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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Jun132014

Lucky Them (2014)

Folk and Run

Watching movies in a theatre is nice, but when it comes to preview screenings, there's a lot to be said for the home-viewing experience. Case in point: I paused Lucky Them thirty minutes in and waited until my wife could join me from the beginning. Megan Griffiths' indie dramedy struck me as the kind of quirky, messy-relationship stuff she and I both enjoy--though mostly in the realm of television. Full of witty dialogue and dryly comic performances, the first part of the movie was harmless fun and we had a few good laughs winding leisurely through familiar territory.

At minute forty or so, Lucky Them became something different, something remarkable. On a dime, writers Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel veered from the saccharine safety of predictability, speeding head-first into a climactic reveal that took my breath away and gave profound new meaning to everything that had come before.

Let me back up. Toni Collette plays Ellie Klug, a fading Seattle rock critic at a fading rock magazine called STAX. Her beleaguered, pot-smoking boss, Giles (Oliver Platt), is under pressure from his corporate masters to boost sales--or at least interest--and assigns Ellie to track down her ex-boyfriend/enigmatic folk superstar, Matthew Smith. He disappeared after a gig ten years ago, leaving only a note and rampant speculation that he'd killed himself.

Ellie's luck with men hasn't improved in the ensuing decade. Through a series of mix-ups and bad decisions, Ellie leaves behind wide-eyed young musician Lucas (Ryan Eggold) to hit the road with a guy she dated briefly after Matthew split. Charlie (Thomas Haden Church) is clueless, disgustingly rich, and has the personality of Peter Griffin and Mr. Spock's love-child (with glints of Ashton Kutcher tossed in for maximum obnoxiousness). He agrees to spot Ellie some money for her story, in exchange for filming the adventure as part of a community-college documentary film course he's just enrolled in.

For awhile, Lucky Them breezes along as an alt-rock/indie version of a mainstream romantic comedy. Ellie is the cold professional who just can't be bothered with a relationship--until a hunky, free-spirited younger guy strums a smile back onto her face. The movie then transitions into a wacky road trip, with Church essentially reviving his role from the 90s sitcom Ned & Stacey. The filmmakers toy with us a bit, presenting both Lucas and Charlie as possible heart-tugging-finale love interests. But unlike most movies Griffiths and company make the bold decision to bare all their protagonist's shortcomings--indeed, to suggest that these guys might be too good for Ellie, instead of the other way around.

There are two big surprises here--only one of which I'll really get into. About half-way through the picture, Ellie's search for Matthew takes a detour, and we're treated to a seriously unflattering exploration of her damaged spirit. She spirals down a chasm of self-pity and doubt, alienating everyone who remotely cares about her. In these moments, Lucky Them becomes blissfully directionless--or, more accurately, not so plot-driven. As Ellie and Charlie's oil-and-water friction evolves into something more honest, I was reminded of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Enough Said. This film is a bit too cute in places where that one was real, but it's always nice to see characters (and creators) call each other to task, rather than gloss over deep flaws on the race to a happy ending.

The second surprise made me gasp. That's not an exaggeration, gang. I actually put my hand over my mouth and looked at my wife in disbelief when the filmmakers revealed the actor playing Matthew Smith. This information is probably on-line somewhere by now, but you won't get it from me. No, sir (or ma'am). All I'll say is that this crazy-famous movie star delivers his best performance in at least a decade--in a brief, powerful scene that is mostly meaningful looks with Collette (who, incidentally, is one of the best cryers in the biz).

I'm left to wonder if Griffiths' choice of actor is the ultimate meta statement about her film. It's as though she wants the audience to protect his identity as a means of allowing others to delight in its discovery, in concert and in contrast with Charlie's wish to delight in remaining anonymous. Regardless of the intent, I'm sure to remember Ellie and Matthew's reunion scene as one of the year's best.

I need to see Lucky Them again to figure out if it's just a really good film or a great one. Collette and Church create compelling, comedic figures who reveal flesh and blood beneath an ostensibly cartoon skin (and props to Eggold for cutting through the puppy-dog-eyed, perfect-guy cuteness to portray wounded assertiveness in just the right places). This movie is surprising, touching, and really about something. The more I consider the film's performances and themes, the less I'm bothered by its deceptively light start. As Ellie's best friend says towards the end, "There's a lot wrong with you, but the list is getting smaller."

Chicagoans! Lucky Them opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State Street). Definitely check it out, and bring someone you love!

