The Bizarre And Cruel Joke Inside “Tag”

Warning: This piece features major spoilers about the movie Tag

I don’t think my jaw literally hit the floor when I screened Tag, but it may as well have. This is an intentionally silly comedy, so when a particular subject is used as a comic plot point, it comes out of left field. A percentage of viewers will be left flabbergasted by what the picture thinks is funny.

Let’s back up. The movie is about five friends — played by Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, and Jeremy Renner — who have been playing the same game of Tag since they were kids. Renner’s character, Jerry, has never been tagged. The other guys are determined to get him this year. He’s even more determined to avoid it.

In the film’s third act, it appears that Jerry is finally going to be “It.” His pals ambush him at an AA meeting. He barricades himself in the kitchen of the church where the meeting is being held. That leads to a standoff, with the others waiting for him to emerge, which he must if he’s going to get to his wedding on time.

Then Jerry’s pregnant fiancee, Susan (Leslie Bibb), shows up. Discovering that this tomfoolery is potentially going to delay the wedding, she starts screaming at everyone. Then Susan doubles over in pain, saying that it feels as though something is wrong with the baby. The guys call a truce, and Jerry emerges, rushing his bride-to-be off to the hospital. We are soon told that she has suffered a miscarriage.

Here’s where it gets kind of sick. It turns out that Susan did not have a miscarriage, and was never pregnant to begin with. The whole thing was a ruse to prevent Jerry from being tagged if he got backed against a wall.

There were a million ways the screenwriters of Tag could have gotten Jerry out of that situation and revealed the twist that Susan was trying to help him win. Why did they choose to mine laughs from the subject of miscarriage? Imagine being part of a couple, especially a woman, who has gone through such a thing. You sit there watching what you think is a lightweight comedy, when suddenly it’s bringing up something painful and tragic that you have endured — and milking it for laughs, no less

Anyone who has experienced a miscarriage knows that it’s no laughing matter. There is a lot of hope that accompanies pregnancy — believing that your dream of becoming a parent is going to come true, waiting with anticipation to meet the child you will love and nurture, and so on. When something happens to end that pregnancy, it’s nothing short of devastating. Your dream comes crashing down. My wife and I went through it in 2007. I won’t go into the specifics, but we literally spent the next three days sitting on the couch, holding each other, and numbly staring at the walls.

This is not a matter of political correctness, or trigger warnings, or over-sensitivity. I have long been an advocate for edgy humor, and I believe almost any subject can be played for comedy, depending on how it is used. Tag misuses miscarriage. To pull it off, the film would have needed to make Susan the real joke, suggesting her to be such a terrible human being that faking a miscarriage is how low she would stoop. Instead, the joke is that she and Jerry use a miscarriage to avoid having him get tagged in a dumb game.

One can only conclude that the laziest of screenwriting is responsible. Tag seems to think the joke is clever. In reality, it’s a cruel, totally unnecessary sucker punch for anyone who has known a loss of this sort.

How “Nothing But Trouble” Predicted Trump’s America

Nothing But Trouble is a 1991 comedy written and directed by Dan Aykroyd and starring Chevy Chase. It was not a box office hit, earning a paltry $8.4 million. Critics raked it over the coals; the movie has a 5% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. (As you may have already guessed, the sole outlier is yours truly.) Although it’s developed a minor cult following over the years, NBT is still largely considered a bad movie that came and went without much impact.

There’s just one thing, though: Nothing But Trouble perfectly predicted life in America under President Donald Trump.

In case you’ve never seen it or need a refresher, this is the story of Chris Thorne (Chase), a wealthy Manhattan financial publisher who takes a short road trip to Atlantic City with his lawyer crush, Diane Lightson (Demi Moore), and his Brazilian clients, Fausto and Renalda Squiriniszu (Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas). They pass through a rundown Pennsylvania burg called Valkenvania. When Chris fails to come to a complete stop at an intersection, he is arrested and taken before the local judge, 106-year-old Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd), who issues him the death penalty. Chris then tries to escape the judge’s booby-trapped mansion in order to avoid execution.

