Category Archives: horror movie

“A Quiet Place” delivers a touching story with an intriguing plot

We are in a silver age of horror films. With recent releases such as “Get Out”, “The Witch”, “It Comes at Night” and “The Babadook”, horror films have found a new voice in Trump’s America, echoing our current paranoia and national consciousness. “A Quiet Place” does not necessarily speak to modern times, but it does tell a good story with an interesting concept, adding further to a recent spate of quality horror films (surrounded by oodles of studio crap of course).

In four years’ time, strange creatures have taken over the planet. Blind, they hunt by hiding in the ground and using their incredible hearing to find prey. With most mankind decimated by their ranks, the survivors, including the Abbot family, dad Lee (John Krasinki), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), must live in total silence to survive.

The film is clever in how the characters find ways to keep quiet and builds up the anticipation towards the film’s conclusion. As we learn more and more about the characters and their situation, details about them become clearer, stakes are raised beyond simple survival and audience investment deepens.

The film is a strong example of high concept. Any genre film can be hooked by a concept, especially a horror film. “Speed”: What if a bus was rigged with a bomb that would go off if it went below 50 mph? “The Matrix”: What if we were living in a computer simulation? “Jurassic Park”: What if a theme park of dinosaurs went amuck? “A Quiet Place”: What if the monsters hunting you could only catch you if you make noise?

To make a film more than just the concept though, you need to elevate the story elements around it to create dimensional characters with an arc that makes you feel something over the course of the story. Luckily, “A Quiet Place” has a pretty good heart beating inside it.

It’s a story about family and how tragedy can sever the bonds between members. Regan questions whether her father loves her after she makes a mistake. The other family members sense the struggle and try to help. That question and the devotion between them as they seek to overcome their present circumstances drives the narrative. It’s not a wholly original concept, but it serves as an important undercurrent to keep the audience invested beyond simple survival/death. It could have even been pushed further to incorporate more internal strife and disharmony.

Krasinki’s directing and acting give the film a firm direction as the action ramps up, the suspense never feeling cheap or forced, naturally allowed to proceed to its logical end. It makes for an interesting film that goes beyond simple scares.

SPOILERS

Inciting Incident: Beau is killed when Regan gives him a toy that makes noise.

Act One Climax: Lee shuns Regan as she tries to help the family.

Midpoint: Marcus tells his father about Regan’s guilt as she goes to Beau’s gravesite.

Act Two Climax: The Abbot family enacts their plan to get through Evelyn’s labor.

Act Three Climax: Regan discovers the creature’s weakness through her hearing aid.

The film does a fantastic job of setups and payoffs. Lee tries to create hearing aids for Regan pays off as a way to show his love to her after he’s gone. When Evelyn leaves a nail sticking up on the stairs after she does laundry, we know it will play an important part later on. When Beau draws a rocket and takes a spaceship as his toy, the fireworks pay off as a symbol to him. And having Evelyn pregnant leaves the audience wondering how the family will sort out the situation. Labor is noisy. Babies are loud. How is the family going to get through this? The little moments leading up to the climax don’t make sense when we watch them, but they do later on as we realize that they are making a soundproof basement fort, have an oxygen tank for when they need to hide the baby in a box and why lighters are so important (to light fireworks). It is a very well-written script that builds up piece by piece, every detail mattering in the end.

Some moments were a little predictable though. Evelyn telling Lee that he has to save his family, along with several other heavy hints, guarantees his demise. Regan’s hearing aid providing the clue to the monster’s weakness is hinted at so strongly for such a long time that the viewer is practically yelling at the screen for her to figure it out already. And the creature design is far too similar to the monsters from “Stranger Things”, which are in turn similar to monsters that came before them. A bit more originality into their look would have really helped differentiate them.

Overall, it is hard to find too much to complain about. The acting, writing, editing and directing are all good. The story is solid. It’s simply a well-made film and for new director John Krasinski, a promise of an interesting future yet to come. It’s too bad they’ve already announced a sequel. Some films lose their intrigue with a second edition. This seems like one of them.

Advertisements

“Flatliners” a boring mess

When the horrible reviews for the new “Flatliners” film came out, the natural assumption was that the film was gloriously bad, full of funny deaths and ridiculous jump scares. What a disappointment to find out that “Flatliners” isn’t just not fun, it’s downright boring.

