Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Most Volatile Year

If you were a movie enthusiast at all during the last twelve months, the persisting narrative was less about finding good entertainment and more about searching for necessary distractions. A substantial ration of that search came down to two ongoing controversies: the ethical implosion of the Trump administration, and the alarming news of sexual assaults coming out of Hollywood, both of which dominated the headlines like dark clouds lingering over our mental periphery. On any normal year either scenario would have warranted responses of shock and disbelief (if not vocal action), but in a climate where sexism and race relations have dangled dangerously off the edge of social balance, potential alarm was replaced instead with an almost paralyzing despair. In the recent past it would have been almost absurd to assume those problems running so rampant in the age of information. But now, after hate culture has risen back into fashion, each new revelation simply played like another reason to withdraw from reality.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi / **1/2 (2017)

Is it true, Luke? Are things really as dire as the scowl on your face suggests? From the first moment you turn around on screen, we no longer see the eager and zealous eyes that gave us everything we know about the Skywalker legend; in their place are spheres of broken hopes, a smile that is no more, hazy features concealed by time and age, and hands that grasp your old lightsaber only long enough to toss it over your shoulder in protest. Now comes the time to ask, in earnest: does the sacred order of the Jedi die with you, as the title of the latest movie may suggest? Or are you hiding something deeper from us, something that might inspire a hope as the darkness persists in enveloping a fragmented resistance across the galaxy? Without straight answers, without the slightest shred of optimism, how long do you expect our eyes to hold out patience? There is only so much your aspiring understudy, Rey, can compensate for. In times like these, of relentless peril and doubt, we barely have enough fight to find the silver linings. Give us something to work with here, or spare us the pain of a lingering uncertainty.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mother! / **** (2017)

The withered, aching heart of “Mother!” pulsates with the awe of an entrenched complexity. What seems to function as a mild excursion into the lives of isolated personalities becomes an endurance test for their sanity, disturbed by details that seem inconsistent, twists that are abstruse and an overreaching awareness that taunts, baffles, intrigues and ensnares the audience in the thick of great moral doubt. To gaze at any minute of Darren Aronofsky’s challenging opus is to sense its very nature to polarize all within its grasp; no two sets of eyes will find the same solution, and many will stagger away from the experience without a concise verdict. But no other film in the recent snapshot of time comes close to sharing its austerity – not even his own “The Fountain,” widely recognized (until now, at least) as his most mystifying. One’s understanding comes down to recognizing the effort as a concentrated descent into the membrane of narrative and artistic metaphors. While most are eager to exploit the suffering of the flesh and the cynicism of their sources for a shallow measure, here is a man who plunges right into the nervous system and encounters the very meaning of the living cinema.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Breadwinner / ***1/2 (2017)

Everything we know about animated films has been a lie. Years of hands-on education has perpetuated the illusion of simple childhood fantasies, where plucky characters become caught up in whimsical adventures full of color, laughs and catchy music. Their greatest architect, Walt Disney, powered that device so relentlessly that it has fueled nearly all his successors – including the Pixar brand, whose recent “Coco” brilliantly mimics that tradition. But now comes “The Breadwinner,” the closest a cartoon has ever come to removing the barrier separating childhood wonder from the deafening tragedies of the real world, and what its creators find is a power in conviction that challenges all we know about the medium’s elasticity. More akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth” than a mere yarn about goals or quests, the movie throbs with a confidence that is as alarming as it is heart-wrenching. Rarely are such stories aimed at the politically aware, and even more tenuous is the candid insinuation that storytelling can be the key to facing down the nightmares of a world designed to destroy our agile hearts.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist / ***1/2 (2017)

The first scene implicates the arc of the story: the underdogs versus the professionals. One of the former is seen in an environment he is clearly a novice in, acting out dramatic scenes in a classroom where stiff delivery suggests blatant disinterest. Greg (Dave Franco) says he wants to become a big movie star but is too caught up in the doubt of his material, and others look on with curious boredom as he mutters dialogue with robotic accuracy. Then emerges from the shadows of the back row a mysterious figure named Tommy (James Franco), who shows others that it is possible to be just as bad on the opposite end of enthusiasm – he reenacts a key emotional moment from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is so painfully shrill that others cannot wait for the ordeal to end. Yet Greg, sensing his fearless nature, gravitates towards him with curious allure. He admires the audacity, the ability to be so caught up in a performance that everything else – including the judging gaze of the audience – is superfluous. Does it matter that he is untalented, tone-deaf or oblivious? Not in the least. Behind those eyes is a focus that most aspiring thespians would be envious of, regardless of what any of it might amount to.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Copycat / *** (1995)

There is an ideological disconnect between those who study serial killers and those who are assigned to prosecute them. For the latter sorts it’s all about procedure, about connecting dots in a maze of riddles to identify a source that can be seen, touched and ultimately punished. Anything beyond those mechanics fall to deeper thinkers, who inhabit the underlying psyche as a means to find answers to the more probing questions – namely, what drives a person to the methodical precision of committing murder on a mass scale? “Copycat,” a thriller that borrows much of its structure from “The Silence of the Lambs,” features two such characters at the forefront of this descent. One is a psychologist specializing in serial homicide played by Sigourney Weaver, the other a deadpan police inspector played by Holly Hunter. Both lack the patience to work cooperatively with the other, and yet somehow they must, otherwise a recent surge of murders in the San Francisco area mimicking those of famous serial minds from the recent past could continue without interruption, even though they might be occurring with a critical pattern between them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco / **** (2017)

