Saturday, January 25, 2014

American Mary (2012)

While I'd figure that a sizable percentage of the movies I've seen and reviewed for this blog over the last decade or so are big-budget Hollywood productions that have gotten huge advertising campaigns, there are more than a few I'd only heard of through word of mouth. Whether it be via a post on some online message board or a review on a random website (or honestly, even as an appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000), I've seen my share of movies I probably would have never heard of had someone not told me about them.

Such was the case with the movie American Mary. I'd heard about it late last summer shortly after it was released on DVD, and while it sounded intriguing, I was hesitant to watch it because I was honestly creeped out by its concept. But I remained curious about it, wondering if I was actually doing myself a disservice by avoiding it. So I've finally given in to my curiosity and sat down to watch it, and I'm here to tell you that in spite of some glaring flaws, American Mary is a hell of a movie.

The "Mary" of the title refers to Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), a med student who longs to one day become a surgeon. Buried to her neck in bills and desperate to dig herself out of this massive debt, Mary applies for a job at a strip club. The club's owner, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo), gets a bit of a laugh out of Mary bringing a résumé to her interview, but is soon happy she did. Taking notice of her education, Billy offers Mary five thousand dollars cash if she'll perform emergency surgery on a badly injured friend. She accepts, but returns home emotionally rattled by the experience.

Mary is contacted the next day by Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), a dancer at the club Mary had visited the night before. Having undergone numerous procedures to make herself resemble Betty Boop, Beatress offers Mary a hefty sum of money to perform some cosmetic surgery on a friend who wishes to look like a real-life Barbie doll by having her nipples removed and genitals altered. Mary accepts the job despite her initial ethical objections to it, the paycheck too good to refuse.

Requests from others within the body modification community come rolling in once word gets out about the success she had with Beatress's friend, but Mary would prefer to stay on the up-and-up in the world of surgical practice. But when she's drugged and sexually assaulted by one Dr. Alan Grant (David Lovgren), her trusted mentor, Mary has a change of heart. She drops out of med school and starts performing these radical surgeries full time. But while she finds a modicum of fame and success with her new line of work, the bizarre nature of it, along with the brand of horrific retribution she decides to exact on Dr. Grant, begin to take their toll on her sanity as she becomes a very dangerous person to deal with.

American Mary is a weird movie, no doubt about it. Granted, it may be less weird if the whole extreme body modification thing is what you're into, but that doesn't make the movie any less unique. I won't lie and call it a perfect movie, since there are a couple of flaws that hold it back from being great, but it's still an oddly compelling movie that I couldn't turn away from.

The movie was written and directed by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, who had made something of a splash on the independent movie scene in 2009 with their debut effort, the ludicrously-named exploitation flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk (which is probably the most straightforward title for a movie I've heard since Hobo with a Shotgun). But alas, I have yet to see Dead Hooker in a Trunk, so I can't say how much the Soskas have developed as filmmakers since then. I can say, however, that their work with this movie is really good.

As far as their direction goes, the Soskas prove themselves to be very smart, capable filmmakers. They obviously knew exactly what they wanted to do with the movie and how they wanted to accomplish it. The movie boasts some fantastic cinematography, adding a certain modicum of artistic beauty to the on-screen oddities. I also thought the Sosaks had the pacing down pat too, never rushing into things yet crafting scenes in a way that always keeps the audience intrigued and curious about what might happen next.

I can't say I was as enthusiastic about their script, though. It comes across like a series of loosely connected vignettes instead of a linear narrative, with only a handful of things tying each scene to the next. I also thought the subplot with the curious detective prodding Mary about Dr. Grant's disappearance never really went anywhere. It feels like it belongs in a completely different movie, since I never thought it ever really carried the same weight as anything else in the movie.

The movie's ending also comes completely out of nowhere, but the third act is so disjointed that I shouldn't be surprised. The first two-thirds of the movie are really good, but the third act comes apart at the seams to the point that the movie just kinda stops instead of actually ending. There's no real climax, no denouement or sense of closure. It just struck me as something the Soskas slapped together at the last minute after painting themselves into a corner.

