mother! (2017)

September 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Him. Mother. Man. Woman. When those are the identifiers of the four main characters (none have a real name), one might assume that the filmmaker is lazy. However, after watching the latest from the psycho-creative force known as Darren Aronofsky, we understand that names weren’t necessary, and even if they had been, he was probably too mentally exhausted from finding ways to torture those characters and confound the viewers.

The first half of the film is discomforting and creepy while the second half is downright crazed and deranged. You won’t find many story details in this review, as the fun is in the shock. Most of the film is through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence, and we share her confusion and disoriented state. She is married to a famous poet played by Javier Bardem (yes, the age difference is acknowledged). While she spends her days refurbishing their stunning country home, he battles severe writer’s block. Needless to say, their domestic bliss goes wrong … but it’s not the kind of wrong we’ve ever seen before.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (both Oscar nominees) confine us in excruciatingly tight shots resulting in further disorientation and claustrophobia through most of the film. By the time we get a single wide shot of the home’s exterior, we’ve just about given up hope. And once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, we kick into full ROSEMARY’S BABY mode … only more frenetic and hyper.

It should be noted that it’s not a traditional horror film – heck, it’s hardly a traditional film at all. It’s built on confusion, and metaphors abound. Aronofsky seems intent on causing endless post-viewing discussions and debate over what it “means”. A case can be made for commentary on ego, fame, Mother Nature, deity/religion, and a sign of the times – the entitled “takers” of the world. The most obvious explanation is that the price paid for creativity is quite dear, and often causes a release from reality. There is a vicious cycle occurring here and our realization happens after the crescendo of insanity that is the film’s peak.

WTF moments are too many to count, and Ms. Lawrence pulls off what has to be the roughest on screen pregnancy we’ve seen. It’s a real treat to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in form after being out of the spotlight for four years. The score from Johan Johannsson is remarkable and there are ground-breaking visual effects (easy to miss during the audacious, frenzied second half action). Aronofsky is clearly provoking us, though it’s abundantly unclear to what end. His previous twisted, mind-benders include REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and BLACK SWAN … both of which seem like mainstream family fare in comparison. This is a love it or hate it project, and most will likely fall into the latter. But for those who embrace the deranged and audacious, the love will be everlasting.

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IT (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are two clown schools: Funny clowns (Bozo, Ronald McDonald), and Terrifying clowns (the one in POLTERGEIST, Pennywise the Dancing Clown). Stephen King first introduced Pennywise in the 1986 novel, and the great Tim Curry brought him to life (and our nightmares) in the 1990 TV mini-series (2 episodes). So, that’s 27 years since the TV version. How fitting that director Andy Muschietti (MAMA) introduces a new generation 27 years later, since that’s how often the supernaturally evil clown visits Derry, Maine to frighten and feast on kids. It’s a terrific update.

Horror films are similar to comedy films in that it often comes down to one’s own personality quirks … what makes you laugh, and what scares you. This new version covers the first half of King’s novel, focusing on “The Losers Club” – the seven kids who band together to fight their fears. Director Muschietti sets the story in 1989 (rather than the 50’s) and the obvious comparisons are to THE GOONIES, STAND BY ME (another King story), and the recent hit “Stranger Things”.

The opening sequence gets us off to a great start. You’ve probably seen it in the trailer. Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is joyfully splashing through the rain puddles following his paper boat as it disappears into the storm drain. It’s there that he meets, and we get our first look at, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander). Giving us an early peek at what we came to see creates time for the development of a long list of characters. Of course the mini-series and the novel didn’t have the time restrictions of a feature film, so it’s impressive how quickly we connect with the kids.

Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberther, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) is the leader of The Losers despite his propensity to stutter, and his belief that little Georgie may still be alive. Motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) is the bespectacled wiseass, while Beverly (Sophia Lillis, an Amy Adams lookalike and star in the making) is the tough-on-the-outside female who deals with the rumors that accompany being a teenager. Hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), straight-laced son of the Rabbi Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), chubby brainiac new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) round out this group of outsiders who are all frequently the target of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), creepy parents, and of course, Pennywise.

