Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blood Moon 2018


Did you catch the Blood Moon this morning? It wasn't just a blood moon, but also a Super Moon (when the moon is closest to the Earth), and a Blue Moon (second full moon in one month). The lunar eclipse is caused when the shadow of Earth falls across the moon and the resulting scattered light looks red (just like a sunset).

I can only imagine our ancient ancestors looking up at the night sky in terror as the moon changed to a bloody color. Obviously it was a sign from the gods of impending doom. Even today, people like ministers John Hagee and Mark Blitz declared the tetrad of lunar eclipses that occurred between April 2014 and September 2015 (coinciding with the Jewish holidays mind you) was a sign of the beginning of the apocalypse according to the Bible, Book of Joel Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12. Thankfully they wrote books and guides to help you through the end of days.

No doubt this celestial event was quite impressive, especially living in California where we have the best seat in the house. If anything it demonstrates that the heavens continue to operate like clockwork, with nothing amiss. I'd be more frightened if these events suddenly happened off kilter, which would signal a great imbalance.

So next on the doomsday calendar is the "Super Bowl asteroid". This a smaller asteroid less than 1 mile wide but still classified as a PHA (potentially hazardous asteroid) since it passes Earth at a scant 2.6 million mile distance (very small distance in space terms) every 16 years.

Although more immediately impressive is the "Halloween asteroid" which looks like a skull in certain angles that will make a return visit in mid-November. This one is passing at a much more comfortable 300 million miles away.

Credit: J. A. Peñas/SINC

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Best Horror Movies of 2017

The horror renaissance continued in 2017 with no shortage of scary films, including many non-traditional horror films. Horror seems to be evolving past the genre tropes into new and interesting forms, like the continued rise of "prestige horror". It's a wild age of exploration as filmmakers no longer shackled to profit-centric theatrical runs explore puzzling themes, hybrid genres, and challenging reinterpretations of horror. Video on Demand (VOD) and streaming sites (like Netflix) have broadened that playing field making distribution is easier to find. It's about time! Here are some of my favorites.

1. IT   supernatural, monsters, coming-of-age, period piece
With a mix of nostalgia and a creepy clown, this Stephen King adaptation turned out to be the best and truest to the source material. It's a heartfelt kid centric tale with some genuinely shocking scenes (when was the last time you saw a child be killed on screen?). It might be overly long, but I enjoyed every minute of it (19 more minutes will be added to the Director's Cut coming later this year).

2. mother!   arthouse, surreal, prestige
Darren Aronofsky's polarizing film has been hailed as utter trash and a masterpiece. Having seen it completely uninitiated, I was pulled into a madman's journey through an existential nightmare. It stayed with me for days as I went through the interpretation process. It's like nothing I've seen and guarantee that only a handful a readers will admire this horror (yes it is) film.

3. A Ghost Story  ghosts, indie, prestige
This hipster's horror film became an obsessive wonder. So obscure and juvenile (a man in a sheet, really?) yet it weaves a resonant story of loss, loneliness and the cosmic search for answers. With so little dialogue viewers are forced to piece the story together. And even after the ending pops like a balloon out of the existence, it lingers on and on. If you watch it, please try to get past the pie scene, which is a very long mistake no matter how you slice on it. 

4. Get Out  psychological, thriller, mystery, prestige
As race relations continue to spiral in Trump's America, this film boldly took on the topic in an original and sobering way. I felt true palpable anger at the end and Daniel Kaluuya's Oscar-worthy performance was the anchor. It's a refined horror film raised well above its station that boldly declares genre fare as formidable cinema. (4 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay) 

5. A Dark Song   drama, demonic, foreign
Ireland is a country of many stories and this one has both darkness and spectacle. A distraught mother is seeking vengeance for the murder of her son by any means necessary, which includes 8-month ritual to invoke otherworldly beings. It's a slog to get through, much like her day-to-day tasks, and makes one wonder why black magic is so much work. Then the horrors start including a some understated but effective imagery (is that a man smoking in the chair?). The ending is completely unexpected and strikes some deep, emotional chords. 

6. The Void    supernatural, Lovecraftian, surreal
It's been a while since there was some batshit crazy, 80s-inspired, Lovecraftian fever dream. This is the one we've been waiting for. Between the monsters, the masked ceremonial men, and whatever the hell is going on in the basement, this movie was non-stop adrenalin rush. It's completely undecipherable, features practical effects(!) and wears its B-movie contrivances proudly. Just buckle up and enjoy the ride.

7. Personal Shopper    ghosts, drama, mystery, prestige
Yes, it's rather irksome that the director said this is a horror film for people who do not watch horror films (you and I need not apply). Yet its curious, cold tone and a calmly unhinged Kristen Stewart who searches for signs from her dead brother is engrossing and peculiar. Her existential crisis is compounded by mysterious texts that leads to an undercurrent mystery happening just off screen. The experience is mesmerizing and baffling.  

8. The Shape of Water    horror romance, period piece
Guillermo del Toro's lush film is a romance/fable with quintessential horror trappings, like a creature from the black lagoon tank. It's stunningly beautiful, filmed in cool greens and blues and features steampunk-adjacent set design. Unlike his last romance/horror hybrid (Crimson Peak) this one is neither bleak nor cynical and features an incredibly strong cast (Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon). This is the best (only?) date night movie on my list. (13 Oscar Nominations! Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Costume Design, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Music Score, Original Screenplay, Production Design)

9. Super Dark Times    drama, crime, coming-of-age
The beautiful cinematography of this 80s set coming of age tale seems like a reimagined Stand By Me. High school friends on the verge of becoming men face an unthinkable accident that leads towards a downward spiral. It makes you question whether bad act makes a person evil, or just taps into something that was already there.


10. The Babysitter   quirky, comedy, slasher
This Netflix original film packs a lot of fun into its brief running time with some idiotic characters (including a buff dude who can't seem to find a shirt), a gleefully absurd tone, and some really gory (and funny) kills. It makes a few missteps in the middle but more than makes up for it in the end. This  wins for best popcorn movie of the year.

11. Annabelle: Creation    supernatural, hauntings, period piece
Somehow period-piece prequels are better than their predecessors. This sequel to the lackluster Annabelle is ten times the movie, scarier, and a more worthy entry to The Conjuring universe. It's a mainstream R-rated horror movie which is mostly unheard of nowadays and definitely worth a traditional, spooky time.

12. Gerald's Game    drama, thriller, survival 
It's been a great year for Stephen King and finally we have some great adaptations of his work. This one also stays very true to the book and tells a surprisingly topical and poignant story. Director Mike Flanagan has captured an empathetic tone without being exploitive even as a woman is handcuffed to a bed, ultimately revealing the dominance and oppression women face from an early age. It is heartbreaking and empowering.

13. The Devil's Candy    demonic, hauntings, madman
The devil comes a knockin' in this heavy metal tinged creepfest that features a father and artist on the brink. The tone is pitch black and the Ethan Embry radiates anguish and torment, and easily his best performance to date. It's a jarring and haunting film that makes you question the delicate balance between passion and evil.  It's also the rare movie with a final guy (rather than girl). 

14. The Girl With All The Gifts    zombie, post-apocalyptic, foreign 
The zombie genre has been beaten to death yet this film manages a fresh take. At its heart is the young actress Sennia Nanua who gives a deft performance as a new breed of creature and manages to upstage even Glenn Close in a crazy eyes mode. The tone is less bleak than usual for this type of film and the end made we question whether a zombie apocalypse might be a good thing.

15. Raw    drama, cannibal, coming-of-age, foreign
A French tale is equally stomach turning and utterly fascinating. Garance Marillier is fearless as a young, tepid woman entering college whose inner beast is unleashed after a rather innocuous hazing ritual.  Be warned that this an extreme film. 



Honorable Mentions


Split
    thriller, abduction, madman
M. Night Shyamalan is having a moment. I won't call it a comeback but he might have decided to stop making sucky movies. This one is bolstered by James McAvoy's hypnotic performance as a man controlled by over 20 personalities – some of them psycho. The tension builds steadily as we wonder if the kidnapped victims will outsmart him. The final twist might leave some hoping for a different resolution/connection but it doesn't erase an otherwise good film. 

Better Watch Out    yuletide, home invasion, dark humor
Yes, another babysitter movie but this one is set during Christmas! The clever script upends the proceedings and ultimately leads us down a dark, implausible road that has you yelling at the screen. So yes, it's also a good, ole fun time.

Happy Death Day   teen, slasher, comedy
I was less than enthusiastic when Blumhouse churned out another a teen slasher flick albeit with a Groundhog Day makeover (where a character relives the same day over and over). The result in surprisingly entertaining due completely to the graceful performance of Jessica Rothe who moves from bitchy to scared to funny in the blink of an eye. This elevates the seemingly generic material with gravitas, cleverness, and genuine humor. She is definitely one to watch!

Prevenge    dark humor, slasher, foreign
Pregnancy apparently can be murder. Literally. Alice Lowe writes, directs and stars in this darkly humorous story of baby fetus talking future mommy into killing everyone associated with baby daddy's death. It's sadistic, hilarious and even poignant as a commentary on the madness that accompanies the miracle of birth.