Five medical students, led by Courtney (Ellen Page), engage in a dangerous game of inciting near-death experiences by stopping their hearts. While “dead”, they get a glimpse of the afterlife and a world outside our own. What Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Jamie (James Norton), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Tessa (Madison Brydges) don’t realize however, is that they all suffer from waking nightmares from their past, their sins coming back to haunt them in the present after they go under.

A remake of a 1990 film of the same name, “Flatliners” can’t decide what exactly it is. Is it a cheap horror film made for exploitative death scenarios and random sex scenes? Is it a “smart” thriller that plays with sci-fi tropes and presents interesting ideas about consciousness and the afterlife? The film toes the line between both and comes out a mess, not clever enough to present intriguing ideas nor creative enough to give us inventive kills and scares.

With flat characters and an uneven plot, the film is instantly forgettable and a shame considering the concept is somewhat interesting.

Consider the following approach:

– Five medical students, whose background of deception is hinted at before they meet, accidentally stumble upon a way to venture into the afterlife. Blind with power, they rush headfirst into this new world, seeing a world of possibility and potential, never taking a moment to recognize the danger lurking for each of them. The dead start to grow envious of their ability to leap between worlds and kill them one by one in creative ways in the afterlife. As they realize what is happening, Courtney, the protagonist, must go in one more time and try to fix what’s been broken, but it is too late, her dead sister coming to get her, and they are all captured, punishment for their hubris.

That’s the classic, horror approach to the narrative. You could also have the smart, interesting approach below:

– When five students discover they can flip back and forth between the afterlife and reality, they begin a quest to figure out life’s mysteries, digging deeper and deeper into the dead world, looking for some answers. When Courtney is finally trapped by some force in the dead world, it’s up to her friends to try and bring her back to life. Their love and commitment through the journey is tested as they realize the folly of their way. The strange force in the dead world speaks to Courtney, terrifying her with its knowledge. She is saved before he can claim her and they all learn not to mess with the eternal forces of the world.

Instead, the movie we have is a boring, mind-numbing mess, put together without ingenuity or grace, an empty, emotionless slog.

 

“Annihilation” is bizarre, challenging and awe-inspiring

Writer and director Alex Garland made a name for himself with his brilliant film “Ex Machina” (2015). As one of the bright new names in science fiction, expectations were sky-high for his follow-up film. Even if no one really went to see it, “Annihilation” is something you’ve never seen before in a big Hollywood production: a sci-fi film with brains, macho feminism and big ideas that challenge the viewer long after the experience.

After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a combat mission and proceeds to convulse after behaving strangely, Lena (Natalie Portman) learns the backstory to where he’s been for the past year. A strange area of land in the Northeast United States has been enveloped by a strange entity called the Shimmer. Her husband is the only survivor of an expedition that went in, sent in by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head of an organization called the Southern Ranch. With the area growing, the concern is that the Shimmer will overtake the world before they can stop it. A new team, led by Ventress herself, is set to take the next mission inside and reach the lighthouse, the hub of the Shimmer. Lena, looking to learn what happened to her husband, joins the team with Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez).

Based off a book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is a mix of science fiction and horror, and the audience is never really sure what is going to happen next and what to believe. The result is a nerve-wracking mind melt that challenges you throughout the story. For audiences who like everything explained to them and a plot that goes from point A to B to C, it’s a difficult experience, but for those willing to think through the film as they watch it, it’s a rewarding science fiction journey. It’d be interesting what a repeat viewing would reveal and whether it would reinforce your first notions of what the film represents or contradict them.

The film is set apart by its visuals which, considering it’s $40 million budget, are spectacular. Whether it’s the shimmer, the lush foliage or the exotic, horrific creatures, the film is a beautiful, terrifying work of art.

Dealing mostly with the abstract, the story is meant to be absorbed and analyzed more than related through with a standard protagonist. Does it represent the duality of nature? Our interconnectedness with the universe? The perverseness of time and space? It might be different for every person.

 

Not for the faint of heart, “Annihilation” is an exhilarating tour-de-force, a sci-fi epic that’s imbued with more terror than most horror films.

“It” features strong characters and silly jump scares

The original “It” is a campy yet well-remembered miniseries that created the distinctly memorable Pennywise (originally Tim Curry). Adjusting for modern day standards, the possibility to create a new terror clown for a new generation is ripe with potential. The filmmakers behind the new “It” hit most of the right marks whether or not their intention was pure horror.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” tells the story of a small Maine town called Derry, where a demonic, transforming creature hunts and devours children. After his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappears, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) struggles with coming to terms that Georgie in fact may be dead. A loser in the town, he, along with his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), are bullied and tormented by older kids and misunderstood and disrespected by their parents and the adults around them. When they meet new girl in town Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and discover the secrets of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together despite their past and fears to stop him.

