Always Shine (2016)

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twohalfstar

I first heard of the psychological horror cheapie Always Shine when its director, Sophia Takal, mentioned in an interview on the Lady Problems podcast that she was annoyed by its constant comparisons with the Alex Ross Perry film Queen of Earth, since the two works were produced simultaneously & independently. She even suggested in the interview that Perry may have read the screenplay for her film before writing his own, lightly suggesting that their coincidental parallels might not be so coincidental after all. As I pointed out when I labeled 2014 as The Year of the Doppelgänger, it’s not at all uncommon for doppelgänger films to find their own unlikely doppelgängers in the world. In fact, it’s an eerily frequent occurrence. If you can recall back a full year, though, Queen of Earth was highly rated around here as one of our Top Films of 2015, so seeing a smaller, less celebrated work that might have influenced its production was an exciting prospect for me. Unfortunately, I can only add to Takal’s frustration by admitting that Always Shine was only interesting to me as a comparison point for Perry’s superiorly executed work, and only barely so.

Always Shine opens with two striking, tightly framed monologues that codify its two main characters, played by recognizable-from-TV-roles actors Mackenzie Davis & Caitlin FitzGerald, as a demurely feminine waif & an “unladylike” take-no-shit brute. Best friends, but professional rivals in their acting careers, the two women often find themselves competing for roles, much to the detriment of their personal relationship. The demurely feminine character is rewarded for her sheepishness by the men who control her life: lovers, casting directors, strangers, etc. The confident one is punished for her perceived unfeminine brashness and is professionally unsuccessful as a result, despite being the more talented actor. This tension comes to a head when the two friends vacation together in a remote locale in Southern California, igniting a bottled up nightmare of competitive jealousies that results in a violent confrontation & a disorienting psychological break. Any tension lurking under the surface of their friendship is made explicitly clear & insurmountably cruel, leading the two women to a breaking point that cannot be mended once it’s reached.

I like the basic structure & themes of this narrative and both Davis & FitzGerald are exceptionally well suited for their respective roles. That’s about where my appreciation for Always Shine stops. The gloriously disorienting opening, where you can’t tell where an actor’s audition ends & the real world begins, is a great window into where the film will eventually go once it gets its plot rolling. However, that style of stilted, unnatural dialogue continues throughout the film’s entire length, never allowing either of its central characters to feel like a real person, since you can feel the screenwriter’s fingerprints on every word they deliver. The characters are way too cleanly categorized, to the point where the more confident one says something to the effect of, “If I weren’t a woman . . .” in at least the first three conversations she participates in. This clean cut stageyness bleeds into the way the film’s pinnacle psychological break is depicted as well. Unlike with Queen of Earth, there’s never any question of what a character is imagining & what is “really” happening. This means that its blend of identities & indulgences in fantasy signify nothing in any given moment, since it’s always evident they’ll have no effect on the “true” plotline. Worst yet, the film is overly impatient with its own sense of mood. As soon as the opening credits it begins an assault of quick, abrasive edits that scream “Don’t worry! This is Art Horror! It’ll get weird!” between calm scenes of dialogue that deserve a less oppressive hand in how they’re delivered. In attempting dread & disorientation, the atmosphere-evoking cuts of Always Shine feel like an obnoxious joke at th the expense of artsy horror films as a genre instead of a genuine participation in that aesthetic.

I really wanted to like Always Shine. It’s got all the necessary resources to put together a memorably eerie psychological horror picture, especially in its performances & its basic themes. It just falls flat so miserably in both its screenplay & editing choices that it’s difficult to get on its side. As frustrating as it must be for Takal to continually hear, the film is too reminiscent of Queen of Earth not to draw the comparison and, in all honesty, it often plays like an awful parody version of that far superior work. That’s not the only point of comparison that makes it look like a weak substitute for the genuine thing, either. Persona, an influence both films obviously owe a lot to, smartly jumbles its psychological break in a way that cannot be easily, neatly understood the same way Always Shine‘s can. The Neon Demon does a far better job filtering feminine jealousy & competition through an unrealistic art horror lens. Felt has a much firmer handle on the way feminist themes can be discussed openly & even viciously in a broken psyche narrative while still feeling like natural, human dialogue. Creep, Joshy, The One I Love, The Invitation, and The Overnight all top this near-miss in turning California wilderness locales into emotional hellscapes of isolation & hurt feelings. None of these movies’ successes dictate that Always Shine has no right to exist in the world as its own separate work of art. They just point to the various ways the film’s promising formula falls flat in an embarrassing way, Queen of Earth especially so.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2015

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1. It Follows – The only movie to make three of our lists is a throwback to 80s horror classics from past greats like John Carpenter. Featuring a killer soundtrack, the highest of high-concept premises, and a fascinating visual aesthetic, It Follows is more creepy than it is frightening, but easily stands as the best horror film of the year, if not the best film overall.

2. Crimson Peak – A love letter to the Gothic Horror genre, Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a traditional ghost story loaded with the genre’s classic tropes of isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, and things that gibber and chitter in the night. Crimson Peak is ripe with heavy-handed visual metaphor and beautiful overwrought acting to match.

3. Magic Mike XXL – An over-the-top road trip comedy where a gaggle of male strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, too-old-for-this-shit, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography. There aren’t many situations in which the sequel is better than the original, but we’re confident this one surpasses its deeply-somber predecessor. It’s pure genius!

4. Tangerine – This flick, which was filmed with an iPhone 5S, has been the talk of the town for months, and for a very good reason. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. It’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Queen of Earth –  Two lifelong friends inflict terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the women slowly  becomes more deranged. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what does & doesn’t transpire in Queen of Earth, but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Easily the most over-complained about movie in 2015. The Force Awakens a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

7. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn”, but its intense moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s a gorgeous film with style to spare.

8. Turbo Kid  – A cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. Turbo Kid is a smorgasbord of eccentric ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effects magic. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

9. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling, the heathens. All hail Krampus, a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend. A new cult classic has been born!

10. The Final Girls – Although its main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, this film also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit, an unlikely of mix ideas from Scream & The Last Action Hero. As a send­up of campsite slashers like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman & the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is a meta horror comedy well-deserving of your attention.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Erin’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Queen of Earth (2015)

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I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip, but my deep and abiding loathing for Jason Schwartzman ensured that I was never tempted to see the film, despite the fact that it also starred Elisabeth Moss, an actress that I like quite a lot. Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, has generated a great deal of buzz, and I’m happy to say that I found the film to be deserving of every accolade it’s received so far. Set at a lake house in the Hudson River Valley, the film focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the way that that people who love each other can cause more damage to those they care about than any outsider can, as well as the fact that, as Virginia says in one of her fantastic monologues, “You can escape other people’s cycles, but you can’t escape your own.”

The previous summer, Virginia invited Catherine to her parent’s lake house for what was supposed to be a week of healing intimacy between friends after Virginia experienced a painful event (implied to be a complicated childbirth before giving the baby up for adoption). Catherine spoiled their getaway by bringing along her codependent boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), with whom Virginia had a mutual open loathing. This summer, Catherine is the person suffering; as revealed in the film’s opening moments, James recently dumped her shortly after her artist father’s suicide, citing a relationship with another woman with whom he had been involved even before Catherine’s father’s “accident.” Catherine, herself an artist who worked for and idolized her father in an unhealthy way, is distraught and breaking down, and her recuperation at the lake house is impeded by the frequent presence of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor. He and Virginia were in a long term relationship, but he ignored her attempts to let him down easily when he chose to leave for grad school and she decided to let the relationship end. Both Virginia and Catherine are emotionally ignorant and immature; Virginia was much less traumatized by her experience the previous year than Catherine is by the dissolution of the relationships that she allowed to define her. This is best exemplified in a flashback showing Virginia discussing her hospital experience but ultimately ending her monologue with declarations of how much she despises people who weigh on her emotionally and eventually cuts them out of her life. She dismisses Rich’s desires to maintain their relationship despite the distance between them as delusional, but her attempts to turn the tables on Catherine (by inviting Rich, an interloping lover, to spend time at the lake house during what is supposed to be a healing period for Catherine) are petty and heartless in a way that exceeds any reasonable amount of resentment.

Catherine, for her part, is little better. Although a great deal of the film’s conflict is found in implication, flashbacks show her to be a self-interested child of privilege with little regard for the concerns of others. Bringing James with her to the previous year’s retreat was a mistake that she fails to appreciate the gravity of and does not apologize for, even after Virginia makes her displeasure evident. Further, her reactions to the attempts that people make to connect with her, and the way she perceives all communication as meddling in her personal affairs, paint her as a bit of a brat. Although she is surrounded by people who do not seem to be significantly less privileged than she is (Virginia’s parents’ lake house is beautiful and doubtlessly expensive, and Rich’s parents own a similar, neighboring location, so it’s not as if the two are struggling), her peers perceive her as cold and unapproachable. It’s implied that her late father may have schemed to take advantage of others’ money, but nothing is ever made explicit, and, if her father was the Bernie Madoff of the Hudson River Valley, her denial of his sins and weaknesses despite being his assistant as well as his daughter would make their dislike of her more understandable. Overall, however, our sympathy lies with her, as she descends into the kind of spiraling depression that is rarely depicted onscreen, as she becomes more and more detached from social mores and human behavior, becoming more feral and inhuman with each passing day. Virginia’s failure to realize how much her vengeance is hurting her oldest and dearest friend, and her refusal to send Rich away as he becomes more confrontational and cruel, paints her in a more unsympathetic light, although we also empathize with her inability to properly conceptualize just how deep Catherine’s wounds are.

This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond