Wind River

The man responsible for last year’s ‘Hell or High Water’ returns to the silver screen to pen and direct the much anticipated follow up ‘Wind River’. In it, US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers a body in the rugged wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The FBI, anxious to solve the case quickly, sends in rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), but she is unprepared for the difficulties created by the oppressive weather and isolation of the Wyoming winter. When she employs Cory as a tracker, the two venture deep into a world ravaged by violence and the elements that will turn their cold, quiet town into an exposing bloodbath that will keep the locals on their toes. ‘Wind River’ is rated R for strong violence, a scene depicting rape, disturbing imagery, and adult language.

Westerns are very much alive deep in the heart of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, and it’s within those elements where ‘Wind River’ gains much of its environmental element in affecting this story. Taking place deep in the mountains of the Wyoming wilderness, this film hinges on the concept of predator and prey, and those kind of necessary evils that we need to keep other evils from getting in. This is very much a detective mystery drama underneath it all, but done so with the kind of twists that Christopher Nolan engaged in 1999’s ‘Insomnia’, in that it explores those often forgotten areas in the American landscape that abides by its own rules. Here, the cold, mountains, and even dangerous creatures living amongst these people play pivotal roles in the way everything is pursued and accomplished. Jeremy Renner’s character echoes towards the end of the film that “this isn’t a place where people live, it’s a place where they survive”, and that concept will tell you everything that you need to know about this chilling setting that often crossed into my comfortable theater surroundings and made me feel the very effects that these actors were feeling.

From the effectively gorgeous cinematography by Ben Richardson, in all of its long shots of the establishing isolated landscapes, to the small contributing factors like Olsen’s character sniffling every few lines of dialogue from her influence of a Southern hometown, it all blends in accordingly, and we feel like these factors present an additional obstacle in solving this already difficult task of matching a face to a heinous crime. There’s also much to be said about the re-occuring snow storms that come and go like the wind, swallowing away the evidence from the brutality that envelopes these once sacred lands. With the storm, comes this lone case of murder fresh out of nowhere, so in a sense the establishing narrative is reflecting that of the bone-chilling elements that are keeping people in doors, comforting for their own safeties alike from the double entendre that keeps them on their toes. This refreshing side of setting proved that there’s still many sides to the world that can still be effective in setting the mood precisely for the kind of themes that a script is trying to capture, and sometimes that very environment can feel like the central antagonist in the race against the clock.

As for narration, what I greatly enjoyed about this film is that we are coming into these families and situations with little to no knowledge about their pasts, but Sheridan’s patience and faith in his audience to fill in the blanks for themselves pays off dearly in subtly pulling the blanket of reveal back even further. Some stories will beat an audience over the head with exposition, but Sheridan’s point of artistic integrity hints that we may already know the answers to what is happening, it is just up to us (like the authorities in the film) to put these pieces together in seeing what shapes the character who we see before us. From a tonal perspective, the film feels like it picks up remarkably where HBO’s ‘True Detective’ left off, presenting a possible season three that feeds into the very adult world of people and places behind closed doors. The mystery of the film does offer some truly compelling twists and turns, but never does so in a way that abandons its plotting or pacing in making the answers feel like anything out of this world. That human element is what truly reigns supreme here, catering to the emotional pull of grievance and what it takes from every one of when we lose someone who cannot be replaced. I was very much on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of this film, and the ending left me beyond satisfied when the predator finally does catch up to the prey and the hounds of justice sink in for a satisfyingly therapeutic conclusion that couldn’t have gone any better.

What slight problems that I did have with the screenplay were nitpicks at best, but cater more to the usual cliches that you sometimes see in these Westerns. For one, there is a big shootout during the third act of the film, and despite the overload of bullets firing off into the air from these pistols, not one person in the film re-loads their chambers even once. This has always been something that I look for first in these ammunition riddled films, and unfortunately this movie is no different for falling by the wayside of believability. Also during this shootout, we get it played back to us in real time everything that happened with this woman’s murder. The problem is that from a narrative standpoint it is only explaining to us as an audience what happened. The authorities in the movie still haven’t pieced it all together. Yet after the gunfire goes off, the mystery antagonist is being questioned, and Renner’s character comments a line of dialogue that clues in that he knows everything that happened, despite them never figuring it out or being a part of the reveal rundown that caters exclusively to just the audience.

