13 SINS / COLD IN JULY / THE SACRAMENT

By R. David

13 Sins

13 Sins (April 18, 2014) – Another entry in the ever-expanding genre of horror film as obstacle course/scavenger hunt/morality play.  Like last year’s “Would You Rather”, last month’s “Cheap Thrills” and the upcoming “Truth or Dare”; “13 Sins” asks the question, how far would you be willing to go to make some much-needed quick cash?  The film stars Mark Webb as Elliot Brindle, a nebbishy, recently unemployed insurance salesman with a pregnant girlfriend, invalid father and mentally handicapped brother.  Needless to say he is down on his luck and desperate.  Then the phone rings.  The mysterious caller challenges Elliot to complete 13 tasks.  With each task he completes, increasing sums of money will be directly deposited into his bank account.  If at any point he fails or chooses to not complete a task, Elliot loses everything.  Naturally, the challenges begin innocuously enough, but grow increasingly more vile, illegal and morally reprehensible.  “13 Sins” has shades of the “Saw” series, with the game show announcer-like voice on the other end of the phone targeting Elliot because he has been a push-over and afraid to take risks and make tough decisions his entire life.  The puppeteer’s ability to orchestrate all of these elaborate challenges and somehow constantly watch Elliot isn’t particularly convincing, but director Daniel Stamm (“The Last Exorcism”) gets great mileage out of the intriguing premise, and his script (co-written with David Burke) is most effective in how Elliot navigates the moral dilemmas of his choices, more so than the outlandish assignments themselves.  Webb succeeds in making Elliot a sympathetic character the audience can find a rooting interest in, as well as convincingly portraying a man who is by turns frightened and reluctant, determined and empowered. “13 Sins” isn’t as energetically hip as “Cheap Thrills”, but it paints its thrills on a larger canvas.  “Thrills” was essentially a four-character, single-location play; effective for the type of film it is.  “13 Sins” not only runs its protagonist from one location and endurance test to the next, but the central mystery of “who?” and “why?” wraps the viewer up in the film’s tense, icy grip.  We’re never quite sure where this story is headed or what will happen next – and that’s one of the best things that can be said about any thriller.  3 Stars (Out of 4)

Cold In July

Cold In July (May 23, 2014) – A Coen Brothers-esque slice of gritty, rural pulp fiction, “Cold In July” is a riveting Independent revenge thriller in a year that already counts two indie, rural America-set tales of vengeance among its best films (“Joe” and “Blue Ruin”).  What sets “July” apart is a mid-film twist that turns the concept on its ear.  I’m not sure how much of the plot “July’s” marketing materials disclose, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.  I’ll simply say the film chronicles the events that unfold in the wake of a family man (Michael C. Hall) shooting a burglar in his home and the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) swearing vengeance and obsessively harassing the family.  Nothing that follows plays out in ways audiences will expect.  New mysteries reveal themselves, lies and liars are exposed, and unlikely relationships are forged.  Director Jim Mickle drops violence and humor in equal, surprising doses. Set in 1989 rural Texas, the film benefits a greatly from its technology and style deprived milieu, giving the film an isolated, nourish flavor.  But it’s the performances in “Cold In July” that really resonate.  Hall, as the sympathetic and vulnerable family man in over his head, and Shepard, as the obsessive, tightly-wound ball of vengeance, work in perfect contrast to each other.  But it’s Don Johnson as a cocky cowboy of a private investigator who steals his every scene; whether playing the macho badass he fancies himself or displaying surprising quiet empathy.  It’s another terrific performance from this under-appreciated and under-utilized actor.  “Cold In July” ultimately doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of “Joe” or “Blue Ruin”, and there are few scenes that only serve to slow the film’s pace.  But these minor quibbles aside, “Cold In July” is one of the more compelling and originally-plotted dramas you’re likely to see this year.  The performances alone earn it a blanket recommendation.  3½ Stars (Out of 4)

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (June 6, 2014) – Indie horror flavor of the day Ti West (“House of the Devil”) directs this well-intentioned, but ultimately rather unnecessary, fictional retelling of the 1978 events at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, better known as the Jonestown Massacre.  The film employs the found-footage aesthetic that is all the rage in horror films these days – especially low budget ones, which allows cash-strapped filmmakers the perfect guise to present their films to wide audiences they would otherwise not see bankrolled by risk-shy major studios – presenting itself as a documentary pieced together from footage shot by a video journalist (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman (Joe Swanberg) who follow a young man (Kentucker Audley) to a remote South American compound in hopes of convincing his sister to leave “Eden Parish”, a cultish religious society run by the quietly intimidating Father (Gene Jones). The names and places have changed from Jonestown, but the story remains the same.  If you are familiar with the particulars of the true story, “The Sacrament” follows suit.  Viewers uneducated on the events will do well to avoid spoilers, as that may provide a more compelling viewing experience.  But true story or not, “The Sacrament” plays out rather predictably.  This by itself isn’t so much a problem, but West can’t seem to find a new or interesting way to present the events, and the found footage thing by itself doesn’t count as inspired filmmaking anymore.  There is simply a disappointing lack of inventiveness and surprise to the proceedings.  A story like this by its very nature offers some unavoidable tension.  Viewers know things will inevitably go south; the question of when and how bad it will get is generally what keeps us engaged and in nervous suspense.  But as “The Sacrament” goes through its motions, we are let down again and again.  West seems content to do the bare minimum, offering sequences and resolutions we’ve simply seen too many times before; as opposed to playing on our anxiety and pushing the events in new, unpredictable directions.  The Jonestown events were not only the basis for “The Sacrament”, but also clearly as far as West was willing to take his film.  Still, “The Sacrament” is well filmed and performed, and West does manage some effective uncomfortable moments.  There is enough here to keep audiences interested.  The problem is the destination isn’t really worth the journey.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

