This year’s Los Angeles Film Fest is at an end, and it’s time to talk about what I saw – at least when it comes to titles you all will plausibly have a chance to see too.
There was more horror and cult-ish fare than usual, which I appreciated – not all of it worked, as the tacky female-revenge flick Caught and the blandly weird post-apocalypse sci-fi Crumbs attest – but I applaud the trend nonetheless.
From what will likely be one of the biggest movies of this year to the sleaziest tributes to yesteryear, here are five of the nerdiest entries that, however qualified, I think are at least worth a look when they arrive at a theater or on-demand box near you.
See if this sounds familiar – you are a new night security guard in an empty building, with just one partner. One of you watches the monitors, while the other must patrol. To save power, the lights around the building go on and off in different patterns at strange times, and some monitors may occasionally go bad for no reason, necessitating the throwing of a breaker switch. Plus there are hints of dark misdeeds from once upon a time that involved children, and strange whispering noises in the night.
That’s right, folks. What we basically have here is a Five Nights at Freddy‘s movie without the animatronic bear.
Julia (Louisa Krause) is a nursing student and a single mom estranged from her daughter, taking the job because she needs the money and (thinks she) isn’t afraid of the dark. Her sole partner on the job is the much-older Dennis (Jason Patric) a surly, sexist alcoholic who naturally turns out to have a heart that, if not quite gold, is at least tarnished silver. Tired of being paired with young students who “don’t last more than a week,” he’s determined to be as difficult as possible to be sure Julia has what it takes. And she does fine, at least until the first major jump-scare, when a blood-soaked girl appears in a mirror.
Then she can’t leave well enough alone, determined to go to the unfinished section of the building that Dennis tells her they have been instructed to leave completely alone. There’s a padlocked door down there, and loud banging inside. What would you do in that situation? NOT break the lock open, you say? Well, that’s why you aren’t a character in a horror movie, and she is.
Reminiscent of the excellent, underseen Session 9, The Confines expertly blends well-timed jump-scares with an overall creepy atmosphere that loses no power even on the digital screener I was given. With primarily just three characters – Mark Margolis plays a homeless interloper whose name may as well be “Red Herring” – it held my interest throughout. Despite a seemingly silly (and hugely “convenient”) third-act reveal, on a par with the Venus probe in Night of the Living Dead, all is ultimately resolved an reconciled in an emotional ending that’s likely to either move or infuriate you, with no room in between.
For me, catharsis was earned, and director Eytan Rockaway is now one to watch.
Dude Bro Party Massacre III
Question: was “Dude Bro” actually a term in the ’80s? I’ve only become aware of it in the last decade. Not that it entirely matters.
Dude Bro Party Massacre III, which purports to be a long-lost horror threequel recorded off network TV onto VHS tape in the ’80s, wants to resurrect the joys of watching USA Up All Night and shows like it from the era, wherein Troma movies would be interspersed with short bits of Gilbert Gottfried yelling or Rhonda Shear acting ditzy. As the cameos by the likes of Larry King and Patton Oswalt transparently reveal, it is not really trying to fool you, but exists to pay homage.
The movie sets itself an impossible task, frankly, by opening with highlight reels from the non-existent first two installments of the franchise. One goofy gory kill after another brings gruesome death via saw blades, video arcade machines, protest signs, and a notable tribute to the speargun through the throat from Friday the 13th – this time, through the dick; it’s a glorious tribute to every campy slasher the filmmakers watched on their own VCRs in younger days. The original killer, we’re told, is a hideously burned sorority mother, who was succeeded by “Motherface,” her homicidal daughter wearing her flayed face as a mask. Freddy, Jason and Leatherface all in one, but with cleavage.
Hero fratboy Brock Chirino (Alex Owen) is recounting all these best bits to a counselor, only to be stabbed in the throat with scissors – from there, we are introduced to his brooding identical twin Brent (also Owen), who now wants to emerge from his previously secluded life and find his brother’s killer by joining the same fraternity.
The inherent structural problem is that DBPM3 is based on movies that were occasionally funny but mostly dull filler in between kills – by showing two movies’ worth of graphic horror deaths already, the rest of what you have cannot compete if it’s trying to duplicate a full-on narrative. It tries, but the beginning is still by far the best bit.