What does cover those light nitpicks is the performances from a trilogy of actors who really shared the respective load in communicating these human first kind of people. Jeremy Renner’s character is my lone favorite character of 2017. As Cory, we meet a man who is emotionally weathered by all that he has lost in his past, but the future ahead of possibly earning a way to right his wrongs is what keeps him moving through the cold. Cory doesn’t feel so much like a vigilante as he does a protector to the community that he loves, so there’s very much a lot of empathy to his resilience that makes him the force that everyone calls. Elizabeth Olsen’s character embraces a transformation from start to finish that proves to you that appearances aren’t everything. During her first few scenes, this tight-knit town kind of writes her off as just another FBI snob, but as the film progresses you start to embrace the very heart of this character who most certainly can take a hit and keep on coming. The chemistry between Olsen and Renner is certainly evident from ‘The Avengers’ movies, but it’s so much more than that here. Because of movie expectations, we are led to believe that these two will eventually hook up, but I’m glad that the film chose to ignore this instinct, instead painting them as two characters from different sides of the geological track who can help one another in complicated world of detective work. Besides these two, I also greatly enjoyed my reminder of the great actor that is Graham Greene. If you’ve seen films like ‘The Green Mile’ or ‘Maverick’, he will be familiar to you, but every so often this guy pops up to act out a character who knocks on the door of stealing the movie. This fact caters to Sheridan’s style of putting an elderly veteran in each movie to have him keep the youth on their toes. Here, Graham is a grizzly sheriff who doesn’t take kindly to outsiders stepping on his territory. At first you kind think he’s just a rude know-it-all, but he quickly morphs into the pulse of the movie that narrates the almost foreign environments that we’re embracing here. This trio couldn’t be better plucked, and they vibrate enjoyably rich off of one another.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wind River’ does tackle some rising water in the gruesome and sometimes suffocating tension that Sheridan provides in this character-driven whodunnit?. Renner and Olsen follow suit, assembling two enjoyable leads whose fire burning deep for the sacrifices of justice keep us warm from the deathly cold that envelopes us completely with this isolated setting. This one will stick with you, even if only for the revealing intentional cause during the film’s closing moments that remind us of those forgotten far too often. Whether you’re in the mood for an effective crime thriller or a western with a dramatic pulse, let the wind sweep you away with this one.

9/10

Annabelle: Creation

Everyone’s least favorite doll from The Conjuring series returns, this time to explore the horrors of her origin, in ‘Anabelle: Creation’. Several years after the tragic death of their little girl (Samara Lee), grieving doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony Lapaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the doll maker’s possessed creation, Annabelle, sets her sights on the girls turning their shuttered shelter into a storm of terror. ‘Anabelle: Creation’ is directed by David F. Sandberg, and is rated R for horror violence, terror, and brief adult language.

David F. Sandberg has gotten off to quite the start in the beginning phases of his career, crafting two atmospheric horror films in last year’s ‘Lights Out’, and now being asked to turn around the ‘Annabelle’ sub-franchise. And while I feel that the former is definitely the better film between the two, Sandberg deserves all of the credit in the world for helming a passable entry to the ever-growing Conjuring extended universe that now has four films under its belt. One thing clear to me with this director is that tension is everything, and because of such, we are treated here to a time period piece in which environment is the most important pawn in this game of frights, making the most of every hair-raising moment on the arms of its moviegoers. Does it have problems? Of course. The same horror tropes that often overstay their welcome pop up on more than one occasion here, and prove that even as far as we’ve come from the horribly disappointing first film, we still have a long way to go before it competes with the equally enticing Conjuring chapters in the saga that have played a pivotal role in establishing how greatly anticipated and diverse that this genre can truly be.

