THE GIFT (2015)
The setup: In this menacing tale of high school comeuppance, successful executive Simon (Jason Bateman) reconnects with awkward schoolmate Gordo (writer/director Joel Edgerton) at a high end home goods store. Simon and his architect wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) invite him to dinner, and the uncomfortable evening soon extends into a series of unwanted encounters with and undesired gift giving from the seemingly sweet but envious Gordo. His clingy friendship soon unravels their marriage and reveals some very uncomfortable truths about Simon’s past.
The breakdown: It is hard to fault Edgerton’s directing nor the acting chops of the good ensemble cast that he has assembled for this taut thriller about past sins coming home to roost. Reminiscent of the paranoid thrillers of the ’90s without the histrionic dramatics or over-the-top scenarios, The Gift takes a more low-key approach that is just as unnerving but more realistic. That said, the build-up of the story leads to a rather ugly finale that, while clever in its plot twist, undermines the true intent of the film. Hall has delved into sinister territory before, and Bateman gets to tap into his darker side here, which is uncommon for him. But it would have been nice to ultimately get more out of the material.
FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (2014)
The setup: In this American Gothic style story set in the ’50s, a trophy wife (Heather Graham) and her four kids (two teens, two pre-tweens) find themselves at the mercy of her repressive, spiteful parents when her successful husband dies in a car crash. The children soon find out that their grandfather vehemently disapproved of their parents’ union (he disowned them), and the brood must stay hidden from his sight in an upstairs bedroom and attic while their mother patches things up and tries to win back her inheritance. Continually berated and monitored by their cruel and devout grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), the four kids find their alleged week long stay turning into a prolonged imprisonment, which leads to all manner of emotional problems, especially when they learn that their mother is beginning to live the high life while they suffer in stifling confinement.
The breakdown: The famed series of dark V.C. Andrews novels spawned by this first book became a massive best-selling franchise back in the 1980s, with teenage girls devouring her twisted tales by the tens of millions. The original 1987 film adaptation with Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson (pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has been mocked for being too melodramatic and overacted, along with taking liberties with the source material, so this Lifetime version (which spawned three subsequent sequel versions of Andrews’ other books in the series; only one book remains) sets out to rectify that. Burstyn conjures a great wicked grandmother, but Graham’s performance, perhaps purposefully so, is rather surface level. And the controversial incest subplot gets brought into light in a way that the original film version skated around. It’s a pretty good effort, but it begs many questions, some of which are presumably answered in Petals On The Wind, If There Be Thorns, and Seeds of Yesterday, which are all collected in a four DVD set out now. In the end, it’s hard not to view this as trashy soap opera dressed up with horror flair, but underneath it does explore the idea of family shame and dishonor in a different way.
THE IMAGE REVOLUTION (2014)
The set up: Marvel and DC Comics have been the 800-pound gorillas of the comic book world for decades now, and with their movie empires growing they continue to own the lion’s (or gorilla’s) share of the marketplace. But they also own the rights to every character published under their auspices, a concept that did not sit well with a handful of artists and writers who helped spawn a massive, multimillion selling resurgence for Marvel in the early ’90s. Thus seven creatives (including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld) jumped ship in 1992 to form Image Comics under the intent of founding a company operating only with creator-owned content. This in-depth documentary looks at their fast rise to fame and fortune, the inevitable internal and market shake-ups they weathered, and their influence and impact on the world of comics that continues to this day with the massive success of The Walking Dead.
The breakdown: While many comics fans know the basic story of Image’s rise to “rock star” prominence, this deep look into their internal affairs chronicles both the passion and personalities that bonded and divided them over the first few years of their triumphant ascendancy. After 1997, the comics world would never again see a million or multimillion-selling comic book title, but from 1992 to 1997 Image was cranking out many of them. Director/producer Patrick Meaney and producer/cameraman Jordan Rennert have compiled some very candid interviews that show both the wonderful and terrible aspects of young mavericks bucking the system, and inevitably each other. For comics fans that are less versed in the medium’s history, The Image Revolution also reveals a time when modern comics really were king. These days, the money to be made from the industry comes from movies and merch tie-ins. Back then, the titles were massive in their own right. That said, only one woman gets interviewed here (Saga artist Fiona Staples) along with about four African-Americans, so hopefully the next documentary will focus on the growing female talent pool and a wider representation of our multicultural society that will be reflected by the biz, which needs to evolve as well.
CODE UNKNOWN (2000)
The set up: Following in an incident on a Paris street where a young man confronts another for his disrespectful treatment of a female beggar, which leads to police intervention and the deportation of the women who is an illegal immigrant, we follow the subsequent threads of their various lives to learn more about them. The characters include a movie star (the wonderful Juliette Binoche) and her photojournalist boyfriend, a teenager and his dour farmer father, the young man who scolded the teen for his behavior, the beggar who must cope with a difficult life back home, and others.
The breakdown: Oscar-winning writer/director Michael Haneke starts off with an intriguing premise that becomes both compelling and frustrating. In an interview on the disc, he discusses how he believes we can never see life in its entire whole and that it can only really be discussed in fragments. Fair enough, and many of those pieces here delve into concepts of personal responsibility and empowerment while examining issues like immigration and prejudice. (Ironically, some black and Arab characters portrayed are problematic.) Although there are some great dramatic moments, as well as an admirable slant away from trite sentiments and black and white assessments, the various strands never come back together to form any cohesive statement. Perhaps it requires multiple viewings to dig into those deeper layers, but it would have been nice to further explore some of the other characters’ lives and connect them better.
THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION (1991-2007)
Writer/director/actor Larry Fessenden (who has also produced and shot various other films) is an underappreciated voice in the ever crowded world of horror, and this box set collects his four main writing/directorial efforts. No Telling (1991) generates conflict between a Frankenstein-like pharmaceutical researcher experimenting on animals and his unknowing but soon suspicious wife. Habit (1995) concerns a bereaved young man (Fessenden) whose sexually intense entanglement with a mysterious woman leads him to believe she is a vampire. Wendigo (2001) focuses on an urban couple (Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson) and their young son whose escape to a rural retreat is overshadowed by the haunting presence of a supernatural creature of Native American myth. The Last Winter (2007) continues that train of thought as surveying scientists and greedy oil drillers argue about and grapple with the presence of supernatural phenomenon related to climate change in a far northern locale. Fessenden has an understated approach that favors uncomfortable insinuation over obvious scare tactics, which gives his films an effective slow burn flavor. The Last Winter especially makes a nice viewing contrast and companion to John Carpenter’s The Thing given their different takes on arctic survivalism. Scream Factory’s four-movie Fessenden compilation includes generous bonus materials: commentaries, documentaries, short films, archival material, and a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold.