CHANNEL ZERO: NO-END HOUSE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 17 minutes

Directed by: Steven Piet

Written by: Nick Antosca, Harley Peyton, Mallory Westfall, Don Mancini, Erica Saleh, Katie Gruel, Lisa Long & Angel Varak-Iglar

(based on the creepypasta THE NO-END HOUSE by Brian Russell)

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Aisha Dee, Jeff Ward, Seamus Patterson, Sebastian Pigott, Jess Salgueiro, Melanie Nicholls-King & John Carroll Lynch

Creepypasta (modern online horror stories/urban legends) and the Syfy Channel sounds like a disastrous combination. Fortunately, CHANNEL ZERO (Syfy’s creepypasta series) delivers small-screen chills in ways that few other horror shows have ever been able to accomplish. AMERICAN HORROR STORY wishes that it was this scary, clever, and imaginative. CHANNEL ZERO’s first season (CANDLE COVE) reminded me of something that Stephen King might have written in his heyday. CHANNEL ZERO’s second season (NO-END HOUSE) is even better than the already great first season. CHANNEL ZERO: NO-END HOUSE is creepypasta adapted into a genuinely scary visual thrill ride.

Margot Sleator (Amy Forsyth) is still coping with her father’s (John Carroll Lynch) tragic death. In an effort to cheer up and do something fun, Margot and her friends (Aisha Dee, Jeff Ward, and Seamus Patterson) decide to visit an internet-famous haunted house. The ooky spooky attraction has six rooms, each one is supposedly scarier than the last. However, this supposedly fun time transforms into a psychological nightmare as the No-End House’s scares quickly become personal and last far longer than originally expected. I’m being purposely vague, lest I spoil any of the nasty surprises that NO-END HOUSE’s ever-twisting narrative has up its sleeve.

Much like the first season’s plot, Brian Russell’s creepypasta is treated simply as a starting point for a more complicated tale. To be fair, I highly recommend that you check out (at least the first two parts of) Russell’s creepypasta because it’s easily my favorite creepypasta. I was pumped to watch CHANNEL ZERO’s second season and certainly wasn’t disappointed by the final product. This six-episode miniseries is messed up in plenty of ways…and almost none of them are violently gory. There are bits of nasty violence sprinkled throughout the six episodes, but NO-END HOUSE’s frights come from a combination of eerie suggestion, nightmarishly bizarre imagery, and a dark psychological horror story.

I was very impressed by the performances in NO-END HOUSE. Syfy Channel and good acting are two things that you never typically hear uttered in the same sentence, but NO-END HOUSE is the exception. Amy Forsyth is particularly great as the ultra-depressed Margot, who finds a form of twisted comfort in the titular haunted attraction…though her life may be at stake for it. John Carroll Lynch steals the show with genuinely emotional flashbacks and also becomes a terrifying presence as this miniseries progresses onwards. I won’t say too much, but Lynch’s later scenes paint him as a conflicted character and I loved his moral dilemma that the series also throws onto the viewer’s conscience.

Aisha Dee plays Margot’s best friend, Jules, to near-perfection. Dee’s character is deeply flawed, but has good intentions at heart and wants to do the right thing…while also trying to survive the No-End House. Jeff Ward’s character is believable for most of the miniseries, though he does get too hammy during the finale. Seamus Patterson has fun in dual roles and remained an interesting presence throughout. In having these different friends overcoming/succumbing to their horrific personal trials, NO-END HOUSE juggles multiple plotlines for most of its six episodes. This approach was wise as each character’s storyline may have served as fodder for its own season, but combining them all into one trippy scarefest insures that there’s never a dull moment.

NO-END HOUSE’s production values look great and this season’s concepts are huge. Even though NO-END HOUSE revolves around the horrors of a single haunted house, the scale and magnitude of the season far surpass anything in CANDLE COVE. The constant barrage of legitimately freaky imagery ranges from disturbing to just plain odd. An atmosphere of suffocating dread hangs over every episode and never really lets the viewer get comfortable (a great quality for a suspenseful horror story). I was constantly on edge and frequently wondered how in the hell this might end. The twists that NO-END HOUSE takes in its second half are especially unnerving and downright ballsy.

