Posts Tagged ‘dvd’

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away : in this case of director Faith R. Johnson’s 2017 “found footage” direct-to-video horror, The Faith Community, he (or she) appears to do a bit of both.

On the “giveth” side of the ledger, we’re not saddled with anything too extraneous here, plot-wise, in Johnson and co-writer Robert A. Trezza’s script : college-age students Hannah (played by Janessa Floyd) and Andrew (Aidan Hart) are devout Christians determined to win over their skeptic friend (and wannabe-filmmaker, he’s the guy “documenting” the proceedings) Colin (Jeffrey Brabent) and, to that end, they’re taking him to a much-talked-about “Bible camp” in the woods to experience the wonder of “God’s Green Earth” or something. It’s a simple, punchy premise that does the job quickly and succinctly, and once they arrive, shit gets pretty interesting — at first.

A rather graphic, even brutal, stage-play rendition of the story of Adam and Eve is the “entertainment” on offer for our protagonists’ first evening at Camp Nazareth, but it’s not the amateur theatrics that the trio is particularly interested in : they’re hot to meet the group’s leader, a charismatic figure known only as “The Messenger” (Jeremy Harris). Their “mockumentary” interviews with said Messenger, his right-hand man/cousin Michael (Oliver Palmer), and the various “happy campers” are uniformly gripping and smartly-written, with Harris’ performance going some way toward making even making them fun, as he’s clearly relishing his chance to play cult guru, and our principal characters are also fleshed out nicely both during these sequences and those surrounding them in the early going, just enough information being provided about their pasts in order to explain their views toward religion and make their various “arcs” seem quite believable, the two “true believers” becoming quick devotees of The Messenger’s — errrmmm — message of impending Apocalypse/Rapture, and the atheist “odd man out” feeling even more odd as his friends succumb to the sway of the camp’s insular “hive-mind” thinking.

Giving away any more of the story would probably be saying too much, but there are some aspects that strain credulity, such as Michael’s belief that he’s the so-called “Angel Of Death,” and I guess that’s as good a segue as any into the “taketh away” half of the equation : Johnson’s clearly trying here, but the overall tone of her direction is so flat and dispassionate that it makes it tough for audiences to invest themselves emotionally in what’s happening. This is a common (and in no way always accurate) knock on the “found footage” sub-genre in general, but it’s especially pronounced here and even begins to grate after awhile. The Xs and Os of the story are interesting enough that you want to buy into what Johnson is selling here, but then she does her level best, clearly more by accident than design, to say “thanks for watching, but there’s no need for you to care about this too much.”

The acting’s pretty good on the whole among the principal players, but that only goes so far, and while the single-camera trope makes sense from both a stylistic and budgetary perspective, it stops effectively covering up the absolute amateurism of many of the shots about halfway through and worse, as events spiral out of control in the pivotal “third act,” they end up coming off as more ridiculous than threatening. One of the characters — and I won’t say who, other than it’s not who you’d necessarily expect — even delivers a long, rambling monologue for the camera that’s just plain embarrassing but is meant to come off as ominous in the extreme. Points for trying, I guess, sure — but not much more than that.

And while we’re on the subject of “not much more,” this one isn’t worth much more of my time to write about, or yours to read about. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime right now if you feel like checking it out (and is most likely also available on DVD, although I didn’t bother to confirm that), but seriously — for sheer entertainment value, not to mention horror quotient, you’re probably better off reading the Bible. That’s always good for laughs and chills in equal measure, while The Faith Community ends up delivering the former inadvertently, and the latter not at all.

It’s always a little bit tricky doing an advance review of a film that hasn’t been released yet — yeah, okay, this isn’t my first time doing it, but it’s been awhile — but when a quick Google search lets you know that your appraisal will be the first posted anywhere? Then you’re playing with fire, at least to a certain extent. I mean, a lot’s going to hinge on what you have to say — hell, in a very real sense, the success or failure of the flick in question rests at least partially on your shoulders.

