The Mummy

Long before there was a D.C or Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a Universal Monsters Universe, and “The Mummy” kicks that off for a new generation of moviegoers. Though safely entombed in a crypt deep beneath the unforgiving desert, the ancient queen Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) whose destiny was unjustly taken from her, is awakened in our current day, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia and terrors that defy human comprehension. From the sweeping sands of the Middle East through hidden labyrinths under modern-day London, one man (Tom Cruise) who survives a terrifying plane ride, knows the cryptic code to ending her reign of terror before it goes global, leaving a wake of devastation to those who cross her. “The Mummy” is directed by Alex Kurtzman, and is rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.

If I could think of one term to describe the newest remake of the Universal property “The Mummy”, it would be disjointed. That’s right, Universal has gotten the motivation to once again revamp its classic series of films that include Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman to name a few. But “The Mummy” takes the court first to see if there is a place for these series of legendary films in today’s modern theater, and upon my first take of it, I have to say that the next movie has a long way to go before it can be deemed viewer-ready. Considering there are four different writers for this film, it’s certainly easy to comprehend why there are such vast and jarring displays of tonal shifts in the movie that do its continuity absolutely no favors. From my perspective, one of these writers has definitely worked on Tom Cruise action flicks before, and his voice speaks the loudest in this film. There’s a dark comedy writer who’s reminders that they exist constantly halt the movie with some of the cheesiest deliveries that alienate everything about the intended tone of this story. There’s also the faithful student of the game who has studied the original, and knows what kind of movie this needs to be. Sadly, the latter’s voice is far too limited for this offering to ever be taken seriously.

For the first act of the movie, I was surprisingly glued in to the free-flowing pacing, and gorgeous detailed set pieces that really set this exotic world up in a non-limited budget of capacity. What happens next feels like a huge step back because the film can never feel fully focused enough to continue the positivity to this structure and historical significance, jumping in so many endless directions that often consumes the bulk of what should be the title antagonist’s time on camera. For anyone expecting that this movie is going to be a chapter in the continuous trend of feminist starring roles, think again. In fact, I was greatly surprised as to how minimal both of the female leads in this movie actually played into the big stakes. Sure, Ahmanet is the central antagonist here, but midway through the movie we start to turn into a different direction, one that would rather sell the next movie in the Universal Dark Franchise instead of focus on the areas that this one so desperately needs to sell its story and characters. Ahmanet is violently pushed to the side, and the movie grinds to a screeching halt full of other characters who I couldn’t care less about. Things don’t improve by the finale for Ahmanet either, as the movie has a not so subtle way at establishing how a powerful woman is no match for a powerful man, a sentiment that doesn’t do itself any favors in modern progression.

Then there’s the painful string of exposition that feels like an infomercial that constantly takes away from what is transpiring on screen. I mentioned in my “King Arthur” review that the movie was plagued by countless flashback scenes, and so to is the problem with “The Mummy”. Instead of allowing this story to naturally flow without spoon-feeding everything to the audience, the film endlessly beats us over the head with trying to understand each shot that we previously saw in the opening fifteen minutes of the movie, which itself was ANOTHER EXPOSITION SCENE. I’m not complaining about exposition, because it plays a vital part in the evolution of the story in a film, but when it is done this non-chalantly, I have to wonder just how dumb they that they take their audience. While this movie doesn’t suffer as much as “King Arthur”, it is like constantly being told the same story that you’ve already heard a couple of times earlier. The good news is that if you missed a scene for a bathroom break, or you just fell asleep like I nearly did, this film will continue to make sure you’re covered and never lead you off of a beaten path.

The rules themselves that the movie establishes are kind of inconsistent and often times lead to some major plot holes that had me scratching my head occasionally throughout the film. Without much spoilers, Ahmanet does command Tom Cruise throughout the film after getting into his brain early on. The problem with this is it’s rarely brought up to her advantage. If she can do all of these things and seduce him to paths that go against his logical thinking, then how long does a movie really have to be that competes an Egyptian queen against an everyman thief? I also don’t understand why she needs a king at all. She has all of the power, as well as the army to back her up, so why does she seek a male suitor to stand beside her? The film’s best way to explain it is that “Well, she just wants one”. Male dominance rules in a movie, boys and girls. Then there’s the visual sight gags that gave me plenty to unintentionally laugh about. A character is captured in this film, and the choice of shot angle for this prisoner scene probably should’ve been re-done because their wrist is about half of the size of the shackle that covers it, making an easy escape that definitely shouldn’t have taken as long as it did.

Now that I’ve bitched about the negatives of the film for long enough, lets discuss some positives I had, kicking it off with some luxurious set pieces and action sequences that really riveted my experience from time to time. Even if this isn’t supposed to be an action movie, there’s enough ammunition and free-falling objects at the screen to constitute this one as the next “Mission Impossible” sequel. A couple of my favorites involved a spinning bus that came at Cruise’s character, and required him to jump into to stay safe, a couple of sandstorm scenes whose immensity in volume really upped the ante when compared to that of the 1999 Mummy movie that did the same thing, and of course the airplane crash sequence that was seen in the trailers. On the latter, this sequence is beautifully detailed for how it tangles with gravity and the fast-thinking logic that it takes to even come out of this paralyzed, let alone alive. This scene didn’t take too many liberties with the camera angles, nor too many quick cut edits, so I appreciate it for at least being a textbook example of how to shoot action in a movie that is anything but.

The cast was very hit or miss for me, especially in that of the starring roles that weren’t always given the time that they deserved. I’ve read a lot about Cruise being praised for his commitment to this role, but I just don’t get it. To me, it felt very conventional and slightly phoned in during the exposition-heavy scenes that require his reaction to get across their urgency. It just feels like he couldn’t care less about what is transpiring, and while his performance isn’t terrible, I just don’t think Cruise was the right guy for this role. Sofia Boutella makes the most of what limited time she has as this title character. As Ahmanet, it’s refreshing to see a female take on the mummy character, and her devastation pull is only surpassed by her cunning charms of seduction to locate and terminate her prey. Russell Crowe was also good for me, hamming it up as a character who I won’t mention so as not to spoil it for you. I will say that Crowe is in the film, even though the movie acts like we didn’t see his face a hundred times in the trailers, trying to keep his facial identity a secret until midway through the movie. Crowe’s responses do sometimes feel overboard, but when you find out who he is to this story, you will easily understand why this stance remains faithful to whom he represents. The scenes with Cruise and Crowe together on-screen are wondrous, even if they take away from what should be the prime focus.

THE VERDICT – Universal’s opening investment into crafting the monsters of the golden age for a new generation lacks the kind of campy thrills or tragedy in character that makes its predecessors such worthy classics. Kurtzman’s film stumbles as a hurried mess that often feels like three different movies Frankensteined into one disjointed monster, and the result is a product that neither resurrects nor rises itself from the tomb where it laid sleeping. Surprisingly misogynistic, despite its progression of female focus.

4/10

It Comes at Night

Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something much terrifying, as “It Comes at Night”. Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order that Paul (Joel Edgerton) has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge in their secluded fortress. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul. Suddenly what is inside that Paul finds himself running from. “It Comes At Night” is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, and is rated R for brutal violence, disturbing imagery and adult language.

“It Comes at Night” is certainly a different breed all together when compared to the kind of shriek-fest that today’s youths are exposed to in horror cinema. A24 Productions is always a company that demands a wiser, albeit articulated kind of moviegoer to embrace their style of offerings, and there’s no film from them that will be more dissected than this one. I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I’m also someone who picks up on little clues and hints at exposition that is anything but blatant. This is a movie that demands its audience fill in the gaps from plots and sequences that can sometimes toe the line of cryptic storytelling, and because of such, this feels like the kind of film that will divide audiences right down the middle from what they were expecting and what they actually got. In my estimation, that isn’t a bad thing, because “It Comes at Night” begins as one kind of movie, then morphs into a totally different beast that depicts the very frailty of human interaction. On top of it, Shults visual palate is something that impressed me all around, building the tension between these two families that reaches a satisfying boiling point by the third act.

