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Asylum

"Asylum" represents something different in the horror film, which is not quite the same as saying it represents something welcome. Supposedly the bulk of it is footage shot in an imaginary eastern European country. The locale was chosen to save money in the making of a horror film that has a hostage negotiator (Stephen Rea) heading a team that's going in to an institution for the criminally insane to deal with an inmate riot. Exact details are sketchy but on arrival, they discover blood-spattered walls and Latin graffiti, suggesting very well-educated homicidal maniacs. Rea also finds out that his brother, a former priest who has gone Satanic, is in residence and apparently able to emerge from his cell at will. The staff and inmates have been turned into blank-eyed zombies apparently under his control – or maybe just ambling about attacking anyone who wanders into their path until the brother opens the gate to hell. Or something. None of it makes a lick of sense (the negotiating team enters armed only with non-lethal weapons but is hurling grenades by the end). Watching this footage – and commenting on it – are two editors for the company that produced the footage; their snarky banter recalls "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

There's also a running subplot about the crackpot owner of the production company and his staff; it adds nothing but running time to the proceedings. It does, however, receal the reality behind "Asylum." It was made in Bulgaria by a Dark Skies producer who threw out the script and started making a new one up as he went along. The results were what you see here and it was decided the only way to salvage the result was to turn it into a comedy. If you know that going in – I didn't though I had my suspicions – "Asylum" possesses the kind of fascination a highway accident has. If you don't, you will likely be baffled by what appears to be a movie that has been deliberately badly made so that jokes can be made at its expense (which would surely be just about the crappiest idea anyone has ever had). The film-within-a-film has striking photography and good production values but that's about it. Well the Dark Sky people were able to fulfill their contract to Lionsgate and get a DVD on the market but that doesn't make this mess any less a waste of your time.

2015 / Lionsgate / 93m / $19.98 [R]

Monsters: Dark Continent

"Monsters: Dark Continent" is a sequel to a film I haven't seen, so I'm not aware of the backstory except by way of online synopses. The monsters apparently arrived in a probe that NASA sent out to collect samples of alien life and that crashed on re-entry. The alien beasties grow from spores they spew out like dandelions; they take root in the ground and grow to enormous size lumbering about various "infected zones" and causing extensive property damage but otherwise not displaying any other threat to human or animal life (except when made to fight pit bulls). They are not invading aliens, merely animals – and seemingly not terribly bright ones – from another planet. In this sequel, U.S. troops are sent to one of the zones somewhere in the Middle East (the film was lensed in Jordan), both to kill as many monsters as possible (there are a good many explosions for fans of such things) and to deal with insurgents. A lot of civilians have been killed by the bombs dropped on the big beasties, which has angered certain elements of the indigenous populace who retaliate with terrorist acts against the GIs. The film follows Michael Parkes (Sam Keely) and several of his buddies from Detroit who set out on a mission to rescue missing soldiers under the command of Sergeant Noah Frater (Johnny Harris).

"Monsters: Dark Continent" has been compared to "The Hurt Locker" crossed with "Cloverfield," though it's considerably more of the former, even down to aping the cinematography of that film. The small band of soldiers travels through the desert to the settlement where they believe their comrades are to be found and encounter Bedouin garbed individuals of both the unfriendly and friendly variety. Frater is increasingly antagonistic to both, even going so far as to attempt killing a child who has survived a school bus destroyed in a bombing. You may have noticed I've said nothing about encounters with the alien creatures. For film whose title includes the word monsters, said critters are conspicuously peripheral to the goings on. Tom Green's film is really an analogy to and criticism of our involvement in the Middle East (and possibly to Vietnam as well – maybe to all wars) and hardly a subtle one. The alien life forms are merely a McGuffin, lumbering about in the background and occasionally getting blown up (a pity too as they are wonderfully designed and resemble something out of H. P. Lovecraft). I suspect they could have been omitted and the film would be barely affected. If what remained were a more sophisticated piece of social commentary – as "The Hurt Locker" certainly was – we might have something but Green (who also wrote) can't get beyond the jejune. And the profusion of close-ups of portions of a character's face or of the character staring blankly into the camera doesn't substitute for decent dialogue (or, given its paucity, any dialogue at all). It merely adds to the running time of a film that's already longer than it needs to be.

