Film Review: The Commune is Well Worth A Visit

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With recent shows like Waco, Cults and Extreme Belief, and Wild Wild Country captivating viewers, an especially timely viewing of the summertime-set satiric thriller The Commune: A New CULT Classic may be just the ticket for horror fans.

Written and directed by the gifted Elisabeth Fies in her feature debut, there’s a lot to like about this intriguing film.  I enjoyed the satire, humor, and characters, in particular.
Actress Chauntal Lewis ably carries the film as the memorable and empathetic lead Jenny Cross.
Jenny is sent to the well-realized, isolated woodland retreat locale of the title, where her estranged father (Stuart G. Bennett) presides as the leader of a cult-like group of colorful/creepy New Age-y, hippie types whose free ideals prove to be imprisoning, rather than liberating.
Laughs give way to darker moments, with narrative twists and shades of menace culminating in the disturbing, final 15 to 20 minutes.  The film is further aided with a sleek look, high production value, striking locations, and a solid score and songs.

Many effective character moments throughout the script, coupled with the perceptive performances, help ground the piece in reality.  An intimate scene involving Jenny and romantic interest Puck (David Lago) felt especially honest and non-exploitative.  Their transition from idealized puppy love into awkward distance was well handled.  Fies also delivers nice work in her supporting performance as Jenny’s mother Cassie, with the different dimensions of the parent being revealed.
Refreshing applies both to the film and the collaborators behind it: Elisabeth Fies wearing multiple hats, sister Brenda Fies executive producing, and Lewis’s strong central performance and character.  Female creative energy is readily on display here, aided by additional contributions from many women crew members (such as producer/actress Heidi Hornbacher) in key production roles.

A rewarding, unsettling getaway, I’m glad I was fortunate to watch and pay a visit to The Commune.

The Commune is available on Netflix DVD and for purchase on Amazon.

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STAR (Space Traveling Alien Reject) Review

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You might think this was simply a nostalgic throwback to 80’s extraterrestrial fare like ET, ALF, and MAC and Me.  And while it’s infused with some of that fondness, this is not a kid’s flick though. Bloodshed, both campy and tragic push it into R-territory.   While throwing out a few choice words, this isn’t a rowdy alien, nor is it in line with crass plush Ted.  This far-out fugitive is one who is good hearted, sympathetic, and still fun.  Directed and co-written by Adam R. Steigert, the film brings together talent from his previous efforts A Grim Becoming and Not Human (Ombis: Alien Invasion).

Aryn Fitzgerald, who was quite good in A Grim Becoming, shows further growth as an actress here.  In a leading role as teen Marissa, hers is a great, grounded performance amid the fantastic goings-on.

Richard Satterwhite gives a memorable turn as the heroic Devon Danger and “real life” counterpart Alex Creed, the character largely modelled after Fred Williamson.  He projects an easygoing charm, has a really strong rapport with his fangirl Marissa, and captures the presence of a badass 70’s action lead in the clips of his films (fun recreations themselves).  He’s very likable onscreen and I feel his take on the dual characters likely brought more heart to the role than another actor would have.  Definitely a standout.

Chris Barbis plays the alcoholic writer Greg Vincent who is menaced by the mob and has an unusually hands-on local library as a site for his book signing.  Putting the author up in a nearby cabin, the lodgings place him in the path of an unexpected muse–STAR.   Vincent and Creed are aided by recent Troma fave Nicola Fiore, who delivers nicely understated support.

Melissa Jayde, also of A Grim Becoming, plays Angela Branco, the feisty, conniving bombshell Mafiosa pursuing Vincent.  It’s a welcome change of pace to feature a crime boss villainess.  Guy Balotine makes the most out of a smaller role as Ryan The Terrible, the most convincing and menacing of the gang.  I would have liked to have seen more of him.

It was a very wise choice to make STAR a practical character, rather than CGI.  There is more life here in this character than with many big budget computer generated creatures.  This is courtesy of an effective design and the flick’s Frank Oz–Patrick Mallette, who gives an engaging vocal performance and contributes solid puppeteering work.  And importantly for an alien creature, the character is endearing, rather than grating.

There’s a remarkably staged car crash sequence (done in flashes) which has the most gravity of the piece.  The other vehicle scenes of alien spacecraft I enjoyed as well.

This is an ambitious flick.  One that maximizes its scope and production value on a micro budget.  Different genres, eras, and filmmaking styles are explored and delighted in by the cast and crew.  With its comedic fantasy sequences, there are shades reminiscent of my beloved A Christmas Story.  Enthusiastic and game performances add to these daydreams, especially by Satterwhite and Fitzgerald.

We ultimately have what could have been three separate films in their own right–a girl and her hero tale, a writer battling personal demons and criminals, and a fish-out-of-water alien story.  Like our solar system, in STAR, a variety of disparate storyline planets are orbiting and inhabiting interstellar cinema space.  While each one might have been worthy of its own visit, there is much to like and encounter here.