As a screenwriter, perhaps Trey’s most astonishing feat is that he takes a central plot and regresses it back midway through the movie to reduce it to a subplot of source for the real monster that has overtaken the screen. Considering that this is a story that takes place during an airborne epidemic, wiping out those who ingest it, Shults doesn’t tell us much about the origins or the rules that come with such a burden. Could this be considered a mistake? Possibly, but as the film progressed I found myself feeling less-and-less interested with this plague that has secluded those who remain unharmed by it, and more drawn to the cause-and-effects of choices big and small that haunt us with each passing day. As far as this concept is concerned, I compare this film a lot to “The Thing”, in that it shows us a variety of different characters, but tells us so little about them. Because of this, you, like the people in question, realize that this works to our disadvantage of seeing what lurks beneath the actions of kindness, and hinting at what possibly could be our worst nightmares coming true. Any parent’s first instinct is to protect their kind, so the actions in “It Comes at Night” feel like a car crash that we as an audience can see coming for a mile, but quietly embrace the inevitability of disaster just ahead. My one weakness in the script is during the final few minutes of the movie, after the heart-pounding conclusion, when the film’s air and momentum slowly sink away, instead of ending on the satisfying element of surprise. Those final establishing shots are alright, but it leaves the door wide open for audiences to give one of their famous “That’s it?” lines that can hinder the positives that previously shone. Visually too, these final few scenes feel sloppy, in that they are a series of cut scenes, instead of one cohesive unit. It ends the movie on a jumbled note that deviates from enticing visuals that constantly kept raising the bar for 90 minutes.

From a technical standpoint, Shults stakes his claim as a master visionary behind a camera of establishing shots that really paints the picture masterfully in each scene. Trey’s focus isn’t just conventional with cutting from character to character, but instead weaves in-and-out of each conversation with some pretty impressive long takes. Besides this, the house itself plays a pivotal role in displaying the distance between these two families. While it’s certainly nothing new or original, the panning out shots slowly reveal the kind of environments that slowly build the tensions not only of our characters, but our own ball of nerves that feel like they are on pines and needles because of the startling echoes of Brian McOmber’s impactful musical score. Brian is certainly no stranger to independent horror films, but here he provides such emphasis and terror in each volume-increasing note, playing against the sounds of silence that never fails to reach eleven on the dial. Your eyes and ears can easily play tricks on you with a presentation like this one, and that thought alone constantly kept my mind guessing for what’s going on slightly off-shot of what we’re focused on.

The performances are solid, particularly in Joel Edgerton who adds another layer to an already impressive resume of meaty diversity in the roles he selects. As Paul, we see an honorable man who will stop at nothing to protect his family despite the crumbling of the world around them that constantly provides a new test for them everyday. Paul is a leader by choice, and that decision means his character has to continuously do some things that we don’t like, but Edgerton’s every-man approach never shakes his moral response as anything other than understandable. Aside from Joel, the work of Kelvin Harrison Jr and Riley Keough also impressed me as characters spread out on both sides of these roommate families. Harrison confidently dominates a lot of screen time here, riding a wave of paranoia and teenage emotions that remind us he’s not as old as his father wants him to be. A subplot with Keough is just enough to move the mouse’s wheel in all of our minds, and hints at a butterfly effect that could unravel everything that has been built up. One scene in particular towards the end shows the kind of powerful release that Riley can give, and it felt easy to feel that pain with the horrible situation that leaves her stumbling for words. As far as crying on command goes, Keough in her prime is a hard-hitting heavyweight that tugs for the tears.

THE VERDICT – Regardless of what side of the proverbial fence that “It Comes at Night” casts you upon, one thing is for certain; Shults sculpting hands craft an unnerving environment of unrelenting consequence that always keeps you guessing. Led by excellent performances from a paper thin cast, as well as a lurid and entrancing musical composition, this grim atmospheric brought the scares well beyond that of a post-apocalyptic plot that doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of what really floats beneath. It proves that horror doesn’t have to be formulaic, and that the experimental side can still keep this genre fresh. True, the ending could trim a few minutes, but overall there’s too much to gush at to fault it too much for not concluding at the right time.

8/10

47 Meters Down

“47 Meters Down”, two sisters find themselves at the mercy of a lurker of the sea with a thirst for blood. On the rebound after a devastating break-up, Lisa (Mandy Moore) is ready for a thrilling adventure while on vacation in Mexico. Even still, she needs a little extra persuasion when her daring sister Kate (Claire Holt) suggests they go shark diving with some locals. They board a boat captained by Taylor (Matthew Modine), and once underwater in a protective cage, Lisa and Kate catch a once in a lifetime, face-to-face look at majestic Great Whites. But when their worst fears are realized and the cage breaks away from their boat, they find themselves plummeting to the bottom of the seabed, too deep to radio for help without making themselves vulnerable to the savage sharks, their oxygen supplies rapidly dwindling. “47 Meters Down” is written and directed by Johannes Roberts, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense, peril, bloody images, and brief strong adult language.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, a film like “47 Meters Down” comes along and adds to an already terrifying history of shark attack movies. I of course deem this a shark attack movie on the loosest of terms because this movie offers the bare minimum in terms of satisfying material for fans of the overcrowded subgenre or even appearances by our sharp-toothed monsters of the sea. At this point in film, if you’ve seen one shark movie, you’ve seen them all, and “47 Meters Down” is flimsy even in comparison to something like last year’s “The Shallows” that constantly kept the danger and the pacing of the movie moving, well beyond the average 90 minute mark for these kind of movies. Roberts movie clocks in at 84 minutes, and with only about 10 minutes of actual sharks being present in the film (I’m being generous), there’s very few thrills or payoffs for anyone who watched this trailer and thought it was promising for human protagonists being under water for once, instead of on top or in it. The movie gives forth a worthy gimmick in terms of its structure, but offers very little of anything in terms of positive returns to make it memorable against classics like “Jaws” or “Open Water”.

In terms of lighting and overall shot composition for the movie, it’s very limited of what it can do from being angled at this capacity. I do give props that this is a movie that actually relates what it means to be under the sea, in terms of all of its darkness and immensity that can easily get one lost if trapped under such a circumstance. This also benefits the production designs in terms of the actual C.G sharks, and how that lack of color can do wonders for covering up the jarring movements of such a computerized property. But the angles particularly in that of the action on the rare occurance that it strikes, is too close and zoomed in to fully register just what is happening at any given moment. It almost works as a blessing and a curse against the abilities of the production team for making the natural lighting come across as faithful because there was so much going on that I couldn’t piece together beyond the fact that these two women were being attacked. In my opinion, it desperately needed some further angles that would study the cage that they are trapped in from the shark’s point-of-view, not necessarily in a POV style shot, but more in the wide angle lens that could capture and build on the tension of the attack that is seconds away. Because this movie lacks major emphasis on that tension, there’s very little times where I felt invested in the well being of these characters and their constant battle to air level.

As for the protagonists themselves, Mandy Moore definitely can’t be faulted for getting her second chance at Hollywood, long after her fifteen minutes burned out after a noteworthy performance in 2002’s “A Walk To Remember”. Here, Moore lends herself to an action/horror genre and the payoff feels very unnatural for someone not afraid to spread her lungs when it comes to emoting. As Lisa, Moore’s screaming and moaning throughout the film repeatedly took me out of the movie for its repetition in patterns that felt very manufactured in terms of petrifying nature. I could write this off except the way Lisa is written is the gullable third-tier female character in one of these films, instead of the lead protagonist that the movie makes her out to be. There’s never that moment of transformation in her character, even going so far as to having her phone it in during an ending that underwhelms from the second you realize what is going on. As for Clare Holt, the film kind of forgets about her with twenty minutes left, and focuses more on Lisa. It isn’t enough that these women waste most of their oxygen by trying to swim to the top, even after being told to just stay in the cage, but they repeatedly keep leaving their only safe zone from the sharks to give this film any kind of suspense from the minutes that are literally wasting away.

The first act story didn’t even offer anything in terms of exposition to eventually make it tie together for a finale that makes you understand these characters. There’s a brief throwaway scene in terms of Lisa’s boyfriend leaving her and this trip being a sort of escape from reality for the two women, but that poor last few minutes that I mentioned earlier does nothing to tie it all together and shape her into being a new woman with a new lease on life. Once it hits underwater with an hour left in the already brief run time, I started to understand that this is less a shark movie and more a survival movie for the women’s decreasing air supply that leaves them pressed for time. Even the wound that Lisa clearly suffers on her leg during the trailer isn’t even done by the shark itself, but by the cage that falls on her leg, an example of this film having nowhere to move in terms of creative, and quite figuratively and literally writing itself into a cage with very little opportunity to escape.

Far and away, the biggest positive for this movie is in the sound mixing and minimal approach to musical score by composers TomandAndy, two guys most notable for their tones in horror for “The Mothman Prophecies” and the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”. Here, they manipulate the muted tones off in the distance in favor of real time sounds and atmosphere from the seabed that does wonders in capturing the lack of echo or immensity in volume that surrounds our duo of protagonists. There’s definitely musical accompanyment there, but it’s so distant that it could pass for a surrounding boat’s frequency or just the hallucinations of the girls who have sucked up too much air. I love a movie whose musical score serves as almost a gimmick of the world depicted in the film by itself, and TomandAndy are two of the very best when it comes to drilling on terror at whatever level in release that they deem necessary.