The Blackcoat's Daughter    demonic, drama, coming of age 
A sinister force seems to befall two girls left alone during winter break. The mood is pensive, bleak as winter, and the tension slowly ratchets up as horrible secrets are revealed. It's a great structure that comes full circle, and ultimately revealing the pain and loneliness of adolescence.

Dave Made A Maze    comedy, surreal, adventure
This odd duck flick has friends trapped in a cardboard maze filled with boobytraps, where you might get your head cut off and bleed paper strings. It surreal, thoroughly unexplained, and utterly original.

1922    drama, crime, mystery, period piece
Another Stephen King adaptation. Really? Yes, and this one stars an unrecognizable Thomas Jane (from 2007's The Mist) as a simple farmer who conspires to kill his wife and then has to live with it. The story unfolds slowly and in fully descriptive King fashion that makes you wonder whether everyday occurrences are perhaps more otherworldly.

The Lure    surreal, musical, period piece, foreign
Stop me if you've heard this one. Two mermaids walk into a bar, start singing and then maybe eat a few people. This Polish film, complete with full blown musical dance numbers, dares to go into 80s and tell an amorphous tale of love gone wrong. It's bizarre, colorful, and irresistible.


Best Family Film

Coco    animated, day of the dead, coming-of-age
After an agonizing wait, we finally got Pixar's incredible ode to dia de los muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring the dead. While this is not horror film, skeletons and crossing over into the land of the dead certainly might sound like horror to young children and their parents. The film is beautiful, colorful and the core carries a deeply resonate message about family and the passion of being an artist (whether that's music or shoe making). (2 Oscar nominations: Best Animated Feature, Best Song)



A note about release dates: Some of these films were released prior to 2017 but received limited runs, festival debuts awaiting distribution, or international release only and not readily available until 2017 so they were included here. Just in case you fact check release dates on IMDB.com, the reference guide for all things cinema. 

Love movie posters like I do? Check out the oddly titled site, IMP Awards for a complete resource of ALL movie posters. It's a great reference site for those who like movie art!

The Worst Horror Movies of 2017

Every year has its clunkers and cheap knockoffs (those awful Netflix queue cloggers) but this list reserved for the films that should have been better given the talent involved. They are well produced, have decent actors, and some production value yet they fall so miserably short whether it's terrible scripts, direction or bland or muddled stories. Here's my list of 2017's biggest disappointments. 

1. Alien: Covenant
The Alien franchise turnover it's schlockiest entry than plays more like a slasher flick than a sci-fi odyssey. It also happens to be a tangent story rather than a direct follow up to Prometheus which makes for a very confusing time for fans. Misguided and generic, it seems to be a... remake? reimagining? regurgitation? ... of much better Alien films.

2. It Comes at Night
Hailed as a harrowing experience, it was disappointing how little the film offered. With no character or plot development it was impossible to feel anything for the proceedings and the sense of mild gloom overwhelmed any tension or fright. Instead lingering shots of the woods, a red door, a dog, random strangers, and fabricated atmosphere was left to tell the tale of some possible plague. I  don't need everything explained but this was unnecessarily vague and I was disconnected the entire time.

3. The Dark Tower
I've only read the first book in the series, and apparently, this film was a random amalgamation of several books. That explains the nonsensical story, unexplained bits, and general rushed feeling. I had a friend explain the broad strokes of the books and it sounds fascinating – completely impossible to encapsulate into one film. Why they tried to do this makes no sense at all.

4. A Cure for Wellness
It's a stunning film to look at as every shot is carefully composed to reveal shapes, colors and a mood murkier than the questionable water. It unfurls nefariously but absolutely pointlessly wanting desperately to be a Gothic mystery. At 2 1/2 hours long, I wondered why nothing much was happening and I kept drifting like the snow on the Swiss Alps.

5. The Mummy
You know what doesn't belong in the Universal's Dark Universe? Tom Cruise. Why couldn't they just make it SCARY instead of bland, humorless, action adventure nonsense? Kudos for making the villain a woman, but then you give her a terrible origin story. Ugh.

6. XX
This was the first all-female directed horror film and the results were just meh. It befell the anthology curse where some segments are stronger than others, but here I kept waiting for one strong entry. I so wanted to like this and while I admire the concept, the execution is lackluster. And as much as I love St. Vincent (Masseduction is the album of the year), Anne Erin Clark must never be let behind a camera again.

7. Death Note
The fascinating concept of a death god is given the white wash treatment, and ends up being much too episodic for its own good. It plays like a Golden Girls-style clip show with bits and pieces that were mildly interesting but disjointed. It also features a highly unlikable cast devoid of any chemistry whatsoever. Maybe they were drawn that way?