You’ve got some real freedom, though, too — no one can say other opinions influenced yours, no one can accuse you of being part of an “echo chamber,” no one can point out similarities between what you’ve written and what someone else has. Not that anyone’s ever said that about my stuff, mind you —

Okay, that’s a bit more preamble than you normally might be expecting, granted, but I think a certain amount of context here is important because now’s when we get into the “full disclosure” part of the proceedings : old friend of this site, New Jersey micro-budget maestro Ryan Callaway, reached out to me looking for a review for his latest, Let’s Not Meet, sent me a (somewhat unfinished, but pretty close) “screener,” and asked if I could have it ready in advance of its Amazon Prime VOD “street date” of September 30th (well, its free “street date” — I believe it’s available on Amazon for purchase already, it’s out on DVD, and it screened in some East Coast theaters back on August 31st). I told him sure, but not simply because I think Callaway’s a cool guy — more because he’s a fair one. I haven’t been entirely kind to some of his earlier productions, but it’s not like I told him to give up on the whole “movie thing” and see if his local Wal-Mart is hiring. I’ve pointed out what he’s done well, what he’s done less than well, where I think his lack of resources hindered him, and where the “low-fi” aesthetic he’s necessarily forced to adhere to has actually been beneficial. He’s been magnanimous about accepting every piece of constructive criticism, and (if I may be so bold) it even appears that he’s even taken some of my suggestions to heart, all of which is to say —

Let’s Not Meet is probably his best film to date. It’s not perfect — circumstances almost flat-out dictate that it can’t be — but it’s pretty damn good, it’s well worth your time, and now comes the part where I tell you why —

As is the case with most of Callaway’s Shady Dawn Productions features (this time Callaway is in his usual role of writer/director, while his producers are wife Amy and Sabine Davids), this one has a sprawling, ensemble cast, but the focus starts out tight and moves outward from there  : pizza delivery woman Aya Becker (played with considerable aplomb by Breanna Engle) is making her final stop of the night when she wises up to the fact that whoever owns the house she’s just entered (don’t worry, there’s a note by the doorbell, no “B and E” going on here) is attempting to lure her into some sort of trap. She’s nothing if not resourceful and quick on her feet, though, so making her escape isn’t too big a problem — but once she skedaddles, that’s when the real intrigue begins, as she encounters a group of campers who are in the midst of a terrifying and rather mysterious ordeal of their own. How are these events connected? Who, exactly, is everyone fleeing from? How are they going to make it out alive? And what’s all this got to do with a dead Satanic cult leader? As this is, again, an advance review (okay, of sorts), I’m going to studiously avoid anything that even steps the tiniest of toes into “spoiler” territory, but that doesn’t prevent me from opining in a general sense, does it? Not in the least —

As I said, the cast eventually expands out to more traditional “Callaway size,” but his actors are generally all bringing their “A” game for this one, whether we’re talking about Shady Dawn veterans like Hiram Ortiz, Ken Llamas, Tiffany Browne-Ortiz, and Carmine Giordano, or first-timers such as Georgette Vaillancourt, Kate Kenney, Millie Ortiz, or the aforementioned Engle. Not everyone is a professional, that much is obvious, but everybody punches above their weight class, and certainly no one comes off as “cardboard,” much less cringe-worthy. Those of us who know the micro-budget world pretty well know just how rare that is — especially when there are this many performers on hand.

If you believe as I do that representation matters, especially in the formerly all-white world of genre cinema, Callaway is a welcome breath of fresh air in that he always puts together diverse ensembles of actors, and women are usally the primary movers-and-shakers in his scripts, all of which is true here, but he’s thankfully toned down his author’s urge to give them all hyper-detailed backstories and instead puts just enough “meat” on their narrative “bones” to make their motivations seem sincere and their actions “in character.” He goes a bit overboard here and there on the extended dialogue scenes, and as a result the film is a little bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s not padded out by 30 or 40 wholly unnecessary minutes, as some of his past productions have been. In other words — he’s learning what works and what doesn’t as he goes along, and his increasing confidence as a filmmaker is showing in other ways, as well, with more strong shot compositions, better timing of key story “beats,” etc.

