Kicking the Tweets

The Houses October Built (2014)

Hunted Attractions

I watched two found-footage horror movies on Wednesday. They had the following in common: 

  • References to Bigfoot
  • An RV as a key setting
  • Five idiot characters who don't know when to stop poking at danger
  • Two characters who are brothers
  • One brother with a distracting hipster beard
  • Copious weed usage
  • Paintball

The Houses October Built shares so many similarities with Eduardo Sanchez's Exists that I began to wonder if I'd been punked. The main difference is quality: co-director/writer/actor Bobby Roe and fellow screenwriters Zack Andrews and Jason Zada bring a new premise to the table--which equals just enough unpredictability and (dare I say it?) scares to make this direct-to-video effort worth checking out.

Right off the bat, the movie clears one of the sub-genre's major hurdles: it's presented as a documentary comprised of two sets of raw footage, which has been edited into a single narrative and spruced up with title cards. The million-dollar question is, of course, how that footage made it out to the wider world. But it's clear that the filmmakers at least cared enough to set the table for their audience, instead of expecting us to eat off the floor.

Roe and Andrews play two members of a five-person movie crew, who set out to find the most "extreme attractions" in America. They mostly visit haunted-house amusements in Texas, gradually picking up a trail of carnie lore that brings them face-to-painted-face with an underground outfit called The Blue Skeleton--a twisted band of nomadic psychos who stalk, torment, and kill unlucky thrill-seekers. As the filmmakers press on, they encounter more aggressive weirdos in smaller and smaller towns, and begin seeing familiar faces popping up hundreds of miles apart.

Roe and the writers bank on our having already seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(s), House of 1000 Corpses, and a dozen other horror movies featuring masked/deformed/inbred killers. They filmed at real haunted attractions, after all, which wear their creators' love for genre classics on the walls, in the costuming and prosthetics, and in the borderline personalities of some employees.* The story uses well-worn scare-beats (the creepy hitchhiker, the friend who gets separated from the group and runs into trouble), but there's always a zig or a zag waiting--a poke in the ribs to let our brains know that there's no good time to check out.

I won't get into spoilers here, but Roe, Andrews, and Zada smartly avoid the "Ten Little Indians" hallmark of most slashers. For our benefit, they escalate the dread with promises of wicked, primal-fear fates for our hapless heroes. I'm sure The Blue Skeleton gang got the Friday the 13th stalk 'n kill thrills out of their system years ago; they've evolved into a pack of monsters that take their time, twisting psychological knives into their prey before drawing the black veil.

Better yet, the protagonists aren't so annoying as to be unwatchable. First off, they're adults. Most of the crew look like early-thirties, young-exec types who want to score big with a slick viral video. They're not dumb teenagers, just Yuppies who think referring to Southern culture as "backwoods" is some kind of high-minded-liberal compliment. That said, their refusal to turn back when The Blue Skeleton begins invading their personal space is quite maddening, and screams of a contrivance designed to help them along to the climax.

As for this being a found-footage movie, it fares better than most, thanks to Roe's insistance on re-creating the haunted-attraction experience for the viewer. If you're timid about people in fright rags jumping out at you from strobe-lit black rooms, The Houses October Built is definitely not for you. If, however, you're busy this Halloween and can't make it out to an actual terror amusement, this movie is a surprisingly creepy and immersive alternative.**

*The Houses October Built cleverly incorporates real local-news footage from haunted-house tragedies and scandals, and blurs the line between what's real and what the filmmakers have made up to serve their story.

**I'm generously overlooking a scene towards the end, where a character literally yells at a blue glow stick in pitch blackness for two minutes.


Exists (2014)

Naught Vision

Eduardo Sanchez, co-writer/director of The Blair Witch Project, returns to the genre he helped create with Exists. What does the grand-daddy of found-footage horror think about fifteen years of low-rent, shaky-cam knock-offs? If his latest foray is any indication, it's: "Hey, guys, I can be bland and contrived, too!" Exists deflated me in the same way that George Romero's much-vaunted resurgence did ten years ago--when Land of the Dead proved that branding is branding, and that even moviegoers are susceptible to being suckered into heartbreak.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: five friends venture into a run-down cabin in the woods. Cellphone reception is scarce; ominous, snapping twigs are not. They smoke weed, fool around in the bushes, and, of course--because we're at the dawn of a creatively doomed millennium--they film absolutely everything. Sanchez and writer Jamie Nash constructed the picture, I imagine, to be as cinéma-vérité as possible--meaning the characters' high-def cameras render beautiful detail in daylight hours, but capture a whole lot of abstract, blurry nothingness whenever Bigfoot attacks at night.

