Pet Sematary

Directed By Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer

Starring – Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Us

Directed By Jordan Peele

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

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

Rated R for violence/terror, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Climax

Directed By Gaspar Noe

Starring – Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souhelia Yacoub

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Greta

Directed By Neil Jordan

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe

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

Rated R for some violence and disturbing images

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Happy Death Day 2U

Directed By Christopher Landon

Starring – Jessica Rothe, Ruby Modine, Israel Broussard

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Prodigy

Directed By Nicholas McCarthy

Starring – Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Colm Feore

The Plot – Sarah (Schilling), a mother whose young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott)’ disturbing behavior signals that an evil, possibly supernatural force has overtaken him. Fearing for her family’s safety, Sarah must choose between her maternal instinct to love and protect Miles and a desperate need to investigate what or who is causing his dark turn. She is forced to look for answers in the past, taking the audience on a wild ride; one where the line between perception and reality becomes frighteningly blurry.

Rated R for violence, disturbing and bloody images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– A vehicle for Jackson Robert Scott. I was captivated with the sheer look of this kid from the moment I saw him in Stephen King’s “It”, and I’m happy that someone took a chance on him with his own movie, that does pay off in spades. At frequently throughout, Scott is every bit as sinister as he is professional, never stalling or lacking believability in the complexion of the dual characters that he is portraying. This kid says as much in a single unnerving look as an actor who will usually require five lines of dialogue for, and his presence on the events that take place leave a stirring uneasiness within you long after they’ve come and went.

– R-Rated material. This is a horror film that doesn’t cater to teenagers or youthful moviegoing audiences, instead it focus more on hammering down the shock factor of the material itself, in the form of gruesome imagery and jaw-dropping lines of dialogue. What’s most important is nothing feels excessive or meandering to the lack of boundaries for the sake of a coveted rating, giving us tasteful-but-affirming methods of mayhem for the dangerous antagonist to poke and prod us with. The thrills in this film feel like my preferred level of physical and psychological scares, and proves that a rating does enhance the integrity of your work if done for sizzle and not oversaturation.

– Not your typical possession movie. It’s a little difficult to comprehend the extent of the plot from the cryptic trailer that has sold the movie, but this is anything but the kind of possession movie we’ve become saddled with over the last twenty years, and instead harvests a lore of spiritual philosophy that I didn’t see coming. The whole movie revolves around reincarnation and the consequences of a life’s mission feeling unfulfilled. This is done without involving religion (Thank God) or offending beliefs in the slightest, and I think it really gives a fresh creativity to an ages old formula that literally and figuratively requires a new face to sell it.

– The real fear. For my money, the thing that is most terrifying about “The Prodigy” is its take on parenting that echoes the rumblings of 2014’s “The Babadook”. While not as successful or enthralling as that movie, this film speaks levels to a mother’s commitment, and how the bond used to protect her child could ultimately be her untimely downfall. It sheds light on the ideas of just how little we truly know about the beings who we love the most in this world, and just when is the line crossed when that parental will is stretched. As if parenting wasn’t already the most difficult job in the world, here comes a film that further complicates everything taking place under a single solitary roof.

– Modern horror’s maestro of music. The tones that play and enhance these scenes are done by none other than Joseph Bishara, the very same man who composed music for franchises like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, but it’s his work here that may be his most compelling and immersive to date. I was utterly transfixed at the evocative accompaniments instilled inside of these scenes, and never once does his music feel forced or meandering in the feelings of atmosphere that they are trying to convey. It was without question my single most favorite aspect of the film, and almost deserves two points for its lack of transparency in the way it amplifies tension.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of originality to go with the gimmick. I mentioned earlier the refreshing take on making this a film about reincarnation, but what’s baffling to me is the overwhelming sense of familiarity tacked on to the opening and ending of this film. Without spoiling much, I will say that the beginning of this movie is as close to “Child’s Play” as you will get without straight up ripping off the movie, and the film’s closing moments touch on more than a few familiar directions to the original “Omen” movie. None of these are spoilers, as there’s enough variety in their borrowings to give them just enough difference, but the screenplay’s biggest problem time and time again is how it doesn’t allow itself the ability to crawl out from under the immense shadows of the genre that have already been there and done that.

