SOMETHING – movie review

SOMETHING   
Subspin Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Stephen Portland
Screenwriter:  Stephen Portland
Cast: Michael Gazin, Jane Rowen, Joel Clark Ackerman, Eric Roberts
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

Something

If you want to make a horror film to catch on with the typical fans—teens, maybe 20-somethings—you may need name actors and an expense account to hire a crew of animators, set designers, costumers and the like.  In his debut feature, though, Stephen Portland goes with a true, low-budget movie, though it’s clearly not the kind of picture you could make at home behind your iPhone as director, writer, editor and cinematographer.  In his “Something” everything takes place inside a spacious ranch house with just a shot or two of the land outside.  The focus is on just two people, one named Man (Michael Gazin) and the other, his wife Woman (Jane Rowen).  Later, Portland, who wrote the script as well, will bring in a couple of cops, one named Cop (Joel Clark Ackerman) and the other named Rookie (Evan Carter); then finally, Eric Roberts, wearing a frightful rug, takes a role with a job that should not be revealed in a review to avoid giving away a surprise.

Actually “Something,” while remaining in the horror genre, is really a mood piece.  If you’re a mature moviegoer who realizes that nothing made after William Friedkin’s 1973 movie “The Exorcist” has been able to hold a candle to that classic in the horror genre, you will be pleased watching this movie.  This is the kind of pic that people like us can identify with, whether you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s like Man and Woman or whether you have ever lived in a house or apartment with another person.  (Michael Gazin in his sophomore feature film role is 34 while Jane Rowen looks about the same age.)

If you pay close attention, you will notice a couple of hints early on that will allow you to guess the surprise ending.  Most of the story is a dialogue between Man and Woman, the type of talk that could take place in any household with a new baby, with a mother who may love her little man but is also frustrated with latter’s crying.  Both are sleepy: he, possibly a freelancer, is about to take a business trip out of the country to the dismay of woman, who is frightened.  He finds a knife in the baby’s crib.  He chews her out, wondering how she could do such a thing.  Twice, the door to the nursery is locked requiring Man to force the lock.  He blames her for that as well.  He finds his passport in the trash, and he naturally blames her since she had a strong motive to sabotage his trip.  When the baby carriage is outside during the night in the cold, she again states that she doesn’t know what she’s doing lately.  That could have just about broken up their marriage.

As if their marriage bonds have not been frayed enough, a ghostly presence appears several times inside the house, disappearing without having to open and close the windows and the screens.  She sees it.  He sees it.  At least one other person is going to spot the creature as well.

Have you guessed the identity of the intruder?  I did not because I probably was not paying close enough attention to the unfolding of the story.  There is reasonable chemistry between Man and Woman, though three nights straight they both go to bed in their street clothes, wishing each other a good night.  The dialogue is naturalistic; the sorts of subjects that married people who are not cast in a Shakespearean tragedy say to each other.  As a whole this modest picture, notwithstanding the lack of conspicuous cleverness in the writing or bells and whistles is an enjoyable enough experience.

86 minutes.  © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical –  B-
Overall – B

THE GOLEM – movie review

THE GOLEM
Epic Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz
Screenwriter: Ariel Cohen
Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golen, Brynie Furstenbwerg, Daniel Cohen, Adi Kvetner, Lenny Ravich, Alex Tritenko, Olga Safronova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/8/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

“The Golem” is a folklore story that over the years, at least since 1915, has been reinterpreted to bring the action up to what modern audiences crave. For example, the original, the 1915 version “Der Golem” shown in the U.S. as “The Monster of Fate,” was the opener of a trilogy that continued with versions in 1917 and 1920. (The 1920 version was shown years ago at Lincoln Center with a live organist to replicate the way that folks saw silent movies a century ago.)

Generally, the entire series of Golem films revolve around the way Jews discover a chance to defend themselves against the anti-Semitic Christians (so-called Christians would be more accurate for the haters). There is also the element that recalls the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.” This would apply as well to the Frankenstein episodes wherein Dr. Frankenstein creates what was looked upon as a monster though he was in truth a gentle person, persecuted by the population until the monster turned killer.

In the current version scheduled to open in New York’s Jewish Community Center or JCC February 1, the Israeli Paz brothers utilize the tropes of modern horror. But there’s a difference. Here lies notable element that would resonate with any persecuted people, in this case Jews who because they form only a minority wherever they live are picked on, oppressed, persecuted, and condemned, usually by anti-Semites who need scapegoats for their own problems. That’s where “The Golem” resonates with real life. In 1948, after centuries of being a minority in every country, Jews took Israel as their homeland and acted quite differently from the way they lived their lives in the diaspora—meaning outside of the homeland. Realizing the absurdity of trying to reason with the enemy, Israelis were forced to fight five wars, when losing a single one would mean the end of the Jewish State. Without a golem to protect them in 17th century Lithuania, village Jews would have been destroyed.

Doran and Yoav Paz are known primarily for their 2015 film “Jeruzalem”—scheduled for a sequel shortly—and which deals with a flight of young adults to Jerusalem where they encounter a Biblical nightmare. Similarly, in 17th century Lithuania, a woman becomes a hero by conjuring a powerful figure, a golem, to save her village from anti-Semites who blame them for a plague. Specifically, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), unable to provide her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) with a son after the loss of their child, violates the standards of the Jewish community by seeking solutions to two problems. One is that she wants to create a figure out of mud to replace the boy she lost. Second is the need for protection against hostile men on horseback. A plague makes Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) suspect that the Jews are at fault, as his young daughter has become frightfully ill. He gathers his landsmen with the aim of wiping out all the Jews and burning down their entire village. When Hanna sculpts the figure of a boy in the mud, she has someone who can save the Jews, but at the same time, like the Frankenstein monster, he will turn on the community, which makes for a rousing, violent, bloody conflict. See it on the big screen.

In this community in 1673, women did not have nearly as great a role in Jewish prayers as men. Under Judaic law, ten men would form a minyan. Without the minyan, prayer would not be effective. Women were not allowed to join any minyan, which makes this “Golem” a horror tale that shows how Hanna has been seriously underrated by the men—though she got substantial help from a male, the title golem (Daniel Cohen), able to wave his arms and decapitate the enemy one by one. If he turns on his own people, it’s the fault of the folks he saved. The town healer Perla (Brynie Furstenberg) wants to destroy the boy as a freak of nature who could, and does, turn violent even against the Jews.

Some might argue that the dialogue is not on a Shakespearean level, but the picture’s simplicity will draw young audiences, including young women who would not usually be caught dead in a horror show. Fine performances abound by Ishai Golan, and especially Furstenberg. The orthodox Jews serve as a splendid Greek chorus.

Filmed in Ukraine and Israel, “The Golem” is in English with no subtitles.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B

BORDER – movie reveiw

BORDER (Gräns)

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ali Abbasi
Screenwriter:  John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf, based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Cast:  Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petren, Sten Ljunggren
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/18/18
Opens: October 26, 2018
Gräns Movie Poster
People are not who they seem.  This is something most of us pick up by the time we are six years old, and is a common theme in literature, theater and movies.  There are two people, however, in Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” that are tangentially like others of their ilk, but this couple—a twosome that “found” each other–could pass for human beings.  And that’s something you can’t necessarily say about vampires (at least before they received new fans by their good looks) and zombies.  They’re not as innocent looking as the evil people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but if you ever encountered them you would be suspicious, but then you would write off your distrust by thinking that you’re guilty by some kind of “ism.”

Ali Abbasi, who directs “Border” (his sophomore full-length feature) is known by cinephiles for being at the helm of “Shelley,” about a couple who are unable to bear children but hire a Romanian maid to do the honors with unappealing results, the title baby’s clicking sounds perhaps the least unusual thing about the little one.  For his part, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story which was adapted for this film, is responsible for writing “Let the Right One In,” about a bullied fellow who finds love and a chance for revenge through a meeting with a peculiar girl.  So we know what we are in for with “Border.”  Or do we?

