. In “Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character jokes ” Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.” It is this combination of the frightening and the ridiculous that makes “Eight Legged Freaks” a movie that I want everyone to see.

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This 2002 horror comedy has a enough to recommend it despite being cheesy as hell and way over the top. While there are a couple of legitimate scares and  plenty of creepiness to make this a fun horror film for anyone who doesn’t want their terror too gory, the biggest selling point is the humor. This film is a hoot and should give you a couple of laughs to brush off the ickiness of watching spiders. Most of the laughs are intended unlike some other films in this unique category. A small dying Arizona town ends up being over run by spiders that have  been contaminated by toxic waste.  It seems a spider wrangler named Joshua is planning on making a fortune selling these quickly growing arachnids to collectors and spider enthusiasts. The creepy Joshua is played by genre veteran Tom Noonan. His friendship with the bright preteen son of the local sheriff allows a little time for exposition on the spiders and their habits, once that is done, exit Joshua after providing a convenient start to the story. There is not much doubt that we will need that information later, because we get some nice quick little illustrations of what each breed of spider is capable of. Unfortunately, young Mike falls into “Wesley Crusher” syndrome and becomes the one source of knowledge that anyone needs for the rest of the movie.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442581-2100-1377 Mike’s mother is the sheriff and she has eyes for the  returning son of the deceased owner of the local mine. A largely superfluous romantic plot that gives star David Arquette something more to do when he is not reacting to big damn spiders.

Most of the plot details don’t matter because the movie is an excuse to use CGI spiders that are huge and have them do creepy things to the locals. The number of other films referenced here is pretty substantial. There is a “Dawn of the Dead” vibe based around the location the locals choose to make their stand against the spiders. “Gremlins” is cribbed from as the spiders begin to overtake the town. The 1950s creature features are acknowledged with a clip from “Them!” playing on the TV in the background of one scene. “Eight Legged Freaks” plays out sometimes like a Frankenstein version of a horror film with a part inserted here and some leftover ideas from there being added on.

So if the movie is derivative and it is not really scary, what is it that would make you need to see it? The answer is twofold; fun shots of CGI Spiders and occasional Three Stooges type humor. The weaker of the two elements are the jokes. It is a hit or miss proposition, For every well placed L.Ron Hubbard crack, there is a bad piece of camera mugging by one of the actors. There is a cute oblique reference to a Monty Python Parrot sketch and then at some other point there is a slightly unfunny double take done by Doug E. Doug. Arquette actually ad-libbed his line about the big bugs being “eight legged freaks” and it is one of the pieces of dialogue that works and it became the title of the film as a result. If only all of the script’s dialogue had had that sense of crazy frustration. There are a few too many Alien conspiracy jokes that involve anal probes. The film is directed at a tween audience, so there are romantic subplots and potty humor. This would be a pretty good Halloween Film for your 8 to 12 year old kids.

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The stronger argument for seeing the film concerns the spider shots. There are some cool ideas that work despite the ancient CGI technology involved. At one point a teen is being chased by spiders that can jump twenty yards at a time, he rides his motorbike through the hills and makes a jump himself that has a fun kick to it. Of course a dozen other kids get taken and are never heard from or referenced again. This is a comedy after all not really a horror show. The old barber who take refuge in the sporting goods shop, is followed by an animated tent across the floor of the store. It is a corny joke that works because none of this is being taken seriously. Even the sections where you don’t actually see the spiders are visually interesting. Trap door spiders start taking down ostriches at a local ranch and the vanishing birds are the punchline. There is a great showdown between a cat and one of the big spiders that takes place inside the walls of the deputies home. It is visualized in an amusing way and it sets the tone for the film early in the stages of the spider invasion.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442634-2100-1153The initial stages of the spider invasion feels like that section of “Gremlins” when the gruesome little monsters take over the town. All hell breaks loose and there are panicked citizens running through the streets. Some people get wiped out and others stare in disbelief as it happens. Then they run and some comic bit with a spider trying to eat a stuffed moose-head is inserted. The lead up to the town being over run is sometimes not as fun as it should be but once the shooting of spiders starts the mayhem turns into the goofy monster-fest the film has wanted to be from the beginning.

