Rob Harmon’s Picks 3/17/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE GUEST (dir. Adam Wingard, 2014)

Low-budget genre films — in general — do not get much credit: they are proven money-makers but critics ignore them, audiences look down upon them. As for awards, well, don’t hold your breath.

This is unfortunate because while genre films — horror, science fiction, westerns, gangster, action, martial arts, etc. — have a long history of seeming virtually indistinguishable from one another, some filmmakers, like Edgar G. Ulmer in DETOUR, Don Siegel in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or John Carpenter in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, have wrought minor miracles tweaking well-worn formulae. Operating well below the radar of society’s taste-makers, the low-budget aesthetic is to strip a film down to the bone. A great low-budget genre film can succeed wildly and in ways which other, more respectable counterparts are unable: all technique, no bombast; a solid reminder of the essence of what makes movies so pleasurable in the first place.

Unfortunately, though, the heyday of the genre film (which lasted well into to the 80’s) seems to have passed us by. Many of the programmatic concepts and stories which once would have found their way onto a grindhouse or drive-in screen have now been co-opted by the Hollywood blockbuster (“Aliens controlling human beings from behind the scenes and making us think that everything is hunky dory? Nah, that’s big budget now; that’s THE MATRIX!”), the straight-to-video market, the made-for-Lifetime movie (teenagers and/or housewives dabbling in sex/drugs/prostitution/murder-for-hire, etc.), and the SciFi Channel movie (humans vs. sharks/gorillas/piranhas/monsters/aliens, etc.). It causes one to wonder: those shabby artistic margins once exploited so sensationally by the likes of Ulmer, Siegel, and Carpenter, what has become of them?

Luckily, though, these types of films are not extinct, if less numerous than before, reminding you just how fun it can be to “check your brain at the door,” as the saying goes, while still having that grey matter stimulated in some wholly unexpected ways.

A story treatment for Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST could probably be printed on the label of a very small tin can. It might go something like this: family living in the heartland of America grieves for their dead son, killed in action oversees; handsome, chiseled stranger (Dan Stevens) shows up at door claiming to be close friend of dead son, just released from duty; handsome, chiseled stranger decides to stay with family for a few days and quickly becomes everyone’s best friend and protector; handsome, chiseled stranger also quickly becomes over-protective and is soon revealed to be a bit of a wackadoodle, the subject of some undisclosed top secret military super-soldier experiment gone awry; people die (lots of them, actually).

The_Guest_DVDTruthfully, it is a bit more complicated than that, but not by much, the story being told from the point-of-view of the family’s plucky daughter (Maika Monroe), who first distrusts, then lusts for said stranger, before she and her picked-upon younger brother must hold on for dear life in a hugely entertaining final set-piece in the local high school, which is decked out for… yup, the annual Halloween party!

THE GUEST is a wholly enjoyable roller-coaster ride of a movie: little or no plot development, lots of momentum. The film, in fact, has a sleek and lean widescreen look that resembles part-Euro art cinema, part-Carpenter’s Halloween. This heritage seems to be underscored, literally, by its astonishingly well-assembled electronic score, at times throbbing and muscular like a killer Teutonic dance beat, at others minimal and eerie like a classic synth-y Carpenter score. The film really should be understood as a musical journey or progression, more than anything else, a series of moods building steadily, one after another, to a destination which is familiar, yet ultimately satisfying.

New Releases 1/6/15

Top Hits
Boyhood (drama, Ellar Coltrane. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 100. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “Radical in its conceit, familiar in its everyday details, “Boyhood” exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being slavishly indebted to either tradition. It’s a model of cinematic realism, and its pleasures are obvious yet mysterious. Even after seeing the film three times, I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me, and why I’m eager to see it again. There are many reasons to love movies, from the stories they tell, to the beautiful characters who live and die for us. And yet the story in “Boyhood” is blissfully simple: A child grows up. This, along with the modesty of its physical production — its humble rooms, quiet moments, ordinary lives — can obscure Mr. Linklater’s ambitions and the greatness of his achievement.” Read more…)