THE VERDICT – “47 Meters Down” doesn’t have the shock or awe to compete with the better movies of the genre that balance the concepts of humanity and breaking points accordingly in their clash with urgency. This one lacks the sharks, competent shots, or even compelling characters to make you ever invest in their struggles, and because of such, this one sinks fast, and becomes bait for the bigger Summer blockbusters that simply can’t be caged. Moore and Holt are believable enough as sisters, but are given such hollow and ample material to make their characters shine in their finest hours. While “47 Meters Down” is an improvement from Johannes Roberts 2016 effort “The Other Side of the Door”, his lack of memorable material settles for the latter in the sink-or-swim atmosphere.

4/10

Alien: Covenant

The crew of a colony ship, slash through a dangerous breed of indiginous creatures that inhabit their newfound land, in ‘Alien: Covenant’. Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with “Alien: Covenant,” a new chapter in his groundbreaking “Alien” franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant (Including Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup), bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their wildest imaginations, they must attempt a harrowing escape, banding together to take out their acid-spitting antagonists hand-in-hand for survival. ‘Alien: Covenant’ is rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.

I’m someone who didn’t care much for Prometheus and the philosophical directions that it took one of the more prominent horror/sci-fi movie franchises, and unfortunately Alien: Covenant steers more in that same direction of where the previous left off. It is a better film in my opinion than that of its predecessor, but still suffers from the same problems revolving around its menacing antagonist that Scott still hasn’t fixed five years later. There are two tones in the film of Covenant, pushing to satisfy the diverse crowds of this series that were split right down the middle in their interest of Prometheus. For the supporters of it, this film does bring back the origin story of the creators, as well as the artistic and ambitious direction that only Scott can accomplish at this magnitude. For fans of the original Alien and Aliens movies, this film shifts back to the pacing of those movies, even so far as to include their increased appetites in brutal violence that reigned supreme during that era. The gore is very satisfying to a horror lover like me, and I felt that this film had some of the best deaths of the series. However, For this kind of juxtaposition in tone, it does often feel like a tug-of-war battle for the creativity of this movie, tightly jamming two different feels of movies into one Frankenstein-like finished product. The film satisfied in many ways, but had nearly as many problems to point out for my final grade of the film.

Ridley Scott still proves that after over forty years of sitting behind the director’s chair that he still has it in the visual presentations that envelope his films. Whether you love or hate Scott as a director, it’s measures like the interior ship designs and lighting of this movie that orchestrate the idea that this man is playing on a totally different ball field. The interiors of this film took me back to Aliens and Alien 3, opting for more of that faded cinematography to accommodate the yellowish tint in lighting that adorned these ships. In addition to this, I greatly adored the decision to film more scenes on the ground, as we very rarely have seen these aliens in their natural habitats. It also fruitfully paints the backdrop in picture for the creators and the kind of epic world that they once lived in, long before they met their genetic match in terms of conflict. These glances offer the kind of answers to the questions that were left anti-climatically in the air during the prior film, and did plenty to satisfy my thirst for foreign worlds that has sadly done very little experimenting before this.

Then there are those decisions by Scott that could’ve used a little more time to develop and mold for the eyes of his passionate viewers. The decision to amplify the tension by making these aliens quicker in this film is one that I do support. Even in zombie films, people often criticize this stance for taking away from the classic movements of the antagonists, but it’s easy to understand that taking away the ability to run away is what makes their actions even more unpredictable. My problem comes in the CGI designs of the aliens themselves. Aside from the fact that there are no practical effects in this movie, I found the computer designs of most of the alien creatures to be laughably bad. The Xenomorphs are fine because they show that of dark skin that makes it difficult to point out the flaws in their designs, but the small white creatures that appeared during the opening act of this movie are so bad that they reminded me of Alien: Resurrection, the stain of the Alien franchise. The shading and texture of their designs feel so foreign to the practical sets that surround them that it makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief for their impacts. By 2017, concept designs shouldn’t lack this much weight, and as a result the gimmick of this creature left me laughing every time it was on screen.

The story too has its problems, even going as far as the actual title of the movie. If this film was called Prometheus 2, or Prometheus with some subtitle after it, I would be fine with it. But to have the actual name ALIEN in the title and only have them in the two hour presentation for a total of twenty minutes (I’m being generous) is a huge mistake. Much of the reason people disliked Prometheus is because they couldn’t find the connection between the two stories. Now we have a movie that connects them, but does it in a way that reduces these creatures to supporting roles in their own film. The movie has an easily predictable plot twist towards the end of the movie that friends will attest to me predicting right away. How did I predict this? Well, a lack of care for what scenes were included leading up to the big reveal, as well as subtle but evident differences in appearance for two characters who are quite similar. It’s tough to explain without spoiling everything, but if you are paying attention even decently, you will easily pick out this flaw from the minute that Scott attempts to accomplish it. Overall, the story to me just fell flat in many long spurts, practically counting down the time when the next attack will happen. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not crazy about this story getting philosophical, and the idea that these aliens can be reasoned with and even controlled is one that treads the hardest on suspending disbelief. I am reminded of Halloween 6 when they introduced the character of The Man In Black to basically be Michael Myers master. I am of the thought that monsters should always stay cryptic. The more we know about them, the less impactful their rage and dominance feels, and the alien creature is one that I feel doesn’t require that backstory to make it any more frightening.

As for the characters, there are two that stick to mind with being effective in this movie, Katherine Waterston as Daniels and Danny Mcbride as Tennessee. Mcbride especially is the standout here, putting aside his comedic charms for a tough-as-nails character with some intelligence to boot. Danny showcases that he is an actually gifted actor here, and I couldn’t get enough of his commanding presence on this ship, and being the lone voice of reasoning for the film. Yes, Danny Mcbride was the voice of reason, weird huh? As for Waterston, there’s certainly a steer in the direction of Ripley and Shaw for her structure, but Daniels serves as a particularly human lead protagonist here because immediately right away in the movie she suffers the most devastating loss of her life. So we get to see the actual metamorphosis of her character as the film progresses, leading into a captain who takes control for the very lives of not just her crew, but also her friends. Besides these two, the rest of the performances and development was very underutilized. You could blame it on fifteen different faces taking up screen time, but I blame it more on the cliche horror movie characters that they all made up. Characters in these movies typically make dumb decisions, but when you really think about how easily the events in Covenant could’ve been avoided, you start to laugh aloud for how very little has changed in this nearly forty year old franchise. At least in the earlier volumes, you had characters who were able to showcase these fleshed-out personalities for us to enjoy or hate. The people in Covenant constantly feel overlooked, and this is a rare flaw for a director in Scott, who has developed some meaty supporting casts.

THE VERDICT – Alien: Covenant is a welcome addition over the last four Aliens movies that have disappointed this critic for how convoluted their easy-to-satisfy plots have become. The film increases the violence and answers many of the questions that were left hanging from the previous film, but still suffers in terms of what definitive direction that this movie is trying to take. Hollow characters, pee-brain decision making, and some shoddy CGI work, still prove that this series has plenty to perfect before it tangles with the days of Alien or Aliens. Even with annoyances aside, Covenant has enough pulse to bite through the underbelly of horror conventionalism, and still prove that this series has teeth.

6/10

Phoenix Forgotten

The mysterious appearance of unknown lights plague the valley of the sun, in Cinelou Films Phoenix Forgotten. Based on the shocking, true events of March 13th, 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona. This unprecedented and inexplicable phenomenon became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, and remains the most famous and widely viewed UFO sighting in history. Phoenix Forgotten tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed. Phoenix Forgotten is directed by Justin Barber, and is rated PG-13 for terror, peril and some adult language.

Going into Phoenix Forgotten, I didn’t have the greatest of expectations. The found footage epidemic that has more times than not plagued movie theaters into offering up the cheapest kind of horror movie is one that I feel is rarely done well. The fondest example that comes to mind is The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a blending of found footage horror with a real time documentary playing out right before the eyes of the audience. Amazingly enough, Phoenix Forgotten follows that very same plan, conjuring up an experience that finds the values of educating and mystery equally important in the properties of these type of movies. For the first hour of this movie, I was glued to the screen at the history lesson that Barber feeds his audience. The Phoenix lights mystery is very much an actual event that took place in the real world in 1997, so this film practically already has a story written out for itself, and now it’s just filling in the gaps. For the most part it does a solid job, but sadly a lot does shift in the final scenes of the movie, saturating what refreshing taste this movie maintained for the first two acts.

