The month of June has been flying by quicker than I can even believe, as we’re already a week out from the end of the 2017 Dances With Films festival, which took over the historic Chinese Theater in Los Angeles earlier this month. During DWF, I had the opportunity to catch several intriguing genre films, including Devil’s Whisper, Inheritance, Imitation Girl, and Central Park, and here’s a summary of my thoughts on these four flicks:
Devil’s Whisper: There are a few aspects that I enjoyed about Devil’s Whisper, but unfortunately in the end, a somewhat predictable conclusion coupled with some hokey dialogue ends up derailing the supernatural story from becoming anything beyond “it’s fine.”
Co-writer/director Adam Ripp admirably takes the road left traveled in Devil’s Whisper (especially in relation to other recent possession-related movies), as we follow a teenager named Alex (Luca Oriel), an aspiring priest and a generally all-around good kid. But once he gets his hands on a mysterious box containing a demonic force, Alex undergoes a sinister transformation, where he must struggle against evil in order to keep his soul intact. Rarely do you ever see stories about kids with faith who are excited to follow a more “righteous” path in life, and I appreciated that approach from Ripp. That being said, pretty much everything else in the film is precisely what you’d expect from a project of this ilk, and I felt like it wasted some promise I saw in its unique protagonist early on.
Oriel delivers strong work in Devil’s Whisper, but once his character Alex starts lashing out due to being tormented by this dark presence in his life, I will wholly admit that’s when I checked out emotionally. We see our possessed protagonist do the usual things—talk in funny voices, attack friends, things of that nature—but to me, the real moment that killed it all was the fact that Alex gets caught drunk driving (without a license), his parents chastise him for doing something so reckless because it could potentially ruin them financially, and it reflects badly on Alex’s morality as a future clergy member as well, but then, in the very next scene, they’re throwing him a surprise birthday party, making jokes, and everything is cool. I mean, maybe that could happen, but I remember having my Sweet 16 birthday party canceled over something way less serious (late-night phone call to my boyfriend), and it just seems like the character of Alex gets the saccharine treatment by his parents and friends (whom he lashes out at repeatedly), while there are no real ramifications for any of the serious misdeeds he commits throughout Devil’s Whisper.
That being said, I’m always happy to recognize whenever someone tries to do something different, and Ripp does attempt to mix up the supernatural cinema formula with Devil’s Whisper (I’m also a big fan of the concept and mythology he establishes with the film’s evil box), but I don’t think everything comes together in any sort of emotionally satisfying way as a viewer. I’d be interested to see what Ripp can do on future projects, because it is evident that he is interested in making character-driven films, and that’s a methodology I will always appreciate.
Movie Score: 2/5
Inheritance: Anchored by a haunting and captivating performance by Chase Joliet (Krisha, It Comes At Night), Tyler Savage’s Inheritance is a powerful visual allegory for being able to break the destructive cycles of our progenitors, whatever they may be (alcohol, anger issues, depression, violence or abuse), making for an experience that felt deeply personal, and Savage does a brilliant job of building a palpable sense of dread towards the film’s conclusion, making Inheritance a story that’ll stick with you for some time after seeing it.
In Inheritance, Joliet’s character, Ryan, finds himself conflicted over an incredible real estate deal versus the concerns of his apprehensive pregnant fiancée, Isi (Sara Montez), after he inherits an amazing oceanfront home from his estranged father, and starts to succumb to the malevolent influences of his new property. Things don’t start off so rocky for the young lovers, as their new house initially offers them the promise of a brighter future and a place to start their family. But when Ryan discovers a mysterious note left behind by his dad that tells him to sell the property as soon as possible, he dismisses its intentions and stubbornly decides to settle in for a while. Which, as you can guess, turns out to be a huge mistake on Ryan’s part, as we watch his dark obsessions begin to spiral out of control.
The thing that makes Inheritance so damned compelling is how well Savage grounds his story, utilizing both an eye-opening historical perspective as well as a gritty realism that makes Ryan’s horrific journey all the more relatable. Both Joliet and Montez have great chemistry together, making them a couple you really want to root for throughout all the dark twists that Inheritance has in store for its characters. On a technical level, Inheritance is something of a marvel, with Savage smartly relying on his incredible cinematographer, Drew Daniels, who creates an eerie moodiness as he moves the camera through Ryan’s newly acquired abode.
Some may call Inheritance a “slow burn” thriller, but I think it’s something far more than that; it’s a striking character study that examines how a family’s dark past can continue to tear people apart decades later, and how we all must make a conscious decision to break free of the baggage that sometimes comes with our own respective lineages. As far as directorial debuts go, Savage has crafted an impressive first feature with Inheritance, and I do hope it gets to enjoy a long life on the festival circuit.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Imitation Girl: I totally fell in love with Natasha Kermani’s Imitation Girl within the first ten minutes, and by the end, I was absolutely moved by her exploration of identity, modern relationships, and the duality of womanhood. A big part of the reason why Imitation Girl works as well as it does is due to the efforts of its lead actress, Lauren Ashley Carter, who delivers a star-making performance here, giving us two intriguing and endlessly compelling protagonists to follow throughout Kermani’s sci-fi-infused drama.