No Good Deed (thriller, Idris Elba. Rotten Tomatoes: 10%. Metacritic: 26. From Ben Kenisberg’s New York Times review: “With less than 24 hours’ notice, Screen Gems announced that it would cancel Wednesday’s press screenings for ‘No Good Deed.’ Officially, this unusual step was intended to help the studio protect a plot twist. This twist, it turns out, hardly warrants any fuss or curiosity. Yet it’s hard not to consider the timing in light of the running back Ray Rice’s termination from the Baltimore Ravens on Monday, following the release of a video that showed him punching his fiancée (now wife). ‘No Good Deed’ derives its suspense from violence against women, often directed at a woman who had prosecuted domestic abusers.” Read more…)

Left Behind (Biblical End Times action/adventure, Nicolas Cage. Rotten Tomatoes: 2%. Metacritic: 12. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “The fate of the missing souls on HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ remains a tantalizing mystery, but the location of the disappeared in ‘Left Behind’ — an inept remake of Vic Sarin’s 2001 dud of the same title — is soon solved. Not even an act of God can flummox Nicolas Cage for long.” Read more…)

Get On Up (James Brown bio-pic, Chadwick Boseman. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 71. Another New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “‘Get On Up,’ directed by Tate Taylor [‘The Help’], thrillingly captures the frenzy of [soul singer James] Brown’s music, and the forces driving that frenzy, both musical and personal. Like its gyrating, spasmodic staccato beats, ‘Get On Up’ refuses to stand still. It whirls and does splits and jumps, with leaps around in time and changes in tempo that are jarring and abrupt and that usually feel just right.” Read more…)

The Guest (action, Dan Stevens. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Metacritic: 76. Yet another New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “As one of the sharper young horror directors working today, Adam Wingard likes to take familiar genre setups — the serial killer or the home invasion — and warp them just enough to pique our interest. Together with the writer Simon Barrett, whose canny scripts flip and swerve at unexpected moments, Mr. Wingard is building a résumé that pays at least as much attention to character and story as it does to scares and body count.” Read more…)

Elsa & Fred (romance, Christopher Plummer. Rotten Tomatoes: 24%. Metacritic: 49. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “A grumpy old man and a dotty old lady share a moment of late-life bliss in the geriatric romantic comedy ‘Elsa & Fred.’ Because that fun couple are played by Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, the movie’s too-cute concept yields more rewards than you might reasonably expect.” Read more…)

Life After Beth (rom-zom-com, John C. Reilly. Rotten Tomatoes: 45%. Metacritic: 50. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “Aubrey Plaza has large, intelligent eyes and a startlingly gorgeous smile — one that’s unleashed all too rarely in her role as a lovable misanthrope on ‘Parks and Recreation.’ Sadly, playing a lusty, undead girlfriend in ‘Life After Beth’ gives her even fewer opportunities to beam, but when she does, the whole film seems to slow down and soften.” Read more…)

The Longest Week (rom-com, Jason Bateman. Rotten Tomatoes: 11%. Metacritic: 34.)
Atlas Shrugged Part III (Ayn Rand adaptation/drama, Kristoffer Polaha. Rotten Tomatoes: 0%. Metacritic: 9.)

New Blu-Ray
Get On Up

New TV
Girls: Season 3

New Documentaries
To Be Takei (bio, personality, gay & lesbian, George Takei. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 66. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “Like other pop culture figures, George Takei — a.k.a. Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek” — cultivated a loyal fan base and became politically engaged. But fleshing out his timeline, as he does in Jennifer M. Kroot’s ‘To Be Takei,’ uncovers something more surprising and even moving: a childhood in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II; many years in entertainment lived as a closeted gay man; and, more recently, an outspoken stint as a marriage rights activist. Mr. Takei is also, as he calls himself here, a born ham, which helps him seem cornily genuine as he capitalizes on his pop currency.” Read more…)

Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays (bio, comedy, show business, Billy Crystal)