What I found so cool about this film was the expanding contrasts in modern technology when compared side-by-side with that of twenty-year-old counterparts. As you may or may not have read, this movie is telling two stories simultaneously, one that was recorded by this teenager who went missing, and one by his Sister who now stands alone in leading the charge to discover the truth about what happened. For anyone who was lucky enough to be alive during such an age, these flashback sequences will tickle your nostalgic muscle, depicting an age where High-Definition concept wasn’t even in existence. I love the weathered camera picture quality, as well as the fashions of our characters which accurately depict the post-grunge era of shirts and pants that have since been pushed to the back of the closet. It proves to me that Justin Barber definitely did his homework not only on his mystery, but also in the day-and-age that feels like millions of moons ago when shown to an especially younger audience today.

This is definitely going to be a hard sell for conventional horror fans who only flock to the movies to scream out loud or jump at the overabundance of jump scare cliches. Phoenix Forgotten simply isn’t that kind of horror movie, and instead concerns itself with the fear of the unknown. It’s quite brave of screenwriters T.S Nowlin and Justin Barber to embrace the pacing of letting the story play out, instead of trying to scare the audience every ten minutes. Where that will make-or-break audiences depends on who you are. I find this lack of necessity to be something that is valuable in compelling storytelling, but I can certainly understand the arguments in teenagers thinking this was a waste of their time. In general, it’s only in the very beginning and end where we get any kind of riveting imagery from our guests in the sky, and that long wait in between could definitely test the patience along the way. For me, it was just right and felt like the movie cared equally about its story as it did the frights.

That is however until I got to the final act of the movie. I’m not going to act like the previous hour of the film didn’t have problems. Most notably, there is an enormous plot hole that becomes evident once new information shows up regarding the last night of the brother and his friends exploring the light origins. MINOR SPOILERS HERE – The school calls up the Sister to let her know that a different camera and tape has been found in their storage closet, and she should have it. My biggest problem with this is two-fold; 1. Who handed this tape in, and why aren’t they being questioned? 2. Why hasn’t the FBI taken this evidence into possession? You could say that maybe the FBI didn’t know about that, but that gets debunked during the next scene when an army general tells her not to let the tape get out. If they’re so concerned about it, then why don’t they take it? Anyway, moving to the third act that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and felt like the exact polar opposite of everything that came before it. It is during this timetable in the movie when the film completely reverts from all of the originality that it had conjured up, and instead felt the pressure of desperation to feed the conventionalists. This is a major mistake because the final act of the movie feels jarringly different from anything that came before it, and I for one would’ve been happy with a little more mystery. It takes the honor code of the film even lower when the film’s final twenty minutes are showing exactly what happened to the Brother and his friends. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the movie’s ending text didn’t signal that the case is still a mystery. The Sister has the biggest evidence to blow this thing open, how is this still a mystery? HUH?? There is also a shameless borrowing of The Blair Witch Project during this act that I won’t spoil. I will instead just say that it became evident at that moment how far off of our map that we were approaching.

The acting honestly didn’t bother me, despite the fact that the dialogue is repetitive to the point fist-clinching. These are after all actors who are supposed to be portraying every day human beings, so some of their awkward deliveries and lack of general charisma made for an understanding logic to their character development. The trio of friends in the 1997 footage did make for the best pacing of the movie, mainly because it’s in that aspect of the story where we feel like something could happen at any time. I am also thankful that Barber chose not to make the girl in the group the significant other of either boy, instead deeming it not necessary for every single horror movie to have this concept. The modern day acting is also solid, mostly in Sophie the Sister (Played by Florence Hartigan). Since she is our lone hope in discovering what happened, most of the film’s conflict and resolution lies in her uncovering, and Hartigan steals the show in voicing what is wrong about the world forgetting about these missing people.

Phoenix Forgotten should be commended for blending enough fact and fiction to where reality never gets lost within its clutches. There is a great found footage movie just dying to get out here, but unfortunately all of the originality in real time documentary structure, as well as nostalgic visual presentation are for naught with a final act that reverts too much to the tired formulas that have soured this idea. Even still, there’s much to be applauded for a movie that early on didn’t deem it necessary to cater to shocking twists or gross-out gore. There might just be a place in this world for Justin Barber.

5/10

The Lost City of Z

The search for a rumored nation of people brings a cryptic explorer to the forefront of the raging jungle. Based on author David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, ‘The Lost City of Z’ tells the incredible true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century and discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as “savages,” the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson), returns time and again to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case, culminating in his mysterious disappearance in 1925. An epically scaled tale of courage and passion, told in writer/director James Gray’s classic filmmaking style. The Lost City of Z is written and directed by James Gray, and is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.

The Lost City of Z found a way into my heart that very few two hour plus films do anymore. This structure in storytelling and various depth in plots is the kind of justifiable leap that you take when it comes to an investment as big as this one (135 Minutes), and it paid off in presenting to me a film that touches so unapologetically on so many life themes about becoming the person we were destined to become. Sound cliche and a bit tacky, I’m sure, but James Gray’s masterful touch at bringing to life a story with such a massive following like this one, speaks volumes considering our current day release takes place more than one hundred years after the initial setting of this picture. At its core, The Lost City of Z is structured like a horror movie. Don’t believe me? A crew of men take a dangerous cross-world journey of uncertainty to clash with the boundaries of stepping on a land that is run by cannibals. But even so, Gray’s story dabbles in these bloody waters while still capturing an essence that very few nail on such a collective grasp of the details as this one does.

My mind raced at the very brutal consequences of time, and just how important of a hand that it played in Percy’s explorations. One thing that I loved so dearly about this movie was its jumbled sense of time misdirection, which is obviously that of intentional directing by Gray. My lone problem coming out of this film was that the jungle sequences sometimes blend together because there’s no sense of time translation in text, nor in physical features like different clothes or longer beards. Then it hit me; James uses this to establish the pay-as-you-play kind of rules to following your dreams and immersing yourself in imaginative waters. This theory of mine was made even more apparent when he includes text in every time jump in story while Percy and his crew are out of the amazon. To play further into my ideal of this, I believe Gray is showing us how easy it was for Percy to get lost in his own expedition, forgetting the humbling evidence until he gets home. We are treated to gut-wrenching visuals that depict his children and wife getting older, while our central protagonist (At least immediately) still looks the same. It’s touches like this that kept me glued to the on-going events that always seem to stand in the way of this passionate man that was once an order to explore, but has now become his life’s mission.

After you get past the first twenty minutes, the film constantly keeps moving, crediting that of storytelling that paces itself out accordingly in epic style fashion. The film’s responsible direction to show the audience how dangerous and taxing that a trip like this was in 1915 is one that I commend dearly, and this decision radiates effortlessly throughout the film. Physically in brutality, some characters are killed in the waters by creatures that they cannot see. Mentally, the exceeding limits of sanity and bodily torture are pushed through an endurance test of iron man proportions. It all sets up to a finale that has as much sentimentality in heart as it does fear in our confidence with Percy and how much age has finally caught up to him. I fear that some people will feel underwhelmed by the final shots of the movie, but I drank it in for the rewards it instilled into our lead protagonist. It is definitely the peaceful catch-22 that Percy needed, but from an audience standpoint, I can see some complaining about the juice not being worth the squeeze. I disagree because it’s never about what we see, it’s about what HE does, and in that regards, this feels like the peak of the mountain.

The technical tapestry provided some truly elegant aspects to the overall cinematography for Gray’s right hand man, Darius Khondji. As the director of photography here, Darius pops his colorful touch at just the right moments. From the grainy sun-eclipsing shading that vibrantly commute Percy’s enjoyable home life, to the blending of greens that overtake the screen with each trip for this mystical land, this film radiates the conflicting backdrops in land that constantly serve as a reminder just how far these men are away from home. I also greatly enjoyed the makeup work of the 12-person crew that brought the aging process to life in a faithful way for once in Hollywood cinema. It’s rare that I will commend a movie for this aspect because most of the time the aging process is presented in laughably bad context, showcasing an all grey wig, or skin so wrinkled that it looks like our characters have sat in the sun for too long. If you can’t do it right, just cast older actors to play the roles. Thankfully, this film’s production team accomplish so much by doing so little, and it’s in those light touches that we pick up on without being bashed over the head with its gimmick. For Charlie Hunnam, we are treated to a lighter shade of blonde than the one he adorns for the earlier acts of the movie, as well as some light aging around the eyes that tell of the stress that this character has endured. What’s even more impressive is that this crew does it without turning the movie into a laugh riot, something that goes a long way in my final grade.