Although that may sound goofy on the surface, the parallels are staggering. Valkenheiser is like Trump himself — a man drunk on his own power who yearns to be feared by anyone who crosses him. He has an oft-cited hatred for “bankers,” believing them all to be corrupt. Trump, you doubtlessly know, feels the same way about professional journalists. The judge repeatedly denigrates Chris as a banker, despite protestations that he’s actually in publishing. Trump denigrates anyone he dislikes, coming up with childish nicknames (“Cryin’ Chuck Schumer“) or labels (“slimeball“). They both share a disregard for the actual rule of law, believing it should bend to their will.

That brings us to Dennis, the local cop who initially pulls Chris over. Portrayed by the late, great John Candy, his job is to round people up for even the most minor of infractions, so that a punishment unbefitting to the offense can be carried out. It is because of Dennis that Chris faces execution for blowing through a stop sign. One can’t help but see parallels to ICE, which, under Trump’s authority, increasingly arrests people who really haven’t done anything wrong or who have been model citizens. In front of his bench, Valkenheiser has a conveyor belt. With the push of a button, anyone he wants out of Valkenvania can be “deported.”

Those unlucky enough to find themselves on that belt will end up going through “Mr. Bonestripper,” a roller coaster that deposits its riders into a contraption that, as the name suggests, thoroughly strips the flesh from their bones. That’s because Valkenvania is a place that has become hostile to outsiders. People like Chris and his friends are viewed as being lesser because they don’t come from the ramshackle town. The local motto could practically be Valkenvania First! At the same time, Mr. Bonestripper also brings to mind the many, many regulations Trump has “bonestripped” away, like those pertaining to climate change and campus sexual assault.

Key supporting characters additionally take on eerie familiarity. Out in the scrapyard next to the mansion are Bobo and Lil Debbul, Valkenheiser’s deformed grandchildren. They are pathetically inept nincompoops — barely literate, diaper-wearing imbeciles who, lacking the intelligence to make it on their own, blindly do the judge’s bidding and leech off his faded fortune.

In other words, they’re Don Jr. and Eric.

Okay, that was obviously a very mean joke, and I’m so sorry I made it. However, Bobo and Lil Dubbul do call to mind some of Trump’s appointees, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has never taught in a public school. Or Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who mistakenly thought the gig entailed representing the gas and oil industry around the world. (It actually involves dealing with policy related to energy and nuclear material.) Or some of Trump’s district court judge candidates, like the guy who never tried a case and couldn’t answer even the most basic of legal questions. All of them, like Bobo and Lil Debbul, are absurdly incompetent, which puts them in a position of potentially doing more harm than good.

Valkenheiser has a granddaughter, Eldona (also played by Candy), on whom he dotes. He talks about how beautiful and special she is, much as Trump has creepily praised his own daughter, Ivanka. In a major plot point, Valkenheiser insists that Chris marry Eldona. The judge forces her on him, just as Ivanka — a former handbag designer who has not been elected to public office — has been forced upon the world, whether it’s taking her father’s seat at the important G-20 summit, representing the administration by going to South Korea for the Olympics, or being trotted out to make goo-goo eyes at world leaders.

Nothing But Trouble ends with Chris and Diane barely escaping Valkenvania after an underground coal fire causes its destruction, helping them to get away. As he sits at home believing he is finally safe, Chris watches a TV news report about the town. The reporter pulls in an interview subject. It’s Valkenheiser. He holds up Chris’s drivers licence, which he previously confiscated. “See you soon, banker!” he exclaims. From this, we realize that the judge is a man obsessed with revenge, much like the current White House occupant.

Dan Aykroyd probably thought he was making a silly dark comedy about a weird backwater town and the elite New Yorkers who end up there. Nothing But Trouble is much more than that, though. It’s virtually a look into a crystal ball. Somehow, twenty-seven years ago, Aykroyd instinctively knew what Trump’s America would look like.

Nothing but trouble, indeed.

The Proud Mary Situation

Something unusual happened this weekend, and I’d like to tell you about it. Everything started with this tweet, which I sent out at 12:22 PM on Friday, January 12.