Make no mistake about it, this sequel brings out the true technical approach to the many facets of production that went into this movie in supplanting it as something much greater than its predecessor. The sound mixing and editing is precise, echoing very little musical accompaniment, and instead letting the aura and awkwardness of the atmosphere surrounding this terrifying house play into what we’re enveloping. The lighting too is something that feels faithful to the time period, as well as beneficial to setting the mood creatively within the story. Since this is a film that appears to take place during the 50’s, the lighting doesn’t feel as advanced in color or magnifying glare, so even the daytime scenes show off this grainy filter that appropriately timestamps the era that the film had going for it.

The scares are definitely there for the newer and the old school students of the horror game who want to be chilled. Two sequences with grizzly imagery brought a solid wince or two from this longtime horror buff, and that’s saying a lot because I don’t frighten easily. A different approach to nightmare fuel used here is that this film surprisingly doesn’t use a lot of gore or blood in getting across its shocking visual details. Instead, so much of what is used here relies on these long takes that refuse to look away during even the most visceral of circumstances. This is very much a film that earns its coveted R-rating valuably and ethically, doing so without an overabundance of adult language or unnecessary violence that surround these kinds of films. The idea of these helpless children being sucked into something terrifying that they have no idea about is played into over-and-over again, supplanting itself with the kind of vulnerability and uncomfortable nature for our cast of characters that goes a long way in us as an audience seeing what is lurking in the shadows long before these kids ever do. Unfortunately, the jump scares don’t remove themselves from this film, and this movie doubles down on the approach that cheap scares equal lasting scares, a thought process that couldn’t be further from the truth the more that they occur. The movie has terrifying imagery to it, so the involvement of these cheap gags do nothing but cater to the inexperienced audience who know nothing of what it takes to channel true horror.

I greatly enjoyed the entirety of this mostly adolescent dominated cast of characters that carry the load effortlessly throughout. As the two best friends in the story, Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman offered these incredibly layered performances for these two female leads that slowly start to come undone the more that they learn about this doll and spirited presence. Wilson did a great job in last year’s ‘Ouija 2’, but I enjoyed her slightly more here because she is given the ability to show a variety of emotions that she must display over such a brief encounter with evil. In addition, Bateman might just be the stealer of the show here, breathing such helplessness one second and vibrant emptiness the next. As Janice, we meet a girl who is ripe for the picking because of her physical handicap, and it’s certainly not difficult to imagine why this spirit has first dibs on her. Besides the flawless repertoire from the kids, Anthony Lapaglia also does a stellar job as the Father of the deceased Annabelle. In this role, there is only a shadow of a man from the brief opening of the movie that we were growing quite comfortable with, and I felt that the progression of the Annabelle lore only progressed when he was on-screen, relaying the importance of his character for so much of the mystery in this story that had us gripping on.

As for the plot, I found most of the questions from the overly ambiguous original to be answered fruitfully here, but there was the occasional setup that didn’t make sense. For one, why this family who suffered a horrific incident with their daughter would bring a bus full of little girls to their house when they know a secret lurks between them. I found this angle to be very illogical, and its intention is never really answered beyond some momentary commotion that doesn’t amount to anything. What is valuable is that we finally get an answer to the importance of the doll in the scenario. Part of what made me angry during the first film was how this object did nothing to warrant the fear that we’re supposed to give, so in this sequel, the screenwriters addressed this topic wonderfully, giving us answers as to who does the killing when this doll doesn’t move for the entire movie. The pacing is solid, but is a little tough to get into from the opening of the film because a lot is kind of rushed by in the first few scenes instead of given time to properly digest, but the good stuff definitely comes to those who wait. The final thirty minutes is everything that you love about these movies because the confrontation between good and evil is a brutal one that keeps on coming. There are several false finishes to the ending that I thought worked magnificently, even if the ending did drag on for a scene too long, leaving that feeling of satisfaction from a solid scary movie removed a degree or two because it felt like the writers didn’t know how to end it properly.