Not to be outdone by the technical of the story however, the main trio of actors bring so much humanity and personality to their respective roles, each of them giving arguably their best performances to date. I had my doubts about how deep of an actor that Hunnam could be, but as Percy we get the dreamers protagonist who does so without feeling cocky or crass. Hunnam reminds me a lot of a young Brad Pitt for how he is able to emote empathy from the audience who see this man who practically has everything. This is a tough guy with loads of heart to boot, and Hunnam’s urgency brought goosebumps to me on more than one occasion in his fight against time. Sienna Miller also dazzles as Percy’s wife Nina. Miller herself always feels like a chameleon because she transforms her identity over and over again. I was awestruck at how I didn’t recognize her until an hour into the film, when she had been acting in front of me up until that time. Her identity became evident on a random expression that I otherwise might’ve went the whole movie uncertain at this new actress who is holding up her own against the boys. Robert Pattinson though, is the true surprise for me. As Henry, Pattinson commands a redemption tale through the eyes of a struggling alcoholic who now sees purpose for his life. He does it all in his best John Lennon appearance, and it is intriguing how easily this man loses himself in this role, despite a third act that is less than kind to the creativity of his character. Robert has earned a fan out of me because of his subtle delivery that constantly feels like the cloud of clarity for these characters. A cloud that rightfully earns him the status as Percy’s right hand man, a man who is always quick to cast a hilarious truth.

The Lost City of Z is easily the grandest surprise that I have had the pleasure of taking in this year. James Gray adds to an already astonishing list of visual accomplishments by succeeding at his most ambitious project to date; a nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic that pays homage to Herzog and Lean. Hunnam and Pattinson were made for the big stage, committing to a journey of ambiguity that like the water that surrounds them, always keeps rushing. When you walk out of a movie this long begging for more, it’s a sign of a modern classic, and Gray is happy to construct the kind of movies that make you think as well as gasp.

10/10

Raw

The urges of a teenager’s crippling psyche requires the feeding of something more gruesome, in Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw. Everyone in Justine’s (Garance Marillier) family is a vet. And a vegetarian. At sixteen she’s a brilliant student starting out at veterinary school where she experiences a decadent, merciless and dangerously seductive world, including the consumption of rabbit kidneys at the request of her upperclassmen sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Desperate to fit in, she strays from her family principles and eats RAW meat for the first time. Justine will soon face the terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge, casting her as a different animal all together. Raw is written and directed by Ducournau, and is rated R for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying.

Juggling a vast array of themes in script content is a difficult task for film veterans like Martin Scorsese or James Cameron to accomplish, and made especially more foreign (Pardon the expression) when a first time writer/director like Ducournau masters it on a single stage. Some of the aspects that I pulled upon my first watch of this film was that of feminism, sexual exploration, animal rights, human needs, and cannibalism to name a few. In a melting pot of entertaining proportions, it may seem impossible to group these ingredients together for one terrifyingly sizzling bite, but Raw masters it on a familiar level. The idea that this story and respectively the awakening of Justine takes place under the roof of her first year at college is one that is brilliant for the many changes and identity shifts that take place during such a period. There’s so much about this story that extreme, but the real terror will come in how translucent the experiences really feel to audiences who have embraced that fear to become someone or something that they never would’ve dreamed. It’s a positive that lifts Julia’s first dive into creative waters a truly thick and immersive one, and I for one can’t wait to see what this expressive visionary can do next.

On accounting for some of her spellbinding positives, is a production that embraces the dangerous world that it takes on. My opinions on the landscape envisioned in this movie is that it feels satirical, but still full of consequences for the actions we choose. In that light, there’s plenty of artistic merit that the movie embraces to capture the attention and imagination of the audience. The lighting plays an important aspect in Justine’s slow transformation, signaling a dark red that follows her everywhere she goes like a calling card of the blood that she has splashed. It feels like this color radiates more with each new taste, and while it is blatant, it feels like a smart choice for how far we have come with this character. The musical score by Jim Williams mesmerized me in a way that very few horror themes articulate with earworm tones that will stick with you. The main theme for the movie is decadent in capturing the danger, but this compliment is made even stronger with nerve-shattering numbers during the gory imagery that adds another layer of shocking reality that Jim never lets slip through his fingers.

At 93 minutes, the pacing for the film is sound, and constantly keeps the story moving despite a narrative that can sometimes feel practically non-existent. What I adore is the lack of verdict in creative decision for Justine’s new addiction to be a positive or a negative for her lifestyle. It’s clear that the meat has given her a new lease on life, but the negatives that she embraces simply can’t be ignored. On the other hand, she doesn’t fully come out of her shell until she gives in. This and so much more is why I commend the movie for letting the audience be the judge, jury, and executioner on the choices she has made that aren’t always as easy as black, white, and red. The idea of comparing the movements and hunger for animals and humans is one that I felt that movie orchestrated accordingly, and soon the choices that we make for our own survival become blurred in what we deem right for ourselves not being ideal for our furry best friends. One line in particular that keeps echoing in my head is when Justine’s father tells her that her dog will have to be put down because after the taste of blood, dogs can never be the same again. This too can obviously ring true for our human characters in this film, as their bloodlust will be their undoing or their awakening…depending how you look at it.

This is a very visceral film, so if you quake easily at the site of gruesome imagery, I suggest you sit this one out. For a bloodhound like me however, Raw gave me everything that I adore about practical makeup and cringe-worthy violence that won’t be understated by anyone who sees the movie. I can’t commend the attention to detail in feasted limbs, as well as scarring complexions that felt like the most bang for the buck in terms of what little the movie actually budgeted for (rumored less than 10 million). Unfortunately, this does bring me to my lone critique about the film, as sometimes the imagery does get a little too carried away too often to continue taking it a gasping levels. The movie does have a fine layer of comedic awkwardness to it, and this level sometimes overstayed its welcome for me in terms of scenes playing out that I couldn’t help but laugh at. My opinion for this is that the film pokes and prods at a particular opinion long after it has hammered the point home, leaving its thought-provoking impact a bit overcooked. I think to pace these moments out and build it stronger and stronger with each crushing blow was the right way to go. The biggest visual obstacle for me happens within the first act, and from there I was already desensitized for what was to come for the remainder of the film.

I want to talk about the work of Justine herself, Garance Marillier because she is transfixing in this role. It’s obvious that her character goes through a transformation of sorts over the span of the film, but what shouldn’t be understated is how synthetic she plays the traumatic unraveling behind each and every event. Marillier is one of those actresses who can say so much in a look, and as her movements and embraces become more animalistic, we get the captivating chance to see her best acting come out. In Justine, we see a young woman who has been clearly sheltered for her whole life, and when the ability to breathe for the first time comes to fruition, so too does the stone cold beast that lives deep inside Garance’s careful precision to echo so much with silence. It truly is one of my early favorites for best female performance, and I hope that she gets the credit that she deserves. I also dug the work of Laurent Lucas as the father (He has no known name). Lucas is only in a few scenes in the film, but his presence radiates long after he has left the screen because his character offers the most simplistic of narratives to follow for this overly-ambitious material. It was in Lucas’s dialogue where the movie kept pushing my brain the most, and a last scene discovery for his character left me speechless at the very complexity of this dark situation that has enveloped his daughter.

Far past well-done, Raw is a rare taste that feels startling the first time you try it, but will grow with each additional chew. Ducournau proves that anything men can do, women can do better, and her view in a carnivore dominated world is one that is honest in its revealing contrasts to the ways we view our own methods of survival. Marillier chills to the bone with a meaty performance that proves she was made for the big time. Artistic, bracing, and metaphorical, Raw satisfies the hunger within.

8/10

The Void

An evil presence known as The Void overtakes a deserted small town, and a night of evil follows a group of townspeople who choose to fight it. Written and directed by the duo of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, this small Canadian horror film tells the story of one terror filled night of unexplained phenomenon. When police officer Carter (Aaron Poole) discovers a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. As cloaked, cult-like figures surround the building, the patients and staff inside start to turn ravenously insane. Trying to protect the survivors, Carter leads them into the depths of the hospital where they discover a gateway to immense evil and unspeakable intentions that will only make their realities even more sinister by comparison. The Void is rated R for adult language, scenes of brutal blood, gore, and violence, and peril.

80’s horror fans from all around, lend me your ears. The Void is the latest B-movie Canadian horror effort that is quietly taking the nation on a ride of devilish delights while paying homage to a past generation of horror that clearly has influenced more than a few of respective horror directors working today. The creature feature is in full effect with this one, signaling a collection of terror and frights that ring loud call-backs to the days of George Romero or John Carpenter taking the chair, and does it with so very little that results in so much effectively. The best kind of horror is the kind that is cryptic to the people around you, and there were many times during this movie where I was floored not only at the shivering reality of this unknown force that feels unstoppable plaguing this small town, but also in the production of such a movie that simply deems it unnecessary to settle for the computer generation that is currently disintegrating the horror genre. Students of the B-movie scene, Gillespie and Kostanski, earn their shrieks through 90 minutes of nightmare fuel that relies on the methods that we know best from the movies that came before it.