A couple of the set pieces are outstanding. Beverly’s bathroom (especially the sink), the creek for the rock fight, and the rickety old house and its corresponding clown lair all contribute to the overall level of menace. Rising star composer Benjamin Wallfisch produces a score that guides us through the thrills and spills, as well as the quieter moments. As for Pennywise, even though the dancing clown had more screen time in the mini-series, Skarsgard is memorable, although the modern day special effects (those teeth!) often diminish the humanistic feel of Curry’s clown and escalate things to an other-worldly level.

Expect more of the Halloween Haunted House type of scary rather than the emotionally crippling stuff of horror films like THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. The sudden bursts of sinister are surprisingly balanced with the humorous one-liners from the kids, and the actualization of the infamous “you’ll float too” is a stunning effect. The nostalgic feel complements the best part of the story … the power of friendship and connected groups. Watching these kids face their biggest fears certainly provides a bit of a chill to the upcoming fall season … and as a bonus, it’s a fun time for viewers.

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WITCH-HUNT (2017)

May 9, 2017

USA Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There may not be a mass-market audience for ultra low-budget supernatural horror-thriller-comedies, but that doesn’t stop writer/director Philip Schaeffer and his cast of seven actresses from delivering a rollicking good time.

Best viewed late at night and preferably with a group of friends smart enough to enjoy a bit of satire, and not so pseudo-intellectual as to be unable to cut loose and possibly even create a new drinking game (not that such uncultured and unruly behavior would be encouraged). In fact, just keeping up with one of the character’s propensity to shift from red to white wine and back again requires somewhat of a clear head and attention span.

Five ladies gather in clock-filled home to play a board game that could be named “Who is the Witch?” The clocks don’t really matter, but do make for interesting set pieces and might also play into someone’s unconventional drinking game. The birthday girl (Robyn Purcay) who receives the game as a gift is very excited to play, while the emotions of the others range from ‘OK, I’ll play along’ to utter disdain (from the striking Abby Eiland).

The movie is divided into the different rounds played during the game … with each of the five participants getting special attention during a particular round. Additionally, the story has an external structure thanks to a late night strategy session at a book publishing firm. Of course, the story doesn’t really matter. What matters is the periodic creepiness and abundance of humor stemming from the conversations of wine-guzzling, long-time friends who share a clouded and traumatic childhood memory.

Other than the aforementioned Ms. Eiland and Ms. Purcay, the other actresses involved here are Melina Chadbourne, Erin Curtis, Lillian Olive, Suzanne Blunk and Trisha Miller. Each brings their own style to the fun, and special mention goes to cinematographer Olivia Kuan, whose camera work provides the necessary claustrophobia and unease necessary to keep viewers guessing.

 


VOICE FROM THE STONE (2017)

April 29, 2017

USA FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A painful death bed scene and a teary-eyed child saying goodbye to their beloved caregiver kick off this film that immediately downshifts to a deliberate pace after those two emotional peaks. The first feature from director Eric Howell is adapted by Andrew Shaw from Silvio Raffo’s novel, and it excels in delivering atmosphere and visual unease created by the stunning setting of a fogged-cloaked Tuscan castle that is itself a key character in the film.

Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), and those expressive eyebrows of hers, stars as Verena, a rehabilitation nurse who specializes in helping traumatized children. Verena is spunky and confident as she arrives at the Gothic-esque home of artist/sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas) and his son Jakob (Edward Dring). It’s been more than 7 months since the death of his mother (Caterina Murino, Solange in Casino Royale), and also since young Jakob last spoke even a single word. Verena expects to succeed where other nurses have failed.

1950’s Tuscany is beautiful despite, or maybe because of, the dreary and minimal natural lighting and the mysterious elements of the ancient castle and surrounding forest and stone quarry. It’s also a bit creepy and that allows the measured pace of the story to work – it comes across as we are going through the slow process with Jakob and Verena. Well, it works until it doesn’t. The character shifts for Verena and Klaus occur too abruptly – almost as if pages in the script were skipped. Both transformations seem out of place with the film and are jarring to watch … and not jarring in the way that we expect from a suspense thriller.

Most won’t be surprised at where the story goes, but just in case, no spoilers will be discussed here. It should be enough to state that the look and feel of this one should appeal to those who enjoyed such films as The Others, Rebecca, The Sixth Sense, Crimson Peak, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The execution of the story might not be at that level, but the atmosphere and mood certainly are. Oversized sculptures, life-sized portraits, an untouched death bed, and even a grand piano allow for more texture than any cheap jump-scares.

