Directed by: Nicholas Bushman
Run time: 89 minutes
The Lowdown: Imagine if Eyes Wide Shut was set entirely inside the lush and lurid masked fetish party, which serves as the midpoint of that film and the apex of Tom Cruise’s tip into madness.
Imagine if The Strangers wasn’t a straight home invasion classic, or The Purge wasn’t a future portent of a possible world gone mad.
Union Furnace, the new film from writer-director Nicholas Bushman and writer-actor Mike Dwyer, feels eerily prescient and completely in-tune with our current political and social climate.
It imagines a world where a group of one-percenters in a small, seemingly red state-minded community kidnap a group of people to participate in a series of escalating and harrowing games where the winners receive cash rewards and the losers – well, Union Furnace does a good job withholding the fates of its unfortunate contestants until the movie reaches a fever pitch, which only serves to heighten the emotional gut-punch.
The one-percenters, including their magnetic, and initially magnanimous, leader, all hide behind carefully-selected masks. The leader is known as Lion because his mask is a stark, white lion’s face.
The contestants are all blue-collar, ordinary folks, including genre icon Keith David, who maybe haven’t had the fortune to rise above their social class or improve their community standing. They all slowly come to realize that while the games might seem childish – musical chairs, for instance – the consequences for refusing to play, or worse, losing, are extreme.
In the context of a world where an incompetent and ill-equipped man-child can be elected president, Union Furnace likely feels akin to an ice dagger into the heart, depending on the political and world views of its audience. For many, its grisly carnival funhouse represents a waking nightmare that could become reality. For others, it’s the equivalent of a raucous blood sport – The Running Man or The Hunger Games for a privileged caste with little regard for human life outside of entertainment.
Union Furnace benefits mightily from its plain surroundings. The majority of the film takes place in a bland performance hall with simple chairs and minimal set decoration. It forces viewers instead to focus on the contestants, most of whom are immediately relatable – a single mother, a small businessman, a retiree, a petty thief and more.
The crowd rewards, and punishes, honesty, which also is unsettling and insightful.
Imagine for a minute standing in front of a conservative mob and trying to appeal to their humanity, their innate goodness, and having your impassioned words and genuine empathy met with appreciation followed by mocking, violent and undeserved reprisal.
Much like Get Out and Desierto, this is a movie with its boot firmly on the throat of decent folks who don’t fall easily into either political camp, yet who could easily find themselves victimized by inciteful hyperbole and blind mob mentality.
It’s yet another superior example of recent cinema shining a light on the disgraceful, deep-seated prejudices fueling our national decline.
The fact that Union Furnace was filmed prior to the 2016 presidential election and the daily fallout from that vote since only serves to show that we’ve been swept up in this drain-swirling downward spiral longer than we’d like to acknowledge.
BVB can’t recommend Union Furnace enough. It’s just damn good.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – Yes.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Elitists.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Bluebeard (Well Go USA, 117 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): One of the best Korean import thrillers in recent memory is also a textbook example of how too many twists can unravel a carefully-structured narrative and leave viewers perplexed.
Make no mistake, Bluebeard, the first film in 14 years by writer-director Soo-youn Lee, is fascinating, gripping and appropriately unhinged for the first half of its story, with just enough blood and body parts to keep horror fans satisfied.
Lee’s film focuses on Dr. Seung-hoon (Jin-woong Jo, a capable everyman in a carefully metered performance), a colonoscopist still reeling from a tumultuous divorce and trying to remain a parental fixture for his son. He also is prone to nodding off to sleep without warning.
Seung-hoon has relocated to the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, and lives in a modest apartment above a butcher shop operated by the gregarious, and off-putting, Sung-geun (Dae-Myung Kim), whose father eventually makes an appointment for a colonoscopy.
While under anesthesia, the man begins mumbling about violent atrocities that appear linked to a string of serial murders throughout the district. Seung-hoon becomes obsessed with the butcher shop and Sung-geun, and Sung-geun, in turn, becomes equally obsessed with the doctor tenant living upstairs.
Lee tracks the two men as they learn more about each other, and become more distrustful. There’s a wicked subplot about a severed head, which may or may not end up in Seung-hoon’s freezer – a lot of Lee’s narrative resides in that gray area between reality and fantasy, which helps to keep viewers off-balance. But there are also several unnecessary subplots, including an assistant in Seung-hoon’s office, who seems like a love interest, but also may be stealing narcotics.
Bluebeard, by its very title, a riff on the classic French folktale by Charles Perrault, indicates that the story itself can’t necessarily be trusted, and Lee’s film ultimately falls deep into that well.
The last 30 minutes or so, in particular, devolves into a series of escalating reveals told from different perspectives and vantage points, such as surveillance cameras, which are meant to shock and surprise, but the successive twists eventually overlap and undermine the facts established early on, leaving viewers confused and frustrated.
The box art compares Bluebeard to David Fincher’s masterpiece, Se7en, which is a nice compliment, but it’s an unfair and inaccurate comparison. Bluebeard might have aspired to such heights, but its story doesn’t measure up. Still, for fans of creepy Korean genre cinema, it’s a worthwhile excursion down a very dark road that never reaches its intended destination.
Alien: Covenant (Fox, 122 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Alien: Covenant is essentially Prometheus: I’m Sorry – The Apology Tour.
And I am totally OK with that.
Ridley Scott returns to form, eschewing the divisive why-are-we-here questions that undermined 2012’s Prometheus, and delivers the best Alien film in 25 years, which also happens to be the third-best film in the long-running franchise.
