Unsane

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring – Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

The Plot – A young woman (Foy) is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear. But is it real or a product of her unraveling delusion?

Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, adult language, and sex references

THE POSITIVES

– ‘Unsane’ was shot entirely on an Iphone, and I can say with the upmost confidence that none of the artistic integrity of a Soderbergh film is compromised here. While the film will obviously lack that expensive cinematography aspect to it, I felt that the faded coloring and unedited technique gave way to the unnerving and awkward tension that constantly boiled hot throughout the movie. In addition to this, the editing is precise for such cheap technology.

– As usual, Soderbergh is a master of luminous lighting. Here, his yellowish tints feed into the very secluded and secretive set locations within the hospital that communicate to you artistically that something much deeper and disturbing is at play here. However, my personal favorite coloring involved a dreary blue-toned twilight in the forest that is a mesmerizing blanket over a volcano of erupting brutality.

– Strong or solid performances all around. Foy gives a ferocious star-making turn, living through Sawyer as a complex woman with a lot of demons from her past. In doing so, Foy leaves just enough room to make you question her mental stability as a result of it all, making us question if the title of the movie serves to obvious foreshadowing. Beyond Foy, Jay Pharoah is great as her inside man inside of the hospital, and Joshua Leonard’s stone-faced stare paints a very vivid picture of a tortured past for Sawyer.

– I can appreciate a film that isn’t afraid of getting its hands dirty, and this film has no problems with feeding its horror appetites. Soderbergh waits with extreme patience for the moments that the violence will impact the most, playing through the anticipation like a composer just itching to drop that sharp note that will change the complexion of any number.

– There’s a surprising essence burning just under the surface of this film in speaking to a higher material of intelligence than just another experimental B-horror film. Soderbergh’s occasional preaching of the mistreatment of women, as well as the overall limited attention of the medical field, gave way to something remotely heavy handed that could’ve steered this into something more than a rental recommend.

– Steven loves his cameos. Midway through the film, a noticeable A-list actor makes a small one minute appearance, signaling once again this man’s unpredictability in popping up whenever he pleases. In the last few years alone, I can think of no shorter than four films that this actor has made a cameo in, but it’s his work here that feeds into the very definition of cameo; make a presence felt, extend the story, and leave them wanting more.

THE NEGATIVES

– Thomas Newman’s stock music entry here feels underwhelming, adding very little to the complexity or rising tension that a film like this needs. I do enjoy the decision to keep the inclusion of music very sporadic, feeding into a sense of surrealism that films are often afraid to do, but many important scenes go by as a kind of afterthought that with music could’ve done wonders in holding the attention of its audience, instead of testing it further.

– This film has some strong lapses in logic, as well as continuity flaws that serve as an argument for its sloppiness. There’s a dead body that magically transports to different places on its own, the decision to use only one room in this entire huge hospital to bed all of the patients together, and appropriate character stupidity that helps in prolonging this film. On the latter, most of it comes from our own protagonist. Thankfully Foy’s stirring performance radiates because her character is written helplessly naive.

– I mentioned earlier about the dual underlying issues that the film surprisingly takes on, but sadly the second half of the movie reverts its ways once the answer to our question is answered far too early in the film. Because of this, the entirety of the third act settles for being just another slasher thriller instead of the political conversation piece that could’ve presented ‘Unsane’ as the ‘Get Out’ of female commentary.

– The longer the film goes on, the more you start to feel the air being let out of the tires. There’s a scene that would’ve been perfect in ending the movie, but it drowns on for another ten minutes without ever truly finding the momentum that it had just scenes earlier. If this isn’t enough, there is a prologue scene that felt sorely tacked on to feed into the 80’s horror crowd that know where this is obviously heading.

6/10

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Directed by Johannes Roberts

Starring – Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Martin Henderson

The Plot – A family’s road trip takes a dangerous turn when they arrive at a secluded mobile home park to stay with some relatives and find it mysteriously deserted. Under the cover of darkness, three masked psychopaths pay them a visit to test the family’s every limit as they struggle to survive

Rated R for horror violence and terror throughout, and for adult language

THE POSITIVES

– If there’s one clear difference from this film compared to the first it’s that this one knows when to have fun with its campiness. I didn’t hate the first Strangers movie, but it clearly took itself too serious during scenes that were laughably bad in the logic department. Here, Roberts instead brightens up the mood by giving his film enough personality where no matter if you like it or don’t, you’ll have a fun time.

– The overall aesthetic touch for the film is surprisingly good considering the budget is so miniscule. Roberts artistic direction is to craft this as an 80’s slasher flick, as opposed to the original which was covered in 70’s touches. In doing so, he treats us to zoom angle close-ups when a character dies, as well a neon infused sequence by the pool that provides us with beautiful carnage in the music video form.

– Speaking of music, the film’s soundtrack and accompanying musical score both did their parts in paying homage to the golden era of slasher flicks. For actual songs, we get Bonnie Tyler, Kim Wilde, and Marilyn Martin to name a few. For musical tones, we get a synth dominated score that is all the rave lately in shows like Stranger Things and movies like It Follows that pay homage to the classic era of horror.

– Satisfying death sequences. I already mentioned the poolside brawl, but in addition the film is not afraid to get its hands dirty with the blood and gore to satisfy its audience. This is yet another stance opposite from the original film, upping the stakes and the brutality tenfold in order to pack a memorable punch with this sequel.

– At 80 minutes, you really have nothing to lose with this film. Even if you hate the movie, the film flies by remarkably fast, giving little to no lag time during the progression of the movie.

THE NEGATIVES

– Awful acting and overall casting. We should come to expect underwhelming emotional response in horror movies anymore, but the work done by this minimal cast is exceptionally bad even for its genre. Bailee Madison is someone who I have adored since her work as a child actress, but her trigger hasn’t aged well, emoting this teenage poser character with artificial tears and hollow line reads that have you fighting back laughter. Beyond Madison, Lewis Pullman (Son of famed actor Bill) is a 24 year old playing an 18 year old. Visually this looks ridiculous, but it’s in his unusual romantic chemistry with Madison, who is supposed to be his sister, that occasionally omitted a weird feeling to this family.