Some of those tricks of the trade come from that of the very visuals that we are embracing, complete with abandoned hospital at night that rings back to the days of Friday the 13th and Halloween. There’s always been something laughable about this concept to me, simply because the idea of a hospital being run by a few people is frankly ridiculous, but I understand the setting for a film of this kind. The lighting serves as a blanket of dark, mysterious fog and doom the envelopes our crew of characters, plaguing them with a fear of the unknown for what surrounds their building. Showing less is the right way to go until the big finale because it constantly builds the tension and suspense within our own minds to see if the monster really does live up to the hype. More on that later. Speaking of less being more, this is a story that constantly stays pretty cryptic in answering questions or providing clarity to unpredictable scenarios. This could potentially alienate some watchers of The Void, but I felt that the more mystery the better with actuality in the story. If you were in this situation, there’s a chance you too would die without many answers being discovered, and that ideal is what led me to further embrace keeping everything as mysterious as possible. In addition to what I mentioned above, I also greatly enjoyed the overall cinematography and setting style that never limits or suspends any ideas for what particular decade the story takes place during. Horror truly is transcending of time, and that emphasis crafts an aura where the vulnerability of the unknown that is in the air and frequent throughout the movie.

The decision to use mostly nothing but practical effects on the monster and gore on the film is one that I take with the highest honor of respect, and proves that the craft of practicality is alive and well in a society that breeds technology. The overall costume and prosthetic makeup on the monsters of the film point to a skinless appearance, complete with gouging muscles that constantly pump blood around them. I compare it very much to John Carpenter’s vision for The Thing in how this creature moves and attacks. There is constantly a ring of unpredictability behind it that leaves this among the more memorable of recent creature features. The method of menace borrows a great deal from that of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in that it invades the womb of women to breed a new monster baby. I’ve always found that this method is the most terrifying because it tenderly pokes at the fears and polarization of rape within our own world. Being taken against your will is a frightening thing, let alone by a species that you are completely clueless about. Its intentions are mostly ambiguous, but I’ve always believed in the fear of the unknown adding a layer of menace to the antagonist before us. When we learn of its look, weakness, and identity, more times than not, the suspense slowly bleeds out, but never for a moment here. It builds to an ending that doesn’t bring us any closer to clarity for what could stop this thing.

The duo could use more time to flesh out mostly all of their cast, as they all lack great exposition in development to make them appealing to the audience. This isn’t a movie with many negatives, but I never found myself caring greatly for the characters will to live, and that lacking causes the increase in bodies dropping by the minute to reach out to the audience, who simply aren’t fully there in character embrace. If I had to pick someone whose work I enjoyed, it was in that of Twin Peaks cast member Kenneth Welsh as the head doctor at this hospital, who has his own shuttered past. Welsh’s performance is so off-the-wall that it easily stands out in a room of otherwise bland deliveries. What our duo of filmmakers do well enough to fix this problem of sorts is to actually offer a killing order that constantly surprised me after each sequence. What we’re left with during the final ten minutes, completely floored me with where I thought this story was headed. This at least offered some reprieve to characters who never even remotely lived up to that of their supernatural opposition.

During a year of noteworthy horror cinema, The Void stakes its claim at being a limb up on the competition by paying tribute to perhaps the golden age of horror effects cinema. Prominent inside of its dark and gloomy walls are top notch practical effects, as well as a visual presentation that doesn’t overthink or overdo its intended purpose. The character backstories are slim, but the capabilities of an ambiguous story will constantly keep the audience intrigued and guessing for every step along the way. Gillespie and Kostanski don’t run from the tag of horror enthusiasts, they embrace it and let it build a seed inside of them that we will remember during both of their inevitably prestigious careers.

7/10

Life

A crew of six highly intelligent scientists seek the answer to the question of the existence of another lifeform. In ‘Life’, we get the story of the six-member crew of the International Space Station that is on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As the crew begins to conduct research, their methods end up having unintended consequences for them and the citizens of Earth, and the life form proves more intelligent than anyone ever expected. ‘Life’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, it is directed by Daniel Espinosa, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some sci-fi violence and sequences of terror.

If you’ve seen one isolation in space horror movie, you’ve seen them all. Thankfully, ‘Life’ pushes past a conventional script by offering us artistic merit in the form of gorgeous cinematography, as well as a sound scheme that can at least present some peaking merits in an otherwise typical screenplay. This is a film that was originally slated to debut in May of this year, but got moved up two months to play against a March backdrop that is slightly less intimidating than that of the Summer blockbusters that invade around Memorial Day. It turns out that it pays off brilliantly, as Espinosa’s science fiction space shriek does more than enough to hold its own against previous similar offerings like ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’, and leagues above the mindless ‘Apollo 14’. It’s solid proof that if you cast the big name actors, people will most definitely come, and this is a movie that is every bit as terrifying as it is cerebral. An ambitious float through the terrors of uncertainty that does more than enough to top Espinosa’s previous effort, 2014’s ‘Safe House’, also starring Ryan Reynolds.

What I love about the storytelling of this film is that it puts the characters first, and allows the story itself to follow those characters, meriting more positive returns when you care about their ordeals with this mysterious organism. Solid exposition time is depicted for all of them, and it’s in those introductions when the tragedy of this story and these people really sink into you. Space itself is an immense and unpredictable atmosphere to make a living in, and that lack of knowledge plays hand-in-hand to the kind of misfires that we make in decision making. It’s clear that this screenplay pays homage to those kind of films that adhere to the idea that man will be our society’s greatest downfall, and how sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. I mentioned earlier that the film does play to conventionalism despite a first act death that was a little surprising for the name value expensed. Nothing in this film ever really surprised me, and that could be at the fault of seeing and experiencing all of these films, with all of their similar structures and conclusions. The film keeps its characters at the intellectual mercy of this creature, so the convenience of butterfly effects that render them helpless is a brief suspension of disbelief for minds supposedly as gifted as this crew. Even the conclusion is something that I accurately called once the setup become obvious. Even still, I can never say that the movie bored me. Perhaps a compliment to the performances of a charismatic cast that bring their A-game when acting against a CGI antagonist.

The design and computer generation of this property felt very in-sync with that of multi-cell organisms, and that attention to detail rarely makes this alien anything super extraordinary or cartoonish in terms of its capabilities. One thing is certain, this thing is very intelligent, mimicking and authenticating the responses and actions of the living properties around it. Perhaps my favorite aspect to its design is the growing of its physical stature. I love how this creature will often appear and disappear before our very eyes, and that shock and awe when it returns twice the size of when it left, made for an emphasis on urgency that never stops pumping. If I had one negative for it, I would say it was in the developing face of this thing in the third act, which reverted it to campy alien designs in other big budget space operas. Keeping this thing faceless and non-registering is what made its unpredictable movements so vicious and conniving in plodding, so the additions do occasionally render that originality uninspiring.

The visual backdrops of Earth and the surrounding nebulas captured the immensity in isolation with these characters forced to make their own under-prepared decisions for the fate of what hangs in the balance. With the camera styles in particular, I loved the revolving camera angles that followed our cast through the very tribulations of gravity. It’s no secret that I am not often a fan of flipping the camera upside down, but here it makes sense to put us in the middle of the chase. The tracking shots through many numerous tunnels were outstanding, playing to that vintage trick of associating the camera with that of the antagonist that is chasing the crew. Espinosa plays to the hand of claustrophobia so effortlessly, but then takes it one step further when it feels like such intimate surroundings continue on-and-on with a ship this intimidating.

The musical score by Jon Ekstrand also is weighed on heavily in capturing the very dread and doom that covers each scene like dense fog. So much of what Ekstrand does is dabbling in ear-piercing notes to capture the vulnerability of these characters navigating through a ship, where this creature can pop up at any time. This composition took me back to the days of 80’s horror scores, when music played a pivotal point in teaming with that of the monster that lurks behind every corner. An addition that can take any average or predictable sequence and make it that much more captivating by orchestrating terror in its most audible of forms.

Finally, there’s the cast that brings a collaboration of A-list performers to the overlooked stage of horror for an exceptional union. Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada. A cast this well known for big budget blockbusters was a thrill to watch to see them juggle the very tones of horror, and there are simply no complaints from any of them. Gyllenhaal’s character in particular is probably my favorite because there’s a lot about him that embraces the secluded environments of space and what benefit that holds for him. This is rare for a character to feel this way in movies, but it’s depiction offers a fresh and untold angle to this particular perspective. Sanada also commands vast intelligence and humanity in his grip, juggling the complexities of a newborn baby with that of the frightening discoveries that are constantly changing with him being galaxies away. Sanada’s character feels like the one with the most to lose, so our embrace of his well-being is one that never fades over the course of several different shifts in leverage.

