From My DVD Shelf: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

Remember All the Boys Love Mandy Lane? No? Maybe? Sounds a little familiar? You probably didn’t see it, unless you were one of the lucky few that were able to catch it as it was doing the festival circuit back in 2006 and 2007. Yes, you read that correctly. This flick is 6 years old, and hasn’t seen a real release yet. At least not in the U.S. How the hell does this happen? you may be asking. At the very least, it should have gotten dumped on dvd, a la Trick ‘r Treat, right?  Well, this film has a history. It was picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company, but for some reason, they decided not to release it. It was then sold to Senator Entertainment, which folded prior to the film’s release, leaving it in the middle of nowhere. As much buzz as it generated in the early days, this movie is the victim of rare and strange circumstances that resulted in it literally falling through the cracks and just hanging out in movie limbo.

So how did I come to see it? Well, after waiting and waiting and trying to be patient, I finally got a bug up my ass a couple of weeks ago (that phrase looks really strange in print, by the way), threw a tantrum because “goddamnit, I want to see this movie” and bought the U.K. version instead. If you own or have access to a region free dvd player (sometimes, independent video stores will rent them out), you might want to try to track this one down. It’s worth your time. Probably won’t blow your mind (festival buzz + no release tends to = big hype generator), but it is a quality little flick that plays with some really common horror conventions in a clever way.

But let’s backtrack: Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) is the most desirable girl in school. Beautiful, sweet and a little shy, her entire class is infatuated with her (hence the title). This is all new to her, though. When the film opens, we learn that Mandy had just gotten hot over the summer, and (like the best goddesses) hasn’t really realized it or really knows what to do with it. She is invited to join the popular kids for a weekend at a secluded ranch. The girls are comfortable enough with Mandy joining their circle, and every male on the trip is vying for Mandy’s attention (and panties). The weekend kicks off as one would expect – with lots of boozing. Before long, we learn that Mandy and her new circle of friends are not the only ones at the ranch, as a shadowy figure begins picking them off, one by one.

Yes, it sounds pretty familiar. But trust me – it’s not what you expect. This film works because it takes common slasher tropes and uses them to build tension. You’ve seen this film a hundred times before, but this time, you’re looking through a different lens. And this is where it shines. It plays with commonplace gimmicks that have been done to death in other films, but by choosing to acknowledge and subvert them rather than just play them per usual, this film offers up something entirely different.

One of my favorite examples of this subversion is the characterization. One of the most common failures in horror is shitty character development. Especially in lazy slasher flicks. The writers get so caught up in getting our group of teens out to whatever isolated location so that the killing can commence, that they never bother giving us more than the most basic overview of who these people are. Which not only makes the characters one-dimensional, but it also tends to make them assholes. In Mandy Lane, our group of friends are most definitely assholes, but not because of bad writing. These people were written TO BE ASSHOLES. And not the charming kind, either. This group of friends is totally worthless. But the important part is that they are supposed to be – none of this is accidental.

While the strength of Mandy Lane is in the way it plays with convention, it’s not self-aware. It’s never breaking the fourth wall or winking at the audience to let you know that it’s in on the joke too. There is no joke. It’s simply playing with your expectations to deliver something unexpected. Taking the common and weaving it into something new. Like I said earlier – you’ve seen this movie before. Just not in this light.

It’s really unfortunate that such a cool film didn’t see the release we were hoping for. And not really through anyone’s fault. I’d love to get up on my soapbox and bash the distributors, but in actuality, it really seems like this film might just be the victim of tragic circumstances. It’s too bad. If the opportunity presents itself, you should definitely jump on it (or you could always throw a little bitch-fit like I did). And maybe someday, we’ll all luck out and somebody will swoop in and give it the release and the attention that it deserves.

Review: Fat Kid Rules the World

A couple of weeks ago (yes, I’m slow – I admit it), I was lucky enough to be able to catch Fat Kid Rules the World at the Seattle International Film Festival. Not so much genre-related, but still off the beaten path, and it pulled at my heartstrings (in a good way, not in a lame-ass sappy way), so I wanted to share it. This flick created some buzz at SXSW, and I was psyched to see it on the SIFF program. It is based on a book by KL Going and is the directorial debut of Matthew Lillard. Fat Kid tells the story of Troy (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight, disconnected kid who has been adrift since the death of his mother a couple of years earlier. Lost, alone, a chance encounter with musician/junkie Marcus (Matt O’Leary) changes his life. Charismatic, charming, and running from his own demons, Marcus talks a very hesitant Troy into forming a punk band.

