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.