That aside, more jokes hit than miss. As the head of the fraternity, The Room‘s Greg Sestero basically plays his douchey persona from that cult movie for deliberate laughs this time, and earns them. All-out weirdness abounds – one character becomes rather easily convinced that the fratboys are actually sentient bags of oranges, while another is obsessed with the fact that his penis reminds him of small dogs – lamenting “I hate my little baby hairy dog dick!” Best of all, when Sestero occasionally lapses into French for no reason, onscreen subtitles say things like, “Help! I’m trapped in a basement and forced to write subtitles!”
As for more direct satire, this is a movie that understands not every ’80s movie featured awesome ’80s hits, but more often, cheesy drumbeats, lame synth, and knock-offs (a Devo-esque song used during a “clean the frat house” montage mainly just repeats the refrain “Clean it up” over and over).
Fun snippets of TV commercials imply that this movie was on a tape where the user was consciously trying to edit out most of them – but that’s where the gimmick breaks: in the ’80s, no network would have aired a movie with this much gore, profanity, and glimpses at boobs. Even if one assumes that such a thing were done by mistake thanks to an incompetent programmer, at a certain point the movie kinda says “Fuck it” to its own gimmick, as characters within the story remark how stupid it is, and Brent briefly wanders out of the movie and into some of the commercials. I presume the effect is intended to be akin to the ending of Blazing Saddles, or the video-viewing scene in Spaceballs, but those movies made the self-commentary work because they had immersed you in a reality first. With its postmodern framing device, DBPM3 has already put viewers at a bit of a remove, and ignoring even that gimmick distances us further. I suspect that slightly tighter pacing would make this matter less.
Dude Bro Party Massacre III is fun – it’s just not quite as much fun as it wants to be. Methinks it will play best at future parties, where audiences don’t feel they have to pay attention at all times, but can focus on just the best jokes between beers.
While the similarly themed Final Girls – in which a teenager finds herself inside the world of a slasher movie that her actress mom (Malin Akerman) became famous for – is better acted and more tightly plotted, the horror homage is off. In trying to spoof Friday the 13th movies, the filmmakers forget to make it believably scary, and the killer’s goofy lizard mask is unfortunately laughable in the wrong way. They do have a lot of yuks with a black-and-white recurring flashback, but then the characters don’t take advantage of the opportunity as they should. I’d love to combine the best parts of it with the best parts of DBPM3 for a mega-homage that subverts and scares. Maybe that should be Steven Soderbergh’s next creative online re-cut.
Crush the Skull
A lot of times, you hear a title like Crush the Skull and figure it’ll turn out to be some kind of metaphor – possibly a folk tale some character will tell later in the game that relates to a real-world dilemma. Not here, folks. That title means exactly what you think it does.
Following a panicked prologue in which a young girl handcuffed to a bed is stalked by an unseen killer who murders her mother, we find ourselves in sunny suburbia, as happy couple Ollie (Christopher Dinh) and Blair (Katie Savoy) prepare for their last day on the job…as burglars. Things don’t go well, as Ollie’s conscience forces him to intervene in a situation that doesn’t concern him, and so he takes the rap for it, released on bail only when Blair agrees to go into debt to a local gangster to get the money.
They’ll need to make that money back, natch, and the only option for an immediate burglary comes courtesy of a lead from Blair’s incompetent brother Connor (Chris Riedell) and his utter moron of a sidekick, Riley (Tim Chiou), an Asian man who thinks he’s black and intends to sign up to be a Mars colonist after he buys his girlfriend new breasts as a surprise gift. To do the one big break-in necessary to score them the cash they need, one very expensive-looking, secluded house must be the target, and they’ll all have to work together.
Except once they’re actually inside, it becomes apparent that all the doors are locked from the outside, the glass is bulletproof and phone signals are jammed. To find a way out, they’ll have to go into the basement. And it’s a torture-dungeon basement with ever-shifting walls and doors, and at least one victim already bound and gagged inside.
Based on three shorts by director Viet Nguyen (the first one is embedded above), Crush the Skull doesn’t just rely on typical torture-dungeon tropes. There’s an element of mystery surrounding who the existing victim is that pays off in spades, and Riley’s slow transformation in our eyes from obnoxious idiot to sweetly lovable lug is a deceptively simple masterstroke. Blair’s weird quirk of laughing when she’s afraid sometimes seems out of place – but it turns out that director Nguyen based that aspect on himself, and it inspired him to keep strong elements of humor even in his film’s dark places.
Funded partially via Kickstarter, the movie does look low-budget and not studio-slick, but it’s sufficiently entertaining like that weird level of low-budget where the actors look well made-up and dressed but the locations don’t. It doesn’t have the visual grit of a Saw movie, in other words. What it does have is a story that consistently entertains, and an uncharacteristically diverse cast who stand apart from the usual whitebread ensembles the studios like to present.
It’s also really, really quite twisted to knowingly have a hero’s conscience and compassion be his greatest weakness and potential undoing. So of course I love that.
Band of Robbers
Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee, also cowriter and codirector) is a cop. Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) is an ex-con. Together they are buddies looking for treasure in this loose adaptation of Mark Twain’s books, set in the present day (fans of more obscure Twain are probably aware that Tom Sawyer actually does become a detective in one of the sequels). Living in the shadow of his model policeman brother Sid (Eric Christian Olsen), Tom welcomes Huck home from prison with a party, old pals Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), a recording of “Our God Is an Awesome God,” and a plan: find the legendary Murrell’s treasure, a local McGuffin that has eluded all. And “if anybody asks, don’t tell anybody.”
The underlying theme here is that adult men in today’s world are still as obsessed with childish fantasies as were children in Mark Twain’s day. The arrested-development man-child isn’t as new a phenomenon in films as some might think – surely Laurel & Hardy, or even Mr. Banks at the end of Mary Poppins, qualify – but the original Tom and Huck were so obsessed with imitating the way the heroes of their favorite books behaved that any update is inherently a critique of the media myths their modern equivalents might devour. Or so I hope, anyway.
Their first attempt to rob a pawn shop where they think the treasure is turns pathetic quickly, and is hampered by the fact that Tom has been given a new partner that day – straight-arrow Becky Thatcher (new Supergirl Melissa Benoist), whom he instantly crushes on but must deceive. Joe gets randomly shot, and a Mexican named Jorge gets in trouble for it all. Plans have to change – but will they beat Injun Joe (an unrecognizable Stephen Lang) to the treasure?
Yes, Injun Joe is here, and yes they discuss his name – he’s not actually Native, but “identifies more with the culture and traditions.” (Nice timing on that whole thing). It probably won’t surprise you that the movie does not deal with “nigger Jim” at all – it would rather erase the pivotal character completely from the story than go there (Jorge is a sort-of substitute, I guess). Instead, Ben Harper is race-flipped to become the black friend, and nobody acts bigoted towards him. It feels like a cop-out not to deal with the single most controversial plot point in the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer canon, but it also feels like a survival strategy.
In many other ways, the characters are familiar – Tom fantasizes about being a pirate, the gang fantasize about what their funerals will be like, Huck cribs Eddie Guerrero’s tagline “We lie, we cheat, we steal.” There’s less smoking, again as a survival strategy, and unfortunately no theme song by Rush. Nee and Gallner, and especially Benoist, are charming – yet believably na?ve in their aspirations.
Taking on Twain is bold – he is one of our great writers, and measuring up to his texts, which work as adventure tales when read as a child, and deeper social satire when reread in later years, is not a challenge most current screenwriters would be up to. Aaron and Adam Nee have not made the cinematic equivalent of the great American novel here, but they have approached it with the irreverence you need, for an entertaining yarn at minimum. I think Twain might have appreciated that – I know Tom Sawyer would have.
As in most of their movies, Pixar aims for the heart with the head-set Inside Out, and succeeds. But in doing so, they bypass the brain almost completely, dazzling you with emotional fireworks long enough that you don’t realize how little story logic is actually in play. Like the short-lived but infamous Fox series Herman’s Head, the story deals with anthropomorphized emotions operating one’s brain like a control room, but its choice of them is weird: Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Is Disgust really on a par with the other four, when all she does is unhelpfully make her human avoid broccoli? Where’s Intellect? Serenity? Or in the heads of her parents, which we see briefly, Libido? (Herman had both, FYI.)
Movies that induce tears can do so in many ways. The most honest and true way is when the story itself moves you to feel bad for a character specifically because of how his or her narrative plays out – this is achieved in Inside Out with a subplot about an imaginary pink elephant made of cotton candy named Bing Bong (yes, you read that right) and even though he rather liberally borrows elements of his personal theme music from SpongeBob SquarePants, he should move you even if you never had a pal like him yourself (I certainly didn’t – my imaginary friends were all made-up girlfriends, and those came years later).
A less pure way is to remind the viewer of things in his or her own life that are emotionally loaded – Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, for example, is more liable to jerk tears from people who have experienced father-child estrangement issues, rather than specifically because his daughter is aging at a different rate. Inside Out’s depiction of Sadness is so reminiscent – in language of both the spoken and body variety – of people I know with depression that it got to me by making me think of them. The Eeyore-like laugh lines she gets work because they’ll make you understand your own friends with those issues just a little more, and poke a little fun at them while laughing with them – if, indeed, you can get them to laugh.
But then there’s 12 year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), the girl who’s technically our main character, inside whose head the personifications of emotions run amok. And she’s a cipher – all we really know about her is that she likes skating and hockey. Her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) are blander still – billed simply as “Mom” and “Dad,” they aren’t even given the benefit of real names as they embody movie shorthand. Dad works an office job that keeps him away from his family, and he likes sports; Mom is a caring nurturer who occasionally pines for an old flame. When they fight, and when they cry, our tears aren’t earned, but brought about purely by association.
Riley’s emotional crisis that kickstarts the story is purportedly the result of her moving to San Francisco from Minnesota, and her mother telling her to be happy for Dad’s sake. But it really isn’t – the emotions inside her head, normally fully capable of reacting to external factors, don’t cause the main problem. Rather, it’s Sadness suddenly developing a completely new power that nobody including her realized she had – the ability to accidentally turn happy members into sad ones by touching them, which she does simply because she’s attracted to shiny things. You can justify this by saying it represents a 12 year-old’s general confusion, but it’s a highly imperfect allegory compared to many of the more obvious emotional reactions throughout.
When core memories are accidentally jettisoned into deeper recesses of Riley’s brain – because that totally happens to 12 year-olds for no reason – Joy and Sadness must venture inward to retrieve them. As Joy is the leader, and basically serves as intellect as well, this leaves Riley’s emotions dominated by Fear, Anger and Disgust, which is a bad combination. Joy, meanwhile, must learn to occasionally let go of her dominance, and acknowledge that letting sadness take control isn’t always a bad thing. Much of this is achieved by traversing areas of the mind that resemble mini-theme parks, inhabited mostly by disappointingly generic blobs.
Given how long Pixar movies take to develop, it’s a little disappointing on one level that the logic of the setting doesn’t seem to have been thought out more fully – a lot of what happens in the brain does so seemingly just because anything can happen, except when the story calls for an obstacle, in which case there are briefly parameters until they don’t matter again. This can, in fairness, lead to moments of greatness – a sequence in which the characters devolve into abstract art is up there with Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants” number in terms of sheer outside-the-box creativity that busts way out of the relatively conventional arc of its host movie. And when Joy and Bing Bong have to deal with the possibility of becoming forgotten forever, it gets brutal and true. But then you’ll have, for instance, a giant clown who busts out of a dungeon, and you wonder why he never just did that before.
I may be overthinking things, but in a film where overthinking is actually a plot point, that is to be expected. It’s great to hear Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Lewis Black starring in a major movie like this, and it’s expected that a story literally about “all the feels” induce at least some of said feels in you. But like real-life emotions, it’s ultimately a bit of a mess – and perhaps that’s the point. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll look back and realize there are way more plot holes here than in Jurassic World. Whether that’s a problem is up to the individual voices in your head.