Saturday, August 26, 2023

#2,924. Streetwise (1984) - Documentaries


In an early scene from Martin Bell’s extraordinary 1984 documentary Streetwise, which follows a group of kids living on the streets of Seattle, we’re treated to a montage set to a blues-infused rendition of the classic children’s song “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” (performed by Baby Gramps). It shows a bunch of kids hanging out, laughing, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

At this point, we haven’t met many of the youngsters who will be featured in the movie. Yet we sense, during this musical aside, that there is a certain irony in the choice of song, that what is about to transpire over the next 90-some minutes will be anything but a picnic.

Sure enough, Streetwise isn’t so much a “picnic” as it is a gut punch, focusing on kids who, because of their troubled home lives, choose to live on the streets.

Bell and his team shine a light on a fair number of these children, many of whom have begged, stolen, or prostituted themselves to get by. Inspired by the 1983 Life Magazine article “Streets of the Lost”, Streetwise introduces us to Rat, a young teen who has teamed up with the much older Jack. Rat mentions, several times, how important it is to have someone watching your back, and he trusts Jack completely. The two have a strong friendship. They live in an abandoned hotel, and search for food in restaurant dumpsters. Rat explains that, to make this dumpster buffet work, you have to have regular dumpsters, which he calls “regs”, so that you know what food is fresh and what isn’t. He and Jack also run a scam on a pizza shop, ordering a pizza from a pay phone that they will never buy. In an hour or so, that pizza will make its way to the dumpster, at which point they’ll grab it.

Of all the youngsters featured in Streetwise, Rat has the keenest survival instincts. It is interesting to note that he is also one of the only kids whose family or caretakers we never meet (unlike many of the others, Rat’s family is hundreds of miles away, in Sacramento).

Also featured prominently in Streetwise is Erin, nicknamed “Tiny”. Early on, Tiny visits a doctor, afraid she may have contracted a venereal disease. Tiny turns tricks for a living (like many of the other girls who prostitute themselves, Tiny calls her customers “dates”). Tiny admits she has had venereal diseases before, and also tells the doctor she may be pregnant (because one “date” refused to wear a condom). The doctor then asks when her last menstrual cycle was, and Tiny says she had her second one a few weeks ago. When the doctor asks her to clarify, Tiny said she got her first ever period a month earlier. That is because Tiny is only 14 years old.

Tiny spends a lot of time on the streets, yet she does share a home with Pat, her alcoholic mother. Pat, who knows of her daughter’s prostitution but calls it a “phase”, has re-married, and has been beaten by her new husband (who, at the time the movie was shot, was sitting in jail). Tiny does not like her stepfather. Nor does another young girl, Patti, who, in a heart-wrenching scene, argues with her mother about being “abused” by her “pervert” of a stepdad.

Then there is DeWayne, who begs for change. DeWayne is 16, yet looks much younger. During a doctor’s visit, he is told his adenoids and tonsils are inflamed, and are contributing to his stunted growth. DeWayne’s only relative is his father, who is in prison. In one very difficult scene, DeWayne visits his dad, who, after chastising his son for smoking dope and biting his fingernails, says he loves him, and that DeWayne is all he has left in the world.

Other kids are featured as well, including Roberta, who is on her way to becoming a prostitute, and Lulu, a self-proclaimed lesbian who does what she can to defend her fellow youths. At one point, Lulu drags a vagrant back to a girl he felt up as he walked past her, and forces him to apologize. Lulu is tough as nails, and we see her tenacity time and again throughout the movie.

We come to know her and the rest of these kids quite well, and director Bell does a fine job bringing us into their world. It is never pleasant. In fact, it is terrifying. As tough as some of these kids are, they are still only kids, and face real danger on the streets.

Before the movie is over, tragedy will strike one of these youngsters. So, when Streetwise ends with the same song that kicked it off, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, it is more than ironic this time.

Now, it is heartbreaking.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 19, 2023

#2,923. The Nightshifter (2018) - Random Musings


I first came across Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter in late 2019, when I was compiling that year’s Top 10 horror movies list. The premise blew me away, and I was floored by how strongly the film started.

Stenio (Daniel De Oliveira) works the night shift in a Brazilian morgue. But more than just assist on autopsies and clean up the ensuing mess, Stenio can communicate with the cadavers!

Not their spirits… the bodies themselves, some of which don’t even know they are dead.

It is a gift he's had for some time, and he uses it to help the recently deceased. One guy, who was stabbed to death in a bar while arguing the latest football match, begs Stenio to alert his family. He doesn’t want to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

Stenio helps him. He seems like a good guy.

When Stenio heads home, he is treated like shit by his wife Odete (Fabiula Nascimento), who complains he doesn't make enough money and always smells of formaldehyde. She is relentlessly nasty, to the point that not even their kids Edson (Caua Martins) and Cica (Annalara Prates) have any respect for poor Stenio.

Then, one day at the morgue, Stenio works on the body of a guy he knew, who informs him from he other side that Odete has been having an affair with local shop owner Jaime (Marco Ricca).

It’s at this point Stenio does something very, very bad.

Using information he obtained days earlier from the corpse of a gang member, Stenio convinces the dead gangster’s brother, and the leader of said gang, that Jaime was responsible for his late bro’s demise. He wasn't, of course, but Stenio is pissed, and wants to get back at Jamie for screwing Odete.

This kicks off a chain of events that will affect Stenio and his family, and it’s at this point Stenio is tormented by an angry spirit, which is bound and determined to make his life a living hell.

When I first watched The Nightshifter, I felt that the film’s second half, when Stenio is dealing with the vengeful spectre, wasn’t as interesting as what came before. Whereas the beginning was creative and engaging as hell, the movie falls into more traditional territory as it goes along. By the time that initial viewing in late 2019 was over, I decided The Nightshifter deserved a place on my list, but down around the #7 or #8 slot.

Then something happened.

For days I could not stop thinking about this movie. I kept turning it over and over in my head. So, I had to watch it again, and while the last half still felt routine, it worked better this second time because of the situation that Stenio found himself in, something I now realized was more terrifying than an angry ghost coming after him.

Just after the tragedy brought on by Stenio, the corpses that communicate with him in the morgue start treating him differently. They inform Stenio, in no uncertain terms, that he misused this special gift he was given, taking information from the dead and using it to exact revenge. Because of this, he is now a marked man on the “other side”, a cursed individual, and retribution is waiting to unleash its fury on him in the afterlife.

The pissed-off spirit that messes with Stenio and his kids, as well as Lara (Bianca Comparato), Jaime’s twentysomething daughter, is nasty, and would kill the children just to torment Stenio. Yet as bad as this situation is, we the viewer know that our lead character has an even worse fate awaiting him, and it’s one he can never escape. What’s more… it’s a reckoning that will stretch on for eternity! Stenio will suffer for his misdeeds… for the rest of time!

It’s kind of like the Freddy Krueger effect I touched on in my write-up of 1984’s The Nightmare on Elm Street, where I said Freddy was perhaps the scariest of the ‘80s slasher villains because you could not outrun him, you could not outlast him. Keep out of the woods, and Jason Voorhees won’t get you (until he went to Manhattan). But you will fall asleep at some point. You cannot stay awake forever. Which means Freddy need only wait you out… you will go to him.

It’s the same for poor Stenio. One day, he will die. Even if he lasts another 70 years, death is inevitable. And he will face the terrible wrath he has brought upon himself.

I was still underwhelmed by some of the movie’s more mundane scare scenes, but Stenio’s ultimate fate hit me harder the second time around. He has something terrible hanging over his head, making his situation seem totally hopeless.

To his credit, he does not despair. He now lives to protect Lara and his kids. But even that won’t save him in the end. Stenio is doomed.

After that second viewing, The Nightshifter shot all the way to the top of my list. It was, and remains, the best horror film I saw in 2019.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 12, 2023

#2,922. Scare Me (2020) - Random Musings


One main set.

Two (briefly three) characters telling scary stories.

Writer / director Josh Ruben took a minimalist approach to Scare Me, a film that would have worked just as well as a stage play. And yet it’s a top-notch horror outing. Listening to its characters as they attempt to frighten one another with various tales of the macabre not only generates tension, but also makes this 2020 movie one of the most unique horror anthologies of all-time.

Hoping for a little peace and quiet as he pens his first book (a werewolf story), wannabe writer Fred (played by Ruben himself) sets up shop in a remote cabin. To clear his mind when writer’s block sets in, Fred goes for a walk, during which he meets Fanny (Aya Cash), who is staying in the cabin right across from his. It turns out Fanny is also a writer. In fact, she’s the author of Venus, a best-selling horror novel.

When a storm knocks out the power, Fanny pays Fred a visit, and during their conversation she challenges Fred to try and scare her with his werewolf story.

Thus begins a night filled with one frightening tale after another, with Fred and Fanny – separately and in collaboration - spinning yarns of terror, each more nerve-racking than the last.

For a movie like Scare Me to work, the actors had to be on top of their game, and both Ruben and Cash were up to the challenge. Ruben plays Fred as a bit of a sad sack, a guy trying to turn his life around who is more than a little threatened by Fanny’s success. Cash is even better as the brash, confident Fanny. She spots Fred’s insecurities right out of the gate and goes to work on him, offering unsolicited advice as he acts out moments from his werewolf story. There is a tension between the two that remains tangible throughout, but they feed off of it, and use it to generate even scarier stories.

