This seems as good a moment as any to not focus on politically conscious documentaries, social-issue-driven dramas, or anything else that requires one put on one’s thinking cap. Instead, the powers that be have conveniently seen fit to release a slew of variably trashy new genre films that permit escapism via horror, suspense, action, and so forth.
Given the rollercoaster-on-fire nature of our moment in time, it may afford some relief to watch untaxing films selling the vicarious entertainment value of fictive characters in even worse circumstances than reality affords at present. I’d say their narratives are more preposterous than any we’ve seen play out in real life lately, but … well, you know.
The most deliciously absurd of the bunch is this Chinese superproduction greatly reminiscent of 1970s American disaster movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (as well as Jurassic Park, minus the dinosaurs). Just 20 years after a lethal major eruption, a luxury resort is built on a Pacific island with an active volcano. Ignoring the concern of experts, the greedy owner-entrepreneur (Jason Issacs) invites a slew of investors and VIPs for a pre-public-opening preview, which occasion naturally coincides with Mother Nature deciding to throw another red-hot tantrum.
In recent years mainland China has tried more strenuously to enter the international movie market, though unfortunately most of its efforts in that direction have been generic imitations of already-worn Hollywood action formulas. They’re big, slick, and colorful (if sometimes marred by wonky CGI effects), but feel made-by-committee, and are frequently dumb AF. Skyfire is very much in that vein, though better crafted than most, largely thanks to the punchy direction by popcorn action veteran Simon West (Con Air).
It’s got soap-opera subplots, groan-inducing dialogue, constant ludicrous cliffhanger situations—and a lot of giddy energy with which to sell all that cliche-riddled cheese. Sometime around the underwater marriage proposal (don’t ask) I started laughing, barely stopping for the remaining hour. All this movie needs is Charlton Heston. But even without him, Skyfire (now available On Demand from Screen Media) offers substantial guilty-pleasure fun.
Climate of the Hunter
Likewise entertaining in a vaguely retro, credibility-stretched-to-the-breaking-point way is this eccentric tale from director Mickey Reece. Ginger Gilmartin and Mary Buss play middle-aged, somewhat ill-matched sisters spending some time together at their family’s inherited country cabin. Also turning up is a long-unseen friend who owns a property nearby, writer Wesley (Ben Hall), who excites the two spinsters’ interest—though we begin to wonder if he’s a vampire.
Oklahoma-shot Climate pulls a late twist that doesn’t particularly work, as the character clues which would make it logical haven’t been seeded at all. But then Reese isn’t really interested in plausibility—this eccentric mix of genre homage and absurdism exists in its own private universe, one part 1970s drive-in occult thriller, one part surrealist short story. I’m not sure I’d want to see a lot more of this regional auteur’s ouevre (he’s made nearly 30 independent features in just 12 years), but he is definitely hewing his own idiosyncratic path. Climate is available On Demand and Digital from Dark Star Pictures.
Apocalypse, ow: Bright Hill Road and Go/Don’t Go
Much more serious in tenor are these two cryptic quasi-thrillers whose protagonists are both a bit unstuck, adrift between reality, illusion, and memory. They’re ambitious if modestly scaled indie endeavor with some artistic finesse (especially in visual terms), but also the burden of a pretentiousness not necessarily merited by actual narrative or other substance.
In Robert Cuffley’s Canadian Bright Hill Road, corporate HR manager Marcy’s (Siobhan Williams) alcoholic irresponsibility quite possibly triggers a fired employee’s rampage, which office shooting spree she’s lucky to survive. Ordered to take a sabbatical, she decides to visit her sister in California, but en route stops at hotel-slash-boarding house in a virtual ghost town. There, she quickly falls off the wagon she’d just got on, while being spooked by ghostly occurrences, the creepy concierge (Agam Darshi, too young for her Mrs. Danvers-type role), and a sole other guest (Michael Eklund) who might be a serial killer.
Equally indebted to Repulsion, The Shining, and No Exit, Road may be about an in-denial sinner’s purgatory—or just her delirium tremens. But in any case, its supernatural mystery with elements of religious judgment dissipates the initial intrigue in an increasingly draggy progress, with a petulant heroine we really can’t care about. It’s available now On Demand and on DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment.
