The Perfection

Directed By Richard Shepard

Starring – Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber

The Plot – When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.

Rated R for scenes of brutal violence, adult language, and sexual situations involving nudity.

POSITIVES

– Uniqueness in characters and storytelling. This is a film that is obvious in how everything surrounding it plays to the plot twists, which shake up the direction and character arcs every twenty minutes or so, to keep it from being overly predictable. While no one person in this movie is entirely admirable for who they eventually become, the screenplay feels human in the perspective that the people involved are anything but cookie-cutter, and reflect the idea that society isn’t filled with a barrage of good or evil, but rather a majority of grey somewhere in between. This better helped overcome some of the flaws in minimal character exposition that plagued the film, but also gave way to exposing an interior psychological pulse outside, and constantly reminds us of the damage associated with abuse, in these characters becoming a mere shell of who they once were because of such.

– Gore for days. If you’re like me and appreciate a raining bloodbath of a movie throughout, “The Perfection” will stimulate you ruthlessly for how over-the-top it manages to escalate. This is a Netflix first film, so there are no barriers to the kinds of things the brutality can achieve, and it leads to a series of gashes and gross-out gags that are easily some of the most memorable of the last decade of horror cinema, if only for how the ferocity strikes at the surface of your skin for what we the audience can feel. What’s commendable here is that the editing remains restrained during these pivotal scenes, so as not diminish the attention needed to sell their appalling circumstance, and it reminded me of a bygone era of filmmaking where practicality blood over computer generated splashed with artistic merit, that wasn’t afraid to show its true colors to convey a message of high stakes splash. It’s a bit exploitative, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun for the extreme nature of its depiction.

– Mengege a trois of performances. The three faces that I mentioned above really dominate the spectrum here, and get so lost in the sinister details of their character’s that they constantly adapt to. For my money, Williams is the star pupil, as her combination of subtle unnerving demeanor and hole-burning stare made me feel a determination in her character, who will stop at nothing to attain what she seeks. Likewise, Browning really opened my eyes physically for how she contorts and dedicates her body to mastering this level of vulnerability that made you emphasize with her character, and brought believability to the kinds of things she was enduring. But man oh man, Steven Weber, where have you been? I remember this guy killing it in many films during the 90’s, but his role here as a seedy musical teacher might be his very best to date. Weber’s calculated, brash deposits make him the most important character of the film, and prove that the concepts of obsession don’t just resonate with the unhealthy determination of students, but also in the teacher who paints the environment that the poison emits from.

– Speaking of obsession, the film feels like a hybrid combination of 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2006’s “Black Swan”, for how it centers on this unhealthy objective to be the best in a particular field. Where “The Perfection” sets itself apart from the competition however, is in the underlying social issue burning deep in the modern day ‘Me Too’ world, that fights back with no shortage of expressive exchanges or unabashed vengeance that really made this feel like a fantastical retort in the way it’s presented. In this respect, the female side of moviegoers will definitely get more out of this than the opposition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because the way I see it, “The Perfection” is one of those socially reflective films that demands change from the world that inspires it, and it gives the film a positive message of bravery deep beneath a series of gut-wrenching blows and buckets of blood that really triggers an uplifting level of positivity for reflective filmmaking.

– The setting. I love that this film takes place overseas, because it gives the character’s a level of isolation and vulnerability for being in a land where they feel so void of friends or family to turn to when the shit hits eventually hits the fan. There’s this ominous cloud that fills the room not only with Asia as a whole, but also in this musical academy that accommodates the legion of upper class suits, and these initial shots that introduce us and engage upon the atmosphere are certainly the articulate tool used to measure that everything seen in these classy visuals and elegant lighting scheme are the expected to what’s really unexpected lurking beneath the surface level of soft smiles hiding sinister surroundings. What we’ve come to expect in horror film settings has become a cliche in itself, but the stages that this play takes place on gives an eye-opening approach to what has rarely ever been considered terrifying, and in turn gives food for thought on the ideal of the dirty deeds that take place in a house with a white picket fence.

– Evolving direction. This is the aspect of the film that I felt was so much more unpredictable than the plot twists themselves, as the first act of the movie feels very in-tuned as a seduction thriller, and one that feels provocative with enough tantalizing sexual mystique that lures you in to the lucid body language involved in the two protagonists. The second act eventually evolves into a bodily horror narrative, that will visually test your stomach in ways the provide emphasis for the dramatic tonal shift delivered in this film, but one that you can bet certainly won’t be the last. We settle down in the final act of the movie with an all out slasher tempo that confronts the growing conflict of this movie head-on, all the while preserving the bond of the first two acts that mold into a Frankenstein-fused finale that is every bit as consequential as it is poetic for the ringing social metaphorical power of the impactful final shot.

NEGATIVES

– Plot conveniences. One of the overwhelming aspects of this film to me was the lack of subtlety and overall convenience in storytelling details that so much of the twists rely on. In this respect, nothing in the film feels authentic or believable in terms of the way people interact, or in the way that certain elements are discovered to the knowledge of character’s. One such example happens within the first five minutes of the movie, when Williams’ character is on the phone looking for Browning, and POP!!! a billboard appears at that exact moment that shows she is a major hit in town. More examples could be given, but it would spoil what leads up to the first major twist in the movie. What I will say is that it pushes the boundaries of what could be measured and planned by any logical human being, and only stretches what we as answer seekers can firmly understand in tying loose ends together.

– Boisterous musical score. To say that the musical tones and audible soundtrack for the movie was distracting and invasive is an understatement. Not only is its ear-piercing volume a jarring distraction each time it’s included, but it constantly oversteps its boundaries on letting the dramatic elements of the moment play out without delivering some overly-obvious measure of audience interpretation that the composer feels we couldn’t have garnered without them. This isn’t even the worst audio measure of the film, as a last second rap track included feels so far out of place within the confines and audible tastes in the film that I couldn’t escape cringing for how over-the-top and spoon-fed it feels in the context of the scene it exists in. It was at this point in the film where I gave up all hope of musical nuance that usually immerses itself into a scene, but instead here is one step away from being presented louder than the attention of the actors themselves. Truly dreadful.

– Problems with twists. I was able to properly fetch out two of the film’s three plot twists for reasons I will explain later, but aside from this, I felt that the film gave the audience no capability in figuring things out for themselves because of the manipulative level of storytelling that limited our chances in the first place. Each time something new is revealed to the audience, the scene will halt progress, then jarringly rewind in a way that tells me someone has been watching “Funny Games” a time or two recently, depositing something that wasn’t even in the scene to begin with. My problem with this is two-fold. The first, is that the initial narrative isn’t taking place from any one particular character’s point-of-view, so we should see everything that transpires in real time because we the audience play the environment in this scene. The second is that the twists get sillier with each one that develops, further soiling the sharpness of the film’s beautifully documented brutality, that reaches levels of cartoonish exposition by the end of the film.

– Photography. This is where I picked up on the first twist, thanks in part to a particular frame that focused far too long on an otherwise unimportant object. Ignoring this obvious measure of visual storytelling, the film’s shot selection also suffers from an overly-inflated influence of Hitchcock inspired shots that lack a level of consistency for their involvement in this film. Distracting first act shots that involve a camera placement on an unorthodox object or even actor that doesn’t fit with the sum of its parts. On the latter of that statement, a last act struggle for power is shown from Williams point-of-view in a manner similar to MTV’s throwback show “Fear”, and unfortunately it misses out on the details of the fight, as well as the dramatic tension that never materializes because we have to fill in the blanks of what transpired away from our curious eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Ma

Directed By Tate Taylor

Starring – Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis

The Plot – In this new psychological horror-thriller from Tate Taylor and Blumhouse, a lonely woman (Spencer) befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.

Rated R for violent/disturbing material, adult language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use

 

POSITIVES

– High Octavia. While the rest of the performances mostly by the teenage cast don’t live up to anything outside of the conventional box of adolescent youth, the work by the film’s central antagonist is treading new ground for the decades of experience that the Academy Award winner has gained. Spencer’s Ma channels just enough loneliness to make you feel for her character, yet equally enough maniacal mange to remember why some people are better left alone in the first place. Octavia’s commitment to giving this character the proper amount of energy and growing disappearance of nuance sanity proves she is having the time of her life with the role, and that raw precision to insanity makes her especially engaging for the audience, especially being one of the only female black psychopaths on-screen in movie history. Side note- Screw Mark Wahlberg, I want to listen to Octavia talk to animals for the rest of my life. Seriously the funniest shit I’ve ever heard.

– Tuned-in tone. One thing that Blumhouse usually manages to attain more times than not is this perfect compromise of tone and seriousness for the movie that gives their films a hip edge with younger moviegoing audiences. Continuing this tradition is “Ma”, a film not afraid to show its personality with timely awkward laughs, or a barrage of thrills that articulately depicts the evolution of the script. This is very much a film that I had a lot of fun with, but one that also surprised me for how much emphasis is given to the coveted R-rating that often times feels like a reason to get extreme for the sake of shock violence. This one instead takes its time, and does so while solidifying an indulging atmosphere that allows you to forget about the cares of the world for 90 minutes of calculated revenge that constantly pokes and prods at the audience that it knows so well.

– Double tiered storytelling. Aside from the real time narrative that much of the movie’s attention is dedicated to, there is an addition subplot that occasionally appears detailing Ma’s mysterious past, giving us insight for why she is the way she is. As to where this cliche of explaining too much about the mystery usually soils the mystique of the character for me, this angle provides blocks of knowledge not only for why there’s something truly unsettling beneath her exterior of super hip elder, but also why much of her manneurisms and reactions envelope the teenager inside of her that has never evolved or moved past the demons of her past. What’s important is that it doesn’t effect the attention of its audience, nor does it make this timeline transition too often to take away from the current day progression. It’s a seamless delve into the mind of a mad woman, who for better or worse, provides possible justification for what she has become, and it gives the film two compelling stories for the price of one.

– Kicking tunes. What’s so refreshingly engaging about this soundtrack and accompanying musical score, is that the collection of top 40 classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s that Blumhouse surprisingly shelled out a big amount for transcends the screen, and puts us the audience front-and-center at the heart of a party full of drunken debauchery and endless good times. Some of the featured tunes include “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, and my personal favorite for Ma’s one-of-a-kind robotic dance choreography that she gives during it, “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. As for the musical score by composer Gregory Tripi, it’s a lucid anxiety-riddled ravage of synth sounds that adds a trancing outline to the scenes of tension that sharpen with increasing volume until they are ready to cut like a knife. Music was the last thing I was expecting to compliment in a movie this focused on revenge narratives, but the inclusion of a toe-tapping tapestry of terror only increased my delight of this picture, and put me in the moment of living out these awkward moments with these young characters.