Thursday
Jun122014

Willow Creek (2014)

Squatching Reality

Though Willow Creek is an intermittently funny film featuring a charming pair of leads, I spent much of it confused and bored out of my mind. And, yes, I absolutely recommend this movie--with a warning that you not approach it like our protagonists, Bigfoot enthusiast, Jim (Bryce Johnson), and his supportive girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). With starry eyes and no back-up plan, they venture deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest in search of something they only think they know from pop culture. What awaits them is more bizarre and life-changing than they could have imagined.

Similarly, you might look at the film's eerie, painted poster (featuring a magnificent, skull-faced Sasquatch comprised of screaming, twisted souls) and assume you're in for a standard horror movie. But if you know anything about writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's filmmaking career, alarm bells should immediately go off in the deepest, smartest part of your brain. Just as World's Greatest Dad is the blackest satire of single-dad dramas and God Bless America skewers media-culture cranks, Willow Creek offers a harsh examination of found-footage fright flicks. It's so effective because Goldtwhait camouflages his critique in a convincingly bland, frustrating shell that, by the end, will have unnerved you for all the right reasons.

Goldthwait doesn't hold back on filmmakers and audiences who've made the subgenre both increasingly disposable and exponentially more profitable. The confluence of The Blair Witch Project and the rise of do-it-yourself mega-fame outlets like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vine have created a mystery vacuum at the core of our pop landscape. Today, it seems, there's no such thing as an idea that can't be explained away, laughed off, or simply swiped past if it proves too challenging (or, God forbid, scary).

This is Jim and Kelly's reality, precisely, which explains their trek to the heart of nowhere without weapons, military-grade GPS, or even a back-up plan. They simply drive until they can't--then get out and walk, with only some flimsy camping equipment and their digital camera as protection. At least the first leg of their journey to the abyss is fun--for them.

Kelly films Jim standing next to statues (and not-ready-for-prime-time locals who might as well be statues) for segments that they'll cobble together later for upload or micro-festival documentary consideration. Either way, based on the duo's iffy camera work and Jim's cheesy, anyone-can-be-a-host demeanor, it's clear that this effort was doomed from the start. As a moviegoing experience, Willow Creek not only dares the swipers and the watch-checkers to sit still (indeed, to not get up and leave), but also to reconsider the entertainment value of their own DIY art projects in the process.

Goldthwait and company intentionally wear out their comedic welcome early on. By the time Jim and Kelly cross over the barrier into the wild, they're about as sick of each other as the locals and the audience are of them. Squabbling, back-tracking, and refusing to simply go home, even when they begin to see evidence of the big, scary monster--these two gave me flashbacks to the Blair Witch crew (minus the gallons of watery snot).

Just when the empathy meter is about to zero-out, the lovely and terrifying tent scene comes along to re-set the picture. Following a tender-yet-awkward marriage proposal, Jim and Kelly are awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise in the distance. Jim turns on the camera and its mounted light, and tries to convince Kelly that he's heard something. Kelly begs him to go back to bed--until she hears something, too. It's faint, but real...possibly.

Goldthwait holds on this shot for nineteen minutes, as the actors react to things moving outside their thin walls, drawing closer and making creepy calling sounds. This segment is driven by uncertainty, evolving from "Is there a noise?" to "Is that an animal?" to "Is it getting closer?" to "Is this tent really fooling anyone?"

Looking at that last sentence, I can understand the chorus of dismissive sniffles that just emanated from a thousand bathrooms, home offices, and commuter trains. I assure you, reading this scenario is much different than experiencing it in a theatre with a rapt audience. Goldthwait, his crew, and especially Johnson and Gilmore take us on an emotional journey in the middle of Willow Creek that cannot be understated. It helps that the director began the project with a twenty-five-page script that didn't include any dialogue for this scene--and that he didnt' tell his performers exactly what he'd planned to do here (and I guess it didn't hurt that the movie was shot in the actual middle of nowhere, under conditions that would not be considered "luxurious", "comfortable", or even "safe" by most definitions).

This is the dramatic high point of the film, but it's not the end. That comes after our tired, scared, and utterly lost protagonists are forced to take shelter under a tree, in the rain, with only a camera and clothes to differentiate them from every other animal in the woods. Your big question now is, probably, "Do they find Bigfoot?"

