Movie Review – Trash Fire (Sydney Underground Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something darkly comedic and horrific like the director’s previous films.

REVIEW: Richard Bates Jr. is a film-maker that I admire ever since I saw his first film; the wonderfully acidic and biting film Excision. The melding of horror elements with a heavy dollop of dark comedy set within a grounded story helped by a wonderfully talented cast with career-best performances from Traci Lords and AnnaLynne McCord made Excision one of the best films I have seen in 2012. Since then, I have followed his work and had enjoyed his second film, the horror-comedy Suburban Gothic. The lighter approach to horror and comedy (compared to Excision) and the likable characters made Suburban Gothic a very fun experience, similar to watching old Scooby-Doo cartoons. And now, we finally have his latest film, Trash Fire, which seems to be following the same path as Excision. And knowing that the cast has AnnaLynne McCord and Matthew Gray Gubler coming back for more, I was psyched. Did Trash Fire meet my high expectations?

The film starts off with Owen (Adrian Grenier) telling his life story to his increasingly weary shrink (Sally Kirkland) and how he wanted to kill himself ever since his parents died in a freak fire that also left his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) permanently scarred for life. After that, we go into a dinner setting where we see his long-suffering girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). They clearly have issues (not helped by her side of the family) and Isabel has had enough of him and decides to break it off. Fast-forward to avoid spoilers, something major happens and the two decide to patch things up and try harder on their relationship by revisiting Owen’s surviving family, consisting of his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and Pearl, who has been living under her care. Owen is really reluctant on the matter, but decides to go along with the plan due to his love for Isabel. Little do the two know that the past always comes back to bite them in the ass and boy, does it bite. Hard.

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From the synopsis, it doesn’t seem to hint that the story has anything that could be considered as horror. But like Excision, that’s the beauty of the horror. Richard Bates Jr’s direction starts off with a grounded story that could happen to anyone and yet builds the horror from it to the point that the mood and atmosphere can be increasingly uneasy. The relationship between Owen and Isabel is well-developed and portrayed and it never backs off from or tones down the ugliness that plagues it. And Bates intelligently mixes the drama from the relationship with the horror that is yet to come very well to the point that it comes off not only as scary, but also quite insightful.

But in case that the story sounds like it is grim and depressing, Bates also brings back the dark comedy that made his other films earn cult status. Religion (like in Excision) is the target here and boy, does it take a lot of hits. All of the characters who are religious are shown to be either self-righteous or are hypocritically blind or lack of better words, utterly insane. And through all that, Bates squeezes the humour for all of its worth. Plus, all the interactions between family members are hilarious to witness, with all the passive-aggressive attitudes, the evil eyes and the mean remarks that ones can treasure. I know I did.

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But none of it would be anywhere near as effective if it weren’t for the committed cast. Adrian Grenier is far away from what you expect from his performances in Entourage, and he seems to relish the darkness and nihilistic behaviour of the character of Owen, but he never overdoes his performance to the point of losing the audience. He retains enough humanity that he makes Owen empathetic, if not quite sympathetic at times. Doing a 180 turn from her high-energy performance in The Final Girls, Angela Trimbur does great as Isabel, showing easy dramatic chops along her proven comedic chops and she has great chemistry with Grenier. The two have a sex scene together that must be seen to be believed and I have to admit, it made me do a spit-take.

The supporting cast are no slouches and the most with what they got. Matthew Gray Gubler is funny as the religious brother of Isabel and has great interactions with Grenier, which pays off with some hilarious barbs. While AnnaLynne McCord is again unrecognizable (like in Excision) and is having a whale of a time as Pearl. Whether peeking through a hole while doing something the Lord wouldn’t like to playing with guns, McCord still frightens and entertains, even in a smaller role. But the MVP of the film is Fionnula Flannagan as the grandmother of Owen. Deranged, toxic, rude and upfront (much like the film), Flannagan is a pure delight whenever she shows up. It is definitely her scariest role since Yes Man. Yes, that is a joke. Or is it?

