Directed by Jen and Silvia Soska
Distributed by XLRator Media
After reading loads of positive reviews and eagerly anticipating a new film starring the wonderful and woefully underemployed actress Katharine Isabelle, I was more than a little disappointed to hear fellow Dread Central contributor Brad McHargue call out American Mary for being, well, not-so-great. It is, he pointed out, well shot and features great performances by Isabelle and Tristan Risk, but it is also built upon a mess of a screenplay. Though I don’t always agree with Brad’s opinions, I’ve always respected them, and his “thumbs down” was a bit sobering after reading so many laudatory pieces on it.
Now, after having seen the film, I’m not certain I could say that Mr. McHargue was wrong. The script is indeed a mess. But in this case, this reviewer doesn’t see that as a negative. In fact, the script seems to be more of an affront to traditional three-act storytelling rather than being simply ignorant of it. The script for American Mary seems to eschew convention just as much as the film’s eponymous character and her endearingly bizarre clientele. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
American Mary concerns Mary Mason, a young student struggling to pay her bills as she makes her way through med school. With massive debt looming and her phone about to be shut off, Mary reluctantly considers taking a job as a stripper, going so far as to take her resume to her audition for sleazy club owner Billy (Cupo). When one of Billy’s criminal associates winds up in his bar sporting severe wounds and seeking help, he enlists Mary to tend to the man’s wounds in exchange for silence and a great deal of cash. And, of course, Mary complies.
Not long after, Mary is contacted by Beatress (Risk), a stripper surgically reformed to look like a living Betty Boop, who had overheard Mary’s financial woes and is aware of her surgical prowess and willingness to skirt the law for the right amount of cash. It seems Beatress has a friend interested in having some manner of body modification surgery performed – the type that reputable surgeons might refuse to do. With yet more money tossed her way, Mary agrees to the procedure and eventually finds herself highly in demand by a number of folks interested in all manner of personal image tweaking. But even as Mary’s reputation amongst this underground grows, a violent incident sends Mary spiraling into insanity, even as she becomes ever more efficient and lethal with the scalpel she wields.
With its often gorgeous photography and strong lead performance by Isabelle, along with its offbeat subject matter, American Mary has become one of my favorite genre films I’ve seen thus far this year. Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (the self branded “Twisted Twins”) have crafted an impressive film for their second outing (after their grindhousey debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk), creating a movie with quite the tricky tone – one that dances between darkly comedic and touchingly tragic, with very few missteps along the way.
In addition, the film’s central relationship between Mary and Billy is refreshing in that it’s in no way conventional. The two are obviously attracted to one another, and there is an odd sweetness to each scene they share, but the necessary connection the two need to make seems to be beyond them. I enjoyed how this played out in a subtle fashion, rather than having either character monologuing their innermost thoughts to telegraph each scene’s intention to the audience (as one might expect from a lesser film). Rather, the Soskas allow the briefest of looks or awkward silences to tell keenly interested viewers all they need to know about these people and how they feel about each other. Well done.
In addition, Mary’s madness is deftly handled, with Isabelle playing a woman who’s quite capable of hiding her boiling emotions for the bulk of the film – though once the inevitable cracks in her demeanor begin to show, Isabelle plays Mary as fierce and utterly lethal. Hers is a tragic story, with the film presenting her as both its hero and villain, all at once. We the audience can’t always cheer on her choices, though we can always sympathize because we’ve witnessed what led her down the horrible path she takes. It’s yet another powerhouse of a performance from an actress who really should’ve been an A-lister by now, after her impressive turn in cult hit Ginger Snaps and her brief but memorable role in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (to say nothing of her solid work in loads of indies and TV shows). Hopefully this film will get Ms. Isabelle the proper exposure she needs to climb the ranks in Hollywood. But if not, genre fans will no doubt be more than happy to see her headlining interesting indie pics like Mary.
For as much as I liked the film, though, it isn’t without its faults. The film’s wonky structure allows it to drift a bit at the halfway point, even introducing a detective character who is by and large entirely unnecessary. In addition, a few of the performances aren’t quite up to par with the leads (one otherwise wooden character uses foul language almost as a weapon, but neither the writing nor the performance is ever able to sell this character as a completely believable person). There is also a sequence of violence perpetrated on a character who simply waltzes into the proceedings from out of the blue, providing the film with a shocking burst of violence but little in the way of a setup or fallout. Still, these are nitpicks when judged against the whole.
XLRator Media has done a fine job in bringing Mary to disc. The image is sharp, with inky blacks and beautifully muted colors throughout. The DTS track is great as well, perfectly reproducing the film’s creepy sound design and affecting musical score (good work from composer Peter Allen).
Unfortunately, the bonus features section is a bit lacking. There is a seventeen-minute making-of (featuring some fun behind-the-scenes moments), and an audio commentary with the Soskas, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk. It’s an interesting if frustrating listen, full of fun and information – though one has to strain to hear Isabelle’s contributions, as she literally phoned in her part of the commentary. Still, it’s worth a listen for those enamored with the film and curious about its making. The theatrical trailer is also included, which is always nice.
Look – this flick will most certainly not be everyone’s cup o’ tea. In fact, you probably already have a good idea as to whether or not you’ll want to check it out. However, with its original script, offbeat tone, and fantastic lead performance, American Mary has claimed a top spot on this reviewer’s own personal Top Ten of 2013.
Can’t wait to see what the Soskas cook up next…
4 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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