– Lack of logic. Again, it’s normal for characters in these movies to make stupid decisions, but if you can’t take out a trio of knife-wielding psychopaths with a gun in your hands, you’re truly a brainless drone. This, in addition to other things, could’ve ended the film in fifteen minutes, but the writers hope the audience is too dumb to interpret this. Beyond this, the ability for these villains to live through some painful strikes against them makes me feel like Jason Voorhees might be under these masks.

– The film ends terribly abruptly. Considering the last scene ends on a bit of a mystery, we don’t get an answer or anything for our troubles. I guess we’ll find out the answer when we get a sequel in another ten years.

– As to where the cheap budget can sometimes help its cause for replicating an 80’s slasher vibe, it can also limit it in effects work and camera stylings that gave this a straight-to-video sequel feel.

– I’m supposed to believe that this trailer park is a hotbed for vacationing families? The house that the family resides in is twice as luxurious and doesn’t overdose itself on plywood interiors or artificial fog surrounding the place that gives it that just-murdered in look.

5/10

Thoroughbreds

Directed by Cory Finley

Starring – Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin

The Plot – Childhood friends Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) reconnect in suburban Connecticut after years of growing apart. Lily has turned into a polished, upper-class teenager, with a fancy boarding school on her transcript and a coveted internship on her resume; Amanda has developed a sharp wit and her own particular attitude, but all in the process of becoming a social outcast. Though they initially seem completely at odds, the pair bond over Lily’s contempt for her oppressive stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), and as their friendship grows, they begin to bring out one another’s most destructive tendencies. Their ambitions lead them to hire a local hustler, Tim (Yelchin), and take matters into their own hands to set their lives straight.

Rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, adult language, sexual references, and some drug content

THE POSITIVES

– In crafting a hybrid horror/comedy offering, most directors can’t succeed at both without sacrificing one or the other. Here, Finley maintains the feat because of the uneasy atmosphere in tension that fills the air and makes it difficult for his audience to fight against nervous laughter for all the same reasons.

– Supreme camera work. Not only does Finley master the most of manipulated long-take sequences and slow-pan tracking shots, but he also pays homage to classic horror films like ‘The Omen’ with jolting energetic shots that quickly come into focus when a particular character comes into frame. If Wes Anderson were a horror director, Finley might be his alias.

– A scintillatingly gloomy musical score by the great Erik Friedlander that makes us squirm in our seats. Erik spares no usage for any particular instrument here, manipulating the strings of anything within his reach that really turns these luxurious visuals into a full on house of horrors.

– Finley’s puppeteering of shadow play that visually hints at the progression of certain character. Taylor-Joy’s Lily in particular goes through a slow burn kind of transformation into the dark side of her cerebrum, and the deeper she envelopes those traits, the more we see the darkness in each frame surround her to possibly hide from her facial reactions what was once as easy as an open book to read.

– The entire cast brings their A-game here. It was delightfully bittersweet to see Yelchin adorn the screen once more, this time as a drug seller to youths who talks a good game. Make no mistake though, the two leading ladies keep the 87 minutes firmly in their grip, commanding the attention in every scene with a firm dynamic that only catered wonderfully to their impeccable chemistry. Cooke’s monotonous delivery feeds miles into the emotionless body cavity that she has become, and Taylor-Joy’s blossoming menace proves that there’s enough room for two seats at this table.

– What’s interesting to think about is that the entirety of this screenplay is really just talkative exposition, so it serves as a testament even more to the performances, as well as the edgy dialogue that consistently holds your attention. As a writer, Finley almost dares you to look away in hopes that you might miss something, and I never once indulged in his challenge. This is a man who obviously loves to write dialogue, and does so in a way that strives against the politically correct stature that we’re used to.

– The usage of the house and visuals surrounding our cast that tear into the toxic atmosphere being hidden behind these lavish lifestyles. Because Finley was originally a playright, it’s appropriate enough that a lot of these scenes feel like they take place in one room at a time, with the characters coming in and out of frame.

– Perhaps my single favorite aspect of the screenplay is that the film doesn’t force-feed the details of past exposition or violent scenes to us. It’s really what you don’t see that allows audiences to fill in the blanks fruitfully, and gives the film that imaginative touch that only a horror movie can. Finley has faith in his audience, and doesn’t require spoon-feeding them to get his points across. I appreciate that.

THE NEGATIVES

– I’m not going to pretend that I liked the final ten minutes at all. The more I think about it, the more I start to see the bigger holes in logic that just would not hold up in our own real world. If the film were going for an ‘American Psycho’ kind of world-building, then sure, but the neat and tidy wrap-up of it all with absolutely no questions asked is one that I felt did a disservice to writing that was otherwise articulately intelligent up to that point.

– Because the entirety of the film is dialogue driven, the material is stretched a little too thin for even its brief runtime. This is an 87 minute picture, and while the film never lagged or stood still for me, there were definitely times when I felt that corners could’ve easily been cut to get to where a scene took us.

8/10

Death Wish

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring – Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue

The Plot – Dr. Paul Kersey (Willis) is a surgeon who only sees the aftermath of his city’s violence as it’s rushed into his ER -until his wife (Shue) and college-age daughter (Camila Morrone) are viciously attacked in their suburban home. With the police overloaded with crimes, Paul, burning for revenge, hunts for his family’s assailants to deliver justice. As the anonymous slayings of criminals grabs the media’s attention, the city wonders if this deadly avenger is a guardian angel…or a grim reaper. Fury and fate collide in this intense action-thriller.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, and adult language throughout

THE POSITIVES

– The decision to set this film in Chicago is definitely one that makes sense to the social commentary on firearms, but also infuses the use of modern technology with such a battle zone so immense.