– Better direction necessary. This is Nicholas McCarthy’s third big screen directing effort, and it’s clear to see that even with growing experience, he still lacks the kind of control necessary in keeping audiences firmly invested to his stories. Two major problems in this film involve his lack of influence over the rest of the cast minus Jackson Scott, as well as his uninspiring movements with the camera that leave nothing to the imagination of horror thinking. To say that the reactions in this film are underwhelming and cold might just be the understatement of the year, but it negates the film into losing focus, giving Miles actions a lack of weight or urgency in the developing drama. As for the angles, there’s just far too many ugly color pallets, as well as too many revealing depictions that give away the jump scares long before they actually happen.

– Lack of mystery with the screenplay. I despise a movie where I know all of the answers long before the characters do, and that is the case with “The Prodigy”, where everything you want to know is revealed in the opening five minutes of the movie. It is a bit out of context when these dual subplots play side by side, but once you’re focused on it for so long you can start to understand what these visuals are referring to, and then the remaining 85 minutes becomes us waiting for everybody else to catch up. I feel if the movie showed us Miles pregnancy with little emphasis for the other on-going narrative, then we would feel more curious as to what is taking place here, but without that mystery there’s no pull into the ambiguity of what’s taking place here.

– Obvious exposition halts. This movie takes time to try to explain everything in excruciating detail, and it gets to a point where you can almost predict it after something pivotal happens along the way. To say this film has no confidence in its audience’s intelligence is easy enough, but the constant hand-holding as it guides us through Miles’ influencer is something that is unnecessary. The story isn’t as complex as the film would like it to be, and as to where you have a film like “The Bye Bye Man” which explains so little, here you have a movie that wastes its time in explaining far too much.

– Pointless run-on ending. The movie had a final shot that you could almost yell out in the theater “CUT!!!”, but instead it carries on with an additional scene that not only didn’t add anything of substance for its inclusion, it also let out far too much of the energy associated with a meaningful final shot. This was undoubtedly to cross the 90 minute threshold used as the measuring stick for horror movies that has become all the rage, but when trying to convince yourself of creative wisdom always remember that less is more.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Escape Room

Directed By Adam Robitel

Starring – Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Logan Miller

The Plot – A psychological thriller about six strangers who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and must use their wits to find the clues or die.

Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Rich production quality in set designs. Of course a film with this title should put everything they have into the elaboration and eye for detail in the many rooms the game takes us through, and each of the ones inside are every bit as cryptically fun as they are sinisterly condemning. What I like here is that none of the rooms repeat, and one such room even plays tricks on the minds of audience members, offering us a psychological immersion into our character’s current foreboding dispositions.

– Eclectic casting. Fresh faces like Russell and Miller capture the attention of audiences with their breakthrough performances that prove they can sustain the depth associated with a leading role, all the while the inclusion of Woll and Tyler Labine add a layer of big name prestige that constantly throws off your guessing game. The wide variety of personalities is what truly keeps the film fresh and evolving, and instills an ideal of ensemble work that very few films are brave enough to touch on anymore. They work so well together because each is given ample time to shine, and it’s something that doubles their chemistry the longer the film progresses.

– Value towards character exposition. What really impressed me and kept me gripped to the unfolding narrative was the film’s combination of game and backstory that equally did wonders for the other. The film takes valuable time in fleshing out who these people locked in the game are before they agreed to it, and the more you start to learn about each of them, the more you start to understand why certain characters are better suited for certain environments. Even more beneficial, the exposition only shows us a few brief moments and lets us sniff out the rest for ourselves, providing food for thought once more for movies that don’t need to spoon-feed their audience.

– PG-13 and proud of it. This film gets a lot of comparisons to the Saw franchise for obvious reasons, but the line of similarities quickly diminishes when you bare witness to the nature of the torture itself. For one, Saw definitely earns its status as torture porn, as to where “Escape Room” is a psychological bending that doesn’t require the exploitation of blood or gruesome nature to sell its believability in permanency. In fact, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled until the film’s final fight for survival, with around fifteen minutes left in the movie. It’s impressive when horror can still dazzle under such constrictions, and Robitel’s style for substance never believes in taking two steps back.