The answer is, "I don't know." Jim and Kelly find something out there, and it may be the basis for the legend, but also may have nothing to do with ol' Sasquatch. Goldthwait ends his film on a startlingly ambiguous note that is full of possibilities and realism--two factors lacking in many found-footage pictures. The last couple minutes will undoubtedly frustrate casual fans, simply because the writer/director doesn't cheat. There are no cute title cards, fancy edits, or suddenly omniscient points of view here. We're watching what a hiker might find on a battered camera someday, which he or she will have picked up from a heap of shredded, weathered flannel. In placing the cherry atop his Reality TV-culture sundae, Goldthwait goes back to the well of a famous documentary about similar subject matter--which I won't name for fear of spoiling the ending altogether.

This is a big recommendation from me, but a tough one. Depending on your patience, understanding of the wider themes being addressed, and comfort with movies sidestepping convention, Goldthwait's latest venture may or may not be for you. His is a beautiful example of the lost art of showing not telling, but not showing so much that the mystery gets trampled by a rote plot. There's so much to digest here that I saw the film a month ago and still find myself lost in Willow Creek.

Monday
Jun092014

The Sacrament (2014)

Deja Kool-Aid

I'm officially over Ti West. The writer/director's breakout picture, The House of the Devil, is one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. But as that decade wears on, his movies become more derivative, flat, and downright indefensible. That he's taken up with a cadre of hipster filmmakers who apparently think they invented the medium is, perhaps, just a sad coincidence. The blame for his downward spiral into mediocrity rests squarely on his shoulders, though--just as the blame for holding out hope with each new project rests on mine.

West pushes along his rusty, cumbersome "throwback" train with The Sacrament, a movie whose entire premise and execution will likely feel like a put-on to anyone over a certain age. Younger fans may be thrilled, terrified, and amazed by the adventures of three filmmakers traveling to the jungle to interview a charismatic cult leader. Father (Gene Jones) deploys the fire of scripture with the charm of Southern sweet tea, and has created a new, off-the-grid community called Eden Parish--all funded by hundreds of "congregants" he'd convinced to sell their worldly possessions. One of these poor saps is former high-society drug addict Caroline (Amy Seimetz), whose brother, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), teams up with the world-traveling, myth-busting show, Vice, to rescue her and expose Father's fraud.

If your Spidey Sense is tingling, congratulations on remembering the late-70s Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. The Sacrament is literally a found-footage version of that. From the secret intimidation and sexual abuse to the infamous Kool-Aid-drinking mass suicide climax and landing strip attack, the only thing new here is a tacked-on happy ending and gore. I don't mind updating movies for modern audiences, but I can't think of anything--anything--that West brought to the table, except for shaky cameras and the most profoundly un-self-aware protagonists in recent years.

Let me get this straight: Sam (AJ Bowen) is a big-wig at Vice, a show that prides itself on cutting-edge, globe-trotting investigative journalism. His cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg), has also, I assume, seen a lot of crazy stuff on his travels. Yet, they and Patrick are completely freaked out by the gun-wielding guerillas Father has posted outside his camp (and not in a "this could go either way" way, but in a "nobody told me there'd be automatic weapons in this lawless wilderness" way). These clowns are so lippy, obnoxious, and clueless that I thought for a moment West had tricked me into watching The Hangover Part 4.

The only bit of suspense West manages to wring from this picture is whether or not anyone will acknowledge Jonestown--the very template for the events in which these characters find themselves. It's like going into a production meeting for a bold, new sci-fi movie that features laser swords, an intergalactic empire, and a big secret between the main protagonist and antagonist--where no one mentions Star Wars.

The Sacrament falls directly in line with The Innkeepers, You're Next, and the V/H/S films, delivering slick mediocrity with a wholly unearned self-assuredness that prioritizes branding above brains or balls. In fact, West may have inadvertently fallen down a second meta rabbit hole with this one, as his film is also strikingly similar to V/H/S 2's segment, Safe Haven--a found-footage tale of a documentary crew heading into the jungle to expose a charismatic cult leader. That mini-movie shared Jonestown as a template, too, but added some nasty supernatural elements that completely changed the game.

In fairness, two of The Sacrament's actors make the movie almost worth watching. Jones is terrific as Father, painting an enigmatic portrait of a businessman who may have finally come to the ultimate crossroads of his own bullshit--or maybe he actually believes his nonsense.* Still, he's no Powers Boothe, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of maniac preacher Jim Jones in 1980. And Seimetz does very well with the thankless "hysterical hippie sister" role. But I'm not sure how much of my enjoyment of her was just a carryover from Upstream Color (the actress also appeared briefly in You're Next, a fact that got my butt into the theatre opening weekend. Lesson. Learned).

