Better Watch Out: It’s quite the subversive thriller

Well, it’s time again for the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hard to believe this is the 12th year of the festival, which features a plethora of relatively new scary films each year – along with one or two older classics as well.

Opening the scares this year was Better Watch Out, directed by Chris Peckover and starring Olivia DeJonge (The Visit) as a babysitter watching a precocious 12-year-old named Luke (Levi Miller) while his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) enjoy a night out of the house. Babysitter Ashley quickly finds herself in for more than just a night on the couch watching movies, as she has to deal with her young charge – who has long had a crush on his sitter – and then a home invasion.

But this ain’t no ordinary home invasion. I can’t tell you all more than that. I wish I could, but I really want you to watch this movie, and telling you more of the story would ruin the experience for you. There are a lot of surprises in this movie. Plenty of plausible but unpredictable twists. The movie is tightly plotted (by Peckover and Zack Kahn).

The performances are phenomenal, especially considering the ages and relative lack of experience of the leads. Miller, in particular, is a wonder to behold; his Luke shifts tone rather dramatically over the course of the movie, but his skills make the shift utterly believable and magical. There aren’t many adult actors who could pull off the characterization that Levi Miller does in this film.

Come for the intrigue of a vulnerable babysitter protecting her young charge but stay when that trope is turned completely upside down.

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Jackie Chan’s Plan to Keep Kicking Forever

Can I interest you in a swell Jackie Chan story?

Source: Jackie Chan’s Plan to Keep Kicking Forever | GQ

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The Bad Batch: tainted, although sparkly in light

The Bad Batch refers not to some brown acid but rather to a particular set of ex-convicts, those recently released from a prison in the southwestern US. Each inmate is tattooed with a serial number, which naturally precludes them from gainful, meaningful employment. Good thing that the vast desert right outside the prison’s gates is uncharted territory, meaning it’s not under the jurisdiction of either the US or Mexico. It just is.

Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is such an ex con. With nowhere else to go, she begins a-wandering across the desert with a jug of water. She finds a rusted-out car and – for some reason – begins to apply her eyeliner using the rear-view mirror. Then a couple of people roar up in a golf cart and abduct her. When she wakes up, she’s chained to an airplane door. She gets injected with something – I’m gonna guess a sedative or painkiller – and her abductors lop off her right arm and left leg. And eat them.

None of that is a spoiler. It all happens in the first twenty minutes or so. Our heroine does quickly escape and finds a place called Comfort, which is basically a continuous rave. Comfort is run by The Dream (Keanu Reeves, delivering a particularly wooden performance), and everyone there is part of the Bad Batch themselves, the rejects of society.

Arlen is out for revenge, so back to the cannibals she goes. There’s a lot of her ping-ponging back and forth between the two camps, for various uninteresting reasons. But this isn’t a standard revenge movie – it’s much more confounding and pointless. I can get behind a good old fashioned revenge flick, but this is just dopey nonsense. You know things are out of wack when you kind of root for the main cannibal (Jason Momoa). And when the best performance in the movie, by a long shot, is by Jim Carrey as a grizzled hermit – who never speaks a word.

The Bad Batch looks pretty and might even have a genesis for a cool movie within it somewhere, but it’s a major dud. It’s also very violent, so you have plenty of gore to look forward to. And lastly, Arlen’s lopped-off limbs are on full display (not hiding behind bulky clothes), and apparently this was accomplished without resorting to digital erasure of her real arm and leg. So that’s a positive. Not much else is.

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The Belko Experiment: I’m not sure what result I expected, really

The Belko Experiment is decent entertainment until the final ten minutes or so, with a too-soon ending that (oddly) could have used some more exposition. But overall, it’s vicious in its profile of the human spirit and the evil that men do when confronted with a moral quandary that has no positive outcome.

The Belko Corporation is headquartered in a high rise outside of Bogota, Colombia. It’s not clear what they do, but everyone dresses in business attire, so it must be something important. On this particular day, security seems to be even tighter than usual, with local soldiers asking employees for ID and with temporary workers being unexpectedly turned away.

We meet some of the staff. Mike (John Gallagher, Jr.), an exec; his love interest Leandra (Adria Arjona), the creepy Wendell (John C. McGinley), and the big boss, Barry (Tony Goldwyn), plus many others. Looks like a humdrum day for office drones. That is, until all of the windows – and door – are suddenly covered by thick metallic barriers, and a voice comes over the PA system. The voice tells staff that in thirty minutes, they – the staff – must kill two people, or else more will be killed. Some believe the incident to be one big joke, but about 30 minutes in, the backs of some people’s heads explode. No, not snipers. You see, every employee at Belko has a chip in the back of their head. Because it’s Colombia, you see, and there are always kidnappings (particularly of foreign nationals). Just a way for the fine folks at Belko to keep track of you, should you go missing. But, as you’ve probably guessed, those chips are actually explosives, and that’s how we know the baddies are serious.

Chaos reigns for much of the rest of the film, as people realize there’s no way out of their predicament. A couple of camps emerge, one that wants to kill fellow staff so that they themselves can live, and another that wants no part of the killing. Man versus fellow man. Who will prevail? Probably not man.

For the most part, this is a fine movie. Maybe not one you want to think about too much, but then again there’s not much to think about. We know only enough about the characters to kind of care about their fates. And, for the most part, we don’t know anything about the forces outside the building. True, the internal conflict is what drives the movie, but perhaps a little more about why this is the case would have been helpful. The performances are good, but not exceptional.

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Twixt: Dreamy horror from Francis Coppola

In Twixt, a “bargain-basement Stephen King” writer (Val Kilmer) visits a small town on a going-nowhere book tour only to find himself very much a part of a real mystery containing a haunted belfry, ghosts of dead children, and a corpse with a stake through its heart. It’s a movie chock full of atmosphere and unease, and it’s really well done. Good movie for this time of year.

Kilmer plays Hall Baltimore. He drinks a lot. I mean a lot. At a quiet book signing, the local sheriff Bobby Lagrange (played with absolute zeal by Bruce Dern) slyly mentions that he himself is a bit of a writer and would Mr. Baltimore care to collaborate? Why, Sheriff Bobby even has a story all ready to go. Has to do with missing and/or murdered kids, or maybe the aforementioned belfry (it’s haunted!) and probably everything to do with those kids who live across the lake, the ones who look like they practice Satanism or some such.

Meanwhile, Baltimore has money woes. His wife (played by Kilmer’s real-life ex, Joanne Whalley) pressures him to get another advance from his publisher (David Paymer) so that she can pay off their mounting debt, even threatening to sell his priceless copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This is kind of what gets Baltimore to agree to a sort of collaboration with the sheriff.

One night, Baltimore has one heck of a dream. He wanders through a forest, where he is joined by an ethereal girl in braces (Elle Fanning). They converse, and their path leads them to an old hotel – one that’s not open when Baltimore is awake. The girl refuses to go in; Baltimore does, and he learns some things about missing children and the secrets of the town. He wakes up. But was it a dream?

Coppola strikes just the right tone with this movie, and the casting is superlative. Kilmer is fine – perhaps even better than usual – and Dern is terrific. Love that guy. Alden Ehrenreich (the new Han Solo, plus the guy from Beautiful Creatures) and Don Novello (yes, Father Guido Sarducci from SNL) are both a real treat. The ending both comes out of nowhere and makes all the sense in the world, just the kind of ending you want in a horror thriller.

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