Tragedy Girls [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

If the characters from Mean Girls found themselves participating in The Purge, it might look something like Tragedy Girls. This impressively ballsy, stingingly funny horror-comedy grabs you by the throat in such a way that you never want it to let go. And it doesn’t. The hazard of a story like this is that it might go soft at the end. Tragedy Girls never does. It stays true to its vision right down to the final second. That marks it as a genuine you’ve-gotta-see-it genre film.

Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse) play Sadie and McKayla, two high school besties who are obsessed with raising their social media profiles. In the opening scene, they kidnap Lowell (Kevin Durand), a lunatic who’s been killing people around their small town. The girls beg their captive for help in learning the ways of murder. When he refuses, they go it on their own, then blog memorials to the deceased or complain about local law enforcement’s alleged lack of community protection. Their accompanying videos and tweets do indeed garner them significant attention. The only hitch is Sadie’s would-be suitor, Jordan (Jack Quaid), who suspects something fishy is going on.

There have been other movies about characters doing extreme things in an effort to go viral. Tragedy Girls is different. Sadie and McKayla aren’t just looking for fame; they want people to see the world through their eyes. They want to be the commentators, to be the ones others turn to for perspective and insight. It’s a crucial difference that sets the movie apart, while also adding significant depth to the theme of how narcissism can become dangerous.

Humor springs from the contrast between social media vapidity and the seriousness of what the girls do. To them, only things that happen online have any actual consequence. This mindset allows them to carry out a series of gruesome (and, from a cinematic perspective, ingeniously designed) murders without blinking an eye. When one attempt to kill a classmate ends up taking some unexpectedly gory turns, one of the girls jokes that the death was akin to something in a Final Destination movie. Moments like that, scattered throughout the picture, help create the idea that these characters lack real-world insight, seeing things only through a lens of pop culture, Twitter, and Instagram.

Hildebrand and Shipp give magnificent performances, capturing the tighter-than-tight bond between Sadie and McKayla, while also perfectly conveying the girls’ warped sense of entitlement. Even as they callously dispatch of other people, we come to care about them. The murderous aspect of Tragedy Girls is exaggerated for comic effect, but the friendship feels very, very real. Both actresses give star-making turns. Craig Robinson (The Office) also does strong work in a small supporting role as a firefighter who wants to lead the charge to find whoever is doing all the town’s bloodletting.

Energetically directed by Tyler MacIntyre, Tragedy Girls is as provocative as it is funny. We live in a world where you can literally make a living just by posting videos to YouTube, and where being in the right place at the right time with a cell phone can result in insta-celebrity. What will this do to the current generation and future ones? Will they live only for the virtual world and sacrifice the real one? Can they accept that their thoughts and ideas still have value, even if the whole world isn’t paying attention to them? Tragedy Girls, in a bit of horror even more disturbing than any of the onscreen murders, suggests that too many young people are already on the wrong path.

If you’re a fan of horror-comedies, do not miss this ambitious, massively entertaining movie.

(*** 1/2 out of four)

For more information on the Fantasia International Film Festival and the titles screening this year, please visit their official website.

Follow me on Twitter: @AisleSeat

 

Christopher Nolan May Be Hollywood’s Weakest Filmmaker

 

Let’s get something out of the way: that headline is utter nonsense. Christopher Nolan is far from being Hollywood’s weakest filmmaker. He’s one of the most interesting and innovative directors working today.

But here’s a question: Why did you decide to read this article? Were you curious to see a well-reasoned, intelligent, and provocative opinion expressed by someone who makes a living assessing movies? Were you open to hearing a different point of view regarding a prominent figure in cinema? If so, congratulations. You are a mature and thoughtful adult. Also, I’m sorry to have misled you.

How about the rest of you? Were you planning to hate-read this? In the two seconds it took to click the link and wait for the page to load, were you revving up and trying to formulate the devastating insults that would shame whatever moron wrote it? If that’s the case, stop it. You are doing it all wrong. You are killing the discussion of film online. Literally killing it.