– Anxiety for days. The quick cuts in precision editing, combined with the variety of many eye-catching angles brings out the sheer drama and urgency of the game itself, doing wonders for the overall pacing of the ever-changing backdrops along the way. Even at 95 minutes of run time, each location is given plenty of time to engage yourself in its adversities and rules, and every movement of choice feels incredibly heavy on the well-being of the group. Through the use of trial and error by our stumped character’s choices, the screenplay almost dares you to shout out your two cents, and this gives “Escape Room” amazing presence as a group watch with friends over a couple of drinks.

– Evolution of the atmosphere. The tone for the movie is handled in such a way that allows for plenty of laughs early on in the film, to get over the personalities of this extremely likeable group, but eventually matures more when the consequences and brutality of the game comes to the forefront. Likewise, the character’s themselves evolve, for better or worse, and it’s interesting to see where two certain character’s end up by the film’s full-throttle finale. When the material and characters work hand-in-hand smoothly, everything fires on all cylinders, and you have a seamless film that moves together in one cohesive movement.

NEGATIVES

– Condemning introduction scene AGAIN. So this is the new cliche in almost EVERY single going today, huh? The scene that starts out a movie spoils far too much, and unless you’re a braindead noodle, you can piece together everything that is coming by film’s end. Only certain films do this properly, showing less in its depictions, but sadly “Escape Room” is the latest victim of this movie, as a sole survivor is shown going through the last trap of the game, before our linear story begins. If you must do this stupid idea, why not show an instance from the trap where everyone is still alive? Why give away so much in a movie where suspense is so important?

– Easy Solutions. I understand that thinking on your feet is difficult in such predicaments, but when an idiot like me can figure out simple ways to solve three different rooms, I have to start wondering if I’m the smartest person in the movie. SPOILER – There’s one room where six different coasters have to be weighed down into the coffee table for a door to stay open. The group goes through hell and time filling six glasses with water. Why not get the six legged couch behind you? I seriously can’t be the only person yelling this.

– What happened with the prize? Considering the trailer says these six strangers are competing for a million dollars, the film’s delivery of ten thousand dollars feels a lot more anti-climatic. Besides the fact that it’s difficult for me to believe that two characters in particular would even go for this for such a limited payoff, a million dollars just sounds better in the advertising campaign, and clearly the trailer crew felt the same way, as they changed it for audiences because they knew how stupid it sounded.

– The ending. I knew it would be difficult for a movie like this to have a satisfying conclusion, but what transpired in the final ten minutes took a solid film down a peg to nothing other than a glorified rental. If it ends after the final conflict, FINE, but the film keeps dragging along, catering to an inevitable sequel instead of properly concluding the movie that is front-and-center. What’s even worse is the additional material tries to answer far too much, leaving very little meat on the bone for the second installment, and feels like final scenes from an entirely different movie. Did this film seriously just turn into a spy thriller? Really?

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed By Diederik Van Rooijen

Starring – Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson

The Plot – A shocking exorcism spirals out of control, claiming the life of a young woman. Months later, Megan Reed (Mitchell) is working the graveyard shift in the morgue when she takes delivery of a disfigured cadaver. Locked alone inside the basement corridors, Megan begins to experience horrifying visions and starts to suspect that the body may be possessed by a ruthless demonic force.

Rated R for gruesome images and terror throughout

POSITIVES

– Ominous setting. In casting a majority of this story at the morgue, we get to play with shapes and shadows in way that very few other locations can give us, in terms of atmosphere. As we saw in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”, a morgue is the perfect place in channeling isolation and seclusion, and this film continues that thought process. While the film does commit the same cinema crime of limited workers at a hospital, it more than makes up for it in neon red lighting and what feels like never-ending hallways, to give the audience enough tease before the taste.

– Elaborate attention to detail with the make-up work. Unfortunately, most of Hannah’s joint-crunching movements are computer generated, but there’s still enough imagination and gory detail to the suffering of Grace to visually tell her history. The gaping wounds have a lot of depth to the concept of early stage scaring, and the protruding presence of immense veins act as a map to Hannah’s tortured psyche. This is an aspect to the film that won’t get enough credit, based on its limited documentation in the sloppy camera work, but if you look close enough, there’s plenty of range in the form of cosmetic appeal.