– If Eli Roth has done anything right in his career, it’s his thirst for brutality and violence that is second to no one. While some of the death scenes feel a bit fetishized when compared to the way the rest of the film is shot, it does at least cast the extra emphasis in consequences for playing this kind of game. Everything else might be watered down, but this simply isn’t.

– Respect is given that Eli can finally stay behind a camera and not insert himself into his own movies. These scenes usually serve absolutely no point, and thankfully he exerts enough patience in keeping his ass in the director’s chair.

THE NEGATIVES

– Every single situation in the film relies on convenience. From Willis not being seen and identified, to pictures of addresses being in an antagonist’s cell phone that helps Willis in finding leads, there are too many of these instances that had me rolling my eyes for just how sloppy this screenplay was. There’s even one scene when Willis so obviously faces the direction of a girl filming with her cell phone, only for it to later not include this instance.

– Mixed signals?? The film never quite made clear what side of the firearms debate that it sits on. There are plenty of times during the film when Roth not-so-subtly hints that the only way to stop this epidemic is if more people arm themselves, yet by the end of the film there’s a violent shove in material to letting the police do their jobs. You can’t be both on this particular issue, and if you can’t make a choice in 102 minutes of screen time, then the film will often feel like it is being written by two different people.

– The performances are terrible. Willis himself hasn’t been a big screen presence for decades, and after seeing ‘Death Wish’ I understand why. There’s an overall lack of emotion or energy from his demeanor, and it never rises from that grounded level. A film will never suffer as much as it does with a main actor who so obviously doesn’t want to be there, and Willis’s can’t-be-bothered retort has a lasting wound on the film that it never sews shut. Not to be outdone however, Shue herself reacts to a break-in with no tears or screaming, giving you the kind of paycheck collection film that big name actors flock to once the scripts come in the mail further between.

– There is nothing remotely fresh of impactful in this film that we haven’t seen in the hundreds of other vigilante films that each borrow from each other. This script feels every bit as recycled and derivative as it does clumsy for inserting no twists or leverage on its audience.

– What I loved about the original ‘Death Wish’ is its gritty psychological unraveling of this protagonist who we ourselves interpret that overwhelming sense of loneliness. How Roth depicts this manner is to instill comedic personality to a man who doesn’t grieve his wife’s death for more than two scenes after it goes down.

– So many directions go unfulfilled. Whether the one-and-done scenes of characters like Shue’s gun-toting father or Mike Epps lone scene as a surgeon (You read that right), or the way the third act treats the antagonist like a mystery that is building to a big reveal, the film never explores these avenues. This is a jigsaw puzzle in which many of the central pieces are missing, and I never settled down from the way Joe Carnahan as a screenwriter proposes so many ideas only to drop the ball with every single one.

– If there is one thing that Willis and this film need more than anything, it’s an antagonist that they can bounce off of. Once the break-in happens, we never see these burglars again until the end, proving just how little the film cares in seeing things from their vantage points. Without this dedication in minutes, we as an audience never feel how vital the revenge of Willis truly is, nor do we ever question if this predictable ending will spin us to surprise.

3/10

Annihilation

Directed by Alex Garland

Starring – Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac

The Plot – A biologist’s husband disappears. She puts her name forward for an expedition into an environmental disaster zone, but does not find what she’s expecting. The expedition team is made up of the biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a linguist.

Rated R (for violence, bloody images, adult language and some sexuality)

THE POSITIVES

– Being a fan of the books, I can thankfully say that Garland follows enough of the outline from that source material while deviating dramatically with the central themes and development for where his characters take us. It was like following the rules without knowing fully where it would go; the most satisfying kind of adaptation.

– Eye-entrancing visuals. There’s plenty to mention here, including the death scenes that are viscerally artistic in the most cinematic of qualities. Aside from this, the film’s backdrops for The Shimmer radiate the same kind of prism magenta that fills the air like a cancer. More on that sentiment in a second.

– The performances are well done without being overly dramatic. Midway through the film, I kept saying to myself how underplayed these characters are from this exceptionally talented cast, but then their pain and personal miseries snuck up on me with each passing reveal, speaking levels to the kind of empathy that Portman, Thompson, and my personal favorite, Gina Rodriguez garner for each other.

– Garland continues his parade front-and-center towards being possibly the very best science fiction director going today. With ‘Annihilation’, he constructs a science fiction slow-burn thriller film for the strongest of die-hards who welcome the chance to immerse themselves in worlds and rules so foreign from anything on this planet. Any great science fiction film makes you believe that anything can happen, and there has rarely been a stronger case for this than this movie.

– As far as the themes ingested into this story, I took away plenty that I grabbed ahold of, and yet plenty that would still require future re-watches to make this evidence concrete. In my opinion, the film is very much about self-destruction on a global and personal scale, and how the comparison in biology between the two help shape the shadows of who we become when compared to the person we once were. It’s interesting how similarly the people and environment react when faced with an event that will inevitably change both of their futures.

– There’s so much range in the unorthodox sound mixing displayed here by designer Niv Adiri. Acting as something much greater than just visually distinguishing us from the outside, Adiri audibly catches your attention by mastering a kind of counterfeit serenity to what makes up the sounds around us. It almost takes a minute to hear the deviated differences from our own air, but the cause for concern will produce in spades for anyone so firmly committed to soaking it all in.

– A very eclectic musical score from producers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. With enough free range between the worlds of folk and techno that audibly adorn the film, the duo of musicians master a slow change in genre sounds to replicate the change in fear that is taking out in this mental chess game between human and alien.

THE NEGATIVES

– The film greatly suffers from that cliche of immense creatures that apparently don’t make sounds as they approach. While not as humorous as something like the ‘Jurassic Park’ films, it is ridiculous here considering their movements have virtually no sound in The Shimmer to compete against thanks to the lack of human influence.

