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.

mv5byja0zjgzntctytq1yi00odljltlhmzktntyxmwjlmgvintmxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

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.

mv5bzdcymjk1yjytowjlnc00yzezltg5njmtmdzhmmjkmddlyzvjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

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.

mv5bymzkzjhkmzqtndqwmy00mwnmlwe5mdetmgm5ztkynjg0mzg3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014971000_al_

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 Mummy (Kurtzman; 2017)

Everyone wants to get on that train to big money which Disney/Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Brothers are on by starting up their own cinematic universe.  The Mummy is Universal Studios attempt in which they bring out their classic era horror movie monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy,  into the modern day with a series of films known as “The Dark Universe”.  Right out of the gate they are making the same mistake Warner Brothers made with their DC Comic Universe by starting in the middle of a story already well underway and expecting their audience to just run with it.  However, unlike DC the characters they are using are not so iconic and ingrained in our culture that they can get away with stumbling out of the gate based on the draw of the characters alone, and with The Mummy the Dark Universe may be doomed before it even begins.

The Mummy starts out in Iraq with Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson playing Nick Morton and Chris Vail respectively, both soldiers in the U.S. military who use the fact that ISIS is destroying monuments in the area as an excuse and a cover up for their own activities of stealing precious artifacts from sites in the area and selling these artifacts on the black market.  This unfortunately is everything there is to these two characters, they have no families we know of, no ambitions beyond selling artifacts, we don’t even know the branch of the military they are in nor their jobs within that branch.  This is true of every character in the film, they are merely a reason to be in the film attached to a good looking countenance and absolutely nothing more.  Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jeckyll runs a mysterious organization and occasionally turns into a monster, we know nothing more about him nor his nor his organization’s history even though they have apparently amassed astounding numbers of trophies and pieces to study from a great many monsters over the unspecified amount of time they have been around.  Anabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey works for Dr. Jeckyll and likes Tom Cruise for some reason.  Sofia Boutella was an Egyptian Princess who got angry at her family and is now an evil mummy.  If you want to learn any more about any of these people, you’ll have to hope this universe continues and these characters are in future movies, because that is all you’ll learn about any of them here.

mv5bmje4mdaxnjc3n15bml5banbnxkftztgwndgznjc3mdi-_v1_sx1777_cr001777744_al_

The Mummy is billed as an action/horror, but it is definitely much, much more action than horror.  There are three major action set pieces in the movie along with quite a few minor ones, and this is where the movie excels.  While the action scenes are insanely over the top to the point that they shatter suspension of disbelief even in a film of this nature, they are still creative in their execution and reasonably well shot, though they do rely far too much on quick editing for my tastes.  The horror half of that equation is lacking, lacking to the point that I think the only reason it’s labelled as such is because there is a mummy in the film, and mummies are classic movie monsters.  Aside from that factoid the only thing even bordering on the horror genre is the mummy’s ultimate plans for Tom Cruise’s character, which I won’t go into detail on as doing so would spoil one of the few interesting parts of the story’s plot.

That plot manages to somehow be at once incredibly simplistic and confusingly convoluted at the same time.  The main story of the mummy wanting to destroy or remake the world, we’re not really sure what she’s trying to do, actually, is a really straightforward chase movie.  She threatens, the protagonists run, she follows then threatens again, repeat until end.  But, due to a lack of any motivation on the part of any of the characters and a world steeped in lore which we the audience have not been introduced to and know next to nothing about, the reason for this chase and reason for anyone beyond the three who initially find the mummy’s tomb getting involved is next to impossible to fathom.  How did Dr. Jeckyll start his shadowy monster hunting organization and how do they know all these things in the first place?  Why can this random military officer order Tom Cruise around and how do they know each other?  If the mummy has the power over life and death, why does she need to murder people with a knife and fight them hand to hand karate style?  None of this makes any sense.

mv5bmji4mdmzmta0mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwndcznjc3mdi-_v1_sx1777_cr001777744_al_

The movie does have some charms, and is even able to surprise you once in a while with its sense of humor.  While the characters make cardboard look layered, they do manage to milk them for all they are worth giving us humor which really works on a more than superficial level despite the fact that there is nothing more than superficial to them.  As I mentioned, the mummy’s plan is also interesting, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot sense, and the way they end the film makes for an intriguing enough situation that, while I won’t go so far as to say I want to see more of these films, I wish the rest of the movie could have been creative and engaging enough to live up to the premise set up in its climax.