It's a dialogue-heavy film, obviously, but director Ruben utilizes lighting, sound effects, and occasionally even props to give the stories a little life. As Fred ascends a staircase while relating his Werewolf opus, we see not his shadow on the wall, but that of a hulking werewolf. When it comes to the stories themselves, my favorite is one about a Troll that lives in the walls of an office building, tormenting the staff of an Edible Arrangements company.

A third character is eventually introduced: Carlo (Chris Redd), a pizza delivery guy who also loves scary stories. Carlo is a big fan of Venus, and his constant praise of Fanny only adds to Fred’s anxieties. Redd is hilarious in the part, and during his short visit somehow steals the movie from Ruben and Cash. Also good in a couple of brief appearances (at the beginning and the end) is Rebecca Drysedale as Bettina, Fred’s overly talkative driver who also fancies herself a writer.

A funny, sometimes spooky, always fascinating horror / comedy, Scare Me did, indeed, scare me at times, and for a movie that is mostly dialogue, that’s a hell of an accomplishment.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 5, 2023

#2,921. Dark Glasses (2022) - Random Musings


The DVD for 2022’s Dark Glasses features a quote on the cover by CBR, who called the movie “A return to form for Master of Horror Dario Argento”.

Statements like this always make me nervous.

What, precisely, would mark a “return to form”? At his height, Argento was, indeed, a master of the genre. His 1970 movie Bird with the Crystal Plumage laid the groundwork for all giallos to follow, and he continued to wow us with Deep Red, Suspiria, and Phenomena, just to name a few.

Then, he started to cool a little before losing his touch entirely in the 21st century. I was not a fan of his 2005 TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock?, and found 2007’s Mother of Tears (the third entry in his Mothers trilogy after Suspiria and Inferno) positively dismal. And while I never really paid much attention to his more recent work (I did not see 2012’s Dracula 3D, and from what I hear, I didn’t miss much), I’ve been led to believe, from several reliable sources, that Dark Glasses is his first in a while that was worth checking out.

But would it be a return to form, as the quote says, a film on par with his ‘70s and ‘80s output, or is it just better when compared to Mother of Tears and Dracula 3D?

It’s kind of like the M. Night Shyamalan phenomenon. Shyamalan set the world on fire with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and, yes, I’ll throw The Village in there as well because I did like that film. But his downward trend started with Lady in the Water, went even quicker downhill with the ridiculous The Happening, and before you knew it, Shyamalan couldn’t do anything right (The Last Airbender and After Earth were roundly dismissed by audiences and critic alike). When he turned out The Visit in 2015, I got excited. Finally, a Shyamalan movie to celebrate!

I was cautious in my review of that film, saying the jury was still out if he was “back”, but in fairness I did call The Visit a “return to form” for Shyamalan. So, I guess my real question was, would Dark Glasses be Argento’s The Visit?

It very nearly is, and that alone makes it noteworthy.

After being pursued through the streets of Rome by a killer in a white van (a chase that caused her to crash into another vehicle), call girl Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli) suffers a hemorrhage that robs her of her eyesight. Counseled and re-trained by therapist Rita (Asia Argento), who helps her deal with her new disability, Diana next seeks out young Chin (Xinyu Zhang), whose parents died in the same crash that cost her her vision.

At first reluctant to talk to the woman indirectly responsible for his parents’ deaths, Chin eventually warms up to Diana, to the point that he runs away from the orphanage to live with her.

But the killer has not forgotten Diana, and remains as determined as ever to finish her off once and for all.

From the start, Dark Glasses feels more like an ‘80s slasher than a classic giallo, in part because there’s never any mystery as to the killer’s identity. We know who it is almost immediately. And the kills are gory enough to fit neatly into the slasher subgenre, especially the first victim, whose garroted throat splits further apart with each breath she takes.

Argento also succeeds in generating tension throughout. A showdown between two policemen and the killer, who surprises them on a darkened street in front of Diana’s house, is fairly intense, as is the film’s extended finale, when Diana and Chin are running for their lives at night through a forest (and, keeping with classic Italian WTF cinema - a la the tarantulas in The Beyond - the two encounter one of nature’s gnarliest creatures in a bizarre, cringe-inducing scene).

The problem I had with Dark Glasses is the end of the final act. The chase through the woods drags on far too long, and especially baffling is why the killer, who up to that point took a “kill first, ask questions later” approach to his victims, suddenly unleashes an “evil genius” style exposition, prolonging a sequence that, at any other point in the movie, would have been over within seconds. Not only does it seem out of place with the killer’s modus operandi, it also mutes his effectiveness (he generated real dread whenever he turned up prior).

On the whole, though, Dark Glasses did impress me. So, if The Visit was Shyamalan’s return to form, I guess Dark Glasses, for the time being, should hold that same distinction for Argento.
Rating: 7 out of 10