So much of the strength of this movie lies with its cast – they are freaking awesome. Jacob Wysocki is extremely likable as Troy. The character has a great mix of humor and vulnerability, but never comes across as a one-dimensional sad sack. He is so much more than just the Fat Kid in the story. Matt O’Leary is fantastic in his role as Marcus. His charm plays against his drug abuse in such a way that you just want to smack him in the head and yell at him to get his shit together because you like him too much to just write him off. Billy Campbell as Troy’s dad was yet another hugely high point. Strict, ex-military single-father of two teenagers, when he comes onscreen, you are prepared to just hate him. You are supposed to hate strict, ex-military single fathers in the movies. They are always assholes. Not this guy. He is too well-rounded a character to just be your typical not-getting-it-asshole-movie-dad. As the story progresses, you start to see and feel everything this guy is going through. You understand him. You start to like him. By the end, you will want him to be your dad, even if it means you wind up saying “Sir” a lot more then you would like.

This film tackles some serious issues, but doesn’t choose to do so in a typical, melodramatic way. There is a lot of humor woven into the script, but it never downplays the seriousness of what the characters are going through. The great acting talent and the material lead to some really heart-touching, human moments throughout the story, but they are all subtle. Nothing is overdone or spoon-fed to the audience, which really is what gives it so much power.

This film was shot in and around Seattle, so it was really fun to be able to see it with my fellow Seattleites at SIFF. A ton of cast and crew were in the audience, so the vibe in the theater was really fun and excited. During the Q&A, Lillard invited everyone in the audience who had worked on the film to join him onstage, because this was THEIR movie. That stage was pretty damn packed. It was a really cool sentiment. I probably should have taking a picture at that point, but I was just too busy applauding the work they had all done.

I really enjoyed this film, partly because I am a total sucker for stories about outsiders. We’ve all felt lost at one point or another, and films like this really resonate with that. They bring us together. They remind us that we’re not alone. They give us a character like us that we can identify, sympathize and connect with. This film does that twice: through Troy’s story, and the movie’s story. This isn’t a typical Hollywood flick, and it seems Hollywood didn’t know quite what to do with it. It explores some pretty serious issues in a not-so-serious way, so it’s not really an angsty drama, but it’s not exactly a comedy either. Nobody knew how to sell it, so Lillard said “Fuck this, I’ll do it myself” (God bless him).

Fat Kid Rules the World will be traveling with the Vans Warped Tour over the summer – a great pairing. Lillard is very enthusiastic about the idea of young people seeing this flick and letting it speak to them, and this sounds like the perfect setting for it. After that, it is going to be available to demand from Tugg. Lillard is currently raising funds via Kickstarter to fund promotional expenses surrounding the Warped Tour. Let’s face it – you can take a film to as many cities as your heart desires, but if nobody knows about it, you’re not doing yourself much good. Check out the film’s Kickstarter page and tell your friends. This was a film made for You, fellow outsiders. Help give it a little push.

From My DVD Shelf: Absentia

Indie genre film is an interesting beast. Horror and sci-fi offer the freedom of writing whatever your imagination allows, but the limitations of the almighty dollar often restrict these visions when the time comes to make them into a reality. Not having the power of a major studio or distributor behind them, these low-budget films are often quietly released on dvd and might see viewership through Netflix or through word-of-mouth by devoted geeks who take the time to give these unknown quantities a chance. Oftentimes, it doesn’t pan out. For every winner, you have to slog through an additional mound of uninspired, derivative films that it feels nobody gave a shit about making in the first place. But when you do find that one film that blows you away, against all odds, the victory is that much sweeter.

My latest golden find is Absentia. I’ve seen it popping up on Twitter over the past couple of weeks, and picked up the dvd, literally knowing nothing about it going in. I was so happy with what I found – this one is a winner. The story is inventive, creepy, and extremely well-written. While the look isn’t terribly polished, it’s easy to get past that if you give it even half a chance, and there are some really spooky visuals at play.