mv5bmtuxnta3ntu5nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwnjcznjc3mdi-_v1_sx1777_cr001777742_al_

Final verdict:  The Mummy is not the worst movie of the year as its horrible Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, but it’s certainly not good enough to recommend seeing.  It does have some quality humor and action, and it’s finale sets up interesting sequels, but everything else is so simultaneously rote and poorly thought out that these few good elements can not overcome The Mummy‘s myriad and overwhelming flaws.   This should be a lesson to other studios wanting to start a cinematic universe out there – think long and hard about whether it’s a good idea, because it probably isn’t, and even if you feel it is you can not rush the story to the “Avengers” stage within the first couple of movies.  Cinematic Universes need time to germinate and develop in the minds and hearts of their audiences, and rushing to the “fun part” is only going to end in failure.

Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

mv5bzwiznwrjzwetmdlios00mtqwlwezmdktnjliogfhyjq4ogizxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuxmjc1otm-_v1_sx1777_cr001777976_al_

If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

mv5bmgvjmdvimjutndg2mi00ztmzlthkmdctmmywzde1y2u1otezxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuxmjc1otm-_v1_sx1777_cr001777741_al_

While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

mv5byjezmzk4ndytytnioc00zgewltlkzjetzjg2y2nimwfkztbjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjczote0mzm-_v1_

How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

mv5bywzmodaznzmtmziyny00yjawltg3zwmtodm4ztmwyjixzde0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjq5mdu1njc-_v1_

Raw (Ducournau; 2016)

The major Hollywood films this week are Smurfs: Lost Village and Going in Style, the movie about three octogenarians robbing a bank which really just looks to be an excuse for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin to get a paycheck.  I’m guessing these films already have a built in audience, while I admit to having no desire to see either of them, I would have if I thought either could aspire to be anything more than they appear and they should be written about.  Given their April releases and lack of critic preview screenings, however, I’m guessing that my instincts were absolutely on target.  Therefore, I decided I’d challenge myself a bit by seeing a French horror movie which has been getting some critical buzz, and challenge myself I did.  That challenge is the focus of this review.

The average moviegoer definitely has a niche they love and will seek out, whether that be action movies, comic book flicks, romantic comedies, animated films, and so on.  In their chosen genre, they will love nearly anything thrown their way, but if a film falls outside of their favored genre then our hypothetical average Joe will complain and complain about all the reboots, sequels, overused plots and actors, and the general lack of creativity in Hollywood overall.   Here are the top 10 U.S. box office grossing films of 2016:

  1. Finding Dory ($486.2 million)
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($425 million)
  3. Captain America: Civil War ($408 million)
  4. The Secret Life of Pets ($368.4 million)
  5. The Jungle Book ( $364 million)
  6. Deadpool ($363 million)
  7. Zootopia ($341.2 million)
  8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3 million)
  9. Suicide Squad ($325.1 million)
  10. Doctor Strange ($230.1 million)

mv5bmjmyota4nja2nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjq1ody2mti-_v1_

Here we have five superhero movies, four family friendly “animated” movies (animated in quotes because I’m counting The Jungle Book as one of the four), six sequels (and only two of those sequels being only the second in a series), and all but one is based on a property that existed before the movie was made.  This is not a commentary on the creativity, intelligence, nor quality of these films as a whole, I loved quite a few of these and while I felt quite a few weren’t all that great, none made a worst of the year list of any kind for me.  I also understand that families are the biggest market for films purely because it’s something they can do together and there is by definition more than two of them.  But, one thing these films have in common is that they present no challenge to the viewer whatsoever (I’ll grant you the exception of Zootopia on that, but I think that was more of a pleasant surprise than something which was expected of it and sought out by audiences).  In fact, if you look down the list of top grossing films you have to go all the down to number 31, and Arrival, before you find a film that truly presents any kind of challenge to its viewer.  This is exactly why Hollywood keeps giving you the same familiar movies over and over again.  Because those are the movies you watch.

