Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2018 (Halloween Edition)

Unsane (10/1/2018)

In the mid-2000s Steven Soderbergh came up with a scheme to make small films, usually about people with unusual occupations, and shoot them on early digital video inbetween his bigger films with celebrities.  Among the films shot this way were Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and this experiment probably eventually led to his surprise hit Magic Mike.  It would seem that Soderbergh has now found a shooting medium even more “indie” than the “red” camera he was using back then: iPhones, and the first film he has opted to make using those for cameras is his psychological thriller Unsane about a woman who is involuntarily committed to a psychological hospital after visiting a psychologist in order to talk about the lingering trauma she’s experienced after having escaped from a stalker.  There’s a lot going on in Unsane: there’s the “is she insane or isn’t she” paranoia, there’s the lingering fear of her former stalker, and there’s the question of how these mental institutions are run and whether they should have so much power over people.  Of the three strains I think the expose of mental institutions is probably the weakest.  I’m not sure how seriously Soderbergh wants the movie to be taken as some sort of political statement and given all the strange goings on I don’t know that I’m inclined to view it as much of one, but the other elements do yield some returns.  I don’t want to give away too much about the reveals in the film’s third act but they do mostly work and while I wouldn’t call it the most thrilling movie in the world it does justify its existence fairly well.  I’m not sure that it’s “filmed on iPhone” nature was necessary, and it is trying to look a lot more like a digital film than something like Tangerine was, but it mostly makes sense in this movie.

*** out of Five

Insidious: The Last Key (10/6/2018)

In this era of lame horror movies that string together jump scares I have always felt that the Insidious films were a bit of a cut above the other lame jump scare haunting movies in part because they had a somewhat interesting mythology behind them.  There was kind of a long (by cheap horror movie standards) three year break between the third film and this fourth installment and that was probably a mistake because in the wait between the two I feel like I’ve sort of lost the plot a bit.  I know the ghosts come from an alternate dimension called “the further” but some of the details about the horror logic have slipped away a bit.  Despite the word “last” in the title this is hardly meant to be the end of the line for this franchise, in fact it’s the second installment to technically be a prequel.  It’s set between Insidious: Chapter 3 and the original Insidious but also has flashbacks to the youth of Lin Shaye’s Elise Ranier (who has become the breakout character from the series).  The film ends by finally lining up these prequel installments with the original two movies, but by now the memory of those original films have become a bit hazy.  I’m sure that if these were movies I cared more about those callbacks and Easter eggs would have more impact, but I don’t, they were movies I moderately enjoyed seven years ago and moved on from.  But I’m not going to entirely blame myself for this film’s lack of impact because the filmmakers have quite intentionally slowed the pace of the series down a lot in order to do two prequels that feel like insubstantial and somewhat redundant side-stories.  Lin Shaye does remain a pleasant screen presence and the character elements with her do elevate this a little, but as a horror movie this feels as cheap and jump-scare dependent as anything.

** out of Five

The Endless (10/8/2018)

Earlier this month I made a point of watching an earlier film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead called Resolution because I heard some people were theorizing that their new film The Endless was something of a secret sequel to that movie and I can confirm that the rumors were true, the story connections are there and they’re overt, but they are tangential enough that you don’t need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy or understand the later one (which is good because Resolution isn’t exactly a popular and widely seen film).  That said, as sequels go this is a bit of an unusual one because it actually behaves and operates in much different ways than the original.  The film concerns a pair of brothers who once escaped from a UFO cult environment who find out that this cult is still in existence and they begin to wonder if their memories of it may not have been as negative as they seemed to think and go back to investigate.  This film feels less like a horror movie than Resolution did, though that movie also fit into the horror genre in somewhat unconventional ways, and it also seems a bit less interested in metatextual readings and more interested in exploring the sci-fi/fantasy implications of the world that Benson and Moorhead have created while still having a bit of the old menace beneath the surface.  It’s also pretty clear that these filmmakers have grown a lot in their skill behind the camera; they still make some peculiar decisions here but the film has noticeably higher production values than its predecessor and doesn’t have that feeling of being a precocious indie project.  It’s not going to rock the cinematic landscape but it is an interesting and refreshingly unpredictable little movie than ends up being a lot larger in its ambitions than what you expect.

***1/2 out of Five

The First Purge (10/18/2018)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about these Purge movies.  I was kind of starting to be won over when I watched the last one, in part because the current political climate was making me a lot more receptive to a movie about the fear of a society going completely mad and doing something incredibly stupid and barbaric.  This prequel tries to lean even further into that political overtone and frames the Purge as largely being an elaborate fraud that was carried out in order to cull the lower classes of people in order to free up resources, which is a bit odd given that even today America hardly has a welfare state or even social safety net.  The big problem with this is the first film in the series, which is a big round hole that they keep trying to stick square pegs into.  That movie established in no uncertain terms that the purges do in fact work and that they made for a crime free world with a 1% unemployment rate, which is ridiculous but it is cannon. These later sequels have been doing everything they can to ignore why this society thinks they are a good idea.  Take this installment for example, throughout it the “New Founding Fathers” are watching it and hoping that there will be more and more violence in order to “prove” that the initiative is a success even though it would seem that monitoring the crime rates during the following year would do more to prove or disprove their crazy theory than how many people are killed the first night.  Overall the film’s pretentions of political relevance are kind of silly, these movies do have an eye for rather loaded imagery but they’re all in service of a very dumb metaphor and this one seems to take itself a little more seriously than the previous movies to its detriment (the Kendrick Lamar song in the credits is completely unearned).  There is however still some B-movie fun to be had here, the violence is pretty well rendered and the characters are generally a little more likeable this time around.

*** out of Five

Ghost Stories (10/27/2018)

Earlier this year I heard vague rumblings that this small UK horror movies was a knockout and its poster boasts that it is the “best British horror movie for years!”  Yeah, no.  The film follows a guy who makes a career out of debunking fraud psychics and mediums, a path he was inspired to go down by another academic from the 70s who did more or less the same.  Early on he finds and meets that academic, now in his old age, and the academic tells him that he no longer holds the same skeptic worldview and challenges him to investigate three purported hauntings that he had never been able to decipher, “creepy” reenactments of these paranormal cases ensue.  Not a terrible setup but there are inherent challenges to making horror movies into a series of flashbacks and the film never really overcomes this.  Even if it did I’m not overly impressed by any of the three vignettes presented, none of them felt overly creative and none of them felt overly scary and none of them tied in too well with the theme of skepticism.  From there the film presents a Black Mirrorish twist ending which is at least a little more interesting than what proceeded but doesn’t really make up for it.  The movie then ends with “The Monster Mash” of all things playing over the credits, a choice that would seem to suggest that the movie is a lot more fun and campy than it was.  I’m really not sure what the filmmakers were going for with this thing, it just seems like a big misfire and waste of some decent performances.

** out of Five

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