Let’s let Tina in.  As played by Eva Melander, she may strikes you as a woman with a face that only a mother could love.  Yet even she finds the affection she seeks while working as a customs agent in a Swedish seaside border post, a perfect career choice since she can smell both illegal goods from smugglers and moral rot from anybody.  A businessman with a suit who would be sent away with a wave of her fellow worker is stopped by Tina, who takes apart his mobile and finds incriminating stuff.  When Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes her way, a fellow who is so ugly he could be her soulmate, he is body-searched by her male colleague with embarrassing (for the agent) results.  We are well aware that the two will indeed get together, histories will be exchanged, maggots and worms will be eaten, and for the first time in her life, she will realize that she, too, is person who is not who she thought she was.

What follows is a believable story notwithstanding its genre-bending look into horror, Nordic myths, a police drama, and a film that expresses a back-to-nature thematic structure, finding Tina running barefoot through the forest that is right outside the door of her isolated cabin.  She takes steps to deal with a freeloading roommate, Roland (Jörgan Thorsson), who is more interested in TV and in showing his Rottweilers in competition than in her, a man who is rebuffed when he tries for intimacy with Tina.  Tina is more at home with the animal kingdom, possesses a nose that can tell when deer are approaching, allowing her to stop the car so they can pass unmolested.  Both Tina and Eero become involved in capturing a pedophile.  From her father (Sten Ljunggren) she ultimately learns the truth about her upbringing.

Don’t feel sorry for the actors who play Tina and Vore.  They are not that ugly.  Instead, they put up with four hours daily in the make-up studio to give them the grotesque looks, giving the movie the possibility of picking up awards for the prosthetic team.  Filmmaker Ali Abbasi holds an Iranian passport and had been unable to enter the U.S. because of the current restriction on some Muslim countries, but he was allowed to enter our country for the Telluride Festival. (Don’t let Trump know or he will fire the officials who allowed this.)

Strictly speaking, movies that feature serial killers like Freddy Kruger are not horror films.  They are slasher fare.  A true horror film must deal with supernatural aspects, like the title baby in “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the pod people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  If you are repelled by slasher movies you may find that true horror is more to your liking, which is why you should give “Border” your time.  The film was screened at Cannes, Telluride, and the Toronto festivals.  And those who do not recognize the environment in which the story takes place, it was shot by Nadim Carlsen in Kapellskär and Norrtäje, Sweden.  English subtitles are provided.

110 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

RONDO – movie review

RONDO

Fantasia International Film Festival
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Drew Barnhardt
Screenwriter:  Drew Barnhardt
Cast:  Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 7/26/18
Opens: July 27, 2018 at Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal
Rondo (2018)
After spending 60 hours watching Masterpiece Theatre-like episodes like the magnificent “Downton Abbey,” you might be in the mood for something not as nuanced, not as dainty, without hoity-toity royalty or the filtering in of characters from a different era.  So no offense,  members of the spacious English mansion, but sometimes you want to sit back, hear pounding electronic music on the soundtrack, and not have to worry about whether the characters are believable, or the plot credible.  Yes.  You can be as riveted by a exploitation movie that has you rooting for the good guys and wishing mayhem for the villains, just as you might sometimes prefer “Greenback Boogie” on the soundtrack of “Suits” rather than the ethereal tones of Liszt’s Étude No. 13.  That’s where “Rondo” fits in.

“Rondo,” which opens July 27 at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montréal, has elements of horror but without the subtle touches of last year’s horror masterwork, “Get Out.”  There is no real satire either in “Rondo,” no hidden messages about current U.S. politics however that makes you fall back in terror, no A-list actors either but a coterie of villains and good people that can keep you riveted.   Writer-director Drew Barnhardt, whose freshman feature “Murder Loves Killers Too” (about one “Big Stevie” whose idea of sex is murder and who loves to kill carefree teens), is obviously in his métier with his sophomore production “Rondo.”  Part slasher, part black comedy, and all designed to have the audience focused without moving for a quick 88 minutes, “Rondo” is a doozy of a film.  Just check out the director’s hip picture on the IMDB and you know what to expect.