–Cory Graham @2017

PICKUP Review

 

 

 

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Pickup, a new dramatic short (directed by Jeremiah Kipp and written by Jessica Blank)  is dark, but also sheds light on lives in contemporary society.  Running a brisk 15 minutes,  this is a mature work exploring adult relationships and the impact of technology (texting, dating/hookup sites, attachment to devices) upon them.  Pickup is not uplifting, but is engaging and insightful throughout.  Its characters are human, flawed, and aching for more out of life.

At its center, it showcases Mandy Evans (who also produced) who compellingly plays Megan, a deeply unsatisfied young wife and mother.  This is a role and standout performance that should reap further opportunities for her.

The opening scene features commentary on the fleeting nature of fulfillment with Megan already planning the next Tinder encounter in the bed of her momentary partner, post-tryst.  The searching later continues alongside her husband in their marital bed.  Although ultimately unfulfilling, the quest for connection proves to have an addictive, alcoholic-like quality.

An especially telling scene has mother and son Liam sitting next to each other on the couch, each engrossed in phone or tablet.  The greatest human connection in the piece comes when the two take a break to share a playful, genuine moment apart from the devices.

Pickup is skillful at juxtaposing the erotic and the mundane: shopping at Target, picking up a child from school, discussing the events of the day with her business minded husband Ben (an effective Jim True-Frost).  Atmospheric in its depiction of everyday settings, the look and feel of the film at times reminded me in a great way of Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo.  It could also be seen as a grounded and resonant counterpart to Showtime’s The Affair.  The material here is rich enough for expansion to feature length, but works well as a self-contained short.

The title can serve as a romantic liaison, as well as taking home a waiting son.  The duality and tension of desire/escape vs.responsibility/duty is central throughout.  Being seen as a less dependable parent (arriving late to Pre-K school one afternoon) is ultimately a greater blow than the potential revelation of infidelity.

I’ve long been a fan of Jeremiah Kipp.  This piece is more reminiscent of Soderbergh or Mike Nichols, than some of his more David Cronenberg-esque work.  It represents a wonderful accomplishment for all involved and features a fine score and cinematography. This short is quite masterful in its execution and writing.  It manages to be both raw and polished.  Pickup is a journey well worth taking.

@ Cory Graham–2016

Seiren Showcases Emerging Creature and Emerging Talent

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Seiren–an ambitious, stylish short, written and directed by Kat Threlkeld, moves at a brisk pace and feels a bit like a new, very welcome installment of Tales from the Crypt.

The striking Sayla Vee de Goede plays Abigail, a model bitten while on a shore-side photo shoot with a laidback, flirtatious photographer (Arnaldo Lavres).  Initially dismissive, the effects of the mysterious bite soon become too profound to ignore.  Far from solely sinister, there are a number of light touches and moments of humor in the symptoms of the new transition, especially in Abigail’s consuming habits, as evidenced in a memorable restaurant scene with her concerned friend (Mallory Palmer) who may be in over her head.

Capably handling the performance demands of the increasingly horrifying change, de Goede delivers strong work.  Really well executed, very solid creature effects add to her character: the bite wound, nails, teeth, and gill FX are all remarkably well done for a short.  Overall, the best makeup FX in recent memory from a micro-budget short, courtesy of Lisa Wilde, Heather Funk, and beauty makeup from Heather Hollett French.  Seiren also features very effective sound design, especially in the latter half.

Seiren signals Threlkeld as one to watch–a promising, rising director and writer.  Her photography background lends itself to the composition of some great visuals courtesy of cinematographer Rodney V. Smith and work by Angel Navarro III–including artful underwater photography.  A high level of craft and artistry is on display throughout, both on a creative and technical level.  Definitely worthy of further attention and festival play.

Cory Graham @ 2015

The Bait: Prologue ( a short story by Cory Graham)

I’ve always had a knack for getting out of impossible situations.  Some might dismissively attribute it to my looks. My expressive eyes, long hair, pale skin, and curvy, yet fit figure have even afforded me a few alternative modeling opportunities.  But my looks–that’s just a distraction. I’m clever. Savvy. Observant. Skilled.  After all, this isn’t getting out of a parking or speeding ticket.  This is about outwitting and overpowering and ultimately bringing down a serial killer.  Multiple killers and sociopaths. Each one unique and different and every time, I’m in for the fight of my life–literally.  This time I’m locked in my own trunk, headed to a killer’s lair.  I’m in my mid twenties and by all rights should be enjoying a drink out or a glass of wine and Netflix at home.  But instead, on a Friday night, I’ve dedicated my life to this–taking down and taking out some of the craftiest bastards on the planet.  A slayer of those who slay.

I’ve been patrolling local parking decks and garages late at night for days now, almost a week.  Hoping to find him. On of the last of my locations for the night, I pulled up to the ticket booth at the exit, defeated.  Assuming that maybe he had moved on to new hunting grounds elsewhere.  The older gentleman attendant with the bushy mustache was no longer there and a younger guy was in his place.  I rolled down the window, handed him my ticket.  He studied it for a moment.  Then pointed to the rear of my car. “Maam, you’ve got a tail light out. Might want to take a look at that. ” I smiled politely. “Thanks, but I’m good. I’ll have it checked out first thing on the way to work.” He leveled his gun at me. “Step. Out. Of the vehicle. Pleassse. ” A wide grin swept across his face, revealing unusually straight teeth, with sharp, pointed incisors.  My gaze was immediately drawn to them.  “Admiring my teeth, are you?” he inquired smugly.  “What are you, a fucking vampire?” I asked, with a mix of mock fear and genuine adrenaline coursing through my veins.  His grin faded to a knowing, thin smile.  “No, not all, but I will tear your throat out all the same, in due time.  My own little Lucy.  Only you won’t live as one of the undead.  I promise though, I’ll try to keep you alive as long as I can, keep you from bleeding out. That way I get to savor every second.  Now open the trunk and get in.” He exited the booth, the ajar door revealing a flash of the slumped bloody body of the old man with the bushy mustache.  He pressed the gun to my temple. I complied.

And we were off, with him in the driver’s seat and me in my own trunk.  For how long, I don’t know.  Seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours when you’re a captive.  Rather than trying to gauge time, I’ve trained myself to take in every sensory detail I can–whether I’m blindfolded, hooded, or in a trunk.  Changes in light that might indicate a wooded area or tunnel.  The sounds of the roadway or off-road terrain.  Gravel, smooth asphalt, or the intermittent bumpy clack-clack of a highway.  Fortunately, I had chosen my car as one which has a partial fold down backseat–“Great for ski equipment!” as the salesman touted.  It might afford me an early way out of this ambush…

Cory Graham–2015

The Minions Review

The Minions (Short Film) Mini-Review

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In The Minions, an ambiguously mysterious and tantalizing 11 minute short from director Jeremiah Kipp, an encounter along the urban “Witches’ Path” leads William (Lukas Hassel) to an inebriated young woman (Robin Rose Singer) and her friend (Cristina Doikos) struggling to keep her upright and get her home.  His assistance of the lovely, intoxicated, and intoxicating Katrina (Singer) comes to darker ends upon arriving at the apartment.

Many of the signature Kipp elements are here: stylish visuals, rich atmosphere, a sense of unease created in the midst of sinisterly, yet beautifully composed shots; an evocative score, strong use of setting and locations, committed and fearless work from the cast members.

More about the experience than narrative, this is a visceral piece, intriguing.  Much like the work of director Terrence Malick, the journey of the viewer through the lushly sensory piece is central.

New York casting directors would be wise to utilize Lukas Hassel, who makes a very effective and nuanced leading man.  A compelling, eerily seductive off-screen voice over from Lauren Fox (as Abigail) delivered to the reflective lead is very effective.  Actors Fox and Hassel, producer Lauren Rayner, and writer Joseph Fiorillo are return collaborators from The Days God Slept, another Kipp short that deserves a look.

My reviews of earlier shorts from Jeremiah Kipp may be viewed here:

https://coryfilm.com/2011/11/04/jeremiah-kipp-a-filmmaker-worth-checking-out/

Cory Graham 2014

 

A Grim Becoming Review

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Rather than being grim, A Grim Becoming embraces elements of farce and screwball comedy, in a decidedly more zany approach to horror.  Tonally, it is more in tune with early Sam Raimi (and Evil Dead 2) and Peter Jackson’s early work like Dead Alive, than say, Final Destination, in its approach to Death.  Directed and co-written by Adam Steigert, the film charts the journey of beleaguered executive Raphael (Brandyn T. Williams) and his accidental becoming of a Reaper and the multitude of colorful characters he encounters and impacts along the way.

Michael Sciabarrasi is a great discovery, turning in a standout performance as the creepy, funny, and charismatic Magoo, who haunts and assists Raphael with navigating the waters of his newfound abilities as a Reaper.  Both in performance and the design of the character, this is the kind of figure franchises are built around.

In indie horror, where modest budgets reign, the ability to attract marquee names often boils down to a few key areas: juicy roles that allow an actor to create a strong impression in just a day or few days of shooting, getting to explore comedic territory not as often visited, and the opportunity to play against type.  Each are present here, with a memorable supporting cast of familiar faces, many getting to display strong comedic chops. Melantha Blackthorne (who has very expressive eyes) amuses nicely with a quirky performance as wife to Bill Oberst.  Oberst is good as always, here as a kinky, repressed husband and father of the aptly named Looney family.  Great kooky character work from both.  Britt Griffith does a nice job with his role as a douchey business rival to Raphael, once again far removed from Ghost Hunters.  Lynn Lowry turns in a fun and playfully sexy performance as Mother, half of a role-playing couple on vacation.  Devanny Pinn delivers solid, grounded work as a grieving, suicidal girlfriend.  Jessica Cameron plays the club hopping Life as a jaded, somewhat amused socialite.

Melyssa Jade is charming as cute Carrie, possible romantic interest and assistant to Raphael.  And in the tricky role of bratty, sarcastic teen October, Aryn Fitzgerald is quite good, as is Tara Swicicki as her mother.  Local talent add flair in smaller roles and bit parts.

A fun flick with a strong ensemble,  A Grim Becoming is more interested in tickling your funny bone than being bone-chilling.  It’s a welcome treat.

–Cory Graham 2014