Summer of 84: A Suburb Can be a Dangerous Place

A gang of bicycle-riding teen boys try to track down a neighborhood serial killer in this suburban Gothic send up to 1980s horror. Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith and directed by a trio known for their 1980s-style films, casual viewers will undoubtedly accuse Summer of 84 (2018) of ripping off the Netflix series Stranger Things, but it is far more subtle in its nostalgia and grounded in reality. There are no supernatural elements here, only the real-life horror inflicted by unassuming suburban dwellers like John Wayne Gacy and William Bonin.

The year is 1984, and a serial killer stalks the fictional county of Cape May, Oregon. Fifteen-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), an avid follower of conspiracy theories and reader of the Weekly World News, becomes convinced his neighbor, police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is the “Cape May Slayer” after seeing a photo on the back of a milk carton of a missing boy he previously noticed inside Mackey’s house.

He enlists the help of his skeptical friends, Dale “Woody” Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Tommy “Eats” Eaton (Judah Lewis) to spy on Mackey. They follow him on his nightly jog to a storage unit, where they find several suspicious items, including the missing boy’s bloodstained shirt. Davey presents their evidence to his parents (played by Jason Gray-Stanford and Shauna Johannesen), but his plan backfires when they become angry and force him to apologize to Mackey.

Davey’s friend and former babysitter, Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), also tries to convince Davey to abandon his pursuit, but after several strange interactions with Mackey, Davey convinces his friends to give him one last chance to prove Mackey is the killer. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is sickeningly real and terrifying. Summer of 84 pulls no punches when it comes to delivering an emotionally impactful climax.


Tragedy Girls: A Fresh, Trendy Take on the Horror Genre

In Tragedy Girls (2017), two teen girls set social media on fire by kidnapping and unleashing a pet serial killer. Will they—or their friendship—survive this newfound notoriety? Written and directed by Tyler MacIntyre with contributions by Chris Lee Hill, Tragedy Girls is a fresh, contemporary take on the genre. MacIntyre and Hill also collaborated on several other projects, including the horror-comedy Patchwork (2015), and the film undoubtedly benefited from their rapport.

Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are high school cheerleaders who run an unpopular true crime blog. They hatch a plan to kidnap local serial killer Lowell (Kevin Durand) and convince him to work together. He refuses, so Sadie and McKayla opt for plan B: commit sensational murders and blame them on Lowell, all while increasing their readership with exclusive inside information on the crimes.

The plan goes awry when Lowell convinces McKayla that Sadie wants to take all the fame and notoriety for herself. He eventually escapes and tracks Sadie to her friend Jordan’s house. Jordan (Jack Quaid) is son of Sheriff Welch (Timothy V. Murphy). He has a crush on Sadie but suspects McKayla is really the serial killer. Lowell stabs Jordan, but Sadie wakes Sheriff Welch and he chases Lowell off.

The girls’ rift deepens as Sadie and Jordan fall in love and McKayla continues her life of crime with Lowell. I won’t spoil the ending, but Tragedy Girls concludes with a fiery prom night that will make anyone sensitive to the topic of school violence cringe. The film’s ending reinforces the notion that attractive, popular girls are perceived as incapable of being vicious killers.


Chappaquiddick: A Sober but Colorless Docudrama

Chappaquiddick (2017) recounts the tragic death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne in this historical drama supporters of the late Senator Ted Kennedy don’t want you to see. Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, and directed by John Curran, the film is competently handled but falls into the trap of “and then” storytelling, with only a halfhearted conflict between Ted Kennedy’s character and a funny but oddly out of place Ed Helms.

The year is 1969. Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is still mourning the loss of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the second brother to fall to an assassin’s bullet. The country is preparing to fulfill his late brother President John F. Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon. He plans a party on Chappaquiddick Island for Robert’s former campaign staff, including Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). He is joined by Massachusetts US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms).

Kennedy and Mary Jo drive off alone together, and although it’s implied there might be an affair brewing (Kennedy was married), it’s never shown. Kennedy, drunk, accidentally drives off a bridge. We see him lethargically return to the beach house where, despite protests by Markham and Gargan, he waits until morning to report the accident. Gargan, his family’s longtime “fixer,” is unable and unwilling to help Kennedy make this “problem” go away.

Kennedy returns to his family home, where he seeks help from his nightmarish and stroke-disabled father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern). Kennedy, Sr. summons a damage control team led by ruthless Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), who attempts to gain sympathy for Kennedy in the press. Joe Gargan urges him to resign, but Kennedy ultimately chooses to run for re-election. “Even Moses had personal flaws,” he argues, but Gargan retorts, “Moses didn’t leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”


The Death of Stalin

Events surrounding the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are recounted in The Death of Stalin (2017), a dark and irreverent dramedy written and directed by Armando Iannucci, et al. You’d be wrong if you thought there was nothing funny about a regime responsible for the deaths of 6 to 9 million people. This talented cast perfectly captures the chaotic and absurd at this pivotal moment in Russian history.

Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was a principal figure in the rise of communism in Russia and served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952. He led the Soviet Union through World War 2, oversaw massive industrialization and collectivization programs, and instituted state terror to maintain control. After his death, his successors undertook reforms and denounced his crimes.

The Death of Stalin depicts events from the night of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) cerebral hemorrhage to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) coup and the execution of NKVD (Soviet secret police) chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). It portrays how paranoid and aware of their precarious position members of Stalin’s inner circle were, and the struggle to find a leader among a group of frightened sycophants.