– Taylor’s presence behind the lens. This is the same guy who directed visual feasts of coloring like “The Help” and “Winter’s Bone”, but it’s really what Tate does in framing work that gives way to an artistic integrity of range, that pokes and prods the audience with efficiency. The way this guy is able to tease with mirror images on a wall, or shadows in the background of a scene that show someone’s coming, or even the way he uses flash-edited close-ups of his leading lady to garner that heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach, amplifies the tension because of calculated shot photography, and gives a stylized beat of precision for the movements of the camera that are often swift and full of pulse. For a Blumhouse produced movie, this is exceptional to say the least, and Taylor’s personality of visual storytelling masters a command over the film that would be overlooked for importance in lesser hands.

– Third act switch. What’s particularly surprising about this film is that it goes nearly 70 minutes without showing a single drop of blood, reserving itself for the moment when its impact will be heard the loudest, and boy does this ever materialize during the final twenty-five minutes of the film. To say this film matures into material that solidifies its R-rating is putting it lightly. The combination of brutal violence, shocking nudity, and devilish details mirror that of Ma’s diminishing grip over that growing voice inside of her head that she can’t escape any longer, and it made for some impressive scenes of character resolution that made me laugh and shriek in terror at the same time. Are these artistically respectable death scenes? Absolutely not, but the placement of their gore is something that infuses it that much more with attention, and will have audiences wondering frequently if they really just saw what they think they did.

– Poetic final shot. Many people will have problems with the ending of this film, for feeling anti-climatic, but to me the imagery of the fading moments from this film felt every bit as conclusively satisfying as they did honorable by Taylor to not tease an unnecessary sequel. Short, sweet, and right to the point with some poignancy to tie everything together. The work goes more into the artistic side of it rather than the reactive one, and it’s especially rare in modern day where you get a movie where the end is literally that; the end.

NEGATIVES

– Shows cards too often. This is especially heavy on the mystery and plot twist of the movie, that the revealing trailers have already done a great job of revealing prematurely. In the film itself, the movie makes a couple major mistakes on its way to selling what Ma herself is hiding, and it’s something that I was able to figure out within the opening ten minutes of this movie (No kidding) for the way a character reveal in the background makes them look like an obvious character within this movie. In addition to this, the script does nothing to dress this aspect up as something totally different than what it actually is, and it left much of the film’s second half for me a delayed relay, where the movie was catching up to me in terms of exposition that was often stilted. The meandering on random objects that easily don’t tie into the scene was also a glaring red flag for me, giving off a not so secretive vibe that something bigger was coming with this focus that came completely out of left field.

– On-the-nose dialogue. Easily the weakest aspect of the film for me, as the lines read by the younger cast completely reek of older influence trying to be hip, and instead just come off as completely unnatural line reads that feel force-fed. These created a series of unintentional laughs and groans from me that certainly didn’t lack volume in the auditorium, and did no favors to some first time starring roles that completely lacked believability or immersion into their respective roles. I could give examples, but I want this element of the film out of my head as soon as possible, for how truly gratifying it was on my precious ears.

– Rushed pacing. It’s no surprise that this film is a light, fluffy sit in terms of its minimal time commitment, but the jarring contradiction of actions from character’s between scenes rendered the continuity virtually pointless, and made for some actions of character that felt completely illogical for what they’d already been through at that point. One such example points to a negative cell phone video made by a teen within our group of protagonists, who sent it to everyone (Ma included), telling them to stay away from Ma’s, yet magically appears at that very spot in the very next scene of the movie. It’s possible that there are additional scenes missing that tie moments like this together, but I can only grade the paper that is left on my desk, and a lot of these transition scenes are disjointed to say the least.

My Grade: 7/10 of B-

The Dead Don’t Die

Directed By Jim Jarmusch

Starring – Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover

The Plot – The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Entrancing musical score. Jarmusch pulls double duty here, as he and partner Chris Logan (Together known as Squrl) infuse an unnerving presence of moody blues rock to perfectly accentuate the trouble that is persistently brewing beneath this small town, all appropriately narrated by the king of blues rock himself, Tom Waits. Especially obvious is the ominously thick influence of organ music that gives the film the occasional serious tone that it requires so terribly to sell its scares, bringing forth a collection of groovy tunes from a soundtrack that I will inevitably buy with much eagerness to audibly treat myself again. On top of this, the film’s title track, “The Dead Don’t Die” from Sturgill Simpson, has so much more than a topical presence in the film. It’s very much the tie that binds these many off-beat personalities together for one night of chaotic bloody thrills. Jarmusch himself has musical ties all the way back to his days in high school, so it’s nice to see that he believes he doesn’t have to give up one passion for the sake of another, and as it stands, it’s easily the greatest aspect of any in his zom-com.

– Make-up/prosthetics. Not only are the effects work in the film durable for such a cheap production budget overall, but they also spare no details in the gory fashion of some truly cringing death sequences by the hungry undead. What I love about these instances is that they stand as the constant reminder of consequences existing in a world so heavily influenced by dark humor. What’s equally effective is that the graphic depictions never overstay or over-influence the 100 minute screenplay, instead being used sporadically to enhance their appearances at just the right time in impact. In this respect, Jarmusch values their purpose, but chooses to not takeaway from the artistic merit of the film, so as not to turn this into an unnecessary exploitation film that most zombie movies run towards.

– Respect for the genre. A right of passage in zombie movies is to respectfully homage or audibly mention the greats that came before it, educating youthful audiences in a way that seems necessary with the overabundance of undead properties that even in 2019 are still all the craze. Sequences with zombies invasions are given the George Romero style of cinematography, in that they take ample time to capture the very shock factor of the dead walking the Earth again, for the sheer importance of how this changes everything in the setting. Likewise, the film’s various mentions of Romero, his films like “Dawn of the Dead”, or the glaringly obvious homage to “Return of the Living Dead”, with these zombies muttering one word comments like “Coffee” or “Chardonnay” to whet their thirsts. It proves that Jarmusch has done his homework, and has great respect for the genre classics that blazed a trail so wide that we now have no shortage of zombie television shows on mainstream TV.

– An Ohio boy. For those who don’t know, Jarmusch was once a native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and like many other famous world pop culture icons like The Black Keys, Chrissy Hynde, or Lebron James, Jim cherishes his roots and takes pride in fusing them in to every film he heads, and “The Dead Don’t Die” is certainly no different. For one, the film takes place in Centerville, a real life suburb of Dayton, garnering around 24,000 people within its beautiful city limits. Beyond this, the articulate rendering of small town talk and demeanor’s are captured in a way that only people from the area will truly connect and take connection to, preserving an inside joke that I constantly felt like I was the only one in on. Finally, the mention and fun-poking at the expense of the city of Pittsburgh is something that surely burns on for a native Ohioan who has spent decades being on the humiliating side of comparison to said big city. In many ways, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a reminder of Jim’s ability to never forget who he is or where he came from, and the way he incorporates such a pride into his latest big screen presentation gave me a bountiful amount of pride and conscience for my home that too many simply don’t value.

– Riveting social commentary. Any good zombie film requires something extra simmering just beneath the barrage of blood and brains that reach the surface level, and Jarmusch’s latest proves that he has a lot to talk about in the current Trump landscape. While not feeling overly preachy or disjointed in its boiling issues, the unshakeable combination of immigration, consequential fracking, stock in fake news, and of course an unmistakeable red hat that reads “Make America White Again” does more than enough to register where Jim stands on the debates of the modern day that clearly hit home for this visionary. The sheer creativity associated with how Jim works in these themes to something as polarly opposite as a zombie epidemic is beautifully stitched, and does wonders in depicting a world, that while visually may look so far from those watching, does in fact hit a soft spot for how synonymous their conflicts collide with ours.

NEGATIVES

– Very few laughs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the movie, as Jarmusch’s usually dark twisted depravity is something I’ve taken strong merit with in his films like “Paterson” or “Only Lovers Left Alive”, is the overwhelming lack of accuracy or consistency in laughs that drain so much of the fun from the picture. The gags here are every bit as telegraphed as they are lazy, and especially with a phenomenal cast that includes the iconic Bill Murray, it’s shocking that so much of the humor involved is one-note, never evolving from the precedent set during the first act that frankly wasn’t convincing to begin with. Did I laugh a few times? Sure, but the film’s biggest obstacle is that so much of the screenplay lacks quotability with audiences who will inevitably give it more than one spin in their DVD player, and coming back with fewer scenes of reward for their funny bones each time. Considering the film is marketed as a comedy first, it’s discouraging that Jarmusch hangs much of his hat on the presence of big name actors to sell lines of dialogue that sound like they originate from a Noah Baumbach movie.

– Sequencing repetition. This film could easily be an even 90 minutes, and lose nothing from the edit of redundancy that overwhelms the set-ups in each scene. For instance, when a character is killed, the three cops will each experience seeing the dead boy. That’s fine enough for a realistic perspective, but what’s troubling is nothing about their reactions is different enough to cement reasoning for why we have to relive the same scene for as many as three different times back-to-back. This isn’t a one and done kind of thing either. I counted three different scenes during the film where this happens, and it’s increasingly more frustrating by that final time because it’s a mistake that translates tragically for the pacing of his film, giving audiences a steep uphill climb in the first half of the movie, if they want to reap the rewards of the zombie euphoria of the second half that they’ve waited patiently for.

– Jarmusch’s directing. As an Akron boy, this more than anything troubles me, because Jim has proven that he’s an incredible actor time and time again, but with this film he doesn’t understand the value of urgency in a post-apocalyptic script. Part of this is the bored environments that Jim himself intentionally creates in his films that are dry of thrills or cinematic revelations to keep the audience hooked. If you don’t get lost in the thickness of the dialogue and diverse conversations in the film, this will be a rough sit. One such troubling direction is the frequent breaking of meta for the audience that is supposed to come off as smart, but just kind of demeans everything set-up before it. Throughout the film, cast members mention reading a script, or Sturgill Simpson’s previously mentioned track being the theme song for the film, or Driver’s character saying an obviously foreshadowing line of dialogue that takes away any and every level of surprise during the pivotal third act. What was he thinking?

– Rules convenience. One clumsy level of storytelling comes from how quickly the humans adapt to their undead counterparts, that defines logic for the way things are interpreted in this particular setting. Character’s who lack the kind of intelligence to accurately interpret the meaning of human emotional response can apparently tell us everything there is to know about a first time invasion that they have no time to prepare for. I guess we can easily file this under the meta format that I mentioned earlier, but it just further adds to everything wrong with that level of disbelief in a genre like this. In order to save time for valuable exposition, we compartmentalize everything in a way that feels like vital scenes are missing from the overwhelming amount of knowledge that Driver’s character in particular conveys throughout the film.