– Sound mixing that caters to echoes. For my money, the film’s only slight scares come in the form of overbearing silence, which periodically increase with each passing second. The things that go bump in the night are accompanied by what feels like the morgue’s internal heartbeat, and this builds the suspense appropriately, before Hannah pops up every once in a while to capitalize. In fact, I would’ve been fine without any kind of musical score for the movie, as these sounds more than articulate the tension that is so thick you must cut it with a knife.

NEGATIVES

– Amateur camera work that hinders any kind of horror impact. Each time Hannah appears on-screen, we are confined to these ugly looking shaky camera effects that not only make it difficult to focus on the telegraphing of each sequence, but also give the film an overwhelming layer of cheap production value to its effects work. I was hoping that this was only a temporary inclusion at the beginning of the film, during an exorcism sequence, but unfortunately it stays with Hannah like the worst kind of cheap odor.

– Gaping plot holes. Early on in the film, the screenplay shows us Hannah’s capabilities with telekinesis, and it makes every other scene of conflict with Megan not make sense because of how this talent never comes into play with our central protagonist. This is a cliche that always drives me nuts in horror films, as an antagonist appropriately loses their powers when it matters the most, treating the audience like idiots who haven’t been paying attention up to this point. The only way to fix this is to give Megan a reason why Hannah is keeping her alive, but it sadly never materializes, thanks to minimal character development that is sparse even for forgettable B-movie horror characters.

– There is absolutely zero reason for this film to be rated R, considering the presentation constantly limits the payoff. The violence is never detected because of the shaky cam, there’s no nudity considering Hannah is naked for almost the entirety of the movie, and there’s not one instance of adult language that ever invades our first grade dialogue. Very few horror films anymore attain the coveted R-rating, and it’s sad that “The Possession of Hannah Grace” does nothing to enhance its story by receiving this rare gift.

– What an ugly looking film. The daytime scenes have this dreary cinematography quality that made me have to squint every time I needed to focus on a visual matter. Likewise, the scenes where something is going on in the background are constantly out-of-focus, providing emphasis for just how much time and care was put into such an important project. This all pales in comparison however, to Sony’s usual lack of subliminal advertising. Yes, we once again have Sony computer screens that adorn the many investigation scenes in the movie. In general, it’s vomit behind every corner, leading overall to one of the weaker visual presentations of 2018.

– Horrible acting and character direction. As I mentioned above, there is limited character exposition throughout the film, but even if that weren’t the case, the poor work of this nameless, faceless cast does itself zero favors in carving out people we can truly get behind. I feel bad calling her out alone, but Shay Mitchell is in control of roughly 90% of this film, so the blame mostly falls on her. Mitchell can’t act her way out of a paper bag, refusing to ever channel even a shred of believable emotion to these paranormal experiences that are happening to her. Hannah’s dead body getting up to walk is reacted by Mitchell like she just stubbed her toe, telling you everything we’re going to get in terms of versatile performances. Likewise, the supporting cast lack personalities or presence, making them every bit as forgettable as the 1984 Democratic nominee.

– Not an exorcism film. Don’t be fooled in the slightest by the trailers for this movie; this one is a slasher movie that just happens to feature a possessed woman. Cementing this manipulative direction, the scene that is usually the climax of any possession movie happens in the opening five minutes of the movie, and what follows never comes close to even that heavily borrowed sequence from other, better possession movies. I have never seen a possession movie where the possessed have telekinetic powers without even touching them, and this evident feeling gave me an idea that this movie was re-written at the last minute to accommodate a direction that feels foreign to everything else in its clutches.

– Am I on drugs? I asked this question frequently during the editing of this movie, which feels like it oversteps boundaries to limit this to 81 minutes. Scenes that feel like a long struggle is coming, are surprisingly put away quite easily, aggressive cutting in between these scenes of important dialogue restrict us from ever building chemistry between any two respective characters, and there’s never any form of consistency to etch out this editor’s specific style. It all remains constantly spontaneous, keeping the film confined as a series of scenes, instead of one cohesive unit that moves together.