Sorry, I forgot to mention that this is a Sasquatch movie--the second found-footage Sasquatch movie, that I know of, this year. Whereas Bobcat Goldtwhait used Willow Creek to comment on the slickly produced, teen-glam garbage that has floated to our cinematic shores since The Blair Witch Project, Sanchez merely uses Bigfoot as a stand-in for Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, or Michael Myers. Everything about Exists (from the stupid college kids, to the score,* to the underground tunnels our furry attacker uses to pop up and regroup) makes that awful Friday the 13th remake feel influential and oddly underrated by comparison.

The biggest factor working against Exists is familiarity, and not just with the genre. In last year's horror anthology, V/H/S/2, Sanchez and Nash teamed up for a segment called "A Ride in the Park". That short featured people out in a wooded park, showing off mad bicycling skillz via helmet-mounted cameras. Disaster strikes when a zombie outbreak ruins the characters' fun, but effectively the whole affair turns out to be a dry-run for the team's full-length Bigfoot flick. I had multiple levels of déjà vu while watching this thing, which made concentrating on the movie at hand as disorienting as John Rutland's camerawork.

Had Exists come out a decade ago, it might have been a calling card for the filmmakers. As it stands, Bigfoot stories and found-footage flicks find themselves stumbling around in the same creative purgatory as superhero comics did immediately after Watchmen shook up comics. Bobcat Goldthwait, of all people, showed us earlier this year that the current state of backyard horror is useless as entertainment, and gave us a realistically frustrating and intense demonstration of how thoroughly our collective time has been wasted over the years. Sadly, Sanchez shows up fashionably late to his own party, only to discover that it ended early. 

*Yes, the score. More than any film of its kind in recent memory, Exists brings up several questions; not only about why people who can ostensibly dress, feed, and drive themselves would also be so incompetent as to not set down their cameras during a monster attack--but also about who found this footage, edited it together, and added horror-movie music to it. Granted, Nima Fakhara's score is the best thing about the movie, aside from the design and behavior of the Bigfoot, but it's conspicuously good, and undercuts what's on screen at every turn.


Listen Up Philip (2014)

Chapter Twee

I highly recommend Listen Up Philip for sociopaths, hipsters, and those doing research on both. Just as Wes Anderson aesthetically curates his precious, buttoned-up comedies, writer/director Alex Ross Perry treats his screenplay as the definitive word on the dark inner workings of New York's literary elitists. Yes, I meant to say "elitists" and not "elites": the movie is lousy with aspirants whose inability to get over themselves guarantees a life of failure and self-loathing. Plenty of films have done that, but few are so smugly in love with their rotten characters as to feel they don't need to involve the audience in such trivia as "story arcs", "emotional growth", or "a reason to keep watching after thirty minutes".

Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, whom we meet at a cafe, dressing down an ex-girlfriend who, he claims, never supported his dreams of becoming a great novelist. He takes her to task for insisting that he work really hard at his craft and be nicer to people. He holds up an advance copy of his second book and laughs.

Next, Philip visits a college friend and berates him for settling down and not following through with their "take on the world" manifesto. The friend returns fire, before pushing back from the bar--at which point we realize he's in a wheelchair. I suppose this is the kind of joke that open-minded intellectual-types can get away with because Perry and company are clearly not making fun of people with disabilities--they're just having a laugh at a guy in a wheelchair. Totally different, you guys.

The laughs continue as Philip informs his publisher that he refuses to do press for the book; leaves his girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), in their apartment for months at a time, in order to freeload off crusty, once-successful author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce); and generally finds ways to annoy as many people as possible throughout his "creative process" (lots of staring, walking around, and complaining; very little writing).

With his detached gaze and vitriolic snark attacks, Philip meanders through life with a chip on his shoulder the size of his benefactor's writing cabin. Mercifully, Perry dumps him by the curb for fifteen minutes to focus on Ashley who, for the first time in a long time, focuses on herself--and not just supporting, defending, and combating her boyfriend. Though it's a break for us, Perry doesn't seem interested in Ashley. She goes to the beach, talks to her sister for a few minutes, and adopts a cat.

Were it not for the fact that the female characters are the only ones with souls here (Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, Ike's estranged daughter, with a wounded spitfire quality that comprises one of my year's favorite performances), I would accuse Listen Up Philip of bordering on misogyny. All the women in Philip and Ike's lives are just mouthy props, meant to keep them from having to get real jobs--and to be discarded when they ask too many difficult, big-picture questions. These men are nasty to the core, but they're also, ostensibly, the rough-around-the-edges heroes that socially awkward free spirits in the audience should aspire to be.

