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Among Us (2017)

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Starring Mark Diconzo, Katie Morrison and Elena Sanz

Directed by Gary King


There may be no kind of film harder to evaluate than an uneven one. Bad movies are easy, good ones might be easier still, but uneven films constitute a unique challenge every time. One must stretch the mind a bit more while picking the bones of these unfortunate pieces of art. Take greater care in the dissection of such motley corpses. They are often woven together out of both flashes of brilliance and stunning lapses in judgement. When trying to understand why the strongest patches are bound so tight and why the weakest fray so obviously one must examine the fabric itself. Must ask after the skill of the weavers and the consider the manner in which they wove. Finally, one must test the tenor of each mercurial strand of thought to find the ones that ring true and those that feel false to the mind. Yes, uneven films are a challenge but, if one is determined enough, they can offer almost as much sustenance as their counterparts.

Among Us is an uneven film. This tale of two former parents haunted by a presence that seeks to take everything from them abounds with promises both kept and broken. It takes the viewer on a trip through oppressive darkness across rocky, broken ground. It will bring you maddeningly close to the brink only to leave you hanging, disconcerted, on the edge. Maybe the best thing that can be said about this film is that it will definitely make you feel many things but, unfortunately, the strongest might just be frustration.

Writer/director Gary King obviously sought to make a quiet, personal piece about loss and regret. I think he ultimately managed to do so. One of the strengths of Among Us is the way in which it deals with grief and how it can cling to you like a stain that won’t come out. The entity that pursues them and tortures them is destroying their lives by taking that which they hold most dear and driving them to madness before turning them against one another. It has been playing with them, like a cat after a mouse, and when it’s had it’s fill of fun it will devour whatever pieces remain. This ever looming danger is another thing King was able to convey quite efficiently. There is a malaise here that will surely leave its mark.

Sadly, this effective part of the narrative is undercut by performances that leave much to be desired. For a film that only has three major players this is a problem. With so much of the film’s ponderous plot being shouldered by so few every stumble resonates all the more loudly. Mark Diconzo, thankfully, plays the part of gruff, guilt-ridden husband Frank with an appropriate amount of dark mystery with just enough emotional turmoil showing through to allow him to remain sympathetic. He broods as well as anyone but never forgets that, without context, brooding means nothing. There is pain in his eyes that bubbles out and bleeds down his face.

Katie Morrison as his wife Mallory, however, doesn’t rise to meet the challenge of his nuanced performance giving one of her own that ranges wildly between believable and hilariously over-the-top. There are times when you will almost be convinced of her personal torment only to be brought back to reality when she takes it too far and undercuts all the work she did drawing you in. I was severely disappointed by this because I believe, had she been restrained correctly in these moments, this would have been a much, much stronger film.

Rounding out the cast is the ex-paranormal investigator the couple calls upon to help them with their problem, Eleanor, played by Elena Sanz. Sanz’s performance is the most confounding. She is an undeniably magnetic performer who’s frequent half-smiles bring to mind the smoky allure of a young Holly Hunter. Her charisma oozes off the screen but many times in the film she takes the same leap into unbelievability as her co-star Katie Morrison. While I think the bulk of the mistakes that Morrison made to be the result of unhoned talent, I think in Sanz’s case the fault might lie in bad direction. She seems too strong a performer to be as bad as she comes off in some of her scenes.

This brings us back to Gary King. He may have succeeded in delivering the major themes but he did so with little subtlety or grace and, as a result, stumbles over the finish line. There are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through and confusing lore with inconsistent rules. He also had a problem properly realizing the threat of the film’s antagonist. He manages to bring genuine terror more than a few times to the invisible monster that plagues the heroes, but for every scene that fills you with dread he will match it with one that merely confounds. With a tighter script and clearer vision I believe he could have delivered something really special.

Ultimately, Among Us is a forgettable film. While it’s strengths can’t be denied it is the weaknesses that leave the lasting impression. Most viewers will walk away frustrated and annoyed with only those souls who take meticulous pleasure in deconstruction finding any satisfaction in it. If one doesn’t mind wading through the dross, however, there is hope to be found. Hope that Katie Morrison will learn how to trust her better instincts and hone the exceptional parts of her talent. Hope that Elena Sanz will find better guidance in order to more adequately draw from her fount of magnetic charm. Finally, hope that maybe next time Gary King will find better footing as well as more even ground to trod upon.