Any number of recent mainstream cartoons that find their way to theaters are in some way about the importance of family values, but Pixar’s “Coco” is the first in a while that is truly sincere about the concept. Never is there a sense while watching it that artists or filmmakers are weaving an illusion that is at the service of a shallow impulse, nor does it inspire the urge in us cynics to pick apart the formula in secondary exercises (a behavior, I willingly admit, that I used in Disney’s recent “Moana”). Like a drill plunging to the depths of a rich reservoir, here is a wonderful little film that finds a powerful source of inspiration while others barely scratch the surface of their wisdom, allowing many of us to forget we are hardened adults diminished by experience. For a precious few minutes I was not merely a movie enthusiast – I was a kid entranced by a spell, in a place of splendor and sensation, joining characters on a quest that felt created by magic rather than the pens of ambitious scribes. And if the feeling remains true that the studio’s output is as rewarding for adults as it is for children, their latest strikes an even more elusive chord: one that transports the oldest of codgers back to a time when our innocent young eyes were starved for exciting adventures.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Room / zero stars (2003)

Among a cluster of eccentric personalities that found their way behind movie cameras in the recent years, few have developed the notoriety of poor Tommy Wiseau. His is an identity that seems like it might have been invented in a laborious, almost masochistic imagination; soft-spoken in what could be a muddled Polish accent, here is a man of suspicious origins (not to mention independent wealth) who found success in San Francisco as an entrepreneur, possessed fragmented visions of grandeur and went on to fund his first movie entirely out of pocket in a time when independent cinema ebbed high in public demand. That result, “The Room,” has earned infamy as one of the most legendary aberrations of recent times, inspiring eventual cult status and ongoing obsessions in the minds of those who gravitate towards the common fodder of midnight movie revivals. Their reasons are not difficult to decipher; the mess before them was so utterly miscalculated in its inconsistent spontaneity that one could only laugh at the result, however uncomfortably. Even Ed Wood only went so far in his ridiculous indulgences. But is anyone who experiences Wiseau’s passion piece really admiring the disaster before them as some kind of audacious endurance test, or are they laughing at the expense of someone who doesn’t appear to know better?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Devil's Rejects / ***1/2 (2005)

The space inhabited by the characters in “The Devil’s Rejects” is a laboratory of unconventional challenges, of ambitious morality tests not ordinarily reserved for an ensemble of would-be horror movie casualties. Its existence comes down a tricky gimmick seized by Rob Zombie, the writer/director, who finds an interesting platform to stage the events on – one in which homicidal maniacs are hunted by a legal authority who seems driven by the same barbaric tendencies as those on their own killing spree. Driven earnestly by a mission he refers to as the “cleansing of the wicked,” this maniacal force – a Sheriff known as John Wydell – strikes a chord in others that clouds the certainty of a horrible act with that of a deserving retribution, and both sides of the equation meander in the outskirts of their inevitable confrontation like they are hoping to avoid the central point. That is not to say the movie itself is evasive about the issue it raises, but more to suggest the discomfort from asking the difficult question: when you castigate those who have committed heinous crimes with the same level of depravity, are you any better than those you punish?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shame / **** (2011)

We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.

When the observation is made by his sister late in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Brandon’s pride restricts him from reflecting on their relevance. Perhaps that’s because he is dealing with a sibling whose own caustic tendencies are far more obvious, displacing the necessity to contemplate his own. Perhaps he has no mirror to gauge a comparison. Maybe he lacks an understanding of them. Or maybe, just maybe, he has descended so deeply into his own precarious indulgences that he can’t make the distinction between self-respect and personal destruction, especially when it comes to a thinly realized addiction like sex. Then the point is further layered by the implication of the statement: what, indeed, was the catalyst in these two lives that allowed them to become lapsed versions of themselves? Should we be allowed to know, or would that only be superfluous? It is somewhere in this narrow emotional passage where this sad and powerful little film finds its devastating center, in a story where getting off is not so much a physical pleasure as it is an escape from a life that is otherwise directionless and isolated.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment / *1/2 (2016)

I may be going out on a limb when I suggest that “The Belko Experiment” has been manufactured by motivated filmmakers. Clearly molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series – where the scares are brought on by social and political unrests – here is a film that so agonizes over the effort to marry its violent nature with discussion-worthy contexts that there is little reason to contemplate skepticism. Someone high up, be it Greg McLean (the director) or James Gunn (the writer), was tapping into the most pointed trend of the times. But if I was paying attention to, say, a random soliloquy in one of the great Shakespeare tragedies, does that also mean I’m a fluent practitioner of the language? Can I turn around and recite the famous words of Hamlet while understanding the metaphorical nuance behind the conviction? A horror movie may not be in the same league as Shakespeare, of course, but there’s just about as much divide between those comparisons as there is between the concept of this movie and reality of those it imitates. A greater genre endeavor about the political ramifications of its terror will drive the point down to the guts of an issue, leaving one to contemplate the argument as their senses recover from an assault. What goes on in the frames of this film plays like an understanding of procedure but nothing of soul.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

It Comes at Night / ***1/2 (2017)

All that stands between them and the unknown is a red door. It is the sole entry point to a house isolated in in the wilderness, presided over by a man obligated to protect his family with obsessive conviction. What he – and therefore the others – fear beyond the boarded windows is referenced in whispers but never certainties, creating ambiguity when the narrative restricts their movements to a small space beyond the danger. Then, just as they lay to rest their grandfather after he contracts what appears to be a contagious disease, a stranger emerges in the darkness. Who is he? What is his agenda? How did he find their home, so far off the beaten path? A stand-off ensues, leading to an unnerving test that might reveal a critical detail – namely whether he, too, is afflicted with the sickness they dread. “It Comes at Night,” one of the more profound of recent horror films, contemplates a conclusion only out of necessity; it is about how fears blind us to the truth, the lengths we go to protect those we love and how compassion becomes lost when the horrors of a silent world lead us astray from the value of human grace.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Irreversible / No Star Rating (2002)

Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” breathes the misery of its characters with the relentlessness of a voyeuristic conviction, invariably setting the audience up for a rather complex moral test: can you defend any film, artistic or not, that extends no restraint in the violence imposed on the living? Fifteen years after it pierced the membrane of our comforts, we remain distant from the possibility of consensus. Not one to shy away from the more volatile experiments of the modern cinema, I first shared in that journey with a handful of film enthusiasts who, too, could not initially process what they had seen. But in those early days of the movie’s notoriety I was also rattled by another noteworthy detail: a strange, throbbing murmur of a synth that loops over the critical second scene, during which a man’s skull is destroyed with a fire extinguisher. Is he the depraved individual responsible for the rape of another earlier that night? Is his victim now in a coma because of his deplorable actions? Do the responses of her friend and lover become necessary as vigilante impulses? Somehow my attempt to reason with the material was blurred further by this single chord of noise underlining the violence; it has a grizzly, chilling effect on the moment that haunts me even now, long after the senses have reconciled the horror and my mind searches for a thesis.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Sleepaway Camp / *1/2 (1983)

Of a plethora of tenacious relics that persist with some level of notoriety in the dead teenager formula, few have been as puzzling (or as maddening) as Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp.” Cut from the same blood-soaked cloth that gave birth to the “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” franchises, here was a picture heralded in the margins of filmgoing as an audacious blend of macabre visuals and social underpinnings, inevitably casting it in a light that far exceeded the expectations of its class. Others were content to regard it as harmless (if violent) fun, and those sorts might have been the first to develop long-term hindsight; better films would eventually come along to inform their palettes and diminish the lesser pleasures. But like an open wound with a relentless sting we are forced to consider this thing in the sweep of horror film history even now, despite that far more ambitious movies have drifted deeply into the annals of cinematic myth and legend. Its strange endurance, at best, emphasizes the dichotomous standards of the populists, who usually sneer in protest at a standard that freely robs the ideas of the masters while displacing their tonal conviction.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Annabelle / ** (2014)

One of the most exhausted devices of supernatural horror is a creepy-looking doll with murderous tendencies wreaking havoc on its owners. Long before Chucky there was a homicidal clown in “Poltergeist,” and before that was Talking Tina, one of the prominent menaces of “The Twilight Zone” – their commonality was that the victims always were oblivious to dangers until far too late, perhaps because no one involved could really believe a small toy had the capability of causing great harm to others. That is the first mistake of the characters in “Annabelle,” who are given enough warning signs to facilitate the dread: the emphasized arrival of said doll, its strange facial expression, an ambush by satanic cultists who die with it in their possession (one of them bleeds into the doll’s eyes), creepy noises from around corners, and rocking chairs that come alive by themselves even when no one is nearby. Then there is a moment where the husband, granting suspicion to his paranoid wife, throws the doll away in a garbage can. Shouldn’t it amount to something startling, then, when it then appears packed away in a box, as if no such decision transpired? If there were a persistent sentiment amongst the demonic spirits that inhabit them, it’s that you always have a chance to endure if you find yourself in the home of flyweight suburbanites with only a dozen functioning brain cells between them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

It / ***1/2 (2017)

At some point an adult ceases going to horror movies to be scared and simply accepts the ride as a gesture of showmanship. Our hope for the elaborate psychological exercise is replaced by a voyeurism for technical skill, and what once caused an emotional recoil becomes a sensational exhibit kept at arm’s length, however unconsciously. Those are not necessarily pessimistic observations about films themselves, but more about the desensitized nature of an aged mind; the attitude reflects a hardening of the soul brought on by greater horrors in the real world, where they undermine the more elaborate gimmicks of filmmakers seeking to penetrate the core of individual resistance. Consider this insight thoroughly when it comes to “It,” the new film adaptation Stephen King’s famous novel, and you may be surprised to discover a contradiction to that sentiment. Certainly our attendance may be dictated more by the neurosis of current horror trends than by mere nostalgia, but what occurs here is in the milieu of a long-forgotten attitude – namely, the idea that a menacing force lurking plausibly in the shadows can cause great harm to those ill-equipped to confront it. This is a film in complete isolation of the modern standard, passing beyond the conventions of aesthetic and fashion to exploit what is left of our deepest nightmares.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Black Dahlia / 1/2* (2006)

In the murky fringes of old Hollywood glamour are the faint whispers of the forgotten and exploited, of ambitious young faces who came to find their calling amongst a generation of would-be entertainers and instead discovered a world designed to devour them. Though some lived to tell the sad tales of their experiences, others were less fortunate (although their names were usually buried in the annals of historical footnotes, a consequence of knowing more than they could keep to themselves). The hardest of pills to swallow was perhaps necessary to endure: the fact that heads of studios and their most prestigious stars rubbed elbows with dangerous mobsters, whose money influenced as many of the early industry trends as the expectations of eager moviegoers. And somewhere in the chasm created by the cognizant and the naïve is the mysterious legend of the Black Dahlia, a woman whose enigmatic presence looms like a painful reminder of the cruelty of the hills, where big dreams often suffered the irony of nightmarish deceit.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker / * (2017)

“Fifty Shades Darker” descends thoughtlessly into a web of intrigue spun with blender-like accuracy, primarily to move its characters, yet again, from one orgasm to the next with minimal interruption. More perceptive romances, even the more vulgar ones, might at least see this as a ploy to harness some level of plausible dramatic tension, however thin. But for the people behind the latest in a growing fad of seductive literary cheese aimed at the lower end of the payoff pool, it plays like a clothesline for the writers to hang their one-note fetishes on, concealing them from the greater realities of chemistry and foreplay. Is this what the concept of movie eroticism has come to? Have we finally abandoned the almost cheerful adolescence of human behavior and turned it into a cold scheme to reach climax? Centering on four primary catalysts to frame the impending affairs of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the minds behind this highly-anticipated follow-up prove, if nothing else, that a lack of understanding in conflict resolution means squat when all one shows up for is the lust. After watching it I imagined Catherine Deneuve sobbing quietly in a dark room for the future of adult fantasy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Basic Instinct 2 / * (2006)