My only complaints with NO-END HOUSE stem from Jeff Ward’s hammy acting in the finale (that’s not aided by a few lines of clichéd, stupid dialogue) and one storyline that felt like it was cut too short for no real reason. Admittedly, this subplot’s conclusion was a shock. The more I think about it though, the more I feel like it might have ended early purely for the sake of focusing on other characters and not because it was a suitable/believable ending for that storyline. I hate being vague, but it’s really easy to spoil spooky surprises in NO-END HOUSE.

Syfy Channel has done it again! They’ve managed to pump out another creepypasta miniseries that’s well-written, has great production values, and is one of the creepiest things I’ve seen on the small screen in quite some time. In a world where THE WALKING DEAD has become a zombie soap opera and AMERICAN HORROR STORY tries way too hard to be edgy, it’s great to have a legitimately freaky series like Syfy’s CHANNEL ZERO. Though it’s not without a couple of noticeable flaws, NO-END HOUSE is well worth a look for horror fans who enjoy creepypastas and want disturbing psychological frights (as opposed to pure gory shock value).

Grade: A-

JACKIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for brief Strong Violence and some Language

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Written by: Noah Oppenheim

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson & John Carroll Lynch

JACKIE was built up as a potential awards contender during last year’s Oscar season and wound up being nominated for three awards (Best Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). Those three categories seem appropriate for a film that has a great performance and looks good, but boils down to being nothing more than style over substance. Those looking for a straightforward biopic of Jackie Kennedy had best look elsewhere, because director Pablo Larrain treats this film as his own personal art project. Loud classical music and overbearing camera work frequently work against a narrative that weaves together events in Jackie’s life through a non-linear fashion.

JACKIE mostly takes place in the days following JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to battle her grief, break the news to her children, and plan a funeral ceremony that will go down in history. The film frequently cuts to an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) who was loosely based on a LIFE magazine reporter. There are also flashbacks before that terrible day, involving Jackie’s time with her husband and her historic televised tour of the White House.

JACKIE’s best quality is easily Natalie Portman’s performance. If you watch footage and interviews with the real-life Jackie Kennedy, you realize how much Portman nailed the most famous First Lady through her acting. From the shy, yet determined attitude to the soft-spoken, uniquely accented way of talking. Jackie Kennedy had a strange voice and Portman’s voice sounds equally as strange in the same ways. Portman also captures the melancholy sadness of the assassination aftermath that ranges from sobbing as she cleans blood off her face in a mirror to small lines of dialogue as she slowly begins to cope with her loss.

The supporting performances drastically range in quality. Billy Crudup is amusing as the journalist, while Greta Gerwig (as secretary Nancy Tuckerman) and Richard E. Grant (as family friend William Walton) have a few stand-out moments. John Hurt resides over some of the best moments as a priest who consoles Jackie and gives her advice. His last scene with Portman is incredibly powerful, if only of the rest of the film was up to this level of emotional insight. Disappointingly, the usually great Peter Sarsgaard is bland as Bobby Kennedy and his accent frequently fades in and out. Equally as much of a letdown is a well-cast John Carroll Lynch being underused as the newly presidential LBJ.

My initial good will towards this movie started to fade with its messy script. This screenplay is less a biopic and more a collage of moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life. That sounds like it could make for an interesting viewing experience, but it’s frequently botched by jumbled storytelling. This might be a case where showing the events in chronological order would have greatly benefited the narrative. At the very least, JACKIE could have given the viewer complete events out-of-order, instead of frequently editing these events together. This narrative jumps around far too much for its own good and becomes downright tedious at points.

My boredom wasn’t purely the result of a so-so script, because JACKIE is a definite example of style over substance. The score is overbearing to the point where it almost drowns out dialogue and becomes an annoyance. This music seems like a blatant attempt to tell the viewer how to feel because the movie itself couldn’t be bothered to. The cinematography is all over the place as the camera style frequently shifts from scene-to-scene. Some of these moments are more visually interesting than others and a few echoed the close-up effect from haunting Holocaust drama SON OF SAUL. This beautiful camera work becomes overbearing to the point of distracting the viewer from the content of the scenes.