Best of all, though, this flick is just plain fun. It’s reasonably suspenseful, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously all the time, it doesn’t push against the boundaries of its limitations, and it never tries to pretend it’s something other, or greater, than it is. All of which is to say, Callaway and his cohorts clearly set out to make a solidly-executed little tongue-in-cheek horror/ thriller amalgamation here  — and that’s exactly what Let’s Not Meet is.

 

 

 

After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.

Sometimes. you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — am I right?

I know that I certainly was the other night and so, after a bit of browsing, I decided to scratch the particular celluloid itch I was feeling by streaming writer-director Scott Frank’s 2014 cinematic adaptation of legendary hard-boiled crime fiction author Lawrence Block’s popular novel A Walk Among The Tombstones via our local cable service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD should you choose to go that route), and whaddya know? What I found underneath the typically slick, borderline-“artsy” modern direction and cinematography, and decidedly lurid subject matter, was actually an old-school PI drama, anchored by some very strong performances, that would more than likely make the likes of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and even Humphrey Bogart proud.

That means it comes with one fairly big downside, though — for all attempted twists and turns it’s actually pretty predictable, but we’ll get to that in a bit more detail in fairly short order. First the good : bucking his post-Taken typecasting as a middle-aged “tough guy,” Liam Neeson reminds us all that that he’s actually a multi-faceted and cerebral actor in his lead turn as troubled former-cop-turned-unlicensed gumshoe Matt Scudder, a guy who is haunted by the memory of a little girl one of his stray bullets killed back when he was “on the job,” and is now (okay, fair enough, seemingly constantly) struggling to maintain his fragile newly-found sobriety. Not exactly looking for work, he’s nevertheless intrigued enough by an offer that comes his way when his old pal Howie (portrayed by Eric Nelsen), acting as a “go-between,” lets him know about a potentially-unsavory character who needs some strictly “off the books” assistance — and soon enough, Scudder is back in action after first refusing the gig, cajoled into the stereotypical “one last job” by smooth-talking (and ominous as all hell) drug dealer Kenny Kristo (brought to life with considerable aplomb by Dan Stevens, who’s a million miles away for his Downton Abbey role with this one), whose wife has been kidnapped by a couple of psycho thugs — who, it seems, may have gone ahead and killed her even after their ransom demands were met. In due course, Sudder’s investigations leads him to conclude they may also have done the same to several others, all of whom seem to track back to Kristo’s unsavory life and business in one way or another, and then — they strike again. While Scudder is on the case. And, of course, there’s no way he’s gonna let that stand.

Speaking of those kidnappers/potential killers, they’re a couple of seriously fucked-up dudes, and actors David Harbour (who plays Ray) and Adam David Thompson (who plays Albert) definitely both reek of psychotic menace. What they’re really up to, and why, is pretty well spelled out far in advance of being stated/shown explicitly (told you we’d get back to the predictability), but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so fucking unsettling that it could easily be argued that knowing — or suspecting — what this deranged duo’s “game” is might just make things even worse.

There’s plenty of solid acting on display from the more “minor” players here, as well, with special accolades due Maurice Compte as Scudder’s long-suffering sidekick/foil Danny Ortiz, and Brian “Astro” Bradley, who not only goes toe to toe with heavyweight talents such as Neeson, but arguably even manages to steal evey scene he’s in as smart-but-cagey street kid T.J. Each and every role is straight from the “genre archetypes” playbook, it’s true (although, curiously, no “femme fatale” is on hand), but who’s gonna argue when they’re all fleshed out with this much style, skill, and depth? I’m certainly not — and neither should you.

