FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

Poster for "Get Out"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out comedian Jordan Peele‘s horror and directorial debut, and then gush (39:31).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (né Donald Glover), from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The “Stop and identify” statute that we cited for New York state was N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law, §140.50. In practice, the application of this statute is highly variable, including in New York City, where it was implemented for several years as the program known as “stop and frisk,” which tended to disproportionately target African-American or Latino residents of the city.

Listen above, or download: Get Out (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #68 – “The Lazarus Effect” (dir. David Gelb) (spoiler-edition)

Poster for "The Lazarus Effect"

This week, Glenn wishes The Lazarus Effect would’ve just let him rest in peace, while Daniel offers a tepid, contrarian defense, and spoils The Ring for some reason (19:33).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5/10 (Daniel); 2.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, which is better than the movie deserves. I also just noticed George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley are wearing a “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirt in the video, which is apropos.
  • The horror flick from 2013 that I plugged was indeed Sinister, not Insidious – although they do share a producer. Another fine horror flick I didn’t think of was last year’s Oculus.
  • We mention one our early podcast review of Frozen (the Adam Green horror film, not the Disney film) – check that out here.
  • We were actually drinking Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky bourbon. Solid. They didn’t pay us for the plug; we just like bourbon.

Listen above, or download: The Lazarus Effect (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” – A Skeptic’s Guide to Horror

Movie poster for

The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus presents a familiar scenario – a cursed object (in this case, a haunted mirror) – that can manipulate reality for anyone in the vicinity. And the film’s heroine, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), seems just as committed as Randi to demonstrating the reality of these powers under properly controlled conditions. For a film that is about both mental illness and supernatural phenomena, Oculus has a magnificently skeptical attitude about the subject matter. Kaylie begins the film by setting up a series of battery-powered cameras, timed events according to battery-powered clocks, and, most importantly, a dead-man switch, in the form of a boat anchor, that will automatically destroy the mirror if its mechanical timer is not deactivated every thirty minutes. It’s Paranormal Activity as acted out by someone with basic critical thinking skills.

Kaylie is not alone in this quest – she is joined by her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who has recently been released from a juvenile mental ward following his 21st birthday. The tragic events which led to his commitment are hinted almost immediately in dialogue, but revealed in detail over the course of the film. And the threat from the mirror becomes clear – it can manipulate either the perceptions of the people in the vicinity, or objective reality. And as the film gradually demonstrates as its masterful editing cuts back and forth between fantasy, reality, and flashback, there’s not a lot of difference between the two. This is really what makes Kaylie such an interesting character – her determination to expose the mirror’s true nature is only matched by her arrogance in presuming that she is any match for it.

Gillan – who is effecting a rather impressive American accent over her native Scottish brogue – plays Kaylie with a tough-as-nails attitude and convincing determination to prove that Tim is not responsible for their family’s tragic past- a claim that is essentially unprovable. And yet her biggest rival, apart from the mirror, is the brother himself. After over a decade in a mental hospital, Tim is well-armed with the kind of critical, reflective thinking (and sheer humility) that it takes to question one’s own perception of reality. Indeed, he has had it drilled into him, and probably reinforced with pharmaceuticals. He criticizes Kaylie for anomaly-hunting – poring through thousands of records to find the dozen or so that fit her tragic story. He trots out the basic logical standby that correlation does not prove causation. And yet, Tim is also biased in favor of reality as we know it, and Kaylie pushes back with a number of convincing methods of objectively measuring and demonstrating the mirror’s “influence”- a radius of potted plants for it to wilt, lights for it to turn off, and so on.

Still from

From this point on, I can’t discuss the finer details of the film’s story without hinting strongly at the mirror’s true nature. So instead, I’ll simply say that this film maintains tension remarkably well. The cat-and-mouse setup is strong, and while the third act leans a bit too far toward jump scares, the film’s gradually escalating tension is fueled by the fact that it’s simultaneously telling two taut and interesting stories. The first is the backstory of Kaylie and her brother as children (played wonderfully by Annalise Basso and passably by Garrett Ryan). We already know the ending of the first story, but as it plays back for the audience, it seems to simultaneously play back in the minds of the adult Kaylie and Tim in a way that could certainly sway the outcome of the present-day story. This film uses every trick up its sleeve to mess with the audience’s perceptions of reality in the same way as it does with its characters. Each time a new outrage appears onscreen, the audience is left to question whether or not they can trust what they’ve just seen, even as the characters are doing the same thing in dialogue.

This really seems like it should bother me on a structural level. The more the film messes with its internal narrative coherence, the less I should care what happens to its characters. But there are several reasons why this method works so well. First, as mentioned above, the film messes with its characters and the audience in equal measure. Second, these are intelligent, well-meaning characters on what seems from the outset like a doomed quest for revenge against an unbeatable enemy – whether that enemy is a magic mirror or their own fractured sanity and violent impulses. And third, while they didn’t choose what happened to their parents, they did choose what is happening to themselves. Mirror or no mirror, they are the architects of this film’s insanity, and they really didn’t have to be.

