Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Cheap thrills, serial killers, and miscellaneous mayhem

Screen Grabs: Cheap thrills, serial killers, and miscellaneous mayhem

Space monsters in Kazakhstan, a gig economy slayer, bloody revenge, and more in this week's new movies.

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For most, this summer may be low on vacation travel by necessity. That leaves even more room for humbler kinds of escapism, from “beach read” books to similarly pulpy screen entertainments. This weekend happens to bring a number of new movies peddling variably cheap thrills, encompassing monsters, melodrama, murder and miscellaneous mayhem.

What’s below is probably not the Screen Grabs column with the most memorable movies in it, but quite likely comprises the one with the highest body count. All the films discussed are available on various streaming platforms as of Fri/14, unless otherwise noted:

Ravage
If 2018’s hyperbolic French Revenge seemed a little too leeringly exploitative a take on the I Spit On Your Grave-style female-revenge flick—with its scantily clad, jailbait-looking heroine turning the tables after numerous violations—this backwoods Amerindie equivalent manages to tread similar terrain without objectifying its heroine in a familiarly prurient male-gaze way. (Yet bizarrely, and unlike Ravage, Revenge was directed by a woman.) Annabelle Dexter-Jones plays Harper, a wildlife photographer first seen heavily bandaged in a hospital bed, trying to explain to police how she got there. They assume she’s telling a “hillbilly fairy tale,” probably to cover up some meth-addicted tomfoolery. But through flashbacks, we soon realize the mess she got into was hardly of her own doing.

On a solo shoot, canoeing down a Virginia river, she accidentally witnessed something awful that she “shouldn’t have,” and is tailed when she makes it back to the nearest town. But seeking help there turns out to be a very bad idea, and soon she finds herself dragged back to the farm where she had just seen a man meet a gruesome end. There is little question that something similar is being planned for her. But Harper is resourceful, to say the least, and she is not going down without a fight.

Writer-director Teddy Grennan’s first feature (which was titled Swing Low when it played SF Indiefest last year) is pretty strong meat that may strike some as gratuitously nasty at times—though it’s refreshing for a movie of this type that the heroine is not sexually assaulted, for all the other abuse she suffers (and doles out). Just 77 minutes long, it’s a little too economical, arriving at its somewhat premature close with insufficient sense of resolution.

Still, it is tense and well-crafted, with impressive widescreen photography (albeit a tad overdependent on the hand-held stuff), an intense original score, and interesting integration of environmental issues. There’s also Bruce Dern as a nice old gent who signals he may not be quite so harmless by opining “Torture is the barometer of a nation’s creativity.” Gulp. Ravage opens this weekend at drive-ins, then goes On Demand next Fri/21.

Spree
If the perils in Ravage have a distinctly retro feel redolent of 1970s drive-in cinema, this more blackly comedic exercise from Eugene Kotlyarenko is an extremely 21st-century conceit. Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery from Stranger Things) is a young Los Angelean with a dream—to be “internet famous”—that, like everything else in his young life so far, seems to be going nowhere.

Stuck driving for ride-share service Spree, he decides to make do with what he’s got, outfitting his car with a number of special features that will aid his live-streaming of the hitherto wildly-underwatched vlog “Kurt’s World.” Kurt is chirpy, annoying, and desperate to go “viral.” He has, he thinks, finally hit on a surefire means to that goal: He’ll broadcast himself murdering his unlucky passengers.

Like every movie about wannabe social media “influencers,” Spree is a bit hard to take at times, because so are they. But if the satire here is of a shooting-ducks-in-barrel type—no viewer needs reminding that the Selfie Era breeds shallowness and sociopathy—Kotlyarenko’s film nonetheless has considerable energy, and it eventually goes in some interesting narrative directions. Much of that has to do with Kurt accidentally crossing paths with a rising young comedienne (ex-SNL cast member Sasheer Zamata). She has exactly what he wants (followers), which she got by possessing what he lacks (talent). This is something of a one-joke movie, but it sustains that joke with some dexterity and wit for an hour and a half.

