If the entire future of filmmaking is remote and socially distanced, I’m not sure the medium could handle it. But as a starting point, a Zoom séance isn’t so bad. Rob Savage, the director and co-writer of Host, was assuredly not letting the pandemic or quarantine hold him back from creating, as he crafted a film entirely centered on a zoom call. And it’s within that call, and film in general, in which he finds a surprising amount of ingenuity in mining the horror of a conference call. At just fifty-six minutes long and released by Horror-centric streaming service Shudder, the film makes easy observations about how the pandemic has changed the most mundane activities, but perhaps contains even greater insight. As Haley (Haley Bishop) gathers a group of friends to speak with a medium (Seylan Baxter), the unleashing of an angry demon seems to speak to a collective identity. Savage makes common Zoom call interruptions, like strange noises and glitchy video, play double duty as both red herrings and supernatural disturbances, with them often seeming obvious from the get-go. But while the entity wreaks havoc, the yearning from all the callers works to become a collective activity that simmers beneath the film’s lo-fi aesthetic.
Channeling the spirits of the dead, on the internet no less, could be seen as a useful analogy for mourning the recent past. As we sit at home with the devices that promised us limitless possibilities in our hands, Host identifies the uncomfortable in-between state we exist in, operating ghostlike. Though the film as a whole isn’t as dynamic as Unfriended, another “dekstop horror movie,” Host provides its fair amount of chills, pulling us out of our quarantine cycle and capturing the inescapable horror that runs both in and outdoors. As conventional as Host can get, the film still finds plenty of nasty, tense moments that help make this little lean exercise have a larger impact than expected.
Host is available to stream on Shudder
Faux-street smart posturing is just one of the many elements thrown into the overcooked stew that is Project Power, a superhero movie that’s also a drug fable and a father-daughter story mixed with a little bit of mixed-bag commentary on the history of the American government’s medical experimentation on Black people. There’s cultural references and riffs left and right, and the film does it all while pummeling the viewer with an overwhelming blend of hip-hop music cues, graffiti-covered walls, and in-your-face camerawork in an attempt to convince viewers that this is a movie that hums with the energy of the streets. It all centers on Art (Jamie Foxx), an ex-soldier subjected to government experimentation during his time in the service. Art is on a mission to rescue his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from a top-secret facility floating on the Mississippi River, where evil doctors are using her inherited superpowers to do something related to a new drug that’s just hit the streets of New Orleans. The drug, a glowing capsule which you have to activate by twisting it between your teeth, gives anyone who takes it superpowers, but only for five minutes. The thing is, you don’t know what your particular superpower will be until you take the pill. It could be fire, or ice, or super-strength, or super-speed, etc. There’s also a not-insignificant chance that you’ll explode seconds after taking it.
The superpower roulette is also a convenient metaphor for the character arc of cynical high schooler Robin (Dominique Fishback), an aspiring rapper who’s trying to figure out her place in the world. Robin sells the super-drug to raise money for her mom’s medical bills, an activity that’s led to her awkward, mentor-ish relationship with Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police detective hooked on the drug. (He tells himself that it’s a “fighting fire with fire” sort of thing.) Frank tries to give Robin life advice, but considering he’s also buying drugs from a teenage girl, she receives his wisdom with warranted skepticism. He is useful to have around, though, when Art comes crashing into town with a vendetta, kidnapping Robin and forcing her to take him to the source of the drug.
The relationship between the two doesn’t end up to be much, but that’s probably to leave room for the bold color scheme and loud soundtrack. The plot is loose and confused — which is fine, because it’s secondary to the lighting and camerawork. The visual effects are pretty unremarkable, the editing gets pretty messy, and the screenplay is full of dopey one-liners. And while the performances are passable, they don’t quite save the movie. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who came onto the scene with the documentary Catfish in 2010, have more recently shifted into genre filmmaking with mediocre results. And Project Power is similarly undistinguished, a mishmash of tropes presented with mixed-bag visual energy. It’s a film that works best if you just play it on in the background, but don’t expect much about it to stick with you — except for the odd Henrietta Lacks monologue. You’ll probably need to pop a pill to forget that. Familiar tropes and visual panache are abundant in Project Power. Imagination, on the other hand, is a lot more scarce; pushing this sketchily drawn film more toward forgettability than addiction.
Project Power is available to stream on Netflix
Hideous to look at and agonizingly ear-splitting to listen to, Spree is a film full of annoying characters that’s attempting to meld social media critique and slasher comedy, but more often runs into walls of shallowness and derivativeness. The film stars Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle, a floppy-haired psychopath frustrated that his Instagram and YouTube following have numbered in the single digits for more than a decade. A crude sketch of his life thus far includes his excitable father (David Arquette) — a D.J. pursuing his own fame — and a frenemy (Josh Ovalle) whose online fame far exceeds Kurt’s. Tired of beseeching other influencers to tag him on their feeds, Kurt, a driver for a ride-share service called Spree, hits on a plan: If he murders his more repugnant passengers — a white supremacist here, a chauvinist there — and live-streams their fates, then his online celebrity will surely explode.
Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko, Spree is an aesthetic nightmare of screens-within-screens, splitting and reshaping and crawling with real-time commentary on Kurt’s bloody deeds (a majority of the film is shot on raw iPhones and Go-Pros). Mixing those ugly visuals with the hectic impersonations of online behavior, and Spree gets caught in one of its many awkward situations. And that’s maybe seen most in the film’s lack of perceptiveness, with Kotlyarenko seemingly unaware that his escalation of gore suggests he’s just as thirsty to be seen similarly as his protagonist, but even that feels never fully invested. Spree is clearly and obviously a film attempting to comment on the shallowness of social media culture; the glaring, shrill problem is that the film has the depth of a parking lot puddle.
Spree is available on VOD