The sequel to the horror anthology promises more gory found footage hijinks.
Shot on the quick after the first V/H/S -- one of my favorite films from last year -- became a modest hit, this sequel to the found footage-centric horror anthology boasts one less "chapter" than its predecessor, but otherwise follows the same format: standalone horror shorts loosely tied together by a mostly superfluous wraparound story. But where all of the individual films in V/H/S were a "B" or above, this crop is far more uneven; in fact, it's a 50/50 split as two are great and two... well, not so much. On the other hand, V/H/S 2 does feature what may be the finest short this series has yielded yet... yes, even more impressive than Radio Silence's haunted house riff 10/31/98 from the previous installment. Read on for mini-reviews of each film:
Clinical Trials Phase 1
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Thumbnail Synopsis: After losing sight in one eye following a car accident, a young man (Wingard) is fitted with a high-tech optical camera that allows him to see -- what else? -- dead people.
After being charged with the thankless task of helming the wraparound segments on the first V/H/S, Wingard gets called up to the Show for the sequel. Despite a clever hook, though, this short doesn't really come together. Clinical Trials stars off effectively enough, with Wingard's character returning home and sitting down for a little video game time only to be plagued by creepy visions of bloody walking corpses shuffling around his home. But things take a turn for the mediocre when a hot Goth girl he'd met previously and who has the power to hear -- but not see -- dead folks turns up at his house and... has sex with him for some reason? Maybe the casual misogyny of this scenario is what pisses off the undead, because the instantly go on the offensive and attack both of them in a chaotically shot and edited climactic scene. If I were a walking corpse in a horror short that started off strong and then squandered its potential, I'd be pretty pissed off, too.
Overall Grade: C+
A Ride in the Park
Directed by: Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale
Thumbnail Synopsis: While out for a sun-dappled bike ride at his local park, a weekend warrior type crosses paths with a zombie and joins the ranks of the walking dead.
Ever wondered what a first-person zombie transformation would look like? That question has now been answered by Hale and Sánchez who -- horror history alert! -- produced and co-directed The Blair Witch Project 14 years ago, thus kickstarting the current found footage boom. The tone of "Ride" is far lighter and more comic than Blair Witch, though, more in the vein of Shaun of the Dead than Dawn of the Dead. But don't worry -- there's still plenty of gore, with plenty of brains (as well as other body parts) on the menu. Slightly conventional resolution aside, overall the filmmakers have crafted a very funny, very creative short that plays by the zombie rules, but approach them from a different perspective.
Overall Grade: A-
Directed by: Gareth Huw Evans and Tim Tjahjanto
Thumbnail Synopsis: An Indonesian TV news crew is granted exclusive access to the compound of a religious cult and quickly discover that they're about to become part of the story.
Strap in and hang on tight, because Tjahjanto and Evans (who previously directed the kinetic action movie, The Raid: Redemption) are here to mess you up but good. "Safe Haven" is, simply put, a virtuoso piece of horror filmmaking, expertly paced and nightmarishly terrifying. The build-up to the mayhem is compelling in and of itself, as the team tries to put their various personal dramas aside while preparing to interview the cult's clearly crazed leader. As in The Raid, Evans pays close attention to the geography of his environment as well, devoting the first half to a walk-through of the space so that the audience will understand where the characters are -- and where they need to get to -- once all hell breaks loose. And all hell really does break loose as the cult soon reveals its true intentions: birthing a baby devil into the world. What happens next will leave you gasping with shock and then, courtesy of a terrific closing punchline, with laughter.
Overall Grade: A
Slumber Party Alien Abduction
Directed by: Jason Eisner
Thumbnail Synopsis: Four pre-teen boys left home alone with an older sister and her boyfriend bedevil their reluctant guardians with a video camera that ends up recording a visit by some very hostile aliens.
Maybe I'm just not on Jason Eisner's particular wavelength. Although some genre fans flipped for his breakout feature, Hobo With a Shotgun, I found it a mostly ugly (both visually and otherwise) exercise in juvenilia. The same could be said of "Slumber Party Alien Abduction," which feels as if its straining to be a gonzo horror/comedy send-up of E.T. But I didn't experience any scares or laughs while watching this jumbled mess, which closes out the anthology on a decidedly sour note. Perhaps fans of Hobo will find more to like about it, but when I rewatch V/H/S 2, I'll likely be turning the film off after Evans's tour de force.
