27 July 2016

A Babadook-Shaped Shadow of Mental Illness: Lights Out

Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Eric Heisserer
Full cast and crew at IMDb

Darkness is a primal human fear that horror movies have long exploited; the structure of so many recent genre entries is: daytime exposition, nighttime scare, repeat ad infinitum. This movie strips that formula down. The malevolent force here is allergic to illumination, a Babadook-shaped shadow that disappears when you flick a switch or point a flashlight—that is, the villain is concentrated darkness itself. 

David Sandberg directs in the signature purist style of James Wan (who’s a producer here): Sandberg builds tension slowly, with camera movement and light. (The best scenes are a comic one, in which a potential victim scrambles to find more light, from his cell phone to a car-key fob, and a long sequence shot in maximally creepy blacklight.) But he shows that it’s not as easy as Wan makes it look—Sandberg is capable but not masterful, and Lights Out is scary but never terrifying.

The conceit, stretched out to 81 minutes by Eric Heisserer, is a bit too thin to support the backstory heaped upon its shoulders, but it’s actually the strength of the underlying ideas that makes this movie as effective as its classical construction. What anchors the story is the clear metaphor of the monster as a manifestation of mom’s mental illness, a harmful, lurking thing that gets rids of daddies and threatens children. It’s a moving (if irresponsible) look at how children cope with, and suffer under, sick parents. Alternatively, it’s a troubling look at how abusive people can dominate a relationship—or a family. Grade: B

05 July 2016

As Stupid As It Is Amazing: The Conjuring 2

Directed by James Wan
Full cast and crew at IMDb

I'm still surprised that the director of the campy Saw and the unwatchable Dead Silence matured into the most respectable horror helmer in Hollywood. The Conjuring 2 kept me with my heart in my throat, asking myself scene after scene why I'd bought a ticket to put myself through the relentless build-up of anticipation and terror—it’s awesomely effective, the most horrifying horror around. But that’s no surprise: James Wan is the best, which became an inarguable fact in 2011, when Insidious came out, and subsequent films have only upheld this reputation—even the ones he only produced (such as Insidious 3 and Annabelle, each a piece of strong horror filmmaking in the classical Wan style). 

He’s patient; he lets small sounds, creeping camera movements, deep focus create unbearable tension. Then he’ll let it break, but only a little, and then he starts up again, reaching a higher point of intolerable apprehension. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until it’s as exciting as it is unendurable. The daylight scenes in The Conjuring 2, the ones in horror movies in which the characters tend to be safe for exposition, are brief; the nights are long.

Those days are also pretty stupid. (Wan cowrote the script with Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson, each of whom has written more than their fair share of crap.) I’m generous with my suspension of disbelief, because there's often an emotional payoff more rewarding than cynical superiority. But even I balked at this one. Here’s the spoiler: the demon can only be defeated if the characters know its name, which they do, because previously they asked the demon its name, and it told them—they’d just forgotten! (Good thing they wrote it down!) Then there’s the incessant Catholicism, which adds hollow spirituality, as well as overly literal interpretations of good and evil that Catholicism often inspires (see: all of Guillermo del Toro's movies, The Exorcist, etc. etc.), the sort of simplistic black-and-white morality that deadens the richest art. It’s a shame that Wan can’t find writers as committed to the craft as he is. Then he could make masterpieces without asterisks. Grade: B+

15 January 2016

Beasts of No Nation Doesn't Do Its Subject Justice

Written and directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Full cast and crew at IMDb

This movie is too stylish for its subject. Fukunaga might be one of the best visual storytellers working; he was singlehandedly responsible for the eerie, briefly culture-conquering appeal of the first season of True Detective. His facility with camera movements and his misty, washed-out bayouscapes elevated Nic Pizzolatto’s pseudophilosophical bullshit into art; take them away, and you get Season Two. 

But child soldiers in war-torn Africa aren’t akin to the quasimystical villains of that HBO drama; their experience is a real experience, their violence a real violence, and Beasts of No Nation feels afraid of itself—afraid of the inherent ferocity, even softening it with Dan Romer’s tender score, making it weirdly beautiful with moody slow-motion and colorful, striking compositions. 

