Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reunion (2015)

"An unstable mental patient goes on an overnight rampage to terrorize an ex-rock star and his friends, only to discover she is linked to him in mysterious ways."

It's not often that I watch and review two indie horror screeners in a row. In previous years, I've tended to be more of a mainstream horror movie reviewer and would have preferred to keep things that way. Unfortunately, the theatrical horror releases this year have been fewer and further between than in the mid '90s, and like a lot of other bloggers, I found myself without anything to write about.

Instead of trying to compete with "zero day reviews" for movies in genres which I don't particularly care for, I've even been desperate enough to try reading books in my spare time (oh, the horror!), and I've now offered my services (dubious as they may be) to absolutely anyone who has a new horror movie to keep me entertained. I suppose it could be worse. At least I'm not watching any more sci-fi movies or comedies.

Unfortunately, for my review of the "Reunion" screener, I've only just finished reading Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" (2007), and ignoring the supernatural elements from that novel, I noticed more than a few coincidental similarities.

“Reunion” and “Heart-Shaped Box” both tell stories which feature a former rock star, contain scenes of domestic abuse fuelled by alcoholism, have characters with memories blotted out, exposition is revealed in flashbacks, and of course, their protagonists get stalked and sliced-up. There are other things, but I'm not allowed to say what they are at this time. My hands are tied, but I'm sure you'll finger it out... I mean figure it out for yourselves. Oops.

Although I've agreed not to give away any spoilers, some key elements also remind me of several of the late Richard Laymon's novels from my misspent youth, and I'll tentatively throw-in that there may also be some nods to "Halloween II" (1981), "Halloween" (2007), and ""Fright" (1971) as well. That being said, "Reunion" is far more modern and more in the realms of "extreme horror" than its precursors.

Lest I be misconstrued, I'm not saying that writer Bert Havird or director Shawn Chou consciously "borrowed" anything, especially as the movie adaptation of "Heart-Shaped Box" has been stalled for years, but "Reunion" is very much in the same vein and will definitely keep Joe Hill fans satiated. I know that I was.

With its non-linear storytelling and somewhat harrowing subject matter, "Reunion" might be a struggle for regular people to get through. There's a lot of shakycam for one thing, and there are several borderline arty moments which could put traditionalists off. If I wanted to be overcritical and harsh, I'd call the cinematography "pretentious and overambitious", but it's always better to be overambitious than to have no ambition at all, isn't it?

It's all very involved, and there's quite a lot (maybe too much) to keep track of. Even with a standard running time of just over an hour and a half, "Reunion" feels much longer and is emotionally draining to watch even for the most hardcore slasher aficionado. Underneath it all, however, you'll be pleased to know that the usual slasher tropes, character flaws, and stupid decisions abound. Yes, there's some fun stuff here too.

As I'm sworn to secrecy about the major plot points, I can't reveal anything more about “Reunion” other than it's a classy production with great performances and gallons of blood. I'm not sure if this movie is going to be as well received by the general horror fandom as something like “Starry Eyes” (2014), but it's likely to be very highly rated by millennial indie horror fans.

“Reunion” stars Maria Olsen, Jack Turner, Sarah Schreiber, Reign Morton, and Cara Santana. The supporting cast includes Ruth Reynolds, Arielle Brachfeld, Christopher Wolfe, Leif Gantvoort, and Matthew Jaeger.

For further details, please check out the official Facebook page.

Here's another teaser trailer:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Gore Orphanage (2015)

"Set in the depression era, Gore Orphanage shows that some things are worse than losing your family."

Sharing the title and same urban legend with an earlier low-budget horror movie from 1980 which I've never seen, "Gore Orphanage" adds to one of Ohio's most famous (albeit extremely fanciful) ghost stories by successfully slipping the motivation of real life English murderer Mary Bell into the mix.

Obviously, being British myself, I wouldn't have ever known about the Gore Orphanage urban legend, but I did know about Mary Bell who was all over the news in the early 1980s and caused another kerfuffle during the Tony Blair era when the government failed to prevent her (as a convicted murderer) from profitting financially through sales of her published story.

Of course, if you don't know or care about any of those things, it doesn't really matter. "Gore Orphanage" is a work of fiction whether you choose to read Emily Lapisardi's "Gore Orphanage: The Novel" right now or wait a few months longer to watch this movie which Emily Lapisardi has directed and co-written (with producer/actor Cody Knotts) when it's officially released in October. I've been one of the lucky few reviewers who was selected to see the screener, and I mostly enjoyed it.