As for its flaws, the tone can be a bit imbalanced (fittingly, so are the characters) since the drama and comedy can be a bit apart from each other; and the gloriously over-the-top ending may not be satisfying for everyone, but Trash Fire shows that Bates (not related to Norman Bates, I swear) hasn’t lost a step and I look forward to his next film.

Trash Fire: Luckily, more fire than trash.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Hilariously dark sense of humour

Palpable tension

CONS

Tone shifts can be a bit abrupt

The ending can be a bit over-the-top for some

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan, AnnaLynne McCord, Sally Kirkland, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ezra Buzzington
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Screenwriter: Richard Bates Jr.

Movie Review – The Love Witch (Sydney Underground Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something of a groovy, dreamy and sexy experience.

REVIEW: Ooo-ooo, witchy woman! Sorry, got the song in my head. After my viewing of Blair Witch, it’s only fitting that my next review will be about The Love Witch. Hearing the incredibly positive buzz from many festivals around the world, especially from the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), I was so excited to see this film for this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival. Also considering the fact that it hearkens back to the erotic melodramas of the 60’s and the occult films of the 70’s in terms of every facet of film-making, my eyes were watering. So was the film worth the buzz that it achieved?

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Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful, narcissistic love-starved young witch, is determined to find a man to love her. After her ex left her (or so she says in her blissfully selective memory), she moves into a new neighborhood. In her gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. But though her desperation, her spells work a wee bit too well, and she ends up with a string of increasingly hysterical victims. When she at last meets the man of her dreams, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder.

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Just within seconds of the film, the viewer will be swept up by the incredibly gorgeous cinematography. Filmed on 35mm by cinematographer M. David Mullen, the film is just soaked with colours that will make your eyes crying for more. And let’s not forget the use of musical scores from the 60’s and 70’s consisting of works by Ennio Morricone, it’s clear that director Anna Biller has done her homework on the subject.

But there are some small and amusing modern touches that ensures that this story is set in the present, like a modern police car and the usage of mobile phones, but it just goes to show that the themes the story conveys can be told in any time period and still be relevant, timely and quite thought-provoking. There are also some subversiveness of the genre, such as the equal nudity of both genders in the ritual scenes as well as what fits the definition of being a witch.

Sexual politics, feminism, desires of both genders are all examined with wit and humour and Biller seems to be having a ball with her meticulous, yet somewhat indulgent direction. All the tropes of 60’s and 70’s films are here. The use of rear projection, the costumes, the make-up and especially the narration are all put to good use. But the film is not a parody or a spoof of any kind. The film is played absolutely straight and it only makes the film funnier and more genuine.

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And the performances are fantastic to witness in its stilted and deadpan glory. Samantha Robinson is a pure delight as Elaine, as she conveys her narcissistic side and her lovelorn side with a perfect balance of poise and subtle enthusiasm. You can tell that she has a wonderful time playing the role and the fun rubs off on the audience. And the same goes for the supporting actors like Gian Keys as the playboy cop investigating the mysterious deaths and Laura Waddell as the trusting landlord.

Every actor in the film looks the part of the film genre and it really does resemble a time machine back to the past, and it is glorious. The male actors in particular are all hoots, especially when they suffer from an absence of Elaine in their lives to the point of becoming hysterical. They all squeeze their roles with reckless abandon and it’s quite uproarious.

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As much as I am raving about the film, there is one problem that dials my praise back quite a bit. Basically, the film is too long. At 120 minutes, the film can start to drag, especially for those not accustomed to the pacing of the film’s throwback feel and the intentionally stilted line readings, meaning that the film can be a bit too indulgent with itself. But then again, considering the film’s story and its characters, it feels strangely appropriate.

