Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them / **1/2 (2016)

The most elusive of assets in any yarn about whimsical adventure is a writer’s confidence in the material: the assuredness that words and actions have profound ramifications towards a story arc and its characters. Those that lack such an assertion usually become lost in their own inspiration, and rarely offer any sort of significance other than vague interludes of wonder. The new “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a film within the “Harry Potter” universe that arrives just as the demand for franchise consistency has awoken in the hearts of moviegoers, is of the latter distinction – certainly ambitious in scope and filled with images as enchanting as they are sharp, it rarely seems to know what it has in mind for the ambitious events that are destined to play out. Instead there are only rough connotations for us to rely on; it tells the story of Newt (Eddie Redmayne), a former student of Hogwarts who has arrived in New York carrying a suspicious briefcase filled with magical creatures from the wizarding world to, I suppose, research their bizarre behavior without overreaching influences. Unfortunately, chaos ensues in the presence of an unknowing witness and Newt’s creature are set free in the city, just as the divide between human and magic worlds runs dangerously blurred.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Doctor Strange / ***1/2 (2016)

There is a wide array of sensations one is apt to experience while watching the new “Doctor Strange,” but the most inexplicable of the arsenal is an unflinching sense of plausibility – the idea that something so seemingly absurd or above the trajectory of audience absorption can feel so thoroughly believable when spied through zealous camera lenses. A basic reading of a plot synopsis certainly contradicts that assumption, and no wonder: the story, about a brilliant doctor who is crippled in an accident, goes on a mystical retreat, discovers astral projection and literally learns how to bend time seems like nothing more than self-indulgent fantasy. But Scott Derrickson, the motivated filmmaker behind Hollywood’s latest excursion into the pages of colorful comic books, takes an approach far more cognizant than most others would, and what emerges on screen far exceeds the cynical expectations of what we routinely offer this genre. Certainly the details have a familiar air to them – the visuals echo “Inception,” the premise recalls elements of “Batman Begins” and the characters are reminiscent of those contained in “The Matrix”, for example – but so infrequently do such things come together in the service of such an engrossing story, much less a mere suggestion of intrigue.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moonlight / **** (2016)

The two most important memories in Chiron’s life occur on a beach: one early on when a man acting as a parental figure teaches him how to swim, and one in adolescence when he shares a private encounter with a buddy from school. Both moments are catalysts that allow uncertain eyes to peer beyond the shadows and see a lost part of one’s identity, but observant members of the audience will sense their significance stretching beyond simple narrative agendas. Perhaps that is because their underlying intent is substantiated by the profound depth of writing, which tells the story of a sad introvert whose dueling personal distinctions make him an unwanted target of peer bullying. Perhaps it comes down to the riskiness of the ideas, in themselves a reach for any endeavor piercing the membrane of the mainstream. But it is the fact they exist at all in the walls of the same movie that persists as the undeniable force of wonder. The heartbreaking candor at work in Barry Jenkins’ rich character study amounts to some of the most effective dramatic intensity of the year – no question about that – yet rarely has such a story allowed these details to shape the surface so vividly, especially in the midst of a frontal confrontation with the harrowing prejudices that plague those within their own isolated worlds.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Denial / *** (2016)

Most arguments about the validity of historical events originate from a flaw in the details, and none have thus far been discovered that would alter most of our personal feelings about the atrocities of World War II. A lifetime’s worth of stories and photographs are all that remain of the horror of the Nazi era, for instance, but with them rests a certainty that seems impossible to negate, even from the perspective of those completely removed from the prospect of research or understanding. But in some circles is the pessimism to challenge the very notion of the existence of the holocaust itself – an implication that one’s failure to document an important observation (or to point to a superficial flaw, like the design mechanic of the construction of a camp) must automatically negate the fact that so many people were systematically killed by German fascists. Those sorts are the kind of people who passively nod with the likes of David Duke, once quoted as saying that “we must free the American government from subservient Jewish interests.”

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children / *** (2016)

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is not the sort of excursion that is alien to the behaviors of the eccentric Tim Burton, but unlike a plethora of the director’s recent output it sticks to you with a certain romanticized clarity, as if plucked from some untapped corner of his exhausted imagination. Some credit can be attributed to sharpness of the visuals and even the dexterity of the characterizations, sure, but the most certain of its qualities rests in the writing; based on a popular young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, here is a story tailor-made for the sensibilities of a dreamer, enriched by a consistency in the details that leave their viewers fascinated, shocked and at times enamored. Yet even enthusiasts of the Burton doctrine might find themselves bewildered enough in those realities to stand back in charmed perplexity – as much as they are likely to be thankful the opportunity to be once again swept up in a rewarding adventure, some will be inclined to attach footnotes. A filmmaker this gifted and this pointed in his observations is too precious a gift to be a slave to formula, and yet “Peregrine” represents a departure from that trend rather than the persistence of his individualism.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Girl on the Train / ** (2016)

