Thursday, July 24, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: BLUE RUIN (2014); ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (2014); and OPEN GRAVE (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

A moody, highly effective slow-burner of a revenge thriller that works in large part due to its "hero" not really being cut out for what he's doing. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a homeless man sneaking into houses for a bath, eating out of garbage cans, and living in his beat-up car on the beach. He's taken to the police station by a sympathetic cop (Sidne Anderson) who tells him he's not in trouble, but she wanted him to be in a safe place when he heard the news she has for him: Wade Cleland (Sandy Barrett) is being released from prison. Several years earlier, Wade killed Dwight's parents, a tragedy from which Dwight never recovered.  Dwight visits a pawn shop but can't afford a gun, then he steals one from someone's truck, but can't unlock the chamber. Armed with a steak knife, he sits in his car outside the prison and follows the Cleland family to Wade's coming-home party at a local bar. Hiding in the men's room, Dwight stabs Wade in the neck and head when he comes in to take a leak, then runs outside and slashes the tires of the Cleland's limo, slicing open his hand in the process. When he gets in his own car, he realizes he dropped the keys next to the body. Stealing the limo and driving it on a flat tire, he finds a teenage Cleland boy in the back and lets him go. Dwight visits his estranged sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and confesses what he's done. She's glad Wade is dead, though Dwight wonders why it hasn't been in the news. Believing the Cleland family hasn't called the cops because intend to respond to Dwight's act personally, Dwight tells Sam to leave town with her kids as he's suddenly in way over his head with a shady family who's more dangerous than he ever imagined.

Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier doesn't present Dwight as a tough badass, but rather, a sad incompetent whose plan for revenge is short-sighted, to say the least. He desperately wants to avenge the murder of his parents, but doesn't plan ahead and isn't equipped to handle the unexpected problems that arise, like getting his sister to safety or getting shot in the leg with an arrow. Dwight doesn't go after the Clelands with guns blazing--in fact, he's lucky if he can manage to get a shot off at all. Saulnier disperses the backstory very conservatively, and only near the end do all the details, and just how deeply the bad blood between the Evans and Cleland families runs become clear to the audience. Though the Clelands are a family of rednecks, Saulnier avoids the cliches that come with that label. BLUE RUIN drew a lot of comparisons to early Coen Bros., particularly BLOOD SIMPLE, in its depiction of unlikely people getting into deadly situations that quickly spiral beyond their control and capabilities, but with its early bits of dark humor, the film plays more like the Coens doing WINTER'S BONE. It's anchored by a powerfully internalized performance by Blair, and there's a brief, scene-stealing supporting turn by Devon "Buzz from HOME ALONE" Ratray as a high school friend who helps Dwight out (THE BRADY BUNCH's Eve Plumb also appears as one of the Cleland clan). True to its title, BLUE RUIN is a bleak and gritty noir of sorts that presents an atypical, low-key spin on the standard revenge saga. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

It's a little late to be making knockoffs of THE CRAFT, and if ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE seems a little tardy, part of the reason might be that the filmmakers already made it 15 years ago. The writing-directing team of Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson made an ultra low-budget, shot-on-video version immediately after graduating from college.  Since then, both have remained gainfully employed in the industry with varying degrees of success: McKee is best known for his 2003 cult classic MAY, with Sivertson's claim to infamy being Lindsay Lohan's 2007 dumpster fire I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. Both have made Jack Ketchum adaptations, with McKee co-directing 2008's RED (a terrific little gem that no one knows about) and handling 2011's inexplicably acclaimed THE WOMAN solo, while Sivertson directed 2006's THE LOST. Older, wiser, and having played and barely survived the Hollywood game, the two old friends reunited to give their debut a do-over. They made some incidental plot changes, but the general idea is the same: a group of cheerleaders are killed and one's goth, Wiccan ex-girlfriend casts a spell that brings them back to life, but they need the blood of the living to survive, all the while still being catty bitches about everything. Yes, it's essentially VAMPIRE ZOMBIE HEATHERS. McKee and Sivertson offer an intriguing set-up that finds student videographer Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) infiltrating a tight-knit clique of cheerleaders after one dies in a horrific cheering accident. Her whole plan is to rip apart the perfect world of the cheerleaders and their jock boyfriends. That storyline is working quite well until it's abandoned after an intense and well-acted confrontation that unfortunately leads to silliness once a car chase results in the girls dying when their car plummets into a river. The jocks chasing them split, but lesbian Maddy's witch ex Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) happens to be in the area and brings them back to life. From then on, McKee and Sivertson can never settle on a tone, careening wildly between sick, black humor (virginal, sensitive dudebro has sex in a bathroom stall with one undead cheerleader, then brags to his buddy "I was all up in that sweet freezer!  It's supposed to be cold, right?") and grueling, Rob Zombie-esque unpleasantness. There's some worthwhile moments, and the directors get a pair of strong performances from Stasey and Smit-McPhee, but it's all rather uneven and quite dumb, some of the visual effects are pretty bush-league, and the film feels like it's visiting from the distant netherworld of 1998.  (R, 90 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/Hong Kong - 2014)

A promising premise is quickly squandered in this ponderous Hungary-shot horror film from Spanish director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, who's somehow still able to find employment after the universally-loathed APOLLO 18. Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9) wakes up in the titular location, surrounded by rotting corpses.  He's rescued by a mute woman (Josie Ho) who takes him to a house where several others (among them Thomas Kretschmann) are suffering from group amnesia. Hazy details slowly come into view over what's happened to them and why as they try to escape and are met by strange, almost feral people and keep running into corpses used as scarecrows. The twists and turns in the story aren't really that interesting or suspenseful and the film ultimately turns into yet another stale variant of an already played-out subgenre. Copley is a bit more tolerable here than he was in Spike Lee's OLDBOY, but Ho, whose character doesn't understand English and can only write Chinese, has absolutely nothing to do but stand around and look at her histrionic co-stars and may as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm only here to satisfy a Hong Kong co-production deal." Scenes of tense bickering are supposed to convey the sense of mistrust and paranoia among the protagonists, especially when a foggy Copley starts to think he might be the one responsible for all the mayhem. But after the 19th or 20th shouting match between frazzled people who can't remember who or where they are in a film that feels way longer than it is, there's a good chance you'll stop caring. Even Leonard Shelby would run out of patience with these assholes. (R, 102 mins)

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