8. Rings
Samara comes out of retirement to be studied and copied digitally. Unfortunately, the girl from the creepy tape no longer feels relevant and this really poor installment firmly puts the cover on the well for good.

9. We Are The Flesh
This extreme Mexican cocktail of lurid sex, incest, and cannibalism begets nothing but frustration and is a pointless endeavor more akin to porn than horror. Cited as boundary-pushing by Dread Central and my love for indie filmmaking made we watch this dreck that's best avoided.

10. Life
With a strong cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, one would expect this evil life form running amok a scientific space station to reveal something mind-blowing. It is competently produced and well-acted but follows the beats of a much better films. Less than halfway through, you realize how unoriginal it is, see the ending coming, realize it's so painfully forgettable and then– wait, what was I talking about?


OTHER CONTENDERS
Based on reviews from other sites these films are also stinkers and I doubt will ever see them. Please note the quantity of sequels and remakes. If I'm wrong, please let me know in the comments below.

Jigsaw, Leatherface, Amityville: Awakening, Jeepers Creepers III, Friend Request, Flatliners, The Bye-Bye Man, 47 Meters Down, Wish Upon, and Eloise.





Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Trouble with Slender Man

Sony Picture's trailer for Slender Man (below) was released this week and it while seems to be purposefully obtuse, it's still very creepy. Unfortunately, the origin story behind this supernatural creature with a featureless face that hunts children is quite tragic and may ultimately taint its success.

It started on the now-called "literary site" Creepypasta, where visitors share their scary stories, photos and even videos. It's a true time sink for those who love scary stuff. Slender Man appeared in 2009 and slowly became a phenomenon. This generation devoid of a Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees, finally had their very own boogieman. (I've always thought Slender Man to be a mix of "The Gentlemen" from the 1999's Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Cthulhu, the elder god with tentacles, from HP Lovecraft's work.)

Yet none of it is real. Right? In 2014, two 12-year-old girls stabbed a classmate in an attempt to appease the Slender Man who they believed was stalking them and their families. Thankfully, the victim survived but it brought a renewed concern about minors on the internet and the inherent problem of discerning fact from fiction (fake news anyone?).

HBO Films released a disturbing documentary called Beware the Slenderman last year about the events and aftermath of the girl's crime, revealing that the one who orchestrated the attack was diagnosed with childhood onset schizophrenia. In the subsequent 2017 court cases, both attackers who were tried as adults, cited mental disease or defect, and have been hospitalized, one receiving a 25-year sentence to a mental institution.

On the heels of the trailer's release, the father of one of the attackers quickly voiced his opposition to the movie citing a distasteful move on the studio's part to cash in on the tragedy and thus extending the pain of the three families involved. It's a valid point and the cry across the internet is unanimous: too soon. As fascinating as Slender Man is as a property, it's inexorably tied to a real and tragic event that only came to a resolution last fall and reeks of opportunism.

Backlash like a recent online petition to shut down Creepypasta may be working as the site seems to be inaccessible (although their Facebook page and app are still running). I disagree that this one site is the cause of all children's peril on the internet but mobs do like a good scapegoat. The movie is scheduled for release in May 2018 which might end up being postponed if the backlash continues to escalate.

Monday, January 8, 2018

El Caribe

I started the new year in "El Caribe" (or The Caribbean) and ended up in Hell, literally. The town of Hell in Grand Cayman offers a horrific limestone landscape that likely gave the town it's name. The juxtaposition of the beautiful island and this vision was startling. Incidentally, Hell offers a unique passport stamp.



From here, I headed to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich in Belize. A woman in white with fire-red glowing eyes is said to appear by "El Castillo" (or the tower) which ascends some 130 feet from it's bottom steps (add another 100 feet or so since it sits on a tall hill). It's one of the few pyramids left that visitors are allowed to climb. It's a treacherous though with no handrails and very small platforms, but I did it! On the bus ride home, I had a dream of a very tall 20-foot woman/being dressed in white feathers, yellow glowing eyes, hair that became tree roots, and a horned crown. I had not heard the story about the woman in white until after I shared the dream with my travel companions.


The Yucatán peninsula was the last stop and here I visited the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza which is a mainstay on the show Ancient Aliens. Our tour guide repeatedly emphasized that the Maya were not from outerspace. Um, okay. Though Mayans are not believed to have sacrificed humans, remains have been found in one of the towers on the site. There were plenty of street vendors who had a bounty of exquisite Mexican crafts to offer the nearly 2000 people who visit the site daily. 




The sea was fairly calm and we had a full moon while on the cruise. It was absolutely stunning the way it lit up the sky. Going to the Mayan ruins was definitely a bucket list item for me, and yes I rewatched the excellent movies The Ruins and The Shrine on the plane!