Even more patience-testing is Go/Don’t Go, which reminds that when a movie names its hero “Adam,” you’re probably in for some heavy-handed, oh-the-humanity symbolism. This Adam (Alex Knapp) is an apparent car mechanic and/or grocery store owner who maybe survived an undefined apocalyptic event that claimed every other life, including that of his spouse (Olivia Luccardi).
Cutting between the past and present, as well as alternate versions of different scenes, G/DG (just released to Digital and On Demand by Gravitas Ventures) is well-shot and edited. But its obfuscation soon begins to seem mannered and dull, once we realize it has no intention of “going anywhere.” There’s no there there, beyond providing 95 minutes of excuses for Knapp to wander around looking confused and soulful. If that screams “vanity project” to you, you’d be right: This is also the actor’s debut feature as writer, director, and producer. It shows signs of talent, but could have used more collaborative input, and less Alex Knapp.
Also ultimately pretentious in the wrong way is this French language thriller from animator-turned-live-action director Vincent Paronnaud, whose prior films were made in tandem with Marjane Satrapi; the excellent 2007 ’toon from her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, and 2011’s Chicken With Plums, a somewhat strained stab at Jeunet/Caro-like whimsy. This is a very different, simpler (at least at first) enterprise: A straight thriller in which a Belgian real-estate professional (Lucie Debay as, uh-oh, “Eve”) on a business trip flirts with a man at a bar (Arieh Worthalter), only to find herself abducted. After various initial travails (including a car crash), the sick game continues as he and a semi-reluctant sidekick (Ciaran O’Brien) chase her through the woods.
Hunted, which debuts this Thu/14 on genre-focused streaming platform Shudder, is very well-made. But after a while one has the disappointing realization that Paronnaud isn’t really going to do anything much to upend the stock woman-in-peril formula on tap, with its familiar sadism and temporary reversals of fortune. The villain’s misogyny is unpleasant enough; add to that the creepiness of a homophobic undercurrent (it’s suggested he’s really a closet case.)
Atmospherically shot, the film flirts with added dimensions by throwing in references to Red Riding Hood, fantastical bits in which “nature strikes back,” and a climax that lurches towards black comedy. But Hunted’s gratuitous fillips only underline how conventional, pointless, even stupid and offensive it is at core. It would be less objectionable in the end if it simply owned up to being the crass, basic potboiler it is.
There are no pretensions, at least, to hold against this Australian-produced tale of equally mortal peril in captivity. Doofus ex-military protagonist Rex (Ben O’Toole) is flirting with a teller when her bank gets invaded by armed robbers. His response is heroic—but also reckless, with consequences that lead to prison. Eight years later, released but still too notorious a figure to resume everyday life in Boise, Idaho, he arbitrarily decides to hop a plane to Finland. There, alas, he is promptly shanghai’d, waking up roped to the ceiling of a country-home basement where he’s apparently the next meal for a ghoulish clan’s cannibal offspring.
Having swiftly gotten Rex into this extreme pickle, Hell leaves him there far too long—he spends the majority of the film thus trapped, shirtless, and squirming. (Possibly no movie has ever devoted such sustained attention to an actor’s ripped, flexed abdominals.) The cast is game, Alister Grierson’s direction flashy, and Robert Benjamin’s script has a few surprises up its sleeve (including one really good twist involving a kitchen table.)
But the humor is on the loutish side, the premise more than a little mean-spirited. And really, 50 minutes or whatever is waaaaaay too long for a movie’s hero to be dangling from a hook, wondering how to get loose. Not really helping is the device of his having a visible alter ego, also played by O’Toole, with whom he banters and argues strategies—a tiresome idea, despite the actor’s fair-enough approximation of manic Ryan Reynolds-style riffing. Energetic and brash, Bloody Hell comes close to bad-taste horror comedy nirvana, but that’s still no cigar. It’s available On Demand (and at available drive-ins) Thu/14, on DVD and Blu-Ray Jan. 19