(V/H/S 2 is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and iTunes and will open in limited theatrical release on July 12.)
Judy Blume has always been fiercely protective of her generation-defining YA novels like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. and Then Again, Maybe I Won't, which is probably why she hired her son, Lawrence Blume, to direct the first ever big-screen adaptation of one of her books. Interestingly, they settled on 1981's Tiger Eyes rather than the more iconic Margaret?, perhaps because they got a sweet set of tax breaks from the New Mexico film production department. Updated to the present day, Eyes follows teen girl Davey (Willa Holland), whose mother (Amy Jo Johnson) temporarily moves both her and her young brother from Atlantic City to Los Alamos following the murder of their father in a convenience store robbery. Taking up residence in her aunt and uncle's house, their short stay turns into weeks and months as her grief-addled mom can't seem to find the courage to return to the life they left behind. In the meantime, Davey starts attending a new school where she befriends Jane (Elise Eberle) -- who is in the early stages of a serious drinking problem -- and also explores the rugged New Mexico landscape. It's during one of her walkabouts that she meets and strikes sparks with a college boy, Martin a.k.a. Wolf (Tatanka Means) a member of the local Native American tribe. A minor-key coming of age story, the film version of Tiger Eyes retains some of the seriousness and respect for character that distinguishes Blume's YA books. What it lacks, however, is her strong authorial voice. As dramatized by Blume Jr. and performed by its B-level cast, Tiger Eyes doesn't feel especially different from most films of its ilk. Maybe now that she's made the plunge into feature filmmaking, Blume will be more willing to hand over another one of her novels to an outside writer/director with a more distinctive vision.
(Tiger Eyes is currently available on most VOD platforms and is playing in limited theatrical release.)
The History of Future Folk
In the early '80s, indie film pioneer John Sayles made the low-budget sci-fi charmer The Brother From Another Planet, starring Joe Morton as an alien who takes up residence in then-present day Harlem and tries to assimilate, even as two hunter-aliens from his homeworld turn up planetside with the intention of returning him to the stars. Brother seems an obvious reference point for John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker's own DIY sci-fi alien immigration story, which trades '80s Harlem for 21st century Brooklyn. That's where ex-resident of the planet Hondo, General Trius (Nils d'Aulaire) has set down roots after arriving here several years ago on a scouting mission to find a new planet for his fellow Hondonians when a comet threatens the extinction of their planet. Rather than follow through on his original marching orders to exterminate all humans, Trius has become one of us, adopting the Earth name Bill and even starting a family while he pursues his new first love: folk music, with a special emphasis on bluegrass. While the hipster crowds that show up to watch him croon tunes in his traditional Hondonian garb never suspect that they're watching an honest-to-blog alien, he can't fool Kevin (Jay Klaitz), another Hondo refugee who has been dispatched to discover what happened to Trius. After some initial squabbling, the duo join forces and become one of the most popular folk acts in the borough. Where The Brother from Another Planet -- like all of Sayles's movies -- had a potent metaphor about race and assimilation that ran below the surface, The History of Future Folk is lighter and sillier, more interested in making you smile than making you think. And it mostly accomplishes that modest goal, thanks to the witty music and charmingly low-fi production values. It's got the same spirit of vintage '70s Doctor Who (a.k.a. the Tom Baker years) and, indeed, one can easily imagine Baker's Doctor making it a regular habit to travel through time and space to be present at one of the Future Folk's sets.
(The History of Future Folk is currently available iTunes and most On Demand services and is also playing in limited theatrical release in New York and additional markets.)
A Band Called Death
A companion piece to last year's successful, Oscar-winning (and, to my mind, overrated) rock doc Searching for Sugar Man, A Band Called Death tracks down another obscure '70s musical act, the hard-rocking trio Death -- notable for being one of the earliest punk bands and one of the only such acts to feature an all African-American line-up. Created in the bedroom of the three music-loving, Detroit born-and-bred Hackney brothers (Bobby, Dennis and David) Death rocked out at a bunch of local gigs, but never managed to secure a recording contract in the Motown-dominated Motor City music industry. Nevertheless, they scrapped enough money to make a demo tape that they self-released in a limited run and then promptly archived Ark of the Covenant-style. Decades after the punk invasion and the dissolution of Death, their music was rediscovered and widely circulated amongst rock enthusiasts. Directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett catch up with the surviving members of the band -- David passed away thirteen years ago, while Bobby and Dennis play in a reggae band and have day jobs around the Burlington, Vermont area where they now reside -- and follow them as they visit their old stomping grounds and tune up for a Death revival show. Thankfully free of the artificially constructed mystery angle that made Sugar Man ring false, A Band Called Death is a straightforward (if sometimes too-sentimentalized) portrait of a band that was neglected by history and is now getting a second chance to make a first impression.
(A Band Called Death is currently available via most On Demand services.)
A quiet suburban neighborhood in England becomes the setting for some intense drama for a trio of families in the British slice-of-life feature, Broken, based on a coming-of-age book by Daniel Clay. There's single dad Archie (Tim Roth) and his diabetes-afflicted daughter Skunk (Eloise Laurence); oddball outcast Rick (Robert Emms) and his well-meaning, but overmatched parents; and violent Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear), the dad of a sexually curious teenage girl. (Also in the mix is Cillian Murphy, who has a small role as Skunk's teacher and the estranged boyfriend of the au pair that watches her.) When Oswald's daughter accuses Rick of raping her, her dad goes full-on psycho and punches the poor, probably innocent kid out -- setting in motion a chain of tragic events that help Skunk take the first steps across the bridge from childhood to adulthood. If this all sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird with British accents, that's partly intentional as Clay's novel was very much inspired by the Harper Lee-penned classic. And while it's not going to be endlessly quoted and referenced decades from now like Mockingbird is, Broken benefits from strong performances and a moving (if very manipulative) finale that will be particularly gut-punching for parents of pre-teen kids going through their own coming-of-age growth spurts.
(Broken is currently available on Ultra VOD and will open in limited theatrical release on July 19. Click here to see the trailer.)
Hannah Has a Ho-Phase
Before you ask, no... this isn't the working title of HBO's Girls, although there's a certain amount of overlap between Lena Dunham's pop culture sensation (well... on the coasts at least) and this indie film variation on the now-ascendant single girls-having-sex-in-the-city premise. Written and directed by Nadia Munla and Jamie Jense, Hannah finds its title character (played by Meredith Forlenza) in a relationship dead zone, a source of frustration to both her and her recreational sex-enthusiast buddy Leslie (Genevieve Hudson Price), who advises Hannah that what she really needs is a trip to the bonezone, pronto. To help her along with that, Leslie presents her pal with a bargain: if Hannah has strings-free sex with 10 guys, she'll go cold turkey so that balance is maintained in their universe. Complicating matters, though, is the emergence of two viable boyfriends for each of them; Hannah strikes sparks with her office's resident lothario Donny (Quincy Dunn Baker), whose brash exterior masks a sensitive soul, while Leslie finds herself inexplicably drawn to mustachioed slacker Seth (Mike C. Nelson). And if you think there's no way these incompatible odd couples could ever work... well, you've clearly never seen a mainstream romantic comedy before. And that's the thing about Hannah; although it's trying to be bold and edgy, at heart it's just another Nora Ephron movie with a Sex and the City vocabulary. Say what you will about Lena Dunham and Girls (and there's plenty to criticize, to be sure), but she at least attempts to venture beyond familiar clichés into a more honest and self-aware portrait about what it's like to be single and twenty in the big city.
(Available via On Demand and iTunes starting June 7. Click here to see the trailer)
Also on VOD in June
The Tribeca release How to Make Money Selling Drugs (available starting June 18) explores the present-day state of the drug trade and how badly the so-called "War on Drugs" is being waged. And with the 300 sequel moved to March 2014, Hammer of the Gods (available now) is the only old-world action epic in town this summer.
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