– The performances. What a shame. Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, and Carol Kane, and not one of them are commanded with any kind of emotional depth or physical weight to the story they accompany. With the exception of Tilda Swinton as this badass sword-wielding morgue working heroine, the rest of the appearances of this exceptional ensemble fumble away any kind of measure to have an impact on the story, and none more tragic than Murray. This is a man who oozes charisma in his sleep, yet the lack of inspiration from Jarmusch’s control over him constantly gives his lack of energy in the film a paycheck-first kind of deal, and wastes away a real opportunity to take Bill in a new genre-defining direction that only further elaborates that there’s nothing this man can’t do. If I summarized the work of this cast in one word, it would be “Boring”, as far too much of their performances rely on your already pre-determined interest in them.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Brightburn

Directed By David Yarovesky

Starring – Elizabeth Banks, Jackson A. Dunn, David Denman

The Plot – What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

Rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and adult language.

POSITIVES

– Beauty in the darkness. As an expressive visionary, Cinematographer Michael Dallatorre has always been someone who visually brings forth an entrancing pulse to the settings and filming locations that make up his lurid shot compositions, but “Brightburn” is easily his best work to date. Channeling an ambiguous decay in coloring textures, which brings forth an inexplainable fog that constantly plagues our character’s, the film does what D.C couldn’t, in that it seeks out motive for the grittier, grimey presentation that is easily reflective of its central antagonist. Movies being dark for the hell of it are often taking advantage of a visual gimmick for nothing other than a brooding take on an ages old story, but Dallatorre grasps this poison in the air that many can feel, yet no one can admit, and it establishes a vibe for this film from the get-go that visually conveys that this superhero flick goes darker than any other one you’ve ever seen.

– Ties to Superman. This film has been credited as being James Gunn’s dark twist on the Superman origin relic that everyone young or old has come to know by this point, and while the similarities in alien powers and adoptive parents certainly goes a long way to cement this feeling, it’s the divided roads with the powers that each superhero has that makes this film stand-out as a ‘What if?’ tale of sorts, that brings Superman to The Twilight Zone. The kid in this film being too young to fully grasp the consequences of his powers is something that gives the movie great vulnerability and urgency for all of its character’s, and because of such we’re juxtaposed from a world seeking hope in Metropolis, to a world quickly losing it in Brightburn. It answers some long debated questions revolving around Superman taking the road less traveled, and stands as a worse case scenario when the world’s greatest strength is also its biggest destruction.

– Isolation in setting. This, just like the comparison to Superman, is inevitable, as the stretched countryside of this small town not only puts the character’s far away from the eye of the public when the devastation begins, which helps keep the lid on the details getting out, but also helps elevate the tension and anxiety of the constant silence that surrounds the curiosity of these people from what goes bump in the night. In addition to this, the nane of the town itself, “Brightburn”, is the answer to the question, as its banner is featured in a few blink-and-miss-it moments in the background, that play a subtle resolution to the film’s cryptic title. Finally, the school used in the film is actually the very same school used in “Stranger Things” seasons one and two, proving that other-worldly things is actually a common everyday occurrence for a place known for its curriculum terrors.

– Adolescent dynamic. One of the aspects of the script that I found so uniquely refreshing is in the way it contrasts and justifies what is going on in Brandon’s life to the spring of teenage puberty. In this regard, the film can be taken as a nuanced commentary piece towards adolescence, albeit in entirely satirically powerful directions given to our growing boy. When you consider that the terror begins on Brandon’s 13th birthday, the short nerves, testy decisions, and blossoming interest in females, all feel like familiar beats that every kid has to go through once he gets to that particular age, and with a quick re-write and a couple of scenes edited out, this film could’ve easily been just about the dreaded change associated with such a terrifying coming-of-age, but then we would miss out on so many of the cool things that I have yet to talk about.

– The birth of a new subgenre? Mixing the elements of superhero and horror is a very ballsy move, but thanks to the knowledge of the hands on deck of each respective genre, the film manages to seamlessly weld them into this Frankenstein project that lives and breathes with respect to the measures that make each familiar. Could these be considered cliches? Absolutely, but I feel like those familiar beats should be present, especially in a first time marriage between the two, if nothing other that to easily immerse audiences into how beautifully each of them vibe together. The jump scares, panning camera movements, and typecast parents dealing with a demented child, are all still there to represent horror, as are the origin story narrative, big budget effects, and of course iconic symbolism are to represent superhero stories, and each is represented in a way that gives a blissful 50/50 allowance for each to play into the story, without either of them encroaching on the effectiveness of their respective properties. During an age when superhero films are overcrowding the box office, “Brightburn” brings forth something fresh to breathe life back into it, and should be commended for the gutsy determination in stitching together two sides that up until now couldn’t be further from synonymous.

– One man stage. It’s not that I have a problem with Banks, Denham, or any of the other adult protagonists, but Dunn’s impression left on the film is one that commands much of the attention to him, leading to a breakthrough performance in his first starring role on the silver screen that echoes with each unsettling scene. As Brandon, Dunn’s stirring silence is something that seeps into our skin with triggered anxiety, establishing a level of sinkable weight on the perspective of this family that leaves them astonished in the transformation from this once sweet little boy, to the dangerously deviant defiant who stands before them. Most kid actors have trouble feeling believable in confrontations with adults, but because of the magnitude of powers instilled in him from a higher power, as well as the intelligence articulated from Dunn in understanding the depth of every situation, the work of Jackson flies higher than the heights reached by cape.

– Refined special effects. What is commendable here is that the inclusion of gravity defying feats are saved for sporadic moments of dazzle that maintain the wow factor in not overdoing it, as well as the sequences themselves having strong live action impact for the properties they collide with. This not only fleshes out the effects with weight for believability, but also renders the impossible possible with the scale of stunt feeling mostly reserved. There is one exception, however, and it deals with a lawnmower being thrown hundreds of yards to the bewilderment of the little boy. But the scene is shot and edited in a such a way that barely allows you time to focus on the mower itself, and long before logic sets in, the incredible launch of a 200 pound machine lights up the sky like a shooting star, solidifying a tempo for the film’s action sequences that remain sharp throughout the duration of the film.

– Perfect pacing. Although I have problems with the film’s run time, which I will get to in a minute, the pacing of the screenplay is so crisp in non-stop action and Brandon’s personal conflicts one after the other, that the film feels about half of the fluffy 85 minute run time that it boasts. It helps that the film wastes no time in bringing audiences into its world and character’s, introducing us right away to the couple and alien arrival that sows the seeds for each of their eventual confrontations, but what really triggered my interest was how little of downtime there is in between these scenes of extraordinary. This can normally hurt a film if it’s too much of the same thing, but what I appreciate is that each scene varies in pitting urgency, depending on that character’s kind of interaction with Brandon prior to this, and each evolution leads to dramatically different conclusions, bringing forth an air of creativity to the progression of scenes that constantly keeps familiar set-ups feeling fresh for the fun that this director and screenwriters incorporate into the fresh take of genre direction.

NEGATIVES

– Rushing the details. The backlash from that 85 minute run time is everywhere. From the limited exposition in the origin and backstory of our central character, to the longterm build of certain bully character’s not getting the revenge that they deserve, to the flat ending that just kind of lacked emphasis. In rushing through the script’s more personable moments, especially during the opening act, it will have an unavoidable consequence on your investment into the film and character as a legendary presence on-screen. For my money, the film could easily use another fifteen minutes to solidify the importance of some supporting cast, as well as offer more moments of personal reflection for the boy learning to grow with newfound powers.

– Skimping on the deaths. Aside from one death sequence, which is arguably the most lasting presence that an on-screen death has had on me in years, the majority of sequences minimalize the effects of the single biggest detail; the devastating final blow. For some of them, they happen so fast that we don’t register what actually happened. For others, the occasion happens so far in the distance that you don’t get to soak in the gory details of blood and prosthetics, which thanks to the exceptional death that I mentioned earlier, are actually superb when they get the rare focus that they rightfully deserve. While the elements of horror still resonate throughout the many obvious tropes throughout the film, the biggest one is rarely anywhere to be seen, standing as the one matter in a superhero horror film that requires articulation to reach perfection.

My Grade: 8/10 or B

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Directed By Joe Berlinger

Starring – Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Angela Sarafyan

The Plot – Elizabeth Kloepfer (Collins) refused for years to acknowledge that her boyfriend (Efron) was a serial killer. Her partner, Ted Bundy, became famous in the 1980s for committing several heinous crimes against women, despite her disbelief, who watched passively as the murders were unleashed from a very unique perspective.

Rated R for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A unique perspective. While not satisfying of a viewer’s bloodlust, Berlinger’s film is unique, in that it depicts Bundy from Elizabeth’s point-of-view. Because of this, we rarely see Bundy in the act of violence, instead he seduces us in the same way he did his former lover, with an abundance of charm and wit that make him every bit as psychologically dangerous as it does physically. We don’t see all of the things he is accused of, so we, like Elizabeth, are forced to make a decision only on what we see, and in that direction it makes it very easy to comprehend why accepting Bundy as a killer was such a difficult measure to her and to the many who deemed him innocent. Even more however, I commend the movie for not making him out to be a martyr to anyone learning about him for the first time. The horrendous evidence and Bundy placements are still detailed in a way that pins it all together towards him by film’s end, and depicts him as anything other than the innocent bystander that he was setting himself up to be.

– Right man for the job. So many people cried foul at Efron being cast as Bundy, but I feel his job here radiates the charm and appeal of a dangerous psychopath tenfold, alluding to how dangerous it would be for any of us, especially females, to come into contact with him. While not a transformative performance, Efron hints at a dark and malevolent side just below the surface, but it’s his wit inside of the courtroom that cements why he was one of the first serial killers to become a newsroom celebrity. Aside from Efron, Collins’ mental anguish is well defined and meticulously articulated, proving that there are some situations worse than even that of the many victims. Elizabeth is proof that Bundy’s dominance still persists even years after he’s been taken off of the streets, and it’s her mental clarity that is given ample time for us the audience to get behind and support, regardless of the charm exuberated by our charming protagonist-turned-antagonist.

– Reflective soundtrack for the time. This film takes place in the late 70’s through the late 80’s, so the proper essence in collective audible enhancement is essential. Some of my favorite tracks for the time are featured, like “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James, “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin Spoonful, and of course “We’ll Face This World Together” by The Tommy Smith Band, and they not only help with better placing the timeframe, but also in supplanting a subliminal message that echoes the situation of the couple front-and-center. For a Netflix only film, I am beyond surprised that the production was able to conjure up the budget necessary to include so many timeless favorites, and thanks to the imprint of modern cinema with all of its dark material, you will definitely view these songs in a different light from now on.

