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Friday
Apr202018

Traffik (2018)

Arresting Developments

I was tired heading into Act Three of Traffik. The novelty had worn off, and whatever dashes of style that writer/director Deon Taylor brought to his city-couple-in-small-town-danger thriller, it seemed, wouldn't be enough to save this gussied-up chase-through-the-woods picture. The film's title and premise hint at an international sex-slave ring, but with a half-hour to go, the strongest connection I could draw was Paula Patton running around in a tight, dirty red top. Few would have blamed me for cutting and running.

This, my friends, is why you never, ever, ever walk out of a movie before it's over. Though Taylor subconsciously homages The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and its myriad imitators) throughout, Traffik stops just short of settling for a horror climax in which the beautiful, bloody, half-naked girl kills the bad guys and stomps out a global conspiracy with her will to live and a well-swung axe.

Let's rewind.

Brea (Patton) and John (Omar Epps) are a mid-thirties couple on the verge of getting married. John's best friend, a fast-talking, trouble-making sports agent named Darren (Laz Alonso), gives them the keys to the Sacramento mansion where his clients luxuriate in their off time. On their winding drive up the mountains, John and Brea stop to refuel and, of course, end up at a horror-movie gas station. Between the shifty cashier, the leering biker gang out front, and the strung-out waif dropping ominous clues to Brea in the bathroom, our heroes should very well have headed back home and asked Darren if their palatial getaway had a helipad they could use instead.

But, no, the movie continues on up the mountain, where Brea and John discover they're not alone. I won't dive further into plot developments, except to say that not everyone lives through the inevitable home siege initiated by a mid-level pimp (Luke Goss) on a mission to get back evidence of the titular sex-trafficking organization. Instead, I'd like to talk about the three bright, shining keys to Traffik's success.

The first is Patton. Her performance teetered on annoying for much of the film. Brea, ostensibly a respected and very intelligent journalist, acts like a giddy, guy-fantasy girl right up to the moment when all hell breaks loose. Patton plays her as airy, seemingly always on the verge of hysterics (similar to the reasons people made fun of Jennifer Love Hewitt in the 90s). In the end, though, as Brea comes to terms with what she's really up against, and the life-altering choice she makes in order to confront it, you can see wisdom flood into Patton's eyes. Intentional or not, the filmmakers give us a character who embodies Traffik's mission statement: beneath the comparably ridiculous lives led by so many Americans lies an undercurrent of human exploitation and misery that, once seen, cannot be scrubbed from the soul.

Speaking of soul, cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights the cosmic spark that elevates Taylor's writing and direction. The veteran DP brings the same "A" game to this $5 million indie as he did to mainstream powerhouses like Heat and the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp. His technique evolves with the story, framing and lighting earlier scenes involving a circle of well-to-do friends with all the aspirational gloss of a casino-resort commercial; later, as Brea sinks into the gooey, black depths of conspiracy, Spinotti gets down in the muck with her (and drags us along, gasping), only to emerge with a tarnished version of that initial carefree aesthetic. In transition, eagle-eyed viewers will catch an homage to L.A. Confidential's misty, back-lit climax in which the villains prepare to close in for the kill--another Spinotti special.

I mentioned before that Traffik's premise was in danger of being lost somewhere in the second act. Fortunately, Taylor doesn't let us off the hook, and jumps genres on a dime in the final stretch. Brea comes face to face with the horrors of modern-day slavery; as she points out to another character late in the film, the technology might have changed, but the deplorable practice is practically as old as human history. Taylor doesn't turn his thriller into a "Message Movie" per se, but he makes it impossible to dismiss Traffik as a disposable joyride in which good triumphs over evil. By the time the credits role, I dare say you'll be compelled to find out what you can do to knee-cap this very real global epidemic.

The movie is far from perfect. We are presented with two instances of police assistance showing up way too quickly (like, Harold & Kumar quickly); there's the missing-sat-phone-case incident; and Darren's secret coke habit manifests in a way that is both inconvenient and unintentionally (?) hilarious. There's also not enough Missi Pyle in the film. This is wholly a matter of personal bias, but I could watch an entire film about her local-sherrif character (true in her early scenes--doubly so by the end).

So, yes, on first viewing, Traffik was just compelling enough for me to be disappointed that the second act appeared to devolve into a movie I'd seen a hundred times before. But that last half-hour--damn, it's good. I tend to rate thrillers based on how many times I reflexively go hand-to-mouth in shock. Taylor got me twice. More importantly, at the end, I put my hand over my heart in a rare display of exhilaration and indescribable sadness.

