Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. Continue reading →

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Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a deeply-layered, uber-ambitious genre movie

“Blink, and you might miss it” is the great, contradictory nature of horror. Spontaneity is an on-ramp to FOMO when watching a scary movie; there’s a reason the genre is so closely associated to images of multiplex audiences practically peeling back their eyelids like they themselves are the target of the flashing knife, the pouncing boogeyman, the black-magic spell being cast.

For as long as we’ve been terrified by the nightmarish images conjured up by Hollywood’s twisted minds, we’ve been equally as enamored. Our hands can be cages in which we’d gladly cut ourselves off from watching what unfolds on-screen, but – to borrow from the same metaphor – our fingers are also the bars. And some deep-rooted force is typically victorious at encouraging us to bear witness.

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Review: In ‘Velvet Buzzsaw,’ a painting is worth a thousand gallons of blood

In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.

It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.

The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.

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Review: Cinema’s iconic alien hunter deserves better. Maybe that means putting him to rest.

Something was always going to give.

The space-time continuum splintered when it was announced, seemingly a decade ago, that Shane Black would helm the next installment of the unquenchable “Predator” franchise.

On one hand, you have a nostalgia-fueled auteur responsible for two of the smarter comedy-mysteries of the 2000s. On the other, he’s taking on a sci-fi property in freefall correlating with an insistence to stay bound by shackles of self-seriousness. Continue reading →

Review: In transition from lobsters to ‘Sacred Deer,’ Lanthimos embraces cruelty

The latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos is one that somewhat proudly stands on an infrastructure of masochism, both implicit and explicit.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is uncomfortable virtually all the way through – for both its characters and for us in the seats watching through peered fingers. The Greek director/writer who broke out as a sort of demented Wes Anderson with last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Lobster” has now added a dash of Darren Aronofsky, and the result is one of the more original and – no matter how hard some will try to repel its sadistic vibes – unforgettable motion pictures of 2017. Continue reading →

Review: ‘It’ a thrilling, if flawed, big-budget horror offering

There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.

Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.

The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character. Continue reading →

Review: Final installment of ‘Resident Evil’ as brainless as its zombies

It’s a bit of a miracle that we got to six “Resident Evil” movies.

The brainless, faithless adaptation of the hugely popular videogames set the bar low with its first entry in 2002, but it would only be downhill from there.

With “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,” it’s more of the same that we’ve been getting for 15 years – messy narratives, recycled action, and an almost complete lack of fun. The film’s title alone suggests a long-overdue sense of finality, the last gasps of a forgettable series just waiting to be put down once and for all.

In a movie where seemingly every element is a letdown, the script is the most frustrating weakness. Despite the series being at a point where the only filled seats in the theater are the same people who have been there since the start, “The Final Chapter” begins with an excruciating amount of exposition recapping the series thus far. It’s little more than a montage that’s not far from Prezi-level quality.

From there on, there is little logic to be found for an hour and 40 minutes. That’s especially true when it comes to the film’s big baddies; they aren’t the film’s undead (though there’s plenty of that as well), but they might as well be just as brainless with how many easy passes they seem to give Alice and company. It’s like they’re begging for their plan to be halted.

Which might work in a different context, but not here. An incredible forced revelation in the final act doesn’t help the proceedings. It’s a horribly executed attempt to get any semblance of empathy out of the audience. Instead it borders on self-parody.

In many ways, it seems like the overarching problem with this “Resident Evil” entry, and the series as a whole, is that it takes itself much too seriously. But it’s hard to justify even that excuse when there is no semblance of cohesive story.

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In retrospect, most fans probably aren’t making it out to a “Resident Evil” film in 2017 for the story anyway, rather looking for mindless action and bombastic set pieces connected by the thinnest threads that logic can provide.

But “The Final Chapter” underwhelms in that vein too. The action sequences – which range from fighting zombies to zombie dogs to zombie-bat-pterodactyl creations – are so poorly directed that they feel like leftovers, a cache of deleted scenes from prior “Resident Evil” movies.

The camerawork is headache-inducing, the CGI downright cheap, and the sound editing…I refuse to believe there was any sound “editing” involved. From a technical standpoint, the movie is nails-on-a-chalkboard bad.

One would have thought that Paul W.S. Anderson – who has written the previous five films, and directed three of those, as well as “The Final Chapter” – would have decided enough is enough with the mediocrity.

Right up to its truly insufferable ending, the series never figured out what its identity was – should he have focused on compelling stories or an innovative visual aesthetic? Because “Resident Evil” was never going to be both.

The fact that the series almost never truly lies in the realm of horror was perhaps the strongest sign early on of prolonged disappointment. But refusing to ever truly be movies made for the fans is the lasting legacy of “Resident Evil,” if history ever grants it that distinction of being remembered beyond February.

 

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is rated R for sequences of violence throughout

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

2016

Review: ‘The Witch’ offers complex themes, frights

(This review first appeared in the Daily Lobo, and can be viewed here.) 

 

At first watch, there isn’t much meat on the bones of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” On a superficial level – thanks to its incredibly simple premise, small production scale and what could be interpreted as an ambiguous ending – it’s a skeleton of a movie, with small bits of flesh clinging to its ribs in the form of the occasional jump scare.

Don’t fall into that trap. It’s easy to think that the final product far outweighs the expectations that a horror lover may have for “The Witch,” but you’d be doing yourself a disservice in the process.

So how do you get the most out of the film, and experience it the way Eggers intended the audience to?

Step 1: Don’t go into “The Witch” thinking of it as a horror movie, but rather a period drama.

In a vein similar to how “Silence of the Lambs” is viewed by many cinephiles as a drama rather than a straight fright flick, watching “The Witch” through a lens that doesn’t call for scares, but rather deep examination of the themes that Eggers sets forth, will help moviegoers appreciate it much more.

Of course, there are horror elements here. The film is chilling throughout, the themes of paranoia, the occult and isolation manifesting themselves in ways that assures the audience is never really at ease.

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But at its core, “The Witch” is an analysis of 1600s Puritan America, and the overzealous sensibilities of its religiously devout and fanatical society. When viewing the movie in that way, it becomes a film with exponentially more depth, its statements on the dangers of physical and psychological isolation at the forefront and, yes, manifested in a titular witch.

Step 2: Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Eggers is merciless in the methods he utilizes to make the audience feel as uneasy as the family experiencing more and more supernatural occurrences. It’s not as much cringeworthy, nor is it perpetually eerie for the sake of being eerie. And while there aren’t any A-listers in the film, the cast is plenty powerful with their performances as the on-screen family becomes more and more distant. Anya Taylor-Joy in particular shines in a convincingly distressing performance, one that hopefully gets her many more offers for other dramatic roles.

From the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

It’s a decidedly unorthodox type of horror, one that won’t work for those seeking superficial jump scares. But taken on a metaphysical level in tandem with the film’s motifs and themes, it all works together to create a symphony of dread, right up until the moment when it all comes to a head, and real blood is shed.

In a movie full of many tricks and underlying meanings, perhaps none is bigger than the family’s goat, Black Phillip. Without giving away too much (and believe me, it’s hard not to), Black Phillip represents what might be the most uneasy but majestically dark use of an animal in recent film history. He’s memorable, to say the least, and it’s easy to see him becoming an icon in the genre.

“The Witch” won’t please everyone. Indeed, the majority of movie watchers probably wouldn’t understand what makes it so appealing to others. Multiple viewings would certainly help, as would the understanding that sometimes the things that are implied in a film can keep you up at night as much as any slasher movie could.

 

“The Witch” is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie 

Directed by Robert Eggers

2015