I dont' know what to make of these young auteurs. They have all the technical talent in the world, but little in the way of original thought (if their output is any indication). Everything is references, throw-backs, and snarky, uninformed comments on pop culture from decades past. I feel guilty beating up on them because I genuinely believe they think they're forging new territory. Unfortunately, it's easy to look at The Sacrament as just plain forgery.

*Which is scarier?

Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Fake a Wish

The success of The Fault in Our Stars, as a movie, doesn't hinge on the audience having read or not read the young-adult novel from which it's adapted. Hell, it doesn't even hinge on the audience having known or not known someone with cancer. The key here is one's knowledge of movies, and their ability to see through all the marketing, hype, and other attendant bullshit to catch earnestness sneaking out the back door.

I don't know John Green, nor did I read his wildly successful book. But I don't recognize anything in this white, whitewashed, and utterly inauthentic weepy from my years of living with one parent who made it through cancer twice, and one who came up short on the first go-round. In fact, if you surgically remove all the cancer elements from this stilted teen drama, there would be absolutely no conflict to challenge the characters. The Fault in Our Stars could be about teen alcoholism, sex abuse, or a giant meteor that's about to wipe out Indiana. In any of these Choose Your Own Disaster scenarios, the characters are nothing more than doe-eyed models spouting rejected Joss Whedon dialogue about how the universe is a sucking black void of pointlessness--except for love, which is awesome.

Before you (perhaps rightfully) accuse me of being cold and old, I'd like to clarify a couple of things:

1. I'm a sucker for these kinds of movies. A perfectly scored closeup on watery eyes can send me into a cheek-wiping frenzy. I've never watched 1986's Transformers: The Movie without welling up,* and becoming a dad has made the waterworks come even more frequently (indeed, more randomly**).

2. I was really looking forward to The Fault in Our Stars. I've enjoyed Shailene Woodley's career so far--from the ABC Family drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, to last year's spectaular The Spectacular Now, and the surprisingly good Divergent from a couple months back. Divergent re-introduced me to Ansel Elgort, who did alright in the Carrie remake, but really shined in the more substantial role. He played Woodley's sister in that film, and pops up here as her smoldering love interest. After seeing this film's trailer, I was intrigued, and I was all in.

Unfortunately, the story get off on the wrong foot and just keeps stumbling. The Fault in Our Stars does that annoying movie thing where a sassy narrator lets the audience know that her film isn't like those other sappy, cliche tear-jerkers, referencing Say Anything (of course), and suggesting we're in for something different--something real. We then spend the next two hours in the Cancer Cliche Museum, yawning at fossilized tropes and begging for balance as our guides smile, giggle, and squee through what they claim to be a bummer of an existence.

Hazel (Woodley) is a brainiac and an outsider who ports around an oxygen tank as a cumbersome reminder of the tumors that almost destroyed her lungs. Her always-home, always-smiling, always-dressed-like-they're-fresh-off-a-Macy's-catalogue-shoot (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) convince her to go to a support group. This is, of course, run by a cheesy, young Christian (Mike Birbiglia) who plays the guitar and knits a giant Jesus carpet for everyone to sit on (he's the film's most obvious cartoon character, but by no means its only one). In true Julia Roberts fashion, Hazel clumsily bumps into the tall, hunky, leather-jacket-wearing Gus (Elgort) in a hallway, and begins the long process of falling in love (SPOILER: She doesn't like him at first, you guys. No, no, no! I swear!).

Gus is a survivor, too. He lost a leg to cancer and now wears a metal prosthetic. It's totally cool, though, 'cause he now sees life as an adventure. He has a laid-back demeanor and doesn't take anything too seriously. He even creates this really awesome metaphor where he keeps an unlit cigarette between his lips--'cause if you don't give power to the thing that kills you, it can't really kill you, maaaan!

The filmmakers, it seemed, figured that if they couldn't actually put the audience through chemotherapy, they'd find some way to make us vomit.