My Grade: 3/10 or F-

The House That Jack Built

Directed By Lars Von Trier

Starring – Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

The Plot – USA in the 1970s. We follow the highly intelligent Jack (Dillon) over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork. Along the way we experience Jack’s descriptions of his personal condition, problems and thoughts through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge, a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and psychopathic explanations.

Rated R for strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, adult language, and nudity

POSITIVES

– While I certainly have my displeasures from Von Trier as a director, there’s no mistaking the artistic merits that he brings to an otherwise 70’s B-movie homage that the film is enveloped in. Aside from Lars variety of scene-appropriate lenses that gives the film a constant air of unnerving nature, he brings with along an artistic side of brutality that many directors are afraid to glorify for fear of backlash. This makes Von Trier certainly someone who always fully commits to his projects, and no matter how you feel about the final cut of his films, you have to admire his maverick method of filmmaking that garners with it an indulgence of the unorthodox.

– Role of a lifetime for Dillon. This is certainly a one man show, and Matt keeps the focus on him by emitting this calm-yet-deranged serial killer who is unlike anyone he has portrayed before. Jack’s bone-chilling blank stare is only surpassed by the ferociously calculated measures he takes in subduing his prey. Likewise, I also enjoyed seeing a killer who suffers from O.C.D, and it certainly made for some poignant predicaments that only add to the unfurling tension in every scene. Dillon puts an unmistakable stamp of personality on the title character, balancing this dynamic of menace and intrigue for the character that never falters throughout nearly two-and-a-half hours of screen time.

– Violence turns to symbolism. Aside from these graphically violent scenes, that were incredibly blunt and closely shot to keep you from ever looking away, there is an underlying narrative from history that the film does play off appropriately, to those paying attention. Jack clearly represents Dante, the infamous Italian poet, and the film serves as a representation from arguably his most important poem “The Divine Comedy”. Through the many steps of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, this intended direction finally became evident to me, and being that I was the lone person in my theater who enjoyed the hell out of “Mother”, I too took great pleasure in another modern day narrative of a popular religious fable.

– Many people in my theater were complaining about the tonal inconsistencies in the film, but I found the humorous side to the violence and on-going narrative to be more than appropriate in mirroring the material. Jack has this uncanny interaction with people that truly shows the stupidity associated with the human race, and it allows us these welcome moments of release in laughter, after these devastating scenes of impactful macabre. Because of this, I think the film has more appeal when you’re watching it with a large group of friends who can bounce reactions off of one another, instead of sitting down alone for a film that limits the ability for the lunacy of the material to carry over. This showed me that even as pretentious of a director as Lars often is, he’s not afraid to poke fun when it’s required.

– From a serial killer perspective, very few films even rattle the surface of this one, in terms of depth for the psychological stance of the character. Broken up in five meaningful chapters to fruitfully fill in the gaps of how his killing has evolved, the film invests time and layers to cracking the very ambiguity of killers that deserves more conclusions than just saying “They were born that way”. This aspect is without a doubt my favorite of the film, and even with all of the food-for-thought provided, we feel like the complexity of Jack never suffers because of it, leaving plenty of poignancy in the his past BEFORE the film that could use a prequel of its own.

NEGATIVES

– Lars “Pretentious” Von Trier. Has there ever been a director who is up his own ass like Lars? That trend continues in “The House That Jack Built”, as the film not only breaks off on these insanely long diatribes for Lars to comment on many of the world’s current day problems, which is interesting considering the film takes place in the 70’s when none of these issues were prominent in the world, but the director even halts progression of the film midway through the second act to show clips from three of his previous movies. This is on a whole other level than being egotistic, and Von Trier’s overindulgence of himself is his own worst enemy when it comes to the stories he tries to convey.

– Horrendous pacing. For the first hour of this movie, I was very much glued to the screen, as the first two incidents of Jack’s story pushes us right along in keeping up the fluidity and entertainment factor for the film. Then in the second act, it feels like the consistency of the pacing reaches sluggish levels, suddenly feeling like the incidents don’t play as much of a role in the conversation piece that Von Trier leaves this movie for. In addition to this, the film’s quest to feel like twelve years over the trail of this movie feels unfulfilled, never showing visual aging or a feeling in the values of storytelling that ever makes it feel like a year, let alone twelve have passed.