In a way, this makes the film’s screeching halt of an ending feel perfectly fitting. In a flash, we’re back to reality, and left to make sense of what has happened. That said, I could certainly see someone walking out of this film and listing every one of the factors above as shortcomings of the film. But in the end, Oculus terrified me on many levels (several of them through the varied horrifying expressions of Katee Sackhoff as the duo’s flashback-mother). This film is a marvelous companion piece and rebuttal to James Wan‘s The Conjuring, a film that took for granted both the veracity of its heroes’ supernatural claims, and their nobility and good intentions.

There are no good intentions in this film. Only hubris and rationality in the face of unrelenting terror.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

PS: Lest I end on such a pretentious line, I should probably mention that when the WWE Studios banner inexplicably appeared before this film, it elicited an embarrassingly loud “Huh.” from me, followed by chuckles across my screening audience. Now…I didn’t see John Cena in this film, but I can only assume that the WWE is interested in anything that can make its viewers question reality during a scripted performance. (BOOM!) But I suppose if History and The Learning Channel can let their content drift so far off course, we can afford the same privilege to pro wrestling.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #5: Adam Green’s “Frozen”

Poster for "Frozen"

First we met the Devil, then we got Buried, and now, in the latest installment of this inadvertent “One-Word, One-Room” marathon, Glenn and Daniel pull on their ski boots and review Frozen, a horror film new on DVD and Blu-ray from writer/director Adam Green, starring Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, and Kevin Zegers. (19:59)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is a little cheeky.
  • Shawn Ashmore, who plays Joe Lynch, also played Bobby “Iceman” Drake in the X-Men films. There’s an awful joke in there somewhere, but it must’ve slipped our minds…
  • Stick around at the end for a blooper!

Listen above, or download: Frozen (right-click, save as)

Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” – Another horror remake? And it’s GOOD?!

Breck Eisner’s The Crazies is the tale of Ogden Marsh, an idyllic Iowa farming community exposed to a biological agent that turns the townspeople turn uncontrollably violent. And I won’t bury the lead on this… It’s one hell of a ride. A deliberate pace, ratcheting sense of doom, and awesome use of setpieces make this an extremely effective horror film. In fact, the last time I had this much fun with a horror remake was with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and from the outset, this film has some stark similarities. It’s another remake of a 70s Romero film featuring another dark Johnny Cash song (in an amusing nod to Dr. Strangelove), and two of the main characters are a cop and a doctor. We get the briefest glimpse at their normal lives, and then all hell breaks loose.

The formula is familiar, but The Crazies does plenty to distinguish itself. Unlike typical zombies, these creatures retain varying degrees of their human intelligence, running the gamut from free-running, flesh-eating monsters to what can only be described as “super-rednecks”. While this makes them only marginally more interesting as characters, it’s still impressive to see zombies put to more substantial use than the nihilistic slaughter fantasy they usually amount to. What’s more, the film takes just enough time to establish an authentic setting and some sympathetic characters with very real stakes. From the outset, Ogden Marsh feels every bit like a real small town, with everyone on a first-name basis with town sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) – also the town’s doctor. When the military moves in to quell the infection, the plot becomes more like 1995’s Outbreak, but told from the perspective of the townspeople. From the moment the hubristic mayor dismisses the impending threat from what might be the only cornfield swimming pool in Iowa, the film barrels forward and never lets up. The result is a very well-paced chase thriller, told through the eyes of these characters by way of some brilliant but simple setpieces (there’s a sequence in the third act involving a drive-through carwash that I can only describe as pure joy).

As I think back, the tone of this film seems remarkably well balanced. There are many genuinely terrifying moments, and it adequately conveys the senseless human tragedy of it all while never shying away from a healthy dose of pitch-black humor. As it went on, I found myself genuinely afraid for the lives of the remaining characters, but could still chuckle as Timothy Olyphant took a sprawling tumble onto the floor of a funeral home and narrowly escaped getting his scrotum sliced open by a runaway electric bone saw. Indeed, Eisner’s direction makes a number of admirable choices, seemingly utilizing jump scares for the sole purpose of screwing with the audience, and then jarring them out of their seats as they slowly realize there’s an out-of-focus super-zombie still and salivating in the corner of the room.

The performances are quite adept, establishing a tense and believable dynamic between the three characters. Olyphant has long since proven that he can do no wrong as a small-town sheriff, and he and Mitchell make a convincing married couple, their performances helped along by many effective little moments of dialogue (“Don’t ask me why I can’t leave without my wife, and I won’t ask you why you can leave without yours”). Additionally, the shifting relationship between sheriff and deputy is one of the most fascinating aspects to the film. Between Anderson’s adept performance and the character’s well-written arc, the deputy’s plot stirs a sense of imminent danger and infection paranoia unparalleled since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As soon as the credits rolled, I typed a single line for this review, demanding that Breck Eisner come down to my theater immediately and pry me loose from the edge of my seat. When I wrote up the film’s balls-out-audacious trailer back in October, I expected this film to be a good bit of cheese – a solid, shlocky B-horror film. What I finally saw was that and much more. Eisner’s direction balances the tone of the film perfectly, injecting just the right mix of horror, comedy, and drama. The allegorical elements are none-too-subtle, from the concentration camps to the good soldier who “didn’t sign up for this,” but they still imbue the film with some welcome depth. The Crazies takes the relatively straightforward premise of “zombies that can think” and turns it into a menacing and memorable piece of horror.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10