Anyway, Gus arranges for he, Hazel, and her folks to fly to Amsterdam, to meet Hazel's favorite author, played brilliantly by Willem Dafoe. The encounter goes horribly wrong, though--unless you hate this movie. Dafoe's alcoholic, embittered writer sizes up the two fresh-faced teens as the obnoxious, developmentally arrested saps they are, and kicks them out of his house. It would have been inappropriate of me to stand up and cheer, but I really, really wanted to.***

Dafoe's arrival also signals a turning point in the movie. Gone is the whimsy and optimism. It's time to get about the business of killing and debilitating kids. What's strange about director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's choices from here on out is how fiercely they turn Dafoe's character's criticisms into demonstrable facts--instead of working to contradict them.

The author accuses the lovebirds of being selfish and narcissistic in their affections. Case in point, Hazel and Gus make out in the attic of Anne Frank's house, earning a slow clap from the crowd of gathered tourists. Does the presence of an oxygen tank really make that kind of display acceptable?

Then there's the scene where Hazel, Gus, and their blind friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), egg the car of Isaac's ex-girlfriend, Monica (Emily Peachey)--who broke up with him right before he lost his sight. The scene is played with righteous joy, and includes the Monica's mother (Emily Bach) slinking back into the house (and ostensibly not calling the cops on the cancer kids). In an earlier scene, Isaac told his friends that Monica had wrestled with the decision and felt really bad about it. We never get her side of the story, though, or learn that she felt anything but sympathy and remorse. But, no, she must be punished for being a teenage girl who, when faced with an issue most adults would struggle with, made what could be seen as an unfortunate decision.

There's no reason for adults to watch this movie. It's fine for kids and teens who still think that life is like the bad TV dramas they stream on their phones. But those of us who go into movies about real issues expect to see real people navigating real and relatable conflicts. Fans of films that absolutely get the heartache and fuzzy morality of the teenage experience should check out The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; they're challenging, emotionally satisfying, and recognizable as not having been generated by marketing algorithms. The Fault in Our Stars, on the other hand, is for space cadets only.

*Laugh if you must; Optimus Prime's lone charge into Autobot city to take on a legion of Decepticons is one of the coolest, most inspiring John Wayne moments ever animated.

**Screw you, Sarah McLachlan, and your little dogs, too.

***The author's sour state may have been a product of the book, but there's something so genuinely salty about Dafoe's performance that I wondered if someone had called in a favor while he was shooting Nymphomaniac: Volume 2. He wears a constant expression of "What the hell is this shit?" rage and disappointment that perfectly mirrored my own.

Friday
Jun062014

Dead Girls (2014)

Girl Power from Beyond the Grave

We need more horror anthologies like Dead Girls. Though co-writers/directors Neal Fischer* and Del Harvey have made a decidedly rough-around-the-edges feature debut, their film's conceit is brilliant, and the passion behind it is undeniable.

Centering on four tales of jealousy, abuse, revenge, and murder, Dead Girls may be most notable as the first female-dominated movie of its kind. But it's also a hell of an example of low-budget filmmaking's possibilities (and its constraints, frankly). For starters, the film looks and sounds like a million bucks--except for the last chapter, which I'll get to later. You might think I'm front-loading praise to avoid talking about the story, but a solid AV presentation is practically everything in indie horror's wide but shallow world. From the cold, Fall woods of the wraparound, to the itchy body-in-a-fridge-under-an-overpass of "Over My Dead Body", and the Argento-worthy red-lit hallways of "Theta Phi's Never Die", there's a lot to appreciate here--and in stunning clarity, to boot.

The individual chapters are a mixed bag. We begin with a girl being chased through a creepy forest. Alice (Jessica Galang) ducks into a creepy house to avoid the dirty, bearded stalker (Joe Caballero), who apparently wants to do nasty things to her. Hiding in a room upstairs, Alice discovers a leather-bound journal and begins flipping through its pages.

Oddly, there's no portal from this framing into the first story-within-a-story. We jump right to black and back into "Over My Dead Body". It's an artsy choice, but an unwelcome one in a movie like this. The best anthologies offer strong connective tissue between its bookends and segments (think of Creepshow or, more recently, Trick 'r Treat). Here, there's no narrative fade between Alice, the book, and any of the stories--to the point where one couldn't be blamed for wondering if those stories even appear in the text.