Sharon Stone so persistently owns what she does on screen in “Basic Instinct 2” that one is likely to find her conviction admirable, even if she is basically a PR agent selling a defective product with a straight face. Far lesser sorts might have inspired a sympathetic gesture, but this is a woman in no need of such pity – with every wince of her stern gaze and gurgle of a monologue she sneers confidently back at the camera, as if fully aware of the punchline before her writers have formulated the joke. In some regards that allows many of her more sub-par pictures to rise above their mediocrity, if for nothing more than for the assuredness of her presence. But that also means we must test ourselves with the limits of witless screenplays and be willing to ask: how far is too far when descending into such lopsided mind games? Here is a film in which all those involved, even the ones who may be ambivalent, are contracted to enslave us in the grip of patronizing hogwash.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Alone in the Dark / zero stars (2005)

I should be issuing warnings to those who may encounter “Alone in the Dark” but instead find my words guided by a greater urge: to maul the film in the same vicious, unfiltered manner that it contaminates the movie screen. Here is an endeavor (if you dare call it one) so utterly bereft of the simplest morsels of intelligence that it inspires a wrath within that I have rarely recognized, leaving me in an elusive predicament – how do you savage something this pathetic, this completely unbothered by the basic concept of passable composition? Those who stood behind the camera weren’t just making a lazy movie, they were allowing themselves to undermine the basic desire of going to the theater. Usually hidden behind all the pomp and circumstance of something superfluous is a motive that at least intends someone to have a good time, and we can cut some bad movies slack when we understand (and accept) those aims. But not a soul involved here is capable of passive intentions, much less a rational thought. Their purpose is to deliberately rob innocent filmgoers of precious time, without anything to show for it beyond regret and empty wallets.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"Last House on the Left" Revisited

In some underhanded way a horror film has the capacity to contemplate one’s destructive tendencies just as it does to abuse and torment the souls of the innocent. More perceptive directors discover those possibilities not by holding out optimism in bleak scenarios, but usually by looking through the cracked mirror of passive acceptance. That is the sort of wisdom that informs many of the early Wes Craven pictures, several of which were made with a distinction that raises them above the more sensationalized Hollywood gorefests of later times (even his own). To most they possess the foresight to see a purpose beyond the astonishing violence, and to regard them is to understand that there are some terrible side-roads one must walk before the fates can restore light to an obscured path. But what is one to make of “Last House on the Left,” his nihilistic debut, which by all indications ought to have been one of those endeavors forever lost in the wastes of oblivion? Like a painful secret it persists achingly through the minds of those who discover it, often to a point of mystification; decidedly outside of conventional standards and made quickly and cheaply in a span of weeks, little was there to announce it as anything other than just another trenchant exercise in the murderous tendencies of the disturbed. And somehow that was far more than enough.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Piranha 3DD / 1/2* (2012)

“Piranha 3DD” is a textbook case of low-aimers confusing camp with cornball excess, in which an audience expecting silly thrills is subjected to nonsensical ramblings that bear no weight towards humor or amusement. If only there was some sense of irony to underline that prospect, but no such luck; those standing behind the camera are looking on here with deadpan conviction, perfectly content in the realization that they are in this, more or less, for financial benefit. I despise the very idea of that motive – it is an abuse of the medium, a counter-culture impulse in the guise of innocent entertainment at a time when the Hollywood machine needs less cattle and more instigators. We could at least have a good time, however disposable, at a film that ebbs low if it aims there, or at least contains some sample of wry awareness. Think of “Snakes on a Plane” as an example. But a movie this shameless, this grotesque in its assessment, only permeates the desperation of the mindless grab. Earlier incarnations of the “Piranha” franchise – including a remake that precedes this one – knew they were about the stupid possibilities of the genre and enjoyed reveling in the exercise. Here is a follow-up that could not be any more clueless if it had been conceived in a void.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christine / ***1/2 (2016)

The key observer in “Christine” is not the title character but her perceptive colleague, a woman named Jean whose distance would never be great enough to remain neutral from impending emotional traumas. She wanders passively in and out of newsroom conferences, sometimes engaged, sometimes quietly, but almost always with some facet of concern; among her peers is a female news anchor whose ambition is undermined by a crippling sense of self-doubt, and few others see the warning signs. Jean has known this instinctively since the early scenes, though there are few words exchanged that call attention to those realities. So paralyzing is her subject’s insecurity, in fact, that when there is an attempt to offer support, her kindness goes entirely unnoticed. But whether these details really did occur in the brief life of Christine Chubbuck is not so important as the conviction that puts them there. This is a movie about the prison that is depression, as experienced in lives removed from an awareness that might have changed an unspeakable outcome. And at the end of it all stands a kind young woman whose greatest crime was offering a gentle gesture when no others would, forever cursing her to the shadows of an eyewitness’ pain.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Devil Inside / * (2012)

What an ordeal it must be when you’re among the ill-fated bystanders of a handheld horror film. As targets of influences that disobey the most fundamental laws of survival, they slog their way through a plot’s devious conventions with little time to react against the stampede of conundrums they encounter, as if their suffering is merely at the service of confusion. That’s because their hands possess cameras that facilitate the need for wall-to-wall uncertainty, most of which is driven by the conceit of filmmakers intoxicated by the endlessness of a scenario rather than the choreography of them. In most normal films we can at least expect the potential victims – however deep or shallow – to experience some reprieve from the terror long enough to deliberate their fates, or at least react in a way that opens narrow possibilities of endurance. But those endeavors of the “found footage” genre have usually abandoned those possibilities in favor of visual nihilism, no doubt because their characters are predestined to die out rapidly in a universe where the only survivor needs to be the lens of a cameraman.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer / * (2006)