THE VERDICT – Although still riddled with cheap jump scares and the occasional plot hole to its depreciation, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ should’ve been the only prequel to the two cherished Conjuring films that set forth quite the reputation for modern horror. The surprisingly valuable work from a top-notch child cast, as well as a springboard of technical achievements that shouldn’t be overlooked in a mood over gore direction that impresses, even if some familiarity of horror setups tends to rear its ugly head from time to time. Sandberg is definitely a horror director on the up, but this one does take some time for you to witness his exceptional qualities.

6/10

Wish Upon

The curse of a mysterious music box unleashes a gory past on its history in Broad Green Pictures, “Wish Upon”. 17-year-old Clare Shannon (Joey King) is barely surviving the hell that is high school, along with her friends Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser). So when her dad (Ryan Phillippe) gifts her an old music box with an inscription that promises to grant the owner’s wishes, she thinks there is nothing to lose and treats it as a hoax. Clare makes her first wish and, to her surprise, it comes true. Before long, she finally has it all: money, popularity and her dream boy. Everything seems perfect, until the people closest to her begin dying in gruesome and twisted ways. Now, with blood on her hands, Clare has to get rid of the box, before it costs her and everyone she loves the ultimate price. Be careful what you wish for. “Wish Upon” is directed by John R. Leonetti, and is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing scenes of peril.

I wished for a good movie and ended up with “Wish Upon”, the latest in PG-13 teenage horror that meets the bare minimal of every uninspiring and unoriginal plot point that rests within the concepts of its script. You should know the routine by now; no blood or gore, poorly shot death sequences to keep with their handicap rating, and of course the worst in direction that involves dialogue so cringe-worthy that you can’t help but laugh when the movie is trying its hardest to be serious. If the name John Leonetti doesn’t jump out at you, it should. This guy has been making some truly awful movies for years. Films like ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’, ‘Anabelle’, and now ‘Wish Upon’ rest on the resume of this troubled director. Going into this film, I can’t say I was expecting much, but I’ve found that no matter how low your pre-conceived thoughts are for a movie, a teen horror flick will always find a way to dig even lower, and ‘Wish Upon’ gladly accepts the challenge to remind you why the horror genre is unfortunately turning into a blending of recycled ideas that tries to pass itself off for originality.

On the surface level, ‘Wish Upon’ feels like a Frankenstein project of ‘The Craft’, ‘Final Destination’, and ‘Wishmaster’, three movies that have no business being welded together, but clearly come to mind when you see how blatant its intentions are. The idea of a box granting wishes is certainly nothing new for big screen film, but I found myself appalled at how similar of a road that Clare’s wishes came back to haunt her like the lead protagonist in ‘The Craft’. As for death scenes, like ‘Anabelle’, there is no antagonist figure in the film, so there’s no final showdown that happens. So how do we come across deaths in the movie? by simply feeding into the theory that death inevitably comes to you, similar to one of the three films that I previously mentioned. The death scenes lack any kind of energy or impact to their happening, and are skimmed over with impatient pacing from a script that feels like it is trying to squeeze in too much to an 83 minute runtime. What small benefit that I did get from these sequences were the unintentional laughs that arose from within me, leading everyone in the theater to believe that I am a psychopath. They are kind of right, but only because I’ve sat through too many of these movies that it’s made me a product of my environment.

Then there’s the corners that this movie so violently shoves its creative spark into. As the film goes on, we learn that the box can easily be disposed of if the owner disowns it or throws it away. This concept alone proves that this movie should’ve never been longer than ten minutes, and really brings out the worst in a protagonist who we are supposed to faithfully get behind. She could easily give it up at any minute and stop the deaths that are happening to those she loves, but she would rather risk it once more and cash in for the fancy prizes behind Satan’s curtain. As for the box itself, there were some questions that were never answered long after I left the theater. Early on, Clare wishes for her high school bully to rot by saying her name to the object. My problem is how does this box know which girl she’s talking about? Is she the only girl in the world with this name? When the owner disowns the box, they lose everything that they wished for. So could Clare keep the box buried underground where no one could get to it, keeping her rich? Look, I give the film credit for at least explaining the origins of its box, unlike ‘The Bye Bye Man’, but did we really need to seek an Asian translator for the lettering around the box during a day and age of Google advanced?