The content instead demands brutal honesty, brutal, like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left: cameras that can’t and won’t look away, because what they're showing is too serious to show any other way. Instead, Fukunaga presents it with the palatable outrage typical of Oscar nominees—and the movie got no nominations for the trouble. 

The Visit is Not a Return to Form for M. Night Shyamalan

Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Full cast and credits at IMDb

What’s most surprising about The Visit is how derivative it is. M. Night Syamalan has always been more impressive as a director than a writer, a stylish and distinctive visual storyteller whose complexly lit, elegantly framed and provocatively prolonged shots were always more compelling than his twist-endings, even at their best (his first three movies); The Village and The Happening are great films, despite their silly scripts, because they’re magnificently composed. 

I know I’m in the minority here; most people consider Shyamalan foremost a writer, his trademark not long shots but narrative surprises, and so his latest, about two siblings who go to stay with their estranged, strange grandparents, was being called a “return to form.” Well. It’s a serviceable horror film, engaging enough for what it wants to be, which is low-stakes and easily consumed, exploiting popular trends: it’s found-footage horror (shot by the eldest child, a girl, who’s into moviemaking). Shyamalan sneaks in a few aesthetic characteristics: the best is when the kids meet their grandparents at the train station, and the girl leaves the camera on the other end of the platform, recording the crucial moment from an eye-squinting distance. 

Otherwise, this is familiar stuff, and not even from Shyamalan’s previous films. The scariest thing the grandmother does, in the middle of the night, is scurry around on the floor like a crustacean or a bug, her long, dark hair obscuring her face; it’s straight out of long-obsolete J-horror. And the “twist” at the end is easily guessed from the beginning. This may be a necessary palette cleanser for a director who spent the last few years consumed doing the hackiest hack work in Hollywood, such as After Earth and The Last Airbender. And I’d love to see Shyamalan return to form. But this isn’t that film. Instead, like so many filmmakers these days, he did his best work in almost a decade for television: Fox’s Wayward Pines miniseries, which is moody, handsome and full of unexpected developments.

09 November 2015

What Makes Bone Tomahawk So Unsettling?: Review

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler
Full cast and crew at IMDb

This solid little Western–horror hybrid is practically science-fiction, turning the wild American west into alien terrain populated by inconceivable monsters. The plot is simple: two men and a woman are taken from a peaceful town by a mysterious native, and a quartet of white men take after him. As such, the movie resurrects hoary tropes of the savage Injun, though it clearly states that the Indians don’t even consider this particular tribe, which has no name because its members cannot speak, to be Indian. They’re something else, something unspeakable. 

So, don’t expect a movie that deals well, or at all really, with the problems of American history; it tries to riggle out of them. Expect instead satisfying storytelling, a movie that takes its time, allowing for digressions and jokes and slow tempos, all of which intensify the audience’s relationships to the characters, making the gruesome climax more affecting: you care about whether these men live or die. It helps too that they’re played by excellent actors: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox, the latter of which is the weakest of the bunch, because his voice is too high-pitched for the masculine gravitas of the Wild West, which this movie reinforces through Russell’s gruff tone and magnificent facial hair.

But it’s not these men that stand out, really. The movie reminded me of the end of Valhalla Rising, re-creating the mystery and terror of being a colonizer facing the indigenous population, of the inherent violence of the situation. I don't mean that the settlers deserve our sympathy and the Native Americans don't, just that it’s exciting to witness the real fear the former lived with: the vulnerability of desert-black nights or horseless days, the way a modest wound could kill you, the sudden unexpected thwap of an arrow or ghostly arrival of a tomahawk-bearing enemy or a stranger in your camp. 

But it's not even such tension that stands out, either. What has stayed with me from Bone Tomahawk is the men/monsters writer-director(-novelist-musician) Zahler has created: chalky bodies, howling like T-Rexes, cutting humans in half (starting at the crotch) with the title implement and feasting on the flesh—igniting the imagination with its horrors of the wild continent. These cannibals are terrifying—all the more so because they live not in outer space but in the United States.