In Imitation Girl, things start off like any other day in the desert; we see a young kid sneak off to a mountainous area to do a little day drinking and have some alone time with his favorite adult magazine. But out of nowhere, we see something crash to the earth, and an alien substance decides to take on a human form, and that form happens to be of an up-and-coming porn actress, Julianna Fox (Carter, of course, plays both). The “Imitation” version of Julianna is taken in by an Iranian family, who, upon realizing that the girl seems lost and wholly out of her element, set out to help her, keep her safe, and try to figure out just why the young woman feels so out of place and out of touch.
Across the country, we catch up with the real Julianna, who is feeling frustrated by the life she’s leading. She’s in an unfulfilling relationship, caught up in an unsatisfying career (or careers, as we learn she also peddles drugs to her co-stars for her boyfriend), and pining for a life she used to live, one filled with passion, promise, and a desire to be a professional pianist. There’s a deep struggle within Julianna that goes much further than a woman who is bored making porn (we’ve all seen that story a few times now), and I appreciate that Kermani didn’t take that route here. What makes Julianna’s story so sad is that her yearning to feel valued by something—by anything or anyone—leaves her desperate and filled with self-doubt, having no real idea of where her life is headed or if it even has any sort of meaning at all.
The real fun of Imitation Girl lies within watching Carter play around with two characters who are polar opposites from each other. “Imitation” is filled with wonder and curiosity about humanity, and Julianna has reached the point where she just makes one bad decision after another out of pure frustration for the hand she’s been dealt in life. And overall, Carter is a true delight in Imitation Girl, with “Imitation” Julianna’s monologue that waxes poetic about love while lying in the grass one of the film’s loveliest moments. Carter shines, and I hope she continues to stay busy in the indie genre world for years to come.
While there may be some rough edges to the story and its finale (I dug it on an allegorical level, but those of you looking for a more literal conclusion might be a bit dissatisfied), Imitation Girl soars on Carter’s performance, and Kermani shows great promise as a thought-provoking and fascinating cinematic storyteller who isn’t afraid to push the envelope. Also, bonus points go to Imitation Girl for its Lewis Black cameo, a presence that I will always welcome (he’s so great in the underrated comedy Accepted).
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Central Park: There’s a lot to admire when it comes to writer/director Justin Reinsilber’s debut feature, Central Park, even if the film gets a little too ambitious for its own good during the film’s cluttered conclusion. Anchored by a rock-solid ensemble, an intriguing setting for a slasher/crime thriller mashup (the titular park in New York City), and an incredible score, Central Park ends up being a bit more than your average “teens being stalked by a masked killer fare,” even if it stumbles a little across the finish line.
Central Park starts off by informing us of a huge scandal that has rocked the financial community in New York, as it’s revealed that Christian Lincoln Smith Jr. had been bilking his clients out of millions of dollars in a Ponzi-like scheme that has destroyed people’s lives and sent the investment banker to jail. His son, Harold (Justin A. Davis), is feeling the brunt of his father’s misdeeds, as the media are relentlessly camped outside his home in search of a soundbite. All Harold wants to do is hang with his prep school friends, and they decide that Central Park is the place to do it, and head off for a night of drinking, drugs, and sexual dalliances. Unbeknownst to the teens, there’s a brutal killer that’s been stalking them, and he violently crashes their party, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
In addition to our potential underage victims in Central Park, we also have several other storylines at play in Reinsilber’s debut feature. In the film, we follow a well-meaning teacher, Mr. Shaw (Michael Lombardi), who becomes intertwined in the dangerous game being played out by the titular location, and there’s also a pair of detectives we check in regularly with throughout the story who end up involved by the finale as well. I appreciated the fact that Reinsilber decided to take the Paul Thomas Anderson route storytelling-wise, but I think if he had honed in on the main story with the kids, he would have avoided some pitfalls that made the third act of Central Park feel just a little too convenient.
That being said, there are some really nifty aspects to Central Park that spoke to me as a horror fan. When Reinsilber stays focused on his slasher storyline, especially once the teens arrive for their party at the city's popular recreational area. The park makes for an intriguing backdrop to the film’s savage killer, who uses the terrain to his advantage as he quietly stalks his young prey. I loved the unconventional mask to the killer in Central Park, too, and some of the kills are wicked and gnarly, and feel like they’d be right at home alongside some of the great slasher movies of yesteryear. Those moments in particular are really great, and I applaud Reinsilber’s ingenuity in that regard.
Overall, I can admire the first-time feature filmmaker for wanting to go big and try to do some unusual things with Central Park, but in the end, had Reinsilber just focused his efforts more on the horror, instead of trying to force a few storylines to intersect by the conclusion, he could have made a really great slasher. Instead, what we get is just a decent horror movie with too many tangled storylines. If the writer/director can rein his vision in on his next project, I think Reinsilber has the potential to create some truly standout genre projects based on some of what he manages to do here.
Movie Score: 3/5