– While I always appreciate a film that offers a chance for audiences to debate and interpret what they see, I think Garland as a writer remains far too cryptic in his battle for sending audiences home with that final emphasis during the third act that leaves too much open. Far too often, the answer of “I don’t know” fills the dialogue, and it made me annoyed for just how little we definitively answered in 110 minutes.

– Once again, another harmful introduction. The first scene in this film continues my least favorite tradition of giving away spoilers before we’ve even stepped foot into the story. Sure, there’s much more to these answers that we’ve been given, but the well-being of the characters in particular hinders any kind of suspense later on that some of these rare fight sequences could’ve used badly.

7/10

Game Night

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Starring – Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler

The Plot – Bateman and McAdams star as Max and Annie, whose weekly couples game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s charismatic brother, Brooks (Chandler), arranges a murder mystery party, complete with fake thugs and faux federal agents. So when Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all part of the game – right? But as the six uber-competitive gamers set out to solve the case and win, they begin to discover that neither this game – nor Brooks – are what they seem to be. Over the course of one chaotic night, the friends find themselves increasingly in over their heads as each twist leads to another unexpected turn. With no rules, no points, and no idea who all the players are, this could turn out to be the most fun they’ve ever had… or game over.

Rated R for adult language, sexual references and some violence

THE POSITIVES

– Blending two polar opposite genres together is something that often fails, but ‘Game Night’ conjures up this kind of hybrid playing field where the worlds of horror and comedy merge together soundly. Much of the reason for this is because the humor in this script never takes away, nor sours the mood of the very surreal consequences that these friends are dealing with.

– If a film is called ‘Game Night’ and it isn’t at least fun, you would have an instant fail, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. This film is tightly paced at 95 minutes, richly humorous without anything of the raunchy nature, and packs enough twists in narrative to always keep you guessing.

– Cliff Martinez, how do you do it? Not only does my favorite music composer score this film, but he once again tickles our audible sense with a collection of music that is every bit as transfixing as it is vital to carving out the ominous urgency in his influence of synth-pop game changers.

– There’s much argument for who steals the show here. McAdams and Bateman are of course a delight, harboring a kinetic kind of energy in chemistry that makes their connection evident. But then there’s excellent supporting work from Jesse Plemmons, Lamorne Morris, and probably my personal favorite: Billy Magnussen as the idiot friend whose stupidity is his greatest asset in charm.

– In addition to the well-rounded cast, their characters are each given plenty of scenes to chew up, making each of their voyages on this night of terror equally important to moving one step closer towards the big reveal. I personally will always support a film that caters more to the team aspect than just one or two great leads, and ‘Game Night’ is certainly of that caliber.

– Surprisingly enticing cinematography by Barry Peterson. With the exception of ’22 Jump Street’, Barry hasn’t gotten a chance to really shine in a winner, so it’s a pleasure to see how far his experience has come in gripping a visually enhancing companion piece to the hip script unfolding before us. The chase sequences both in and around the car are shot competently in keeping with the pulse of intensity, and a two minute chase sequence in the house that is manipulated to look like one continuous shot is one that I appreciated for the kind of choreography that you can bend in a setting so immense.

– This is definitely the most I have laughed over the last year of cinema, and that really surprised me because after not laughing at all during the trailer, it saves its best material for the paying customers.

– It goes against the grain in not falling into the trap of a third act conflict between these friends that almost every comedy today must do. Instead, by keeping them constantly on the same page, it enriches their friendship in standing together through arguably the worst or best night of all of their lives.

THE NEGATIVES

– There’s a scene about midway through where Bateman’s character is searching a police database laptop for the identity of a man they are searching for. There’s two things funny about this; 1. There’s a search bar labeled “Alias name”, and 2. He types in “The Bulgarian” and only one person comes up. I guess only one person in the entire world goes by a name as cryptic as “The Bulgarian”.

– The final two shots of the movie are easily the weakness of the entire film. The first involves continuing the story with a kind of sequel bait kind of way that doesn’t make sense with how things concluded, and certainly doesn’t fit in any kind of possible continuing conflict. The second scene is a credit sequence that shows how everything was accomplished by a certain character. Every film mystery needs an answer, yes, but in solving the mystery here and trying to answer so many questions, you only see the glaring plot holes that highlight just how truly impossible this whole thing was to script together by any one person.

8/10

The Cloverfield Paradox

Directed by Julius Onah

Starring – David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl

The Plot – Orbiting a planet on the brink of war, a group of scientists from many countries test a device to solve an energy crisis, but instead end up face-to-face with a dark alternate reality.

Rated PG-13 for mild profanity, violence and gore, as well as frightening imagery.

THE POSITIVES

– This is a very talented collaborative cast who are put through the ringer of some very basic character development. Where the sun shines is in the hearty humanity of Mbatha-Raw, as well as Oyelowo’s endless intelligence. In them, the film offers two compelling leads to play against typecast of minorities in this particular genre.

– Legitimate frights that feed to the very modern day ‘Black Mirror’ influenced audiences who crave nightmare worlds being brought to life.

– A dual narrative between orbit and land that seeks the importance of both. As to where most science fiction in space films leave the latter behind, this script understands the value in both to the progression of the revealing points.

– Bear McCreary’s enthralling musical tones. While only a stud previously on television scores like ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’, McCreary dedicates his single best feature film score to date, pushing the urgency long after the uneven twists have peaked creatively.

– For a Netflix film, the movement of the camera angles and pursuing shots offer a subtle, yet commanding focus on where to keep your attention at all times.

THE NEGATIVES

– It doesn’t take a genius to see how thin the Cloverfield folklore is squeezed here. Once again, this feels like a script for an entirely different film that was re-written last minute to cater to a popular franchise. I never thought I’d say this, but this sequel needs more influence of its predecessors.

– The continuing problem that I have with this series is that I’m left with even more questions with each passing chapter. This is OK temporarily to get the next one over, but I can’t escape this inevitable feeling that the questions that arose from the original film more than ten years ago will be left forgotten.