Keep in mind, I'm not denigrating the creative process. I know how difficult it can be to get up and write or draw something--anything--especially when the storm front of depression settles in for days (or weeks, or months) at a time. But no one has carte blanche to be this vile to the people around them, even if that vitriol comes out as pithy observations and snort-worthy one-liners.

One could argue that Philip and Ike get their cosmic comeuppance in the end, but we know for a fact that they are incapable and undesiring of change. They are the same ugly human failures at minute one-forty-five, as they were at minute one. And if you weren't absolutely sure, Eric Bogosian drives the point home in a narrative voice-over that is both awful and terrific: awful because he fills in story gaps and motivations that often contradict what's happening on the screen;* terrific because Bogosian saves us the trouble of having to watch more scenes with these despicable characters.

I admire Perry's gusto in delivering a nearly unwatchable slice of filmic toxicity. The dialogue, acting, and direction are so unnervingly good all around that I felt outright attacked as a viewer. Believe it or not, that's a strong recommendation from me, but only for the people whom this movie was designed to speak to in profound ways.

For the record, I never want to meet those people.

*Philip, for example, was apparently once a nice guy who didn't spew verbal diarrhea on everyone he encountered. Uh huh.


Blended (2014)

Trip, Bro? Sure!

My love affair with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore as an on-screen couple is officially over. They won my heart and raised my expectations in The Wedding Singer, and made 50 First Dates tolerable, despite being generally terrible. Blended reunites them with Wedding Singer director Frank Coraci for a movie that banks on the audience's fond memories of their older, better team-ups. But there's little effort here, scripting-wise, acting-wise, or in terms of filmmaking to make the movie memorable--outside of Sandler's not-so-startling confession that he chose his last several pictures (including this one) based on which vacation destination they were set in.

Africa won the wheel spin this time, and became the backdrop for an alternate-universe Brady Bunch remake. Sandler plays a slob raising three girls. Barrymore plays a neat-freak raising two boys. Through a contrivance I still haven't figured out, both families wind up at a luxury resort in Africa--which happens to be hosting an event for blended households.

Cue the bickering parents and the obnoxious kids, whose happy ending is just one bit-of-sage-advice-from-an-unlikely-source away. The comic bits fall mostly flat, and the parenting insights (mixed-family or otherwise) are nonexistent. This is the perfect entertainment for low-information theatregoers who pick movies in the multiplex lobby the way most folks weigh burger options at McDonald's.

Blended is a bad film, but it's not awful. There was never enough potential in this mix of concept, creatives, and target market for it to be anything but safe, mostly harmless fluff.* The biggest tragedy here is the handful of bright spots in all the sitcom bleakness. Sandler's relationship with his youngest daughters is touching; Emma Fuhrmann and Alyvia Alyn Lind deserve a lot of props for almost wrenching a tear out of me (okay, I guess that means Sandler does as well).

But there's the problem: for every sliver of relatable/comedic/dramatic content, we're bombarded with masturbation motifs, gagging gags, and so much Mars/Venus bullshit that I'm convinced screenwriters Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera lifted half their screenplay from one of Sandler's "serious" projects.

At the very least, I had the pleasure of watching Blended with my wife on Sweetest Day. As Sandler/Barrymore fans, we'd been curious about just how bad the movie could be. Turns out the best way to watch this thing is at home, with a support structure in place. We laughed, we groaned, we yelled at the TV (okay, I yelled at the TV), and we returned the flick to Redbox the next day. Twenty-four hours later, we still joked about the jokes we made about the movie. Wait, does that qualify Blended as a "memorable comedy"?

*One might attribute the portrayal of the African resort workers as cartoonishly racist. And one would have a point. As the swinging, shimmying entertainment directory, Terry Crews pops to perform emasculating Oompa Loompa-type songs, andAbdoulaye NGom plays his wise but silly Willy Wonka. These aren't people, to the movie, but neither are the main characters, either.


Whiplash (2014)

A Snare for the Dramatic

Damien Chazelle knows what the hell he's talking about. Whiplash's twenty-nine-year-old writer/director went through the ringer as a music student, and came out the other side an accomplished, inspiring filmmaker. His story of a first-year drummer at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory (whose hard-nosed instructor pushes the limits of his drive and abilities) is lively, bloody, and merciless. We've seen art-school dramas before, but rarely do they get the details so right. 