These days, more and more people are attacking film critics and writers who have unpopular opinions, and it’s happening again with the release of Nolan’s Dunkirk. In addition to Nolan’s work, criticizing DC and Marvel movies or “breaking” a perfect score at Rotten Tomatoes are among the things that can bring on the abuse. I’ve personally been a victim of this. (See Exhibit A.) Some critics have received death threats. (Behold Exhibit B.) Female writers routinely get called vulgar names, and sometimes receive threats of rape and sexual assault, as well. I am not making that up.(Witness Exhibit C.)

Let’s make something unequivocally clear: If your first instinct is to threaten to harm someone — or to encourage them to harm themselves — simply because they have a different opinion of a movie, you are a bad person and should seek professional help immediately. I mean that. You’re sick. There is something wrong with you. What kind of person becomes so unglued over one publicly-expressed opinion of a movie that he or she feels the need to become aggressive to a stranger? That’s not normal.

If you wouldn’t go that far but would hurl insults, you may not necessarily be a bad person, but you’re definitely a bad fan. Any kind of art is meant to be discussed and debated. Dissent, disagreement, and analysis are an essential and vital ingredient. Trying to suppress those things does an immense disservice to the film you supposedly love. You are not a better fan for trying to take down someone who disagrees with you. You are a worse fan, make no mistake. If you truly loved the movie, you’d welcome honest, open exploration of its merits and flaws.

You’re also a bad fan because you offer nothing of substance. Any true fan should be able to defend their beloved movie with grace, offering up thoughtful rebuttals or worthwhile insights. Calling names and issuing threats only reveals that you don’t have the intellectual capacity to add anything of value. You’re the problem, not the writer. They’ve got something; you’ve got nothing.

Conversation about movies needs to become more civil and respectful online. It’s getting to the point where the trolls are taking over. That’s a shame. The internet is a valuable tool for connecting to people all over the world who share your interests. Insularity is not healthy, though. This idea applies to things other than film, of course, but the hostility seems to be particularly rampant on that count. It needs to stop. Your life will not be worse if a writer dislikes a comic book movie or fails to appreciate a Christopher Nolan picture in the way you think they should.

The bottom line is as simple as five words: Grow up or shut up.

Follow Mike McGranaghan on Twitter: @AisleSeat

 

Sequence Break [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson starred together in Beyond the Gates, a massively entertaining old school horror flick centered around nostalgia for VHS board games. They reunite for Sequence Break — the former as writer/director, the latter as leading man. Like their previous collaboration, it also has a heavy nostalgia factor. At the center of this visually arresting chiller is a mysterious arcade game.

Oz (Williamson) repairs old machines at a videogame shop. One evening, he discovers a circuit board that he’s never seen around before. Out of curiosity, he hooks it up to a game cabinet and starts playing. Immediately afterward, Oz starts having bizarre hallucinations. The game keeps luring him back, which gets in the way of his new relationship with fellow arcade enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Therese). Eventually, it becomes clear that the game is evil and must be defeated. The only way to do this is to have a “sequence break,” an act in which the player essentially violates the order of the game.

Sequence Break is like Tron meets David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. As with Disney’s ’80s cult favorite, it’s about a man fighting a videogame. And like the video equipment in Cronenberg’s landmark film, the game Oz plays comes alive, with a sexual element emerging. The joystick becomes fleshy and oozy in his hand as he caresses it. His finger plunges erotically into the button, while orgasmic noises are heard emanating from the machine. The inner workings of the game pulsate as he plays. We sense that it is luring him in both hypnotically and erotically. It’s a delightfully provocative depiction of the addictive nature of videogames.

To spoil anything else that happens would be unfair. What’s important is that Williamson and Therese give solid performances that bring some humanity to the otherworldly events. As director, Skipper employs all manner of visual tricks to create an ambiance of danger. Lighting effects, editing techniques, onscreen gaming graphics, and some creatively rendered shots of things bursting out of the machine and onto (or into) Oz combine to craft a film that’s entertaining for its unpredictable nature. The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.

At 75 minutes, the film could have used a little more story development; the “rules” of how the game works its dark magic and how, specifically, Oz attempts to beat it are never quite clear. Clarifying those things more would have kicked it all up another notch. That aside, Sequence Break is the kind of imaginative, risk-taking horror that’s always thrilling to behold.