– While not the worst I’ve ever seen, the computer generation in effects work can be boldly compromising to the live properties around it, giving scenes an unwelcome cartoonish layer that totally took me out of the terror. The eye ball scene in particular looked so unappealing that its movements never feel authentic enough to take seriously.

– There never feels like enough capitalizing on the intoxicating ideas that the first act introduces. The final minutes, which have previously been the peak of the previous two films, peters away enough momentum, and will have you checking your watch for the first time all film.

– Smart people making stupid decisions part……….umm. Certainly nothing new to space settings, but the choices made by scientists here continue to insill laughter in me when I really shouldn’t be.

5/10

Winchester

Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig

Starring – Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook

The Plot – Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester (Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness. But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece (Snook) or for the brilliant Doctor Eric Price (Clarke) whom she has summoned to the house. She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters.

Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements

THE POSITIVES

– Both Mirren and Clarke are both far too good for this film, living through such emotionally resonant performances that aren’t highlighted enough in this faulty script. Mirren particularly makes the most of her frightful starring role with a fragile walk between two sides of mental well being that leave her shaking.

– The interior set designs echo that of the real life Winchester house wonderfully. Between this and the faithful wardrobe selections, we as an audience are easily submerged in the 1905 setting that the story takes place in. I wish more was done psychologically with the tricks of this maze house though.

– There are some enticing themes throughout the film that try to up the ante of a thinking man’s horror movie. Man versus medicine, the importance of our pasts, and (Especially my favorite) our greatest creations supplanting themselves as our greatest curse, are all major selling points for where the material takes us.

– I was never bored with this film. 90 minutes in and out offers such breezy pacing that it rarely has moments of downtime to lag or wither with the progression of the screenplay.

THE NEGATIVES

– On the opposite side of the positive spectrum for runtime, the film’s entirely convoluted third act and unnecessary plot twists feel like they try to do too much in too little of time allowed. Very little in the way of shock or awe have much time to linger in the air because there’s always something additional included just behind it, and ‘Winchester’ is no exception to this curse that feels like its time was cut in half.

– As usual, terrible jump scares. Not only do these ones not feel even slightly justified in the sound mixing department, but they are also paced unevenly. We will go twenty minutes without a jump scare, and then have three in the same scene, making it a jarring display of cliche frights that get old quickly.

– Speaking of cliches, this film feels like a sitcom’s perspective on scary movies. There’s the creepy butler, the supporting characters who feel dazed by their spooky environment, and of course possessed children. Stop me if you’ve heard this one already.

– During the critical third act set-up when the spirits are at their most powerful, where the hell did the 24/7 construction crew around the house go?

– There are some eye sores when it comes to establishing shots of the house during the first few initial scenes. I never expected an entire practical set replica of the immense house to be made, but if you’re going to submit a C.G illustration for the film, can you at least render it so the color tints aren’t so polarizing? Pay close attention to those scenes and you might think you’re watching a cartoon.

– Endings with people versus paranormal often never end in rave reviews, but this one might be amongst the worse. I might not remember a lot about this film in three months, but I’ll always remember how a practical object that has no spiritual powers or special magic killed something that was already dead.

4/10

Insidious: The Last Key

Directed by Adam Robitel

Starring – Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

THE PLOT – In the fourth installment of the Insidious franchise, parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) must delve even deeper into the infernal world known as “the Further” when supernatural forces target her own family, sending her and her team reeling from a haunting that takes place so close to home.

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong adult language

THE POSITIVES

– Lin Shaye’s reserved, yet emotionally wrenching performance that proves age is only a number.  Visual scars are there, but it’s in Shaye’s haunting of her past where we embrace her at her edgiest. It’s incredible to see how an originally supporting character has become the focal point for this entire series, and because of such, we are treated to a film that centers around her character’s origins.

– The idea that the most powerful of ghosts are the ones from our pasts that continue to haunt until we choose to confront them once and for all.

– Continued excellence in lighting that articulately divides our world from the further. There’s nothing extravagant or costly about its effects, yet the graying state of this supernatural world omits a clear cut vibe of decay in the atmosphere.

– Jump scares are few and far between, and even better than that, the scares are patient. There were many times during the film where I felt that I had it predicted as to when someone or something would jump out, only to be duped into hanging on a bit longer before that itch had to be scratched.

– The seamless insertion of this film between chapters 1,2, and 3 of the series. Some sequels often feel unnecessary or even forced with their inclusion, but ‘The Last Key’ doesn’t ever feel shy on what happened before or after this story, without using it as a gimmick to feed into fans of those previous installments.

THE NEGATIVES

– This is a series that accomodates to comedy quite well, but this film certainly isn’t one of those, as Whannell and Sampson’s comic relief duo feel every bit as desperate as they do speedbumps to the progression of this story. Each time a scene focuses on them, it either runs for too long in not cutting to the point, or highlights just how truly insignificant their characters are in this fourth chapter.

– Speaking of Whannell, this is arguably his weakest script to date. I could get over the fact that this film doesn’t continue to elevate the rules of the further like the previous movies, but for a writer to write himself as the guy who saves the group and gets the girl, reeks of shameless self-promotion that hinders the power of the pen.

– Too many characters and not enough exposition for any of them. The film’s introduction focuses on our central three characters, then introduces us to three more in the form of three locals who they meet at a diner, then abandons half of them before the pivotal third act. Bruce Davison’s character in particular feels like a wasted opportunity between him and Shaye to really feed into their secret connection.

– Once again, the ear-shattering jolts that each jump scare exert play like an audible poison for your delicate drums. Thankfully there aren’t many of them in the film, but their level of intensity feels artificial when compared to the noise that would be made by those particular instances. For my money, a violin never shrieks whenever I accidentally run into someone who I didn’t see coming.