The Love Witch is a sweet and spicily entertaining tribute to the films of the 60’s and 70’s, with fantastic performances and such meticulous detail from multi-tasking director Anna Biller, that feels both nostalgic and timely at the same time. Although the running time shows that you can have too much of a good thing, it again reflects the film itself, as it is a lovely spell that works too well.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances, especially from Samantha Robinson

Meticulous detail towards all facets of film-making

Subversive details towards genre

Thought-provoking in its thematic impact

CONS

Overlong and indulgent in its running time

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Steve, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak
Director: Anna Biller
Screenwriter: Anna Biller

Movie Review – Blair Witch

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EXPECTATIONS: A re-invigoration of the found-footage genre.

REVIEW: If there is a film that you can think of the top of your head that had the best marketing strategy, many would say that it would be The Blair Witch Project. With just the perfect timing of the Internet and the matter-of-fact documentary film-making, it started the first viral marketing campaign and everybody, including myself, were swept up by it to the point that the majority of the world thought that the legend of the Blair Witch was true, and that there were three people missing in the woods. Family and friends of the people in the film were swarmed with sympathy cards and letters, showing care for their supposed loss of loved ones. With its genuine acting from its three leads and the realism and restraint applied from the filmmakers, The Blair Witch Project is a horror classic.

Which up to this point in 2016, it’s very strange and daring to do a sequel to a film like this. Trying to do a marketing campaign for a sequel to this is hard, so when it was revealed that it was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, there was a mixed reaction. Some were pleasantly surprised due to how they kept the film secret for so long, but some were displeased due to the fact that Hollywood is currently drowning in a sea of remakes, reboots, re-tellings and whatnot. But with talents like Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (famous for their horror contributions like You’re Next and The Guest), it couldn’t possibly be any worse than Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Can it?

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Set 20 years after the Blair Witch events, the film follows a group of college students and their local tour guides, who enter the Black Hills Forest in Maryland to see if the disappearance of James’ sister (played by Heather Donahue in the first film) is connected to the Blair Witch. It was said that a videotape of the incident was found and that Heather was briefly seen in the video out in a dilapidated house in the forest, which prompts James and his friends to go out into the Black Hills Forest. So they pack up with their latest in digital film technology and navigational systems and venture into the woods. But as night falls, the students realize the legend is all too real after they are visited by a menacing presence.

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Now let’s get straight down to it. Did I like the film? Yes. Did I think the film could be better? Hell, yes. With a director like Adam Wingard, you can definitely find a technically competent and polished horror production in Blair Witch, but is it too polished? What was great about The Blair Witch Project was its sloppiness in the film-making, which achieves audience immersion that the film is really found-footage, and not a film. In the case of Blair Witch, video glitches majorly happen on a narrative cue and it takes the audience out of the film at times.

Speaking of taking the audience out of the film, there are jump scares in the film. Jump scares in a horror film are never going to die, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be done right, but in the case of Blair Witch, there are far too many, and half of them are more like punchlines than actual scares. At one point, a character actually says “could everyone stop doing that”, when a person acknowledges their presence by touching them on the shoulder. You would think that this witty remark (courtesy of writer Simon Barrett) would result in no more jump scares of the like from then onward, but Wingard doubles down on them, which can wear the audience out.

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The acting from the young cast are all fine, as they convincingly all go through the emotional and physical wringer once the horror bears down upon them. Corbin Reid in particular, is a great sport when it comes to her character’s experiences with the Blair Witch. But when you compare to the actors in The Blair Witch Project, they all come off more like actors than actual people we are witnessing. It certainly doesn’t help that these are actors who have starred in other projects before this, unlike the actors in The Blair Witch Project.

And considering that the marketing campaign for this film is to keep the idea that this film is a sequel to The Blair Witch Project a secret, you would think that the film itself would keep up with that level of ambition. But unfortunately, it doesn’t. The film sticks so lavishly to its source material to the point that it almost feels like a remake than a sequel. And the mythology of the Blair Witch isn’t expanded upon that much either, leaving a very big missed opportunity.