 

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Edge of Isolation Review – A Movie with a Simple Message: Don’t Trust Anyone

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Starring Michael Marcel, Marem Hassler, Alexandra Peters

Directed by Jeff Houkal


Sometimes, relying on the kindness of strangers is the thing that’ll do your gullible asses in – kindness? Strangers? Come on – think about it! Even further proof of said warning comes in the form of director Jeff Houkal’s brutally blatant film, Edge Of Isolation – won’t you come inside and grab a seat? You see! You fell right into another trap – jeezus, people…don’t trust just anyone, will ya?

Set up in a simplistic format, we’ve got a traveling couple (Lance and Kendra) whose Jeep, conveniently enough decides to shit the bed along a desolate stretch of roadway, leaving them at the mercy of the Polifer family, a slightly odd bunch of backwoods residents. This particular clan isn’t exactly wrapped too tightly, and they’re not afraid to let their freak flags fly, that’s for sure. You see, the family has been deeply-rooted in these here woods, and their “hospitality” has kept them fed for quite some time, and with a fresh supply of unsuspecting commuters stopping in at varying spells, their stomachs never truly seem to growl out of sustained hunger…oh, that kindness will bite you in the ass every single waking moment.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is constructed fairly simple, yet effective in its barbarism, and those who dig survivalist-horror will be wringing their mitts in anticipation for this one. While some editing does look a bit hokey, the practical effects more than make up for an at-times bit of strewn-about plot navigation, but who’s keeping score? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I absolutely revel in low-budgeted films that don’t necessarily have the looks and feels of such, and Edge Of Isolation is one of those presentations that is certainly worth its weight in blood and guts – do yourself a solid and give this one a look when it becomes available to the masses, and for f**k’s sake, don’t take up anyone’s offer to chill at their place when your ride breaks down – get AAA and save your life (the previous statement was in no way affiliated or endorsed by the Triple A Automotive group – just sayin’).

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3.5

Summary

Edge Of Isolation doesn’t need a full-blown allocation to keep future stranded motorists from losing their heads – all they have to do is push “play.”

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Threads Blu-ray Review – The Horror of Nuclear War Hits Home Video

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Starring Death, Destruction, Famine, Unimaginable Suffering

Directed by Mick Jackson

Distributed by Severin Films


Although not quite reaching the tense heights felt during the Cold War, talk of nuclear annihilation has nonetheless been on the tips of tongues following a recent public spat between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. The difference being that unlike the decades-long stalemate between America and Russia, this kerfuffle feels more like two boys breaking out the ruler to measure package size. Regardless, the truth remains that as long as nuclear weapons are held by any country the risk of a catastrophic event is always on the table – and their use should never be used as a casual threat. The world has seen firsthand the level of devastation that can be wrought with their use; a reminder none want to endure again. This seems as fitting a time as any for Severin Films to breathe new life on home video into Threads (1984), a frightening portrayal of what could happen in the U.K. following nuclear war. Similar in concept to America’s The Day After (1983), Threads is a chilling, bleak vision that showcases the breakdown of society prior to, and after, the detonation of nuclear weaponry. Nothing is glamorized; there are no heroics. By the time the credits roll viewers will be left chilled to the core, having witnessed so much destruction that should never be allowed to occur in a modern society.

The action is centered in Sheffield, U.K. where we follow the lives of a few distinct families and citizens who represent different sectors of the populace. The events leading up to nuclear war are depicted via television and radio broadcasts, with anchors reporting on increasing tensions in Iran following a coup allegedly backed by the U.S. In response, the Soviet Union moves troops into northern Iran to protect their own interests. The standoff becomes increasingly strained when the U.S. reports the submarine USS Los Angeles has gone missing in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, a collision between Soviet and American battle cruisers forces the U.S. President to issue a warning to the Soviets that any further action may lead to armed confrontation.

As all of this is occurring the citizens of Sheffield are attempting to go about their normal lives… until a melee involving nuclear-tipped weaponry prompts the government to assemble emergency operations groups. With the U.K. now completely gripped by fear, the threads of society begin to rapidly unspool, with citizens divided over local government response while runs on grocery stores and looting become widespread. Finally, in the early morning a few weeks after this skirmish began air raid sirens are sounded and within minutes a nuclear warhead is detonated over the North Sea, emitting an EMP and knocking out all communication in the country. The attack wreaks havoc, decimating the country and wiping out millions of lives in one swift blow. Those are the lucky ones.