Every day she finds herself on a train staring intensely out the window, taking an interest in a set of lives that exist among a row of houses overlooking the tracks. They are the faces of people she knows little of, other than what her mind has imagined; one of them is a beautiful blond who wanders into the light full of joy and smiles, and the other is a lustful husband who devours every morsel of her beauty. To her those interactions represent a vicarious consolation of a life she once knew – an existence now etched into the recesses of a past apparently filled with tragedy and pathos. So obsessively does she correlate the two experiences, however, that inevitably they must bleed into one another, and in an opening narration there is a brief suggestion that their worlds are destined to end in fatalistic throes. Is that the pain of the past talking, or specific details she obsesses over? What is to come of a renewed interest from a nearby house in the same neighborhood, which may in fact be the source of her ongoing depression? The movie attempts to clarify the portrait by bouncing between three women as it attempts to frame them in a central story arc full of romance, deceit, mystery and uncertainty, yet it never dawns on any of them that they are participating in material that diminishes their value.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Trick 'R Treat / *1/2 (2007)

The opening scene of “Trick ‘R Treat” shows a married couple arriving home at the end of a long Halloween celebration in the hopes of settling into less glamorous routines. The husband ventures upstairs and turns on pornography; the wife, eager to remove the decorations littering her front yard, begins the arduous process of dismantling elaborate displays of fake limbs and ghostly figures. A dialogue exchange acts as a shallow warning against the practice; he suggests blowing out the candle on the pumpkin by the gate violates the code of the holiday, which must be followed by fatal consequences. Shortly before she is murdered and disfigured by a figure hiding beneath bed sheets on the lawn, there is a moment where she stops to proclaim, without regret, that she “hates Halloween.” After a few short minutes into the bad movie she is trapped in, we can understand why; to be lost in the meandering chaos of a night like this with little to define the terror itself is a fate worse than any scares that might exist in the shadows. For the audience, the true horror is that anyone involved thinks they are pitching these curve balls for some great purpose.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Serbian Film / no star rating (2011)

There exists a hard, bitter audience for the likes of “A Serbian Film,” one of the most graphic depictions of human suffering I have ever seen committed to the screen. I am not among them. Perhaps that is because I was trained in the more tempered observations of film directors who found horror in the ability to make you jump without expectation, or shrink into your seat while the notes of the screenplay played your emotions through equal measures of silence and dread. Shocking brutality in itself was never enough – it was only the final outlet of the terror, a reason we were so terrified by the idea of evil villains capturing those who were running and screaming in the opposite direction. But for those who will look at Srdjan Spasojevic’s nihilistic plea against the pornography trade and find it engaging outside of the nightmarish cruelty, I salute them: not only do they have the stomachs to stare back at the frames with deadpan focus, they also have the distinction of being the byproduct of irreversible damage to the senses. For that, those individuals earn both my astonished bewilderment and my sincerest condolences.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Evil Dead II / ***1/2 (1987)

To think of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II” as an elaborate exercise in gratuity is to undercut the reason it has so persistently endured in the hearts and minds of its audience, but to see it as some kind of perceptive satire would inspire connotations equally unreasonable. Both classifications suggest the thumbprint of a filmmaker who is either interested in deep irony or complete carelessness, neither of which can be substantiated; while the material certainly carries the aura of both, it is the underlying persistence of joy that dictates the direction of the narrative, a sense that it all must occur in a world so screwball that rationale has been displaced from forlorn considerations. While Raimi was certainly smart enough to fashion his endeavors in the mold of intellectual stimulation, that was never his primary interest; to him a movie camera was a tool to engage in pure celebration of his chosen genre, without all the seriousness or limitations that frequently come with it. And if blood was to splatter elaborately in a few incidental moments, what was the harm in that? Those early philosophies persist because they embody the sentiment that this can, realistically, be all in good fun.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Unfriended / **1/2 (2014)

So rarely has a single genre of movies been as eager to adapt to the shifting dimensions of pop culture as that of horror. With each pass of time comes an eagerness to push the proverbial line of standard – some visual, others thematic – and inevitably the scope of the moviegoer is challenged to see beyond its routine. Oftentimes that requires the abandon of patience or personal judgment, especially when it comes to a concept that may be harrowing to confront. Those that are more interested in pressing on intellectual buttons are much more fun and refreshing to deal with: they understand the possibilities of novel techniques, at least if they are used to creative means. Think of both angles of that prospect as you move cautiously through the material of Leo Gabriadze’s “Unfriended,” a strange film about a vengeful spirit who comes back to haunt – and murder – a group of cyber-bullies who once claimed to be her friends. If one is to mention that the entire endeavor occurs on the computer screen of a teenage girl who flips between social media sites for 83 minutes, would you be annoyed by the concept, or intrigued by the method?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Funny Games / ***1/2 (1997)