For several days, I’d been tweeting about the situation with Proud MarySony’s Screen Gems division was working overtime to prevent critics from seeing the movie. There were no advance press screenings. Journalists attending the junket weren’t even allowed to see it — a highly unusual move. The now traditional “early showings” on Thursday night were cancelled, with theaters being told they were not permitted to show the film until Friday. There was also rampant speculation that Screen Gems was intentionally not marketing Proud Mary in an attempt to bury it. Here’s just one article positing that notion.

Of course, I had every intention of reviewing the movie. It’s my job. After getting to my local multiplex for the first public show on opening day, I was surprised to discover that I was the only person in a massive theater designed to accommodate 275 people. From my seat, I made a couple more tweets about the whole mystery surrounding the release, then posted that picture with the tongue-in-cheek caption just as the show was starting. It was, as I assumed any of my followers would recognize, a suggestion that perhaps there really was something to the theory that Sony’s lack of marketing would hurt the film. It’s what my string of tweets was building to.

Well, for whatever reason, that picture went viral, meaning that a lot of people who don’t follow me and are unfamiliar with my work (or my sense of humor) saw it. At first, the reaction was as intended. People responded or retweeted with frustration that Sony didn’t seem to be giving Proud Mary much of a push.

As the day wore on, the responses became more troubling. A number of people accused me of posting the picture in a direct attempt to “embarrass” the movie’s star, Taraji P. Henson.

This was distressing. I’m a huge fan of Henson’s and have been ever since I first saw her breakout performance in Hustle & Flow. Given that Sony clearly didn’t want critics to see Proud Mary, it would have been very easy for me to skip it altogether. I wanted to cover it specifically because I am a fan of hers. I was pulling for the movie to be good. Trying to embarrass an actor I like — or any actor, for that matter — simply isn’t a move that I have in my playbook. One girl tagged Henson on my tweet, apparently hoping the actress would see what I’d posted. I told her such an act was tasteless and cruel, and asked her to delete it. She refused.

By Saturday night, the RTs and mentions were still flowing rapidly. They started to take on a much different tone. There was outright hostility toward me:

Then came multiple accusations of flat-out racism.

Among other things, I was accused by a number of responders of “white privilege” and “disrespecting black women.” The gist of these responses was twofold. First, for reasons I completely and totally understand, a major studio action movie with a black female lead is a very big deal to a lot of African-American moviegoers. There are not many of those at all, and some people thought I was being critical that one finally exists. (For the record, I think it’s awesome that one exists, even though I think Proud Mary itself is deeply flawed from a filmmaking perspective.) Second, because it was admittedly a picture of a white guy alone in a theater, a number of people interpreted that to mean I was mocking the intrinsic value of an action movie starring a black woman, as though making one was a commercially foolish idea. (Again, for the record, it was not even remotely my intention to do that.)

There are really only two ways I could respond to the backlash I received. One would be to get defensive about it, the other would be to listen. I’m choosing the second path — or at least trying to. So if my goal is not to be defensive, why am I writing this post? I’m writing it because this was eye-opening, and I think anyone who writes about film — whether for an official publication or simply their own Twitter feed — can learn something here. I sure did.

All of us are capable of thinking inside a bubble. We do it all the time without realizing it. From my perspective, I approached Proud Mary as a probable dud the studio was hoping to keep the lid on. I see at least a dozen of those every year. Put another way, it was an assignment, one of at least 150 movies I’ll review this year, albeit one with somewhat mysterious circumstances surrounding its release. Through Twitter, I came to realize that, for many others, it’s far more than that. It is groundbreaking in a culturally significant way, offering representation that Hollywood shamefully offers far too infrequently. Big difference there. My way allowed for a pithy remark. The other way makes pithiness insensitive.

I have tweeted pictures of myself in empty theaters before. Proud Mary perhaps was not the correct film to do this with. At the very least, I wish I’d captioned it differently. “Could Sony’s lack of marketing be doing the trick? There sadly is no one else here for the opening day show of Proud Mary” might have been more effective. Or “I hope other theaters are fuller than mine, because — good or bad — we don’t see movies like Proud Mary come along very often.” Both of those sentiments are more reflective of my views than the remark I wrote.