Life began as a cold and desolate void for Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born in a moment of passive biological routine on the floor of a fish market, his cries of uncertainty were a sound unknown to an emotionless mother, who previously birthed four other children that were all stillborn. Confusion in the moment lead passers-by to assume the worst of his strange arrival, and soon his poor mother was sentenced to hang after others mistakenly assumed she tried to kill him. Fate then reduced his purpose to mere existence – first at an orphanage where young boys attempted to smother him, and later at a Tannery where 16-hour work days were interlaced with physical abuse – and all indications suggested he would die out well before his time, another lowly statistic in the unforgiving shadow of French poverty. But destiny seemed to intervene just as fortune evaded him, offering talents so precious they could have, quite substantially, given him the power and prestige to command a generation of thinkers eager for sensation. It was just that pesky notion of murdering women that would louse up all those lofty agendas as the years rolled on.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant / *** (2017)

If H.R. Giger’s most famous creation has lingered as a symbol of interest in the minds of movie audiences over the last 40 years, it perhaps has less to do with its anatomical ambiguity and far more to do with the relationship it carries with a growing ensemble of dimwitted human bystanders. Think long and hard about those it has encountered and you begin to sense the irony. Here was a being who emerged from the shadows not because it was destined to, but because it lucked out with the misguided curiosities of those who chose to wander too close to investigate. And once it emerged in the full splendor of a dangerous chase, it became the target for which an upper tier of even more foolish sorts hoped to harvest its abilities for some vague military agenda. Only one among a plethora of screaming ignoramuses had the foresight to sense the impending catastrophe, and it was an instinct so precise that she became the sole survivor through several separate bouts with the alien – so convincing as such that when she selflessly took her own life for the endurance of mankind, they were dumb enough to resurrect her for more misguided encounters.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

31 / **1/2 (2016)

Horror films have so thoroughly grappled with the homicidal psyche that it’s little wonder they would come to celebrate murder as a sporting event. Rob Zombie’s “31,” molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series, supports that theory with the conviction of a bloodthirsty showman. That this is the same filmmaker who discovered the deviants of “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Lords of Salem” is hardly a surprise, especially to those who will be quick to spot their stylistic parallels, but a certain morbid humor lifted those endeavors into different spaces of reasoning. So is not always the case with this film, however, in which a host of carnival workers are kidnapped, imprisoned and sentenced to 12 hours of life-threatening obstacles as a series of psychotic killing machines are sent off to hunt them down. “The Purge” at least saw that premise from a relevant political subtext. As I watched Zombie’s latest, however, I was less convinced that he was dealing with powerful philosophies (much less a tongue-in-cheek awareness) and more apt to believe he was trapped on the hamster wheel of his own overwrought artistic values.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 / *** (2017)

There’s a moment early on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” when the camera loses sight of a fight between the heroes and a slimy villain, opting instead to focus on Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing energetically near a portable stereo just beyond the main action. Music plays an integral part of the tone of these films, but so does the direct humor of its characters – a gathering of colorful and offbeat men, women and creatures that are charged with the protection of life in a plethora of space-bound danger zones. For the audience, it’s almost customary to assume that the humorous details will win out over the doom of a big moment. But what about those of us who want to see more of the exchange in a conflict that will ultimately pave the way for the film’s story? Is little Groot’s distraction – amusing as it is – worth that sacrifice? However you feel about the shift will come down to what you expect out of the material. For all its innocence, that moment underscores the attitude of filmmakers who are content to let their flashy showmanship dictate the direction of their pictures, usually without the benefit of a dynamic plot to underline the whimsy. The first “Guardians” film excelled at accomplishing both, make no mistake, but now we must deal with this, a sequel that has charm and uproarious laughs but doesn’t seem at all interested in doing much else with the personalities it assembles.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Mist / *1/2 (2007)

Movies anchored in deep mysteries depend just as much on their endings as they do a gradual momentum of tension, otherwise cynical audiences begin to question the motives of their filmmakers. Getting caught up in the thrill of a chase or the grind of an ambiguous device comes with a certain amount of excitement, certainly, but rarely does one walk away satisfied if it is all used to a point that undermines the experience of jumping during the key moments. Something, perhaps, about an inconclusive explanation (or worse yet, a ridiculous one) undercuts the meaning of having a good time, even for something as innocent as a Saturday popcorn matinee. Take Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” as a prime example. Here is a film pitched at a median aesthetic, made with competence and skill, and played by actors who seem to be far above the roster normally attracted by such stories. By all measures we should be eating an opportunity like this up with great enthusiasm. But the last 30 minutes play like a dismissive ambush, leading to a final scene so utterly misguided that I wanted to hurl obscenities at the screen.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"The Exorcist" Revisited

“The movie is one of the greatest and most hypnotic ever made, a work of sheer genius from the first frame until the last.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “The Exorcist”