"Gore Orphanage" stars Maria Olsen as a sadistic proprietor of a privately owned orphanage in a role reminiscent of the latest incarnation of prison governor Joan "The Freak" Ferguson from the Australian "Wentworth" TV series. Mrs. Pryor (Maria Olsen) is a nasty piece of work with mental health issues which may excuse but not condone any legal justification for her actions. You'll hate her, but you're supposed to. As usual, Maria looks attractive in some scenes and appropriately horrible in others, but either way, she can certainly act.

As a foil to Maria Olsen's character, Keri Maletto plays the younger and nicer Miss Lillian who also shows similarities to an early Joan Bennett from "Wentworth". I'm not saying that there are any borrowings as such here, just stereotypical and easily recognisable genre characters. I may have noticed them in "Wentworth" (the rebooted "Prisoner: Cell Block H") most recently, but such characters have been part of every prison and orphanage drama.

I don't know why Miss Lillian never takes her hat off when she's indoors.

Sharing the burden of looking after the orphanage is Bill Townsend playing Ernst the German janitor/handyman. I won't spoil it for you, but things may or may not be as they first appear with Ernst. There's certainly some good work there with the script and characterisation. More screen time for Ernst would have been nice, but maybe a little more depth would have wrecked his subplot too.

Since this story is set in an orphanage, the rest of the cast is mostly comprised of child actors including Emma Smith, Nora Hoyle, and Brandon Mangin Jr. I believe that this is their first movie, so I'm not going to judge any of them too harshly. Some of their performances are better than others (and some made me cringe), but generally, they do an acceptable job. None of them are up to the same standard as kids in movies such as "The Bad Seed" (1956) or "Stephen King's It" (1990), but they're as good as any Children's Film Foundation actors from back in the day.

If I had to pick one child actor out of all of them who looks like she will have a big future ahead of her, it would be little Nora Hoyle who plays Esther. She has some great expressions, is aware of the other actors, and makes her scenes convincing. I simply wasn't very impressed by Emma Smith in the lead role as Nellie, but she does have her moments.

To be brutally honest, the camerawork and the direction doesn't work in the favour of many of the children. Wrong angles, some bad framing, and keeping them on their marks tends to show through. In particular, faults are most apparent when the children are speaking to each other and eye contact isn't made at the right angle, and there are unnatural movements when these young actors have to walk or run to a certain point.

Again, I also have to make some allowances because this is Emily Lapisardi's debut feature and she still needs to learn her craft. Giving credit where it's due, she's done a lot better than I could ever do, but that's a redundant point since I'm not a filmmaker and have no desire to ever be one. I'm just an often overly critical viewer.

Mealtimes involve a lot of playing with food rather than eating it.

The cinematography by Nicholas Carrington is inconsistently but mostly competent. I prefer the scenes where he clearly used a tripod rather than the shaky handycam, but that's because I'm old-fashioned that way. The best of these is when Mrs. Pryor reads a passage from the Bible to the kids before they eat. Only in one scene near the end does the handycam accidentally make you think that you're watching a "killer's point-of-view", and this could possibly be stabilised more in post-production to remove that slight problem.

Editing is a laborious process for anyone, so I fully appreciate the effort which has gone into "Gore Orphanage", but even as a slow-burn murder/mystery/horror, it would benefit from being a bit tighter. The pacing is okay as it is, but... yeah, if I knew how to do it, I would swap a few scenes around and excise a couple of others. The soundtrack is also very basic and occasionally echoey as well. All these things are standard problems with low-budget productions, so you can take what I'm saying with the usual pinch or sackful of salt.

The 1930s depression era setting works well, and care has been taken with the various props, costumes, and location. "Gore Orphanage" is not quite as good in that respect as the movies which have inspired it, but it's noticeable that someone cared enough about attention to detail within the contraints of the budget.

Similar looking and themed movies such as "Flowers in the Attic" (1987), "The Others" (2001), "The Devil's Backbone" (2001), "House of Voices" (2004), "The Orphanage" (2007), "The Awakening" (2011), and ""The Secret pf Crickley Hall" (2012) do more or less the same thing, but "Gore Orphanage" doesn't have anywhere near the same budget as even the cheapest of those productions.

She still has that hat on!

One final (and very minor) gripe is that Chris "The Irate Gamer" Bores is listed in the credits but doesn't appear until after them. Apparently, he was in a cut scene which involved paranormal investigators. The only bit that remains is a post-credits bonus in which you only see him running away with three other people and have no idea who any of them are. Oh well, I guess that he won't be promoting this movie much on his YouTube channel now.