Luckily, the chapters are uniformly interesting, if only intermittently satisfying. In the strongest of the bunch, "Theta Phi's Never Die", co-writers Fischer and David Nevarez mash together the cheesy 80s-ness of classic college comedies with a fun twist on I Know What You Did Last Summer. When things go horribly wrong during a sorority initiation, geeky best friends Avery (Mia Doran) and Courtney (Ali Hadley) are torn apart by the cruel machinations of head sister, Taylor (Madalyn Mattsey).

Following one girl's death and resurrection, the Theta Phi house gets a brand-new occupant who returns from the netherworld with a fierce attitude and vengeance on her mind. The sisters find themselves in a bind, thanks to their only having been pretty sure the body they'd buried in a vacant lot was dead. When a ghost turns up at their doorstep, they do the polite thing and offer her/it a room. A long, bloody night of terror unfolds, but not without healthy splashes of black humor (one girl's solution to being terrified is jumping into bed with her two half-naked sisters and Taylor's dumb, trophy-jock boyfriend).

Fischer's direction is spot-on, transitioning easily from comedy to horror and back again. "Theta Phi's Never Die" could have easily been a mess of disparate tones (as is often the case when young filmmakers switch up genres), but most of the jokes land, and the tension is intentionally fun. The stalk-and-slash motif is a bit of a let-down, but the segment is anchored by great performances from Mattsey, Doran, and Andrew Jacob DeHart.

The next-strongest chapter is "Over My Dead Body", in which a scorned college girl gets in a fight with her cheating boyfriend at a party and winds up dead. Fortunately, she'd just gotten a nifty pentagram tattoo, which allows her to return from the grave and exact revenge. The setup and execution are great, thanks to a spitfire performance by Aubrey Joyce Tunnell as Suzy. It's at once easy to see how Travis (Nick Cardiff) could get fed up with her paranoia about his sleeping around, and difficult to understand how he could cheat on someone with such a bold, bright personality.

Unfortunately, Harvey's script devolves into a stalk-and-slash affair in the boyfriend's house, with a re-animated Suzy twitching, taunting, and knifing her way to justice. Either through a lack of budget or vision, "Over My Dead Body" loses steam in its second half, trading supernatural intrigue for conventions found in any serial killer movie. Still, it's not the weakest of the bunch.

That honor would go to "Vengeance is Mine", a non-linear assault on religion that passes right over substance on its way to style. Writer Drake Linder offers little new in her story of a prostitute named Maggie (Kelsey Sante) seeking revenge on the Catholic priest (Brian Rooney) who repeatedly raped her as a young girl. While the girl's look is iconic (scuffed nun's habit and self-satisfied sneer), her story is not. We've seen a dozen such movies, all with leering priests and old, cold nuns who don't believe anything bad is happening under their sacred roof. The flashbacks to Maggie's previously happy life and the present-day look at the competitive life of a street walker are just filler leading up to the climactic showdown with the film's "real monster".

I should note that, at the screening I attended, the sound in "Vengeance is Mine" was quiet and kind of warbling, as if we were watching the film underwater. I don't know if this was an issue with our particular transfer, or a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers (if it's the latter..yikes).

It's difficult to fault Dead Girls' three chapters. Taken individually, they range from okay to pretty great. But spliced together via faulty framing device, the similarities and cracks in these shorts become all too obvious. Besides the previously mentioned slasher-movie repetition, there are two (count 'em, two!) dick-ripping scenes, and one too many monologues about characters making up in death for their poor treatment in life. Each segment also suffers from a certain degree of theatricality in the performances--which is understandable, I guess, considering many of the actors have stage backgrounds; I mention this only because, as someone who doesn't already know this going in, the broad projection and sometimes overly pronounced delivery might seem out of place in a horror movie.

Despite all its quirks (and, in some cases, because of them), Dead Girls is a fun, funny, and sometimes creepy anthology. If the stories come across as a tad tin-eared in parts, that may have to do with their having been written mostly by men paying homage to a genre that typically doesn't add shades of gray to female protagonists. Should Dead Girls 2 ever get off the ground, I would love to see a take on the material driven by the gender its creators are trying to honor. Harvey, Fischer, and company show a lot of promise here, but the key missing ingredient may, in fact, be a woman's touch.

Note: Dead Girls will be available on DVD this Fall. This is an early review.

*Full disclosure: Fischer is not only a friend, but one of my favorite creators working in Chicago's thriving independent-art scene. My doorway into this world opened wide in 2012, when I saw a play he directed, Brian Work's fantastic, heartfelt comedy, Once Upon a Rom-Com: The Bill Pullman Story.

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