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The last act of the film features a march of arachnids not seen since “Starship Troopers”. Hundreds of giant spiders crawl over the screen and the locals try to shoot, squash, stab, fry and puncture them. Plenty of green splatter fills the edges of the movie, instead of the blood that would be there from the humans being shredded. The use of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as a musical motif keeps things light in spite of the dozens of casualties the townsfolk run up during the attack.

As I re-watched this, I experienced many cringe worthy moments of humor that failed and acting that isn’t. The kids in the movie are wooden, including a very young Scarlett Johansson. Her next movie would feature that shot of her behind that opens “Lost in Translation”, but here she is playing a little younger and sexy is not really the mood they were looking for. David Arquette is better suited for a role like the weird deputy in “Scream” than he is for playing action hero. Doug E. Doug and Rick Overton are the comic relief and both of them mug shamelessly for the camera. The human element is not the movies strong suit.  Don’t worry though because big ass spiders are coming and once they start overrunning the town, you will have a pretty fun time.

There are better horror films and there are better horror comedies. “Arachnophobia” may be the best analogous movie but it lacks spiders  the size of a tank and visuals of people being dragged off and spun into webs. Even though this is the mildest recommendation I have yet made for “Movies I Want Everyone to See”, there is something that makes me push the button for this movie. It’s probably just that I’m tickled by shots like this:Wallpaper-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442625-800-600

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Ready or Not

Human beings are incredibly complex animals. While it is true that we have the same basic physical characteristics as other animals, for the moment, we are the only ones who can create elaborate stories to amuse ourselves. The detail, intricacy and inventiveness of some stories is amazing. The MCU has woven together twenty or so films so that ideas are connected in fairly logical ways. That is amazing. What is also amazing are the premises that we can invent for a story to exist in. “Ready or Not” doesn’t have the internal logic of a comic book universe. It does not unify a variety of different story lines into a coherent single narrative like some films attempt to do [ex: Babel, Crash etc.]. This movie has only one idea, but it is a pretty good one. New members of a rich family must participate in a game ritual before they are truly accepted into the clan. That’s all, except of course it isn’t.

As a device for entertaining us, “Ready or Not” is a morbid little piece of film making that takes it’s premise seriously, in spite of how preposterous it is. There are exit strategies available to the young couple which would abrogate all that follows, but that would deny us the pleasure of seeing the premise play out. So forget how the rules are supposed to work. Don’t worry about internal consistency. Just sit back and watch the mayhem, root for the heroine and laugh at the gruesome macabre sense of humor that the story tellers have come up with.  Samara Weaving , a doppelganger for  Margot Robbie, plays Grace, the bride who is joining the eccentric and ultimately evil Le Domas family. Once the trap has been sprung, the movie is a series of escapes, close calls, character reveals and assorted Road Runner/Coyote antics, all with a heavy dose of violence.

The nice part of the story is we will actually like Grace. She is not a gold digger, she just happened to fall in love with the wrong man. The collection of misfits in the family is fun to watch because their privilege is so clearly on the surface and so exaggerated, no one will take this as a serious commentary on the haves and the have nots.  If you read a review of this movie that takes that point of view, be careful, the author is just of it and you are being indoctrinated rather than informed by reading such clap trap. This is purely a work of imagination, a disturbed imagination, but certainly one that wants to amuse us rather than comment on the world around us. Grace discovers her situation, takes an appropriate amount of time to adjust to it, and then acts in a way that any of us might try as well. She continues to be a sound human being, and each time the horrible people she is up against try to take advantage of that. When at the end, the nature of the family “curse/agreement” is explained, it may seem over the top, but remember, this is just a story to entertain you.

The family is filled with quirky Aunts, entitled parents, climbing nephews and nieces, and some pretty unsympathetic help. This is another one of the places that makes little sense given the rules established in the story. Why the housekeepers and butler would be part of the ritual is not really explained, but why are you asking? This is about playing a game for no reason other than the fun of it. When random characters are dispatched by accident we will laugh at the sadistic way the writers found to visualize it on screen. As we see how inept some of the family is, we will be amused when those are the people who cause the mistakes or suffer the consequences of said mistakes.  All that we want is to keep rooting for the sympathetic Grace and wait for the comeuppance the family is earning for itself. The twists and turns are what this is all about.

Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody are faces I know from other films and that may be why they leave the biggest impression. Czerny is the cavalier head of the family who can’t believe that anyone might challenge the established order of their universe. He also is the exasperated voice of the family when the unfortunate relatives screw up. MacDowell has moved from being the ingenue in the story, to being the main romantic lead, and now to the matron role that aging actresses get saddled with. The false sympathy she conveys shows that she has grown as an actress, who had to be dubbed in her first film, to someone who is competent in conveying a character, regardless of how realistic that character is. Adam Brody is on the brink of outgrowing the young callow characters he is playing in most things, but he got more to do in this film than he did in “Shazam!” earlier this year.

It says something about people when they can invent the scenario that comes up here. It might say even more about us that we could be amused by that scenario. This is a dark hearted comedy thriller. If you have the kind of sensibility that allows for you to laugh a a stranger’s unfortunate demise, then you will probably enjoy this film. If you require that a story be logically consistent and exist in a real world scenario, better you stay away. If you have a sick appreciation of the absurd however, you will find this movie a romp right down your alley. Now all we have to do, is figure out which kind of player you are.

It Chapter Two

Two years ago, the trailer for “It” built enough anticipation to make a slightly above average horror film, into a monster hit. That original trailer showed us next to nothing, other than the scene that introduces us to Pennywise the clown, in the gutter, tempting little Georgie. When the rest of the film showed up, it could not live up to that terrifying and suspenseful three minutes. They certainly tried with some clever effects and good performances from the young cast. Fans of the book knew there was more coming and naturally Chapter Two was a forgone conclusion.

The pattern repeats itself here. The first film gives us the promise of something special, and we waited two years for it. What we got was pretty average and not nearly as scary as that original trailer for the first film. The trailers for this movie also gave away too many of the creepy moments that would work better as a surprise.

I will say that the opening of the film works very well. A brutal confrontation with small town bigots actually makes us wish for Pennywise to show up and dispatch these a**holes as soon as possible, but first we are reminded about how evil the clown is, and that his return under any circumstances would not be desirable. After a few chilling images that suggest things have started up again, we get a basic quest film story. First the heroes must gather, most reluctantly. Then each of them has to complete a quest individually, in order to proceed to battle, and then finally they all have to come together and work as a team. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.

Probably because the book was so dense, there is some exposition that has to be rushed. It sure seems awkward when one character basically roofies another with psychedelic activated natural juices to get him to share his visions. It was also unclear why, after all the losers have gathered and been subjected to a psychic attack from Pennywise, that they still need to be convinced. The idea that their memories have faded after leaving town is an interesting one but not very well explored. Since the film ends up being the better part of three hours anyway, maybe trim the bloated visual effects at the end, and build and solve this mystery at the beginning.

The individual quests are reasonably entertaining, but there is an element of repetitiveness to them. After the first jump scare with a truly disturbing visual effect, the subsequent experience are a series of diminishing returns that rob the story of any drive and frequently take us down a path of confusion that is never really developed or needed. Jessica Chastain as the grown version ofthe lone girl in the first film is fine.  Bev’s trip down memory lane was the standout in this set of moments, but it was also the one that was featured in the original teaser trailer so that the only surprize is the last minute creature effect that gives us a jump scare. Maybe I’m a little jaded having watched two other horror films the day before, but I had none of the anticipation of dread that filled the first film.

There is a running joke about how Bill played by James McAvoy, as a grown man who is now an author of thrillers, is not very good at creating endings for his story. We get that joke at least three times, including a delivery of the punchline by the actual author of this story. I suppose the point of this was to prepare us for the let down of an ending we get here. The best moments of emotional satisfaction in the relationships between the characters, get drowned out by an overblown CGI sequence which features the cast chanting a message that feels pretty hollow. It also goes on, and on. Some many things that had to be condensed, were reduced to give us more of this, the least interesting and frightening part of the film. The coda has some nice moments, Bill Hader steals most of the movie and there is a clever bookend that ties in to the introduction, but the voice over material is overwrought and goes on far too long as well.

“It Chapter Two” is a disappointment from a horror perspective but it is visually inventive and there are a few jump scares that will probably satisfy fans. I really wanted to like it better. Unfortunately, that was true of the original film as well. The adult casting of the kids from the original is solid. Those kids are also back in a series of flashback points that elaborate on the end of the first film and fill in some narrative spots for this story.