It Comes at Night (Shults; 2017)

While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one.  Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out.  Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic?  I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.”  I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw.  The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled.  There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head.  But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie.  In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.

It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie.  If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home.  It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face.  This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music,  and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.

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The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively.  Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world.  Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.

The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement.  This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us.  The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton).  The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo).  The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively).   Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top.  We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread.  We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.

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Then there is the script.  This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins.   Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us.  Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do.  This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other.  Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film.  It Comes at Night gives us no such release.

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Final verdict:  It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences.  There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness.  This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film.  The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film.  If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night.  But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated.  It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.

 

The 2016 Shauning Achievements in Cinema Awards

Welcome to the 1st Annual Shauning Achievement in Cinema Award Show Spectacular!  I’m Shaun, and I’ll be your host for this evening from when the stars make their way down the red carpet until the time the last award for the evening is given out and we all head out to get raging drunk.

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This is my carpet.  It isn’t red at all.  And those aren’t stars, I’m pretty sure they’re very old Cheeto crumbs.

Before we begin tonight’s ceremony, it’s important to mention in the name of full disclosure that there are a handful of films which have been garnering critical praise that I did not get a chance to see and so therefore will not be on the list.  These include (but are not limited to) Silence, Jackie, A Monster Calls, and Green Room.  In addition, only films with full theatrical releases are going to be considered.  So Netflix only films like Hush and ARQ will not be considered nor will films with very short releases such as Batman: The Killing Joke and Godzilla Resurgence.

And now, on to the festivities!

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Pretend this is the opening song and dance number.

Shaunorable Menshauns

Let’s start out the ceremony by mentioning a few films that did not get nominated for any awards this evening, but were still excellent and while they didn’t show themselves to be the very best at any one category, they still managed to be very entertaining or thoughtful or creative or interesting or all of the above and are well worth your time and dollar.

  1. The Witch (Eggers; 2016)
  2. Eye in the Sky (Hood; 2015)
  3. The Nice Guys (Black; 2016)
  4. The BFG (Spielberg; 2016)
  5. Star Trek Beyond (Lin; 2016)
  6. Lights Out (Sandberg; 2016)
  7. Don’t Breathe (Alvarez; 2016)
  8. The Accountant (O’Connor; 2016)
  9. Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan; 2016)
  10. The Eagle Huntress (Bell; 2016)

Shauning Achievement in Acting – The Guys

It wasn’t that long ago that when you thought of great performances in Hollywood it was usually a man’s name that would pop into your mind first.  The ’90s and the first decade of the 2000’s was a period in which guys with leading man looks were branching out and taking on comedic and character roles, and turning leading parts into quirky and downright unusual people rather than a typical heroic archetype.  That era is beginning to fade a little, and women are stepping forward now with the more unusual and dramatically satisfying roles in very modern Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t guys out there who can still bring it.

Denzel Washington is fantastic in this very deep and nuanced performance portraying a man trying to maintain his pride while also confronting prejudice and trying to raise his family in this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play.

All four of the main actors in Hell or High Water give wonderful performances, but Chris Pine is the stand out as a man determined to give his family what they’ll need to live the comfortable life he could never have and deny those who would try to take everything away from them and him.

Daniel Radcliffe is a corpse and best friend in this unusual escape from a deserted island and find home movie.  This performance is not only physically demanding, but also creative and thoughtful and will most likely be unfortunately overlooked – but not by me.

There has perhaps never been a more perfect marriage between character and actor as Ryan Reynolds to Deadpool.  He showed that the superhero genre not only still has life, but also plenty of fun and style still waiting to be explored if the studios would only take some risks.

And the winner is….

Affleck’s performance is subdued to the point of nearly boring until you realize just why his character acts the way he does.  When we learn Lee Chandler’s history and we see his bottled up emotions explode out of him like the world’s most caustic champagne, you can see just how brilliant and measured this performance is.  You deserve the Shauning Acheivement Trophy for 2016 Mr. Affleck.

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The Shauning Achievement Awards are casual.

 

Shauning Achievement in Acting – The Gals

 At some point in the last decade or so, Hollywood figured out that women actually watch movies.  While they still haven’t figured out exactly what women like, they have at least determined that it’s more than just romantic comedies which is leading to much more diverse roles for women in Hollywood than the mother or the romantic interest.  This has had the pleasant side effect of showing us the real skills of some the best leading ladies ever to be seen on the silver screen, in addition to Charlize Theron who somehow got way ahead of the curve years back.