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But despite all of these flaws, Blair Witch is still a very competent horror film and Wingard still brings the requisite scares with energy and ferocity. Those who expect the minimalist approach of The Blair Witch Project will be disappointed but those who want it loud and proud will find plenty to enjoy, especially in the riotous final act, where the tension and suspense almost become unbearable. It is a bit disheartening that the biggest flaw of the film is its association with The Blair Witch Project. If it was just known as The Woods, as it was previously claimed, it might’ve gotten a better reception. But alas, expectations are a drag. It still beats Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, which by the way, has no book in the film. There’s no where else to go up from there.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Wingard’s ferocious and energetic direction brings out good scares

Good performances from the cast

Good production values

One hell of an intense ending

CONS

Lacks the immersion and realism of the original

Annoyingly laughable jump scares

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett

Movie Review – My Scientology Movie

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EXPECTATIONS: Something very funny, slightly scary and a little bit profound.

REVIEW: Now I admit I do not really watch a lot of documentaries, but in recent years, I have gotten myself into a good groove when I discovered the work of documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux. The first documentary I saw of his was The Most Hated Family in America, which was about people in the Westboro Baptist Church. Amiably low-key, polite to the point of hilarity and compellingly insightful, Theroux got me interested to watch his other works which researched many subjects like drugs, sports, religion and even porn.

And all of them were highly entertaining, thought-provoking and amusing pieces of work. So when I heard that Theroux’s next subject for a new documentary was Scientology, a controversial self-appointed religion made famous by celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, you better believe that I was excited. So does the documentary live up to its pedigree?

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After the Church of Scientology refuses to cooperate in making the titular documentary, Theroux teams up with former senior church official Mark Rathbun (who has featured in another Scientology documentary, Going Clear) to create dramatic reconstructions of incidents within the church witnessed by Rathbun and other ex-Scientologists. They focus in particular on alleged violent behaviour by the church’s leader David Miscavige at its secretive Gold Base facility in California, which Theroux tries to visit.

The church retaliates by putting Theroux and his film crew under surveillance, leading to camera-wielding confrontations with a Scientology “squirrel buster” team and with church officials outside Gold Base. Theroux raises questions about Rathbun’s own former complicity in the church’s extreme activities, leading to tensions between the two men.

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In interviews, Theroux had said that he was fascinated by the approach of another documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer called The Act of Killing. The approach was to recreate situations based on true accounts with actors and My Scientology Movie does that as well. While some scenes are absolutely hilarious i.e. the induction of Scientology; some scenes can be downright shocking i.e. a specific situation where Miscavige loses his temper and takes it out on the recruits.

The laughs and the tension still continue throughout the film with the constant surveillance from Scientology following the crew. The confrontations skewer towards the comedic, especially when the squirrel buster team denies that they are from Scientology, but how it plays out on the film, the situations also skewer towards the disturbingly surreal.

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There is one scene in particular where Theroux and others are outside the Gold Base at night, and they are confronted by security, led by Catherine Fraser. The scene had a scene that was very reminiscent of David Lynch’s work that it scared me quite a bit. Another scene reminiscent of David Lynch that disturbed me a bit was the surprise appearance of actress Paz de la Huerta (famous for Boardwalk Empire and Nurse 3D) early in the film that just came out of nowhere and is never referenced again.

The laughs and surrealism is peppered throughout the film that guarantees top-notch entertainment. But when you compare My Scientology Movie to other documentaries like Going Clear, it comes up a bit short. As much effort as it puts in to provide precious information about Scientology, there’s very little here that is actually new or scintillating here that we haven’t already heard from other sources.

But for those who are interested yet know very little about the subject at hand, My Scientology Movie provides a laugh-filled surrealistic experience that suitably provides a complementary alternative to the more methodical documentary Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

On a final note, there’s a scene where during the staged induction of Scientology, where it hilariously reminded me of a scene in The Simpsons where Homer was in the Circle of Judgment, being verbally humiliated and objectified to the point of vulnerability. You really can’t make this stuff up.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Plenty of laughs and gleeful surrealism pump up the entertainment value

CONS

Nothing new or surprising apart from what we already know

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Louis Theroux, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser.
Director: John Dower
Screenwriters: Louis Theroux, John Dower