– Redundant soundtrack. I love “Fame” from David Bowie as much as anyone else, but Jesus Christ how many times did this song need to be played throughout the film? It’s nice to know that one song was constantly on repeat on Lars Ipod, and what’s even more annoying is that it adds no context outside of being a song from the 70’s. I will give credit to the….well credits, as it may be the most convenient context to “Hit the Road Jack” that I’ve ever heard.

– Convoluted dialogue. When I say I could easily trim thirty minutes of this film from the stuffy atmosphere of the narration alone, I mean it. So often during the film does the same visual show, or the same line of character exposition beaten us over the head until we’re screaming it ourselves. The production team must think pretty low of its audience, because the last time a sentence was repeated this much to me, I was in first grade, and the bladder control I maintained through both sits made them too irresistible not to compare for this negative.

– This is the first film that Von Trier split into two halves, so as to focus more prominently on the editing. And while that may be the intention, the finished product makes for Von Trier’s arguably worst edited movie to date. Abrupt cuts in the middle of important dialogue feels like a distraction, continuity between cuts couldn’t be further from cohesive, and there are sometimes far too many cuts for one particular sequence. In the action genre, this would be considered vertigo, but the over-anxiousness of a finger firmly pressed on the edit button is something that creates enough problems for the progression of this movie; mainly that it’s complicating matters with a screenplay that is otherwise played straight from the hip, in terms of its structure.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

The Plot – On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. They find themselves fighting against supernatural forces, part of a Nazi experiment.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language, and brief sexual content

POSITIVES

– Not your typical horror movie. Considering how this film was marketed, it’s greatly surprising to me that above all else it is an exceptional war film first, with a lot of substance in creative storytelling and filmmaking to match the buckets of blood, to which there is no shortage of. With a combination of grainy footage and propaganda-like introduction and conclusions, it’s clear that time and attention to detail were firmly invested in this finished product. This location of Germany isn’t just one that is approached from on a surface level, we very much live and breathe inside of the dread that feels like a fog over this country, giving depiction to an environment that can only be described as the darkest level of hell, far from anything conventional.

– Bar none, the very best sound mixing in 2018. “Overlord” thrives with the kind of pulse and intensity that leaves little to no suspension of disbelief on the field of battle. I say this because there are many scenes where it’s difficult to hear character’s speaking, especially when combating the aggressive noises of airplanes and gunfire that overcrowd the senses. Through the many war sequences involving what feels like an unlimited amount of rattling explosions, the film’s crisp vibrations rivet you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the kind of environment that we’re being shown. Watch this one with the very best sound system theater that you can find, because Avery takes no prisoners.

– Jed Kurzel’s best work in years. Considering this is the same man who penned the musical tones in 2014’s “The Babadook”, it comes as no surprise how much he relies on increasing volume to consistently charge the suspense in every scene. Kurzel’s score feels like it never subdues, instead constantly building over a minefield of thrashes and bangs that follow our protagonists down long hallways in the same manner that their opposition does. I can’t give enough credit to Jed’s constant presence throughout the film, elevating the waves of vulnerability in such deep waters that it’s difficult to ever pull yourself out of.

– Last man standing. While I commend the work of Adepo’s character struggle between being this soldier and the man he used to be, I was more glued to the wild card of Russell (Son of Kurt) as the biggest badass these eyes have seen in quite sometime. Considering this is the same man who played a throwaway stoner in “Everybody Wants Some”, I find it impressive how he is able to constantly play against type, and taking on roles that never typecast him or leave him confined to just one genre. His work in this film was a treasure to watch, as he never relents under the mission at hand. He may be conflicted as a protagonist, and even slightly a loose cannon, but it’s that unpredictability that makes him difficult to shake, and his presence proves that Wyatt was having the time of his life with this particular role.

– My favorite scene in the movie. It would usually worry me when the best scene in a movie is the opening ten minutes, that takes us through an arrival into Germany that depicts war in the very gruesome dangerous environment that it rightfully is, but this fact instead tells you everything that you are getting into with the rest of the 105 minute picture. In this sequence, we are given impeccable cinematography that moves through air and water with such persistence to the characters, a stunning series of visuals that capture that anxiety associated with war, and a sense of strategy that articulates how armies move throughout. Avery sucks us right in, and we fall for it like kids taking carnage candy.