– Berlinger’s factual direction. Not only is everything depicted in the film based on factual evidence from the crime scenes and courtrooms alike, but Joe’s directed is commended for playing everything close to the chest. This allows his gimmick of depicting Bundy as this misunderstood soul of sorts to shine fruitfully through the duration of the film, leading to a final confrontation between the two main stars that brings everything full circle. This is how you do an introduction scene beautifully, because not only did I forget that the movie started this way with this examination scene, but it’s a scene that is so vitally important to the climax of the film, especially in how it positively contradicts everything that we’ve come to understand to that point. In addition to this, a credits sequence depicting the real life events showcase just how on-the-nose Berlinger was at mastering the looks of the sets and wardrobe of its real life counterpart, and the overall attention to detail in signifying that he was the right man for the job in handling this picture. Above all else, Berlinger should be applauded for crafting a different direction for the serial killer exploitation genre, and his film breathes newfound life into a haunting period in American history that really brought attention to courtroom proceedings for future telecasts.

– Perhaps my single favorite aspect of the film is the manipulation of lighting used to toy with the audience in all of its shadow play. Particularly in the establishing scenes between Ted and Elizabeth, there’s a darkness that clouds Ted with a sort of ambiguity that speaks volumes to what he is hiding from his significant other at the time, and painting him as this cryptic figure with a lot to hide. There’s also a daydream sequence involving Elizabeth’s first recollection of intimacy with Ted, and it happens with such minimal lighting that we can’t see his face or make out what emotion he is depicting at that particular moment, and it stood out as the one scene of unconventional between them that unnerved me in this film, if only for the uncertainty that lingers in the atmosphere during a scene when the couple should be at their most intimately strongest. It’s a fine use of technical articulation, and continuously hints that something darker and more sinister is beating beneath the table dressing of this master manipulator.

– Juggles many different tones within its atmosphere. It’s funny how well the moments of seriousness like the murders themselves play seamlessly with the audaciousness instilled upon scenes of escape by Ted. In a fictional screenplay, this would come across as hokey or even condemning to the opposite direction, but because these are factual events that played out in real time, we have to respect the art of the irony for its strange-but-true honesty. These scenes never soil the impact of the dramatic weight instilled upon the film’s many character confrontations, and even more beneficial, they hook the attention of the audience during sequences when you think this film is finally evolving into the darkness that we’ve come to expect with Bundy’s documented history.

NEGATIVES

– Stumbling pacing. Easily the film’s biggest weakness, as the first half of the movie is speeding its way through some of the more important building blocks between the relationship of Ted and Elizabeth, as well as virtually ignoring the passage of time. Ultimately, 108 minutes isn’t enough to tell a fully compelling Ted Bundy narrative, as much of the subplots associated with his cryptic parents, or his ability inside of the classroom are rarely elaborated on, giving a noticeable gap between tidbits of knowledge that will come into play during the pivotal third act. Speaking of which, the film’s finale doesn’t move nearly as quick or transcendent as the previous two, as much of the final forty minutes of the film is spent inside of a courtroom. This isn’t a problem for uneducated viewers, but for someone like myself who has studied this case endlessly, I could’ve used more emphasis on the events going on outside of the courtroom. For my money, this film could’ve used another twenty minutes to better solidify the believability of the relationship of the duo during the beginning of the film, as well as flesh out those additional details of subplot that the film rudely tiptoed over.

– Terrible title. I rarely complain about a film’s title, but in this case it is easy to forget, as well as far too lengthy to easily convey to other people. I understand that it has meaning within the context of the courtroom itself, as the judge (Played by John Malkovich) relates these words to Bundy, but they just don’t click for me as a proper title, and even as I type them repeatedly in this review, I still find myself having trouble remembering every word.

– Cheap production value. I can easily understand why the studio went the Netflix direction with this release, as nothing inside of it screams of big screen presentation to me. The cinematography is mundane, the dialogue is too on-the-nose to feel naturally convincing , especially during the initial meeting between Ted and Elizabeth, and the screenplay refusing to stray from the more universally established events structures this film similarly to that of a television movie of the week special. When I watched “Bird Box” a few months ago, there was nothing about the production that ever felt minimally capturing, but with Berlinger’s picture here, there’s instances of gaps where my immersion into the film was broken, reminding me constantly of the miniscule budget that is left to grasp at after Netflix pays a fortune for the right.

– In the shadow of a better film. Berlinger also directed the recently released “Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix as well, and this is great in regards to one man knowing the complete picture of this dangerous serial killer, but does this film in particular no favors when the comparison between them is brought to light. As to where the prior film nailed down the details of every single little tidbit of Bundy’s trip of terror, “Extremely Wicked” (Again, I’m not saying that stupid title) feels like the inferior piece for the stumbling execution that leaves too much information omitted from what transpires. It’s possible that this film would’ve gotten a higher grade from me if it didn’t come out within a couple of months of that previous better documentary, but with it still fresh in our minds, the current reviewed film feels like the cliff notes version waste of time when compared to the complete captivating story.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

The Intruder

Directed By Deon Taylor

Starring – Meagan Good, Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy

The Plot – When a young married couple (Ealy and Good) buys their dream house in the Napa Valley, they think they have found the perfect home to take their next steps as a family. But when the strangely attached seller (Quaid) continues to infiltrate their lives, they begin to suspect that he has hidden motivations beyond a quick sale.

Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality, adult language and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Quaid’s raw energy. A testament to Dennis Quaid’s experience as A grade-A actor for many decades is the grip that he has not only on his role as this landlord of lust, but also in the knowledge of what kind of film tonally will come out as. For my money, Quaid is the only person who feels like he is emoting the proper responses for this particular film, juggling a combination of creepy and hokey in the same vein of something from a villain in a superhero movie. Every other actor feels like they take their roles a bit too seriously, and because of that, it allows Dennis to shine once more in a role that is anything against typecast for the typically protagonist hero that we are used to seeing from him, and reminds us that the leading man still finds ways to evolve as an actor even at the age of 65.

– Shooting location. Roughly 80% of this movie takes place in and around this beautiful countryside mansion, which has no shortage of lavish interiors or immersive scenery to get lost in. What’s vital about the location is the isolation from the rest of the world, particularly the police, that constantly keeps the antagonist of the movie in control. The film’s photography takes every chance to explore the grounds fruitfully, giving us a vivid documentation of every room and hallway to better comprehend our understanding of the character movements and intentions in the heat of the fight. It’s no surprise that the film was shot entirely in British Columbia, Canada, as it’s becoming a tradition for studio’s seeking cheap production costs to shoot there, but it’s nice to see a movie explore some of its more expansive scenery to the integrity of the plot and film, and if nothing else, you will fall in love with the property in the same way that Good and Ealy’s character’s do.

– Prompt pacing. Despite the fact that so much of this movie was predictable, and brought forth very few surprises creatively, this is a very easy sit, thanks in part to the stakes constantly being elevated throughout the progression of the film. 97 minutes is a little challenging for a narrative this minimally profound, but there was never a time during it when I was bored or checking my watch to see how much time remained, serving as a testament to Taylor’s engaging atmosphere that reaches out for the things that go bump in the night.

NEGATIVES

– Blandly predictable. Aside from a terribly revealing trailer that gives away roughly 90% of the movie, the screenplay itself written by David Loughery capitalizes on the very same tropes and cliches of past serial stalker thrillers that have become a right of passage for new installments preserving the mantle. It offers very little in the way of suspense or audience anxiety for us to hang our investment on, and ultimately dooms the picture to these long periods of emptiness that only negatively tests Quaid’s raging influence on the film. What’s even more compromising is that the film doesn’t try to preserve any angle of mystery on the backstory of Charlie (Quaid), instead choosing to keep us the audience one step ahead of the protagonists at all times, as we wait for their bumbling stupidity to tiptoe to a catch-up point.

– Speaking of stupidity, Ealy and Good’s character’s defy human logic even in terms of unrelatable people we’ve come to know in movies. For Good, it’s the typical understanding female presence who is somehow able to overlook deeply concerning traits in Charlie because the film calls for it. It continues a trend in Taylor directed films where females are the subject of nothing deeper than male lust, and really makes me concerned for his views on an evolvingly-progressive world. Not to be outdone however, Ealy’s contradicting directions as time goes on made me wonder if the script was trying to convey this man as a bi-polar character for how he often compromises a previous scene. One second he’s a loving, healthily-infatuated husband who would do anything for his wife, and in the next he’s flirting with a female client. This would be impactful if it actually went somewhere, but the boiling subplot comes and goes with the kind of effectiveness of a dry fart, and reeks of desperation for a character who has so little to do between the growing dynamic of Quaid and Good.

– Oversexualization. This is becoming a growing trait in Deon Taylor’s filmography, a director who seems destined to takeover Michael Bay’s mantle for perverted camera work that focuses on the simpler things in cinema. Here he has the beautifully gifted Megan Good at his disposal, and in doing so wastes no time in documenting her body through two sex scenes, one shower scene, and many revealing outfits during non-sexualized events like Thanksgiving Day dinner. The problem is two-fold, the first is that it obviously only values Megan as this physical presence, instead of carving out an acting side of her that we have yet to see, and two, it conjures repetition in getting the same idea of Charlie’s stalking across, padding out the time to eventually reach 97 minutes. Sex factor should be used to serve a purpose in films, but when that purpose reaches overbearing levels of important plotting, its seedy intentions are further unveiled, and only further cements how audiences engage in sexy people being in trouble.

– Meandering musical score. An early favorite for worst musical enhancement of 2019, composer Geoff Zanelli overly inserts his obvious tones in the middle of every scene, made less seamless by the boisterous command of sound mixing that has it reaching orchestral levels of volume during tension-building sequences. The music itself is synthetic for the kind of tones necessary in a genre like this, but the problem is the way they manipulate audiences into feeling one way, instead of letting the actors master their craft without boost, and for my money it made for one of the more obviously distracting aspects of this movie. If it serves any point, other than to be used during a cheesy Halloween party between you and your friends, it’s the fine line of divide between acting and post production, and what not to do to step on the toes of one or the other.

– Obvious visual foreshadowing. This is one of those visual presentations where the movie has a few counterfeit shots in a sequence early on, that feel out of place when compared to the sum of their parts. The reason for this is a series of revealing foreshadow images that prepare you for where this story’s setting is headed, and once again leave nothing to the idea of imagination in maintaining some level of suspense for audiences seeking thrills. For instance, if a movie focuses on a particular closet for an inordinate amount of screen time, you can bet your last dollar that it will come back into play eventually, and serve as a pivotal moment during an unfolding conflict that will come full circle. If the storyboards are doing their job properly, and the direction is crisp, these elements within the house can work their way into the elevating drama without an unnecessary underlining to them, but unfortunately this movie, in so many ways, uses bells and whistles to signal what’s to come, and for anyone like myself who has seen this no shortage of times, it’s really a waiting game for when it will choose to pop up once again.