But not only do the Soskas make up for it with their great direction, but the majority of the cast does their part as well. Among the supporting players, Antonio Cupo is sadly inconsistent in his role. The character is written as a sleazeball with a nice guy demeanor buried deep down, but Cupo only makes this evident part of the time. He's stiff for much of the movie, and he doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with our lead actress. There are times when Cupo isn't bad, but for much of the movie, he's just taking up space. However, I immensely enjoyed Tristan Risk in her role as the bubbly Betty Boop wannabe. She's very likable and sweet, with a voice that seems stolen from Ellen Green from Little Shop of Horrors. She's a little unsettling at times too, but then I'm sure that was the point.

But the real reason to see American Mary is its leading lady, Katherine Isabelle. I've been a fan of Isabelle ever since I first saw Ginger Snaps, and she doesn't disappoint here. She plays Mary as increasingly cold, almost sociopathic at times, You get the sense that she's got so much bottled up, like she's hiding something deep inside that she doesn't want anyone, even herself, so see or even acknowledge. Isabelle is frightening here, knowing exactly which buttons to push to be as scary as possible. I'm honestly surprised Isabelle isn't a bigger name than she is, because she has a ton of talent that should really be seen by more people.

Despite it stumbling near the end, American Mary is still a damn fine flick. The fact that it's so unlike the majority of the horror movies I usually watch makes it worth watching. Its uniqueness and off-kilter nature help to lessen the impact of the movie's less-than-stellar conclusion, and had the movie not existed outside the mainstream, it probably would have been ruined by overzealous studio executives and focus groups. But being made and released independently allows its originality to shine. And if American Mary is any indication, Jen and Sylvia Soska have a bright future ahead of them. I can't wait to see what they bring us next.

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Devil's Due (2014)

The month of January has long been stigmatized as Hollywood's dumping ground. Low-budget genre movies and stuff that the studios think may underperform or just plain stink are often released not long after New Year's just so they can possibly make a little money from audiences that are worn out by the holidays and are looking for a little relief from miserable winter weather. This year's movie dump began a few weeks ago with Paranormal Activity: The Lost Ones and continues onward with another "found footage" movie, Devil's Due. I've never had a problem with found footage horror movies, but much like zombie movies, every one I see nowadays is just dime-a-dozen claptrap. Such was the case with Devil's Due, a movie that despite a few good moments never really reaches above mediocrity.

The movie focuses on Zach (Zach Gilford) and Samantha McCall (Allison Miller), a young couple who've just recently gotten married. While honeymooning in the Dominican Republic, Zach and Samantha are picked up by an aggressively friendly cab driver who offers to take them to the hottest nightclub in town. They agree to go once they realize the driver won't take no for an answer, and end up partying all night with other tourists. Things take a dark turn, though, when a passed-out Samantha is secretly taken to what appears to be the nightclub's basement and has a satanic ritual performed on her.

Zach and Samantha awaken in their hotel room the next morning with terrible hangovers and no idea how they got back to the hotel, and since actually watching what was filmed rarely occurs to anyone in found footage movies, they casually return home. Seven weeks later, Samantha discovers she's pregnant despite having taken birth control pills on a regular basis. They're shocked but overjoyed, but the joy gives way to fear as the months pass when they realize all is not right with their unborn baby. It starts with Samantha having random nosebleeds and cravings for raw meat despite being a vegetarian. And then there's her fits of rage, yelling Zach over minor inconveniences and shattering car windows with her bare hands. Coupling this with the strange people watching their house at all hours of the day and night and the strange happenings at the abandoned house down the street, it soon becomes apparent that their baby is anything but normal.

My expectations going into Devil's Due were honestly pretty low. I'd heard it had gotten overwhelmingly lousy reviews and the commercials didn't exactly sell me on the movie either, plus I was still in kind of a funk after being disappointed by the new Paranormal Activity movie a few weeks ago. But I was feeling brave and decided to see it anyway. I left the theater feeling conflicted. I honestly didn't hate the movie, actually having enjoyed several parts of it. But it was just parts that I liked, not the complete package. There were just as many elements that dragged it down as there were ones that I liked, which ends up making me wish I'd just stayed home and rented the DVD from Netflix in a few months and saved myself the effort of having to drive to the theater.