Steve Van Beckum narrates as though reading sentences in  novel, and this time the technique of voice-over does not mar the quality of the picture since Beckum’s voice-overs are kept to a minimum and even serve to inject irony into the festivities by being so matter-of-fact when blood is gushing from every pore.  At first Paul (Luke Sorge) appears to be the principal actor.  He has returned home with PTSD after a dishonorable discharge, takes to the bottle until he becomes homeless, and is housed by his incredibly beautiful and sexy sister Jill (Brenna Otts).  She sends Paul to Cassie (Gena Shaw), a therapist, who tells her new patient what we all want to hear from our psychoanalysts: get laid.  And she tell him where to go.

With the password on a card in his pocket, he goes to a “Rondo party,” meets the suave host Lurdell (Reggie De Morton) and two other patients. Soon enough we realize that he is not having hallucinations.  Weird things begin to happen, Paul becomes perhaps even more scared than he had been when in the military.  He tells his sister about this experience until finally he convinces not only her but also her father, Sam (Michael Vasicek).

Any more exposure of the plot would ruin the twists, the about-faces, the aspects of criminality indulged by the host and his three accomplices, but strangely, the simpler, the sleazier the plot dynamics, the more engrossed you might be (particularly when the gorgeous Jill strips down to bra and panties).  While the voice-over is not at all intrusive, the same cannot be said of Ryan Franks’ and  Scott Nikoley’s pounding music, which drowns out some of the dialogue.  John Bourbonais films entirely in Denver, spending much of his time inside a contemporary-designed apartment to die for.

Rated R.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

HEREDITARY – movie review

HEREDITARY

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter:  Ari Aster
Cast:  Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 5/31/18
Opens: June 8, 2018
Hereditary Movie Poster
In his debut feature, Ari Aster—known for shorts such as “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” which is a dark family melodrama—graduates into a full length picture that goes beyond mere melodrama into the realm of horror.  But “Hereditary” is not a simple slasher movie like the “Friday the 13th” series but is instead for a discerning crowd.  The film will draw people who do not need to see scenes of killings, each one occurring within five minutes of the other, all the cuts edited so quickly you can barely see what’s going on.  Instead Aster is fond of long takes and intense close-ups, with patient buildups heading toward the inevitably concluding mayhem which is foreshadowed in a Hebrew inscription that fortells “pandemonium.”

While the story does not match up to the hype the film received at the Sundance Festival, its chief talking point is a stunning performance from Toni Collette in the principal role of Annie Graham, who lives in a wilderness home of undisclosed location (filmed by Powel Pogorzelski in Utah).  Annie, who creates and paints miniatures, has a mild-mannered husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) who is the only normal person in the family, a teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and Peter’s thirteen-year-old sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  It doesn’t take long to see that something is wrong with Annie and her children, with Steve doing his best to contain the schizophrenic-type rages and impulses of the family, all of which come emerge in full bloom after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen.  When Annie delivers a eulogy for her mother she appears anything but broken up, yet her miniatures depict scenes from her life as though she is intent on holding fast to her personal history.

Yet this obsession with her recent past is based not on pleasant memories of her upbringing but with a feeling she cannot shake off that something was strange about her mother, something relating perhaps to the older woman’s belonging to a cult along with Joan  (Ann Dowd). John, despite her neighborliness and support for Annie, appears to have supernatural powers to communicate with the dead. As though these were not problems enough, Annie must deal with her young daughter’s antisocial behavior and strange appearance and we in the audience catch a whiff of the thirteen-year-old’s macabre activities when she slices off the head of a pigeon that had died when crashing into a building.

The story takes a grisly turn when Peter, forced to take his kid sister to a school party, must deal with a sudden medical emergency when her sister, having eaten some chocolate cake at the party, has an episode of anaphylaxis and must be rushed to a hospital.  She doesn’t make it.  What occurs at a series of séances should not be revealed but should be experienced first-hand by the audience, but don’t expect to be riveted by unbearable tensions unless you have the same outlook on this horror film as some of the attendees at Sundance.