– Continuity errors. (Light spoiler) There are many examples of this throughout the film, but my favorite happens during the final conflict, when the two male leads of the film are armed with knives when they walk through the house, but once they come to blows those weapons are nowhere to be seen or used between them. It builds to a fist fight in which these weapons disappear, and only re-appear when the fight subdues, and one of them is forced to get out of the room that they are locked in. It introduces elements to the persistent drama, and then does nothing to enhance the results of such. While certainly not as funny as Quaid’s ever-changing hair growth throughout the film, does signify the kind of hands-on effort that goes virtually unnoticed during the duration of this movie, and garners unintentional laughter when the movie really doesn’t need it.

– Back and forth. There are some scenes in the film where the exposition heavy dialogue alludes to the fact that the only reason for its inclusion is to feed the audience bits of information. I say this because character’s move in and out of this film to never be seen again, and it’s a sloppy transition that doesn’t feel naturally believable in the slightest. To counteract this, there are then aspects of the exposition that are never further touched upon. For instance, Charlie’s backstory with his wife and family. Sure, we find out what happened, but we don’t know why, and it only emits more questions the more you think about it. An on-going subplot with Charlie’s daughter in partular, is hinted at, but never fully realized in a way that could shed more light on the mystery of this obviously mentally challenged antagonist. Too many things just simply don’t add up, and a more detailed screenwriter could better flesh out the holes in a story that everything besides Quaid practically falls right into.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

The Curse of La Llorona

Directed By Michael Chaves

Starring – Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez

The Plot – Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker (Cardellini) and her own small kids (Cruz, Velasquez) are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm. Their only hope to survive La Llorona’s deadly wrath may be a disillusioned priest and the mysticism he practices to keep evil at bay, on the fringes where fear and faith collide.

Rated R for violence and terror

POSITIVES

– Visual aesthetic. Chaves does a solid job of unnerving audiences with an atmosphere as thick as fog, as well as a particular time period that appeals to the western landscape setting. To my surprise the film is set during 1973, a time when possession and exorcism’s were all the rage with our world, and that level of uncertainty that much of the La Llorona folklore is based on more than translates to the ominous feeling that is constantly present in this house. Chaves uses a fine combination of lighting manipulation to make outlines play tricks on the audience’s eyes, as well as unorthodox character framing that elaborates what the audience should be focused on in staying one step ahead of the character’s.

– Use of jump scares. I almost hate crediting something that usually bothers me so dearly, but the technique associated with inserting jump scares here works for what it does to enhance the scares. Instead of paying off in the predictable moments, the most overdone use of jump scares today, Chaves misleads with sound mixing and timing to throw us off, prolonging the anxiety-riddled tension in ways that really keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times. Sure, there are still predictable jump scares that exist frequently in the movie, but the law of averages established by Chaves early on, helps to throw off the certainty of when the explosion of expression will rightfully land, and above all else it proves that he’s trying to send audiences home with a jumping good time.

– Performances. It’s great to see Cardellini getting more starring roles, and her work here as an adaptive one-parent leader of the household is something that comes across fruitfully in the compassion and protection that she instills in their constant well-being. Her character is a social worker, so it’s easy to draw the line of contrast in this woman taking her work home with her and vice versa, and it brings forth an admirable lead protagonist who we can invest in to maintain our interest. As for the children, they are solid for what the role demanded, but it’s really the facial reactions of the 4’4″ phenom Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen whose facial reactions help better distinguish the lunacy of what’s transpiring in this newly-formed possessed household. The show stealer for me however, is that of Raymond Cruz, whose third act introduction brings forth some much needed levity and humor and for the film that was otherwise ignored to that point. Cruz has always been a talented actor whose career I have followed closely, and it’s nice to see him play a protagonist for once, especially one whose character relies so heavily in the progression of the conflict. He brings a sense of caution to the dynamic of the film, and I simply couldn’t get enough of his character in the final battle.

– Major Easter egg. Without spoiling anything, I will say that a bombshell announcement at the end of the second act changed the world within this film, and brought ties to a familiar modern day horror franchise that I totally did not see coming. What’s important is the film doesn’t force too much in making this believable, nor does its inclusion take away anything from this film itself. It’s just a revelation that will offer a poignancy about the timeline of this franchise, all the while preparing us for future installments that should prove anything is indeed possible at this point.

NEGATIVES

– Stupid kids. The kids themselves serve as a convenient plot device in this film, in that the irresponsibility of their pee-brain decisions is the only reason why this film ever reaches 85 minutes. These kids get physically harmed by this mysterious ghost, and don’t tell their parent or anyone anything about it. This of course leads later on to a scene where guests feel that the Mother is responsible, and if these shitheads just spoke up, we could conclude this scene and get back to what truly matters. Beyond this, the choices that they make during the big confrontation with La Llorona made me practically yell at the screen for how desperate these screenwriters were to keep it going. Even for children, these are actions that bring forth a brain-dead quality to their demeanor’s, and if I were their mother, I would consider them as good as gone for the things they do that don’t help anyone in fighting off this presence.

– Pointless rating. This is perhaps the single biggest misstep by the M.P.A.A in quite sometime, as there’s no genuine reason why this film needs or attains the coveted R-rating, that is often used to enhance the mature subject matter. Here, there’s no blood, absolutely no adult language, and nothing that even comes close to the PG-13 renderings of “Insidious” or “The Conjuring” franchises in terms of risky material. It’s also inevitably going to hinder the profits made by the film, as only audiences of a certain age will be able to see it, and all for what exactly? Scenes of children being whisked back and forth throughout the house? This is pointless even for a group as conflicted as the M.P.A.A, and if “The Curse of La Llorona” is rated R, then Stephen King’s “It” should be a rated X.

– Antagonist outline. As a horror icon, La Llorona leaves a bit more to be desired when compared to her predecessor’s. It’s great to see another female horror villain, especially one with Mexican heritage, but as a threat she’s about as harmful as Babs Bunny. The only thing that this movie proves is that she’s good at moving character’s around the place. Her body count is weak, her character design lacks any kind of originality, especially now that this movie exists in a popular franchise, and her backstory doesn’t make you feel any kind of empathy or misunderstanding about the character for us to justify her existence. In fact, there’s such an overall lack of exposition donated to the character, that it often feels like she’s a supporting character in a movie with her own name in the title, and it feels like a missed opportunity for creating nightmare fuel for an entirely new generation.

– Uneven pacing. Between the film’s two halves, it feels like two people are at the helm of the film, especially considering how polar opposite they are when stitched together to make the same cohesive property. The first half moves by at a cyclone’s pace, blowing by scenes of personal backstory, as well as experiences with La Llorona that are often slowly elevated with each passing night in movies like these. As for the second half, it feels like the screenwriter realized that so little is known about the rules or weaknesses of La Llorona, so we better slow everything down and establish a scene and character where we can kill two birds with one convenient stone, making the inevitability of our final confrontation feel every bit as strained as it does momentum-omitting.

– Lack of experimenting. For a movie that opened up with arguably one of the best horror sequences of the past decade, in a tracking sequence that follows this family around the house through one of their daily routines, the rest of the camera work lacks the kind of inspiration that could’ve allowed the cinematography for charms to gimmick with the character. I mentioned earlier that I did enjoy the character framing, but the scenes of physical conflict are often shot with too many visual effects like rampant lightning to make them distinguishable. Likewise, the handheld style is an endurance test for the eyes, that gives off a feeling of constant shaking and imbalance, which added yet even more difficulty to the dissection of each scene.

– Inconsistencies. La Llorona can apparently turn off flashlights and move heavy sets of furniture, but when it comes to breaking through a cheap $5 lock from a hardware store, she’s rendered weak. In addition to this, she is able to move character’s who are never touched or commanded by her, the power associated with transfixing kids to do things against their will, come and go like the wind, and her biggest power is used only when it’s convenient. In this regard, the film’s final moments involving the kids running away from her made zero sense when you consider she could flick her fingers like Thanos, and bring them to her in a split second. It only further adds to the inescapability of her as an antagonist that I mentioned earlier, and brings a level of logic that could fertilize the lawn if drawn out properly.

My Grade: 4/10 or D

Pet Sematary

Directed By Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer

Starring – Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz

The Plot – Louis Creed (Clarke), his wife Rachel (Seimetz), and their two children Gage (Hugo Lavoie) and Ellie (Jete Laurence) move to a rural home where they are welcomed and enlightened about the eerie ‘Pet Sematary’ located nearby. After the tragedy of their cat being killed by a truck, Louis resorts to burying it in the mysterious pet cemetery, which is definitely not as it seems, as it proves to the Creeds that sometimes, dead is better.

Rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Contrasts from the original. The point of any remake is to experiment with the property in ways that separates itself from the legend of the original, and thankfully there’s enough here to recommend in this regard. During the first half of the film, I shamefully will say that I was nearly falling asleep because of how safe to the chest this film presented itself, but the best was yet to come. Once the third act kicks in, the film takes some unexpected steps in finality that I truly didn’t see coming, and offers an ending, which for me, was exceptionally more satisfying than that of its predecessor, all the while paying tribute of sorts to the deranged nature of the novel. Likewise, the film also rewards fans of the original movie with a couple psych-out scenes, that make you think you know where the action is headed, but in reality spins a different take with these deviating wink-and-nod’s to the faithful fan in all of us. My only problem with these is the terrible trailer reveals far too much with them, and anyone who sees it will already know what’s to come because of its burdening spoilers.

– Deeper meaning with the material. One thing that has always glued me to the Pet Sematary concept is this unshakeable feeling of mourning, and how difficult it can be, especially for a parent, in letting go, and that’s certainly the case once more, as Kolsch and Widmyer make the grief feel every bit as thick and suffocating of that of the fog that surrounds the Pet Sematary itself. It justifies the premise of such a preposterous idea by tapping into our psyche, and asking if we would risk it all to get one more chance with the person we love most, and it’s really in that question where so much of the material compartmentalizes itself with, minimalizing the line of rationality that we usually call a movie out for, in favor of understanding for someone going through something so tragic, so recent.

– Imaginative set designs. This is the aspect that makes me gleam with pride the most, as the cemetery and surrounding woods capture Stephen King’s descriptive vocabulary to a tee, with a combination of props and effects that sustain that aura of uncertainty all the way to the finish line. I mentioned earlier about the flow of never-ending fog, but it’s the way the fog interacts with the creativity associated with the grave structures that adds emphasis to such an ominous setting. There’s also great telegraphing of each layer of the woods itself, and I was never struggling to keep up or left subdued with the versatility of where the story took us and how deep we pursued.