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Absentia opens on Trish (Courtney Bell)  as she canvasses her Los Angeles neighborhood with Missing Persons posters. The person in question? Her husband, Daniel, who has not been heard from in seven years. She is about the file paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia, and is hoping to finally be able to heal and put the ordeal behind her. She is joined by her sister, Callie (Katie Parker), newly arrived in town and freshly out of rehab, looking to help her sister in any way that she can and leave her own demons behind her. It is only when Callie finds a strange man (Doug Jones) lying in a tunnel near the house that they begin to realize the true nature of Daniel’s disappearance.(Note: if you ever see Doug Jones just lying around, you should probably just run, because there is no way that won’t turn scary eventually)

Absentia carries a haunting tone that combines the grief of loss with the fear of the unknown. The writing is absolutely stellar. So much is going on in this film, and the different aspects are woven together effortlessly. Not only is this a spooky story about people disappearing to god-only-knows-where. It’s also a thorough examination of the grief process. Trish is experiencing many conflicting emotions throughout the film. She is tired of being caught up in grief and mourning and is ready to try to move on with her life, but she feels guilty for giving up the search and abandoning her husband. This guilt manifests in a series of creepy and startling images, where Trish seems to be literally haunted by the memory of Daniel. It’s fantastic – the perfect marriage of sadness and fear. It enriches the story and brings the viewer that much closer to the characters. And that’s all before we really start to piece together the truth of what’s been happening.

This is the kind of indie horror that makes me love this genre, and the kind of film that I am always happy to stumble upon. Clever and well-written, it’s creepy, but doesn’t overreach. It is working within limited constraints, but it makes the most of them, giving you a complex, haunting story that draws you in and captivates you until the final moment.

Review: V/H/S

When I saw the schedule for the Seattle International Film Festival last month, and realized that V/H/S would be playing, I did a happy dance at my desk. Luckily, nobody saw me. But I was excited. I had heard so many good things about this film when it premiered at Sundance and showed at SXSW. I was psyched beyond belief that I would be given the opportunity to see it before its release.

If you haven’t been following it, V/H/S is a found footage horror anthology film. You heard me right. An anthology film (Creepshow-style) made up of multiple found-footage-style segments directed by the likes of Ti West, Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, and Radio Silence. The framing device is that a group of trouble-making assholes is hired to break into this house to steal a rare VHS tape. Amid a mass of VHS tapes in the house, they uncover the various stories featured in this film.

I know that I probably lost half of you when I said “found footage,” but if you’re still reading, stay with me. I promise, it’s worth it. I know that found footage is wearing out its welcome and it seems like every new film that comes out is derivative and tired, but trust me – V/H/S is different. Each of these filmmakers seemed to take the premise as a dare and a challenge to do something different. Working within box of the found footage sub-genre allowed them to find new and interesting ways to stretch that box and come up with something new.

The different segments are not what you typically expect out of the genre, and that’s part of what makes them so captivating (and frightening). I never knew what was coming next because none of these stories is simply re-playing the familiar. They all found ways to push the genre boundaries and limitations in unexpected ways. And each segment had a totally different feel to it, so it never felt like the directors were treading on the same territory. I enjoyed some stories more than others (as is typical of anthology films), but none of them sank (which is freaking awesome), and I enjoyed aspects of every segment on offer.

And it’s creepy. These guys played their horror smart. They didn’t rely on 2 hours of jump scares to get the job done, opting instead to put time and effort into building tension within their stories and create a real sense of unease. There were some truly unsettling moments throughout the film that were built on suspense and dread, rather than cheap scares, and it worked really well.

Ti West was kind enough to come out and do a Q&A after the film, and revealed that the project wasn’t really a collaborative process. Each director went and shot his own segment independently of the others (and at different times) and then the segments were assembled into the finished piece. The interesting thing about this is that, despite this individualized approach, many of the segments shared similar themes and they all play well together in the final cut.

V/H/S has been picked up by Magnet and will be distributed later this year. They will start with a VOD release on August 31st and a limited theatrical run in October. And if you are not one of the lucky cities to get the theatrical release, fear not. While it is always fun to see a film in the theater, this is a film that wouldn’t really lose a whole lot on the small screen. The found footage nature does mean a lot of shaky cam, and sometimes, that is easier to handle when it’s not taking over the entire room. This film is just as at home (perhaps even more so, given the premise) on your tv as it is on the big screen.

I was so psyched to get the chance to see this film, and I was not disappointed. Like I said, some segments were more effective than others, but each one has something creative to showcase. When the opportunity presents itself, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s a really fun ride, and a well thought-out addition to found footage. These guys put a lot of effort into doing something new with a genre that is past its prime, and it really pays off.