03 September 2015

Queen of Earth, A Hipster Movie

Queen of Earth
Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry
Full credits at IMDb

The defining aesthetic of the hipster is the cooption of what’s come before, whether it’s their parents' suburban kitsch or fringed leather, Ray-bans, whatever. They have no culture of their own, which is why they can be vegans or barbecue fanatics, long-haired or short-, hip-hop or classic rock, a mashup of everything or anything. In that regard, and I don’t mean this with easy dismissal, Queen of Earth feels like intrinsically hipster cinema: it puts a modern spin on old tropes without quite changing them—that is, it looks a little different, but doesn’t say anything too different.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before. I mean, a few influences conspicuously pervade Queen of Earth: Persona, with two women of contrasting hair hues spending time together at a remote lakeside home; and Repulsion, with a woman’s unraveling sanity and the blurring of the lines between reality and nightmare. But, no, I mean literally, too. Is the shot of the ceiling fan just too Twin Peaks? Is Keegan DeWitt’s truly creepy score just too Anton Webern? Is there something about the camerawork that too closely follows Martha Marcy May Marlene's? (Or am I thinking of Silent House?)

At a certain point, I gave up. Perry’s influences are all over his fourth feature, not obscured at all, but the movie doesn’t necessarily feel derivative—at least, not tiresomely. It’s exciting: the mood he sustains with music, and Sean Price Williams's camera movement and composition, is compelling, but mostly it’s the actors, by which I really just mean the lead, Elisabeth Moss. (Everyone else is fine, but they feel like planets revolving around her star.)

While her former costars Jon Hamm and John Slattery have used their newfound superstardom post-Mad Men to goof off in silly comedies (most recently in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel, not that there’s anything wrong with that), Moss has spent it performing stripped-down on Broadway or in experimental indie fare like this, Listen Up Philip, The One I Love, becoming her old cast’s most Serious Performer. She’s riveting here, and Perry likes to let the camera move in close to her face to watch. She’s the least hipster thing about the movie: it doesn’t feel like you’ve seen it before, and definitely not in this way. It has the legitimate excitement of the new.

27 August 2015

The Phony Social Relevance of Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Full cast and crew at IMDb

You can live your life, make your art, in two ways: in service to yourself, or in service to something larger than you, like a community. For the first half of Straight Outta Compton, a feature-length advertisement masquerading as American political history, the boys who form NWA choose the latter; the screenplay, by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (from a story by a few others), posits the members' early singles and the group's debut album as reflections of and responses to the conditions of police oppression—it’s not just their own lives in Compton that their music describes, but the life of the city, which is by no means unique to the place or the time: many people did and will relate to the persistent harassment of law enforcement, which speaks both to the success of the film and the success of the music 25 years ago. “Fuck Tha Police” becomes in the film a rousing anthem, the culmination of their simmering anger and resentment at injustice.

So does giving voice to the voiceless continue to provide success for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and the rest of the characters? Not really: pretty quickly they abandon the realities of ghetto life for luxe pool parties and spacious recording studios, arguing about contracts and cuts of royalties, pressing records about whether MC Ren or Ice Cube writes better rhymes, smashing up corner offices with baseball bats. When the Rodney King video surfaces, and riots break out when the officers involved are acquitted, it feels totally perfunctory: sure, everyone in the group expresses disbelief as they watch it go down on television, but they don’t create memorable music in response; there's no "Fuck Tha Police II," more resonant than the original. Director F. Gary Gray shows members of the group driving in slow motion through the carnage, but it’s risible; it feels like a lazy way to force gravitas onto a section of the film that lacks it. (The same way all the quiet dramatic scenes have a little sad music by Joseph Trapanese behind them.)

In fact, the movie left me skeptical about whether it’s historically accurate to depict NWA as social-justice warriors, or if the film’s producers (which include Ice Cube and Dr. Dre!) recognized that, given what’s happening in the country at least since Trayvon Martin, there was money to be made from a mainstream film that seemed to address the inequities of modern policework. As one Flavorwire headline put it, in response to observers’ surprise regarding the film’s first-week success, “‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is Only a ‘Surprise Hit’ If You Aren’t Paying Attention.’” But the artists’ careers don’t seem to follow this arc. Ice Cube (played in the film by his son) and Dr. Dre became savvy businessmen, able to parlay their experience and resulting credibility into movie production and headphone sales, even to foster the career of a talent like Eminem—who rapped about himself without ever tapping into the country’s sociopolitical veins. The end credits are a a celebration of the money made by the two surviving stars of NWA, the ones who produced the movie, and the final word of spoken dialogue is, “Aftermath,” the name of Dr. Dre’s record label. Straight Outta Compton isn’t a movie about the social realities of growing up south of Los Angeles—it’s about the commercial success of two guys and their friends, whose stuff you can buy on your way out of the theater.