– The kid steals the show. Jason Clarke continues to harvest the emotional registry of a celery stick, garnering a complete lack of emotions during a pivotal moment of loss that should cripple him. Lithgow is solid enough, but his performance is consistency on one level, that never elevates or adds to the pacing of the material. Seimetz contains both emotion and fragility, but a mother becomes a supporting character in a film that she co-leads. Where this statement turns into a positive is in the nearly flawless work of Jete Laurence, who has many leading roles ahead of her. Here, it’s her emotional as well as her physical performance that gives the film grit in circumstance, and allows the young phenom to have fun with the role that doesn’t require clever editing or manipulation like Gage in the original film. Laurence is a thrill to watch, and breathes life into the movie’s much better second half, giving us the single best child performance since Jacob Tremblay in 2016’s “Room”.

– Blood thirst satisfied. This is an unnerving film in regards to bone-crunching sound mixing and brutality accentuated by make-up detail, and both of those things go a long way in lasting impact for how they’re used sparingly. What I appreciate about the spread out nature of these is it not only makes you appreciate them more when you do see them, but their sudden inclusion forces its audience to wince in depiction because they pop-up out of nowhere in a scene that is otherwise tranquil. This also points to the gore making up a majority of jump scares for the movie, conjuring up a combination of consistency and impact that make them necessary for inclusion, and I don’t say that often. This is an R-rating that doesn’t go out of its way to remind you why it’s given the coveted honors, but the lasting permanence of some jaw-dropping blows sneak up on you in a way that occasionally earns it.

– Like Marvel after credit sequences, we’ve come to expect Easter eggs in a Stephen King movie that ties some of his properties together, and this film is no exception. Without spoiling anything, there’s a sign displaying a familiar town in King novels being close by, and adds only further speculation on a Stephen King shared universe that all of these stories are tied together by. As is the case especially by some recent King stories like “It”, “Gerald’s Game”, and “1922” getting the big screen treatment, it feels pretty cool to think that all of these crazy things are taking place within the same realm of this twilight zone that feels not too far from the familiarity of our own world.

NEGATIVES

– Clunky exposition. The film takes a bit too long to set up the Pet Sematary lore, as well as family back stories, that often make the progression of the current day narrative feel a bit stalled because of it. What’s even more revealing about the strain it causes is in Lithgow’s character knowing everything there is to know about the area, and yet still choosing to live there regardless, creating a hole in logic that we’re just forced to go along with. Finally, because this is a 96 minute movie, the detail discoveries feel far too quickly paced to race to where this story is inevitably headed, and not given the typical few days before weird things start going bump in the night for this family.

– Obvious green-screen effects. Two scenes in particular stand out like a sore thumb for me, and create the usual darkened background when compared to our character in focus that we’ve come to expect with cheap digital effects. This screams artificial during the scenes when supreme filmmaking is supposed to impress us, and it let me down for how little the directing influenced what is transpiring on film, leaving far too much to imagination during one of King’s most gruesome stories. If a scene looks fake, it takes my immersion completely out of it, and suddenly I’m only focusing on the strings and lack of fully rendered textures that especially stand out in a film this grounded in budget effects work, and it makes me wish that practicality was more of a distinguishing feature, even if it is at the expense of child actor risk. It’s so poorly directed that I felt nothing for arguably the film’s biggest emotional gut-punch.

– Limited directing capabilities. Lack of actor handling, ignorance in its lack of use with the set designs, poor character decisions for the sake of script progress, choppy narrative overall, and lines feeling completely out of place. On the latter, one such line involved a female medical student shrieking “I CAN SEE HIS BRAINS!!!” and we’re supposed to believe that a woman who trained her whole life for this career never thought that she would see gore in her life. These are all examples of these two guys feeling so inferior for the importance of the material, giving it in some aspects a made-for-TV remake feeling that I couldn’t escape because this film never reached the potential that it truly could’ve.

– Not enough deviation. Perhaps the biggest problem that plagues this film is it inevitably does nothing to free itself from the shadow of an only decent original movie. In my opinion, I could’ve used more dark humor, especially after the final shot of the movie confirms every feeling that I had in this respective direction. The tone, the story movements, and the pacing are all very similar to the 1989 original that was so conventionally made, it practically begged a remake to make everything right, and this just isn’t that film. It plays itself far too close to the belt to ever stand out in its own unique perspective, and just settles far too often for soulless horror tropes that make all of these movies interchangeable.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Us

Directed By Jordan Peele

Starring – Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss, Anna Diop

The Plot – In order to get away from their busy lives, the Wilson family takes a vacation to Santa Cruz, California with the plan of spending time with their friends, the Tyler family. On a day at the beach, their young son Jason (Evan Alex) almost wanders off, causing his mother Adelaide (Nyong’o) to become protective of her family. That night, four mysterious people break into Adelaide’s childhood home where they’re staying. The family is shocked to find out that the intruders look like and talk like them, only with grotesque appearances.

Rated R for violence/terror, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Intelligence in horror. What I’ve come to love and expect about Jordan Peele’s level of terror in scaring his audience, is that his material on the surface level is merely table dressing for a much more complex and personally reflective beat of the plot that always sneaks up on us. His newest film offers a combination of social and political commentary that not only brings forth the poignancy in audience discussions after the film, but also breathes life into an edginess in thoughts and ideals that better help establish the worlds he conjures up in his films. Between “Us” and “Get Out”, Peele’s worlds feel very much like a place where your fears and phobias are brought to life, residing a collision between practical and fantasy worlds that move together as one cohesive existence.

– Legend behind the lens. Considering this is only Peele’s second directing effort, it’s incredible the kind of emotions he emits from his actors, as well as the combination of framing and unnerving camera angles that contain the breathless atmosphere without losing so much as a single ounce. Not only does this film feature a barrage of gorgeous photography and articulation with its usage of shadows and over-the-shoulder framing, but Peele as a host constantly masters the most effective camera placements that better manipulate the experienced horror moviegoer from ever catching on. These are fake-outs that prove that jump scares are for the desperate, and each time Peele maintains his distance as being one step ahead, he manages to hold my attention so that I’m practically screaming for resolution by the time it finally appears. As a magician filmmaker, Peele is years above his experience in the game, and establishes that he has just as much style to match the substance that his audience feast on.

– Riveting performances all around. It’s great to see Winston Duke getting more starring roles, because his endless charisma and on-screen grip on the pacing of each scene, make him a bona fide star in the making. Here, Duke’s dual transformation is physically incredible, as his protective father figure spouts corny jokes and feels middle aged when compared to his much more powerful and dangerous doppleganger, whose only similarity is facially. Sadly, Duke will always be second if he acts next to Nyong’O, because Lupita is a revelation of emotional prowess that rumbles the screen constantly throughout. Considering each actor is theoretically playing two roles, it’s interesting to see how each actor gets lost in the psychology of that second character, But it’s Lupita who opens up for us as this deranged, raspy voiced antagonist, who clearly takes the cake. Adelaide by herself would be enough to captivate, if even just for her stirring stare that burns a hole through her opposition, or the endless stream of tears that constantly flood her eyes, but the intensity and entrancing command she holds on the film’s exposition, materializes a lot of angst and insanity that we rarely get to see from her, and brings forth that Academy Award winning actress’s single best performance to date. Quote me.

– A familiar partnership. Peele isn’t alone in trying to bring forth the same magic and mayhem that made 2017’s “Get Out” the surprise hit of the year, this time bringing along (Once again) musical composer Michael Abels to ring through our ears a score that thunders with the kind of intensity that pay homage to 80’s slasher giants. For my money, it’s Abels mixing during Luniz’s legendary track “I Got 5 On It” that not only mimics the film’s earlier playing of it in the same way that these look-alikes mimic our protagonists, but his sampling is used during the film’s big third act reveal in a way that rivals only “Hello Zep” from the “Saw” soundtrack for delivering such mind-blowing information. Abels himself has only done work in three films now, but it proves that the right man should never be counted out because of what a resume contains, and I for one think these two men should remain on good terms for the foreseeable future.

– Plenty of surprises along the way. One of the things that worried me about the trailer was that its revealing, out-of-context, imagery might reveal far more to the curious audience than we would like, but as a writer Peele has saved his best surprises for when the pieces come together to make the bigger picture, that I promise you didn’t see coming. I worry that too many twists might alienate some audience members, but for me that story was even slightly over-explained, but it allowed me to remain shoulder-to-shoulder with the evolution of a script, and kept things firmly paced in a way that kept the screenplay from ever feeling muddled in redundancy.

– There’s much to be said about the way Peele takes time and care to bring along these characters in a way that makes them every bit as intriguing as their togetherness is essential to the progression of the plot. Funny enough, some of the movie’s best moments for me, was during the first act, when the deconstructions of this modern every day family were being presented, and the elements of horror and suspense hadn’t presented themselves yet. This is of course a testament to Peele’s confidence in his actors, but more than that it proves that Peele would rather establish the connection between these characters before ripping it apart. This in turn will better establish tragedy in the circumstance, which in turn will give you protagonists to root for, a lost art by today’s horror standards.

– An 80’s aesthetic? One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about this film is that part of the movie’s early story takes place during the slasher decade that I mentioned earlier, and what’s even more appreciating is that the use of this gimmick never overstays its welcome, nor does its inclusion dictate suffocating weight on the entirety of the film. Take a film like “Captain Marvel”, a movie that drowns out audiences with poor sound mixing in 90’s musical tracks, and familar fashion trends that never allow the environment to blend synthetically with the story itself. “Us” doesn’t have that problem, instead showing us a few iconic moments from that age, and twisting them in a way that leaves a noticeable weight on the moment from the era itself when you think about it from now on, instead of impacting the creativity of the film itself. This is text-book for how you should use a decade gimmick.

– Clever clues. Much like my review of “Climax”, this film also has an important introduction scene, that oddly enough also involves a shot of a television and some video tapes on the side of it, and much like the movie I previously mentioned, there are subtle clues that key you in to what you should come to expect in this film. I won’t give away anything, but one film on the side of the television certainly feels like a heavy influence now that I’ve seen the movie and know all of the tricks of the trade. One thing I can spoil without any consequences is a sticker on one of those video tapes that reads “1 hour and 44 minutes”, and that is the exact length of “Us”. Small things like these have no impact on the film itself, but it’s creativity that I always give extra points for, because it feels like a secret that only I was clued into because of the studying that I take in learning about a film before I review it.