– Because this is the second chapter chronologically in the series, the air of predictability can’t help but rear its ugly head. Even worse, Whannell does zero as a screenwriter in remotely subduing this handicap for even a minute, forgetting to instill even a slight bit of urgency or dread in visuals that all but paint the scenario for him.

5/10

My Friend Dahmer

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys in the Midwest United States between 1978 and 1991 before being captured and incarcerated. He would become one of America’s most infamous serial killers. This is the story before that story. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is an awkward teenager struggling to make it through high school with a family life in ruins. He collects roadkill, fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser), and copes with his unstable mother (Anne Heche) and well-intentioned father (Dallas Roberts). He begins to act out at school, and his goofball antics win over a group of band-nerds who form The Dahmer Fan Club, headed by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff). But this camaraderie can’t mask his growing depravity. Approaching graduation, Jeff spirals further out of control, inching ever closer to the madness that was destined to overtake him. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is written and directed by Marc Meyers, and is rated R for for disturbing images, adult language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity.

‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cautionary tale about observation. Through the eyes of those who knew him best, Jeffrey Dahmer was failed, living without the kind of love and acceptance that every single person living needs to survive. He was failed by his friends, family, teachers, school board, and all around community that ignored the signs of something much more powerful lurking beneath the quiet exterior of a kid just looking for attention. The one constant that rang true throughout this film is the cancer of loneliness that seemed to amplify Jeffrey’s metaphorical voice that was ringing in his head to expose what he was born to eventually become. Because of such, Meyers film feels like the most revealing look into the mind of one of America’s most gruesome serial killers, taking us through the many depositions in and around his tortured life that presented an roarschach test of possible answers for where to point the blame. The most responsible answer is everyone, and it’s in that stance where the film commands its audience to live with your eyes open at all times because the next Jeffrey Dahmer might be right under your nose the whole time.

As a narrative, ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a bit of a coming of age story with a twist, in that this isn’t just a teenager maturing into what he was born to become, but also into something that terrified everyone else. To be honest, if you’re expecting a bloodbath of epic levels here, you will sadly be mistaken. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ isn’t fully a horror movie, but instead a psychological spin that puts the scattered pieces together and allows us to see the bigger picture from a step back. There are plenty of examples of broken relationships all around the boy that all collide with him on this demolition course that is lacking of any kind of intimacy for him to crutch the pressure onto. Because of this, I found it to be an entertaining sit in spades even if the entirety of the script is hearsay. Because the writer, Bergdorf, is a central character in the film, we rely on him to faithfully color in the lines of mystery for our own satisfaction. The problem is that Bergdorf himself wasn’t in but maybe forty percent of the scenes that are shown in the film, so there is that level of doubt from his script that makes you wonder just how authentic Dahmer’s solo scenes are to the story. With that said, Bergdorf as a writer feels like a valuable piece to the spectrum not only because he accomplishes the menacing presence of a young Dahmer, but also because he juggles it with this light-hearted atmosphere of teenage hormones humor that fills the air until the cloud of Jeffrey’s alienation overtakes the production whole.

For my enjoyment of being a local who lives only fifteen minutes from where these events took place, Meyers decision to shoot in and around Bath Township is one that pays great dividends to immersing yourself in the proper environment. This presents an extra added glee of being able to point out certain roads and buildings that still stand to this day that out of state audiences won’t fully grasp, giving it a surreal feeling full circle because these are the very same halls and roads that the killer once walked. How many biopics can confidently say that they shot in the exact same house that the original story took place? But because I have visited the former Dahmer house on many occasions and can see it fruitfully displayed on camera, I can appreciate the speculated difficulty that went into crafting such a solid truth to this picture. Most of the names remain untouched in the script, and the only change that I saw was that of the school buses that say Summit Township, instead of Bath Township.

The production does a mostly solid job of keeping out of the television movie-of-the-week category that can sometimes doom the immersion into a true story. The cinematography from Daniel Katz omits a kind of cheap aura to its shot selections, but I think this does wonders in feeding into the very look and fashions of 1978 that are depicted all over this film. On that ground, nothing felt outdated or out of place for the era that the story took place in, and I value a film even more that can paint such a picture without it feeling obvious or forced. What I mean is that sometimes a film can drive home a series of songs repeatedly or throw in a bunch of posters of 70’s pop culture to constantly remind you, but ‘My Friend Dahmer’ feels more confident in establishing these grounds more so in its visual compass instead of its physical properties, and it’s a decision that I feel goes miles in determining the kinds of hands-on decision making from the proper people without the interruption of Hollywood big wigs not willing to take the time to understand the character or the world that envelopes him.

As for performances, the majority are solid, but the overdone line reads of some extras were painfully obvious on a few occasions. These are nothing more than the occasional teacher or popular student characters who are clearly reading lines for the first time in their early careers, and thankfully don’t stick around for the long haul. What I can say positively begins with Ross Lynch giving a stirring revelation as the title character. Lynch commands Dahmer with the kind of patience and transfixing movements that faithfully keep your eyes on him at all times. What is so chilling about his performance is the cold stare from his facial reactions through any kind of atmosphere taking place around him, that hint that he’s got a dirty secret that only he knows. In addition to Lynch, Dallas Roberts was also good as Dahmer’s exhausted father Lionel, who feels like the last chance for Jeffrey in keeping him afloat. Lionel is the character who I reasoned with the most in this broken home kind of family, and the few sensitive scenes that he shares with Jeffrey feel like that warm breath that is needed in getting us through some very haunting chain of events that our young protagonist of sorts deals with on an almost daily basis.

THE VERDICT – ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cut above the rest in terms of credible real-life biopics that choose to get a step closer psychologically instead of settling for a Wikipedia summary. Though the film’s speculation can sometimes lead to noticeable patches of dry and direction-less scenes, the majority of Meyers provacative work feels sharp for the dissection. Held tightly by the breakthrough performance of Lynch, as well as the charms of a local familiarity in backdrops, and you have a film that Jeffrey would devilishly eat up.