At 95 minutes long, ‘Life’ doesn’t necessarily need to take its time getting to the thrills and chills of a story that exercises the themes of seclusion and claustrophobic tension. With an exceptionally likeable cast, as well as sound achievements in the filming and music departments, Espinosa’s space serial is a tantalizing thriller that orbits through a galaxy of conventionalism trying its best to weigh this story down. Fortunately, the unnerving social commentary on the mission at hand offers a self-reflective view on the kinds of missions that we deem as important.

7/10

The Devil’s Candy

‘The Loved Ones’ director Sean Byrne returns to write and direct this demented horror treat revolving around a sinister haunting. ‘The Devil’s Candy’ centers around Jesse (Ethan Embry), an artist seeking a fresh start, and his family that think they’ve moved into the house of their dreams, full of extensive space and tranquil detail. The family are told that an older couple passed away in the house, but we soon learn there’s much more to something that is simply too good to be true. Jesse soon discovers not all is structurally sound however, when he comes face-to-face with true evil. What follows is a brutal and bloody fight for survival for the family who see change and recluse to the once attentive father. ‘The Devil’s Candy’ is rated R for brutal violence and adult language. The film is currently making its way around the country’s independent cinemas after being shelved for the better part of two years.

Considering this film has been in development hell for over two years, ‘The Devil’s Candy’ succeeds with an obviously cheap budget where films of more lucrative offerings can’t comprehend. It is a brief, albeit satirical look at the concepts of Metal and its referral to being “The Devil’s music” in relation to the occult and other forces of nature that our unseen in our own world. Sean Byrne is a filmmaker who I have closely followed since the success of ‘The Loved Ones’, a movie that I heralded as being one of the best kept secrets of 2015. This film doesn’t quite reach the heights of that movie creatively, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying, as this film is full of energy and intense camera work that constantly pushed it a little further. The kind of B-grade horror flicks that you pick up on at festivals and can’t wait to tell your friends about. Most recently, the movie’s star Ethan Embry shopped this movie around the Horrorhound Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, so I’ve been dying to see what his hard work merited, and as it turns out, Byrne has picked up the mantle of 70’s horror buff where Rob Zombie has dropped it on more than one occasion.

Films about possession before this one have often taken a look at the subject and its effects from an exterior angle, rarely pushing further to give us something of vision for what the possessed is seeing and taking in, and in that regards, this film is a rare treat. One of my favorite aspects of this movie was artistically crafting the storytelling capabilities of audio and visual to gift wrap the audience a truly terrifying intake that could happen to any family seeking to better themselves. The story opens up typical enough, with this husband, wife, and daughter moving into a new house, ala ‘The Amittyville Horror’. However, the similarities stop there, as ‘The Devil’s Candy’ teaches its audience that less is more in the narration department. This is very much a movie that would rather show then tell, a concept that has positives and negatives to it. On the latter, this is a film that desperately could’ve used another twenty minutes to pay slightly more attention in particular to the wife’s character. She basically disappears midway through, and we’re kind of left with Father, Daughter, and only two-thirds of a reactionary stance for the bizarre events that surround them. On the positive, the film never slugs along, quickly breezing through 78 minutes of solid, sound pacing that constantly kept the story moving. I wasn’t completely satisfied with where the film ended, as it feels like a forgotten layer of the story tacked on at the last minute for the hell of it, but the movie did leave a lasting impression with me that kept me constantly guessing as it played against all of the famous horror troupes that dull down these life-threatening scenarios.

As I mentioned before, the technical aspects are a breath of claustrophobic fresh air, detailing the very internal struggles going on with Jesse as he keeps this terrifying secret from the two people he loves the most in this world. There’s some cutting-edge experimental effects work here, not only from CGI fire that actually looks passable for once, but also in the way Byrne navigates through the flames in presenting art in motion. I also loved how the sound from the rest of the room would slowly evaporate as the possession verses took place. It made it easy to comprehend all of these possessions in movies when it feels like the character is a thousand leagues under the sea. These are not the only example of his greatness however, as he also uses lighting and set devices to cause uncertainty with which decade this story takes place in. With Metallica t-shirts that the Father and Daughter don throughout the movie, it’s obvious that this film takes place at least in the post-80’s, but the usage of neon lights and pasty colored wallpaper take this story right out of the 70’s, especially when you consider how impactful the occult was during such a time.

The metal dominated soundtrack is also something that has always gone hand-in-hand in a sanctimonious marriage with horror, and its presence here is nothing short of fitting with the very satanic material. Heavy-hitting rock gods like Slayer, Machine Head, and Goya are just a few of the sampling artists that lend their credits to this film. You never realize it until a song captures the perfect essence, but music plays such an important detail to movies, especially that of horror, whose sound is constantly eclectic for the kind of worlds that it is depicting. This genre of music is always associated with cult movements from misunderstood generations past, so the inside joke of throwing its importance into the faces of those same crowds, casts an irony that definitely wasn’t missed by this critic in particular. In a sense, the music itself thrives when the most is on the line, and what better offering than rock to set the stage?

There are a few supporting one-line characters thrown in from time-to-time, but this is mostly a four character story between the split sides of possession. Pruit Taylor Vance is back to always exude his creepy quiet. I do wish the running time wasn’t so brief because this character deserved a bit more of exposition to make him someone of reputable value to the story. At least his performance never misses the mark, as he could play a character like this in his sleep by now. Ethan Embry is virtually unrecognizable as the male lead, donning a scruffy beard and dirty wig to cultivate the rocker within him. You really feel for his character considering he is at the will of something much greater than him. For his performance, Embry masters a devilish side of himself that we have yet to see from the 90’s stud, and I very much enjoyed his investment in the film. But beyond who I previously mentioned, this is quite the coming out party for 16-year-old Kiara Glasco. This stirring starlet shrieks her way through scene after scene of blood-curdling screams and vein-popping frights that would put her as the front runner of scream queen for her up-and-coming generation. Kiara has a personality that always feels like she’s one step ahead of her adult counterparts, adding an appreciative maturity for someone who would otherwise be a throwaway character in mainstream horror. She was unquestionably my favorite character in the movie, and I hope that she will save some of that goosebump-inducing adrenaline for more horror offerings in the coming future.

‘The Devil’s Candy’ is one of those sweet tastes that hooks itself onto fans of the 70’s B-movie glitz. With a run time that hurts and helps its cause, Sean Byrne touches on just enough mystery to constantly keep the audience guessing, making his latest the perfect opportunity to cut the lights out and indulge on everything from Metallica, V-neck guitars, and the occult. A stirring riveter that casts its claws into genre enthusiasts everywhere just begging for the perfect soundtrack to hell.

6/10

The Girl With all the Gifts

One girl is the cure for the zombie epidemic, in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’. The near future humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects. At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). But one little girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is directed by Colm McCarthy, and is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody imagery, as well as adult language.

In 2017, it’s obvious that the zombie genre has run amock. At this point, fresh ideas to stimulate and energize this subgenre are few and far between, but occasionally an injection of pure adrenaline is injected, and we remember what was once great about these kind of movies. Out of the smoke comes ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’, a European horror offering lifted from the pages of the book by the same name. Perhaps literature still inhabits all of the fresh and unused in ways that film is truly lacking on these days, because this movie was dreary, yet inspiring. It’s a reminder that the best and truly most frightening angles in horror are the ones that we find great fear in within our own psyches, and this post-apocalyptic wasteland where youth reigns supreme is a call-back to the days of ‘Children of the Corn’, as well as ‘Pet Cemetery’. While paying homage in essence to some of those classic pictures, ‘Gifts’ is a movie that carves its own reputation by changing the perception in and around European horror.

First of all is the appreciation of a story that doesn’t overcomplicate itself by giving a typical narration intro describing how we got to this bleak disposition. There’s a lot of mystery and cryptic bypassing that surrounds the first act of this McCarthy’s film, and I dig that because his method of storytelling never requires the audience to be spoon-fed that important story arcs. This is a director who has more than enough faith in his viewers, so he lets them paint the pieces, and this is by no means a difficult picture to paint. The film is to be applauded by slow-peeling the layer of exposition. We know by the title that the younger cast maintain this constant level of importance to the overall story, but through the eyes of this teenage girl, we learn step-by-step why she is so important. I commend any film that invests in the capability of child actors, especially ones that are good at captivating audiences, but this film does all of that without needing the tired, cliche scripts that plague the young adult point of view. The film continuously built to a crescendo of pulse-setting scintilation, concluding with a finale that constantly reminds us that hope waived goodbye to this set of characters long ago. A message that the audience has to endure over-and-over through some ever-changing landscapes and backdrops.