11 July 2012

Red Lights

Written & Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés
Full credits at IMDb

The latest from the director of Buried wants to be an amazing, far-out horror-mystery like Angel Heart—right down to its small-but-crucial part for Robert DeNiro—but it's campy bananas instead. Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver star as paranormal investigators who expose frauds and debunk tech-savvy charlatans when not teaching their college class in Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed. But strange events suggest that maybe these skeptics are wrong! Could the answers lie with America's most famous, possibly legit psychic (DeNiro), who happens to be coming out of reclusion after several decades?

Red Lights is super-serious and strange: it nearly climaxes with a newsreel-like detailing of laboratory experiments; it takes place in an alternate universe in which faith healers and their critics generate front-page, top-of-the-fold headlines...

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

06 July 2012

The Pact

Written & Directed by Nicholas McCarthy
Full credits at IMDb

The first scene boasts one of the best-conceived scares I've seen in years: a woman, home alone, wanders her house, holding a laptop, trying to get an Internet connection so she can video-chat with her young daughter. Finally, she gets a clear signal. "Mommy," the kid asks, "who's that behind you?" And the connection cuts out. It's a lot like the classic look-into-the-mirror-and-see-somebody's-behind-you scare, updated to exploit recent technological advancements. It ought to be lifted by every other horror movie this year until it becomes an insufferable cliché.

Writer-director McCarthy shows quite the command of horror-form in this haunted house-serial killer genre mash-up, his feature debut, particularly a facility with Shining-esque tracking shots down hallways. (He also makes the effort to put a clever spin on clichés; a Ouija board scene works much better when the board is scrawled on the floor of a closet.) The whole movie's creepy as fuck. When the first real jolt arrived 20 minutes in, I literally got goosebumps—and I couldn't even tell what I was looking at. It's that well-crafted.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

20 June 2012

To Rome with Love

Written & Directed by: Woody Allen
Full credits at IMDb

Whether it was deliberate, it makes sense that Woody Allen would follow his greatest commercial success since 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters with something similar. Like the $56 million-grossing Midnight in Paris, his latest, To Rome with Love, is a romantic portrait of a great old European capital that acknowledges both its yesterdays and today. Rome isn't about nostalgia like Paris, but the city's past is present in every frame, conspicuous on every street and in every facade, serving as the backdrop for the uniquely modern misadventures of a diverse group of contemporary Romans: natives and transplants, both Italian and international.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

13 June 2012

The Tortured

Directed by: Robert Lieberman
Written by: Marek Posival
Full credits at IMDb

There are two major arguments against the death penalty: that it's inherently wrong for the state to kill its own people, and that it's possible to kill an innocent man. The former is philosophical; the latter, scientific, a matter of evidence. As such, I think the latter makes for duller, more superficial art. Others disagree. Take The Tortured, a thinking man's movie for dummies, which isn't about the death penalty but vigilantism and torture, though its makers are faced with a similar choice: to attack the issue from a purely moral perspective, or to look at possible if unlikely problems in practice. Guess which way it goes?

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

06 June 2012

Dark Horse

Written & Directed by: Todd Solondz
Full credits at IMDb

America loves a winner, but Todd Solondz loves a loser. His films—from Welcome to the Dollhouse to Life During Wartime—have been dedicated to the country's creeps and weirdoes, perhaps none more so than his latest, which even takes its name from that most idealized hero—the long shot, the nobody. The essential question here is to whom the title really refers. I don't think it's the protagonist.

That's Abe (Jordan Gelber), a sum of super-loser signifiers: he's overweight and balding; he collects action figures, holds a shitty office job, and lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, who're often seen watching Seinfeld reruns, a funhouse reflection of their subdued suburban dysfunction). Saddest of all, he listens to nothing but optimistic contemporary bubblegum pop. At a wedding, Abe meets not-cute a morose woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), whom he asks posthaste to marry him. "I want to want you," she tells him tearfully; "That's good enough for me," he replies.

Watch the trailer: