Home Video Round-Up: 11/1/2015


Unfriended (10/14/2015)


It was pretty easy to make fun of this thing before it came out.  This is a movie about a haunted Skype call, if that doesn’t sound like a lame attempt to cash in on internet buzzwords and the success of movies like Paranormal Activity I don’t know what does.  However, as the movie started to actually get screened a surprising number of critics came out to defend it.  Indeed, this movie is better than you’d think and the lowered expectations probably did do it some favors.  The movie essentially captures a single computer monitor and up on the silver screen as five teenagers on a Skype call go through a deadly ordeal over the course of an evening when the ghost of a former friend takes over their technology, reveals their deep dark secrets, and kills anyone who dares to disconnect with this doomed communication.  To enjoy the film one must overcome two major hurdles: 1. they need to be willing to go along with the whole “haunted internet” concept and 2. they have to be willing to find some empathy for these teenage characters even though they are all awful people in the way that teenagers usually are.  To the film’s credit, it seems to be well aware of how unpleasant these people are and actually has a pretty interesting arc in which the main protagonist, who is initially set up to be a sort of innocent “final girl,” slowly comes to realize and admit that she’s not any better than the other teenagers and the whole film is about these people’s awfulness coming home to roost.  The movie does start to lose some of its effectiveness after about two thirds of its running time and it does kind of feel almost like a short from one of those VHS or ABCs of Death compilations run amok, but it does have a lot more cred than I expected and its format is novel enough to make it an interesting watch.

*** out of Four

The Nightmare (10/20/2015)

Documentarian Rodney Asher first came to prominence when his 2012 film Room 237, which collected a variety of fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, debuted and was quickly acknowledged as a great study in obsession and in film analysis.  The fact that the film’s subject was a horror movie wasn’t really commented upon but Asher’s later work (including an ABCs of Death segment) has made it clear that Asher is very intently interested in what scares people and his latest film, The Nightmare, confirms that Asher has a very entrenched interest in horror cinema.  In fact The Nightmare might be the first documentary that could legitimately and unironicly be called a horror movie.  The film concerns a medical condition called Sleep Paralysis, in which people have frightening hallucinations that they can’t wake up from as they’re falling asleep or waking up.  There are no doctors or medical experts interviewed here, all the interview subjects here are actual sufferers of the condition and any background information is recanted by those sufferers as they explain how they came to learn about what was going on with them.  Much of the film consists of re-enactments of these nightmares that are narrated by the interview subjects.  These are not cheap re-enactments , they are fully produced horror scenes and a lot of them are absolutely freaky and the fact that they were actually experienced by real people (albeit in their sleep) gives them an extra chilling lair.   Asher also indulges his interest in pop culture by recounting how some of the interview subjects used movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jacob’s Ladder, and Insidious, to contextualize what was happening to them.  I watch a pretty good number of documentaries and a lot of them are repetitive and lacking in cinematic flair, this one stands out because it is both unique and really skillfully made.

***1/2 out of Four


Insidious: Chapter 3 (10/23/2015)

10-23-2015InsidiousChapter3 I found the first Insidious movie to be a pretty pleasant surprise but the second one to be a pretty big step down.  I got sick of the haunted house/things going bump in the night brand of horror a long time ago and my interest in this series is rooted more in its clever “astral plane” concept than in its horror mechanics.  As such, it’s a little disappointing that this third installment is a prequel which steps back a lot from the internal rules of the series and focuses more on horror than on the ideas.  On the plus side, I do think that the simplicity here makes the horror elements work better here than they do in some of the other installments, even if its still pretty much just a long series of blatant jump scares.  On the down side it also means that the movie doesn’t really progress the overall story at all and it makes the film seem more like a sort of spinoff than a true continuation.  The secret weapon here is Lin Shaye, whose part has been expanded here and who really steps into the starring role in the second half of the film and seems to be really game to give this material her all.  We don’t often see mainstream horror movies that have 72 year old women as their stars and that makes the film’s finale fairly interesting.

*** out of Four

Approaching the Elephant (10/31/2015)

Approaching the Elephant is a documentary about a group of teacher who are attempting to put together a “free school” in which students aren’t forced to go to classes and make their own rules (outside of a few basic safety regulations) and generally aren’t disciplined outside of this class meetings where students vote on any rules they’re supposed to have.  I’ve heard about schools like this before and they always sounded absolutely insane to me and nothing in this documentary dissuades me from that conclusion.  While the school doesn’t fully descend into Lord of the Flies anarchy it certainly seems pretty chaotic and there seems to be very little evidence in the film of these kids ever actually advancing their academic skills in any way.  I guess I was “happy” to see my preconceived notions reinforced by the movie but really I kind of wished that the film would have given me a better idea of how things were supposed to go at a school like this when things are going right.  Amanda Rose Wilder does do an admirable job of sticking to the “fly-on-the-wall” principals of Cinéma Vérité and seemed willing to let the facts on the ground rather than any agenda decide what direction the film went and that’s pretty refreashing, but I do question her decision to film the movie in black and white and in the Academy Ratio, which mostly just came off as a rather pretentious attempt to make the film look like it was a D. A. Pennebaker movie from the 60s.

*** out of Four


’71 (11/1/2015)

11-1-2015'71 This film about a soldier forced to survive behind “enemy lines” during the height of the Norther Ireland conflict got very strong reviews out of the UK, but for whatever reason it got a really tepid American release and shockingly hasn’t gotten a Blu-Ray release in region A in favor of a DVD-only home video release.  I guess the movie is a little too action focused to really impress the art-house crowd but too British and too realistic to really interest the action crowd.  That’s unfortunate because the movie is a really strong action/war film that shows “The Troubles” in a way I haven’t really seen before in that it looks less like a sort of cold war with occasional bombings and more like a hostile occupation.  In fact the opening conflict scene in which the protagonist is split from his division almost feels like it could just as easily be set in Iraq or Palestine.  The story isn’t terribly original, although it is interesting that this is essentially the inverse of Carol Reed’s 1947 classic Odd Man Out in that it’s about an English soldier caught in hostile territory rather than a militant caught in hostile territory.  The protagonist is also kind of a cipher and his personal journey is pretty limited.  The focus here is more on the visceral war scenes which are rendered quite exciting by rookie director Yann Demange, who makes great use of handheld camera and isn’t afraid to make this operate like an action film when necessary.  That is something that the film shares with The Hurt Locker and it also shares that movie’s somewhat frustrating failure to really make any kind of statement about the conflict it’s depicting, but as a sort of realistic action movie it definitely works.

***1/2 out of Four


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