Friday
Mar162018

Demon House (2018)

'Thunk' in the Night

There’s an ongoing argument in my house about the validity of paranormal-investigation shows. My wife and I have both experienced unexplained phenomena that we chock up to neither heavenly nor hellish—simply weird and rather creepy. Though we’re both believers in something beyond the realm of current human understanding, I’m not inclined to take others' claims of supernatural insight seriously—especially if they make those claims on television.

Enter Zak Bagans, one of the “Ghost Adventurers” on Travel Channel’s wildly popular, 15-season docu-series. In 2015, he purchased a run-down home in Gary, Indiana, after seeing news reports that its residents had fled following a demonic possession. Bagans and crew moved in, and began interviewing locals who knew the cursed family--as well as the decades of rumors surrounding the “Demon House”.

Demon House is Bagans’ three-years-in-the-making account of his time in Gary. The director’s experience didn’t last nearly that long, but it took quite a lot of writing, casting, editing, and effects work to flesh out the movie, which, if you remove the dramatic re-creations of twelve-foot-tall goat monsters; children walking backwards up walls; and dramatic slow-mo, amounts to maybe thirty minutes of documentary footage wherein dubious interview subjects talk over several glorified open-house walk-throughs.

As propaganda for the supernaturally inclined, Demon House is likely very effective entertainment. My wife partially heeded the warning that opens the film, and left about twenty minutes in. I stuck it out and, despite Bagans’ claim that the movie itself is cursed, I came away with only a mild case of the heebie-jeebies and a profound appreciation for the filmmaker's deft sleights-of-hand.

Even being hyper aware of Bagans’ bag of tricks, I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d convinced so many ostensibly reputable Gary professionals—from police officials, to a social worker, to home inspectors—to talk about their encounters with evil on camera. Surely, there must be something to their stories—unless they were being paid so handsomely by the production as to make up for behavior that could, at best, ding their credibility and, at worst, jeopardize their careers.

Could the “Demon House” really be (as those who’d been inside have claimed) a portal to Hell?

Hold your Apocalyptic horses.

After laying out his case in haunted-hay-ride fashion, Bagans takes us on a revelatory detour, spending a good ten minutes debunking just about everyone and everything from the previous half-hour. The home’s landlord says he’s never heard of any suspicious activity in three decades of owning the property; extended family members of the people whose abrupt exit prompted Bagans to investigate refute their relatives' version of events; undercover video shows one of the first townspeople we meet (a real proponent of the house’s otherworldly qualities) attempting to extort the crew for money in exchange for more outrageous stories. The last straw is a conversation with, if I recall correctly, a structural engineer who talks about the gases, mold, and chemicals bleeding out into the residence—which could very easily cause disorientation and hallucinations with prolonged exposure.

Bagans himself seems convinced that he's in the midst of some kind of small-town shakedown—until, as he says, “Shit got real.”

Yes, after a sanity pit stop, we hop right back on the expressway to Ghostville, with even more wild stories, conjecture, and surveillance footage of visitors and crew members walking the grounds and acting weird. The climax sees Bagans boarding himself up in the house overnight to confront whatever malevolent forces have apparently caused everything from organ failure to car accidents to death in the lives of those whom he has encountered since settling in Gary. The only thing remotely interesting stretch of this alleged horrific experience involves Bagans crouched on a bed, yelling at something we cannot see—and then throwing his car keys at it.

There’s no saving Demon House, but Bagans might have fared better by hiring a narrator to play him. I realize this would make things terribly confusing for the viewer, but the current first-person voice-over conveys the same flat, Dude-Bro affect as that cop in Idiocracy who kept referring to people as “particular individuals”. Bagans looks and acts like the lead singer of a Papa Roach cover band—not good when attempting to convey high-wattage cosmic understanding (or, at the very least, sincerity).

That’s unfair. It doesn’t matter what someone looks like, as long as they’ve got the goods. Unfortunately, our intrepid host’s over-reliance on dramatizations and horror-movie techniques makes the entire operation seem fraudulent—like he’s over-compensating for a lack of evidence that might, on its face, convince audiences that there really was (is?) a sinister force lurking beneath Gary’s blighted soil. We may never know Bagans’ motives (if any, beyond money and fame) for presenting Demon House in this most problematic way. This mystery, to me, is more chilling than a hundred haunted basements.

Thursday
Mar152018

Porto (2016)

The King of Wistful Thinking

Years ago, the South Park kids dismissed all art-house movies as being about “gay cowboys eating pudding”. Though Porto contains exactly zero horses and/or desserts, this artsy, meandering puzzlement embodies the pretentiousness that Cartman and the gang so astutely observed.

Set in the titular Portuguese city, co-writer/director Gabe Klinger’s drama stars Anton Yelchin as Jake, an American expatriate who meets French student Mati (Lucie Lucas) on an archaeological dig site. They connect during a night of extreme passion, disconnect in the harsh light of day (thanks, in part, to Mati’s professor/ boyfriend, played by Paulo Calatré), and spend the next decade living in the past.

Klinger and co-writer Larry Gross rely heavily on narrative trickery, bouncing around Jake and Lucie’s timelines and perspectives in an effort to flesh out a love story that’s too weak (and, ultimately, too creepy) to be palatable on its own. Worse yet, Klinger twists Yelchin’s inherent sensitivity as a performer into the alluring mask of an abrasive man-child who decent moviegoers won’t actually want to see succeed. The filmmakers similarly short-change Lucas by giving her character a “crazy” past that is neglected in both the screenplay and the actress’s performance—and which feels designed to make Jake’s character less predatory by contrast.

It doesn’t work.

At seventy-six minutes, Porto might as well be six hours long. No amount of lush, urban European photography or attractive actors engaged in tantric sex* can make up for the gaping story void. Ultimately, Porto may only be remembered as a sad novelty: it contains one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, and one of his least memorable roles.

*A casualty of Klinger and co-editor Géraldine Mangenot’s sensibilities is that we lose all sense of time and place, especially in the third act. On the plus side, you may just get a belly laugh when realizing that the half-dozen scenes of mind-blowing coitus did not, in fact, take place over multiple evenings. It’s no wonder Jake looks so gaunt, pale, and devoid of fluid ten years on.

Friday
Mar092018

The Sect (1991)

And 'Italian Horror' was its Name--Oh!

I came up with a party game while watching The Sect. Forgive my ignorance if this already exists, but it’s time to put Italian Horror Bingo front and center in the popular consciousness. Let’s break it down:

B=“Basement” Michael Soavi’s film, which he co-wrote with Giaovanni Romoli and genre icon Dario Argento, centers on kindergarten teacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis*) who discovers a terrible secret brewing in the bowels of her modest German home. Like The House by the Cemetary, Opera, and The Beyond, this discovery takes just long enough for dark forces to harm people close to our heroine—without giving her enough time to actually stop said dark forces.

I="Identity" What’s the nature of the big bad thing in the basement, you ask? It’s connected to Miriam’s past somehow, and over the course of a tedious first act (not counting the grisly flashback that opens the film), we learn that she’s been a lightning rod for malevolence all her life. Are the cut-aways to gruesome, seemingly unrelated murders a coincidence? If City of the Living Dead taught us anything, the answer is, “Probably not”.

N="Nasty" In my limited but ever-expanding experience, Italian horror flicks are not designed as groundbreaking narrative achievements or acting showcases.** Fans show up for the gore, and while The Sect is somewhat restrained in the frequency of its murder set pieces, Soavi and company really make their squeamish moments count. From an innocuous mega-close-up of an eyeball absorbing an iodine drop; to a truly bizarre moment in which a character takes a hypodermic needle to the point of her nose; to the pièce de résistance involving hooks, a face, and an idea that should have made Clive Barker reconsider his day job, The Sect boasts downright artistic in-camera and practical effects that will make you stop peeking, pause the film, and study the frames.

G="Guardian" The “thing in the basement” must be protected at all costs by forces both supernatural and all-too-tragically human. As the title suggests, The Sect is about a cult of demon-worshiping hippies (and possible global power elites?) whose designs on poor Miriam may just involve an unborn child.

Best friends and would-be boyfriends are no match for the creepy old man (Herbert Lom) who befriends Miriam following a car accident; the possessed shroud whose favorite hobby is face-hugging meddlers; or the preternaturally intelligent bunny rabbit who pops up to occasionally chew on pipes, change channels on the television, and prevent Miriam’s doctor friend (Michel Adatte) from escaping the basement. Guardians aren’t exclusive to Italian horror movies, of course (one of the best examples can be found in the mainstream progenitor of this film, Rosemary’s Baby), but they’re always fun to spot, and to root for as they turn on whatever hapless fool tries to interfere with their plans.

The strangest guardian I can think of is The Sect’s reservoir of blue water. It’s full of spindly veins that creep through the house, winding their way up from an underground cistern—which, of course, is an…

O= "Opening to Hell" If you believe a random sampling of Italian horror movies, subterranean portals to perdition are as common in real estate as attached garages. Sometimes they act as infectious turnstiles, transforming those who venture inside into flesh-eating zombies; sometimes they are merely doorways that, once opened, unleash hordes of demons upon the idyllic European community of the week.

Soavi, Romoli, and Argento do things a little differently, using a combination of the blue water, human sacrifice, and Miriam’s fertile womb to bring forth a bouncing baby Beelzebub. In this case, the Devil (or whatever Satanic agent has been granted surrogate fatherhood) is alternately depicted as a crane, a resurrected dead guy covered in bright blue feathers, and a shadow on the basement wall whose erection we get to see in real-time (if you know where to look).