YOU’RE NEXT

Youre-Next

By R. David

“You’re Next” is receiving uncommonly strong reviews for a horror film, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good horror movie.  I even love a good throwback to old-school 70s and 80s slasher/home invasion flicks.   But it typically takes more than a by-the-numbers homage to get 80% of the nation’s critics (according to rottentomatoes.com) on board.  But “You’re Next” is all homage and all by-the-numbers.  So what exactly does the critical community see in this thing that I’m missing?  (And the ironic thing is, if “You’re Next” had come out in the 1980s, it would have been either completely torn apart by critics or simply ignored altogether – what a difference 2 or 3 decades can make, eh?)

The home invasion motif can often yield some visceral impact simply by its very design, regardless of the overall quality of the film.  Big, scary, secluded house; spooky-masked attackers; potential danger around every corner:  there’s a reason this is one of the more durable tropes with which to frame a fright flick.  What sets the quality attempts apart from the rest is how they try to break the mold, color in the margins, or transcend the predictability and limitations of the genre.

“You’re Next”does none of these things.  It offers horror fans nothing they haven’t seen a hundred times before and makes no attempt to frame the usual violent shenanigans of the genre in a new or interesting way.  The result is a forgettable, typically bloody (though not exactly memorably so – sorry, gore-hounds) slice of low-budget banality.

The plot, or what there is of one, involves a bickering family holed-up their posh country home where – wait for it – there is only one neighbor for miles, floors and doors creek and moan, and cell phone reception is nil.  To the film’s credit, it explains that last trope beyond it simply being a matter of their remote location, but it’s still merely a way to take the phones out of the equation, otherwise a simple call would negate the film entirely.  The family is the usual horror flick stable of caricatures that don’t get much of an introduction beyond the personality type they are required to represent.  In the mix is Crispian (A.J. Bowen), a struggling writer who arrives with student-turned-girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson).  At dinner, Crispian ends up in a shouting match with his judgmental Dad (Rob Moran) and two brothers (Joe Swanberg and Nicholas Tucci – it’s amazing how unalike all of these supposed brothers look), but their issues quickly take a backseat to the fact that an arrow just flew into his sister’s boyfriend’s head.  Naturally, much screaming and panicking ensues as the family quickly realizes they are the targets of three animal-masked assailants who – for some unknown reason – simply want to stalk and kill their prey, as it were.

Cue the slow and steady guessing game of who’s gonna die next.

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For a movie that is garnering a rap for being smarter than the average no-brainer slasher flick, “You’re Next” sure plays out like business as usual.  (And it’s hardly smart – once the killers’ motive is explained, it negates the film’s entire opening sequence.)  Horror buffs might take some pleasure in the durable premise and a couple of the kills (though I can’t think of any that were original or particularly exciting).  There’s also a few directorial flourishes in the camera work and editing that lend a scene or two some punch; but again, nothing to write home about (some 80s-inpired synth music on the soundtrack is about as kitschy as the film gets in nodding to its inspirations).  Other than those minor pluses, the best thing “You’re Next” has going for it is Sharni Vinson.  The Australian actress cuts a convincing and exciting action heroine.  The movie actually picks up a bit when better than half the cast is eliminated and she gets more room to shine.  And while it’s hardly a novel idea at this point, making a woman the strongest member of the cast is the film’s most distinguishable trait.

“You’re Next” is directed by Adam Wingard, who also gave us “V/H/S”, another horror throwback that seemed frustratingly unable to live up to its potential.  These types of horror homages should not be all that hard to get right: Take the basic framework that fans of the genre know and love, but avoid all the trappings that make so many of them so unmemorable.  And hopefully you have some original ideas to put in their place, otherwise what’s the point?  “You’re Next” might as well be a strict remake of any indistinguishable horror flick.  It gets the look and tone right but forgets – or doesn’t bother – to avoid the typical genre pitfalls.

“You’re Next” arrives (after sitting on the shelf for a couple years) in theaters mere months after another home invasion-themed thriller, “The Purge”.  That film had its problems too, but at least it had a genuinely original and intriguing (if completely implausible) concept to justify its existence.  From a narrative standpoint, it didn’t quite come together, but it tried to put a new spin on an old standard and did so in a most entertaining fashion.  “You’re Next” isn’t worse because it is a more simple, streamlined thriller; but rather because it lacks an ounce of “The Purge’s” ambition.

The guy who gets shot in the head with the arrow at the dinner party is played by indie-horror director Ti West.  He made a mean, creepy little slice of 80s horror exploitation a few years ago called “House of the Devil”.  Ironic he pops up in “You’re Next”; a film that tries but fails to capture that same spirit.

2 stars out of 4