Throw in some well-realized “period piece” authenticity that really makes you feel the grit and grime of what remains of New York’s seedy underbelly circa 1999, and what you’ve got here is a film that more than makes up for by means of execution what it lacks in originality. A Walk Among The Tombstones may not be terribly (okay, what the heck, even moderately) innovative, but like I said, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — and the next time you are, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this one.

I honestly feel halfway guilty about including a film shot only about a six-or seven-hour drive from my own house as part of my occasional “International Weirdness” series here on this site, but when you live in Minneapolis and the flick in question was made in Winnipeg, well — that’s how it goes, I guess. There isn’t much geographic distance between our towns, but there is that US/Canada border.

Winnipeg’s independent film scene has been fairly robust in recent years, as most know — comparisons to the 1990s “Toronto New Wave” have abounded — but our northern neighbors like their genre stuff, too, and 2015’s Dark Forest, brainchild of writer/director Roger Boyer, seeks to do something a little different with the classic “slasher” premise, namely : deconstruct it and turn it on its head at the same time. How best to do this? Well, how about by making it plain as day that’s what you’re up to from the outset?

The identity of the killer is never in question here, nor is a hockey or Halloween mask necessary — Peter, our villain du jour, is the kind of psycho we know all too well : a domestic abuser, and his “motivation” is equally “ripped from the headlines,” in that he’s pissed off about his girlfriend, Emily (played by Laurel McArthur) splitting for a weekend of camping in the woods with her girlfriends Michelle (Veronica Ternopolski), Jolene (Weronika Sokalska), and Francine (Jalin Desloges) and not inviting his deranged ass along. In fact, he’s so mad about the whole thing (as well as wise to the obvious fact that some kind of “intervention” will probably be taking place) that he’s gonna head out to the (dark) forest to find them and kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way — before doing in the ladies, of course.

Yeah, as you’ve probably guessed, the ’80s influences are apparent here, even beyond the basic “teens in the woods” set-up —we’ve got a “hot” car, “hot” girls, a nerd, even a synth-music score. But Boyer, despite having (obviously, if we’re being honest) very little money to work with finds a way to mix the old and the new by ditching the “damsels in distress” paradigm in favor of the  modern “strong female protagonists” we are, thankfully, becoming more accustomed to. So we’re not looking at anything entirely original by any means, but we’re not strictly mired in yet another “throwback,” either. That, my friends, is what I call a relief.

The film — which, incidentally and before I forget, is available free for streaming to Amazon Prime members and has also been released on Blu-ray and DVD —has its flaws, to be sure, but all the principal players are at the very least competent, and Scullard positively relishes his chance to ham it up as a homicidal maniac, while giving his performance just enough “real world” gravitas to avoid becoming a caricature. The supporting cast doesn’t necessarily fare as well, largely being as unprofessional as, let’s face it, we should expect from a bare-bones production such as this, but even there, the occasional standout — such as Genevieve DeGraves as Kim — punches above their weight class and manages to make a solid impression.

Now, I do recall saying something about Scullard also turning the classic “slasher” formula on its head, as well, but we won’t give away too much about that. Suffice to say these ladies are no shrinking violets and that leads to some — interesting things happening. Which is a pretty fair summation of Dark Forest on the whole, come to think of it : yes, you’ve seen most of what’s on offer here done before, and you’ve seen it done better, but it’s ambitious enough to want to at least do them differently, and it’s well-executed enough to get more than it probably should out of what it has to work with.

 

 

Maybe I got overloaded on micro-budget horror back in October when I plumbed the depths of Amazon Prime’s offerings in the sub-genre for my customary “Halloween Month” reviews, maybe I’m just too damn busy at work to follow all of my interests (cinematic or otherwise) lately, or maybe trying to build up a solid backlog of content on my new(-ish) comics blog is eating up every spare moment I have for writing so I’m just not watching as many movies since I don’t have as much time to write about them — I dunno, but whatever the case may be, it had been a good few months since I’d watched a cheap-ass indie fright flick, and their absence from my existence was starting to be felt on, like, a goddamn cellular level. Something needed to be done.

So, yeah, last night I ended my impromptu fast and returned to combing through Amazon Prime for something weird (and weirdly-made) to watch, eventually landing on a 2010 Pittsburgh-lensed number called Necro Lover, originally released (to the extent that it even was — it went straight to DVD, and it’s not like that was heavily promoted) under the far less salacious title of Stiff. Certainly the premise sounded suitably amoral : depressed office drone Troy (played with no skill whatsoever by a guy named Bill Scott who’s — get this — trying too hard to look bored, which I never even conceived of as being possible) calls the suicide hotline one night and speaks with a “counselor” named Lori (speaking of lousy acting, Lulu Benton is flat-out terrible in this part, but she at least proves that calling this thing Stiff was apropos) who, picking up on his deep-seated unhappiness, decides that what she really needs to do is breach every single ethical standard of her ostensible profession and give this guy her personal phone number. Huh????

Fear not, though, dear reader : writer/co-director Jim Towns and his partner behind the camera, Mike McKown, have ensured that there is a method to her madness — she doesn’t want to “help” Troy at all, she wants to convince him to kill himself so that she can (yes, you’re reading this right) fuck his dead body. Ahhh, yes, now it all makes “sense” —

I’m not sure how to tip-toe around this, so I’ll just come right out and admit that I’m in no way averse to watching a film about necrophilia. Jacques Lacerte’s Love Me Deadly is one of my all-time favorite tasteless exploitation features, I found Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed bizarrely fascinating, Martin Weisz’s Grimm Love is a dark, haunting, and emotionally complex film that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it, Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik and Nekromantix 2 are legit underground gross-out classics — and who are we kidding? As far as abnormal sexual compulsions go, corpse-humping is about as harmless as they come. After all, what the hell does the other person care what’s being done to them? It certainly says something really weird and disturbing about the person who’s “into” it, there’s no denying that, but at least necrophiles are good at picking out partners who don’t judge them. In fact, they don’t do anything at all.

So, yeah, if “sick and wrong” is your bag, this flick should, in theory, have plenty to offer. Unfortunately, all the good intentions in the world — even if those good intentions are in service of something most well-adjusted people would consider to be “bad” — don’t matter for shit if you have no idea what you’re doing, and all evidence on offer would suggest that no one involved with Stiff on any level had the first clue about how to make a movie.

I’ve already taken both lead actors to task, albeit briefly, but in truth I take no real pleasure in piling on either of them since they’re clearly not professionals and have each probably returned to call center or retail store work by now — if they ever even left it. Who I’m not going to let off so easily are Towns and McKown, who have constructed a slow and sloppy and utterly flat finished product out of what should have been at least an interesting premise.  Little gaps in logic like Lori living in a big, fancy house on a middle-class-at-best salary I can forgive, but predictability and lack of inspiration I can’t, and when it’s revealed that she became fixated on not letting sleeping corpses lie due to a traumatic childhood experience, and when Troy starts falling for her and re-discovering his will to live — well, that’s just indicative, to my mind, that these are two filmmakers who don’t have the guts to follow their own disturbing ideas to an equally-disturbing conclusion. In other words, what we’re looking at here is one big cop-out.

Fit me for a padded jacket now if you must, but I really did want to like Stiff. The raw ingredients for something that you’ll definitely remember, like it or not, at all here. Instead, what we get is the most eminently forgettable film about necrophilia ever made. I guess that pulverizing the combustible and shocking down into the staid and safe takes work, but then so does digging your own grave — I’m in no particular hurry to do it, though, and I know you’re not, either.

Although, hey, Lori would probably give you a hand with that.

 

No metaphor or hyperbole here — cartoonist Dash Shaw’s 2016 cinematic debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, is an indie animated feature that’s about exactly what its title claims. And what kid, present or former, didn’t dream about precisely that happening to their high school at least once?