With that information as a guide, Raw should be a film that no one sees.  I’m going to use the word challenging yet again to describe this movie, and I’m sure I will again, because at it’s core that is what this movie is and does.  It’s themes are complex, realistic, and difficult to completely unravel, it gives us relationships that are not typical, that don’t fit normal movie tropes, but seem all the more real for it, and it is hard to simply watch at times very literally with images that are bloody, uncomfortable, and grotesque.  The original title of this film was Grave, and I am glad it was changed because that single word Raw is a perfect description of what this movie is both on a literal and a metaphorical level.

mv5bmddmzmmxngutmgvlzs00njlmltkzn2utzwi0yznlodg2mdm4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014981000_al_

Raw is about Justine (Garrance Marillier) the younger of two siblings who has been raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The film starts with her being dropped of by her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) at the medical school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends.  After quickly meeting her new roommate (“I asked for a girl.” “You got a gay.  To these people that’s the same thing.”) Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) the hazing begins immediately as the older students begin terrorizing the “rookies” in a sort of friendly, sort of legitimately scary way, and after one of the hazing rituals in which lifelong vegetarian Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney, Justine finds herself changing and developing appetites she never knew she had.

Raw is billed as a horror movie, and while I won’t argue with that descriptor as this is a tense, gory, at times sadistic move, I would describe it as a coming of age movie which just happens to use horror as a vehicle to describe the transition into adulthood metaphorically rather than the more literal story telling typically used in a coming of age film.  On its surface, Raw is about a cannibal at a veterinarian college and the themes seem to be statements about meat being murder and how we can become addicted to the slaughter involved in the meat industry to the point where it becomes more impulse than conscious thought, and those are absolutely relevant themes in the film.  But, looking even deeper this is really a story about family, particularly siblings, and how we bring out both the best and the worst in each other and how much our family determines who we are even in ways we could never suspect.

While nothing in Raw is the pinnacle of artistry, everything here is well done.  The incredibly intelligent script is the best thing on display here, even if the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, the visuals are rarely art, but damn are they effective and change up styles effortlessly where needed adding to the tension and creepiness of the movie, and the acting is all well done, though in this case well done is better than most horror films and none of the performances reach any inspired level.

mv5bmzfjyzqwyzetotawzi00zgq1lwjmytatmtq3ymy5yje4otkyl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_

My final take:   If you want a movie that challenges you in nearly every way a movie can, then Raw is absolutely a film that needs to be seen.  Every scene in this film has layer upon layer of subtext with relevant, uncomfortable themes bursting forth in every image and every added plot point.  But, be wary that this film is utterly grotesque and unflinching.  I guarantee you that at least some things in this movie will make you uncomfortable, and for the more squeamish out there you may have trouble looking at the screen at all for large chunks of the movie.  A further warning is that since this takes place at a veterinary school there are injured and dead animals in the movie, and I know that will bother many.  I don’t expect many to go see this film, I expect them to skip over this one while griping that movies never do anything original anymore.  Well, here you go.  Raw is well made, really smart, and completely original.  Now’s your chance.  It’s time for the American general audiences to put up or shut up, even though I know they won’t do either, and I actually understand the reasons why they won’t.

Life (Espinosa; 2017)

I’ve been talking quite a bit lately in my reviews how horror is going through something of a mini-Renaissance of late.  It seems the writers, directors, and producers of these films have at long last figured out that audiences are tired of and want more than jump scares, story arcs that work only because of idiotic decisions, and cheap camera tricks meant to mislead the viewer but ultimately just very temporarily conceal the plot holes riddled throughout the story.  Life is the first science fiction horror film which is a part of this trend, and it continues it admirably for the most part, but it unfortunately does fall prey to a few cliches and traps at times.

Life is the story of six astronauts from around the world living and working on the International Space Station.  A sample collected by a probe on Mars leads Earth scientists to believe that there could once have been extraterrestrial life on our neighbor, and it is up to these six to grab the sample and then study what it contains.  A dormant, but definitely living, single celled organism is found amongst the Martian sample and humanity now knows for certain that we are not alone in the universe.  As to what happens next, I did mention this is a horror movie.

life-space-image-2-600x334

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of Life, are most definitely at least acquainted with biological science, as the life form they discover is based on what we know of evolutionary and biological sciences today.  As they study it and discover its nature we see a creature that is completely different from anything living on Earth, but still follows the laws of Natural Selection.  I am far from a scientist myself, and biology was absolutely my worst subject when I was still in school, but I could tell that the writers were very concerned with creating a truly alien being, but also a truly realistic one.  It was so well done, in fact, that at a point in its growth when the alien develops something approximating a face, I was a little disappointed that those involved in making the film, whether it be the writers, the director, or someone else, didn’t completely commit to giving us this truly alien thing.