So well-known and influential are the underlying devices of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” that few among modern filmgoers now remember the power of their source. Perhaps the most notorious of all horror films, it was the product of a time still concealed in the facade of restraint when it came to visiting the devious corners of a filmmaker’s mind. Shock was always possible – as had been most apparent by Hitchock’s “Psycho,” or Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left” – but rarely did it stick so persistently in the mind, invariably undermining one’s sense of individual control. We could rationalize how to get away from a crazy killer or how to avoid a menacing threat lurking around the corner, but how did one evade being possessed by a demonic entity? What sense of recovery would have been palpable? Some argue that implication can singlehandedly be credited with changing the trajectory of the entirety of the genre, which by that point had been dominated by homicidal minds or ambitious monsters in lurid fantasy. Here was a movie about real people, real situations and real considerations of faith, in which an innocent teenage girl became the unknowing victim of spiritual violence that stretched beyond existing moral implications. Few among those early viewers can say they walked away from the picture unchanged by the experience, and those that claim otherwise may not be the sorts you prefer to keep company with.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

It Follows / *** (2014)

Two of the most elusive lost values of horror movies are mood and social commentary, a detail that rises to prominence in the very fascinating “It Follows.” They both converge spectacularly in a climax that most other films would find dreary or out of place, but for the framework of David Robert Mitchell’s endeavor fit comfortably among a plethora of unorthodox sensations. To see them is to sense the filmmaker removing himself entirely from the populist agenda of his genre; what exists on the screen is not a straightforward scarefest or even an experiment in teenage endurance, but a silent meditation on the horrors they impose on themselves. These are characters seemingly so alienated by the mainstream way that they only have their isolation to comfort them. But that also makes them fertile hosts for a wide variety of horrific possibilities – legitimate or self-imposed, who knows? – and when one such girl runs away to the beach in an early scene before being brutally murdered by an unseen predator, it’s not what she sees or what happens to her that anchors the audience’s engagement – it’s the fact she is aware at all of what is coming that rattles all perceptions.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Last Circus / 1/2* (2010)

“The Last Circus” begins with a haughty conceit, an insinuation of profound moral challenges in which our enthusiasm is incited by striking images of a cheerful circus and the soldiers of political revolution converging in the shadows. The year is 1937: war-torn Spain faces uncertainty in a violent transition of power, and the threats of rebels seem to inspire desperation in the minds of fighters, forcing them to turn to the likes of mere entertainers for numbers among their crumbling ranks. “Don’t take off your makeup,” a general says to a newly drafted clown. “You will scare them more that way.” And so he does, roaring through a mess of violence and chaos carrying only a machete, all while a sadistic grin anchors the horror of the moment. The slaughter is swift and merciless, and inspires the disquieting respect of the opposition. When he is captured after the massacre, they don’t even bother with an outright execution – what would be the relevance? And of course that would undermine the more direct focus of the film: a small child lurking in the dark who is destined to replicate the clown (his father) in equal measures of cynicism. When the two share a moment after the battle is waged, in fact, the advice he receives goes to the core of more promising cinematic visions: “Become a sad clown. Ease your pain with revenge.” Forty years later, that child instead becomes the adult plaything of filmmakers who are bankrupt of basic tonal conviction.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

House of the Dead / zero stars (2003)

The utterly dreadful “House of the Dead” wages war against the enthusiasm of moviegoers by asking a dangerous key question: can filmmakers be as stupid and irresponsible as the characters they exploit? Five minutes into the picture and I felt my inner child weeping for the future of the industry. That’s not to say this is an endeavor made with dubious intentions; on the contrary, I’m positive everyone involved legitimately thought they were participating in something amusing, at least on a professional level. But that makes their associations all the more damning when one contemplates them in the context of the final result, a film so inept that one can only gaze on it with relentless confusion. What possessed the director, Uwe Boll, to orchestrate his maddening opus with the hands of a clueless lunatic? What nerve did these writers (if you dare call them that) have in pitching a screenplay that most college students would be embarrassed to submit as a first draft assignment? And what of the designers of the game it is based on, who will no doubt look on at these images and find themselves inflamed with outrage that their source will now forever be disparaged by this stain of an incompetent adaptation?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Cinema Soul

Life as I know it began in the fuzz of an old television screen. Through it I gazed into what felt like projections of dreams, images frozen in a procedure of motion that meant we were free to imagine, to wonder, to long for adventures outside of the monotonous grind. Sometimes those realizations came out of old cartoons, other times sitcoms, and other times old Atari video game cartridges. But movies were something more. They seemed to withstand the erosion of time, of earthly cruelties meant to wither and decay all that was necessary to inform our futures.

I sensed this the first time I saw “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the most important live action film of my youth. For me it was as current as the visual of my schoolmates running across the playground, and made more profound by the belief that those peers could sprout wings and take off midflight if they felt inclined. That, I believe, is one of the primary strengths of a timeless picture: if its images could reach you in a way that blurs the lines between worlds, then they slip past the notion of mere escapism and become extensions of personal experiences. For what seemed like years after I would often reflect on Dorothy’s adventures – in film and in book – and how my own would seem had that cyclone come and carried me away instead. And Oz, as whimsical as other worlds come, felt like the hidden fortress of a backyard daydream that could become tangible with just the right squint of a young eye.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hell or High Water / **** (2016)

The opening scenes of “Hell or High Water” establish the broader intentions of this story: a failed system against its most hardened victims. The latter are a pair of brothers, aged beyond physical measures, forced into personal decisions that reflect a cynicism birthed by grief and poverty. They arrive at a local bank in the heart of small-town Texas wearing ski masks and holding pistols, but undertake a robbery of unorthodox specifics: they will only steal small bills, allowing them avoid the obligatory tracing as they repeat the dangerous routine over a series of unsuspecting stops. As they progress, so do the confrontations; nervous sorts quickly become replaced by more audacious observers, leading to shoot-outs that acquire the attention of the Texas Rangers division. What are they doing this for? What is their destination? The sarcastic but perceptive Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) has a good grasp on the situation but not much of an understanding on motive – no doubt because in the barren isolation of the Texas desert, motives become incidental to the authorities that are after them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Manchester by the Sea / ***1/2 (2016)