Those who survive the initial blast are met with highly-radioactive fallout, disease, famine, radiation sickness, crumbling infrastructure and streets littered with rotting corpses. Society has suffered a complete breakdown. Money no longer holds any value. Nuclear winter brings about a dearth of crops and a massive drop in temperatures. Food is the only commodity with any value – and it is long before any can be produced. Population levels reach those of the medieval times. Even a decade after the blast, the areas devastated by nuclear war have only rebuilt to a level on par with the Industrial Revolution. Children are still born. Language is limited, due to the lack of proper schooling. Little hope looms on the horizon as those left alive scrounge and scavenge, eking out a miserable existence.

Director Mick Jackson made a smart decision by shooting Threads using a neorealist lens, employing unknowns in place of familiar faces. This gives the picture a documentarian feel while also scuttling the notion of seeing famous faces either survive the catastrophe or become heroes. There is no silver lining to be found. The initial blast rocks the U.K. on a grand scale, brought to visceral life by Jackson’s use of miniatures and montage to convey a massive scale of destruction. Fires rage, Sheffield is in ruins, charred corpses line the streets, and radiation poisoning leaves survivors roiling in pain and vomiting endlessly. The brutal verisimilitude is gut-wrenching; Jackson ensures every bit of pain and perseverance is palpable.

Threads should be mandatory viewing, serving as a warning of the very real potential outcome should civilized nations resort to using nuclear weaponry on a global scale. No good can come of mutually assured destruction. All of the posturing and battling between the U.S. and Russia pales in comparison to the annihilation of millions of lives and decades of industry, all wiped out in the blink of an eye. This is true horror.

Given its low budget and television roots, it should come as no surprise that Threads looks on a rougher side of HD. Severin touts the 1.33:1 1080p image as being a “new 2K remaster”, though the provenance of the elements used is not mentioned. Truthfully, the grainy, rough-hewn picture is a perfect complement to the gritty imagery seen throughout and anything more polished might have lessened the impact. The film was shot on 16mm and blown-up to 35mm; again, a smart aesthetic decision given the documentarian feel Jackson wanted. The cinematography reminded me of Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), an American documentary on coal workers. Damage can be seen throughout, as well as plenty of flecks and debris but, again, none of this was particularly irksome because it feels organic to this decaying world.

Audio comes in the form of a simple English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. First off, I highly recommend turning on the subtitles because the English accents are thick and plenty of U.K.-specific colloquialisms are used; it helps – a lot. This is a thin track without much direction, employing a workmanlike sound design to get the point across. Explosions have a bit of roar and oomph, but the biggest impact is made by a scene of total silence post-attack. Dialogue is clean and well set within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.

An audio commentary track is included, featuring director Mick Jackson, moderated by film writer Kier La Janisse & Severin Films’ David Gregory.

“Audition for the Apocalypse” is an interview with actress Karen Meagher.

“Shooting the Annihilation” is an interview with director of photography Andrew Dunn.

“Destruction Designer” is an interview with production designer Christopher Robilliard.

“Stephen Thrower on THREADS” finds the author and film historian discussing the production history and impact of the film.

A “U.S. trailer” as well as a “Re-release trailer” are included.

Special Features:

  • NEW 2K REMASTER of the film prepared for this release
  • Audio Commentary with Director Mick Jackson, Moderated by Film Writer Kier–La Janisse and Severin Films’ David Gregory
  • Audition For the Apocalypse: Interview with Actress, Karen Meagher
  • Shooting the Annihilation: Interview with Director of Photography, Andrew Dunn
  • Destruction Designer: Interview with Production Designer, Christopher Robilliard
  • Interview with Film Writer, Stephen Thrower
  • U.S. Trailer
  • Threads
  • Special Features
3.5

Summary

Brutal and unflinching in its desire to convey a story true to reality, Threads is a difficult and necessary viewing experience that shows firsthand the level of terror wrought by man’s hand.

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Annihilation Review – A Fascinating, Gorgeous New Take on Body Horror

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Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac

Written and directed by Alex Garland


Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience!“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.

An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband, Kane (Isaac), has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission about which Lena has been able to get zero information. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X.” However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.

The majesty of Annihilation is the time it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions among the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.

Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer.” A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.

Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this third act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.

The characters of Annihilation feel real, and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without his/her flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.

Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.

Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had, but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.

I do not say this lightly, but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.

  • Annihilation
5.0

Summary

Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.

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