If there is some weakness to this story, it’s more so in that defining of the rules from these infected children, who seem to turn it on whenever the plot deems it convenient. There were many examples during the movie of these kids snapping when they can smell the scent of their adult prey nearby, but then there are other points when these adults run and sweat, further engulfing themselves in fatigue that accelerates said smell, and there’s not even a flirt with such suspense. Other than this, the only other problem that I had with the movie was some slight obvious foreshadowing in the opening twenty minutes that one can read through the lines on to see where the film is headed. If you manage to watch this film in one continuous setting, these subplots that stick out like a sore thumb will constantly ring in the back of your mind near the end of the movie, and it suddenly becomes obvious how the dots connect. Small issues in the otherwise grander picture that is this frightening takeover that uniquely relays how adults are the new minority.

Leaps and bounds above the rest though, my favorite aspect to the film is a bittersweet fragile composition by Cristol Tapia De Veer. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cristol has definitely done his studying on the genre of zombie classics like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and the George Romero offering of zombie introductions. On those movies, ‘Gifts’ too uses the same few notes to repetition, slowly varying them with each passing second. This allows audiences to fully soak in and embrace the dread that envelopes our cast of characters in a dense fog. In addition to this, the overall sound mixing and editing justify a couple of jump scares in the script that constantly keep the viewer guessing. I’m a difficult person to rattle when it comes to timely jump scares, but ‘Gifts’ hit me hard during a second act reveal that came opposite from the side that you weren’t expecting. It overall makes for a grade-A experience if you watch this in a theater or a stacked surround sound experience.

The acting too brings to light a combination of reputable actors with relative unknowns that blended positively in a well-balanced cast. Gemma Arterton is someone who I’ve always felt needed the right script to shine appropriately, and as Justineau we get the lone character who understands and holds onto the importance of that dying age of positivity for the concept of a child being a child. Arterton and Melanie’s friendship weighs heavily in importance for the direction of the movie, and thankfully it inherits loads of heart to keep the protagonist angles working overtime against the remainder of adults who have their own selfish agendas. Such a character is Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell character. There’s so much menace and plotting going on underneath the surface of Close’s outstanding work here, and that attention to detail had me often times searching for the grand scheme beneath her stone cold exterior. Close and Atterton lead the way for adult leads, but it’s in the introduction of Sennia Nanua in her first feature film. As Melanie, Nanua triumphs soundly, balancing equal parts human and monster that never feels riddled in gimmicks or underplayed in emotional response. For a 14-year-old, she is leaps and bounds above her age with how she plays the movie, and silently she commits theft on the stealing of this screenplay, a ‘girl with all of the gifts’, if you will.

By finding an original take on the zombie epidemic, as well as blazing through a circumference of well-timed scares and dreary backdrops, ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’ re-ignites an antidote of adrenaline deep within the heart of this aging subgenre. Poignant, atmospheric, and brutally hungry, this adaptation from Colm McCarthy will leave you reeling long after the ending that delivers on a solid payoff. This one takes a bite and keeps on chewing.

8/10

The Belko Experiment

One terrifying project named ‘The Belko Experiment’ has employees of a prestigious company witnessing a new kind of hell for the work day. In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans of mixed race, gender, and official rank are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed. Over the course of an allotted time limit, the workers must put the law in their own hands by murdering the very same colleagues that they refer to as friends. The last person standing will undoubtedly possess the strongest iron of wills, leaving a trail of bodies and consequences for what lies ahead. ‘The Belko Experiment’ is directed by Greg McLean, and is rated R for strong bloody vioelnce throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.

A couple of times a year, I will read reviews for a movie that is getting mostly panned by critics across the globe, then I see that particular film and feel like it must have been made just for me. That seems to be the case with ‘The Belko Experiment’, as I had lots of fun with this B-movie horror treat. The team up of James Gunn and Greg McLean is simply too rare to pass up, so when I heard that two of the more popular directors going today were making a terror shriek, it certainly intrigued me well beyond the point of curiosity. Sprinkle in a cast of familiar faces, mostly from supporting roles over their respective careers, and you have 83 minutes of a plot that certainly treads the line of originality for anything else going today. In the day and age of plots like ‘The Purge’ and ‘Saw’, the concept of ‘The Belko Experiment’ feels like it trumps them all, depicting the elevation of terror with a gimmick that feels like we’re constantly watching mice in a maze for our own sadistic enjoyment. It’s films like these that make you thankful that you are watching at home and not in it, because McLean takes great pride in elevating the very vulnerability of the work station. A charm that never goes unnoticed with the variety of characters that make up this film.

The movie opens up for the first fifteen minutes or so giving the audience what little exposition on its characters that it mostly had for the entirety of the picture. Sadly, we don’t learn a lot about our characters, just the daily annoyances that make their layer of patience bend ever so slightly further. With this being a horror movie, of course all of these scenarios will play out to give us the audience a reminder of where certain characters divide the line of alliances. It’s true that there is very little exposition in narrative as the film goes on, but it’s not something that takes a big enough bite out of the creative stance here. Because this is an EXPERIMENT, the study of human interaction is what really takes the floor here, and the progression in logical stances quickly gets more and more humbling through the steps of panic. With the first introduction by those in charge, our characters are told that they have two hours to kill twenty people or those in charge will kill thirty of them. This is of course met with slight confusion, albeit in a joking manner, and that uncertainty is certainly something that any of us would be met with. Then, when they prove their intentions in visual results, you slowly start to see the weaker mentalities coming forward, forming bonds with the stronger players, and setting forth the motions in surviving this day of hell. The study of just how far people will take things was the single most compelling aspect to this movie, and there was never a moment when their reactions didn’t feel anything but authentic.

I also greatly enjoyed the visuals in set pieces, as well as vicious deliveries that this seemingly endless supply of blood garnered. On the latter, there’s so much to appreciate about a director who doesn’t feel the need to hide or shield the audience from the ferocity of eighty people fighting for their lives. The carnage candy is delightful for a horror buff like me, and even though the shots are done with dramatic quick cuts, there’s still enough emphasis on close-ups to fully comprehend the impact in damage. The brutality gets more barbaric as the film progresses, and I took this devastating progression in the same continuous flow that I did the slipping sanity of many of our loose cannons. On the former, this set design feels necessary to achieve its message in simplicity. That message is that Belko Industries could double as any office workplace where people spend a majority of their lives together far too closely. The casual white shirt and tie becoming more-and-more decorated with the remains of co-workers as the film goes on, serves as a symbolism of sorts to the corruption that has overtaken this typical work day.

The music soundtrack provides an orchestral accompaniment of sorts to the madness that is developing around us. Seeing as to how this movie is set south of the border, the Mexican translations of many top 40 classic hits feels appropriate. Songs like ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘I Will Survive’ strike an ironic, if not somberly tragic musical note, and it relates to us that the film isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor in an otherwise abysmal environment. An unknown operatic musical number plays during the final confrontations, and it couldn’t feel more unnerving when played to these visuals nightmares in this fight for survival. It proves that music most certainly still holds an important place in 21st century horror films, and Mclean never disappoints in compromising visuals that artistically paint him as a visionary for this particular genre.

All of my problems with this movie, coincidentally enough, revolved around the pacing, which feels too fast to fully immerse into this plot and characters. I feel that a film like this could’ve really used that 100 minute run time to simmer some of the slow burns in vulnerability or unpredictability that takes over this building with each passing minute. What’s disappointing is that we don’t learn a lot about our mysterious antagonists, and it almost feels like our characters aren’t even asking about them, an important question that could’ve used some thoughtful pondering. There’s an element that is introduced around the half hour mark that keeps the workers in line with the demands of the voice, and I felt like it was a significant leap of faith logically for what the audience will choose to believe with these characters. I certainly understand its intention, but it just feels like an aspect that is there to be convenient to the plot. Other than these things, the third act also feels slightly rushed with everything that needs to be wrapped up in the final twenty minutes. It’s during this time when the desperation not only in the characters, but also in the script sets in, and that hour of lightly treading becomes a fast-paced marathon of executions and goodbyes that don’t fully get the deserving gasp.

Work is murder quite literally in this cherished team-up between Gunn and Mclean, and ‘The Belko Experiment’ is harmless, maniacal fun too delightful to be missed. Despite some impatient speeds in pacing, the film is much better than the unjustifiable negatives by critics that have been slung its way. Overall, it’s a viciously bleak character study on human morality and rationale, when played against the most dangerous of ‘What If?’ scenarios that we discuss in private with our friends. A smooth day at the office with very little manual labor involved.

6/10