A good hour of somber exposition passes before the most important emotional current reveals itself in “Manchester by the Sea,” invariably setting us up for a stampede of dramatic traumas. Until those events of the past are unearthed, our perceptions are measured by fascination in the more literal realities, where characters seem to pass through spaces in a removed context of their existence. This knowledge is reflected further by the strange, almost distant relationship the camera shares with its locales. Nearly every shot of the film is staged in static fashion, usually with the subjects standing a few paces away or on the edges of the frames. The interiors of houses, hallways and public settings are all muted and sterile, as if to imply others only use them to house the sleepwalking vessels they use as bodies. And then a key memory drops us into the deeper crevices of this story, and suddenly we are jarred awake from the more outlying observations. What we are experiencing in those moments is not an attack on the senses or even a point of clever manipulation, but a testament to the power of deeply rooted stories of ordinary people. These are characters we would scarcely keep company with beyond a few fleeting moments of intrigue in the real world, but what they have gone through behind closed doors is a pain too unfathomable to turn away from. Their struggle becomes a test of questioning one’s own personal endurance: on the long road of paralyzing realities, do you ever regain consciousness from the waking nightmare of grief?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2016)

Prior to a chance viewing of the new documentary “Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary,” it had escaped my notice that any sort of significant fanbase existed for Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of the famous Stephen King novel, about a burial ground that curses its victims to evil undeath. Even as a teenager, easily amused by the audacious antics of the most leaden horror films, here was a movie that had no sort of power or prominence; it seemed to lumber around on screen much like many of its awakened monsters, half-dead and lacking a conclusive goal beyond bleak undertones and ordinary bloodshed. But that experience of a viewing, I freely admit, had come during an onset of more exploitative genre values, when I was less interested in the straightforward pitches. Was I simply missing something that others were freely savoring? The implication of a revisit stirred deeply as I observed the case being mounted of its great power over a plethora of devoted followers, many of whom turn out to pitch their product in ways that ought to make enthusiastic Hollywood promoters envious. Here is a living document about people who treasure this lost little film so deeply that they never once reference the poor reception that came after, which is suggestive of one of two prospects: either the early audiences were too out of touch to comprehend its value, or those who adore King’s menacing yarn are doing so out of a devotion that makes them oblivious to cinema’s conventional measurements.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Great Wall / * (2017)

“The Great Wall” adopts a philosophy that all famous wonders must be rooted in the legend of absurdist yarns, and that their endurance apparently comes at the expense of sacrifices too great for the respect of modern civilization. Of course, no one involved contemplates the scientific practicality of that suggestion, but no wonder – movies of this vain are far more devoted to their underlying cynicism than they are focused on creating believable worlds, even in the context of their rather elastic suggestions. But for the sake of getting through a basic plot description, let us suspend, for a brief minute, the disbelief that comes when we contemplate this ridiculous premise. Thousands of years ago, China’s great wall was constructed as a barrier to keep enemies away from the empire they hoped to dismantle, but the greatest of those threats was not human at all: it was a horde of ravenous beasts resembling alligators on stilts, who moved with ferocious speed, attacked with evolving precision and seemed to feed from the psychic energy of a queen who, I guess, desired to conquer all mankind in some karma-ridden crusade. The human characters regard this war with military precision and unsmiling focus (as they should), but it never dawns on anyone involved that maybe, just maybe, a future that must be saved from the dangers of an alien reptile onslaught may not be a future worth facing in the first place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vicki Cristina Barcelona / ***1/2 (2008)

Romantic interests are rarely as simple as an act of affection or a passionate gesture, though few of the more naïve movie fantasies freely dissent from that assumption. To their directors, it’s easier for a story to coddle the complexities into a neat package of hopes and desires rather than descend into their paralyzing mysteries, though that may be of a great disservice; once we become wise to the sensations we grow to resent the idea of unrealistic happy endings. On the other hand, an exhausting discussion about contradictions can lead less experienced sorts astray from taking risks, because we are not easily programmed to tolerate a constant barrage of mistakes and arguments, especially if they may lead to damaged connections. In some strange way, both perspectives are dealt with at arm’s length by the characters at the forefront of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” which tells of two female friends vacationing in the Spanish countryside who walk into the lives of people who may expand (or even tarnish) their views of human relationships. Woody Allen is hardly foreign to the concept of these kinds of spirited discussions, of course, but rarely has he taken them this far, or been so perceptive about the discoveries he makes in the company of his focused actors.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Vatican Tapes / *1/2 (2015)

When it comes to supernatural dangers, a priest to the movies is what black cats are to superstitious amblers – a presence that should to be avoided at all costs, lest they lure you into the hungry jaws of pain and suffering. A certain awareness of this possibility rises to prominence in the early scenes of “The Vatican Tapes,” in which Father Lozano (Michael Pena) is seen casually brushing past an injured woman arriving at the hospital. Their dialogue is brief and innocuous, but necessitated; it implicates their relationship as one of destiny, to be escalated shortly thereafter when said woman begins to show signs of a dangerous pathological state. Yet just as precise the foreshadowing is, one can’t help but wonder if it all comes off as excessively ham-handed, even for a film of this nature. Certainly we know what we are in for right from the beginning as opening credits roll, in which a montage of footage of exorcisms is seen flashing between title cards. Certainly the early discussions of priests warning each other of demonic forces are enough to implicate a source. And certainly the abrupt transition of the heroine’s charming demeanor to one of misery is enough to lead one down all the obligatory psychological and moral detours of demonic possession premises. Observing these devices in all their vulgar and excessive glory made me nostalgic for the subtlety of “The Exorcist,” a film that outlasted all others because it trusted the audience to assemble the mystery in the slow passages.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Split / ***1/2 (2017)