Although it wasn’t my intention to embarrass Taraji Henson or mock a big studio movie that cast a black actress in a lead action role, I now fully understand that it might have looked that way removed from the context of its surrounding tweets. All of us who write professionally about film should try to be cognizant of how we frame the individual titles we’re covering. Whether we love them or hate them, there may be more depth to the public perception of them than we automatically realize. And if our goal is to serve the ticketbuyers, we need to keep that in mind. I failed to foresee what Proud Mary might mean to many moviegoers, and I regret that. My goal is to provide useful commentary and analysis to anyone who sees something I’ve written, be it a full review or a mere social media post.

So my sincere thanks go out to everyone who responded — even the person who said my ass smells like hotdog water (whatever that means). I hear you all loud and clear. I’d like to end with an addendum to my controversial tweet:

Love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, how great is it that a mega-talented actress like Taraji P. Henson is getting cast as the lead in a major studio action movie? Pretty great, I think. Here’s hoping pictures like this become more common. 


20 Lessons I Learned From Movies in 2017

Movies are educational — sometimes on purpose, other times accidentally. Not a year goes by that I don’t learn at least a few things from the movies I see and review. 2017 was no different. Below are twenty of the most valuable bits of knowledge I gleaned during the past twelve cinematic months.

  • You can’t get no infection in your booty hole. (Girls Trip)
  • “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is a really deep song. (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
  • A tapeworm can be removed from someone’s body by dangling a piece of meat in front of their face. (Snatched)
  • John Denver is dope. (Free FireLogan Lucky, Kingsman: The Golden Circle)
  • You can spend ten full minutes showing your lead actress eating an entire pie, and it can be riveting. (A Ghost Story)
  • Morgan Freeman is a great actor, but even his considerable talents can’t save a bad movie from itself. (Going in Style, Just Getting Started)
  • “Bagdikian” is a real last name. (The Post)
  • Evil clowns know how to possess slide projectors. (It)
  • Never sit on a sink that hasn’t been braced. (mother!)
  • CGI can create worlds and beings that don’t exist, yet somehow can’t convincingly remove an actor’s mustache. (Justice League)
  • If you shrink a person to five inches, you have to shave their eyebrows off first, because apparently eyebrows don’t shrink. (Downsizing)
  • Adult diapers and Red Bull are the keys to a successful long-distance road trip. (Rough Night)
  • GPS systems are like the “black box” on an airplane. A car can be utterly destroyed, but the GPS will remain in pristine condition and work perfectly. (Kidnap)
  • Nitrogen narcosis will lead to hallucinations, especially pertaining to sharks. (47 Meters Down)
  • An artificial hand can totally get sucked into a pneumatic tube, and gummy bears can be used to create an improvised explosive device. (Logan Lucky)
  • Theo James saying the F-word in slow motion is inexplicably hilarious. (Underworld: Blood Wars)
  • Kenny G will apparently come and perform at your house, for a price. (A Bad Moms Christmas)
  • Eighty minutes of deleted scenes can sometimes be funnier and more entertaining than the actual 88-minute movie. (The House)
  • You can survive a massive explosion happening inches away, so long as you’re inside a fancy car. (The Fate of the Furious)
  • Peaches are for more than just eating. (Call Me by Your Name)

A Non-Review of “I Love You, Daddy”

I was supposed to review I Love You, Daddy. I screened the film on Tuesday of this past week. On Thursday, the New York Times published a bombshell piece, detailing allegations against the movie’s writer/director/star, comedian Louis CK. Five women accused him of sexual misconduct, including trapping them in rooms and forcing them to watch him masturbate. In the wake of this report, The Orchard announced that they will no longer be moving ahead with plans to release the movie on November 17.