And yet Shaw, in his capacity as writer/director, avoids romanticizing the youthful outsider, as one would assume he’d be inclined to do — in fact, his stand-in protagonist (also named Dash and voiced with considerable range and realism by Jason Schwartzman) comes off as both willfully delusional (he’s convinced that he’s the best writer in the school and that his newspaper is “making a difference” — while also less-than-begrudgingly admitting that he chases after banal gossip stores in an attempt to boost his readership) and, frankly, more than a bit of a jerk. His best friend/good-natured foil, then, Assaf (Reggie Watts) ends up assuming the role of the film’s conscience/key sympathetic figure pretty much by default, but even he has his less-than-stellar moments after the shit hits the fan, quite literally — but then, who would remain calm, cool, and collected at all times after an earthquake sent their school careening off a cliff and plummeting, slowly but surely, toward a date with Davy Jones’ locker?

Shaw has long been one of the rising stars of the “alternative”/indie comics scene (his graphic novels New School and Cosplayers are both must-reads, and his strips have been among the highlights of numerous anthologies ranging from Kramers Ergot to Now), but for those not tuned into his wavelength going in, the hand-drawn animation in this flick may take some getting used to. The abstract color blocks laid underneath the art give the proceedings a very distinctive and vaguely modernist look, but if you’re not focusing on the “hand-drawn” in that sentence, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The art for damn near every animated film is cranked out on a computer these days — the fact that this wasn’t is straight-up cause for celebration. But it’s not just Shaw’s aesthetics that set his little opus apart —

As is the case with pretty much every generation since time immemorial, we’re told that today’s youth are “lost,” that they’re “coddled,” that they “have it easy,” that we’re more or less fucked when they grow up and take charge. Shaw turns every one of those dull assumptions on their ear and shows that, warts and all, the kids are alright. Dash and Assaf have a lot to work out — their differences are ostensibly “creative,” but run considerably deeper than that — as they try to make their way up to the school’s roof to (hopefully) be rescued, but they both come off as reasonably thoughtful, articulate, and smart adolescents, hampered mostly (hell, only?) by the same insecurities, zealotry, eagerness, and hard-headedness that we were all afflicted with at that age. If we turned out okay (alright, fair enough, the jury’s still out on that), odds are better than good that they will, too.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Shaw’s film, though, especially given its roughly 75-minute length, is that no one comes off as a one-note cipher. Lena Dunham’s Mary is afforded a good deal more depth than most “Queen Bee”-type characters, Maya Rudolph’s Verti is more than a simple antagonist for Dash , and this same courtesy is even extended to the flick’s grown-ups, such as Susan Sarandon’s lunch lady Lorraine and Thomas Jay Ryan’s Principal Grimm. Every one of these various and sundry personages could reasonably be expected to be little more than plot devices and/or comic relief, but dang — for a bunch of drawings, they sure seem real.

And while we’re on the subject of drawings, keep a close eye on Shaw’s at all times. Absurdist visual gags and “Easter eggs” abound, with one thrusting itself into the foreground every few minutes or so. Obviously the premise here lends itself to outlandish humor, so when it rears its head it’s hardly a shock, but what is shocking is how damnably clever and smart it all is. In his work as a cartoonist, Shaw has always excelled at the “oh my God I wish I’d thought of that” moment, and has managed to work them into his books or strips without interrupting their narrative flow — to see him translate that skill into a new medium with this much ease is almost jealousy-inducing.

All in all, then, I believe that captivating is the word we’re looking for here. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the crisp dialogue, the stylish animation, the pitch-perfect humor, or the honest characterization — My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. After enjoying a reasonably popular (if limited) theatrical run, it garnered a further dose of attention and acclaim upon its Blu-ray and DVD release, and it’s now available for streaming on Netflix. Pass on it at your peril (okay, that may be overstating things, but still) — this is supremely confident, assured, and heartfelt stuff that will almost make you wish you were a kid again.

Provided, of course, that the everybody else in your high school sank into the sea while you and your friends made it out in one piece.