NEGATIVES

– Things don’t add up with the twist. (MAJOR SPOILERS). Some of the things that bothered me with the third act twist’s big revelation exist with the rules and logic of such establishments that I simply couldn’t overlook. With as many people as there are in the world, this tunnel seems far too small to replicate every single one of them. If the people underground can control those above ground, why wouldn’t they just convince them to kill themselves? Some flashbacks also don’t make sense when you consider this third act switch. Who is remembering this girl’s life before the night that changed her forever? Where did they get the red suits? That’s a lot of suits with a lot of fabric for that small tunnel.

– As much as the humor lands consistently throughout, Peele’s biggest problem as a screenwriter seems to be his ability to know when to subdue it. The comedy is good enough to appreciate it in those breaks in between a suspenseful roar, but it begins to overstep its boundaries through the compelling exposition scenes, which require more focus to instill their impact. Much like “Get Out”, this is one of the biggest problems that Peele hasn’t quite gotten over yet, and while I understand that comedy will always be his first child, there’s a place and a time in horror for it that if done wrong could have serious consequences on the consistency of tonal flow.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Climax

Directed By Gaspar Noe

Starring – Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souhelia Yacoub

The Plot – In the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Rated R for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for adult language and some graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– The perfect introduction. Noe understands that the way we open a film is vitally important to the kind of undertaking that audiences will endure throughout, and there’s no better example than the first five to ten minutes of this film, in which we see each member of the dance team being asked questions about past drug use, as well as suppressed fears, which will inevitably come into play later. Aside from this, the intro transcends what is playing out on screen by what we can identify in the depiction of the television itself that tells us all we need to understand about Noe’s influences in crafting such a unique vision. Video tapes of “Suspiria”, “Possession”, and “Zombie” are just a couple of the familiar titles that popped out at me, and when blended together made for quite the carnage concoction nightmare that Gaspar dishes out to his audience, as an absorbing student of the genre game.

– Gaspar’s one of a kind command in movement behind the lens. As was the case with his breakout smash “Enter The Void”, Noe again instills a sense of cerebral movement and conscience behind the unorthodox directions and angles that allow him to immerse us further in the dynamics of the characters and conversations that eventually come into play with the eventual dissention that comes into focus later on. As to where most film movements go front-to-back and side-to-side, Noe shifts under the characters, horizontally, upside down, and his signature go-to: above them, in order to breed unnerving atmosphere that articulately channels the surreal reality of drug-induced paranoia. It all adds up to a presentation that exceeds the limits of two-dimension cinematography, all to give the visual direction a heart-beating presence of its own in capturing the escalation and intensity of each respective situation.

– Long take photography. Another familiar trope in Noe’s filmography is the use of minimal edits that would otherwise take away from the dramatic tension of the scene or the performances themselves, and “Climax” is certainly the same in this category. For example, the opening ten minutes is a one take, choreographed dance routine, full of swaying dancers moving in and out of frame with these risky moves that could easily miscue or stumble at any moment. Because these are long take scenes, it’s a testament not only to Goe’s confidence in his actors, but also in the developing chemistry between them, for working together as one cohesive unit throughout the five weeks of filming. Likewise, there are several long takes throughout the film, some manipulated and some not, that follow different characters in and out of frame, to cover every corner of the tension growing within. I always give extra points to a director who transcends conventional storytelling edits in favor of these long-winded deliveries of dialogue and interaction that further invest you in the escalation of the madness.

– Committed performances from an immensely gifted ensemble cast. Both physical and emotional acting is to be credited here, as not only are these actors synthetically channeling familiar behaviors and transformations while being under the influence of psychadelic drugs, but also their bodily contortions vividly give off the impression of unforeseen entity possession. What’s incredible is that we as an audience never see any example of what they are tripping out to in their minds, but thanks to Noe’s risky decisions to allow the actors to interpret and manage their own trips, it is something that visually channels the blending of anxiety, panic, and paranoia respectively. It’s one of those examples where if I learned that this cast really was under the influence to properly convey the magnitude of their performances, then I would believe it without question. They truly are THAT believable.

– Humanity grounded dialogue. “Climax” was written from a five page script that Noe decided to keep limited because he wanted the conversations and interactions to feel realistic in terms of what young adults actually talk about. For a majority of it, it’s sex of course, but in a certain few characters, particularly in a brother and sister duo and two childhood best friends, we hear of their ambitions and American dreams associated with joining the group. It builds to the inevitability of confronting what would otherwise be passing mentions in a throwaway conversation, and what’s important is that its mention never feels obvious in the way it is withdrawn by us the audience. This is very much a fine representation of post-teenage interaction in the mid 90’s (The film is set in 1996), and allows this film once more to feel like a documentary instead of a feature motion picture for the form of grounded reality in conversation, that doesn’t have to appeal to coincidence or obviousness like other exposition-heavy screenplays.

– Closed-off setting. “Climax” entirely takes place during a freak snowstorm, at this French dance school, during the heart of a decade where technological advances of the modern age don’t exist. What this does is keeps the tension building inside of this no escape, no remorse, story setting to the point of suffocating levels of pressure that only further amplify the fears of being betrayed by someone amongst them. What’s vitally important is that not only is this a big place, full of endless neon colored hallways and bedroom sanctimonies, but the camera’s fluid movements that I mentioned earlier, possess an amazing responsibility in documenting these possibilities, so that us the audience can interpret a character’s direction long before we actually see it. We saw what a particular setting can do for a dance horror film like “Suspiria”, and “Climax” is certainly no different in this regard, combining dread, isolation, and growing anxiety to further enhance the claustrophobia that has damned everyone inside.

– Remixing drug interpretation. It’s refreshingly responsible to see a movie made in 2019 that accurately depicts the consequences associated with psychadelic drugs, and why the use of them is anything but a good time. Anymore it seems that drugs in cinema are a way to further enhance the comical aspect of a flat script, or serve as a convenient plot device in a film that overlooks the lasting effects of such toxins as an afterthought. The presence of these inclusions are everywhere throughout this film, never allowing you a second to free yourself from their confines, and constantly feeding into the thought process that the shield of protection gone from logical people, who lose their identities, is something we can neither control nor contain when it comes to the backlash. Films like these, while extreme in what becomes of their dreary isolation, is something that I believe should be shown to impressionable youths, who could be headed down one dark path if only for the lack of information that particular person receives before doing something that’s deemed “Cool” or “Edgy” by the wrong crowd.

– Above all, a solid dance film. These kind of movies are rarely my thing, but once in a while you will see precise dance choreography and amplifying intensity in a group’s chemistry that will make it impossible not to indulge in. Aside from the detailed introduction dance, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in terms of continuity, the interpretive solo dances by these flexibly gifted contortionists were something that astounded me, and reminded me just how far the dancing world has become with a new generation of dancers, who will stop at nothing to invest their bodies into surreal circumstance. The dancing in the film is sinisterly hypnotic, made even more effective when you consider that subliminally they are being controlled by something far greater than them, and it sort of feeds more into the scares of the movie when you consider that the car is running, but no one is truly behind the wheel of control.

– Entrancing presentation in production choices. Everything here is firing on all cylinders. From the neon variety of lighting effects, to the sharp sizzle of musical editing incorporated to these dance scenes, to mental heavy sound mixing, which constantly holds a presence throughout, this film is a theatrical experience that should definitely be seen on the biggest screen if only you can’t make it to a theater to check it out. This is French extremism at its finest, preserving every productional aspect to feed into the rising anxiety of the movie that we can pick up on even while sitting in the comforts of our own home. The constant Electronic Dance Music soundtrack that plays throughout constantly helps elevate the tone, and the echoing distance given to a young character’s screaming panic induced the kind of ringing nightmares that are often overlooked in the tools of tactful sound manipulating. To summarize it in whole, it’s a powerful sensory experience even if the moods you’re feeling are uncomfortable.

NEGATIVES

– Two small nitpicks. My problems with the film are miniscule at best, and I would give this film a 9.5 out of 10 if I were still giving halves, but it is what it is. One problem I had dealt with particular choices made by one character who isn’t under the influence of the drug in the same way everyone else is. I can’t comprehend for a second why this person would do the things that eventually lead to her mental breakdown, and it’s made even more complicated by the fact that we receive so little character exposition or interaction with her up to this point. My second problem is a technical matter that bothered me personally, but probably wouldn’t to the conventional moviegoer. When two characters are conversing, the editing will briefly fade to black and then kick back on with the same two characters. I have two problems with this: the first, is that if the movie is conveying the passage of time, it should use quick cuts instead of fades to black, and two, why even have an edit for a film so engaged in long takes? If it’s cutting to the same two characters, it feels like a noticeable unnecessary distraction to pad out the conversation that makes me question the improv capabilities of the two actors in frame.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Greta

Directed By Neil Jordan

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe

The Plot – A sweet, na├»ve young woman trying to make it on her own in New York City, Frances (Moretz) doesn’t think twice about returning the handbag she finds on the subway to its rightful owner. That owner is Greta (Huppert), an eccentric French piano teacher with a love for classical music and an aching loneliness. Having recently lost her mother, Frances quickly grows closer to widowed Greta. The two become fast friends, but Greta’s maternal charms begin to dissolve and grow increasingly disturbing as Frances discovers that nothing in Greta’s life is what it seems.

Rated R for some violence and disturbing images

POSITIVES

– Refreshing stylistic choices. “Greta” is a horror thriller of sorts, but that distinct direction doesn’t limit or condemn the visual feast for the film, which echoes vibes of a romantic comedy at heart. The cinematography involves these soft, subtle lighting schemes, which makes it difficult to convey what kind of film creatively that this will be, and the accompanying soundtrack of female-sung Indie ballads gives it a seal of French-new wave hipster sheik that is anything but conventional for a thriller of this magnitude.

– Ladies night. Each of the female performances are comparatively complex, but work wonders in each role they’re asked to carry. For Moretz, it’s a slow unraveling as this character with an already complicated past, who now sees her world turned upside down by this stranger she has met and fell in love with. Chloe isn’t given many chances to show off her acting chops, but as Frances she maintains her finger on the psychological pulse of her character, and it makes for her best work of dramatic delivery in well over a decade. Huppert, no surprise, is stirringly unnerving as the film’s deranged title character. Huppert by herself is intimidating, with her cold, damp, and unflinching stare burning a hole through the object of her focus, but it’s when she’s allowed to open up and let these quirks and ticks shine through where she combines enough confidence in menace and mental command to overcome the adversity in any situation. While both of these two are great, it was actually the work of Maika Monroe as Frances’ best friend, who stole the show for me. Besides having fun with some (Honestly) awful lines of dialogue, Monroe’s closing moments in the film develop a co-protagonist in a way that I truly didn’t see coming with how much time is devoted to her character. She’s the breath of fresh air that this film so desperately needed as it started to become stale and redundant, and proves why this young phenom should be granted more starring roles.