No matter which movie you choose to put on when playing Italian Horror Bingo, chances are you’ll win. Sure, many of these movies lend themselves to crossing tropes off a scorecard, but there’s often a creative zeal and a desire to disgust (or at least unsettle) that gives this sub-genre the edge over, say, off-brand slasher movies, torture porn, or franchise reboots.

The Sect, for all its aping of Polanski (and, yes, Argento), has a lot to offer—especially in its deliciously dark and ambiguous resolution, whose meaning you may just puzzle out for days.

Don’t agonize over it too much. There are parties to plan, after all.

*The resemblance to sister Jamie Lee is striking.

**In fairness, the latter is often hard to gauge, thanks to often comical English dubbing.

Friday
Feb092018

From Hollywood to Rose (2016)

Bridal Fare

Like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, From Hollywood to Rose is unstuck in time. Though set in modern-day Los Angeles, writer Matt Jacobs' screenplay sounds like one of those talky, pop-savvy reactions to the Kevin Smith phenomenon that littered late-nineties art houses--and its dreamlike interludes with after-hours oddballs wouldn't be out of place in 2001's  Waking Life. As co-directed by Liz Graham, the movie comes across as a mid-period John Waters joint, complete with over-the-top quirks and costumes, and acting that might most generously be described as "iffy".

Eve Annenberg plays Woman in Wedding Dress,* a middle-aged bride-not-to-be whom we meet shortly after she leaves her fiance at the altar. Wherever she's headed, she needs a bus to get there, and the film follows her for several hours as she collects people and experiences, and takes stock of her sad, twisted life. Among the late-night commuters are a violent criminal with an affinity for sewing (Krzysztof Soszynski), a mail-order bride (Chia Chen), and Woman's almost-sister-in-law (Isadora O'Boto), who isn't thrilled about the afternoon's events.

She also meets a pair of tubby slacker dudes who gladly press "pause" on their aimless evening to include Woman in their profane and deeply obsessive discussions about comic books, Star Wars, and Bruce Lee. For a fleeting moment, it seems as if Jacobs and Graham will abandon the people-watching motif in favor of a bizarre relationship comedy, as the more sensible but utterly directionless of the two guys (the "Dante", if you will, played by Bradley J. Herman) becomes infatuated with Woman. This detour doesn't last long, and the filmmakers wisely balance the rest of Woman's journey with a parallel look at the encounter's impact on the rest of the guys' evening.

Taken at face value, From Hollywood to Rose is a spaghetti-on-the-wall assortment of alternately funny, frightening, and flat run-ins that are meant to, I guess, elicit nods of recognition from anyone who's ever had to traverse the wasteland of broken dreams that is Hollywood, California. But if the filmmakers treat their characters as a collective freak show, it's at least one that Tod Browning would have been proud of. Jacobs and Graham show real affection for and grant dignity to even the most cartoonishly rendered, throw-away parts (I'm looking at you, Melt Down Bus Driver). And even though half the performances left me wondering about the low caliber of actors who didn't make the cut, I couldn't help but get swept up in the heart that emerged from Jacobs' words.

Which brings us back to Woman in Wedding Dress. I attribute much of the success of Eve Annenberg's performance to her incongruously wide, expressive eyes and slack, unimpressed mouth. Her character experiences every interaction on two levels: the first in the here-and-now, taking in with great interest the assortment of disillusioned, heartbroken, or dangerously naive passengers and passersby; the second in the glimpses we see of her past and the mental picture we're invited to paint of the hours leading up to her first steps onto the bus. Annenberg registers a constant state of shock more authentically than any performer I can recall right now, and it's impossible not to want to see a split-screen of the real-time and and imaginary information flooding her mind's eye throughout the film.

Woman's trance shatters briefly toward the end when, after a dawn beach swim, she has the penultimate conversation of her eight-hour odyssey--in which she talks more than during the preceding sixty-plus minutes/ The liberation of Annenberg's thoughts from her mouth signify Woman's breaking (or at least cracking) of the spiritual chains that have shackled her for years. I won't give away the person with whom she speaks or the outcome of their chat, but I will say that this moment sealed the deal for me.

From Hollywood to Rose may have no idea when its time was or who its audience is. It may lack the conviction of its actors in rendering characters as either wholly believable or utterly farcical. It may even push the boundaries of how "inside L.A." is too "inside L.A.". But in its rocky, weird, and colorful struggle to present the human condition as universal in its freakishness, the film reminds us that we've all been a Woman in a Wedding Dress at some point or other, looking for something we can't quite describe and (hopefully) finding it in our fellow travelers.

*Most of the film's characters are listed only as costumes or character traits.