If you think from my critique so far that I hated a lot of this movie, you'd be wrong. In fact, I enjoyed the storytelling despite "Gore Orphanage" not being the supernatural or even bloody event which I initially thought that it was going to turn into. I truly enjoyed the acting, and I definitely got a kick out of the "twist" element. The wraparound scenes give that away more than I just have.

"Gore Orphanage" may not be brilliantly or slickly realised, and it's predictable for those of us who've seen too many movies, but it's generally okay. A little nod to "The Shining" doesn't become a cliché, and I totally respect and am grateful for the restraint shown there. I'm also grateful that no holds were barred when it came to the more taboo subject matter.

Having said that, I'm not entirely convinced that "Gore Orphanage" should be classed as a horror movie. It may be within the wider scope of the genre and contains a few slasher elements, but it's more of a drama and mystery than a "shit-yer-pants-scary" affair anyway.

For that reason, more than any other, I can only give "Gore Orphanage" a slightly below average rating as it stands at the moment. As much as I'm tempted to hypocritically gush about this movie and drop a marketing-friendly "quote" into my review to get a mention on the DVD sleeve, I just can't do it. "Gore Orphanage" isn't scary, and horror movies should be scary.

For more information about the DVD release, please check out the "Gore Orphanage" Facebook page:

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mortdecai (2015)

"Juggling angry Russians, the British Mi5, and an international terrorist, debonair art dealer and part time rogue Charlie Mortdecai races to recover a stolen painting rumoured to contain a code that leads to lost Nazi gold."

As I've moved further and further away from the purest forms of the horror genre with nearly every review this year (mainly because there aren't any new horror movies left other than a few bottomfeeder indie ones on the VOD streams which I'm not likely to ever care about anyway), I thought that I might as well watch something completely different for this "Surprise Sunday".

Although I freely admit to disliking comedies in general (especially since the American ones are usually more spiteful and mean-spirited than horror), sometimes people need a little bit of comic relief in their lives. I have no problem with that. Just because comedy isn't really meant for me, it doesn't mean that I can't still objectively appreciate the merits of a film within that genre. Drama is drama, and a good story will usually entertain me regardless.

Thus, I decided to watch "Mortdecai". Having heard nothing but bad things about this R-rated box office flop from the "critics" (and the usual snarky assholes all over the internet), I also set myself a challenge to see if I would agree with them or end up being a contrarian.

This is the poster. Obviously.

Unfortunately, despite "Mortdecai" having a great cast of credible acting talents, a huge budget, and quite beautiful camerawork in places, I have to come down on the side of the critics. "Mortdecai" looks like a Brosnan-era "James Bond" film, but the story is both confusing and drawn out in equal measures, and the best thing it has going for it is the amusing Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany double-act which reminds me (and everybody else) of Inspector Clouseau and Cato (albeit with British accents).

I've never actually watched any of the "Pink Panther" movies in their entirety, mind you, but I saw substantial parts of most of them on television as a child. Mainly due to clip show quizzes such as the BBC's "Screen Test", some of the slapstick fighting scenes stuck in my memory. Therefore, whether the homages in "Mortdecai" are intentional or accidental, I have no real way of knowing. I have absolutely no desire to ever attempt to watch them again. Fans of Inspector Clouseau, however, will know for sure.

No funny caption for this. Something about carrying the film, maybe?

Moving on to things which I can properly appreciate, the stunts are very good, the locations were well chosen and dressed beforehand, and I don't have any real problem with the script. Other than Johnny Depp channelling Terry Thomas, none of it is that funny though, and the moustache gags are very repetitive and overused. "Mortdecai" also clearly suffers from pacing problems and padding more than a few times, but that still doesn't completely wreck the somewhat challenging non-linear narrative which is its own worst enemy.

Including small roles for Paul Whitehouse (who Brits like me tend to love) early on and Jeff Goldblum two-thirds in, the main problem with "Mortdecai" is that it doesn't allow any of the supporting players apart from Ewan McGregor to really stand out. Although I'm pretty sure that nobody involved wanted to create anything other than a Depp-centric product to entertain an audience for an hour and a half, sadly, it shows.

"Mortdecai" won't be winning any Oscars or major awards (unless the world goes even more batshit insane than it has done in the last two years), and it's not the most original comedy-spy movie that I've ever seen either, but it's relatively okay for what it is. It's not as good as any of the "Austin Powers" movies by any stretch of the imagination, but it has many intentionally amusing moments and a couple of extremely nauseating ones.