Gothic, romantic, supernatural suspense thrillers are pretty tough to pull off, but even getting close allows for some cinematic viewing pleasure. As an added bonus, the lovely score from Michael Wandmacher never screams at us, and Amy Lee (Evanescence) delivers a beautiful and fitting song “Speak to Me” as the film ends.

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SPLIT (2017)

January 28, 2017

split Greetings again from the darkness. As a filmmaker, the public’s expectations become a burden rather than a blessing once you write and director back-to-back movies like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). M Night Shyamalan has never been able to replicate the box office or critical success that he enjoyed with those two films … but, oh how he has tried. It’s this latest that finally makes us believe he is at least having fun again.

James McAvoy plays Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and … well … he plays a guy with 23 distinct personalities. As you might imagine, some of these personalities are nicer than others, while some are stronger in their fight for the spotlight. As Dennis, a button-upped neat freak, he captures 3 teenage girls and holds them captive. At first, the purpose is a bit murky, but the delay does allow the girls to meet some of the personalities.

The girls are Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from The Bronze), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Claire and Marcia are the popular girls who react with typical teenage emotions, while Casey pushes for patience and observation. It’s Casey who may be the film’s most interesting character as childhood flashbacks occur that are first thought to explain her survival skills, but soon enough disclose a darker, more unfortunate past. The younger Casey is coolly played by newcomer Izzie Coffey, and holds her own with Sebastian Arcelus (her dad) and Brad William Henke (her Uncle John).

The always terrific Betty Buckley is outstanding as Dr Fletcher, the psychologist treating McAvoy’s character(s). Ms. Buckley adds class and a connection to the real world that gives us hope for the future of the girls being held. McAvoy really seems to be enjoying the acting challenge and shape-shifting that accompanies this mental disorder, and he will likely creep you out a few times. Cinematographer Mike Gioukakis was a key to the look and mood of It Follows, and his camera work here is superb in mostly confined areas. Sure, the whole thing is preposterous, but it’s fun and wicked … and with this director, you can expect a surprise or twist – even after all these years.

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THE WITCH (2016)

February 18, 2016

the witch Greetings again from the darkness. If your own nightmares have become less frequent, and you find yourself able to sleep peacefully through the night, writer/director Robert Eggers’ first feature film will likely fix that. Based in 1630 New England … a full 60 years prior to the Salem witch trials … much of the story and dialogue is based on actual historical documents corresponding to the fears of that era. It would be a mistake to head into this one thinking it’s going to having you covering your eyes or springing from your seat … it’s better described as unsettling and disquieting.

Religious fanaticism plays a key role here, and is actually behind a Puritan family being exiled from the community. They set up a home and farm on the edge of an ominous, heavily-wooded forest … and things start to go wrong. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are stern and stoic parental units to coming-of-age teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two spoiled and annoying twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and a new born named Samuel.

This is a slow-burn psychological horror film and it never relies on cheap jump-scares. Instead the eerie atmosphere, lurking Satanic evil, and unraveling of the family as they search for answers, all combine for a level of creep that’s not often seen on screen. Adding to our pre-conceived notion that things rarely end well for closed-mind religious zealots is the unsettling use of Old World English … it takes some time to adjust your ears.

Most of director Eggers’ background is in short films with an emphasis on Production Design and Costume Design. It’s interesting to note the gradual decline of lighting as the movie progresses … most notably on the opening and closing shots of daughter Thomasin, who faces the most backlash as a suspected (by her family) witch.

This was a time when people prayed for food and for God to have mercy … and to explain the unexplainable. No amount of praying can make sense of the titular witch (Bathsheba Garnett), or the family’s goat Black Phillip (voiced by Wahab Chaudhry), or an evil bunny that would make Monty Python proud. The dingo taking their baby might actually be a preferred explanation.

Eggers won the Sundance Award for a Director in Drama, and the film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Mark Korven’s score is unique and the perfect complement to the onscreen happenings of this poor family. The film stays true to the time period, which of itself, feels like a parallel universe unfamiliar to most of us these days. Young actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are real finds, and director Eggers will have a built-in and well-deserved audience for his next outing.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

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