The human characters in the film are a bit of a mixed bag.  All are realistic, perhaps too much so, and fleshed about as well as can be expected for six people you get barely an hour with before Life does what horror movies do.  We understand quickly and naturally their working and emotional relationships to one another, who is the boss, who are friends, who are attracted to each other, and so on, but we are never given enough time to learn who any of them truly are.  The Japanese member of the crew works on the stations mechanical parts and his wife gives birth to a daughter early in the movie, and that’s about all we know of him, and that’s more than a few of the other members of the crew.  I like that none of the characters are stereotypes, and that the actors, and thus the fictional crew, have good chemistry with one another, but only two of the actors, Ryan Reynolds and Ariyon Bakare managed to give performances strong enough that I actually cared about them as individuals, something pretty necessary in a horror flick.

life-2017-movie-trailer-images-1

The conceit of the movie taking place entirely on the International Space Station also works wonderfully for the most part.  The opening scene in the film gives us an excellent idea of what it would be like to live in space as it shoots our characters in close ups with no anchor to give the camera a focus.  It will weave around, switching directions slowly, and even gradually turning upside down giving us the idea of what being weightless inside a technologically advanced tin can would feel like.  After establishing this feeling, the weightless camera does go away, probably for the better, but we are still given a very claustrophobic but now somehow familiar environment for our characters to be hunted down in.  I was reminded a lot of Alien while watching Life, it’s very obviously the biggest influence on the creators of this film, but unlike the Nostromo in that movie, the International Space Station has rooms so small that two people inside any one of them would become very cramped, making for an even more frightening setting once the festivities get underway.  But, much like the alien life form itself, someone in the making of the film could not completely commit to their ultra realistic and incredibly cramped setting and had to give us in the finale a plot device that entirely ruins that spell cast on us which made us believe that this really could happen.

The camerawork and the special effects in the film also fit the bill of the rest of the film.  Very unobtrusive and realistic for the most part.  The alien life form itself does have a few problems with the realism of its CGI in places, but due to its design, these are easily forgiven and many may not even notice them.  The camerawork is workmanlike and never relents on giving us the feeling of claustrophobia so necessary for the movie to work and shows us what we need to see without pulling cheap tricks…  until the finale.  This is another element of the film done so well until once again the film’s creators broke with the style of the rest of the film and rely entirely on a cheap camera trick for the film’s climax.  I won’t say more than that, I feel badly about saying that much, but that cheap camera trick in the end was the most disappointing of this flawed, but overall really well done horror film, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it.

life-trailer-still

Final recommendation:  If you are a science fiction or horror fanatic (or both), then this is a movie that will definitely please, even if it will never be listed among the classics of the genre.  It’s a movie that tries hard to emulate Alien while still being its own entity, and in that it certainly succeeds.  However, it’s a film that at times is too realistic for its own good when it shouldn’t be and can’t commit to its own tone in the end when it’s most important.  Most everything about this film is really well done, and it’s worth seeing just for the alien life form they give us, but unless you are the type who must see everything possible on the large screen for the theater experience, then this is one you can wait for and rent eventually, or maybe see at a matinee so you can pay less and still get the full “we’re in outer space” experience.

Get Out (Peele; 2017)

Any comparison between Jordan Peele’s, yes of Key and Peele, new horror movie Get Out and The Stepford Wives is not only apt, it’s intentional.  Peele has said in interviews that he has always loved the dystopian feminist 1975 horror film, and felt that a treatment of a similar script using black and white people instead of men and women could work.  He thought of the idea in 2008, right when Barack Obama had been elected into the Presidency and many were declaring racism dead in the United States due to this fact.  Now 9 years later his vision is finally hitting the multiplexes and is possibly even more apropos now than it was then, though it certainly has a very different spin to it.