The principal plus is the three-dimensional performance from Toni Collette, who goes from quietly painting her miniatures to a somewhat alarmed concern for her daughter’s awkwardness to an outright breakdown at a funeral and soon, one of the most chilling monologues you’re likely to see this year.  Colin Stetson’s music does it best to ratchet up the tension but there’s little available here that’s memorable; perhaps nothing that will raise the kind of post-performance discussions so indelible in the horror greats like “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Exorcist” and “The Sixth Sense”—the last featuring an expertly crafted dinner between Olivia Williams and a missing Bruce Willis.

Rated R.  126 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – B

THE ENDLESS – movie review

THE ENDLESS

Well Go USA Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenwriter:  Justin Benson
Cast:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, Lew Temple, Tate Ellington, James Jordan
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/21/18
Opens: April 1, 2018
Inline image 1
As you watch “The Endless,” you may wonder where to file its genre.  Is it horror?  No, nobody gets slashed or murdered in any other way; quite the opposite, in fact.  Is it sci-fi?  To some extent only.  There are elements, but there’s no time travel, no new technology to rave about.  Is it dystopian?  Not that either.  It does not show the Earth after nuclear holocaust.  Zombie?  Vampire? What is it?

What can be said is that the low-budget indie is adept at creating atmosphere; more effectively, in fact, than any picture that appeared in 2017.  The music, the elements of fog, the occasional lapse into mumblecore, all create suspense, and the suspense will have a payoff in the end.  As the movie moves forward toward resolution, it picks up from a the pleasant chit-chat of a pair of brothers, steadily toward increasing anxieties as the brothers face an ensemble who at first welcomes them to their long-standing party.  They open their arms to them, try out some tricks such as a tug of war that they join with an invisible foe, to a sense that the good will they enjoyed when first meeting the group is turning to hostility.  At the same time the experience that the brothers are facing is pushing the two of them away from each other, the big brother no longer able to convince the younger one about the desirability of backtracking to their previous unfulfilled lives.

Justin Benson, who wrote the screenplay and co-directs the feature with Aaron Moorehead, are also its stars, one of them even serving as cinematographer.  Think of the money they saved by multi-tasking!  With a total production cost of just a million dollars, the film bears some comparison to “The Blair Witch Project,” which took in many times more than its cost. In a directors’ previous feature, “Resolution,” a man imprisons a junky friend in a cabin to force him to sobriety.  “The Endless” has one scene reminiscent but on the whole is a more developed piece of work than either that or of “Spring,” featuring a woman in Italy who harbors a dark secret.

“The Endless” is all about secrets, gaining intrigue as an audience wonders just what makes the group that the brothers meet so different even from other communal folks who have escaped from the rat race.  When Justin Smith (Justin Benson) and his kid brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) receive a videotape in the mail, we can’t help thinking that this will be one of those horror movies about screened events that warn or even imprison the viewers.  This time the tape does not intimidate but rather gives the younger man the excuse to revisit the commune at Camp Arcadia whose members took them in ten years earlier when they were orphaned by a car crash.  At that time Justin was barely able to convince Aaron to leave, to escape from what he calls a death cult, warning that they could be drinking the Kool Aid if they did not bounce.

The members, remembering the escape, are now forgiving.  They show magic tricks including a tug of war with a rope that seems to be attached to a cloud, competing with the two brothers by exerting a powerful force.  A baseball is thrown up and remains suspended in space for a minute before dropping into the hand of a guest.  One again, the older man pushes his brother to leave with him before it’s too late, but Aaron is intrigued, this time demanding the right to remain in the camp for good even if Justin leaves.

The visual effects are neat, especially strong since they are used with restraint, and as the twists multiply and the atmosphere becomes weirder and less explicable, we could expect a powerful conclusion to reveal the secrets of the commune which may have already become so much a part of their visit that it will affect them forever.

Unrated.  111 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B