– Consistency is the key. What’s impressive about two such genre opposites, like war and horror, is Avery’s ability to keep the consistency of the tone, because after all, war is exactly that. It has the ability to turn men into monsters, like the movie so bluntly does, and never does this sacrifice the smooth pacing or urgency of the elements, instead carving out a maniacal sense to our Nazi antagonists that we already know from history. Other films struggle at a mid-movie switch, but this one feels cohesive in how it matures its material, from a battlefield strategy piece to a zombie splatterfest that never missteps for single second, thriving more the sillier the story takes us.

– Much of the violence, especially in the third act, feels every bit as grimacing as it does cathartic. This element alone gives the film enough audience investment, whether they embrace or wince at the unapologetic nature of the film’s gore. Either way, it is a blast to watch it all go down, and capitalizes on some of those promised Summer blockbuster thrills like “The Meg” or “The Equalizer 2”, that only remotely lived up. This one is a ferocious fall frightener that constantly exceeds even the highest of audience expectations.

– Strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. What’s most impressive is that there were times when this film expert couldn’t tell the difference, and I think that says a lot to the kind of budget devoted to this supposed B-movie that constantly overachieves. For my money, My favorite is in the complete transformation of one Nazi lieutenant, who wears the wounds of torture he has suffered as a badge of reminder against the very same man who gave it to him. It gives the character a Frankenstein style look of permanent reminder to the audience, to play into the transforming effects of the potion that have their own facial altering features.

NEGATIVES

– Rushed fight sequences. With so many positives on the presentational aspect of the film, it’s a bit of a letdown that the conflicts in action are so underwritten and thinly developed. With the exception of the very last fight of the movie, the rest around it begins and finish with little emphasis for the burning drama of character well-being. Never does it feel like our protagonists are in trouble, and even worse the resolutions are repeated quite often, so that midway through the movie you can already telegraph what will happen before it does.

– One-dimensional characters. While I had enough enjoyment from the characters in the film, mostly because of the film’s exceptionally talented cast that lift the miniscule backstory into honorable territory, the overbearing sense of neglect that these soldiers receive is alarming. The main character (Played by Adepo) never feels like the focus in his own movie, instead playing second fiddle to Russell’s executioner corporal, who feels like more of the conflicted protagonist necessary to lead by example. The problem is worse with the supporting cast, as some are given objects like a camera and a baseball to fill in the gaps for a lack of attention given to their forgettable presence.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Suspiria

Directed By Luca Guadagnino

Starring – Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth

The Plot – A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director (Swinton), an ambitious young dancer (Johnson), and a grieving psychotherapist (Ebersdorf) . Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some adult language including sexual references

POSITIVES

– Successfully blazes its own trail. The 1977 version of “Suspiria” is one of my all time favorite horror films, so it’s safe to say that my expectations were high with this film. Thankfully, the overall presentation by Luca and company is one that establishes this as more of a re-imagining than the shot-for-shot remake that we’re used to. Because of this, this version is free to explore the strange and beautiful side of horror, free from the confines of an original film that was at the time the bar for artistic expressionalism for the genre. Some familiarity is still there for faithful fans, but Guadagnino proves he was the right man for the job because his version never feels restrained or limited to the game of compare and contrast.

– Emotionally stirring performances from a female dominated cast. Swinton is her usual scene-stealing self, portraying Madame Blanc with enough ferocity without ever feeling desperate or obvious. Swinton however is not who I want to focus on, as the duo of Goth and particularly Johnson are off the charts with their characters. Goth’s Sara gives us a tender supporting protagonist who we can believe in, and it’s in Goth’s haunting glow from her facial registry, as well as the command she has over the screen that makes this a major step forward for this gifted actress. As for Johnson, this is a star-turning role that she has been waiting years for, treading through awful movies left and right for the part that she was born to play. For Dakota, this isn’t just an emotionally riveting performance, it’s also a physically rendering one as well, and this combination builds towards one of the more riveting transformations that I have seen in quite sometime. You won’t believe what Anastasia Steel can accomplish when she breaks free from the chains of degrading nature.

– Entrancing visuals. In a year when “Hereditary” dropped our jaws completely in the final ten minutes of its film, “Suspiria” elevates its game to eleven, making the competition feel like a day at Disney when it comes to what it accomplishes. Being almost 34-years-old, not a lot scares me anymore, but the spectacle in macabre, and this ideal that something un-foreseen can possess your body, constantly gave me the kind of chills that I haven’t been treated to since I was a child. On top of it all, there’s artistic merit in said violence, that works beautifully alongside this form of dancing expression numbers that the rival the lighting buffet of the original movie.

– Meticulous exposition. There’s going to be many complaints that this film is jumbled or disjointed with its story arcs, but with some firm commitment to the developments taking place in front of you, it will all become clear by film’s end. For one, I appreciate a film that doesn’t hammer home every single detail to the audience, spoon-feeding us in ways that insults the intelligence of those it caters to. For two, I loved how these angles in story that originally felt so distant from those it was being told against, slowly started to form a pattern of why they were included in the first place. It all comes full circle in this moment during the climax that actually had me reaching for the tissues in ways I didn’t see coming.

– A student of the game. Aside from the accolades that I already commended him for earlier, Guadagnino’s biggest accomplishment is what he and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are able to master in terms of dated camera work. I mean this as an impressive positive, as the entirety of the movie feels like it belongs in the same era of filmmaking as its 41-year-old original, presented in 35 mm film, and dazzling us in ways that didn’t seem possible with the sheen look of modern technology. The movements faithfully pay homage to said decade of film, radiating with a combination of sharp cuts, slow-pans, and wide frames that only further enhance the ominously unnerving atmosphere that the film cements for itself.

– Thom Yorke’s sinisterly audacious nightmare of a musical score. It’s hard to believe this is the Radiohead front man’s first work as a composer in a film, because everything works about the tones that underline the dread and despair that fills the sets like an airborne toxic. Yorke uses plenty of loud alarming instruments to gain our attention, but what keeps it is his repetitious work behind the keys of a piano that go hand-in-hand with shots that we focus on for so long until we demand to look away. There’s little in the way of value more than a composer who grasps his environment, and Thom’s initial descent into the world of film impressed in ways that give us a glimpse into the mind of a musical madman.

– The sound mixing and editing is also something that I greatly commend, for its psychological spin on the unraveling insanity surrounding us. Some of the characters can communicate telepathically, and this aspect is depicted with a stern echo that reminds us of its use. Aside from this, there are these quick buzzes and whispers that cloud the scenes whole, and are presented with such minimal value that had me wondering if I was going crazy. This bending and manipulation of the voices and sounds further articulate why “Suspiria” is a breed of its own, offering a psychological titilation in wonderment.

– Impressive effects work. There’s far too much to even list here, but I have to mention a surprise for yours truly. Yes, I am applauding the use of C.G blood for once, for the way its shading and release feel synthetic to that of the actual human body. Nothing feels compromising to the scene, or obvious by its inclusion, and what’s best is this aspect is rarely ever used until the final twenty minutes, when all hell breaks loose. There’s also detailed makeup work that really made me wince on more than a few occasions, for hideous character design, as well as abrupt violent impact that visually mimics the crunch from impeccable sound editing.

NEGATIVES

– Long, very long. Considering the original “Suspiria” was 98 minutes, it’s a bit of an investment for this newest one to clock in at 146 minutes. That’s a long time to ask of any audience, especially one with a story whose pacing is plodding and calculating like this one. For my money, most of the early second act could easily be trimmed and compacted down, keeping the finished product at somewhere around the two hour mark. I don’t mind long films as long as they remain entertaining, and there were a few slow parts during the film when I couldn’t help but check my watch.

– There is a push for poignant social commentary within the film that goes nowhere, and only feels a tad bit on the pretentious side of ambitious reaching. For instance, the mention and setting of the post-Nazi Berlin is something that could add layers to the world unfolding outside of the walls of all of this terror, but the film would rather tell and not show…..several times. I think a couple of scenes to soak up the mentality of the townspeople could’ve done wonders not only in the bloated run time, but also in the pacing of redundant scenes that could use a breather before progression.

My grade: 8/10 or B+