The storyline of Get Out gives us Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), an interracial couple, he’s black and she’s white, who have been together long enough that she is now taking him to meet her wealthy parents for the first time at their palatial and far from the beaten path home by spending a weekend there together.   Despite Rose’s assurances that her parents (played wonderfully by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) aren’t racist, Chris feels something is wrong from the first moment he arrives.  To say any more than that is to enter into spoiler territory, but I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that Chris’ feelings are absolutely spot on.daniel-kaluuya-as-chris-and-allison-williams-as-rose-in-get-out

Jordan Peele both wrote and directed Get Out, but he does not appear in the movie even in so much as a cameo, so you would expect this to have some humor to it.  While Get Out does definitely showcase Peele’s incredibly sharp and unflinching wit from beginning to end, there is nothing in this film which would classify it in any way as a comedy.  It has moments of levity, sure, but this is a horror thriller through and through.   The way Peele’s signature wit is displayed here is through his sly commentary on race which seems to be obvious until you realize that there are many layers and levels to his themes which have been subtly but surely making their way into your consciousness as you watch.

Peele is not condemning more conservative and overt racial hatred in the film, but rather he is pointing directly at liberal racism, and as a liberal I can say that Get Out definitely does its job well, though to say more is to, again, enter into spoiler territory.  It also interestingly speaks to an underlying fear in the black community of white people, not just distrust, but fear, and particularly of well-off white collar professional white people.  I don’t know if this was intentional on Peele’s part, as I haven’t heard him mention that element of the film in his talks on it, but I thought this added another very interesting dimension to the film well worth some thought alongside the themes of liberal racism.agetout

This is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and his second feature film length writing project after last year’s Keanu, but you would never be able to tell as every single element of the film is handled at the very least competently, and most often masterfully.  The script is Get Out‘s high point, and while it’s seriously early in the year to talk about best of anything in any way, I predict this script is one that will still be remembered at year’s end.   It’s witty, thoughtful, tense, with sharp dialogue and excellent pacing.  Perhaps the only thing it lacks is strong character development, but since it’s a story that focuses on one specific event over one weekend that can largely be forgiven.

The acting is excellent for the most part, though Allison Williams as Rose and Caleb Landry Jones as her brother Jeremy can both fall a little flat much of the time.  Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents Whitney and Dean are the highlights of the film, being charming and parental while still having a sinister air about them.  They are constantly unsettling, but despite this you still understand why people would want to be in their company, or at least would think themselves silly for finding anything less than charming about them.  Daniel Kaluuya could have been a little better as our leading man, Chris, but he does what needs to be done to show himself as a sympathetic lead.  I did find myself rooting for him and putting myself in his position most of the time throughout Get Out, but his performance was inconsistent enough that I found the spell where he was concerned broken from time to time, which is what unfortunately keeps this movie from being truly great and merely very, very good.

The cinematography in Get Out is well handled, even if it’s never awe inducing.  It serves its purpose without ever calling attention to itself.  The art direction and practical effects in the film are also handled quite well, again never really calling attention to themselves in any way outside of doing exactly what they need to do.get-out-keith-stanfield

The section below is a more in depth discussion of Get Out’s themes, and so include some pretty major spoilers.  I am going to use white text to write it, so highlight the blank area below to read this section, or just skip to the final recommendation if you don’t want any spoilers.

Jordan Peele’s condemnation of liberal America is the most fascinating element of the film, and one I will have to think on a lot more before I truly come to any conclusion, and the fact that I can and want to really is the sign of a fantastic script.  Peele seems to be saying here that liberal America’s fascination with black culture, while it doesn’t have the outright hostility, anger, and hatred contained in conservative America, is just as insidious.  He seems to be saying that liberals don’t understand black culture any more than conservatives do, but that they still seek to control it with incorporation with white culture rather than through forceful dominance.

This also explains why I feel the movie has a, perhaps intended, perhaps not, subtext of black fear of whites, well more than just a subtext since this is a horror movie about whites trying to capture and control black people, but I’m not sure that’s what Peele intended thematically rather than just as a necessary plot element.  Is it a reasonable fear?  Absolutely.  There is no doubt that even the most well-intentioned of liberals would still feel more comfortable if everyone acted just like they do, it’s human nature to feel that way, and to say white culture is the dominant culture in the United States is so obvious a statement as to be insulting.