For more on the Fantasia International Film Festival and the titles screening this year, visit their official website.

Follow Mike McGranaghan on Twitter: @aisleseat

Replace [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

It’s a cliche to say that a thriller gets under your skin, but that turn of phrase is wholly appropriate when discussing Replace. Norbert Keil’s film (co-written with Hardware‘s Richard Stanley) is about a beautiful young woman named Kira, played by Rebecca Forsythe. She has intermittent episodes of amnesia, as well as an unexplained disorder that causes her skin to rot. Kira visits Dr. Crober (Barbara Crampton), a skin-care specialist who vows to get to the bottom of things.

Unfortunately, Kira’s problem gets worse, not better. It starts at her hands before spreading to her face, back, and chest. She accidentally discovers that placing skin from another body over her affected areas can help them heal. The manner in which she obtains healthy skin and the revelation about what has caused her ailment are truly the stuff of horror.

Replace is a story about the perils of vanity. Kira is so obsessed with her beauty that she starts to take unconscionable steps toward maintaining it. The rotting skin bothers her not because it’s indicative of a health issue, but because she dislikes the way it makes her look. This is a rare horror movie in which the protagonist is also, in many respects, her own villain. Her behavior in the face of this condition, and not the condition itself, is the thing that could ultimately bring about her doom.

Keil uses sleek, atmospheric visuals and some intentionally jumbled flashbacks (i.e. Kira’s vague memories) to create the eerie mood in which the story unfolds. The dreamlike vibe makes Replace just a tad confusing in spots, although if you stick with it, everything makes sense in the end.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it doesn’t travel a predictable route. Scenes of the character peeling off her own skin, or the skin of others, definitely have a strong visceral effect, just as you would expect in horror fare. The second half, however, goes into some surprisingly emotional territory, as Kira’s love for her neighbor Sophia (Lucie Aron) grows, and as she uncovers some startling secrets about her life. Replace definitely provides chills, yet it’s the way the story explores the internal damage Kira suffers from that really makes it resonate.

Rebecca Forsythe is outstanding, as is Barbara Crampton, who continues a recent hot streak of innovative genre films that also includes Abner Pastoll’s Road Games, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here, and Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates. To say much about Dr. Crober here would be a spoiler, so let’s just say that Crampton brings the exact right touch to a character who is, for her own reasons, just as obsessed with beauty as Kira.

Replace is stylish and substantive, making you shudder on a regular basis while also offering an insightful statement about how being too consumed with one’s own appearance can be a big step on the road to hell.

For more information on the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival and the titles screening this year, please visit their official website.

The Honor Farm [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

TheHonorFarm_Still1

The Honor Farm is a coming-of-age tale told in the horror format. Lucy (Olivia Applegate) is excited for prom. She intends to lose her virginity to her boyfriend on this most magical of nights. When he gets sloppy drunk and makes a fool of himself, Lucy and friend Annie (Katie Folger) accept a random invitation from some punk girls to go into the woods, do some mushrooms with their guy friends, then seek out an old prison work farm that is allegedly a popular place to carry out Satanic rituals. The experience ends up changing her life.

Director Karen Skloss amps up the psychedelia with some trippy visuals and editing techniques so that you aren’t entirely sure for a while whether the horrific things Lucy sees at the work farm are real or merely a ‘shroom-induced hallucination.The approach is very effective, especially once the gang stumbles across what appears to be a human sacrifice about to take place.

Applegate gives a nice, nuanced performance as the good girl who impulsively decides to take a one-time walk on the wild side, only to be surprised by what it offers. The Honor Farm has a sharp, satiric suggestion that prom is a ritual not unlike a Satanic rite — pointlessly messy and really just kind of evil. The story’s ending is subtle, but if you pay close attention, you’ll find a message about non-conformity to high school expectations and traditions that would make John Hughes proud.

Running just 75 minutes (including end credits), The Honor Farm could have fleshed out its ideas even more. Still, this is a stylish, well-acted, and unique take on what it means to face that time in your life when you’re right on the cusp of adulthood and frightened by what the transition might entail, but also eager to take that scary leap into the unknown.

For more on the Fantasia International Film Festival and the movies screening this year, please visit their official website.