– Patience with its gore and violence. This is an aspect that I honestly didn’t expect much from, but the film sternly earns its coveted R-rating, saving some scenes of effective violence for the times when their impact will ring the loudest. One scene in particular involves the removal of a body part, and the way it’s edited, combined with its quick precision, made for a devastating blow that reminds us what is missing from the tired jump scare gimmick. While there isn’t a lot of gore in the film, the screenplay is wise enough to use them in scattered sequences that maintains that seal of freshness to their inclusion, and it brought sporadic satisfaction for a gore hound like me, who chuckled in delight.

– The dynamic between Greta and Frances. Unlike most protagonist/antagonist relationships that often lack deeper meaning, the vibe surrounding this one speaks levels to the things in each of their lives that they are missing. Without spoiling anything, I will say that both characters have experienced vital loss in their lives, and this angle gives them plenty of believability to seek comfort in one another, all the while preserving this ability to use this loss against either one of them if the situation calls for such. Vulnerability is your worst enemy in a film like this, and thanks to the trust that each of them exert in one another, the inevitability of such weapons will most definitely always come into play.

– Precise pacing. There was never a point in the movie where I was bored or checking my watch, and a lot of that capability has to do with the script’s balance on spreading these important moments all across the 93 minute run time. The first act is pretty much everything we got in the trailer. We know the set-up and where it’s headed, but once the second act comes into play, we’re pulled into the mystery surrounding Greta’s big secret that was promised in the trailer, and while it’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of big reveals, it does add layers to the complexity of her character. The finale is by far my favorite part of the film, because it’s then when the movie finally feels like it’s having fun with itself, a measure that the first half could’ve used more of. More on that in a second.

NEGATIVES

– Opposing directions. I mentioned a minute ago that the last half hour of this film is really when it forgets all of the rules, and goes off the wall bonkers in giving audiences something to remember. The problem is that as a sum of its parts, the film feels disjointed, marrying these two compromising directions in a way that ushers in the desperation of that exciting second half instead of its seamless progression. I’ve read that most people prefer the serious side of this film, but for me it’s when the film is utterly ridiculous where it’s living up to its far-fetched rules that never stop brewing.

– Stagnant dialogue. There are reactionary lines that are pointless, there are lines of personality that feel forced to attain a level of hip notoriety with its characters, and there are quotes from famous people in history that prove the movie has very little to say in regards of originality. For my money, it’s the dialogue that tests audiences into staying gripped into each scene, and if not for the commitment to the craft hand-delivered by its trio of talented leading ladies, the preserving cringe that resides inside would kill us if Greta didn’t.

– Confusion in character outlines. This is what bothered me the most about the film, as the entirety of the first hour of the movie had me rooting on Greta, instead of the protagonist we should embrace. The screenplay does little favors in this regard, as every time Frances gives a reaction to Greta, she contradicts herself in the next scene that endangers that previous motion. For instance, Frances issues a restraining order against Greta, yet in the next scene she’s snooping around at Greta’s house to gain clues about how she could use it against her. Even with the big bag reveal that is vibrantly shown in the trailer, I still was behind Greta because I understood her loneliness and what desperation forces us to do. If anything Frances jump in logic was the thing that made her feel like the raging psychopath, and it’s something that I think audiences will have difficulty distinguishing when it comes to the character they side with.

– Inconsequential scenes. The first is is in a dream sequence that lasts nearly ten whole minutes of screen time and pans through two different elaborate dreams that return us to where we started. This is every bit as unnecessary as it is improbable for the things in the dream that the dreamer never even saw and preserved in their memory in the first place. The other time this happens is in the film’s conclusion, which unfortunately mares the fun that I had in the final ten minutes by shameless sequel baiting. What this does is forget to establish a line of satisfaction for the audience and characters who have come so far by this point, and almost feels like it forgets to wrap things up in a way that is satisfying for them narratively.

– Telegraphed surprises. The film does a solid enough job of adding a surprise behind every turn, but they’re framed in such a way that elaborates on it minutes before, allowing audiences to sniff out the magic of the mystery long before our characters do. Beyond this, the immense leaps in logic from character decisions and situations made for something far more frustrating than predictability: lack of believability. Aside from character contradictions that I mentioned, there’s a stalking scene that takes place involving cell phone pictures that forces us to buy that a 60 year old woman could not only keep up with a 20-something, but also do so in a way that allows the pursuer the ability to hide each and every time she turns around. This leads to a cliche in horror that always bothers me, where an antagonist is shown in plain sight for us the audience, only to disappear when the victim turns around. Who are they supposed to be posing for? Remember that we the audience don’t exist in a film world.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Happy Death Day 2U

Directed By Christopher Landon

Starring – Jessica Rothe, Ruby Modine, Israel Broussard

The Plot – This time, our hero Tree Gelbman (Rothe) discovers that dying over and over was surprisingly easier than the dangers that lie ahead.

Rated PG-13 for violence, adult language, sexual material and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– A risky formula. Considering this sequel is convoluting everything about the first movie that was simplistically solid about the narrative, it’s surprising that it works in the best kind of way. The film adds many layers creatively not only in the redundancy of repetition, but also in further enhancing the personalities of supporting characters, who we only got a few instances with during the first movie. It takes something on a small scale and maximizes its potential on a scientific spectrum not only to try to answer how any of this is possible to begin with, but to also show off the increase in budget after a successful first campaign, and it adds a fresh taste to a series based on repetition.

– Speaking of repetition, if you think this is just repeating the same scenes of the first movie, think again. Because this is a parallel dimension of sorts, the writers are able to play with the character relationships and fateful possibilities that the first film wasn’t privy to. As you might imagine, this makes things increasingly difficult for Tree, not only in going through a mostly fresh take all over again, but also in the weight of consequences it finally establishes from her dying so much, giving each passing day urgency in the way a normal life typically would. This is something that bothered me with the first film, because there’s no suspense in the narrative if Tree can simply reset each and every day, and thankfully its much better sequel has addressed this issue to leave audiences more firmly invested.

– Juggling tone. While this film still has elements of horror in its material, the movie’s dependency on humor, particularly in that of the physical variety made this feel like a completely different film all together, and invested me much further than its predecessor. Most of the intended humor works as constructed, but the tonal evolution doesn’t stop there. It gives way to some third act dramatic pulls similar to those of the things Ashton Kutcher was fighting against in “The Butterfly Effect”, creating an air of unavoidable tragedy to Tree’s life that establishes even more empathy for the already sarcastically sizzling lead protagonist.

– How good is Jessica?. As to where Rothe was easily the best part of the first movie, the further development and attention paid to the supporting ensemble makes her earn it this time, and boy does she ever. Rothe’s energetic impulses and free-range facial canvas of response makes her the perfect leading lady for her particular situation, combining enough fear, aggravation, and trauma to the role to play off each new discovery that is for better or worse helpful. However, it’s in the script’s tugging her to unfamiliar dramatic ground where we see a star in the making. For much of the second half of the movie, Rothe’s character feels fully fleshed out in a matured way where we embrace a psychological connection for the first time, and it only cements that this series would be nothing without a charismatic lead who adapts when everything visually and creatively is changing around her.

– Instrumental throwback. Sadly, modern horror films rarely do musical montages, but the clever way that Paramore’s “Hard Times”, arguably my favorite pop song of the last three years, is used with the material not only adds a reflective take to what’s transpiring before us, but also gives a fun moment of toe-tapping release between the mounting details of scientific formulas. This sequence edits all of the death scenes together crisply, while garnering enough responsibility in documenting the dangers to stay on the safe side of influencing viewers in the wrong ways. This is as Roadrunner and coyote as you can get for something as serious as death, and I devilishly enjoyed every single moment of it and hearing Hayley Williams angelic crescendo in one tasty presentation.

– Synthetic production values. “Happy Death Day” happened two whole years ago, so in duplicating the appearances not only of characters, but also in set pieces and familiar pop-ups can be a difficult task, but it’s one that may be Landon’s single strongest feature as a director. There isn’t a single flaw in the work of believability that would make this movie feel like anything other than a faithful continuation of Tree’s everyday college routine, and it allows the audience the ability to quite literally watch these movies back-to-back as one cohesive film because it bonds to its predecessor so tightly. As to where aspects of other sequels bring to the foreground an air of obviousness to them, Landon has paid his tuition in whole to soak up one more semester at this college setting, and the result is seamless continuity.

– Bear McCreery’s nostalgic influence. The musical score to this film feels every bit as evocative as it does obvious towards a particular film mentioned during the first act, and while this point sounds condemning in terms of originality, it’s in that obvious audible atmosphere where we find the clarity we seek for why this sounds like anything but conventional horror familiarity. There’s plenty of wonderment and majestry during the science fiction scenes, all the while leaving extra room for dessert in terms of mellow, moving compositions that force you to swallow harder while gently tugging at your heartstrings. McCreery’s growing reputation among a variety of genre offerings have etched his name in stone among the best composers going today, but his work in “Happy Death Day 2U” summarizes the complete spectrum in depth that prove genre is only a word.

NEGATIVES

– Undercooked horror element. It’s a bit disappointing that the horror factor of the film is given the least amount of attention, and it shows when you consider the little growth it takes on in this pivotal second chapter. Because everything else is different in the film, so too is the masked killer, and even when I thought the first movie’s killer was completely predictable, it’s got nothing on the asinine obviousness of this film. For one, I don’t believe for a second that this person would go overboard because of what transpires, nor do I buy them as menacing in the slightest. Aside from this, horror is such a limited partner in this film that it almost feels tacked-on every time the film remembers to go there.

– First act miscues. The introduction to the film goes in a completely different direction with a new character, but unfortunately its exploration lasts all of ten minutes, and is resolved in such an easy manner that makes its inclusion feel almost pointless with where the narrative takes us. I can understand the script not wanting to hit on the same beats as the first movie, but surely there were much easier ways to make the connection between what is happening with Tree and another character’s science project to tie it all together. I felt that this character was going to be a bigger part of this film, but he’s only used when Tree’s character needs him, summarizing a first act introduction that speaks very little to the rest of the film it is conjoined to.

– Nonsensical ending. MAJOR SPOILERS. Tree is forced by the end of the movie to basically live in a world between being with the guy she loves or her mom, but what’s hilarious is that she can have both if she just used some of the intellect that supposedly allowed her to remember a dry erase board full of formula. If she just talks to this guy and tells him her feelings, this whole thing could be avoided, and she could live in a world where she has it all. Instead, the film creates a choice that is completely unwarranted, trying to paint a lesson where it just doesn’t apply. What’s even funnier is that Tree and her beau do indeed fall for each other right before she returns to her normal world, proving that a conversation could’ve saved her mother.

My Grade: 7/10 or B