Since bursting onto the indie movie scene with 1992’s controversial The Living End, out writer-director Gregg Araki has continued to make some of the rowdiest, no-holds-barred movies featuring gay and bi characters. The Doom Generation, Splendor, Totally F***ed Up and Kaboom are a few examples of these, and Araki has included gay if often troubled men in his more mainstream-leaning efforts like Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face.
Araki is back after a four-year hiatus with White Bird in a Blizzard, now playing in select cities and available though iTunes/On Demand. An adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel of the same name, the film stars Shailene Woodley (little Miss Deviant herself) and a number of A-listers who constitute Araki’s biggest-name cast to date: Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Thomas Jane, Gabourey Sidibe and, as a psychiatrist who is “more like an actress playing a shrink,” Angela Bassett. It is also truly the filmmaker’s most mainstream work thus far, despite some graphic dialogue about sex of the mainly heterosexual variety.
Woodley plays Kat, who is 17 when her mother Eve (Green) mysteriously disappears one day in 1988 while Kat is at school. Her father, Brock (Meloni, effectively cast against type), is at a loss as is Detective Theo Scieziesciez (Jane), the surly but hunky police investigator assigned to the case. Kat initially reacts to her mother’s vanishing act as a form of sexual liberation, acting out both with her “straight-C” neighbor/boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and Detective Theo. As the years pass, Kat goes off to college but is troubled by recurring dreams of her mother, speechless and naked in a snowy landscape. It is during a holiday break back home in 1991 when Kat finally unravels the disturbing truth behind her mother’s disappearance.
As a story largely centered on one’s repression of the truth, White Bird in a Blizzard is something of a piece with Araki’s earlier Mysterious Skin. Its plot also makes the film an interesting companion piece to the current hit Gone Girl, in which another woman’s mysterious disappearance sets off all manner of theories and allegations. Alas, White Bird isn’t as compellingly-crafted as Gone Girl, although Araki works in a degree of twists and surprise revelations. The main difficulty is that Kat isn’t shown to be a very likable person, despite the presence of bff’s played by Sidibe and Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato. She matures a bit once she hits college but remains something of a spoiled cipher, even as the talented Woodley gives the role her best. Most of the film’s other characters aren’t any more complex.
From a visual standpoint, though, White Bird in a Blizzard is Araki’s most accomplished and eye-pleasing film so far. He utilizes a vivid color scheme in the sets and costumes throughout, all the way down to the M&M’s on therapist Bassett’s coffee table. The snowscape in Kat’s visions is nicely stylized, and the 1970’s-early 90’s fixtures and appliances are period perfect. Araki also hits all the right notes musically-speaking, filling the soundtrack with retro tunes by Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, New Order and the Jesus & Mary Chain, among others. If I can’t give the movie a rave review, I can at least recommend its soundtrack.
With just a week to go til Halloween, plenty of us are looking for spooky classics and new releases to watch. Hollows Grove, just released through iTunes, desperately wants your download attention. It contains a few effective scares but unfortunately ends up being overly familiar stuff.
Writer-director Craig Efros takes a found-footage approach to his tale of a documentary filmmaker, Harold Maxwell, who is following a ghost-hunting reality show crew as they investigate reports of sinister goings on at a long-abandoned orphanage. One of the show’s stars readily admits to Harold that the apparitions regularly encountered by S.P.I.T. (Spirit Paranormal Investigation Team) are rigged by a retired special effects master played by Aliens’ Lance Henriksen. It isn’t long after they all arrive at the old Hollows Grove Home for Children, though, that they begin to realize this haunting is the real deal.
Los Angeles’ actually-haunted Linda Vista Hospital served as one of the film’s shooting locations and this definitely gives Hollows Grove an aura of authenticity. What undermines the promising premise are the so-so acting, badly-improvised dialogue and an unnecessary framing device starring Mykelti Williamson of Forrest Gump fame. On the plus side, many of the movie’s “live” visual effects are excellent and much more convincing than the digital ghost FX. And while they tend to be irritatingly “bang” rather than bump in the night, the sound effects are suitably creepy. Hollows Grove isn’t a total waste of time, especially at just 80 minutes, but there are plenty of better chillers available to get one in the Halloween spirit.
White Bird in a Blizzard: B
Hollows Grove: C
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.