The editing as well does the movie no favors, abruptly cutting scenes in half that felt like they had an intention to go somewhere before the halting cut. Some examples of this and basically how one-tracked this movie’s progression feels are in the backlash death scenes that would sometimes chop a bunch of jarring angles together to make one presentation, or even finish the scene by cutting so fast without us ever having the opportunity to soak in the brutal consequence. If I pointed to just one glaring problem plaguing this film over and over, it would be that it refuses to ever let things play out to the benefit of the plot. It is constantly running itself over trying to get to the next scene without playing into the atmosphere of a scene’s true horror. This never allows anything to warrant a true reaction from its audience, and after a while you can start to piece together the predictability in setup that the film has repeatedly done for itself. Intrigue is the last thing to go from this tasteless drought, leaving you little reminder as to why you chose it in the first place.

I want to talk a little bit about Joey King because I have enjoyed her early work as an actor. I do however fear for the young adult part of her career, similar to Chloe Moretz, as this film is far from the best first step in that direction. Most of the time you can blame a director for a shoddy misfiring of direction with their characters, but here it’s only half of the problem. King too, as well as the rest of the cast around her feel so lackluster in delivery, most likely from the terrible dialogue that envelopes this picture, but the actors themselves can’t go forgiven because their personalities feel so lifeless. My biggest problem with King’s character in particular is that physically she looks like a popular girl, and in personality she is as selfish as it gets. I don’t buy for a second that her character is anything like the one-dimensional direction outline that the movie has set her up for. There’s no depth or impact to her character that make you feel empathetic towards her, and because of such, she might as well be another face in the crowd of bland teenagers who outnumber this cast.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wish Upon’ did give me lots of unintentional laughs, even if the presidents who adorn the money in my wallet gave me lots of intentional middle fingers. Aside from a ridiculous night in where you want to laugh at how truly mind-numbing a teenage horror film can be, there’s absolutely no reason to see it. Poor editing, breezy pacing, and enough plot holes and fundamental flaws to steer this one completely off of the rails, gives Leonetti another reason to become an alias for shamed directors not wanting to attach their names to trash, and for all I know, it is. I would wish this one upon my greatest enemy.

3/10

The Beguiled

After the untimely invasion of a soldier, a group of young women find themselves as “The Beguiled”. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the film is a modern day remake of the 1971 original starring Clint Eastwood, and unfolds during the Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school, led by Martha Farmsworth (Nicole Kidman), a strict, by-the-book kind of a teacher who doesn’t shake easily. Its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier (Colin Farrell). As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries, and taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events, forcing the girls to band together against the unpredictable outsider who has pitted them against one another. “The Beguiled” is rated R for some sexuality involving sensuality.

The 1971 version of “The Beguiled” doesn’t quite have a soft spot in my heart of classic cinema, but when I found out the gifted Sofia Coppola was going to helm the remake more than 46 years later, in all of her feminine prowess, I knew that there was a shot to make this story something special, and for the most part my premonition hit the nail. The remake has a lot of strong qualities about the production value itself that were most notably missing from the cult-like original, and that quality in cinematography lends itself to maximizing the potential of this story and plot that are (If I’m being honest) a tad bit one-dimensional. Remakes come and go every week anymore, but this new edition of the classic telling justifies itself with some real gritty performances and beautiful artistic merit that pushes it through a vanity makeover of sorts. There’s a crisp uneasiness about the atmosphere in the movie that really controls and contorts our story, and Coppola being a master of suspense with exceptional startles in films like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost In Translation” floating to the top of an impressive resume, feels like the right woman for the job in documenting the changes of female traits when approached with someone or something from the outside.

One interesting aspect is how these two sides approach each other from the get-go. The ladies first-and-foremost view Farrell’s character as a Yankee soldier first and nothing more. It is in this aspect of his character that they find such startling and fear in, leading most of them to keep a guard up long before it was cautionary in who we allow into our homes. This fear is quickly subdued for a kind of curiosity among them once the Yankee shield has been lifted and they see him for what he truly is; a man. Because of this, “The Beguiled” often feels like a social experiment in pitting seven different ladies of all ages in a room and watching what happens when they are introduced to someone that half of them would immediately consider a social suitor. And that is where Coppola single-handedly earns most of her intrigue from the audience who watch and wait for the passion between them to impact.