JACKIE has a great performance from Natalie Portman and a handful of great moments, but comes off like a messy piece of experimental filmmaking. A scene in which Jackie verbally destroys pompous Jack Valenti over her funeral plans is more than a little satisfying to watch. Another great scene has Jackie breaking the emotional news of her husband’s death to their children. Scenes like this and a stellar performance of the titular First Lady both make JACKIE worth watching for those who might interested. However, brace yourself for lots of overbearingly pretentious filmmaking techniques and an unfocused screenplay. JACKIE is shameless Oscar bait that has great positives and a draining amount of negatives.

Grade: C+

THE FOUNDER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Written by: Robert D. Siegel

Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern & Patrick Wilson

You might be saying: “Really? A biopic about the guy who made McDonald’s? That doesn’t sound too exciting. What’s next? A biopic about Burger King, Carl’s Jr., KFC, or Wendy’s? ” Oh, ye of little faith dear reader, because it turns out that THE FOUNDER is a deliberately ironic title. Before it was globally clogging arteries, McDonald’s was actually a small little restaurant in California. This fast food joint originally had nothing to do with the main character of this biopic. THE FOUNDER lays out the sleazy success story of Ray Kroc, a man who is often mistakenly credited as McDonald’s creator. It’s a wholly compelling ride through a “rat eat rat” world of business, a look at fast food’s revolutionary effect, and a character study of a total scumbag.

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling, over-the-hill salesman. When a special sales order catches his interest, Ray finds himself in San Bernardino and eats at unconventional restaurant McDonald’s. This business’s revolutionary techniques capture Ray’s interest and he eagerly proposes to franchise the company with the McDonalds brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). As time goes on and the burger business is booming, Ray finds himself struggling with the terms of his contract. Soon enough, Ray employs some rather shady means of trying to screw the brothers out of their own business. We get to witness Ray’s back-stabbing moves, snide comments, and borderline illegal strategies. This is all very interesting, entertaining, and mostly (about 90%) true.

Michael Keaton has been a winning streak of performances lately. After portraying a desperate artist in BIRDMAN and a motivated journalist in SPOTLIGHT, Keaton plays Ray Kroc as an all-out asshole. What’s interesting is how Keaton slowly eases the viewer into Ray’s mental state and ambitious nature. We start this film feeling for him and sympathizing with his plight. As the money flows in and his greed grows, Ray’s morals are tossed by the wayside and he becomes a pretty much irredeemable character. Keaton makes this salesman-turned-“founder” so compelling that you likely won’t notice the shift in Ray’s attitude until you’re too far gone in the story. Kroc was a fascinating real-life character and Keaton plays him to perfection.

Though their importance and screen time range, the supporting cast does an excellent job with the material as well. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are great as the McDonalds brothers. Lynch is able to portray a softer and more vulnerable side that I haven’t seen from him before, while Offerman is great as the more strict and defensive brother of the two. Their sibling chemistry is believable and the pair provide two sympathetic antagonists in Kroc’s high-rising path. Patrick Wilson and B.J. Novak are solid as two of Kroc’s business partners. Meanwhile, Laura Dern plays Kroc’s neglected wife and receives some of Keaton’s more emotionally abusive moments.

The look of THE FOUNDER is great because it nicely captures the 1950s time period. The script slightly glamorizes Kroc’s rise to power, even at the cost of trampling on plenty of people beneath him. What’s even more impressive is how this film really shows small details in the fast food revolution. The McDonalds brothers were geniuses with their intricate serving system and strived to maintain a strong code of ethics in their kitchens. In Ray Kroc’s hands, those ethics flew right out the door. It’s fascinating to think about how many fast food restaurants today wouldn’t exist without the brothers’ brilliance and Ray’s immoral sense of constant persistence.

THE FOUNDER is sure to linger the minds of those who watch it. This film works as three things: a drama about the fast food revolution, a dark look into the back-stabbing business world, and a character study of a rather unsavory scumbag. However, the script occasionally bites off more than it can chew. There are a few events that are mentioned in passing and then rushed by for the sake of time. While two hours is probably the ideal length of time for this biopic, there are a couple of spots that seem to move a tad too quickly. These hiccups in pacing don’t detract from the film’s many positives though. This is essentially the fast food version of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. THE FOUNDER might as well have been titled THERE WILL BE BURGERS. If that sounds up your alley, THE FOUNDER will probably satisfy your appetite for a compelling biopic!

Grade: A-

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