2014 / Anchor Bay Entertainment / 119m / $26.99 BR [R]

The Poltergeist of Borley Forest (aka You Will Love Me)

However kindly I may be disposed to the difficulties faced by those making a film under micro-budget conditions, I have to declare that "The Poltergeist of Borley Forest" is quite a slog to get through. I give this southern collective of filmmakers and actors credit for managing something reasonably watchable, but it's plagued with so many of the problems of low-budget production that it is only slightly more than a home movie. Lighting and sound are both dicey (at times very good and appalling bad at others – sometimes within the same scene) and it might be best not even to comment on some of the acting. The premise involves twin boys who went missing some years earlier, their disappearance ending a string of disappearances of young girls in the town. A party in the reputedly haunted Borley woods (will film teens never learn not to party in haunted locales?) awakens the something that stalks a young woman and her friends and then begins attacking them. Eventually the teens figure out via a trip to the library and a search of old newspapers that one of the twins killed the girls and then his brother before being lynched by the townspeople. It is his ghost that appears to be the vengeful entity.

I give credit to the filmmakers for not falling back on the old Google search trick but the script meanders and contains too many scenes that go nowhere; there's also some appallingly bad dialogue writing. Stephen McKendree directs at too lackadaisical a pace and doesn't deliver big enough shocks or even much that is particularly creepy to compensate; the result is a film that seems to take far longer than its running time (which is already a good 15 minutes longer than it ought to be). The behind-the scenes extra on "The Poltergeist of Borley Forest" reveals a group of young people who are gung-ho on film and more than a tad inventive in overcoming money problems. It may even be more interesting than the feature they've created, which is something I suspect they'll look back on in embarrassment some day. It's possible some or all of them will create something far better some day and this is part of their learning curve. You may want to wait until they get more experience under their belts.

2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 103m / $27.97 [NR]

Private Number

The only names I recognized in the cast list for this supernatural thriller were Tom Sizemore and Judd Nelson and not too surprisingly both have small roles (particularly Nelson who was all but unrecognizable to me). Sometimes that bodes ill for lower budgeted films but "Private Number" is a tense and often creepy production with good scares and terrific performances from its cast even if they were unknowns to me. Lead Hal Oszan is particularly impressive, as writer Michael Lane who has been sober for a year but is having less success tackling a sequel to his successful first novel. We know some strange things are happening even before he does when we see furniture move on its own accord and shadowy figures glide swiftly through his house, none of which he spots. But then he starts getting middle of the night phone calls that initially only ask "Remember me?" before hanging up. There are several voices posing the question and the caller ID only says "private number." Thanks to the other odd happenings, we can rule out pranksters but the film withholds for a time whether something supernatural is going on or if Michael is hallucinating. When the police finally trace the calls and discover that they all come from a number that doesn't exist (something that oddly doesn't disconcert them) the odds tip very much in favor of the former.

That's not much of a spoiler because it comes reasonably early in the film and most viewers will have concluded the calls and other events are of a ghostly nature even before then. More than that, however, I really shouldn't reveal. "Private Number" is not entirely perfect – there's a plot development involving Lane's wife (Nicholle Tom) that is a tad puzzling and we never do understand what prompts the antagonistic attitude of the sheriff (Nelson) toward Michael. And the scenes involving an AA group led by Sizemore (ironically a recovering substance abuser himself) don't really dovetail into the plot. But for the most part this is a great little thriller with sharp direction, intelligent dialogue and a surprise ending that truly is a surprise for a change (at any rate I didn't see it coming). Making this whole enterprise work more than any other ingredient is a stunning turn from Oszan. If there is any justice this man is headed for stardom and the film is practically a showcase for his range and abilities. But there really aren't any performances that fall short of the mark; Tom also scores in a complex role and Ray Stoney turns in solid work as a deputy who goes behind his boss' back to help Michael uncover what the ghosts want from him.

2015 / Arc Entertainment / 97m / $20.99 [R]

She Must Be Seeing Things

It should be borne in mind that I am not part of the demographic at which "She Must Be Seeing Things" is aimed. At least I'm going to lay my lack of enthusiasm to my perception that Sheila McLaughlin's film was made by lesbians for a lesbian audience. Certainly there seems no effort to preach beyond the choir and I can't shake the notion that if this was a love story involving heterosexuals it would be pretty uninteresting. The story has international civil rights lawyer Agatha (Sheila Dabney) involved with filmmaker Jo (Lois Weaber); the relationship appears to be a fairly young one as they each still maintain their own apartments. Most of Jo's previous relationships have been with men and there is a scene early on indicating she might not be entirely ready to go over to the Sapphic side. For that matter, very little in her life appears to be settled; her apartment is a jumble and she isn't sure she wants to continue making films. While organizing Jo's books, Agatha runs across a diary that chronicles her lover's heterosexual affairs. Now it's never a good idea to read a roommate's diary (trust me on this) and Agatha soon becomes suspicious and jealous and even takes to spying on Jo.

That's pretty much the entirety of the plot (though we do see bits and pieces of Jo's film in progress about a Medieval nun who abandoned the church and lived her life as a man). Writer and director McLaughlin avoids almost any opportunity for drama. At one point Agatha sees Jo (improbably right across the street from Agatha's office) in a heavy-duty saliva swapping session with a man. Instead of the angry confrontation you'd logically expect to ensue, Agatha buys her lover some sexy lingerie. Later in the film, Agatha goes shopping for a sexual aid that will, um, allow her to be more like a man in bed but decides against buying it. Time and again McLaughlin undercuts or drops any development that might perk up an otherwise leisurely paced, subdued film that works too much by inference. Now it may well be that Agatha is simply imagining all this but, aside from the title, that's never properly resolved either. Even the apparently happy ending is a tad suspect because Agatha's jealous nature is going to make for a rocky future even if Jo is faithful. The film also suffers from the usual problems inherent in low-budget independent films; many of the performances are less than adequate and in some scenes the lighting is so poor you can barely see the actors. For me only Dabney's performance kept me engaged until the end.

1987 / First Run Features / 94m / $24.95 [NR]

Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s

Those of a certain age (such as yours truly) might reflect that we lived through the tail end of the great age of magazines, which arguably began in the Victorian era with advances in printing technology and lasted until sometime in the 1970s when publications such as "Life" and "Look" disappeared (at least for a time in the case of "Life") and any oversized publications shrank to an 8x10 inches page size. "Esquire" was one of the best magazines around in the 1950s ad 60s. It began some decades earlier as a kind of forerunner of "Playboy." There were no frontal nudes but the risqué watercolors of Antonio Vargas had backal nudity and were saucy enough for the Post Office to take the publishers to court for obscenity in the 1940s ("Esquire" won – and one suspects it was because the pin-ups were considered a factor in boosting GI morale during the war). But in the 1950s, the publishers decided to shift the editorial focus to a general readership. Two of the editors guiding things (and bitter rivals as well) were Clay Felker, who would later create "New York" magazine, and Harold Hayes, who is the focus of this documentary by his son Tom.

Hayes took a cue from an earlier era when the great writers of American fiction, such as Ernest Hemingway, were hired by publications to cover various current events. Norman Mailer may have been "esquire's" most notorious both for his frequent battles with Hayes, but Truman Capote, Nora Ephron (then just starting her writing career), Gay Talese. Tom Wolfe and Candice Bergen also did reportage for the magazine. Diane Arbus had her earliest photos printed in its pages and illustrators David Levine and Edward Sorel were frequent contributors to a publication as notable for cutting edge graphic design as prose content. Anything that might generate controversy was prized (typical was his invitation to William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to extend their on-camera arguments in print, which resulted in the former suing the latter) so "Esquire" often faced lost advertising. And it was perhaps inevitable that a confrontation with management would occur. A man of principles, Hayes resigned rather than go against them. The magazine has never been quite the same since.

2014 / First Run Features / 97m / $27.95 [NR]

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