The nominees for the the Shauning Achievement in Acting for the Ladies in 2016 are

Ruth’s performance knowingly sidesteps an attempt to make a statement, and just shows us a real person.  It’s exactly this realism and vulnerability that ironically makes the movie and her part in it so powerful as we relate rather than listen to preaching.

Amy Adams had two stand out performances in 2016, but her part in Arrival gets the edge not only because it is larger, but because without her very thoughtful performance the rather intellectual themes of the film would not have worked nearly so well.

Hailee Steinfeld gives us a self absorbed teen who not only avoids stereotype, but actually gets us to root for her even as we recognize that most of the problems she complains about in her life are her own fault.  This is another case of a movie falling apart entirely without one  amazing character portrayal, and instead Hailee gives us one of the best high school movies of all time.

Viola, like Amy Adams, also had one hell of a year.  While her performance as Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad was far and away the best part of that film, it’s her role of long suffering wife and mother Rose in Fences that is truly her crowning achievement for the year.

And, the winner is…

While the singing and dancing does add to the impressiveness of Emma’s performance in this love note to Hollywood and old school musicals, it’s her chemistry with Gosling and complete understanding of her character’s emotional state that make this performance and the entire film an absolute triumph.  Come get your award Miss Stone.

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Everyone is showing up in their sleepwear.

Shauning Achievement in Animashaun

2016 was a pretty great year for animated films, showing that not only are cartoons not purely for kids, a common theme for quite some time now, but also that animation can be used to explore themes in ways live action films still are not capable.  This year’s nominee’s skewered religion, took a good hard look at racism and sexism, and showed us just how beautiful film can be.

The nominees for The Shauning Achievement in Animashaun Award are…

While the movie had some controversy regarding how it explored its themes of racism, just the fact that it spurred so much conversation is a testament to what a chord it struck in its audience.  That’s not even counting the fact that it is one heck of an entertaining story without even taking its message into account.

This movie is gorgeous and gives us a Disney Princess who has no romantic interest whatsoever.  It also has Dwayne Johnson giving us one of the more fun Disney characters to come around in a while, and you have all the makings of why Disney rules the box office.

The most adult cartoon to ever get a major release, this film used its very hard R Rating to make statements about our beliefs, how they get started, and why we often need them in a way only a cartoon can.  This movie in which nothing is sacred does a fantastic job of teaching us why very little should be.

This family film has a lot to say about family.  It’s beautifully animated, well acted, and entertaining for every single member of said family.

And the winner of The Shauning Achievement in Animation Award for 2016 is…

Original, captivating, dark, thoughtful, and the finest stop animation ever captured describes this year’s output from Laika Studios.  Kubo and the Two Strings combines Western and Eastern styles and sensibilities perfectly to make for the greatest and most beautiful animated story of the year.

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Shauning Achievement in Shaunematography

What sets a stage play apart from a movie ultimately is the camera.  The camera is our eye, our viewpoint, into the world being shown to us on the screen.  The cinematographer has to give us a viewpoint that is practical while also being beautiful, creative without being incomprehensible, and is the first line in communicating the movie’s very literal vision to those in the audience.

The nominees for 2016’s Shauning Achievement in Shaunematography are…

Is it a strange thing to say that it’s a testament to McGarvey’s skill that after watching this movie you feel the need to go home and shower?  His very detailed and off-putting camera work make this very dark fairy tale come to life and grabs your attention from the very first second before the credits even start rolling.

Duggan does a phenomenal job showing he can capture people well, but the chaos of war with the best of them.  The highlight of Hacksaw Ridge is the battle in the last half, and the true star of that last half is the visuals.

This movie is called a Western by many even though it takes place today, and doesn’t focus on cowboys or Indians.  Much of the reason for that is Nuttgens’ amazing vision of West Texas showing us both the beauty and the poverty so prevalent in the American Southwest.