The scene is a parking lot, just after a teenager’s birthday party, where three high school girls enter a car that is destined to be their final link to freedom. He who enters the driver’s seat is not the vehicle’s owner but rather a stranger – ominous and suspicious, wearing black-framed glasses and an expression of deadened complacence. Their uncertainty is far more persistent than their fear, resulting in knee-jerk struggles that come far too late; after spraying their faces with a sleeping agent they awake in a small dusty room somewhere underground, unknowing of what troubles await them. Their confusion is emulated by audiences that too have little concept of what will transpire, even as the movie delves deeply into the framework of a psychological crisis. That’s because its villain, played with deadpan conviction by James McAvoy, is not your conventional psycho interested in orchestrating brutal suffering (although there is some level of that throughout). His is a body housing multiple personalities – some childlike, others nurturing, and a few troubled beyond rational thought. Who are they going to see every time the door to their prison opens? A less threatening face, or one that will bring them incredible harm?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Funny Lady / **1/2 (1975)

The central relationship in Herbert Ross’ “Funny Lady” involves characters whose baggage has made them inconsolable mules: a gifted songwriter with no concept of stage management, and an experienced performer hardened by the weathering of failed marriages and declining artistic standards. They meet in an early scene that is destined to generate fireworks, but not the sort that necessarily constitutes positive distinctions. They argue, express mutual respect, discuss professional partnership, and even explode into aggressive verbal tangents, sometimes in that order. There are claims of dislike that infuse their interactions, yet they continue to find reasons to be around one another. Does the aggravation inspire them? Or are they feeding off the blatant honesty of the moment, perhaps because it is a luxury rarely afforded to them? They say that damaged souls with a quick tongue have a loyalty to those who spit back the same venom; because they understand the context of the words, a respect persists beyond the outlandish tirades. Theirs is a connection so strangely alluring that it gives the film an edge rarely seen – not even in “Funny Girl,” its popular predecessor, where the only significant relationship the female lead had was the one she shared with the audience.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Funny Girl / *** (1968)

On the cusp of what seems to be turning into the silent death for movie personality, great stars of the past century have entered a stasis in the memory as images of a lost idealism. One of those in particular – the face of Barbra Streisand – embodies the spirit of the most important of filmmaking eras, when conventional beauty was redefined by those whose gifts were as monumental as their artistic endeavors. A divisive figure who rose from the cinders of old Hollywood glamour, found her presence during the age of feminists and endured beyond the inert populism that would attempt to silence her great aspirations, few entertainers of the past hundred years match the depth of her contributions. To consider those achievements now is to be swept up into the awe she has created in the hearts of her most loyal admirers, many of whom have come to regard her legend as pervasive even among her most accomplished peers. On a chance occasion this last August she and I finally came face-to-face during one of her rare concert tours, which culminated in an even more resonant realization: midway through her 70s there is a sense that no other living performer is as motivated to spread richness among members of the audience, even when they might not be as cognizant of the realization.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Basic Instinct / * (1992)

The most notable curse of time at the movies is the dulling of the proverbial edge of shock, the realization that a once-sensational gimmick can be annulled by the ongoing sensory expansion of more modern exercises. Erotic thrillers, perhaps the most notorious of testing grounds for these standards, have worn the most erosion. Once embraced with a certain apprehensive enthusiasm, they came and went in the latter half of the 20th century during a boom for suggestive imagery, when the marriage of sex and violence was seen as the most challenging of weapons for a director to wield. Nowadays it seems almost blasé to consider their work in a context of more ambitious shock value, especially given the rapid advance of both implications. It is rare to find any R-rated film now, for instance, that doesn’t celebrate the extremes of gore or the thrusting of excited human anatomy; they are as much a staple of pop culture trends as a mere cuss word or insulting gesture. Would a movie like “Fatal Attraction” work at all now against what has become the norm of genres intoxicated by the excess of human exposure?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Moana / *** (2016)

Once upon a time in a faraway Hollywood boardroom, producers and executives fashioned the premise for what would become the most impenetrable force of mainstream movie genres: the family film formula. Few avenues have been as loyal to the perseverance of that standard as the animated feature, though their images are often devised to blur one’s awareness of the process; the belief is that the more distinctive or colorful the style, the less likely it is for someone to pick up on the conventional nuances or predictable indicators. But those well-versed in film cartoons eventually find themselves deciphering the output with two minds: as a child-at-heart in search of harmless adventure, and as a seasoned adult with the nerve to understand the mechanics functioning behind the curtain. A good movie will allow the former perspective of circumvent the skepticism of the other, but others may simply sell their illusions too candidly for us to forget their underlying clichés. As I watched Disney’s new “Moana,” both sides of that brain engaged in a tug-of-war that tempered my enthusiasm for what would otherwise have been a harmless experience.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"Princess Mononoke" Revisited

“Princess Mononoke” begins with a voice that throbs over the chords of an ominous score, heralding the arrival of a menacing reality. The scene is the edge of a lush forest, fogged over, and its docile facade is jarred from silence by the breaking of branches and the flight of frightened birds. What lurks among the tall trees is not man but rather the monster man has created, a former deity of nature that has withered under corruption and now seeks to lay waste to those in his path. The peaceful denizens of a nearby village are triggered into frenzy by its dismaying appearance – a massive boar covered in an armor of maggot-like parasites – but among them is a young man whose face never seems to engage in the nightmarish rampage. It is his destiny to fight the creature and ultimately be cursed by it, leading him towards quests of intricate mystery that will blur the lines of fable and reality in ways that are rarely told (or at least done so with such precision). Those opening impulses exist above the sphere of ordinary exposition; the fact that they occur at all in an animated film is cause to contemplate the elasticity of movie genres, especially in a time when most are geared towards much simpler tastes.