The movie was directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gilbert from the filmmaking quartet known as "Radio Silence." The duo have plenty of experience with found footage, having worked with the other members of Radio Silence on the fantastic "10/31/98" segment of V/H/S along with a number of shorts featured on YouTube. There were some real flashes of brilliance here, with some scenes that are genuinely spooky and others that are very tense and suspenseful. The only bad part is that a lot of the movie feels like padding. One really gets the feeling that the movie was a short film that had gotten stretched out to feature length. Some of that is due to the lackluster script (which I'll get to later), but there's so much boring filler between the good stuff that it makes the rest of the movie look bad.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gilbert also take some real liberties with the "found footage" concept. The reasoning behind the constant camera use is flimsy enough, but Bettinelli-Olpin and Gilbert cheat by utilizing store security cameras, along with footage from spy cameras installed in the McCall house by the evil cult behind all the supernatural shenanigans. Hell, the whole found footage gimmick in general just feels unnecessary here. The movie could have worked just as easily as a traditional movie. Upon reflect, that's probably why they went with security cameras and hidden cameras, to do regular movie stuff and found footage at the same time. And to me, that just feels kinda cheap.

But the directors could only improve upon the lousy script so much. Penned by Lindsay Devlin, the script for Devil's Due is almost unforgivably weak. It meanders on at a snail's pace, never really going anywhere and only occasionally doing anything worthwhile. By the time the climax arrives, it's like Devlin realized how much time has been wasted and just rushes into it.

There's also isn't any mystery behind Samantha's weird pregnancy for two simple facts: The whole evil cult thing is barely ever brought up. It's alluded to at the beginning of the movie during the honeymoon scenes, and outside of their covert installation of the spy cameras and one terrible setup that shows the cult is watching her while she's out and about (it's painfully obvious that Samantha's new OB/GYN is a member of the cult even though the movie tries to play it like a big reveal at the end), the evil cult doesn't play much of a part in the movie until the last ten or fifteen minutes.

That, along with the lousy pacing of the movie, is the biggest problem I had with it. Both the directors and the writer have structured the movie in such an odd way that it's hard for it to get in a real groove. Scenes go on way too long and wear out their welcome, while other scenes that could have improved the movie in establishing a creepy, frightening vibe by appearing earlier don't show up until we're almost to the end. The most effective scenes are so late in the movie that by the time they arrive, less-enthusiastic audience members might have given up on the whole thing.

There are two consistently good elements to this movie, though, in the form of its two primary actors. Zach Gilford and Allison Miller are the absolute best parts of Devil's Due. Both of them are charming and likable, with a believable chemistry together and never wavering when there characters show some of the flaws the characters in other found footage movies have. I especially liked Miller, who added a sympathetic feeling to her character that she needed. You honestly find yourself feeling awful for her with each scene thanks to the earnestness she brings to the role.

I wish I could say that about the whole of Devil's Due, but I can't. Some movies can overcome a few flaws by playing to its own strengths, but this movie never does that. It's one of those mixed bags that never really gels into a decent whole. I'm actually surprised it got a theatrical release from a major Hollywood studio, because it feels like it could have gone straight to video. I noted in the introduction that found footage movies are becoming a dime a dozen, and Devil's Due unfortunately lends credence to that theory. The movie's worth a rental if you're trying to slap together a horror movie marathon at the last minute, but really, the devil could have delivered something better.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

For the longest time, it seemed like The Blair Witch Project was the standard bearer for the "found footage" style of filmmaking. Even when the style really took off a few years ago in the wake of movies like Cloverfield, it was that cheap little indie flick that a lot of people thought of whenever the topic of found footage movies came up.

That is until 2009, when Paramount Pictures picked up and released Paranormal Activity to theaters nationwide after a successful run touring the film festival circuit. The movie was a huge hit, spawned sequel after sequel in rapid succession, and arguably helped to kill the Saw franchise. But after four consecutive Halloween weekends saw a release of a new entry in the franchise in some form or fashion, the year 2013 passed without one. However, now that 2014 has arrived, a new Paranormal Activity movie has arrived with it in the form of what's being called a spinoff to the franchise. After the disappointment that was the fourth movie, I went into Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones expecting the worst but hoping for the best. And while it was far from the best chapter in the series, it still had its moments.

The movie quickly introduces us to Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), a recent high school graduate with his whole life ahead of him. But with no real immediate direction to travel in, he's content to spend all day goofing off with his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), pulling pranks on one another and capturing it and their day-to-day lives with Hector's ever-present camcorder. But things go from fun to frightening when their camera accidentally captures an old lady in a neighboring apartment in the midst of a ritual conjuring some serious black magic.