Vibrant, lively, colorful, frenetic are all words that describe La La Land’s visuals, but more than that it is also one of the most deeply emotional and thoughtfully constructed films in recent memory.  Sandgren captures motion as well as emotion and makes for one gorgeous overall package,

And, the winner of the 2016 Shauning Achievement in Cinematography is…

Never has the term window to the soul been so literal as it is here.  While all three actors who play Chiron are excellent, and the writing is moving and heartwrenching, the cinematography on display here is what allows us to actually become Chiron for a few hours and experience a character movie like never before.  Mr. Laxton, you have created a masterpiece, come get your award.

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I don’t make jokes about this movie.  It just seems crass to do so.

Shauning Achievement in Creativity

Creativity in Hollywood is not dead despite the constant outcry from all the naysayers, but it is rarer than the majority of us would like.  Part of that is because it is the least creative films that are most often the movies which have the highest box office gross, but it’s also partially because creativity is hard.  This award goes out to those who worked hard and took risks to give us a truly original and memorable experience in the cinema this past year.

The nominees for The Shauning Achievement in Creativity Award are…

A big budget science fiction movie about an alien invasion that focuses on linguistics?  And, which actually makes the study of linguistics exciting, fascinating, and easy to understand?  Mucho kudos to whichever Hollywood exec signed off on Arrival, because this could not have been an easy movie to sell, but the results are extraordinary.

Animated grocery store items sounds like a bad idea, and animated grocery store items in a raunch comedy as a parody of religious belief sounds insane.  It is insane, but in a fun, fantastic way and ends up being much deeper than its premise and bathoom humor would suggest.

CGI has become absolutely dominant when old school stop animation is the most creative form of animation around.  Add to that a non-traditional story with non-traditional characters and you have the makings of a movie experience not quite like any we’ve ever seen before.

This surreal, low-key movie points out the true absurdity of modern relationships whether it be how we seek out love or the expectations we place on a partner.  The movie is unsettling but still endearing, and definitely takes more than one viewing to get everything it’s trying to say, as the first viewing just allows us to get a feel for its incredibly unusual style.

And the winner of The Shauning Achievement in Creativity Award for 2016 goes to…

A lonely suicidal man is saved because of his touching relationship with a scatological corpse.  It’s a movie that has no business being touching, but it is, and is the source of my favorite sentence describing a movie for this entire year, “Farts are life affirming!”  Thank you, for giving us something truly unique Swiss Army Man.

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The corpse takes better selfies than I do.

Shauning Achievement in Directshaun

The director’s job is arguably the most difficult to perform, and also the most difficult to recognize if it’s done well.  The director is the film’s coordinator, while they may not personally perform many of the duties they oversee, though they very well may much of the time, nothing on a film gets done without the director’s sign off.  Their vision is the film’s vision, and ultimately a film’s success or lack thereof falls squarely on the director’s shoulders.

The nominees for the 2016 Shauning Achievement in Directshaun Award are…

A huge cast of characters that all need individual attention, a movie which requires constant action meaning stunts, special effects, and special attention to editing, many big name stars all with their own quirks and special needs, and an intricate plot which still needs to be easy to follow for all ages.  Captain America: Civil War was a Herculean task for a director to take on, and not only did the Russo brothers rise to the challenge, they made it look easy and fun,

MacKenzie managed to put together a movie with meaningful themes, but played like an action movie.  He gave us the cinematography of an art house flick with a complete lack of pretension usually associated with the arthouse.  He coaxed the best performances of their lives from 3 of the 4 actors, and the only reason I can’t say the same for Jeff Bridges is because his phenomenal performance is to be expected from him now.

The attention to every single detail in this movie is mind blowing.  The details of the complicated script, the impeccable art direction, the gorgeous cinematography all show that Tom Ford is a director who is a hands on overseer in every single part of his films, and his artisanship pays off.

Chazelle’s unique vision combining new and old, corny and down-to-earth, spectacular and grounded came together in a way no one else could have fashioned nor even envisioned.  When you get done with this movie, you have seen something familiar yet unlike anything else and you have run through every emotion you know how to feel while also being intellectually stimulated.

But, the winner of the 2016 Shauning Achievement in Directshaun Award is…

Semi-autobiographical character pieces are a dime a dozen, but none allow you to live the life of its subject like Moonlight, and that is due to the vision of Barry Jenkins who managed to merge the work of many different actors working in many different locations into a cohesive work that is beautiful, haunting, and most important, authentic.  I feel like I know Chiron, for brief periods I felt like I was Chiron, and that is possible because of Jenkins phenomenal skill.

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Chiron is just as stunned as I am.  Okay, I made a lame joke with a Moonlight stock photo now.

Shauning Achievement in Writing

Every film, even a documentary, needs a story.  While the director molds the story into his or own, it has to come from somewhere originally, and that somewhere is the screenplay.  Sometimes the screenplay is an original vision sprung straight from the writer’s head, sometimes it’s an adaptation of an earlier work of a different kind, but in either case the story needs to be told taking the advantages and limitations of telling a largely visual story in a limited time frame into mind.  The very best of those stories not only entertain, though they definitely have to do that, but educate, enlighten, and inspire as well.

The nominees for The Shauning Achievement in Writing Award are…

Adapted from the stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a nearly perfectly paced and always engrossing script that knows how much power there is in silence and action rather than in constant dialogue.

This was a nearly impossible script to get right.  It had to be entertaining and educational in equal measures focusing on a subject that sounds as if it couldn’t be anything other than dull, and not only did Heisserer succeed, but he knocked it out of the park making for a truly thrilling experience, thrilling due to personal discovery as much or more than the alien invasion plot.

Chazelle had to write not just dialogue and action for this film, but also lyrics (the music was composed by the also excellent Justin Hurwirtz).  This entire movie is a magic trick which lulls you into believing it’s one thing, then pulls the rug out from under you giving you one of the most emotional experiences in cinema, and it could never work if not for the impeccable construction of the screenplay.

Non-linear story telling is hardly something new, but it is still a very hard technique to perfect.  Lonergan manages to not only perfect it here, but is intelligent enough to know that this character and this story could never have the impact they do if this screenplay was constructed any other way.

And, the winner of The Shauning Achievement in Writing for 2016 is…

Clever without being pretentious, fast paced but still very deep and meaningful, dramatic at the right times, comic at the right times, and all this with true to life, fully realized and fully developed characters.  It’s rare that a script can touch everyone on at least some level, but in Hell or High Water Sheridan achieves exactly that.

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We’ll come up and get our award when we’re good and ready.

The Shauning Achievement in Shaunema Award

Here we are at the end of the night, it’s almost time that you can stop paying attention and go do a line of the drug of your choice off the abs of your choice, just hang in there a few minutes longer.  What makes a movie the best?  It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s part craftsmanship, part teamwork, part entertainment value, part art, and part inspiration.  Any movie can do something well, but it’s those rare movies that do most everything well that can be looked at as being one of the best.

The nominees for The Shauning Achievement in Shaunema Award are…

Appealing equally to a child and adult audience both as a work of entertainment and as a think piece, this is the best animated film to hit the theaters in a very long time.  Kubo and the Two Strings may be a better piece of animation, and a more creative work, but Zootopia is the animated film that goes above and beyond and becomes a true work of cinema.

The only thing that keeps this movie from being perfect is simply that other movies have done very specific things better.  Hell or High Water is impeccably acted, wonderfully written, artistically shot, and artisanally directed.  2016 gave us three masterpieces in this critic’s opinion, and this is one of them.

A movie emotional enough to have you weeping in the early stages of the movie (if you have a soul, anyway), intellectual enough to have you thinking about it weeks afterward, and entertaining enough that you want to watch it over again.  This is a very rare movie, indeed, and that’s Arrival.

The best character piece this critic has ever seen, the second masterpiece of the year, and the only reason it isn’t winning best picture is due to a lack of mass appeal.  The subject matter, as important as it is, will still turn a great many people off.  That is a very unfortunate truth.

The Shauning Achievement in Shaunema for 2016 is

A traditional love story married to a love letter to Hollywood which is immensely entertaining, took massive amounts of talent and dedication from everyone involved, perfectly mixes old with modern, and still surprises while making you feel as deeply as a movie can make one feel and lingers in your thoughts long after you’re done, La La Land is a masterpiece and the greatest film of the year 2016.

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Winning this award has us walking on…  I can’t even finish that obvious joke.  I’m sorry for even thinking it.

That’s it for my completely made up award ceremony.  I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you continue to read Shaun’s Reviews in the future.  As I wrap up my first year of writing this, I’m reaching out to my readers to ask what you like about what I’ve done, what you haven’t liked, how I can improve, and things you would like to see me do for the next year.

Happy 2017, everyone!  And, remember, why develop your own taste when you can trust mine?