I Love You, Daddy is about Glen Topher, a successful television writer who can’t bring himself to impose boundaries on his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloe Grace Moretz). She manipulates him into letting her do whatever she wants, including skipping school to have a second spring break in Florida, right after returning from the first. Glen’s resolve is challenged when China becomes enraptured with Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), an aging Woody Allen-esque filmmaker long rumored to have a thing for underage girls. The story’s central question is: When faced with his daughter potentially sleeping with a sexual predator, will Glen finally start enforce some rules?

Rumors about CK’s behavior have been around for years. I was aware of them when I screened the film. That’s what made it so shocking. Removed from the comedian’s actions and viewed solely as a piece of art, there is much to enjoy about it. The performances, especially Moretz’s, are quite good. There are some genuinely funny scenes. The film is artfully made, shot in luscious black-and-white, and scored with old-fashioned continually-swelling orchestral music that serves to comment ironically on the edgy things taking place onscreen.

That said, it’s really hard to view I Love You, Daddy that way. Anyone familiar with the accusations will instantly recognize that this is Louis CK flaunting his own demons. His comedy career has always been about pushing boundaries and making audiences uncomfortable by baring his darkest, most unhinged thoughts. This time, he does that in the form of a two-hour movie.

The first time we see Moretz, she is wearing a bikini that would make a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model feel needlessly exposed. She remains in that state for close to ten minutes. It’s a way of sexualizing China from the get-go. (Moretz, it should be noted, is twenty.) You don’t think of it right away because Leslie hasn’t been introduced yet, but that choice implies that he’s justified in lusting after her. We immediately see her as a sulty figure.

Once they meet, Leslie openly admits he likes young girls, but he speaks of his predilection with such eloquence that China starts to think it’s perhaps not such a big deal. We aren’t sure whether he will successfully seduce her with his words and intelligence, or whether she’s savvy enough to see through the charade.

Roger Ebert used to have a saying: It’s not what a film is about. It’s how it is about it. In other words, you can’t criticize a movie for its subject matter, only for the way it handles that subject matter. On the surface, the Leslie/China relationship is worthy of exploring. These things happen. Glen’s anxiety over his own inability to be an effective parent is equally worthy.

The troublesome aspect of I Love You, Daddy is that, in the end, CK’s message seems to be that people should be allowed to do their thing without anyone making too big an issue of it. He tries to soft-pedal that with a resolution that avoids all the ickiest possibilities inherent in the theme. At the same time, the audience is notably robbed of seeing Leslie face any consequences. He gets off scott-free and we’re supposed to believe China is okay at the end. I don’t buy it.

It should be pointed out that Louis CK has not been accused of anything inappropriate involving a child. His victims were all grown women. Nonetheless, it’s fairly apparent that the film is (intentionally or subconsciously) about the sort of behaviors that led to the accusations. Leslie is a variation of him, China is the women he has attempted to dominate with his career power and influence, and Glen represents the part of him that can’t quite seem to stop behavior he knows is sketchy.

In a more overt nod to himself, there is a scene where Glen’s comedian pal Ralph (played by Charlie Day) pantomimes masturbation while Glen is on the phone with an attractive actress (Rose Byrne) and a female colleague (Edie Falco) looks on. CK has been accused of masturbating for real while on a phone call with a woman. By generally letting Leslie and Ralph off the hook, he is letting himself off the hook. too.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about I Love You, Daddy. As much as I hate to admit it, there is a perverse fascination in watching an artist so publicly address his own bad behavior. And, again, from a filmmaking point of view, it is well-made and effectively acted. On the other hand, I find CK’s actions morally reprehensible, and his movie’s suggestion that sexual perversions just need the freedom to play themselves out is appalling to me. It shows no concern for victims of such perversions, just as he showed no concern for the women he put in such an untenable situation.

Were there no sordid behavior on Louis CK’s part, it’s possible that I might have recommended the film as a risk-taking look at an overly-permissive father struggling to put his foot down when his teenage daughter becomes wrapped up in something so troubling that he can’t ignore it. Then again, I Love You, Daddy probably wouldn’t exist without its maker’s sordid behavior. Separating the art from the artist is impossible this time.

That makes the movie worthy of being shelved.