As a writer, Coppola impresses me here, putting all of these contrasting elements into a pot and watching them boil for an inevitable confrontation that you have to see to believe. What’s interesting about most films is that people seek the answer to the mystery because that is what they pay to see, but I was quite opposite with “The Beguiled”, as I found the build-up in the documentation of these relationships to be the story’s true heart, leading to a finale that somewhat underwhelmed me. It does stick closely to the source material in this regard, but there’s a complexity in Coppola’s masterful touch on these people and properties that tells many stories in one single shot. One example is midway through the movie when Colin Farrell’s character is listening to the ladies sing him a nighttime song, and for a second we see many of the ladies faces and emotional responses to that of Farrell in that one shot. Some seek more information about him to peak their curiosity, some don’t trust him and look at him as an enemy, and some see him as a gently misunderstood man just trying to get back on his feet. Coppola can juggle these many tiers without them collapsing all down, and it adds depth to a story that shouldn’t be this complex.

The weakness for me was definitely in the third act after everything changes for the ladies and their guest after one traumatic night. It’s not that it isn’t done with excitement or passion for the story, it just kind of confirms what anyone who saw the trailer or the original movie already knew about where it was heading. Because of that, the last shot of the movie does feel like it wastes away some of the firepower of this altering event at the beginning of the third act, and the movie just kind of slowly fizzles out from there, whether you call it poor planning or too lengthy of a final scene that slightly drags. I also would’ve preferred more emphasis on the world that is melting around this all-girls school, most notably with the Civil War that has divided the nation. Where I think this could matter with this story is more with Farrell’s character and the kind of urgency that he finds himself in. We can only assume why he chooses to remain absent from war, but the psychological dimension of his character never makes itself present, and I think this is a mistake of sorts when growing his backstory.

I did mention earlier that the biggest difference between these movies is definitely the stylistic choices in scope that definitely favor the remake. The natural lighting was a valuable choice for the interior night shots, most notably with the candle-lights in the background that illuminate the pure creepiness of these Victorian mansions. There is an overall hazy look to the film, and I believe that this has more to do with the metaphorical smoke clearing of our soldier protagonist, as well as the physical with the war continuing to march on and away from our story’s setting. The wardrobe and costume designs are decadent in their depictions, and really speak wonders to the kinds of fashion trends and covering up of women that were present during such controlling times.

This is also incredibly well acted by a top-list cast that keeps on giving to the range of their respective characters. Colin Farrell has been on a resurgence during the later part of his career, and that continues here with one of his most wide range of personalities that he has portrayed to date. We are reminded that Farrell is a man at the end of the day, and like many men before and after him, he will make mistakes, and boy do those mistakes paint his character into a cage. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst were also commendable. Kidman’s character is definitely the leader of the house and because of such, the assertiveness and eerie calm within her comes out on more than one occasion. My favorite performance of the film once again goes to Elle Fanning as Carol, the firecracker of sorts among the group. Fanning is so deceiving and conniving when it comes to her intentions, and she manages to flick on these dual personalities at the drop of tones changing within the movie. She is as dangerous as they come, but too much of the focus remains on Farrell for him being guilty by association within this war that he never supports, so Carol slithers by with a vibrant display of lust and cold resonating within her eyes.

THE VERDICT – As far as remakes go, “The Beguiled” is harmless with souring any nostalgic factor that very few had for the 1971 original. Sofia Coppola entices us with entrancing visuals and a set design that accurately depicts the cultures of the particular time. Her story could use some more light emphasis around the backstory of its important characters, and the third act kind of writes itself into a corner after the fireworks go off, but the bang of seclusion, seduction, and simmer make this slow burn thriller too dynamic to ever look away. A gothic gripping of girl power that cooks into the atmosphere.

7/10

The Mummy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10

It Comes at Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

47 Meters Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10

Alien: Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Phoenix Forgotten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

The Lost City of Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10

Raw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

The Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10