When word comes a few days later that the old lady has been murdered, a curious Jesse and Hector sneak into her apartment and find evidence that lends credence to their belief that their recently deceased neighbor was a witch. Jesse awakens the next morning with a bloody bite mark on his forearm, but the horror is tempered when he discovers that he's developed what appear to be superpowers. He tosses bullies across a parking lot with his bare hands, throws himself backwards to find himself levitating just above the ground, and defies gravity by jumping a skateboard over a standing Hector's head.

This comes with a price, however. Jesse quickly becomes distant and quick to anger, refusing to speak to Hector and attacking another boy for simply having a polite conversation with his friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). A deeper investigation soon makes it apparent that Jesse has been cursed, and that he'll get far worse before he gets better.

I had been led to believe that this would be the movie that would redefine and reshape the Paranormal Activity franchise. The handful of reviews I'd read implied that The Marked Ones would blow the socks off the fans who'd stood by the series. But it turns out I'd basically read a whole bunch of overblown hyperbole. I won't say the movie is actively bad, but it's just kinda there. It has its ups and downs like most movies, yet it doesn't really do much to make itself better than any of the other Paranormal Activity movies. Outside of a handful of references to the earlier movies and the crazy ending, it honestly could have been just another random mediocre found footage movie that would have otherwise flown under the radar.

The movie was written and directed by Christopher Landon, who is no stranger to the franchise, having written each of the prior sequels. I think the first one is the only one he didn't have any involvement with. But for someone so heavily involved with the evolution of the world of Paranormal ActivityThe Marked Ones comes across like he was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick, as if he was unsure of what he wanted to do with the movie. I understand that Landon might want to shake things up after the disappointment that was the fourth movie, but he takes it in a really weird direction. Landon moves away from the "haunted house" vibe of the first four movies and instead gives us what would happen if you combined Chronicle with demonic possession. The whole "being cursed gives Jesse superpowers" thing is interesting, I'll give it that, but Landon handles it awkwardly. It feels clunky and forced, and doesn't add a whole lot to the movie other than to imply that something weird is happening to Jesse. And honestly, that's something that could have been done so much better.

And in moving away from the "haunted house" format, Landon also moves away from the franchise's typical formula by eschewing slow-burning scares for cheap jump after cheap jump. There's not really any suspense, no feeling of dread brought on by a lurking, invisible menace. It's just stuff leaping into frame and yelling "boo!" over and over and over until it becomes monotonous. These moments have their place in horror movies and I'm not opposed to them, but if that's all there is, they lose their punch after a while. Some of the scares in The Marked Ones are good, I'll give Landon that, but the spooky feeling from the other movies is barely here at all.

And while I'll applaud Landon's efforts to deepen the franchise's mythology, it's really just a mess. This is the first entry in the franchise in which Katie or her nephew Hunter aren't the focus of the movie in some form or fashion, which paves the way for Landon to investigate the whole evil cult thing that's been building from the other sequels. At least, that's what you'd think. Even when they have characters come in solely to dump a whole bunch of exposition on us, we never really feel like much is learned. For every question from the earlier movies that it might answer, it just raises twenty more. It's like Landon wanted to straighten some things out while still leaving the movie's mythology confusing enough that it would draw people into the next Paranormal Activity sequel to see if that one would make any sense.

At least the movie's cast is relatively strong. While much of the supporting cast isn't all that really memorable, they all play their parts as well as they can. The movie belongs to Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz, though. Diaz is funny in his role as the protagonist's sidekick and comic relief, while Jacobs is likable, charismatic, and sympathetic all at once. Despite how crazy and borderline silly the movie gets at times, Jacobs remains relatively consistent. He's good enough that you can't help but worry for Jesse and his friends during all the awful stuff that plagues them. He also proves to be pretty scary too, his increasingly cold demeanor becoming more and more off-putting as the movie goes on. It's a good performance that really makes the movie a little bit better.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole is still kinda mediocre. There are some parts of the movie that are genuinely fun and some really good scares to be found. It's a definite step up from the fourth movie, at the very least. But The Marked Ones is still honestly one of the weaker entries in the Paranormal Activity saga. The elements that work in the movie's favor are bogged down by the amount of stuff that just plain doesn't work. It's a movie that could have turned the whole franchise on its ear, but ultimately stumbled over its own feet. The next Paranormal Activity movie is apparently still in the works and looks to be released at the end of October. Assuming that holds true, we've got a ten-month wait to see just where the story will go from here. I'm actually genuinely curious to see it, just to see if any lessons have been learned from two "meh" sequels in a row. But then we'll see this Halloween, won't we?

Final Rating: **½