7/10

Murder on the Orient Express

The search for a murderer on board has a group of strangers on the edge of their seats, in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, the film takes place in 1930s Europe, with famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boarding the legendary Orient Express for a small break in between cases. While on board, he meets an interesting assortment of characters. One fellow passenger, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), implores Mr. Poirot to assist him while on the train as he fears for his well-being, though Poirot respectfully declines. The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death. With the train halted due to snow build up on the tracks, and with the evidence and suspects piling up, Poirot finds himself diving into a case that could be his biggest and most mind-bending yet. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is directed by Kennth Branagh, and is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Kenneth Branagh’s modern day adaptation of this legendary crime detective novel offers a dual respect of the past and present that brings to life a special hybrid of sorts for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. While this was a story that was written over eighty years ago, there’s plenty of artistic merit and expression of modern mastery that instills life into this third live action adaptation, holding its place amongst the vast collection of today’s whodunnits? that establish little in the way of detective procedurals. This film to me was not only a character piece in the eyes of a world renowned detective, but also a thought-provoking narrative that does beg the question if murder is ever acceptable in the most avenging of ways possible. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to cast a near two hour plot in one claustrophobic train-car, but Branagh and his talented cast spin the gears of the wheels , opening up this one setting play in the most elaborate of ways that constantly elevates the tension with each passing clue of development that poisons the air like the swanky soap operas of yesterday that we just can’t get enough of.

This is first and foremost an ensemble piece, garnering with it a collection of top name billers to add prestige to its ages old formula. Branagh pulls double duty here like the few times that he has before, and his command and essence over the character of Poirot proves that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. As this experienced detective, Branagh breathes in a quirky, yet distinguished operational aspect to his madness, establishing why he is the name that everyone turns to in the longest of longshots. Aside from Branagh, I also enjoyed the performances of Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Willam Dafoe as suspects aboard this train. There is a big chance that the screenwriters take in the choice to not approaching these characters as anything more than one-dimensional suspects with very little exposition or screen time dedicated to their presence, but I feel that it pays off in spades because we are meeting these characters in the same way Poirot is; as questionable suspects, so I feel that to know too much would render their mysteries silent. Nobody is ever out of place or underwhelming in their displays, and even the brief work of Johnny Depp and Judy Dench prove that no role is too small in getting across the bigger point.

While this isn’t the widest example of free-range storytelling, the film’s investigation into this mystery offers plenty of meat to chew on in keeping the audience at bay. To me, this is a film that definitely has a better second half than first, and I say that because the opening minutes are at times a bit of a chore to get through, with forced humor of the Inspector Clouseau kind being inserted. It isn’t until about twenty minutes into the movie when we’re finally aboard this elegant train that is only one day from spinning out of control. Thankfully, the film does mature along with the subject matter that it encounters, leading to second and third acts in the film that strap on gloves to get ready for to get the hands dirty. One of my only problems with this story that dates back to its literary origin, is that once we find out the one coincidence that links these people together, the answer becomes apparently obvious in where the answer is heading. This to me happens a little bit early, leaving the remaining twenty minutes of film to soak in that question of murder that I asked in this writing earlier. The ending is satisfying, but it does so in a way that could’ve twisted the set-ups differently to present this as something different for the people who have already read or seen any of the two other movie adaptations.

The ending is something that I feel will be divisive amongst audiences, but I myself felt that it was just fine considering this is my fourth engagement with these characters and plot. Knowing this story once will kind of diminish in cliffhanging circumstance what kind of returns that you will get from something that offers very few changes. If you’re seeing this story for the first time in your life, then ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ version 2017 should steer you in the right direction for thrills and seedy developments that will constantly keep you guessing. To that degree, I share an air of jealousy for this being someone’s first dive into this plot, as I feel Branagh’s touch is no doubt the quit-essential precedent for a film in this series before or after this newest chapter. Like any human detective plot with honesty, the film ends without answering all of the questions, but as is life for motives that constantly keep us guessing.

One aspect that definitely should not be understated is in the gorgeous overall cinematography that Haris Zambarloukos displays with prestige in class. This is the Titanic of rolling trains, so everything from the elegant displays of crystal silverware and cozy surroundings does wonder in setting the stage fruitfully for this limited opportunity to tag along. In addition to this, Haris and Kenneth wow us with some intoxicating establishing shots of the many parallel weather patterns and scenery that always gives us something jaw-dropping to gaze at. But to prove that he isn’t just an actor, Branagh knows precisely where to point the camera, guiding us through the many train-cars effortlessly in manipulated one take long-shots that are meant to display the immensity of this setting and mystery that at the start feel completely wide open, but are later chopped down ruthlessly, relaying that the answer is getting closer and closer to the culprit. These aspects alone remind us the rare gifts that remakes can grant us; breathtaking views, luxurious tastes, and puppeteering behind the camera that can do so much with only so little.

THE VERDICT – Kenneth Branagh offers an entertaining upgrade on nearly every aspect of this old-fashioned murder mystery, with enough bends and curves to keep this a bumpy ride frequently. While the overall mystery becomes surrounded with a cloud of convolution, the touch of craft filmmaking involving scene-stealing camera work, overrides those problems, offering a pleasant taste of a golden age of Hollywood production where this train departed from. In lesser hands, this film collapses on its tracks, but the double duty of Branagh as the captain provides enough coal in the engine to power us through.

7/10

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Visionary director Yorgos Lathimos offers us another dive into the deep end of cinematic immersion, in his newest provocative piece ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’. Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a world renowned cardiovascular surgeon presiding over a spotless household with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two exemplary children, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Lurking at the margins of his idyllic suburban existence is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teen who Steven has covertly taken under his wing. As Martin begins insinuating himself into the family’s life in ever-more unsettling displays, the full scope of his intent becomes menacingly clear when he confronts Steven with a long-forgotten transgression that will shatter the Murphy family’s domestic bliss in a sinister game of revenge. ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’ is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and adult language.