The characters are fleshed out and strong. Each of the kids has a distinct personality and arc that contributes to the overall story. Their harsh parents admonish in some cases abuse them, really reflecting author Stephen King’s sensibilities and tone. The kids’ bond is so strong because of their lack of upbringing and support. With no one else to turn to, their friendship is their only hope. Adults and adulthood are toxic and this is represented by Pennywise, a manifestation of the fear of growing up.

Skarsgard excels as the demonic clown, bringing new terror to an already iconic role. He manages to make Pennywise his own creation quite different and more extreme than the previous version. He is scary, campy, funny and disorienting.

The scares of the film are where things fall either positively or negatively depending on your experience. For those genuinely frightened by modern-day jump scares, the film will be terrifying. For those who find such tactics hokey and pedestrian (writer included), there is little terror and indeed several instances of laughter. But in a film such as this, it’s okay if not everything is not taken very seriously. It is a story about a demonic clown after all. Much like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is so fantastical that the ingenuity of his terror is fun. In a way, this can be construed to show us how silly our fears really are in the grand scheme of things.

The film is a bit too long, but a beating heart at the core of the story powers the narrative through to its conclusion. It is definitively Stephen King’s original work brought to life onscreen.

“Green Room” a harrowing thriller

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Green Room” tells the story of a punk band, “The Ain’t Rights”, who witness a crime in a neo-Nazi venue and have to escape before they themselves are killed.

Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and Sir Patrick Stewart as the leader of the Nazi gang, the film is a taut thriller with barely any fat on its frame. It doesn’t bother with backstory or creating deep characters, but simply presents its story, the circumstance serving as the main crux to build up your empathy.

It feels claustrophobic, adding to its unease and drama, as most of the action takes place in the “green room” in the club. The film also does a good job of building the stakes, as just when things get dire, the next scene somehow makes them worse.

While not particularly memorable, it is nevertheless an engaging gore fest, thrilling at times, funny at others (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not), and never dull.

‘Alien: Covenant’ a rather forgettable film

Say what you will about “Prometheus” (and there’s a lot that can be said), but it at least tried to be something different. “Alien: Covenant” on the other hand is trying to balance the headiness of director Ridley Scott’s Biblical allegory with the blockbuster need for gore and old-fashioned scares. It is not a smooth melding.

“Alien: Covenant” starts with the crew of the spaceship Covenant dealing with a technical failure and losing its captain. The remaining crew, led by Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston), investigate a nearby planet to see if it is sustainable for a human colony. They meet David (Michael Fassbender), an android left over from the previous Prometheus mission, who is identical to Covenant’s own android, Walter. Things grow dire as the situation surrounding David reveals itself.

The film is nearly a direct copy of every Alien film up to this point: people wake up from hypersleep, discover an alien world, investigate it, discover an alien creature that picks them off one by one until the lone female with short hair uses her ingenuity (and an air lock) to vanquish it. This being the fifth film in the Alien franchise, the stories feel incredibly stale. Audiences need something truly original to care about.

Perhaps the xenomorphs are released on the creator’s homeworld and they need to band together with the humans they tried to exterminate to stop them. Or we witness the creation of the Queen Alien and have a film based off her. Or we focus on a world where the xenomorphs have totally taken control and a small rebellion must discover a way to take the planet back.

Or we continue to focus on the idea of creation and the robots who become obsessed about it. The best parts of “Alien: Covenant” are the conversations between David and Walter, two androids discussing their purpose and the human condition. David’s experiments are a great basis for an entire film and his narrative could carry the whole story. Instead, we have more space explorers, a forgettable cast whose sole purpose is to die and the same old story we’ve seen again and again.

“Prometheus” was a mess of a film that nevertheless introduced some interesting ideas and dynamics to the horror-sci-fi genre. It’s sequel plays it a little too safe while at the same time trying to have it both ways and the result is a rather unmemorable film. There are some good elements, but the whole is underwhelming.

 

Movie Essentials: Persona

Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.

Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.

We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.

Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.

The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.

pers2

Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.

Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.

Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.

Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.