Lavrentiy Beria was a truly monstrous figure. As soon as Stalin fell ill, he moved to eliminate his enemies and position himself as Stalin’s successor, while currying favor with the public with a general amnesty for all prisoners. While the helpless and inept Georgy Malenkov (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor) acted as Premier of the Soviet Union, his rivals fought behind the scenes to take control. They made a critical error by putting Nikita Khrushchev in charge of Stalin’s funeral, where he was able to organize a coup with WW2 Soviet military hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A woman seeks justice for her daughter by battling indifference in a small Midwestern town in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), written and directed by Martin McDonagh. This dark dramedy was enormously successful, raking in over $157 million worldwide on a $15 million budget. It goes to show what can happen when first rate actors play well-written characters in a compelling storyline.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), was brutally raped and murdered. Local Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make an arrest after several months. Frustrated with lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred rents three abandoned billboards and posts: “Raped While Dying”, “Still No Arrests?”, and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

The billboards quickly divide the town. Chief Willoughby, while sympathetic, is suffering from terminal cancer and feels Mildred is unfairly targeting him. He fails to restrain an alcoholic and abusive police officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who retaliates against the billboard owner, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Mildred is also under attack from her ex husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), another abusive alcoholic, who blames her for their daughter’s death.

Events quickly spiral out of control, but nothing is resolved in the end. Jason Dixon is the only character who grows or has a change of heart, which is usual because he’s definitely not the protagonist. Mildred remains unnecessarily mean to everyone around her, including James (Peter Dinklage), who is just trying to show her some affection.


Alpha: An Implausible Survival Tale

A young hunter must survive on the Mammoth steppe with the help of a wolf during the Upper Paleolithic period in Alpha (2018), written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes. Hughes is known for films like From Hell and The Book of Eli, but this was Wiedenhaupt’s first produced screenplay. She did a bang up job adapting Hughes’ original story for the screen. Despite stunning visuals and cinematography, and some interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, however, Alpha mainly pulls on moviegoers’ heartstrings with a completely implausible story.

Tribal chieftain Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is proud that his son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has proven himself worthy to accompany them on their annual buffalo hunt, but his wife Rho (Natassia Malthe) is apprehensive. On their long journey to the hunting grounds, they encounter another group of hunters led by Xi (Jens Hultén), and they join forces. Keda is skilled, but impatient and hesitant to kill. Tau instructs him on the need for strength, a lesson Keda will learn the hard way over the coming months as he fights for survival.

While his fellow hunters are stampeding a bison herd off a cliff (an actual hunter-gatherer tactic), a bison tramples Keda, impales him, and hurls him off the edge, where he plunges over 100 yards, suffers multiple broken bones and massive internal hemorrhaging, and dies. Wait, the bison’s horn only snags his coat and he lands safely on a ledge suffering only an injured ankle? Then a flash flood miraculously arrives in the nick of time, providing him a soft place to land when he slips from the rocks? And he doesn’t just drown in the current? … really?

In order to have tension in a survival story, we must think (despite knowing otherwise) there’s a possibility the main character won’t survive, but this improbable scenario plants in the viewer’s mind the idea that the main character literally cannot be killed. All tension evaporates when the hand of God (the screenwriter) comes down and saves Keda from one impossible-to-survive situation after another.


First Impressions of Alpha

A young hunter must survive on the Mammoth steppe with the help of a wolf during the Upper Paleolithic period in Alpha (2018), written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes. I’m a fan of prehistoric films and was looking forward to this movie, which purported to tell the story of how human-canine companionship began.

Despite stunning visuals and cinematography, and some interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, Alpha mainly pulls on moviegoers’ heartstrings with a completely implausible story that was so ridiculous at times I almost walked out of the theater. Here are some of my first impressions, with a full review to follow on Monday:

  • While Albert Hughes has some directing experience (most notably From Hell and The Book of Eli), this was Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s first produced screenplay. Wiedenhaupt did a bang up job adapting Hughes’ original story for the screen, although the dialogue seemed a bit too sophisticated at times.
  • Alpha was filmed primarily in Canada and Iceland. The cinematography is amazing, with sweeping landscapes that really give you a sense of the Mammoth steppe, which used to span from Siberia to Western Europe. It’s too bad they couldn’t film in the last remaining portion of this steppe in western Siberia.
  • Despite interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, the main character’s village is strangely lifeless. His mother is apparently the only female in the village, and there are no babies or children. This film basically has four or five characters—the rest simply exist as part of the scenery.
  • For no discernible reason, Alpha borrows stylistically from Zack Snyder’s 300. Instead of falling from a real cliff or rock ledge, Keda (the main character) is thrown from a cartoonishly-tall, sheer cliff, miraculously lands on the only ledge on said cliff, and then again is miraculously saved when a flash flood allows him to survive the remaining fall. These are all unnecessary stylistic choices that strain your suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
  • Another bizarre stylistic choice was for the hunting party to travel literally hundreds of miles to find a bison herd. In reality, prehistoric people followed the herds, or settled in villages near where herds migrated. There is no reason for Keda to have to walked for what seemed like months to get home.

Alpha is a crowd-pleaser. Audiences will love the main character’s interaction with a wolf that acts like a modern domesticated dog (even playing fetch and tugging on a scarf), but don’t mistake this fantastical story for history. Look for a full review next Monday.