The docile family that wanders out of civilization and into a wilderness where they are fated to be stalked and tortured is one of the more prevalent recurring themes of horror films in the modern age, but so few of them make the effort to pierce the membrane in order to revel in the warped ideologies of the villains. Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” a harrowing film, is of that latter sensibility. Audiences inclined to assume the most sensational possibilities are apt to descend into the director’s odyssey fully expecting the most perverse of geek shows, but what they will emerge with is far more rattling: the acknowledgment that seemingly ordinary people from a wealthy class system are capable of causing indescribable harm on others. We don’t just speak of physical harm in the conventional sense here, either; aside from bodily threats that generally lead somewhere unexpected and startling, the movie possesses intimidation, verbal cruelty, pranks, jokes and mind games that have all the characteristics of a sociopath’s behavior – they involve rules made only to satisfy the culprits, because that is in the nature of their game.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" Revisited


“A reminder, and an example, of how today's filmmakers have forgotten about the overwhelming influence seductive imagery can have on an involving story.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

Movie horror began not in the minds of Hitchcock or Castle but in the menacing gazes of early German cinema. Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” usually accepted as the first prominent excursion of this distinction, was filmed and released in 1919 against the trajectory of its time, when those elusive few who actually saw films ought to have been far more enamored by the unsullied awe of moving images. What could have driven a single mind behind the camera to abandon the trajectory of his peers and dive headlong into a world so cynical and haunting, especially after many of his early films – now thought lost – contradicted that impulse? Having just been subjugated by more dominant European powers after the First World War, it was the country in which artists freely abandoned the beckoning of idealism and plunged head-first into the dark corners of the human psyche, effectively creating the tormented soul of German Expressionism. And while conventional wisdom suggests that such a compulsion inspired an uprising of dangerous political minds, it can also be credited with writing the language of the most celebrated of all modern film genres, a categorization of pictures made famous by the prospect of instigating fear the hearts of the audience.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Opera / ***1/2 (1987)

At some point all serious spectators of horror films are destined to explore the trenches of Dario Argento’s catalog. As Italy’s most celebrated impresario of all things artistically macabre, he is a director who does not merely dabble within the traditions of a scary movie: he wraps them in the sort of decisive surrealism that often sits at the edge of our minds, struggling to overtake a thought as it is consumed by visions of blood. To those with morbid curiosity, a filmography that includes the likes of “Suspiria” and “Inferno” doesn’t amount to solitary experiences or even brief sensations. Like mind puzzles, they mean more when allowed to simmer over time instead of being forced through knee-jerk rationale. That can be troubling when one is confronted by the urge to plunge into the membrane of his complicated thinking, and more often than not that leaves more casual viewers with a dizzying conundrum: where in the world should they be expected to start with their education without hitting the wall of alienation? “Opera,” certainly one of the more accessible endeavors in his famous line, remains an ideal launch point for even the most pessimistic of cinematic wanderers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Clown / 1/2* (2016)

One of the tragic realities of horror movies is rooted in the cause of sound moral judgment: a story in which very young children are destined to be slaughtered is rarely deserving of redemption. Varying degrees of that estimation have been seen on the big screen over the years, ranging from minor offenses (“Pet Semetary”) to more garish excursions (“Dinocroc”), but only those that move to the metronome of a compelling perspective can bring those sorts of risks back from the brink of despair. Jon Watts’ “Clown,” recently released after lying dormant in a studio vault for over two years, does something even more unforgivable: it goes well beyond sound psychology and hammers its point right to the spinal column of senseless and graphic cruelty. Thoroughly strange and shocking, the movie tells the story of a man who puts on an old clown costume and discovers, quite unfortunately, that it once belonged to a horrific demon known for devouring children, ultimately cursing him to the fate of possession. Meanwhile the movie exploits the nature of this idea by shamelessly dangling young victims in front of his ravenous face – the first of which is a 4-year old boy, who is so fascinated by the clown before him that he mistakenly attempts to make friends by barging through the front door while running buzz saws are set up the living room. Any further contemplation of this particular scene isn’t just grotesque, but vehemently depressing.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Exorcist II: The Heretic / * (1977)

In reflecting on the experience of moviegoers present for original screenings of “The Exorcist,” one usually forgets the root cause of their trauma: specifically, the fact that so much fear and violence was being orchestrated in the body of an innocent little girl in a tangible reality. Horror films up to the point of the early 70s has typically played as open season for the lurid fantasies of filmmakers obsessed with the supernatural and the monstrous, but William Friedkin’s legendary opus represented the unhinged collision of those sentiments, a world in which the demonic energies could manifest in a place as plausible as any number of human stories of the era. As disturbingly convincing as the material played, however, perhaps that represented too great a challenge for the more perceptive directors of the time; against the trend that it would inevitably inspire, a great many years of crude (and usually unsuccessful) experiments followed in its massive shadow, often to the point of box office saturation. Among those failed lessons was one obligatory experiment: a direct sequel, helmed by the great John Boorman, which would document the ongoing struggles of young Regan as she attempted to make it through adolescence while keeping the memories of her possession in some sort of context.