Mysteries: Silence vs. Silencing
Two comparatively sober suspense dramas share more than variations on a noun: Both are handsomely shot in attractive locations, but with overcomplicated mystery plotlines that ultimately prove more convoluted than compelling. They feel like high-grade pulp fiction that lost something in translation to the more literal-minded film medium.

Actually, only The Bay of Silence is based on just such a book: The same-named 1986 novel by well-traveled English novelist Lisa St Aubin de Tera. Claes Bang of The Square plays an architect who proposes to glam widow Olga Kurylenko on a Liguria beach, moves into a London townhouse with her and two twin daughters, then is baffled when they all (including his own newborn first child) disappear amidst her spiraling postpartum depression and paranoia.

Directed by Paula Van Der Oest, this adaptation (written by Caroline Goodall, who also plays an onscreen role) is intriguing and polished yet hollow, its overloaded narrative agenda lacking whatever glue de Tera originally applied. Mental illness and pederastic rape are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of far too many credulity-stretching plot revelations here. The actors do their best, but their characters aren’t given dimension enough to make the eventual mountain of explanatory backstory plausible, let alone meaningful.

A similar sense of clutter muffles the impact of Robin Pront’s The Silencing, though it’s styled as a lean-and-mean rural thriller. At essence it’s a serial-killer tale, with someone “hunting” abducted teenage girls in remote forested areas, slaying them with a form of thrown spear that’s been out of fashion for centuries.

But this Canada-shot potboiler adds a whole lot of other elements (and suspects): Game of Thrones’ Nikolas Coster-Waldau as a boozy huntsman turned wildlife-sanctuary keeper whose own daughter disappeared five years ago; Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, Peaky Blinders) as the local sheriff, whose law enforcement sometimes conflicts with the serial fuckups of her younger brother (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an abuse survivor; cultural and jurisdiction conflicts with tribal neighbors; a ghoul running around in weedy camouflage like a vegan Bigfoot; etc., etc.

There’s enough character friction and plot complications for a miniseries in Micah Ranum’s screenplay; no wonder they come off as underdeveloped when all crammed together into a much more compact frame. The Silencing might better have simplified its story content to maximize impact, rather than end up feeling pulled in too many different directions. Even if the cuts arrived at the script-drafting rather than post-production editorial stage, it still feels like a three-hour movie awkwardly shrunk to half that length, sacrificing most of the mood-building and connective tissue en route.

Sputnik
“Too much plot” is hardly the issue for this Russian sci-fi thriller, which is set in 1983 so the misjudgments of government authorities can be blamed on a regime well prior to that of well-known humanitarian and generally swell guy Vladimir Putin. (Without whose approval no relatively expensive film like this would ever currently get made, by the way.) The effectively chilling opener has two Soviet cosmonauts preparing a return to Earth after long orbit, only to suffer a disturbance. Something is outside their capsule…and it wants in.

Upon landing in remote Kazakhstan, only one cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyodorov) seems alive, though not at all well. Taken to a high-security compound, his status requires the importation of a neurological expert (Lilya 4-Ever’s Oksana Akinshina). She soon learns, as others already have, that he did not return alone: He’s carrying a “parasite” of alarming, Alien-like creaturedom.

Basically a gussied-up space monster movie, Sputnik is scary enough as such for a while. But it’s too slowly paced (and at nearly two full hours, far too long) for its rather simple story. That story gets confused rather than complicated by the eventual suggestion that the Soviet military minders are more evil than the Thing—even if the latter does keep gruesomely killing people, just cuz. With its bombastic score and macho humorlessness (despite the female protagonist), this is pretty typical of the more exportable Russian commercial cinema these days. Meaning it’s slick, a bit soulless, derivative of trashy Western genre conventions yet lacking much of their usual fun. Still, sci-fi horror fans could do worse.

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