Lathimos as a director is someone who has no qualms about pushing the envelope into provocative material. In ‘The Lobster’, we received an honestly unapologetic depiction of the modern dating scene, and in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ it appears that his focus this time shifts to the depiction of the medical profession and all of its loose ends that come with being the final step for many on their one way trips with death. Perhaps the one singularity that both of these films equally match is in the way they’re shaped as a genre in the attitudes that both movies possess. This is an area where Yorgos succeeds in ways that so many other directors just can’t even comprehend; the emphasis and articulation in tone that faithfully interpret the volume of emotional mass that this director values in teaching us. While the film certainly allows us many moments of intense laughter from the sheer absurdity of character responses, the film never strays far from being a fright first kind of deal. Because of such, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ and Lathimos alike, does things with horror genre temperament and brash twisted humor that other more obvious students of the genre can’t accomplish, taking us through a dream-like environment where your worst nightmare can and often will come true. This film feels like a melting pot of ingredients that blend together to attain that intended taste, and when it comes to the chef that is stirring the pot, Lathimos highlights where each aspect blends well into accomplishing this feat.

Almost immediately, we are treated to some exceptional overall camera work that explores the unorthodox dissection of how we approach a scene. Lathimos continues his traditional signature shots that include continuous takes down the long corridors of a hospital, wide angle framing that colorfully illustrates the ideas and concepts that are being played over the heads of these characters, as well as depicting just how small they as people are to the everyday bigger picture, and of course the introduction to establishing shots that are done with such gentle precision. On the latter, I love how the camera softly takes the hand of the audience and guides it through each new environment that the screenplay takes us through. It constantly feels like we as guests are trying to sneak into what is going on without much disruption, and the bending around objects and walls to represent such a point treated me to a kind of theatrical engagement that was anything but bare, and proved that Lathimos sets the stage each time appropriately with a canvas that never lacks versatility in getting his points across for the mass volume of themes that the film takes on.

To that degree, the screenplay was one that does have some entertaining deficiencies, but overall strums through nearly two heart-pounding hours that constantly kept my attention. It’s clear that there is something much bigger being displayed at heart here, but to only summarize what I saw in one sitting is sheer madness. This is a film that does cast a lot of emphasis in its premise, but follows up with some exceptional storytelling that slowly unfurls each petal of valuable exposition carefully instead of it feeling like a free-falling storm. As screenwriters, Lathimos and partner Efthimis Filippou let you sample the environment before you revel in the details, and it’s a process that kept me engaged for the ridiculous actions and speech patterns that the film uses to relay that something truly terrible is at play within these friendly confines of characters. What problems that I did have might clear up with future re-watches, but do deserve to be mentioned for taking my grade down a couple of points. The first is that the film never truly explains how any of this threat is truly taking place. I’m sure there’s a bigger picture being hinted at here, but the film kind of requires you to take an illogical leap in logic to believing what is unraveling here, and I was never fully on board with it. Besides this, the third act is prolonged to frustrating levels. While it’s true that Lathimos is getting better about where to end his film, it still stands the case that his editing could still use some work, as many sequences are so needless and redundant that they often oversell the point that has already been driven home. While this doesn’t hurt the overall pacing for the film, I feel like the third act could’ve easily been the quickest in terms of minutes devoted to it, but it is the only true weakness against the first two acts that proved the value of strength in momentum that the film consistently built.

The musical score from composer Sofia Gubaidulina is riveting, strumming along some of the most entrancing notes that I have heard in the entire year of 180 films thus far. Not since 2014’s ‘It Follows’ has a musical score been so effective in not only setting the precedent of terror within each scene, but also in the volume of piercing release that constantly moved me. One negative to the latter is that it can sometimes intrude a little too much on the actors trying to play out each scene without that added manipulation, leading some dialogue exchanges to be rendered deaf because of such. The good news is that those scenes are only few and far between, as a majority of Sofia’s increasing beat of disturbia cashes in often on the true value of an unnerving musical score to not only the layering of chilling circumference that dominates each scene, but also feeding into the dream-like state of being that I mentioned earlier. Because of such, this feels like a world far from our own while monitoring the discontent with the medical practices that are every bit as prevalent in today’s rivalry between patient and practice.

This ensemble cast is mesmerizing, being led by Farrell and Kidman in their second collaboration of the year after ‘The Beguiled’. Lathimos definitely brings them along better than Coppola did, and because of such we are treated to the most versatile of monotonous deliveries that I have ever seen. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but the approach to emoting these characters at underwhelming and almost un-human-like stances pays off in spades later on in the film when the stakes are the highest, forcing them to finally act logically like any of us rightfully would. Farrell talks fast, often diving into Murphy like an overly-confident routine that brings a life of no surprises. In Kidman, we get almost the total opposite. Because she is the first person to really see the severity of the situation, she attacks first and levels her respective screen time with a juggling of motherly instinct and cunning mental prowess to support her claim as the only logical protagonist to the film. Without a doubt though, the show-stealer for me was Barry Keoghan fresh off of the heels of ‘Dunkirk’ earlier this Summer. His grip on the pulse of a film is felt with much more impact here, as Keoghan transfixes the audience with a calm kind of madness that can only be compared to Anton Chigurh. You believe what Barry says because he drops it with such conviction, and as the gears start to turn to reveal his tortured past, you start to reason more with the method to his mayhem, playing Farrell and family like a game of chess that he’s already won seven moves prior.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ continues the hot streak of thought-provoking magnitude that often offers a modern day homage to the kinds of films Kubrick may have continued with. The third act is slightly faulty, often taking the sting out of the punch long after the most powerful connection, but with more attention to trimming the fat, I believe that Lathimos best film is still to come. For now, this film exerts a chilling grip that hypnotizes and tantalizes with a presentation that is second to none.

7/10