The Night Watchmen [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

The Night Watchmen could end up being the next horror/comedy cult favorite. There are admittedly some storytelling flaws, but the movie — which is kind of like a far more violent version of Killer Klowns from Outer Space — effectively mixes good old-fashioned carnage with a cheerfully kooky sense of humor. If you don’t care too much about plotting and only want to see some glorious cinematic lunacy, Mitchell Altieri’s film delivers the goods, and then some.

Baltimore’s favorite clown, Blimpo, has mysteriously died while touring Romania. When his body is shipped back to Charm City, it’s accidentally delivered to the offices of the city newspaper. The night watchmen, including new guy “Rajeeve” (Max Gray Wilbur), agree to keep an eye on the casket until the next morning. But Blimpo rises from the dead and starts snacking on the building’s employees, turning them into bloodthirsty vampires. The watchmen are primarily concerned with making sure the office hottie, Karen (Kara Ruiz), stays alive.

To give you an idea of how utterly crazy The Night Watchmen is, here’s one small example. The guys are trying to figure out how to slay their attackers. One of them shoots a vampire, who is tied to a chair, in the head. Blood starts spurting everywhere, so he sticks his finger into the bullet hole, where it promptly becomes stuck. And the victim still isn’t dead. The film repeatedly mixes gore with off-kilter comedy, making you squirm and giggle simultaneously. The longer it goes on, the more over-the-top things become.

There isn’t any depth here, which is the primary drawback. The Night Watchmen could have introduced the characters better and developed them more. For instance, playing up the idea that Rajeeve’s first day at his new job ends up being so perilous would have given the central joke even more punch. There really needed to be some kind of arc for the humans here, rather than simply having them try to survive.

Then again, if you’re going to see a movie about a vampire clown, the most important thing is that the picture provides a healthy dose of violent mayhem. On that count, The Night Watchmen delivers. It’s relentless in devising insane, tongue-in-cheek, bloody entertainment. In fact, this is a perfect film to watch with a group of friends who all share an affinity for such things. You’ll have a blast.

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

Follow me on Twitter: @AisleSeat

Drib [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

Amir Asgharnejad is a performance artist who released a series of videos several years ago in which he provoked strangers to the point of violence. They became a viral sensation, leading an energy drink company to approach him with a novel marketing campaign that was, like “Springtime for Hitler” in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, specifically designed to fail, thereby generating a ton of publicity. He neglected to tell the company that the videos were all staged, especially since they intended to pay him. Things went disastrously wrong. Asgharnejad’s friend, filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, wanted to make a movie about these events. The prankster agreed, on the condition that he play himself. The result of all this is Drib, a picture that’s half-documentary, half-dramatization.

That set-up is really fascinating. Unfortunately, once you get past it, everything goes downhill quickly.

Drib, named for the fictitious company in the storyis an example of the current trend of “anti-comedy” in which laughter is mined through the presentation of absurd things in a manner that intentionally isn’t funny. (Some people get this approach, others do not. I acknowledge mostly being in the latter category.) There are plenty of opportunities for jokes — the way an obnoxious advertising executive (Brett Gerlman) attempts to put the unconventional Amir into a conventional box, the myriad poor ideas that cause the campaign to fall apart, etc. Rather than assembling these things into a humorous cautionary tale about the perils of trying to force something to go viral, Drib plays out as a series of long conversational scenes. Characters talk and talk and talk, oftentimes saying things that are either of little direct connection to the ostensible plot or belabor their point needlessly. That completely robs it of comedic momentum.

Of course, the question of whether any of this is true looms over the entire film. That’s another element Drib could have explored in a much more intriguing fashion. Asgharnejad is an avowed prankster. What if none of this really happened? Did Borgli have any doubts about the tale’s veracity, and if so, why not openly grill his subject about them during the documentary moments?

Drib is certainly an outside-the-box movie, which means it deserves at least a bit of respect. One can’t shake the feeling, though, that it could have been a really stinging satire about the manipulative nature of modern advertising, rather than just a rambling, unfocused missed opportunity.

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

Follow me on Twitter: @AisleSeat

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