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a hot-shot jazz obsessive who, like his classmates, wants nothing more than to win the approval of top instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)l--and a spot in his elite band of upper classmen. Familiar as the premise may sound, this is not Fame, which followed multiple students on their journey to musical greatness. Nor is it An Officer and a Gentleman, wherein the broken-down-by-his-superior-officer soldier still finds time to get the girl by the end credits. Whiplash strays into Full Metal Jacket territory, with a hellfire confrontation between Fletcher and a chubby, insecure student (C.J. Vana), whom he nicknames "Elmer Fudd". But it's not a riff on that movie, either.

Chazelle zeroes in on Andrew's obsession with greatness. The kid practices for hours every day. He barely sleeps, and sometimes carves out time to catch a movie with his dad (Paul Reiser). He meets a student from another school, named Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they sneak around on Andrew's muse: the sweaty, unforgiving pursuit of jazz mastery.

Andrew believes that notoriety in Fletcher's band will accelerate his education and career. His focus narrows dangerously, and he drifts into an underhandedness that leaves us wondering: can one be great if they waste time being a decent person? If so, is greatness worth pursuing? Chazelle poses this question a few different ways: at a contentious dinner between Andrew and his college-jock cousins; during a hard conversation with Nicole, during which Andrew checks out and his ambitions take over; and in a dozen close-ups of gaping finger wounds and blood spattering across cymbals like water in a sizzling pan. Whiplash is a possession movie in search of an exorcist, where the tormented soul must decide whether or not it wants to actually disentangle itself from the demon within.

Whiplash mostly knocked my socks off. Chazelle establishes a narrative rhythm that harmonizes perfectly with soul-screaming music and two lead performers who will command attention and appreciation once this film goes wide. Teller continues to explore his range as the cocky outcast; having recently graduated from high-school-student roles (with memorable turns in the Footloose remake and, especially, in last year's The Spectacular Now), his latest films feature not-quite-adult characters bobbing for air in the real world. What Andrew lacks in interpersonal skills (he's literally been locked up in padded rooms most of his life, playing drums) he makes up for in drive and ability. Teller doesn't play like an actor who had to learn a skill for a part: to this non-jazz aficionado, he was utterly convincing as a born performer wringing every bit of fluid from his body to achieve perfect time.

The same is true for Simmons. He's the drill instructor, the twisted authority figure, the cranky boss from hell. In short, he's a composite of his two most famous characters: Oz's white-supremacist bully and Spider-Man's blow-hard newspaper editor. His performance is grounded in empathy and compassion for kids who don't realize how damned hard it is to make it as a musician--especially at the level they aspire to. When Fletcher holds up a session for six hours in the middle of the night, so that three students can squeeze out a couple of notes to his exacting standards, I felt the exhaustion, the throbbing muscles, the disappointment. But I also appreciated Simmons' ability to sell us on a teacher determined to not let mediocrity pass (at one point, he admonishes Andrew, "There are no two words in the English language than 'good job'").

Despite this considerable praise, Whiplash finds itself out of tune in more parts than I'm comfortable giving a pass. Though cutting and delivered with conviction, Simmons' dialogue is often attention-grabbing in all the wrong ways. His slurs against races, sexes, and the mentally challenged feel forced--as if Chazelle didn't think we'd get just how intimidating Fletcher is without cartoonish diatribes. In fact, there's more intimidation in Simmons' reflexive, stop-the-music fist gesture than in any challenge to a mousy student's masculinity.

I also didn't appreciate the utter lack of repercussion in one character's two obvious crimes: an instance of public assault, and another of leaving the scene of an accident. In the moment, these scenes work very well, dramatically--but I was left scratching my head for minutes afterwards when the next plot progression didn't involve this person skipping practice to meet with a parole officer.

There's a final itch I just can't scratch here, one that would plant us firmly in spoiler territory. I'll leave it alone for now, except to ask anyone who's seen Whiplash whether or not they "get" Reiser's character's reaction to Andrew's big decision at the climax of the film. It's a puzzling note that feels disappointingly false.

Quibbles aside, Whiplash is one of my favorite films of the year. You'll be hard-pressed to find two more passionate, committed performances in 2014 than those of Teller and Simmons. And Chazelle announces himself as a young creative force to be reckoned with. Just as Billy Bob Thornton blew up after turning a short film into 1996's Academy Award-nominated Sling Blade, Chazelle expands his own short as a feature-length powder keg that, I hope, will ensure we hear more from him in years to come. His honest, refreshing voice made my spirit dance like a fool.

*Vana also bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Vincent D'onofrio.