The reason why is simple: Scott finally made Alien scary again.
After 38 years and eight films, it’s understandable why Scott would want to build upon the rich mythology of the universe that he created in 1979.
Whereas 1986’s Aliens wowed by delivering a big body count along with genuine jolts, the series has devolved since 1997’s Alien: Resurrection into the galactic equivalent of Friday the 13th in space.
See crew discover a mysterious ship and/or planet. See crew explore. See crew discover vicious monsters. See crew die one by one.
Prometheus tried to break ranks by introducing a bunch of cosmic hoo-hah about the origin of man with a splash of extraterrestrial DNA, but even that film – while amateurish and sloppy in its writing – eventually came down to a final girl in space trying to stay alive.
Covenant follows the same basic beat, but thankfully screenwriter John Logan, who has penned the last two James Bond adventures, created create Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and drafted numerous big-budget blockbusters, including Gladiator, The Time Machine, The Last Samurai, The Aviator and more, finds a way to make the A-list cast (Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, James Franco, Guy Pearce and Noomi Rapace, to name a few) likeable and distinct from other ill-fated space explorers in past franchise entries.
Scott scrapped the original premise for Covenant, which was rumored to be a direct sequel to Prometheus with Rapace and Fassbender reprising their characters, and instead journeys forward in time (though we are still a ways from the stardate for the original Alien) to the first mission to colonize a new host planet with an environment favorable to Earth. Lo and behold, it just happens to be the home planet of the Engineers, the race of giant gods who are theorized to have helped create humankind.
There’s a brief sequence midway through Covenant that mostly exists to serve as the bridge between the new film and Prometheus, and my one, major quibble with Covenant is that Scott kind of violates his own history – we still have yet to see the damn Engineer ship piloted by the Space Jockey crash land on Acheron, the planet formerly known as LV-426, which the crew of the Nostromo discovers in the original Alien.
But, honestly, I could write a thesis on my quibbles about the gaping plot holes and logic lapses in Prometheus, so I’m OK with having just one issue with Covenant.
Plus, Covenant is just one hell of a xenomorph-infested haunted house spookshow, and it sweeps up the audience with its whirlwind pace and gory practical effects, which include some of the best, new monsters since the introduction of the Alien Queen.
Ironically, audiences didn’t respond as well to Covenant as they did Prometheus, and while that might be a direct result of Prometheus’ underwhelming story, it still doesn’t make sense since word of mouth about Covenant should have been much stronger.
Regardless, for longtime fans of this universe, Covenant is a blast, and it begs for a follow-up. Hopefully studio suits and bean counters won’t conspire like Peter Weyland to make sure it never happens.
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Fate (Self Destruct Films, 95 minutes, Unrated, VOD): A new variation on a familiar time-travel scenario, Fate details the efforts of a quantum physicist who tries to rewrite history by going back in time to save his fiancé’s life.
Dave Made A Maze (Gravitas Ventures, 80 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Like a demented kid’s show – imagine an adults-only fantasy like Land of the Lost with real life or death stakes – Dave Made a Maze roars out of the gate with a fantastic concept and some genuinely inventive set designs to elevate what is essentially a tale of millennial angst about career goals, creative stagnation and one man-child’s refusal to mature into adulthood.
Director Bill Watterson and writer Steven Sears briefly flirt with bonafide cult classic status, but eventually settle for a less global, more personal third act that ties up loose subplots, but doesn’t resonate with the same fury and fortune of earlier, better films.
Still, Dave Made a Maze is the kind of movie that you’ll want to share with your cinephile friends as a way to brag and boost your indie-film discovery cred.
Stars Nick Thune (Dave) and Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Annie) lead a cast of well-known (Kirsten Vangsness, Rick Overton) and lesser-known actors into a rabbit hole of cardboard fort shenanigans that starts when Dave spends a weekend alone building a makeshift structure in his living room.
The difference is that unlike most pillow forts, Dave’s creation takes on a life of its own, growing internally into a complex structure of labyrinthine tunnels and multiple levels, populated by whimsical creatures, one bad-ass Minotaur and a series of deadly booby traps, a la the opening temple sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Dave is an artist on the verge of an early mid-life existential crisis. He has ideas aplenty, but he just can’t ever seem to finish any project that he starts.
So, while girlfriend Annie is out of town, he begins piecing together scraps of cardboard boxes in his living room. Eventually, his maze has become like Doctor Who’s Tardis – it’s way bigger on the inside than anyone standing outside can imagine.
Annie recruits a bunch of friends to help coax Dave back to reality. When she returns home from a business trip, she discovers the maze, but no Dave, who she can only speak to through a series of vent holes. As her anger and confusion builds, Dave tries to explain that he can’t find his way back out to their living room, which makes zero sense to Annie. When she tries to tear down part of the structure, it sets off a seismic reaction inside the maze. Ultimately, she has no choice but to venture inside, despite Dave’s urgent warnings, with her motley band of hipster misfits.
For a short(er) film, Dave Made a Maze drags briefly just past the midpoint, but rallies for a satisfying emotional and structural conclusion.
It’s refreshing to encounter a film like this, a fantastical and lyrical quest that plays like Charlie Kaufman-lite. While it lacks the intellectual oomph of The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dave Made a Maze captures the dreams and nightmares of its target generation and delivers a trippy mix of visual ideas unlike most mainstream films.