Final recommendation:  Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror and into directing is everything a horror movie should be.  It uses its plot and tension as a mirror into very real world cultural issues and insecurities.  It isn’t perfect, but it is incredibly thoughtful.  The acting isn’t always the best, and the horror is more creepy than scary, but I guarantee this film will leave you thinking about it for days on end afterward and could very well change or solidify your personal views on some very important subjects surrounding race and culture.

A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski; 2017)

Gore Verbinski is hardly a novice director.  He is the one who was in the director’s chair for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Mexican, and Rango.  He also gave us two of the other Pirates of the Caribbean movies and The Lone Ranger, but, still, while he isn’t batting 1.000, he isn’t a novice.  It would be hard to tell that from this effort, though, since aside from a few of the sets here and there, A Cure for Wellness looks to be strictly amateur hour.

The movie starts with our protagonist Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, as a very generic young up and comer type character at a generic company that deals with money in some way or another.  Our generic protagonist has broken some rules, and is in trouble with the SEC, so when Pembroke (Harry Groener), one of the CEOs of his generic company, has announced he isn’t returning from his spa vacation in the Alps because he has seen the error of his ways and is being cured, the other CEOs tell Lockhart that he has to go bring him back.  Apparently sending a salesperson with ethics issues whom has never met his intended quarry before seems like a good idea to the CEOs of generic company, perhaps explaining why they feel they need Pembroke back so badly.a2bcure2bfor2bwellness

When Lockhart arrives at the spa he finds it has a very sordid centuries old past involving a baron, his wife, the local townsfolk, and the castle that was on this site being burned down.  He also finds that this is a retreat and treatment center for the world’s wealthiest people and that it is rare, if ever, that anyone ever leaves the treatment center.  Apparently no one has noticed that a very large percentage of the world’s most wealthy and prominent people have been disappearing  without a trace for the past century or more after going to the Swiss Alps.  Why would anyone notice that?

As preposterous and poorly thought out as this premise and set up is, the film just keeps getting more and more ridiculous as it goes on, with characters remaining completely oblivious to the very obviously macabre and unsavory goings on at the treatment center, putting the only person who does suspect anything in exactly the places he needs to discover what he needs to (Lockhart suspects things aren’t entirely kosher here, so let’s make sure we put him in the room which has a window which directly overlooks the secret underground passage), plot devices which can work one way in one scene and in exactly the opposite in the next with no explanation as to why they would be different, and so on.   There is nothing in the writing that isn’t completely amateurish from the pacing, to the plot itself, to the dialogue, and the devices.  All of it is arbitrary and generic and exists purely because someone had what they apparently thought was a good idea then had no idea how to write any of it.

hqdefault

The acting is completely wooden, with not a single person showing any kind of emotion nor depth except for one singular and usually rather boring and cliched character trait which they stick to from beginning to end.  Lockhart is an ambitious sociopath, Hannah (Mia Goth) is a naive waif, Pembroke a repentant rich guy, and so on.  While the script doesn’t do the actors any favors with what they are given to work with, not a single actor does anything to even remotely rise their performance above the material and give us dull, predictable, unfocused, and sloppy performances to a person.

The camera work and visuals on display are, I suppose, meant to be unsettling, and in a way they are, but again its more because of how sloppy and vague they are rather than the fact that they hit a proper tone.  The art direction makes the hospital spa look like something Victorian even though no reason is ever given that the treatment center wouldn’t need to nor want to upgrade to modern tools and machines, and there are an awful lot of unexplained empty, dark, and just plain ugly areas in this spa, especially for one which the wealthiest people in the world clamor to go to and then never want to leave.

psychological-thriller-trailer-a-cure-for-wellness-2017-1-679x350

Final recommendation:  A Cure for Wellness is a generic, dull, ugly film which isn’t even brave enough to reach “so bad it’s good” territory.  Don’t go see this in the theaters, and try to avoid it for the rest of your life, if possible.   But if a friend does force you to watch this someday, you could get some entertainment out of making a game which involves pointing out all plot holes and inconsistencies, though if that game involves drinking make sure you won’t be driving anywhere anytime soon, and be careful you don’t contract alcohol poisoning.